Please pass the salt
19.02.2014 - 25.02.2014 23 °C
We arranged a cab to pick us up at our hotel in Purmamarca and the driver took us to Tilcara which was the next town where the bus station was. The station was just an area where the bus pulled in and our 11AM bus showed up at 10 to 1.
The bus arrived at the border town of La Quicaca around 5, where we grabbed a cab for $2 to take us to the border into Bolivia. There was a line up to leave Argentina, paperwork filled out and handed in, and then another line up to enter Bolivia with more paperwork. The entire process took around 40 minutes.
We are in Bolivia now. There are money exchange stalls every two feet so we are able to trade our Argentine pesos for Bolivarios. There were busses that went to the town of Tupiza, where we were headed, but instead we negotiated a cab for $34 for the two hour ride.
Tupiza is a small town in a lovely setting with mountains surrounding it. Our hostel is very basic but only cost $28 including a very meager breakfast. We immediately went off to find our travel agent that we had been working with to pay for our tour tomorrow.
Mario picked us up at 9AM for our two day tour in a Toyota 4x4. He spoke very little English, but that was okay as we wanted to practice our Spanish.
The scenery north changes every half hour and is beautiful. This is where Butch Cassidy and the SunDance kid had their last big shoot out.
llamas are everywhere, large groups of them on the hills and in the meadows.
The road to Uyuni is a very narrow, winding gravel road with many switchbacks over the mountains. This is the only road and the one we would have taken had we decided to take the bus for the five hour non stop ride. It would have driven me crazy to not be able and stop to take pictures on the way. Mario would stop many times during the day to let us take photos and just walk on some trails and meadows.
Three hours later he pulled off the road and down into a meadow where he suggested Doug and I walk for an hour. There was a large group of llamas and donkeys with their new born babies, some only weeks old. They were not too sure about us and kept moving further into the hills as we walked towards them
Upon our return we find lunch waiting for us, set up on the tailgate of the Toyota.
The road is in great condition for the most part. We seem to be following the Dakar race route as this where it started off before ending in Valparaiso Chile on the day we were there. There are areas however where the road just seems to disappear into a river bed, lots of times with water flowing quite strongly in the river. I am not sure how the bus does this route.
A small mining town was on the way so we stopped and walked around for about half an hour. Everyone in town does some sort of job associated with the mining. Bolivia is very rich in minerals. They have been mining for hundreds of years but the supply is still plentiful.
Quinoa was growing in fields on the top of the mountain. It does not require any irrigation, only rainwater, and grows in the high altitudes. It is more expensive to buy quinoa here than at home. Bolivia does not export it's quinoa to other countries only uses it for themselves.
Mario once again pulled off the road up onto a hill and told us to walk down to the lagoon and he would meet us on the other side. The water was a pinkish color and we see that there are many flamingos in the lake which was a nice surprise.
An hour out of Uyuni the landscape changes to flat land with small brush, certainly not as attractive as the area around Tupiza. Mario drove us into the town and helped us to buy our bus ticket for two days from now which was great.
There is a tourist attraction that is on all the tours called the 'train graveyard'. We drove past it but said we did not need to get out of the truck. It was just a bunch of rusted out trains in my opinion. Sure they were the first ones involved with the mining industry, but not that interesting in my opinion. Train travel is very scare in Bolivia now. Every thing goes by truck and passengers by bus.
We finally arrived at the Salt Flats outside of Uyuni town. The lake is massive. Mario said it is the size of Switzerland but I have not checked that out yet.
We are lined up on the edge waiting for the sunset. A shallow skim of water in on the ground and when the sun goes down it looks like a mirror on the ground. It was so beautiful.
It is really chilling off now as we head to our hotel for the night. A lot of people, especially the younger back packer crowd, do a four day tour staying in dorms with no heat, shared bathrooms and bunk beds. We considered this but it would be far too tiring for me to have four full days in a row. They also sometimes put up to six people into the trucks which can be rather uncomfortable on these long rides to say the least.
We arranged a two day private tour and were so happy we did. We saw everything that we wanted to see and could go at our own pace.
We also opted for a unique hotel instead of the unheated dorms. A salt hotel on the lake, with everything made of salt. Walls, furniture, even the floor. This is a newer hotel and quite nice. Dinner and breakfast were included, which was a good thing seeing as how the hotel is miles from anywhere, and we enjoyed this unique experience. It gets extremely cold here at night but we had electric blankets to keep us warm.
The only thing I did not like was that the floors in our bedroom were salt, coarse grains of salt which made walking in your bare feet to the bathroom at night a little uncomfortable.
Day 51. Salt Flats.
