Monday, November 27, 2006


The charming little town of Tupiza, where we started the Salt lake tour.
The wild west type valleys we had to navigate through.
Michele and Lynn in the back of the Jeep.
Franklin, a boy in one of the TINY towns we stopped at.
Clive on a photo mission.
Ahh, lots of nice reflections abound.
A strange light blue lake. What's it called again?...
Hot springs! Relaxing.
Geisers. Dangerous to jump over.
Back a little, back a little...
Michele and Clive.
The bizarre 'rock tree'.
The view of our lodgings just outside the salt flats.
Our group climbing up the cactus hill.
Dinner time eating Margarete's lovely food.
Carlos getting emotional. And drunk.
We slept on salt beds.
Sunrise over the salt lake.
View from the island in the middle of the salt lake.
Dead Cactus.
A little pond. Quite salty.
The endless horizon. That's Clive in the background.
Me triumphant with a massive lump of salt.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Salar de Uyuni trip

I've had an interesting time on a 4-day tour of the south-west of Bolivia, climaxing with the reaching of the 'Salar de Uyuni', the famous salt lake which is supposed to be one of the highlights of travelling in South America. Along the way we encountered beautiful alien landscapes, amazing scenery, altitude sickness, drunk tour guides and coca leaves...

THE TOUR does not get off to a good start. I had no money in the tiny town of Tupiza and the only way of getting cash was to get a Mastercard advance, involving commisions and interest. Fine, except the swipey stripe on my Mastercard wasn't working, so for the entire trip I was in debt to everyone for Bolivianos. I actually had a tab with Lynn.

So we got off to a late start on Monday, setting out into the nothingness at about 10am. Ours was a group of four, consisting of myself, Lynn, a Canadian stockbroker called Clive and an Italian called Michele. We also had our driver/guide Carlos and our cook, Margarete. There were two other groups leaving from Tupiza earlier that day, but we soon caught up with them as Carlos is one of the best drivers I've ever seen, which is a good thing as at some points we were driving along gravel mountain roads with no barriers or anything. I have to admit that despite the amazing scenery I felt quite nervous.

That first day we mainly drove around the mountains and stopped at some tiny little towns where they have only recently got a couple of cars to drive the 3 or 4 hours to Tupiza for supples instead of making the week-long journey on llamas. Apparently on Sundays a preist comes from Tupiza in a 4x4 truck to do services across the area.

In these small towns you really wonder what the hell these 150 or so people do, hours from anywhere in a car (and that's in the dry season when the roads are passable). I was told there is a bus. Once a week.

Llama farming seems to be a popular job. Carlos told us about a man up in the mountains with no wife, no family, just a few hundred llamas. What does he do most of the time?

When we stopped that first night I started to feel the altitude. We were at about 3,500 metres and walking around was literally a breathtaking experience. Our cook Margarete, a lovely woman, made us dinner. She served us breakfast, lunch and dinner each day, with some pretty decent food for the Bolivian desert.

The next day we awoke at 5.30am to get started. There was a huge amount of driving that day, as we didn't finish untill about 6pm that evening. During the second day we realised the Bolivian/Peruvian mix tapes that Carlos used were insufficient for our long drives, resulting in the repitition of many songs that drove me to the point of madness. One of the songs was about some people celebrating because the village cow was fat and nearly ready to eat. They were going to have a party. Because of the cow, you see.

It was around this time that it was explained to me that Coca leaves are helpful for altitude sickness. So we all started chewing and though they tasted disgusting, they did the trick. Apparently it's all to do with opening up blood vessels to allow more oxegen to get through the blood stream to the brain. Coca leaves are totally legal to buy and everyone chews them at altitude here in Bolivia. Well, not everyone, but you know what I mean. You can have them in tea, a popular drink being Coca Maté. Cool. It's nice. Quite stimulating, so I don't recommend it before bedtime.

I was quite sick that second morning, what with the motion of the truck as well as the altitude. It got better later in the day, but that was a bad few hours.

During the day we saw a cool ghost town. I don't know what it's called but back in the 1600s this town mined for silver and became so rich they went a bit mad. The story goes that the devil came to the town and soon people were building houses with wheat instead of proper cement mixture stuff, some people got married 3 times in one day and the women used llama meat to sew things instead of your typical sewing stuff like string and thread.

Then a plague came and killed them all off. And that was that. Interesting, eh?

We stopped at a hot spring for lunch and later that day we travelled up to see some geisers at 5,000 metres! It was insane. Nothing was growing up there. The geisers were impressive. I heard a story of some tourists who were JUMPING OVER the geisers as some kind of dare-based situation and a Frenchman fell in one. Stupid boy. He was burnt all up to his waist. Nasty. Some people have to learn the hard way.

The landscapes we were seeing during this trip were quite out of this world. Desolate and unforgiving terrain was crossed over many hours. I wouldn`t have liked to break down out there.

