A Travellerspoint blog

Rurrenabaque and Chalalan

Jungle treks through the Amazon Basin

sunny 30 °C

Amazon-Bolivia.jpgWe left La Paz early that morning and grabbed a taxi to the city`s main airport, commonly know as Él Alto.Our destination was Rurrenabaque (aka Rurre), a lowland settlement on the banks on the Rio Beni deep in Bolivia`s slice of the Amazon Basin.The journey by road takes a staggering 16 hours along some of the most dangerous jungle trails in Bolivia (and that's saying something) where buses and even 4WD jeeps frequently don`t survive the trip.Unsurprisingly, most gringos choose to fly there with Amazonas, the regions' own airline on a flight that takes just under an hour.Flights are often booked up weeks in advance due to the popularity of the treks and luckily we had the foresight to do the same.But something was troubling us as we approched El Alto; or rather, something was troubling Janelle.
You see, Janelle`s not the best of fliers.In fact, she`s one of the worst fliers I`ve come across and having worked in the industry I`ve met my fair share of nervous passengers.Strangely, this affliction only struck her in the last year or so and has gotten no better.She dislikes taking drugs and won`t drink alcohol (probably a good thing) so it was up to me to calm her as best we could during any flights we took.Not that I was very successful; my advice was along the lines of 'If we crash then we crash, and there`s nothing we can do about it', or ' I´ve jumped out of smaller planes than this', which strangely didn`t seem to reassure her.Anyway, as luck would have it the plane that would be taking us down to Rurrenabaque was a twin prop 19 seater DeHavalliand, a small cramped aircraft that any nervous passenger would run a mile to avoid.It`s the kind of plane that you can see right into the cockpit as there is no door due to the cramped cabin.And of course it goes without saying there were no flight attendants to calm Janelle down, the only technique that seemed to work in the past.Nor did we have the option of another airline -there isn`t one.
So, after a quick breakfast (which Janelle declined) we headed to the departure lounge and boarded the plane.It was small, it was cramped, it was full (of course).Take off was a roar of engines and a quick sprint down the runway before we were suddenly, shakily, airborne.Janelle was squeezing my hand so tightly it went numb.She`s normally one of the most placid people I know but put her on a plane (especially one this small) and she turns into a different person.Every single bump or change in altitude she`d give a gasp, and any small noise out of the ordinary she`d frantically twist her head around trying to locate its source.In short, every minute of the 50 min flight she was on edge, hyper vigilant like a cat on amphetamines.We were both of us desperate to land.
However, Rurrenabaque`s airport is, how shall I put this, a bit more rustic than we were used to.The landing strip consists of a single unpaved dirt track that turns to mud during the wet season and frequently leads to the cancellation of all flights, often for days at a time.Luckily the weather had been bone dry for weeks.Our flight had taken us from the high mountain peaks surrounding La Paz down to the verdant lush forests of the Amazon in less than an hour.As we banked for the final aproach I noticed the runway ended rather abruptly at the foot of a large forested mountain.The plane dropped onto the dusty track with a bang, the wingtips just missing the neighbouring vegetation by mere inches.The entire cabin broke into nervous, relieved applause and let out gasps of held breath.We`d made it, safely.
Once off the plane we were immediately assaulted by the intense and humid heat of the tropics.La Paz, being at such a high altitude remains quite cool during the day (though you`re still liable to get burned), whereas we were now practically at sea level in one of the hottest parts of the country.It was like being smothered with a steaming hot blanket and then bundled into a sauna.Even Janelle who loves the sun found it hot, and me as a lily white Irishman found it decidedly less than bearable.We made our way to the arrivals hall (read; shack) grabbed our bags and met our contact, the guide who was to bring us to our lodgings in Rurre for the night.We piled into a van which didn't made it more than two kms before getting a puncture and as we waited for a replacement tyre to be brought by motorcyle we were approached by a expat Frenchman selling fresh, warm pain au chocolate.How strange!I bought a few and hungrily ate one as our alternative transport arrived, our guide deciding his charges didn`t want to wait while the tyre was laborously replaced.
We arrived at our hostel soon after, a wonderfully serene and relaxed abode where our host brought us fresh juice in chilled glasses on our arrival.The courtyard inside was dominated by a large wooden roof supported by thick beams of natural timber upon which were roped numerous comfortable hammocks.We showered off and changed into more appropriate clothing before sinking into these, content to just sway in the breeze and enjoy the days remaining warmth amid the distant sound of the cicadas.This was more like it!
Rurrenabaque was not our final destination out here, however.It was merely the last town of any note before we took a six hour canoe trip upriver to the Chalalan Ecolodge the next morning.This was our real reason for coming; Chalalan was a model of sustainable eco tourism in an area of protected rainforest known as the Madidi National Park, an area of nearly 20,000 squared km.In 1995 a local community of indiginous tribesfolk known as the San José de Uchupiamonas decided to approach the frequent incursions into their land in a novel and remarkably foresighted way.They realised that they would never be completely free from outside interest and instead decided to embrace the inevitable tourist trade in a way that would be both informative and unique for visitors and also entirely beneficial for their people, all without destroying their way of life.The result was the Chalalan Ecolodge; a small collection of luxury huts built using only natural sustainable materials by the local tribesfolk.From here guided treks and nature walks would educate and surprise while the meals provided were rumoured to be nothing short of exquisite.All profits from this enterprise go directly back into the small community and help in educating, feeding and clothing the tribe.As the San José de Uchupiamonas have lived here for over 300 years it`s no surprise they want to remain where they are.
We were extremely excited to be leaving for Chalalan; Madidi National Park is one of the greatest hotspots of biodiversity on the planet, with over 4,739 species of plants, 1,370 species of vertebrates and highest number of bird species in the world, some 1,100 species.The park is also home to 670 families (some 3,500 inhabitants) spread out among 33 communities.The chances of seeing any number of exotic birds and animals in their natural habitat were high.We had splurged and booked the matrimonial suite, a luxury cabin with a double bed and en suite bathroom.We figured we deserved it.:)
We left early the next morning, having enjoyed a few drinks in Rurrenabaque`s liveliest joint the Moskito Bar the night before.We met up with our guide, Ivan and also the other tourists in our group; a few good natured Americans of retirement age and a youngish English couple who seemed to prefer their own company.We piled our gear into the canoes which lay on the banks of the Rio Beni, a warm coffee coloured river of reasonable current.The canoes themselves were brightly painted in the green and yellow of the Chalalan company logo and were thankfully covered by canvas stretched along a wooden framework which gave us essential shelter from the bright sun.They were each powered by diesel engines whose propeller dipped low in the deep river water.Once all the gear and supplies were aboard we set off upriver, powering against the current as we left the bustling Rurrenabaque behind.We passed small wooden shacks and a few other canoes but before long the river was ours alone.
After an hour or so of churning up the river we reached the Rio Tuichi, a river of considerably stronger current whose blue water was in stark contrast to the dirty brown of the Beni.We passed through the confluence and turned right, again heading into the current.The Tuichi would take us right up to our final destination but we still had some way to go yet.We contented ourselves by observing the local wildlife, including cormorants and macaws and were even lucky enough to spot some howler monkeys clambering up some vines on the far shore.Pretty soon though, the gentle sway of the boat along with the cooling breeze and hum of the engine had a decidedly soporific effect on most of us, and we soon dozed off.Upon awakening we'd reached our halfway point, a low bank of reddish clay where we clambered off the canoes, stretching and yawning and feeling quite hungry.Luckily, this was to be our spot for lunch and we were each handed a tupperware box of cooked chicken, along with plantains and fruits.Once finished, I set off to find a hospitable place to relieve myself, only to find several huge pawprints in the sand not ten feet from where we'd landed the canoes.I finished quickly and hurried back, convinced that at any time razor sharp claws would plunge savagely into my back.I encouraged our guide to set off immediately, even as he tried to convince me the prints were probably just those of a Tapir.I wasn't taking any chances!
The last three or so hours went by quickly, although at one stage we were surprised when all the men onboard bar the one manning the rudder suddenly leaped into the swirling current.It turned out that due to the dry season the water level of the river was quite low in places and this made it difficult for the canoe to navigate properly.To counter this the men had to physically drag the canoe through the rushing water,which they did with some effort.They had to do this a few times before they could climb back aboard, soaking wet but grinning with the success of their accomplishments.Once aboard, the driver revved the engine and we continued on.
Suddenly we turned a bend in the river and up ahead on the stony bank spotted three men by a makeshift landing jetty made of loose planks.We pulled up alongside, our driver cutting the engine while the other men on board leaped out and tied up the canoe.They piled our baggage onto a rusty wheelbarrow while we were helped out of the canoe and onto the wooden planks, relieved to be back on dry land.Our guide explained that our bags would be carried for us and we were to follow him.So we all set off, excited to be finally here and eager to see what was ahead.We followed our guide into the thick, green rainforest, which immediately came alive with sounds of distant birds and insects, all the while listening as our guide explained the history of the lodge and its importance to his people.The site of the lodge was on Lake Chalalan, hence the name and was surrounded by numerous trails each of which was named for a local jungle inhabitant.The trail we were on, from the Rio Tuichi to the lodge, was the Jaguar Trail.
We arrived thirty short minutes later.The campground was in a clearing surrounded on three sides by thick jungle, with the Chalalan Lake on the remaining side.Two large wooden buildings lay to our right while on our left was a medium sized hut and, in the distance, two smaller huts.All were constructed from dark brown mahogony wood, grown locally and roofed with innumerable palm leaves, and all of them were on short stilts to prevent against flooding in the wet season.This was the rainforest after all.From the front porch of each swung deep luxurious hammocks suspended from the timber beams supporting the roof.In front of us, down a series of short stone steps was the wooden jetty on the lake, tied to which were several dugout canoes.Just before this was a tall lookout like structure, which we later learned was the solar panelled water tower.We dropped our smaller backpacks and sat down on one of the smooth panelled porches just taking it all in.Our guide left to announce our arrival and returned with the rest of the tribe who bade us welcome with wide friendly grins and bearing cold drinks.He then showed us each in turn to our lodgings.Ours was a large wooden hut with a short stairway up to the entrance.All the windows were covered in thick mesh to protect against the numerous insects that would invariably assault us during the night, while the large double bed was covered entirely by a heavy mosquito net suspended from the ceiling.The bed was bookended by two lockers, upon which lay bottles of fresh water while the tiled en suite wouldn't have looked out of place in a four star hotel.The only drawback was a lack of hot water for the shower but in this heat that hardly seemed like a problem.Ivan left us to settle in and once we'd showered and changed we headed back to the main hall for lunch.
And what a lunch!Three full courses served on white china at long mahogony tables with real cutlery and glassware.All sorts of rice, fish, meats, salads and fresh fruit were on offer with juice and tea or coffee for after.It was a meal I would expect in an expensive restaurant, not in a wooden hut in the middle of the rainforest served by local tribespeople.While we ate we listened as Ivan, who sat with us, explained the daily schedule and what he expected us to see on our guided treks.He was to take us on the Monkey Trail after lunch, a trek that circled around the lake and ended at a jetty similar to the one on this side.From there we would paddle back on one of the canoes and get a better view of the area before we arrived back at the lodge.After lunch we had an hour or two to relax and laze in the hammocks, or to read from the extensive library that was stocked with National Geographics and other such literature, or even to spend swimming in the warm waters of the lake.Ivan explained to me how the great hall where we were eating, which must have measured the length of a swimming pool, was erected in less than a month.It was astounding, considering it included a full length bar and had a high, spacious roof that was as tall as a two storey house.The workmanship on the smooth wooden floor, the woven walls and roof was exceptional and it all looked reassuringly watertight.
He also explained how the lodge had limited sleeping huts to cater for a maximum of only twenty visitors at any one time.This ensured that the lodge never felt overrun or crowded and also made for an intimate and friendly atmosphere.In fact the whole area was pristine and it was hard to believe they had been running treks here for as long as they had.I mused that in any other setup like this they would've squeezed in as many tourists as possible but here they seemed content to allow just small groups of like minded individuals.In the ten years since it had opened the locals had never felt the need to expand.In fact the very idea went aginst everything they were trying to achieve here.
We met as a group an hour or so later.There was just me and Janelle, the young English couple who never felt the need for conversation, and our guide Ivan.The Monkey Trail started literally right behind the main dining hall and as soon as we stepped onto its barely discernible path the safety and comfort of the clearing fell away and we were right in the thick of the jungle.Shafts of afternoon sunlight pierced the heavy canopy overhead as we followed Ivan past thick tree trunks and wildly overgrown bushes and ferns.The calls of distant animals and birds reached our ears providing pleasant background music to our trek.Ivan identified tree after tree in English and Spanish and was even able to give them their scientific names in Latin.He told us how the bark of this tree or that was used by his people to cure everything from diarrhorea to headaches and even sexual impotence ( 'natural Viagra' as he called it).In fact as far as I could tell every tree's bark seemed to have some sort of effect on sexual performance, although this may have been more a reflection on me rather than his people.
Then suddenly Ivan urged us to stop and remain still.He had spotted something in the the trees.We turned our gaze upwards and strained to see what it was until the tiny creatures eventually came into view; a whole family of Capuchin monkeys.They chattered to each other and leapt from tree to tree, searching out the fruits that grew high above the ground.Using each limb seemingly independent of the other and especially the tail, the monkeys used the tree branches like trained gymnasts using the parallel bars.Ivan showed us how one monkey was also on gaurd for predators, sitting atop the highest tree and keeping lookout for the whole family.And lucky he was for there was a sudden explosion of squeals and movement as a white hawk, the Capuchins natural predator, came swooping in through the trees with its talons outstretched.The monkeys scattered, squealing loudly to warn each other while the hawk flew off, its element of surprise ruined.We had just enough time to take a few hurried pics before they left too, presumably for safer territory.
After that highlight the remainder of the trek was a little subdued.We reached the lakeshore not soon after and climbed into the dugout, using the rough hewn oars to propel us across the still, oval shaped lake.It was beautiful; an entire lake to ourselves with the sun setting above us and the lights of the lodge just beginning to come on in the distance.We made it in no time and as we set off to return to our cabins for some rest Ivan promised to take us out later for a night trek, when the majority of the jungles inhabitants would be out on the prowl.We told him we looked forward to it.
Dinner that night was again as delicious as the lunch had been, yet there was an added bonus.The cooks had prepared a traditonal meal of dumqwist, freshly caught dogfish oven cooked in banana leaves.It was served buffet style with an enormous selection of side dishes and was absolutely delicious.Ivan again outlined what we were to expect on our trek, explaining how we would only have to venture a few yards from camp to see all manner of jungle creatures in their nocturnal state.Snakes, including the poisonous bushmaster and treesnakes were regularly spotted aswell as all sorts of insects, frogs, nocturnal birds, caimans and spiders.He knew where a tarantula nest lay just off the path and promised to show us, much to the consternation of the girls.
We set off after dinner, again just the two couples and Ivan.I was surprised to see our guide wearing thick boots and he informed us that it was to protect against snakebites.Suddenly the sneakers we were all wearing seemed somewhat inadequete.Ivan led the way slowly, his torch picking out the path ahead aswell as tree branches at head level.The snakes, he told us seriously, often dropped from the trees onto unsuspecting passers by.We all suddenly became as wary of the trees around us as the ground in front of us.His torch picked out the gleaming eyes of small frogs and even the red eyes of a caiman that was resting on the banks of the lake.Caimen are large reptilian looking amphibians, whose crocodile like appearance is distinctly threatening although we were assured that they were quite harmless to humans.The atmosphere became tense, creepy even.In the sheer, impenetrable darkness of the jungle every sound was magnified and there was a lot more animal noises than during the day.And adding to this the torches only illuminated a few feet ahead, leaving the majority of your surroundings in total darkness.No one spoke much and everyone seemed intent on staying as close to our guide as possible..The two girls in particular seemed a bit scared by this stage and Ivan had to check that they were okay to continue.I was enjoying myself thoroughly but I seemed to be the only one.
We stopped at a small wooden bridge over a trickling creek and Ivan led us off the path around to a mound of hard earth.Shining his torch on a large hole he leaned forward and poked a tree branch in.A large black spider, big as his hand came darting out of its nest - a tarantula.Its long hairy legs probed around the entrance to its lair, looking for the cause of the disturbance.Ivan drew back to let us get a better look at it.It was beast of a creature and in the brightness of the torches glare it looked huge.I snapped a few photos before the girls decided they'd had enough and convinced Ivan to go back.With the rest of the group keen to return to the safety of the bright lights and cabins I had no choice but to follow them.We followed the path until we reached the clearing and said our goodnights.