Mario arrived at 8:30AM and we drove through the water of the lake for around 15 minutes and then there was only salt. Miles and miles of blinding white salt. It is so hard to get your head around the fact that it is not an ice field.
We stopped to take some of these goofy pictures for fun and then headed to an island a couple of hours away.
The flats are now dry, which is so lucky for us as it is the rainy season. We could drive right up to the island and Mario told us to go for a walk for and hour or so while he made lunch. The island is covered in huge cactus and had a lot of lava rock and coral rock on it. It is very well designed and well taken care of by the five residents who live here. We walked the trail to the top of the hill, slowly. The altitude is getting to me here, we are at 12,000 feet already and then climbing higher. We had to sign in when we arrived with our name, nationality and age. Mario and I looked at the ages of the people over the past few weeks and they were all 20 or 30 something. The other older folk like us did not climb to the top so we were quite pleased with ourselves that we made it. Slowly, one foot in front of the other, but we did it. It was so peaceful at the top, we had this part of the flats to ourselves, not another truck in sight.
From this vantage point we have a 360 degree view of the salt flats and can imagine just how big they are. Bolivia again does not export any of this salt, just for their own use.
After we made our way back to the bottom we find that Mario had cooked some quinoa for me ( I told him I loved quinoa) as well as some meat for Doug and vegetables. We enjoyed a wonderful picnic in this amazing setting.
Our long ride back across the salt flats I am wishing that I had a good pair of sunglasses instead of the cheap ones I bought on the street in Santiago. It is like the Arctic, blinding white everywhere. A large flock of flamingos flew overhead in formation like Canada geese, but they were pink. So cool.
Mario takes us to our hotel and we say our goodbyes. After checking into our room and a short rest we head out to explore the town of Uyuni for an hour.
The women all dress in the traditional way, the bowler hats, large skirts, and long braids. Some of the women wear straw hats and look like a darker version of Anne of Green Gables with the braids. There are street stalls set up and everything from clothing to food being sold.
Teenagers are all running around with water balloons and large squirt guns shooting at each other. They also spray each other with foam and we hear firecrackers going off. Not sure what the celebration is, we will have to check it out.
Uyuni is backpacker haven. There are so many young people here with huge backpacks and most likely doing one of the many treks or adventures available in the area. It seems most are South American or European.
Our bus to Sucre was not a luxury bus, but not as bad as I had feared. No bathrooms for the four hour journey, but they promised to stop half way. The cost of the trip was $5.
Our departure time was to be at 10 AM. At 10:15 the locals are yelling, "Vamos, it's past 10" in Spanish. Bolivians appear not to be a patient as Argentinians, but it worked, we left.
The scenery through the mountains is again very beautiful as we climb even higher.
As promised two hours in we stopped at a roadside building for refreshments and a bathroom or smoke break, and none too soon. (the bathroom, not the smoke).
We arrived in the city of Potosi just after 2PM. It is a large city high in the mountains, 13,450 feet. There is a three hour layover here so we decided to see about taking a cab the rest of the way. The taxis that went to Sucre were on the other side of the station, up a steep hill. I am so winded I can only do three steps at a time, but we finally get to the top.
Women are running full speed towards us. I guess we don't blend in like we thought we did..... " Sucre??? " They were offering transportation to Sucre.
The first quote was for 400 Bolivanos, twice what we were told it should be. When we said "no, 200" one woman looked at the other one and said in Spanish something like "what are you nuts? It's not 400 BOL"
In the end they quoted us 160, ($26) which is funny cos we said we would pay 200. The car looked good, the driver was a young man in his late twenties, Nicholas. It ended up not being a cab, but the police were there and he had a receipt book that we needed to fill out with our names and this seemed to make it all legal.
One hour in I realize that the exhaust is coming into the car. We have a 2 1/2 hour ride ahead of us and we are being asphyxiated. We travelled with the window open the entire way, listening to 80s disco. One of the longest rides of my life. The scenery was spectacular however, through the winding mountain roads. These roads have been recently paved which makes the journey much more pleasant and faster. The only way to get to Sucre from Uyuni is by bus, the flights go through La Paz to get here.
We finally arrived in Sucre around 6 PM and are dropped off at our hostel which is right across from the Central Market. A lovely hostel with a large clean room and only $35 a night with private bath and breakfast.
Day 53. Sucre
Saturday. The altitude here is down to 9,200 feet and it feels much better. The population is 600,000 and there are a number of Universities so lots of young people. The sidewalks are very narrow and extremely busy. Sucre is in a valley, with the main square being in the middle and then it all goes up from there.
