- Disclaimer: I would like to spend hours upon hours on this post, considering its been several weeks of non-stop stuff to fill you all in on...HOWEVER, I am in Bolivia now and internet, while cheap, is slow and clumsy. I am going to try and literally just give an overview. Sorry for this being the longest, most boring post of the blog... Funnily enough, it felt like the shortest, MOST exciting period of the trip thus far.
"Shit... thats a lot of Sand"
It was barely dawn when I made my way to the Salta bus station several days (weeks?) ago. I was excited to leave Argentina and bgein a new northward track to Bolivia and beyond. The curse of the gringo trail found me pretty soon, and I literally had a full on reunion with my Mendoza wine-drinking team: Tim, Ashleigh and Jamie. All headed to Chile. Shocking.
The crossing was fairly uneventful, having a Chilean stamp already this time. We got our first taste of altitude sickness going over the Andes, symptoms including headache, stomachache, and complete lethargy and fatigue. By the time we entered San Pedro de Atacama (2000m), the oasis in the middle of the world's driest desert, we were beginning to overcome the altitude. Thankfully.
I got off with Jamie and Ashleigh (Tim was headed further on to the coast) and booked a hostel and hit the streeets of town. It resembled the spaceport of Tatooine (non-Star Wars fans need not worry about this reference), except that EVERY little cactus door along the mud walls was tourist-serving... bars, tour agencies, hostels, internet cafes, etc. This oasis existed for one reason only: To serve the mad wanderers who wished to cross the Atacama.
We slept well in our adobe house that night and the following day booked a 3 day tour for the following day, thus giving me time to explore the desert on my own. Now... biking is not my favorite thing, but I have inadvertantly grown quite fond of it since being here. So I hit the town's agencies to find the cheapest deal on renting equipment to ride to Death Valley to sandboard for the day. There are already 2 things wrong with the above sentence... you clever people may have figured this out before me, but it took me an hour to realise.
1) Good things aren't cheap, and cheap things aren't good.
2) Biking in the sand... not wise.
The ride to the dunes was fairly difficult... uphill... in sand. The sandboarding was...interesting. My cheap deal made sure that I ended up with little more than a piece of plywood with velcro straps, that didnt fit my shoes.... so I sandboarded barefoot.
It was not successful since I couldnt turn properly. I basically sped down the dunes, then panted in the thin, dry air as I climbed back up. I hope to re-do this in Peru with grewater results... but otherwise an exhausting and unfulfilling experience.
The bike ride back was great, riding through the canyon of Valle de Muerte was my first experience of true off-roading on this trip (to be superceded by my Bolivian downhill... see later)
That night we went stargazing in the desert, with some awewsome telescopes. Its amazing to see entire glaxies, planets and such through these things in the high altitude, clean desert air. Beautiful.
"It's the Altitude"
The next morning, bright and early, the Brits and I headed to our meeting spot to join our tour of the Atacama and head into the Bolivian altiplano. We met the other half of our group, a triad of Canadians. We hit it off really quickly, and happily set off to the Bolivian border* and our 3 day jeep trek.
The tour was amazing. One of the best so far.... scratch that, one of the top ten experiences in my life. (I have begun putting things into Top Ten categories now, since its impossible to say things like "The Best"). I could spend a long time detailing it... but then this post would take you hours to read... so a quick overview:
First Day:- Drive uphill through the desert to some salt lakes that change colour depending on the wind; Geysers and hot springs; Flamencos and llamas galore; Sleep in what is essentially army barracks at 4900m up; 2 of 4 of us had MASSIVE altitude sickness. I was perfect.
Second Day: 4 more lakes; desert rocks; volcano; and a small town where we spent our second night. Excellent company, with excellent music, and excellent times.
Third Day: Sunrise on the world's biggest Salt Flats. Gorgeous. An island on the lake (its a massive saline lake with a thick white crust that you can walk/drive on). 2hour long photosession playing on the salt falts; salt museums, salt hotels, salt factories... etc... Finally, to Uyuni (the town on the other side) and an afternoon of beer.
(I know this doesn't sound very exciting... I know I am lapsing in my promise to give you beautifully described details... But chalk this one up to too much. Too much to be detailed, too much to detail. Needless to say, it was one of the most awesome things I have seen/done in my life.)