The next day dawned bright and humid.We had both slept soundly amidst the jungle noises of the night, which became rather soothing once you got used to them.Unfortunately however, Janelle seemed to be suffering from the beginnings of a fever of some sort and we had to miss breakfast and that mornings hike.I informed our guide who became immediately concerned and promised to brew up some local concoction to help with her symptoms.With the nearest pharmacy 4 hours boatride downriver we had little choice but to rely on his assistance.The brew was hot and pungent and contained coca leaves, ginger and treebark among its many ingredients.Ivan assured us it would help and a few hours later Janelle was feeling much better to my immediate relief (and hers).We joined the others for the afternoon hike through another of the lodge's many trails.Among the many highlights spotted were walking vines, a type of tree whose above ground roots actually moved by as much as three feet in a month in search of sunlight; the bullet ant, an inch long insect whose bite would put you in serious pain for 24 hours; leafcutter ants, whose red swarms lined the forest floor for miles around as they gathered up foliage; numerous frogs whose camouflage ensured they blend in with their immediate surroundings; a nest of angry hornets and even a small snake who scurried into the undergrowth before it could be identified.We spotted red woodpeckers, tropical parrots and other exotic birds as Ivan showed us how to identify the birds from their calls.He was an extremely informative guide, knowledgable about every animal insect or bird we encountered and had a story for each illustrating their importance to his tribespeople and to the rainforest.His high spirits and genuine love for the jungle and its inhabitants kept us going even when the high humidity threatened to sap our strength.We returned to the camp exhausted but enchanted with Nature in all her glory.
The evenings adventure promised to just as unforgettable; a nighttime paddle around the lake in search of resting caimen.We finished another delicious meal and followed Ivan out to the jetty, the torches leading the way and climbed carefully into the dugout canoe.We pushed off, myself and Janelle paddling with the oars as Ivan's torch led us across the water.The moon was a bright low orb in a night sky populated with thousands of tiny stars.I'd never seen so many at once, even on the astronomy tour in San Pedro.The lake was a black mirror image of the sky bar the quiet ripples caused by the oars.We headed straight for the edges of the lake where the caimen rested amongst the reeds.Straightaway Ivan's torch picked out the telltale red eyes in its beam and we paddled toward it.We came upon a young caiman, its head just breaking the surface of the water with the distinctive crocodile like body barely visible in the darkness.We watched it for a few minutes before leaving it in peace and found another three or four specimens nearby.All around us the sounds of the jungle echoed over the lake and over our heads bats swooped down low from nearby trees to catch the swarms of insects basking in the moonlight.There was a sudden explosion of squealing and chattering among the trees as the monkeys came down to drink from the water.We paddled around for a bit before deciding to head back in, at one stage extinguishing the torches so we could float in the middle of the lake in complete darkness.It was a serene, surreal moment.
The next morning started like the others, with the low calls from the jungle gently rousing us from sleep.After a hearty breakfast of breads, fruits and cakes we set off on our final trek.This time Ivan took us off the established trails and we headed down a rough path through thickets of wild bushes and reeds.We followed a strange repeating call that led us to its source on a low rock formation.The culprit was neither bird nor animal but frog; a tiny colourful frog about the size of your thumb.Its call was to attract a mate Ivan explained, although he also warned us that this particular amphibian was extremely dangerous.The secretions from its back were highly toxic; in fact, Ivans' people used it to coat their tiny darts that they shot from blowpipes when they were hunting small birds or monkeys.A small drop would be enough to kill an adult human in no time.Another point of interest was a tall tree whose bark was entirely covered in tiny spines an inch or two long.Ivan told us how, according to his tribes tradition, a man wishing to marry had to prove himself to his intended bride by climbing the tree to the top, enduring the pain all the while.But the real highlight of the trek came toward the end, when our guide urged us to stop suddenly and bade us to crouch down behind some bushes.He had spotted something, but we couldn't see what it was.Then we heard it; a low grunting sound followed by a sniffing of some sort.A family of wild boar was up ahead, scavaging about for food.Their foul stench hit us immediately after; a smell of dead, rotting meat.We tried to stay upwind of them to avoid being undetected but they were skittish and impossible to get near.Ivan told us how in the wet season his people would hunt the boar for meat, but in the dry season they were frequently infected with parasites that caused intense sickness.We watched them for a time as they nosed about the forest floor looking for food, until they passed from our sight and disappeared.We too, decided to head back to camp for the last time.
As we said our goodbyes to our kind hosts, it struck me how lucky we'd been.Although I did have a feeling of regret that we hadn't managed to see a jaguar or some other such impressive beast, as unlikely as that was.We shouldered our packs and followed Ivan down to the Tuichi river.As we approached we heard the boats engine from afar, although it sounded louder and more guttural than we remembered.Again, Ivan stopped and began gesturing into the trees in front of us.In the distance we saw some shapes that were.....monkeys.But this time they were larger and darker than the Capuchins we'd seen on the first day.And it was they who were the source of that loud rumbling growl.Howler monkeys.We'd thought it was the boats engine!The males have a large gland on their throat that enables them to make this strange sound which is used (as always) in attracting a mate.We stood in silence marvelling at the diversity of nature before we left them to their courtship and boarded the canoe.
We made the journey back to Rurre in about three hours, far less than the six it took us to get there.Along the way we passed more canoes heading to the lodge, carrying with them excited backpackers who were yet to begin their unique and unforgettable experience in Chalalan.I envied them their virgin status, and longed to be back at the beginning again, but we'd had our time and it was everything we could have hoped for and more.The food, the people, the huts, the lake, the treks, the animals.....we'd experienced the rainforest in a truly wonderful way from the people that called it their home.And in a genuinely eco friendly and sustainable way.It was hard to leave but we had other things to think about now; we would be leaving La Paz and Bolivia in a few days but we had one more Bolivian adventure to doundertake first.Something I'd wanted to do since I first read about it and which had taken me several months to persuade Janelle to even THINK about doing.The World's Most Dangerous Road (aka The Death Road) - a mountain bike ride down 64kms of some of the most treacherous trails on the planet.But first we had that flight back to La Paz to take.And something told me that for Janelle this would be worse than anything the WMDR could throw at her.