We made our way up to a travel agency that claims to be non profit. We sat and had a wonderful Cappuccino and a cup of cocoa tea as well while we waited for our guide Rogero to show up. A private three hour tour was arranged for $10 each. Rogero was a lovely young man of around 25 or so and we started off walking towards the main square, Plaza de Mayo.
Rogero told us a lot about the city of Sucre, history and the country of Bolivia as well. His English was pretty good and we would revert to Spanish sometimes as well so that we could practice which he appreciated.
One of our stops was in the market across from our hostel where we enjoyed a fruit smoothie which was delicious. There were a lot of potatoes for sale in this area. Bolivia has over 350 different varieties.
Our last stop was the Mirador, which means lookout. Of course this means that it is on top of the hill, up a very steep hill. I did well however, stopping at the end of each block, but not as bad as I had feared from the bottom looking up. The view overlooking the city was wonderful and the air was so much cleaner up there. There is a lot of diesel fumes in the busy streets which makes my breathing ever harder. The side streets are so much better for both of us.
We said our goodbyes to Rogero and went for lunch at a wonderful cafe at the top and enjoyed a delicious lunch. Muy Rico!!
There are a number of stalls at the top of the hill selling hand made alpaca items as well as other handicrafts. We just looked and took stock of what was available.
Later in the evening we went to a dinner show which was fantastic. Three hours of dancing representing the different tribes and communities in Bolivia. The young people performing had endless energy and we really enjoyed it.
Next week is carnival in Sucre. This morning there is a parade for 'pre carnival' which will have people in different costumes from the various regions in the area.
Even yesterday no one knew exactly what time it started, even Rogero who is in the parade! They figured it would end up at the main square at noon, so we headed off at 10. This was after finding out that the final hockey game at the Olympics was on our TV (we haven't turned the tv on since we left home) It looked like a shoe in for the Canadians so we headed off for the parade.
A few blocks away we can see that the sidewalks are packed with people eeking out their spot. A few blocks up we found a little space, in the shade which was a bonus, and sat on the curb and waited about a half hour until we could here the bands coming.
It was a lot of fun to watch, most of the participants are either really young, (like 7 or so ) or really old, in their 80s some of them. Got to give them credit for dancing for a few hours non stop.
We found out that the water fights are all about carnival. For at least a week the young people go after each other with the water balloons, water guns and an aerosol spray can of soap foam. Everyone in the parade was fair game for the water or foam and everyone took it all on good fun. When there was a break in the parade the young ones would go into the street and soak each other.
We had a lot of really young ones sitting near us and they would get about two feet away from each other and have all out wars. We got quite a bit in the cross fire, but it was only water and soap. I did put my camera away however when it got really crazy.
Doug and I were the only tourists in our area that we could see, so when the women in the parade would come by with bags of rose petals or confetti they would put a big handful on my head which they thought was pretty funny.
Some of the participants were handing out eggs. The woman beside us gave it to me and we figured out that it was a hollowed out egg shell, filled with water and then sealed over again with paper. They instructed me to break it over Doug's head, which I did quite happily.
It was a really fun time and we are glad that we were able to see some of carnival as it seems we are a week too early everywhere we go.
In the streets are many vendors with masks, colorful wigs and other dress up items for the main festivities next week.
The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing in our room until time to go out for dinner.
Selling water balloons is big business during carnival
A trip to the post office to mail some winter clothes back home, but it was going to cost over $90 so we said forget it.
Three small museums were explored today. The Anthropology museum which was interesting and had artifacts from all over Bolivia and from thousands of years ago. There were many weapons, pottery and jewelry on display as well as six mummies, but not in as good repair as the ones we saw in Salta. A number of elongated skulls were there as well. The Inca royalty would bind the heads of children to have them change to conical shape, similar to what the Japanese did to children's feet.
There were two other museums in the same building but one was closed so we only went to the small modern art museum. It had some really great paintings on display.
I thought that I would have a very difficult time with finding vegetarian restaurants in Bolivia, but I have had some amazing meals here, as has Doug. For me I have a different salad and sometimes soup every day for lunch and dinner. There have been some fantastic varieties that I will try when I get home too.
Back up to the Mirador to visit a textile museum. On display were various styles of embroidery and clothing from the different areas of Bolivia. Fascinating and intricate works by some very talented men and women. I bought Doug a leather and embroidered wallet that he liked as an early birthday present.
Some alpaca items were purchased from the street vendors and then back to the hotel for a rest while Doug went on a fruitless search for more Coca leaves.
Tomorrow we fly to La Paz in the north. We really enjoyed Sucre and Bolivia in general. Now to explore the north.