Our new sixsome, having bonded over the tour, decided to then head to Sucre, a colonial town in the center of Bolivia. First impression of the Bolivian bus system: awful. It took us along bumby roads, through rivers (seriously), but after 20 hours we made it to Sucre, more or less unscathed.
The following day, we (the boys plus Leanna) decided to take a cab ride to Potosi, the highest city in the world, to investigate the mines there. The Potosi silver mines were the reason for Spanish colonialism, and basically was the center of South America for centuries. When silver dried up, trhe mines kept operating looking for zinc and tin. When those minerals had price collapse in the 80's, the government washed their hands of the mines, and fled. This left an entire city, nestled under this massive mountain, without a source of income. Currently the moutnain is operated as a co-operative, and the conditions are just abysmal.... Thus, they made it into a gringo trail attraction, which seems really strange to me. However, the miners don't feel emploited by the tourists since its customary for us to take them coca and soda and such as gifts. SO in a way, they appreciate the exploitation of their misery... an awkward and eye-opening experience nonetheless.
The mountain, as I mentioned, has been worked on for centuries... so its literally like a massive chunk of swiss cheese. A crazy dwarvian labyrinth. We went shopping in the miner's market for gifts, donned mining gear, and walked on in. The tunnels range from 6 foot tall, to 1. Sometimes we had to lie down and crawl through little openings just to pass. The air is dense with zinc particles, thin (its 4500m up) and damp from the rains. For an ashmatic, this is not good. As we all agreed after the tour it was a great experience, but we would never do it again.
Post-tour, the guides took us to a little zone and let us play with dynamite.
Short explanation: One of the gifts you can buy for the miners in the market, is dynamite. 15 bolivianos (2US) for a stick, plus some Pink Floyd (ammonium Nitrate to enhance the explosion). What we didnt gve away, we get to blow up.
There is nothing cooler after being trapped 1 km into the heart of a moutain, than playing with explosives. All in all, a successful day in Bolivia.
The reunification of Ernie and Bert
After a couple days more of Sucre, we headed over to La Paz (in a far nicer bus... thus proving that first impressions aren't always right). Here I intended to meet Alyssa, whom I started the trip with 2 months ago, but who I "lost" for 6 weeks. I playfully refer to the two of us as Ernie and Bert, firstly since the trip we are on was inspired by Che's (Ernesto is his real name) Motorcycle Diaries, which is his memoir of his travels with his friend (Alberto). Ernesto and Alberto. Secondly, the main difference in our personalities can be summed up by the sesame street pair: I am always looking for a laugh, take almost nothing seriously, and enjoy just be-ing. Alyssa is very serious, principled and is constantly "tutting" at my antics. For example, she detests that I call her Bert (which is very Bertish), and I think its hilarious how her eyebrows cross when I do it (typically Ernie). The dynamic works.
Well, this is enough for this boring entry. Look at the pictures maybe, and then it will be more exciting... reading it over even I am falling asleep. My current travelling companions (the English/Canadians) are leaving me behind today, while me and Alyssa head (or hope to--If the striking Bolivian fruit farmers will stop blowing up the road with the same cheap dynamite) for the jungles in the north. I'll try and do a second, more interesting post before I leave Bolivia sometime within the next 2 weeks.
Until then... La paz (Peace) from La Paz.
- I had a little Border problem from Chile to Bolivia, and I promised I would talk about it here... so here is a short(ish) story of it: Through my research, I had seen that I didn't need a visa for Bolivia.... but my research turned out to be very wrong. I didn't need the standard visa, but a secondary "Classe 2" Visa that I was supposed to have organsied beforehand. Needless to say the border officials weren't pleased with me showing up in the middle of the desert without it.
1) They confiscated my passport, put it in an 'envelope' (a piece of folded paper stapled together), and gave it to our driver, making him promise to take me to immigration when we reached Uyuni, the town on the other side of the desert.
2) After we reached Uyuni (on a Sunday) the office was closed. Shit. Working some magic, Marcos (the driver) called around and got the officer to meet me later in the afternoon anyway. He gave me my enveloped passport and drove off.
3) When I met the officer, he unwrapped the passport, took a glance and said. "But I don't have any class 2 Visas here." What??? What now? "Go to Sucre or La Paz and figure it out.
4) I head deeper into Bolivia (still not legally) to Sucre. After 3 days I find the Immigration office and after 3 hours of running around town, the guy takes the stamp, rolls back the date 6 days, and stamps me into Bolivia.