Posted by Janelle_B 11:27 Archived in Bolivia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Uyuni and La Paz

Time out in Bolivia`s magnetic capital

sunny 25 °C

La_Paz-Bolivia.jpgUyuni is not the type of place to linger in; it`s a sprawling desert town with dirty, dusty streets and no real noteworthy sites (bar the train graveyard outside of town, which we`d already seen).Street vendors block your path as you negotiate the crowded sidewalk whilst you`re forced to keep a secure eye on your belongings - even more so than normal that is.Its low, squat adobe buildings are littered with neon signs advertising tours to the Salar and beyond.With over 60 agencies currently operating from here that`s a lot of Bolivians hassling you at every street corner.The dry hot desert together with the high elevation (3675 masl) makes for an uncomfortable climate, especially for us gringoes.After three days out in the arid altiplano all we wanted was a town to kick back and relax in, but unfortunately Uyuni wasn´t it.
We decided to leave ASAP.Our next destination was Bolivia´s capital, La Paz, and to get there we had to endure a long 12 hour bus ride, and yet again the only option was another night bus.We were getting a bit sick of these by now to be honest.Even the most comfortable of them can`t make you forget that you`re stuck on a bus, and most guidebooks warn you off the night buses for safety reasons.We heard second and third hand accounts of buses stopping in the middle of the night while everyone´s asleep, and the luggage being taken right out of the hold!And if you do manage to bring your packs onboard, keep them next to you at all times.One German girl we met told us how she was duped when a local spilled water on the floor unbeknownst to her and recommended she leave her bag in the overhead shelf, so as not to get wet.Then when she fell asleep he rifled through it, taking her camera and mp3 player, among other things.So, yeah, we were loathe to take another one.But we didn´t have a choice so we booked our tickets, ate a hasty meal, and left later that night.
What a night!By far and away, the worst night of my life!The bus was a battered excuse for a roadworthy vehicle; balding tyres, peeling paint, torn upholstery, cramped seats.Plus it was packed full of Bolivian families, their kids on their laps crying more or less incessantly the whole time.There was no toilet either, and the driver stopped once the whole trip, at 1am, to let us use the facilities of a questionable cafe in the middle of nowhere.It was also freezing cold, really Baltic, and the best we could do was don ski socks and fleeces and shiver uncontrollably.We didn`t have sleeping bags with us and we enviously eyed up the locals in their heavy woollen blankets which they`d packed with astute foresight.But worst of all was the road.Or should I say, the trail.For a full 6 hours, half of the entire trip, there was no paved road.And not just not paved, but extremely bumpy, rocky and full on dangerous.We had known that the area between Uyuni and La Paz was more desert, but we had just assumed that there`d be an actual road, somehow.The bus lurched and fell as it traversed over hills of hard rock and soft sand, the gears grinding in a most distressingly brutal way as they tried to cope with the demands of the unforgiving terrain.We`d have been better off in an off-road 4WD.At one stage the bus even threatened to tip over!How the buses (and drivers) do this night after night I`ll never know.
Anyway, after hours of this torment we finally reached tarmac.Tarmac!Ah tarmac!It was a revelation to be back on level, solid ground, where the bus stayed horizontal and the gears assumed their normal pitch.I even began to fall into some semblence of sleep at one stage.However, as able as the driver had been taking us over some of the worst terrain imaginable, he obviously lacked some of the more basic of driving skills.Just as I was reaching that cozy state of deeper sleep, I was thrown nearly out of my seat along with everyone else as the driver spun the wheel hard to the left.Quite what he was avoiding on the road at 3 in the morning in the middle of the desert I wasn`t sure, but it sure as hell didn`t reassure me about arriving in La Paz safely.In South America I was quickly learning, you take nothing for granted.
Well.We made it.Of course.Bar a street demonstration as we neared La Paz (a not uncommon event, apparently) there were no more problems.By this time we were both tired, hungry and cranky; and in no mood to admire the breathtaking sight of Bolivia`s capital as we approached it from above.La Paz is a city of 1.5 million inhabitants and sits at an altitude of 3660 masl, which makes it the world`s highest captial city.The city`s location is in a long, wide valley which spills down from high surrounding mountain peaks, the snowy, imposing Mt Illamani (6402m) throwing the longest shadow downwards.Makeshift housing cling precariously to the sides of the canyon and the further south you go the posher the suburbs get, culminating in any number of modern glass skyscrapers down in the main thoroughfare (commonly known as the Prado).
But of all this escaped us.All we knew was we were cold and tired, plus the early morning sky was cloudy and wet which didn`t improve our moods.We hopped in the nearest taxi without checking the fare and made straight for our hotel.Bolivia being quite a poor country, we figured we could afford to stay somewhere a bit more luxurious than our budget normally allowed.The result was Hotel Fuentes, a mid range accomodation smack in the middle of the Mercado de Hechiceria (the Witches market) and behind the Iglesia de San Francisco, two of La Paz´s top sights.We checked in and promptly fell asleep.
Our time in La Paz was typified by taking it easy.We hadn`t really had time to recuperate after the draining, but thoroughly enjoyable, trek throught the salt flats, so we were keen on taking some serious time out.Luckily for us, La Paz turned out to be a great destination for such a requirement.Our hotel, for one, came equipped with cable tv; we spent hours just watching whatever film or programme happened to be on, as long as it was in English.Another great pastime was the internet, specifically the many internet cafes that proliferate all around the main street.Many an hour was had sipping excellent coffee whilst surfing the ´net, occasionally writing up a blog or posting up photos.We also, of course, did the requisite sightseeing, browsing through the many of La Paz`s markets and street vendors and checking out churches, plazas, museums and the like.One of the more interesting markets was right on our doorstep, the Witches Market, so called due to the abundance of elderly Bolivian women selling all manner of exotic wares; potions, powders and poisons of every colour; herbs and the dried leaves of unusual, indiginous plants; empty armidillo shells and shrivelled llama fetuses, which the locals bury beneath their house porches for good fortune.There was also the inevitable stone carvings, replicas of actual artefacts found in nearby archeological sites.It made for an unusual shopping experience, a bit like browsing through the famous markets in Marrakesh perhaps, where anything and everything is for sale.Another local area was the Mercado Negro, or black market, where more usual commercial products were on sale; tvs, mp3 players, guitars, amplifiers, keyboards, cameras, camcorders, memory cards... all manner of high tech electrical equipment was on offer and despite its name the market is all above board.It`s spread across a huge area, and you almost can`t move for the jostling crowds it attracts.It is, however, notorious for the particularly nasty practise of spitting, a technique used by thieves whereby one of their number spits on an unsuspecting gringo from afar whilst another robs him as he`s cleaning himself off.They typically use knives to slash rucksacks and then take whatever falls out.We heard of a pretty disgusting variation whereby a backpacker had faeces thrown at him!Nasty!
Another of our visits was to the famous Coca Museum, a backpackers favourite and just up the road from our hotel.The museum itself is pretty dated and in probable need of a facelift, but the detailed tour (in English) was fantastically illuminating.Coca is grown at specific altitudes on specialised terraces and there are three distinct varieties depending on how high it is cultivated.We learned how the plant had been a valuable crop for Pre Columbian cultures for its many medicinal properties, from combating altitude sickness to tiredness and hunger.The Inca`s thought so highly of coca that they reserved its use to the Incan nobility and for most of their sun rituals.Indeed, many, if not all Incas were buried with a special weaved pouch that contained dried coca leaves.The Spanish had no need for it and tried to ban its use until they realised that the natives would work much longer hours in their silver and gold mines, especially at Potosi in Bolivia.Indeed, they soon passed a law actually forcing the natives to use it, as they had to endure 12 hour days in the dangerous mines, often without food.At one stage the value of coca leaves was outstripping the value of the silver that the natives were extracting, so essential was it to the continued slave labour.
Later in the early 20th century the essential ingredient of coca was isolated, and cocaine was first synthesised.Its use heralded a new age in anaesthesia, and surgery, before it was recognised to be habit forming and subsequently banned.Indeed the first known cocaine addict was none other than Sigmund Freud, an early proponent of the drug.Around this time, an American called John Pemberton derived a non alcoholic version of a French tonic wine called Vin Mariani that used coca as it main ingredient, naming it Coca Cola.The rest, of course, is history.But while Coca Cola has famously stopped using cocaine in its drinks, it still legally ships huge quantities of the crop from Bolivia every few years, for ´taste´ purposes, or so it claims.Is it coincidence that the worlds most recognisable product is partly manufactured from the raw material of one of the world´s most addictive drugs??I think not.....
Then, of course there was a whole load of information pertaining to the current problems of cocaine addiction and the resulting US-led `War On Drugs`.The raw coca leaf is neither harmful nor addictive and is high in calcium, iron and vitamens, whereas cocaine is an obviously highly addictive CNS stimulant.The DEA attempted to curb the problem in the 1980`s with a now familiar 2 pronged approach; eradication of the coca crops in areas of high cultivation and the introduction of alternative agricultural products.This approach largely failed, as it has with the opium poppies in Afghanistan, mainly due to the negligible profit margin and long culivation period of these alternative crops.The simple fact remained; coca was a profitable, hardy plant with a fast rate of growth that the poor campesino farmers had no choice but to rely on.The fact that it devestated distant communities far removed from Bolivia had little meaning to these simple peasants trying to eke out a living on inhospitable soil.Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the cost of cocaine goes not to the growers but rather to the middlemen and jungle chemists who treat the pulped leaves with various chemicals to arrive at the distinctive powdered form.Until the demand for the drug is curbed at the source (i.e. largely US and Europe) these farmers will continue to do what they have to to survive and the War On Drugs will never be successful.
La Paz is an interestingly diverse and endlessly colourful city.Its streets are frequently jammed with fume spewing collectivos, minivans that double as bus transports to all the corners of the city.They rush by at speed as the `conductor´ leans perilously out the open door, shouting out the names of eventual destinations.The women here (that is, the campesino women, people from the country) are all strangely dressed in identical clothing; they are all short and more than a little round, with stumpy legs and long jet black hair down to their waist, always in a thick double braid.On their heads they all unfailingly wear a black bowler hat (I`m not making this up) while their skirts are thick with many layers of multi coloured petticoats.Quite why they all dress in such similarly unique clothing I`m not sure, though we were to see more of this style throughout the rest of South America.Shoeshine boys, the scourge of the city, their heads covered sinisterly in full length balaclavas (no doubt to protect them from the spewing collectivos), harrass and petition everyone who walks by them.Vendors wait on every street corner, selling everything from watches to cooked chicken to pirated dvds.But it is also a city that likes to dress up and have fun, as evidenced by the citywide parade that took place one weekend, where half the citys inhabitants had dressed themselves up in traditional Bolivian attire while the other half lined the streets to watch.Teams of dancers, men and women, in every colour combination imaginable paraded before the excited crowd, who cheered and clapped and laughed and danced.Full marching brass bands complete with matching suits tried to outplay each other until the resulting tumultuous din deafened those watching. Playful children clutching icecreams ran through the parade, dodging the dancers expertly as their anxious parents looked on....It was colourful, it was loud and it was dazzling.
And that summed up the city for us.It mightn`t have the landscapes of Rio, the sophistication of Santiago or the vibrant tango halls of Buenos Aires, but La Paz was a bustling, bright, brash revelation.Its steep cobbled streets (which would exhaust the fittest of travellers), sprawling markets, casual coffeehouses and elegant churches made this one of our favourite cities so far.We hadn`t expected too much, and perhaps that was why.Either way, it made for a relaxed yet exciting break between bus rides and we certainly left it on better terms than we had found it.But luckily for us we would be here again, for our next destination was to be into the isolated Amazonian rainforest, via the lowland village of Rurrenabaque and the only way back was through La Paz.So we left in good spirits, glad to have a familiar city to return to, and glad to be leaving for another of the expected highlights of the trip; the Chalalan Ecolodge.An all inclusive trip into the heart of the deep Bolivian rainforest, where we would stay for three days with some indiginous locals and hopefully get the chance to observe some of the country`s little seen flora and fauna.But first, once again, we`d have to endure some uncomfortable travelling conditions, though it was going be more uncomfortable for some than for others.