The sleeping arrangements were basic. Very basic in fact, but not horrible. I mean we didn't have showers at the first two places we stayed but still it was fine, what with the hotsprings and all. Quite refreshing.

Our third day we saw loads of lagoons with strange colours and amazing reflections and flamingoes. But more impressive were the strange rock formations we walked around a few hours later. Apparently there are little or no formations like this in the world. The famous bit is the 'rock tree' but all of it was strange and somewhat magical. Spiritual almost. These crazy rock shapes set in some kind of quasi-Marsian landscape.

There was a lot of driving that day too. Some roads that didn't even qualify as roads. Carlos did a superb job not only keeping us on the road, but keeping us ahead of the other groups, which is more important I think. In fact we lost one group, Tupiza tours, and never saw them again. I'm sure they're ok.

Our last night proved most interesting. We stayed at a lodge type place with beds and floors made from salt. We hiked for an hour up the nearby hill where we had a superb view of the salt lake and the nothingness beyond. The hill was covered with cactai. Very strange. At the top of this hill was the quietist silence I've ever heard. No wind or anything. Then I said aloud, "this is the quietist silence I've ever heard," and a great crack of thunder answered back that it was time to go. It was really surreal, like a cliche in a film. Bizarre.

At this point I feel I should explain more about the 'salt lakes'. Basically they were real pre-histric lakes that one day just dried up. Well, not one day, but it happened, ok? Anyway, left behind was this salt terrain landscape that looks completely alien. Like desert, but more bizare. Lifeless, endless, and, er, salty. Very salty in fact. I tasted it. People mine the lake for salt and refine it.

Apparently a few years ago a truck of tourists just disappeared in the slat lake. The theory being that an earthquake opened the ground and swallowed the truck then sealed up behind them. Fascinating, but chilling!

Now the really interesting bit of that last night. Drivers in Bolivia are notoriously known for being drunk. Our guy, Carlos, was completely fine. Untill that last night. We had an excellent dinner of soup, chicken, potatoes and salad prepared by Margarete. We were drinking some beer and wine and Carlos and Margarete joined us for drinks. It soon dawned on us - Carlos was wasted! We were his brothers, fathers and friends. Lynn was a potential lover untill she was downgraded to a sister. It was a deep, touching session. Carlos went on and on about how this was a great group, and I was 'muy tranquilo' (very relaxed and calm), probably because I couldn't unserstand much of what Carlos was saying. He spoke no English you see. He does speak two other indigenous languages, but that doesn't help because my Quechua is pretty rusty.

The lights stayed on past the alotted time of 10pm because Carlos claimed people knew him and were fearful of him (he is about 5'6).

Now, we all went to bed soon after as we were getting up early to see the sun rise over the salt flats. Well, not all of us. When we got up at 5am, it was apparent that Carlos had not gone to bed and had stayed up partying and drinking with some others at the complex! He was a happy camper, and we had the hilarious and strange experience of driving around this alien landscape under the rising sun, at 6am, in Bolivia, with a drunk driver who was having a party with us in his truck.

Now you might think this was somewhat irresponsible of our Carlos, but the truth is that on this salt lake there is literally nothing to hit. Someone with no arms could drive the lake. Carlos proved this by driving with his thighs for ten minutes.

At the centre of the lake is a bizarre island inhabited by more cactai which offers an amazing 360 view of the salt lake. You can see some mountains from the top but apart from that it's salt, salt, everywhere.

One of the cactai (spelling?) was 1200 years old. That's what the sign said. It was old. And really big.

So we drove around the flats as Carlos sobered up and we took loads of pictures and did that perspective photo thing where it looks like you're holding the truck in the palm of your hand. Michele took lots of those photos. In fact he took loads of pictures generally during those few days. He said he took 300 pictures over the trip time and I believe him. Everywhere we went he wanted to "make a picture." We made lots of pictures.

After a couple of other stops we were finished our trip. The last day was bitter-sweet. It was the climax to our trip but I had to say goodbye to all the guys. In Uyuni, where the trip finished, we managed to find an international ATM and I settled all my debts before boarding a rickety and bumby bus to Sucre. Clive went to La Paz with Michele and Lynn went to Buenos Aires where she has an exam sometime soon. Carlos had to drive back to Tupiza, where I imagine he went to sleep pretty fast.