Posted by Janelle_B 09:25 Archived in Bolivia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Salar de Uyuni

Spectacular sights in the Bolivian saltflats

sunny 0 °C

Altiplano-Bolicia.jpgWe left San Pedro that morning bound for Bolivia.Our tourbus picked up the other tourists we`d be spending the next couple of days with; two Kiwi girls, and a Dutch couple who were travelling with an Irish girl.We made for the outskirts of town where the Chilean border crossing was and had our passports stamped, then headed east climbing steadily upwards, passing by the volcano of Licancabur on our left.About an hour later we reached the Bolivian border; an almost derelict shack straddling the dirt road between two rising summits.We filed in, paid our fee in Bolivianos (which we`d gotten the day before in San Pedro) and got our stamp.We were now officially in Bolivia!
The area that we would be traveling through was known as the Bolivian Altiplano (spanish for high plain).Its the area where the Andes are at their widest and averages an altitude of abut 3,300 masl, though we would be ascending to well over 4,000 masl at times.The term also encompasses the terrain and climate of the region, including as it does the volcanoes, dry deserts and salt flats.Our journey was almost entirely through his high altitude region and would take us through all of these fascinating features and more.
Our guides and 4WD jeeps were waiting for us at the border, and we made our way over and made introductions.Whilst they laid out a modest but tasty breakfast on a makeshift table I inspected the 3 vehicles that were lined up for us.Specifically I was looking for seatbelts; apparently the recent accidents wouldn´t have been so tragic had the jeeps been equipped with them.But no, they were all without, though I wasn`t all that surprised.I picked out the least beat up jeep that looked at least somewhat comfortable and laid our backpacks beside it.While we finished breakfast I wandered around the site, snapping a few pics and managed to spot a cupelo fox skulking about, an animal indiginous to the region.I got a few shots as he sneaked past, looking for scraps of food no doubt.
Breakfast finished we loaded up our jeep with the help of the gude/driver, who had only a small bit of English.This is not uncommon on these treks, though it was somewhat frustrating of course.Luckily one of the Kiwis who we were to share the jeep with had decent Spanish, the only one among us, and she was invaluable as our translator in the coming days.
We threw our packs up to the guide who fastened them to the rack atop the jeep, along with a gas container and other food supplies for the trip.Once it was safely enclosed within a tarp, we jumped in and set off.
Our first stop was a small group of recent looking buildings that were the entrance point to the national park that protected the entire area.Again we filed off, paid our small fee in Bolivianos, received our pass and got back into the jeep.We then drove a small distance to our first proper sight, Laguna Blanco, a wonderfully pristine, almost white coloured lake that lay before some imposing mountains.Pink flamingoes lined the shores, standing on their one leg, while birds that resembled seagulls flew just over the surface in formation.The contrast between the reddish dust of the altiplano with the white lake in front and the blue sky overhead was incredible.We had just 20mins to enjoy the sight before we climbed back in to the jeep and set off again, the 4WD throwing up clouds of dust behind us as we sped away.
Not too far from Laguna Blanca was Laguna Verde, another lake of stunning beauty that was this time, you guessed it, green in nature.It sits at an altitude of 5,000 masl, and is that beautiful turquoise colour you see in picture postcards of caribbean seas.We stopped off a bit away high on a rocky outcrop to get a classic panoramic shot, and found ourselves surrounded by literally hundreds of small piles of stones, some maybe a couple of feet high.These were apachetas, offerings to the gods of the mountains all around us, made by the few locals but more recently by the tourists who pass by here daily.They are similar in nature to the Inukshuks made by the Inuit of northern Canada as markers to identify paths out in the wilderness, though those are shaped more like a person.They make for a nice focal point in photographs anyhow.
By this time we were all a bit hot and sweaty and as luck would have it our next destination was an area of natural hot springs that are a highlight of the first day of the trek.We joined a few other tour groups and peeled off our already grubby clothes and leapt into the warming waters.At this altitude it can be quite cold during the day, despite the scorching sun in the sky, and it was a very great pleasure to be able to rest there in perfect comfort.The springs are at the foot of another giant lake, and its this view that we had from the clear warm water.Just the thing to soothe our aching bones.
Suitably refreshed, we all got dressed and once again set off.The scenery changed gradually, from dry rocky dirt to more sandy plains.We drove on a long straight stretch of road surrounded by desert, and drew near a series of strange rock formations that lay up ahead on our right.This was the Dali Desert, so called because of the surreal shapes of these immesnse rocks that stand out for miles around against the flat desert surface.We got our driver to stop and a few of us preceeded over to them to get a closer look.But out here in the endless sands distances are deceiving, and we hadn`t even made it half way before we turned back, exhausted and thirsty.Our driver explained that they are over ten kilometres away and laughed at us for thinking we`d get near them.We fell back into the jeep and took long draughts from our water bottles to cool ourselves, cursing our naiviety.
Our next stop was down a reasonably steep track off the main road and before long we smelled the sulpur that signalled the presence of geysers.We pulled up beside pools of bubbling hot grey mud, the edges of which were blackened with the heat or else yellow with crystallised sulphur.The smell in the air was strong and malodorous, like rotten eggs, as hot steam bellowed from each pit.The pools were fascinating to watch, as bubbles slowly formed in the viscious mud before bursting their rotten contents.We were warned not to get too close though; people have been known to fall in and scald themselves very badly.
The last part took a few hours, as we headed toward what was to be our final sight for the day, Laguna Colorado.Not too far from it was our lodging for the night, but to get there we drove over more sand, rocks and dust then we had up til that point.At times the `road`was just a trail, or even invisible to us in the jeep, as our driver took us through short cuts and routes that only he knew.Down steep hillsides and through fields of rubble we drove, the jeep`s suspension taking a serious pounding.We later learned these vehicles have a life expectancy of only two years on average.
We eventually reached our accomodation for the evening, a series of newly built concrete buildings with corrogated metal for roofing.In fact, half of the area still looked like a construction site, with cement mixers completing the scene.The land was backed into the side of an adjacent hillside, for obvious shelter, and was staffed by a family of hardy locals.Even the children had tough leathery brown skin from living in such extreme conditions, though they were still playful and mischievous as only kids can be.
By this stage we were at an altitude of maybe 4,300 masl, and even walking around was hard work on our lungs.We were all of us exhausted, but first there was lunch to be had.A serious spread was laid out for us;hotdogs, salad, crunchy breads, fruits, coke....it was really something, considering we were in the middle of nowhere.We ate like starving orphans and then one by one disappeared off to collapse into our beds for a late siesta.Since crossing over in to Bolivia we`d gained an hour, so it felt much later than it was.We dozed fitfully before our guide gently woke us up and insisted on taking us over to the lake before darkness fell.We complied and headed over in the jeep, though it wasn`t more than 5kms away.
An absolutely breathtaking sight lay before us; a lake of pure rust red that had dotted through it islands of the purest white, like giant icebergs in a sea of blood.The islands are formed from borax, while the lake`s surreal red colour comes from sediments and the colouration of some algae that reside in it.And feeding on these algae were flocks of James`s Flamingoes, their pink colour derived directly from their unique diet.It really was the strangest sight, out here in the empty altiplano where there was just rocks and sand and dust and more rocks.We crowded down onto the shore, snapping away with our cameras like mad, disturbing the flamingoes that had been feeding nearby.They rose up into the air awkwardly but managed to fly quite gracefully to a safe distance away.I spotted a few natural springs near the edge, the water rising up from the bottom a deep blue colour but changing to red as it flowed down to the lake.The contrast was spectacular.
We headed back to the jeep, and, getting in, I noticed the driver swigging from a suspicious bottle.We`d had no problems or anything with him so far.In fact, he`d been a very safe driver for the most part although at times he did drive very fast when the notion took him.But we were still cautious after all the horror stories we`d heard and it was only prudent to be careful.But then again, it was the end of the day and he probably deserved it.I took it upon myself to only mention it if he started drinking first thing in the morning or something, which thankfully he never did.
We got back our lodging and went back to bed, if only to rest.Janelle and I had brewed some mate de coca, or coca tea, early that morning and brought it with us in a flask.Made from the leaves of the coca plant, the tea is widely drank around South America but especially in the higher Altiplano, where its thought to combat the effects of altitude sickness (which the locals know as soroche).We had been drinking it since San Pedro and had noticed some benefits, so we brought a supply with us.The leaves contain small amounts of the alkaloids that become cocaine, though you`d have to drink maybe 500 cups to get high.Another way to use the leaves is by chewing them, which is probably the more common method used by the locals.A batch of leaves is procured, the greener the better, and the veins are taken out by hand.The leaves are then put into the pouch of the mouth between the cheek and the jaw, and masticated slowly until they become a juicy wad.At this stage the leaves are bitter and nasty!After 45 mins or so, a pinch of llipta is added, which is the ashes of a plant known as quinoa.What this does is help release the alkaloids from the coca leaves.Once this happens, your face turns a bit numb and a mild sensation of alertness and a reduction of appetite is felt.Coca is chewed almost constantly by the farmers in the region to help in their day to day work.We tried it and found it a bit nasty.Plus we didn`t use any llipta so we only got a slight sensation from it.The tea was much easier to make and quite pleasant to drink actually.Tastes a little like weak green tea.
Not long after arriving back we were fed dinner, extremely tasty pieces of roasted chicken with chips and rice.Nice!While we ate our hosts`two children played some Bolivian music on their pan pipes and single drum, singing along in their native tongue.It should have been hokey but wasn´t, the somewhat sad music reflecting our tired minds.We all dutifully handed over some Bolivianos and they scarpered off into the night, still playing their instruments.
We settled down quickly after dinner.Some of the group drank wine or beers but at this altitude alcohol can hit you very hard and is generally a bad idea.Plus we had a very probable long night ahead of us.Along with the extreme cold (we each had around eight blankets made from warm alpaca fur), the altitude at 4,300 masl was not exactly conducive to a good night`s sleep.Most of us had had bad headaches all day and were swallowing pills like candy, though if that was the worst we`d be lucky.We tucked in as best we could and tried to sleep.
I awoke a few times during the night, but otherwise had no problems.Janelle however didn`t sleep at all, or if she did she got maybe 2 hours tops.The air at this altitude is very thin and your breathing becomes very shallow, which makes it hard to fall into the natural rhythm needed to sleep.She was in bits the next day, extremely tired and with a near constant ache in her chest, and quite panicked.But worse was to come; just after breakfast while we were packing up her nose exploded in a torrent of blood and she started to vomit.This was bad!Very bad!We rushed her to the toilet and as she retched into the bowl I mopped the blood from her face.I got one of the girls to look after her while I found our guide and explained the situation.He said we would be descending much lower once we got on our way so we all loaded up quickly.Meanwhile Janelles`nose had stopped bleeding and her vomiting was under control but just in case we strapped an oxygen mask to her face and had her breathe deeply until she felt better.One of the other drivers with us gave her a soroche pill he had for such emergencies which proved to be quite effective.We climbed aboard our 4WD and took off.Luckily enough she recovered quite quickly and by noon she was feeling much better, by which time we were at about 3000 masl.
Crisis averted we resumed our trek.We drove for some time over long stretches of sun baked sand and stopped at another collection of unusual rock formations that are so out of place in the flat desert they look like they were carved by some giant hand and placed there.One of the rocks here is famous for its treelike shape and is suitably known as Piedra Arbol, or The Rock Tree.A few pics later we were back on the road.
By this time everyone in the group had gotten to know each other well.We joked around and told backpacking stories to kill time between the sometimes long distances we had to travel.Our guide had a habit of playing the same song over and over (at least we thought it was the same song), a type of popular local music known as Reggatron, which is essentially a mix of reggae, electonica and dance.It nearly drove us mad, so we played music from our mp3 players through the jeep`s stereo when we could.He didn`t mind too much.He seemed to dig the Chili Peppers anyway.
We passed a few more lakes that day, some of which were of interest, but nothing compared to the sights of the day before.We still took photos though.One lake had a huge population of flamingoes, which were much tamer than those of Laguna Colorado allowing us to get that much nearer and obtain some great shots.We headed for lunch to an area of yet more (sigh) unusual geological features, this time a cooled lava field that had smooth slabs of stone punctuated with holes where bubbles had formed.Our driver laid out a picnic blanket and took out bowls of fresh salad and bread, along with fruits and Coke.We ate a leisurely lunch and lay in the sun, which by this time had gone behind some clouds.
Once we were fed and happy we were on our way again.We had a fair bit of distance to cover so our driver kept a steady speed while we enjoyed the scenery.The road had again changed, this time to more mountainous terrain which at one point got so bad we all had to abandon ship for ten mins or so while our driver negotiated through a really rocky patch of dirt.We eventually came to the edge of our first salt flat, Salar de Coipasa, and hurtled down onto its white dusty surface.This is the smaller of the two salt plains we had come to see,the other being the larger and more visually impressive Salar de Uyuni.We only stopped once we were about halfway across at some railway tracks, the remnants of a service that had long ago ceased to operate.We took our pics and headed on.
We reached our destination a few hours later, a small town of no great importance that lay not far from the Salar de Uyuni.It was a real one horse town, with dusty cobbled streets and litter strewn hillsides.Our driver initially seemed unsure as to where we were staying, but he eventually found our spot for the night, a basic but clean lodging with creaky, sagging beds.While our kindly hosts prepared dinner we took the opportunity to explore, but beyond a reasonably presentable chuch in the town square found nothing of any real interest.We came back to a simple meal of spaghetti bolognese with bread, preceeded by a delicious broth of fresh local vegetables, which we obligingly devoured.We settled in for the night not long after, most of us tired after a day spent in the confined space of the 4WD.
The next morning we were woken at 4am, an ungodly hour but necessary if we were to catch the sunrise.We dressed quickly and loaded up, the jeep taking maybe 15 mins to start in the cold air.We had all of us slept better the second night, presumably due to the lower altitude to which by now we were surely acclimatised.We sped off into the darkness amid yawns and the occasional snore.The sun`s first rays were visible just over the horizon as we left the dirt road and crossed onto the flat salt plains 40 mins later, the suspension getting a well earned break.We stopped maybe 10 mins after that and jumped out of the jeep, cameras at the ready.The sun finally broke through some clouds and like a fiery globe threw down its rays and lit up the world.We were standing upon a vast white desert floor, solid rock salt, that stretched off literally as far as the eye can see.The mountains behind us, initially in shadow, were bathed in the fantastic red colours of dawn, while the salt floor at our feet seemed to pulse with blazing whiteness.Our jeep and even ourselves lay down some immensely long shadows behind us, which contrasted nicely with the prevailing white.As the sun rose higher the sheer spectacle of it unfolded before us.Bright orange sun, clear perfect blue sky, pure white desert and red hued mountains.Absolutely jaw-droppingly beautiful.We stood agape and simply stared.
At nearly 11,000 km squared Salar de Uyuni is the world`s largest salt flat, and at an altitude of 3,650 masl, the highest too.It, along with Salar de Coipasa, Poopo Lake and Uru Uru Lake were formed when the giant prehistoric Lake Minchin dried up some 40,000 years ago.It contains over 10 billion tons of salt with some 25,000 tons extracted annually.It is also the site of half of the world`s lithium reserves, which is an obvious component of modern batteries.Due to its unnatural flatness the Salar is also a major transport route across the Bolivian Altiplano.Its role as a source of raw minerals aswell as its tourist status is of vital importance to the relatively underdeveloped Bolivian economy.
Once we`d recovered our senses we snapped away like mad, the surreal landscape providing ample opportunity for some unique photographs.As the white desert floor stretches away to the horizon all perspective is lost, and with some clever positioning of props it can seem like you`re lifting a jeep on your shoulders or drinking from the world`s largest beercan.It makes for some funny pics.We all took our share of these before our guide urged us back into the jeep.It was time for breakfast!
Breakfast was another 20 mins away in the strangest location yet; Isla de los Pescadores (Fishermans` Island).This is the only elevated piece of land for miles around, in an area of unbroken white flatness.Its actually the remains of a ancient coral reef from when this entire area was under water, although now its the home of hundreds of giant cactii.
We went off exploring a well marked path that took us all around the island while our driver cooked pancakes and brewed coffee.The cactii here are huge and look every bit the stereotype of the tall, green man with curved, spiney arms.Some of them are over 900 years old!We climbed to the islands` peak where we were afforded an unbelievable view of the surrounding desert, all white surface and blue horizon.So surreal!Another part of the island consisted of a coral cave which made for a nice picture though I later discovered it was also the basis for a popular postcard so I was a bit miffed at being unoriginal.Anyways...
With the island explored, pics taken and breakfast eaten we again piled into the 4WD and drove off into the white.At this point our driver decided he could trust us enough and offered to let one of us drive.Bored of being in the back I jumped at the chance and settled into the driver`s seat, adjusting the mirrors etc. to my tall build.Traffic here keeps to the right and even out here in the desert the same rules apply.Of course this means gear stick and handbrake to your right hand, which just feels plain wrong to an Irishman.But it did feel great to get up to 90kph and cruise along the desert, enjoying the sun on your face and wind in your hair (heh).I guess our driver was tired `cos he let me drive for quite a bit and I didn`t mind at all handing the wheel over to the only other male backpacker there, the Dutchman whose name I can`t recall.
After the fun and games of driving uninsured in a beat up 4WD we finally handed the controls back to the driver, who took us to our next port of call; the famous salt hotel.Situated in the middle of nowhere, the hotel is constructed almost entirely from solid rock salt from the surrounding flats.From the walls supporting the roof to the beds in each of the rooms - pure crystal salt.Even the dining table and its chairs are made from the abundant mineral.Of course the beds have mattresses while the toilets are made from porcelain but apart from that its all white and salty.Some of the tours that go through this region (and there are many) stay overnight here, but since the entire building is officially an illegal construction that contravenes local ecological regulations we were only visiting.It is quite a sight
all the same, similar I suppose to the famous ice hotels in Norway, the difference of course being that this doesn`t have to be rebuilt each season.We took our pics, bought some sweets from the local girl on duty, and pushed on.

The rest of the day was pretty tame compared to the start I suppose.We lunched in yet another nameless dusty town at the tail end of the flats, a town that was remarkable only for being wholly unremarkable.Another two hours of driving later we were at the end of our journey; we`d finally arrived in Uyuni.But first our driver took us to the outskirts of town where a collection of ruins was to be the unusual finale of the trip; a train graveyard.Huge hulking wrecks of rusting iron and steel lay beneath the scorching sun on oil stained sand; some still on upright on their tracks while others lay on their sides like giant beached whales destined never to see the sea again.We played around inside the cabins and engine rooms of the wrecks, before becoming bored and returning to the jeep for the last time.The driver dropped us off at the company offices in town and we tipped him generously for not killing us and said our goodbyes.Myself and Janelle left the others, found the nearest hostel we could, checked in, and fell into bed.But not before we`d each had long, steaming hot showers.Our first experience of Bolivia had been spectacularly unforgettable, and we fell asleep dreaming of what more wonders this wild country had in store for us.We`d seen
little of her towns and none of her major cities but that was about to change with our next destination; La Paz.The country`s capital, and the highest on the planet.But first, of course, we had another long bus journey ahead of us.And this one would prove to be the worst we`d experienced yet.

Posted by Janelle_B 06:23 Archived in Bolivia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

San Pedro de Atacama

Adventures in the desert

sunny 35 °C

SANY0003.jpgSan_Pedro_..a-Chile.jpg
San Pedro de Atacama is a small oasis town smack bang in the middle of the Atacama desert, a vast dry expanse of land west of the Andes and north of Chile.The town is the only settlement of any note in the area, in a desert that`s noted for the being the 2nd driest in the world, after the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica.This place is HOT and this place is DRY;50 times drier than California´s Death Valley.There are areas in this expanse of dry rock and dusty sand that have experienced NO rainfall since records began.It`s THAT kind of place.Its also high, at an altitude of around 2,500 masl (metres above sea level), and was to be our first foray east into the Andean mountain range that would eventually lead us into Bolivia and then further north into Peru.We had come to this desert oasis like so many others to see the highlights of the Salar de Uyuni, a vast dry salt lake just across the border in Bolivia that was supposed to be like no other place on earth; dry white desert as far as the eye could see; lakes of red, green blue and white, all beneath a perfect blue azure sky and a burning relentless sun; rock formations of such surrealistic quality that they`re collectively known as the Dali desert;boiling hot geysers fields bursting out of the yellow scorched earth; and the sparse flora and sparser fauna that somehow manage to survive in one of the driest places on earth.All this and more was ahead of us, and the town of San Pedro was to be our gateway.
We arrived after a mind numbing 24 hour bus ride.I won`t go into detail; but it was LONG.We very nearly managed to miss our bus at one of the meal stops when we decided to order some hot sandwiches and our driver decided to leave.Most of it was along the coast which was nice for scenery purposes but around Antofagasta we headed inland and started to drive east.We passed a semi interesting town on the way, Chuquicamata, the site of the country`s largest copper mine, which measures about 4.5km long, 3.5km wide and nearly a km deep.Apparently at one stage this mine was responsible for making Chile the world`s largest exporter of copper.One girl who visited it told us that the quantity of molybdenum that they mine in consequence to the copper is so valuable on the world`s ore markets that it pays for the running of the mine itself and the copper ore extracted itself is all profit.Nice!
But we didn`t stop ourselves to look around.We headed on and eventually arrived at about 7pm, an hour after sundown.We literally fell off the bus into the hands of a waiting Bolivian who took us to her hostel nearby.Seeing as we hadn`t booked anything before we`d arrived we were only happy to oblige.She led us to a small neat hostel that was built of adobe (mud brick) and had a thatched roof with a courtyard lined with hammocks that hung beneath the clear night sky.Our beds were constructed out of rough timber but had comfortable pillows and lots of blankets, which is essential at an altitude of 2,500 masl where it gets quite cold at night.In fact, we`d already noticed that we were a little dizzy and after our mammoth journey we decided a good nite`s sleep was the only solution.
Altitude sickness is a potentially fatal illness that can develop in some one who ascends rapidly to heights of 2500m or more.It can strike anyone and being fit offers no protection.The higher one goes the more serious the symptoms,which include; headaches, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, insomnia and loss of appetite.Severe cases may result in pulmonary or cerebral edema, which is fatal.The only cure is to descend to a lower altitude.But since we were at the cutoff point so to speak we weren`t too worried, although we did intend on taking it easy the first few days just in case.Janelle suffered from some insomnia and the static electricity from my rough blankets caused some sparks the first night (a strange sight, let me tell you), but apart from that we were okay,at least at first.
We awoke to a bright hot and clear day.The sun here is ever present and it gets HOT in the daytime.I`m talking temperatures in the high 30`s where even the locals are smart enough to don sunhats.There was no clouds at all.None.And we realised quickly that this was the norm.Just clear blue skies and scorching hot sun.This was the desert after all.
We checked out the town after breakfast and visited most of the main sights the first day; the white washed adobe church off the main plaza (Iglesia San Pedro) where the main front door is hewn from cardon cactus; the main plaza itself, a pretty little tree lined square where the locals and tourists alike come to cool off in the shade and watch the world go by; and the two main thoroughfares, which are just streets of dried mud with some excuse of sidewalk.In fact, there`s no paved road anywhere in town.Just dusty, dry, sun baked red clay.It gives the town a real frontier feel to it, like it`s the Wild West of America.Well, apart from the hordes of adventure agencies offering tours of the salt flats and the tourists that they cater for, which here are in serious abundance, probably outnumbering the locals two to one at my reckoning.
But apart from that, a real nice little town.We decided to book a tour that day to the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), an area outside of town that consists of, well, rocks and sand that look like the surface of the moon.We joined a group and headed out to the nearest mirador (lookout) just ten mins away that overlooks an amazing expanse of dry desert and jagged mountains known as the Valle de Marte.The lookout was up on a high cliff of crumbling rocks and the view was absolutely astounding;reds,browns and greys all combining to from an impression that was closer to the surface of Mars than the moon.After taking the requisite number of photos we left for Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley), another otherworldly area about 15mins drive away.Jumping out of the van we set off on a short hike over endless grey fields of rocks, craters and dust.This was more like it!Unfortunately the sheer heat of the sun and the lack of ANY half decent shelter meant we were all parched mere minutes into the hike, but oh well!We reached the actual valley not too long after; a long smooth sand dune descended down into it from its rocky edge and all around the sheer red/brown cliffs frowning down upon the valley floor.And in the distance, the looming face of the resident volcano, Lascar;a steep climb at 5,600m.We all took off our boots and shoes and plunged into the warm sand on our guides advice and half ran/fell down the dune.Very cool!Just off in the distance ahead of us were a group of sandboarders trying their luck on the driest slopes in the world.It looked like fun but we were told its hard work due to the burning heat and lack of ski lifts.Maybe another time!
We hit the valley floor, booted up and followed the rocky path through the towering cliffs on either side.This whole expanse of desert is so dry that combined with the high altitude it makes for no air humidity whatsoever.This itself makes for some very interesting natural phenomena, chief among them the natural salt crystal formations that occur over eons of time.The very cliffs we were walking by were made entirely out of rock salt, covered with a thin layer of brown clay.You could break off chunks of it and actually taste the salt.Very strange.We left the valley soon after and headed toward another quirky rock formation known as the Tres Marias though these weren`t quite as impressive.
The highlight of the tour, though, was watching the sun set atop a vast rolling sand dune at the Valle de la Luna.We joined scores of other tourists and clambered up the sandy slopes to await the dimming of the strong sun, which cast colours of ethereal quality over the valley and neighbouring volcano peaks as it set.A truly beautiful and awe inspiring moment which made for some great photos.
Anyway.The next night we booked a tour we`d heard was another `must do`- the local astronomy tour.Due to the high altitude and unique position of San Pedro the local astronomy scene was booming and night time was made for some of the clearest stargazing around.We arrived at a shack not too far outside the town where a Frenchman named Alain had been studying the night sky for years.He took us inside and by candlelight explained to us the history of stargazing from the earliest astronomers through to the seafaring empires of Europe and finally to modern astronomy and the Hubble telescope.When our eyes had acquired their natural night vision he then took us outside to gaze upon the crowded night sky, explaining the stars and their constellations in detail with the aid of his funky green laser pointer.He turned out to be an entertaining and quite witty speaker, and had the entire group`s rapt attention.When he had finished he let us try out his telescopes in the courtyard, seven in total which included Chile`s largest in a private collection.He showed us stars, the moon, the Milky Way and various other aspects of the cosmos.We all got to snap a photo of the moon in close up through one of his telescopes, a shot that looks just amazing.We finished the tour with a brief summation and some hot chocolate which was just the thing after a night in the open gazing at stars.A truly unique experience and one I`d highly recommend.
There were many more such tours to do in San Pedro, but the sheer heat of the place combined with the fatiguing effects of the altitude meant we very quickly adopted the local attitude.Which was; take it easy and take it slow, and definitely take in a daily siesta after lunch.One of the main attractions nearby the town was the El Tatio geyserfields, at 4,300 masl the highest in the world, but to get there you had to wake at 4am and drive 2 hours away through the freezing morning air.We`d heard stories of people`s water bottles freezing solid in the bus!We figured we`d see plenty of geysers once we left on the Salar de Uyuni tour so we gave it a miss as we`d booked a 3 day tour that day.Now, there are countless tour agencies in San Pedro, all offering pretty much the same thing; a 3 day trek through the desert flats in a 4 WD, taking in all the main sights, with food, guide and accomodation included.Problem is, none of them had 100% reputations, and seeing as we`d heard horrendous stories of guides driving drunk, jeeps breaking down, food and accomodation being below par etc, we were pretty cautious.Just a few months ago a jeep had overturned on the desolate salt flat and killed 3 tourists and the driver.We heard from other guides that the driver had fallen asleep!In fact, since the start of the year no less than EIGHTEEN people had died out in the desert, mainly through driver incompetence.This being South America, the whole industry is pretty much unregulated and you take your life in your hands choosing an operator.So, yeah, we were careful!
After some careful checking we decided on the one that had the least complaints, Estrella del Sur (the South Star), a company that had a reputation for being safe and providing good food and guides.Problem is though, the guides/drivers are all Bolivian and the groups meet them at the border along with the jeeps, so you`ve really no idea who or what you`re getting until you leave Chile.
Anyway, we were due to leave the next day, and we`d picked up all the supplies we`d need and packed them all away.Unfortunately though, Janelle, who was suffering more than I with the altitude, slept very badly, a fact not helped by some locals who`d decided to party until 4am.By the time light dawned she was exhausted, and feeling quite poorly.The last thing you want to do with some one suffering from altitude sickness is bring them higher, and thats exactly what we would´ve done had we left òn the tour.So we made the decision to cancel, in the hope another day or two would help Janelle acclimatise better.But when we visited the offices of our agency later that day we were told it would be another three days before we could leave on another tour, which was a bit of a blow.We were on a relatively tight schedule and had already spent three days in San Pedro which was more than enough.But, with nothing to be done, we set about making the most our extended stay.I decided to rent a mountain bike for a few days and explore some of the nearby ruins while Janelle rested up.
The nearest was called Pukara de Quitor, a 12th century collection of crumbling adobe walls built on the slopes of the Cordillera de la Sal, about 3kms from town.It overlooks the San Pedro river, which in this climate isn`t much.Built by the native Atacameno who were mainly agriculturists, the site was a natural choice beside the river in a otherwise arid desert.I locked up my bike and clambered up the slopes to explore, which in this heat and altitude wasn`t easy.But the views of the river valley and of San Pedro itself were quite worth it.I followed another path up to the top of the site, leading up to a purpose built lookout whose summit was adorned by a large concrete crucifix, and surrounded by a courtyard with Inca type heads built into the walls.The view from here was even better; the faraway San Pedro river twinkling in the valley behind me while before me lay the vast dry desert in all its arid glory.The town looked like a genuine oasis surrounded on all sides by miles of rock and sand while towering above it was the local volcano of Lascar, all under an unbroken blue sky.It was quite something.
Another day I biked out to Catarpe, some Inca ruins about 12kms from town.This took only an hour but in the exhausting heat of the desert it was far enough.I had to cross a river to get there and was a bit disappointed by the quality of the site, which was just more crumbling stone walls.Being Inca I expected more, somehow.I only spent a short time there so on my return back i took a bit of a detour through Quebrada del Diablo (Devil`s Gorge), a well known biking track through a deep gorge.The guidebook recommends it as a mountain bikers`dream, and I was keen on trying some actual mountain biking.I had been given a rough map of the area by the rental agency but had somehow lost it at the ruins.But from what I could remember the track wasn`t too long.It started off well enough, though I didn`t pass a single other biker or tourist out this far from town, which was slightly worrying.I biked for an hour or so, on the hard gravel of the gorge`s floor, which at times gave way to frustratingly difficult sand.By this time my water was running a bit low and while there was plenty of shelter from the overhanging cliffs I was getting a little worried.I hadn`t anticipated it being this long but I figured it would come though the other side soon enough so I continued on.By this time the sides of the gorge had lowered considerably and I found myself on a wide flat plain covered in deep sand.Getting even more frustrated I dismounted and walked my bike through, encouraged by the ghosts of tracks made by earlier bikes.They must lead somewhere I reckoned.So I continued on up a steep hill, which when I crested led to more hills.I ran up a nearby slope leaving my bike in the dust to get a better view.By this time I had been in direct sun for over two hours, my lips were cracked and my mouth was dry.I started to get seriously worried.No one knew I was here.Janelle knew I was at some ruins but that was it.The detour had been a last minute decision.I was on my own, lost in the desert with little food and less water.There was nothing around me, no rivers, no lakes no waterfalls.Just sand and rock as far as I could see.And it was getting late, maybe 3 or 4 in the afternoon.I decided to climb the next hill and if I couldn`t see the end of the trail I would go back the way I came.So I climbed it and saw more of the same.Decision made, I walked back to the bike, drank a little water and started back.Once I`d cleared the impossible sandy section I mounted the bike and began pedalling.Funnily enough it was way easier than coming through as the gorge`s floor was sloped downhill somewhat and i managed to pick up speed and negotiate my way though the turns much faster.I made back to the start in less than an hour.Thank God!I pedalled back the ten or so km back to town and fell into the hostel, convinced I had heatstroke.Which I well might have.I rehydrated myself and covered myself in aftersun, swearing I`d never take unnecessary risks again.I read an article in a backpacker paper later that described an almost identical experience by some bikers who`d been told the gorge wasn`t too long and made the same mistake I did, except they continued on and made it back to the highway, although by this time it was well after dark.Little did I know that I`d soon be biking an even riskier track in Bolivia, but for the time being I`d had enough!
And so, after a few days of this we said goodbye to San Pedro.We`d stayed longer than expected or even needed to and were keen to move on.Janelle had properly acclimitised by this stage and we got picked up the next morning by the tour bus that would drive us to the Bolivian border and on to the strange wonders of the salt flats.We`d been in Chile not much more than a week but had enjoyed our stay here.Bolivia was our next stop and it promised to be very interesting.Here was one of the poorest countries in a continent of second world countries.A country of civil unrest, protests, continuous strikes and sometimes even violence.A country of high desert landscapes and low lying rainforest.A country where 95% of the roads are unpaved and driving by car is an actual health hazard.This promised to be the REAL South America and we were stoked.But first, we had deal with some of the highest landscapes we`d ever been to.And with Janelle`s recent brush with altitude sickness we were more than a little worried...

Posted by Janelle_B 13:28 Archived in Chile Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Santiago and Valparaiso

City sights in Chile

sunny 25 °C

Santiago-Chile.jpgWe left Bariloche on an afternoon coach, headed for Santiago.Our journey wasn´t to take too long relatively speaking, only about 17 hours total, though it was to be split into 2 legs; a five hour ride over the Andes through to Osorno and then an overnight bus to Chile´s capital of Santiago.The only catch was that there was a 5 hour wait in Osorno until the next bus, and Osorno wasn´t exactly known as the party capital of Chile.The first leg was pleasant enough, our coach driving alongside Lago Nahuel Huapi for a bit, then climbing steadily higher as we approched the mountain pass through the Andes that would take us into Chile.The air got colder and the scenery changed from lush to snow covered, though a lot of the snow was melting as the warm spring was coming into season.We soon reached Parjaritos, the first town of any consequence in Chile and also the site for the Chilean border formalities.Everyone trudged off the bus, sorry to be leaving the comfort and warmth of their seats, and lined up patiently inside the customs building, while our rucksacks and bags were thrown onto the conveyor belt to be X-rayed.We got our stamps and entrance cards and crossed over to drop our smaller backpacks onto the belt, which we carried with us at all times, containing as they did all our valuable documents, wallets, mp3 players etc.Janelle was perplexed to be unable to locate her bag after it had gone through the machine, only to be helped by a friendly customs guard who was wearing it on his back for a laugh.She didn´t think it was very funny tho...
Once through customs we sped onwards to Osorno.The scenery again changed and became quite lush and green ane we spied many a vinyard through the window, Chile famously being a large worldwide supplier of wine.Osorno is a large agricultural hub in these parts, though there is little here that warrants any long term stay.We arrived not too long after and were thankful just to be off the bus.It was in the dingy and slightly seedy bus terminal we had our first taste of Chilean food, a local favourite snack called un completo.It´s basically a hot dog in a bun, though it comes served smothered in guacamole tomatoes and mayo, avacadoes being another one of Chile´s primary agricultural products.Tastes pretty good though, and it comes cheap.
On major difference between countries is obviously the currency used.And while Brazilian reals and Argentina pesos are near enough numerically speaking to Euros and dollars, Chilean pesos are somewhat different.Their notes start off in denominations of 500 pesos and go up to 20,000.This can be quite confusing when you´re used to paying 10 or so Argentinian pesos for a coffee and are then suddenly handing over a 2000 peso note for the same.It takes some getting used to ley me say.
We managed to kill 5 hours by wandering aimlessly around the small town centre, and by spending a few hours in an internet cafe updating blogs etc.We headed back to the bus terminal at night, ignoring the locals who catcalled after us in Spanish.We boarded quickly and set up in our seats, and as it was after 10pm at this stage we managed to fall asleep in no time.
We reached Santiago around 9 the next morning.It could not be more different than Osorno.Chile´s capital city, with a population of more than four and a half million is situated about halfway down the length of South America´s spine, and is about 2 hours inland from the sea.In fact, the shape of Chile being what it is, the width of the country is apparently never more than 200kms across, though it does measure some 4300kms from Peru in the north to the Straits of Magellan in the south.While northern Chile is hot and arid, with some of the driest desert on the planet (the Atacama desert), the south is wild and wet, containing any number of volcanoes (some of which are still active) and ends in Tierra del Fuego, which it shares with Argentina.Santiago however is located in neither extreme, and is thus perfectly suited to the requirements of being a capital city.
Santiago is smokey.And by that I mean it´s covered in a near permanent haze of smog that can obscure the neighbouring mountains that tower behind it.Its also quite possibly South America´s most commercial city, with shopping malls quite literally spilling out onto the main streets.In fact its famous for them, much like Rio´s famous for its favelas.In looks and character it most definitely does not seem to be of South American origin.Indeed, with Chile being the one country in the continent nearest to being awarded first world status (most, if not all the others in SA are 2nd world countries) its main city recalls parts of London or even New York.In spite of this, or maybe because of it, most backpackers hate Santiago.It is for many the first port of call in South America as they´ll fly in here from Australia or NZ or else leave from here on their way home.We didn´t meet a single traveller who liked it.Its ¨crowded, smoky, expensive....just another big city¨ was all we heard, so we weren´t expecting to like it.But surprisingly we did.
First of all we picked a nice cosy hostel in the bohemian part of town, Bellavista.It was safe, funky and a convenient base to exlore the area, being only 10 mins from the metro.We´d expected Chile to be expensive, indeed had budgeted it as one of the dearest countries; but we found it on a par with Argentina costwise and were thus pleasantly surprised.Smoky it was;but hot it was also.After all the cold weather we´d experienced in Argentina Santiago was a very welcome temperature, at least 25 degs most days.It was almost too hot sometimes, and we learned to travel in the shadows of buildings or trees to avoid the direct sunlight.Or at least I did.Janelle is better suited to this heat and loved every second of it.No, Santiago was a pleasant change from the towns and villages of Argentina;it had everything we´d missed while backpacking around; pedestrianised streets with cafes serving good coffee;bookstores that sold English titles;malls that catered to every taste and whim;restaurants of every ethnic food group from Japanese to Indian to Chinese.The area where we were staying was friendly and funky, with brightly lit streets at nite and murals covering the walls during the day.Local watering holes served the local brew Escuardo (very nice BTW) all night along with the Chilean version of empanadas (deep fried).Downtown was a bustling area with Chileans of all dress hurrying along to whatever business they had to attend, while every street corner was occupied by enterprising locals offering freshly squeezed OJ.There were many parks museums and gardens to spend time in and all were well maintained and serviced.We felt safe at all times and enjoyed being back in our first big city since Buenos Aires.
Unfortunately we hadn´t budgeted much time in Santiago, only two days, but we made the most of them.After wandering at leisure through the many malls downtown and picking up some necessary equipment (an adaptor plug being among them) and sipping coffee, we dined in fancy restaurants that served Japanese cuisine (much to Janelles´delight).We did some sightseeing too, and took a local bus up to Cerro San Cristobel one morning, a nearby hill of 485m that delivered some beautiful views of the (mostly hazy) city.It also contains a national park aswell as an Christian church (along with requisite Virgin Mary statue) whose outdoor pulpit must rank as one of the most inspiring places to addess a congregation.The park is served by a lengthy cable car system, that takes you right around the most interesting sights and eventually back down to ground.We found it a charming and quite relaxing way to spend an afternoon.
As nice as Santiago was, it isn´t exactly overflowing with activities.True, there are ski slopes nearby, but the season was at an end.And apparently there are wine tasting course and horse riding on offer, but we weren´t bothered.So we decided to head out to nearby Valparaiso two hours away on the coast.We´d heard great things about this port town and it regularly receives rave reviews from Lonely Planet and other guidebooks.In fact, its listed as one of the ´must sees´in Chile.So we headed out for the day with high hopes.
We arrived after two hours or so and were immediately besieged by locals guides urging us to take their tours.We politely listened to one so as to not be rude and then declined her offer once we´d learned all the places to go.She wasn´t too happy after all her talking!Ha!We sauntered on with the free map she had given us and somehow ended up straight at the nearest mall.Hmm.Though it was VERY impressive inside, moreso than some in London and other such cities.Anyway, we chose the mall because it warm, and the weather in Valparaiso was anything but.I´d dressed for the sun, as it was out in force when we left Santiago, but it conspicously absent in this seaside town.After warming ourselves up a bit we braved the outside.It was dull, dreary weather, overcast with no hope of sun at all.Not what we were hoping for.And maybe it was the weather but we couldn´t take to Valparaiso at all.I mean, its listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, its considered the cultural capital of Chile and it has bucketloads of history but none of it impressed.The seafront is mostly obscured by vast port containers waiting to be shipped or by the immense cranes used to ship them.There is no beach, no sand, no surf.Just an ongoing dockland.It wasn´t too dissimilar from the Dublin docks and I can´t imagine anybody wanting to go there for the day!
You could take boat tours out to see the bay from the water but we weren´t bothered with the weather.The only thing that brightened our day was discovering one of the many ascensores (elevators) littered thoughout the city; wooden platforms that take you right up from the lower downtown up onto the cobbled hillsides.These were built between 1883 and 1916 when the city was a great trading post for much of Chile, before the opening of the Panama Canal made it pretty much obsolete, and look every bit their age.Though they do take you up to much more sceneic barrios, and of course they give a great view of the port, grey as it was.We snapped away at the many murals lining the cobbled streets, all created with obvious attention to detail.Past a few churches and cafes here and there we descended again to the main plaza and rewarded ourselves with some swee coffees.We bumped into an English couple from our hostel who had the same opinion of Valparaiso we did and spent a few hours trading travelling tips before we decided to leave for Santiago.We´d only been there 4 or so hours and we were bored.Luckily we hadn´t booked accomodation as I´d initially wanted to before we´d arrived, and I was extremely grateful for Janelle for having talked me out of it.Anyway, we left ASAP and vowed never to return.
The next day was our last in Santiago, and as much as we´d enjoyed it, we were happy to move on.It IS just another big city, though as big cities go its not the worst by far.We were keen on reaching our next destination in Chile - San Pedro de Atacama, a small tourist town out in the middle of the Atacma desert.There we would experience one of the expected highlights of the whole trip; the Salar de Uyuni, or Uyuni saltflats, an otherworldly place of dry white desert, sentinel-like cacti, lakes of green,white,blue and red, and pink flamingoes to boot.But first we had to brave another hellish 24 hour bus ride and combat altitude sickness before we could enjoy it.And something told me it wouldn´t be so easy....

Posted by Janelle_B 09:17 Archived in Chile Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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