I understand that this whole drunk driver thing seems a bit alarming. But Carlos was genuinely a nice guy and I think he probably got wasted at that point quite often, as he knew he could handle the drive across the salt flats. If he was drunk on those mountain roads it would, er, be quite a different story. In fact one group complained to their agency because their driver was drunk quite a bit. Obviously this is unacceptable. In fact we had a good tour company. It's an insane business these 3 or 4 day salt flat tours. We paid a bit over the odds (130 US Dollars) as there was only 4 of us in our car on the trip. Other people paid about half what we did in Uyuni, the characterless town where most tours go from. However, I think it was worth it as our tour was along a better route, we were alone more often and not in a herd of 10 or 15 cars from Uyuni and our tour was 4 days whereas some people paid 65 US Dollars for 3 days. I've heard of some bad stories from Uyuni tour groups - Drunk drivers, fallings out with drivers, only one cook per 18 people, 7 folks being squeezed into a 6 person max truck.

Sometimes it's better to pay a bit more for a trip you really belive is going to be good. I would recommend anyone going from Tupiza on this trip rather than Uyuni and going with Salar or Valle Hermoso (our group). It was a great trip and I was really happy with my group.

So now I am in Sucre, at Backpackers Sucre on Colon and Loa. It's a nice place, with nice courtyard type stuff. I have a comfy, private room with cable TV for about 2.80 pounds a night. There's another bed but even if it gets taken there'll still be loads of space. It's like being in a hotel, which is bad for socialising but great for relaxing and having some privacy.

I've been having a poorly stomach these past few days but there are far worse places to relax and take it easy after the crazy trip up to Bolivia and the following tour. Last night I watched Silence of the Lambs and Roxanne. Today I watched Shakespeare in Love. Cable is great. I've gone from watching no TV for ages to indulging completely. I've watched quite a lot of comedy shows too.

But I'm not bedridden! I've been out and about and I'll be in Sucre for a week or so as I've signed up for some Spanish lessons. Four hours a day for five days. Hopwfully I'll get some basic syntax understanding about sentence forming rather than my broken attempts like, "Hola, que tal? Quisiero, er, medicine para, er, malo, um, stomach," where I mix up English and Spanish for good measure.

This is an epic entry, and I think I'll probably add more to it later. Hopefully I should have loads of pictures up tomorrow. That's my sole thing to do tomorrow - upload pictures! Ahh, it's a hard life.

Another positive of the last couple of days is that the lovely tax people have paid me over a thousand pounds, so although I was getting a bit concerned about money I should be able to finsih my intended trip and not come home early. So it should be sometime in March I come home. That's a good 6 months away. I don't think I'd want to away to much longer on my own. It's great meeting, tripping and travelling with people but I think I'll be ready for home around March!

This salt trip has been fantastic. Good folks, good experiences, photos, stories, everything. My journey though Bolivia continues. After here I'll head to Peru for Christmas and new year, then down through Chile then flying to Sydney 20 January-ish, then after my short Australian stoppover, onto South Africa where I hope to visit a couple of old friends and meet Laura and do some travelling with her.

It's all very crazy and exciting. Suddenly time looks shorter. Days slightly more important. But I've still got a month-ish left in Bolivia, then 3-ish weeks in Peru, then, er, a bit in Chile. Then my stoppover in Oz, then Africa.

I now realise that this has not value of interest to read at all, I'm just sorting things in my head but out loud effectively.

Well, it's nice to have a bit of a plan.

I'm meeting English and French girls later, possibly for dinner, then an early night and possibly more cable! And, yes I am getting into the culture. Most of the channels are in Spanish, so you see it's all research.

Just for good measure, here's a picture of me sitting on furniture made entirely from salt.

Drop me an e-mail. Chao for now.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Journey into Bolivia

"Borderline...feels like I'm going to lose my mind." - Madonna.

YES. BOLIVIA. I never thought I'd be here. Not on this trip. Not ever. And yet here I am, in a town a couple of hours north of the Argentina/Bolivia frontier.

The trip across has been relatively straightforward. It's kind of like this. At 12.30am I took the 6-hour bus to La Quiaca, partially having to endure the emetic Hollywood chick-flick The Perfect Man, starring Heather Locklear. I'm travelling with an American girl called Lynn. Lynn is from Michigan and has never heard of scotch eggs or jaffa cakes. Incredible. The US is a backward country, it really is.

At La Quica we walked through the immigration control and took care of all the passport document stuff. From there we caught another (more rustic) bus up to Tupiza. We were trying to get to the city Uyuni, but the buses only go every OTHER day. The jeeps and trains were booked up so we checked into Villa Hermoso Hostel. It's HI, but unlike the last place it's clean, comfy and the staff are friendly. Well, the staff were friendly in the last place but this is just nicer.

The purpose of coming up to this part of Bolivia is to tour around the Salt lakes of Uyuni. The highest and possibly biggest in the world. We wanted to go from Uyuni but got such enthusiastic feedback from people returning from the trip, from other reviews and the woman at the hostel that we're now going from here in Tupiza tomorrow at 9am. It's a 4-day tour including (reportedly good) food, accomodation, guide, transport etc. I think it's a bit more expensive than some tours in Uyuni but it's so heavily recommended I think it's a good choice. It also means we don't lose a day in a hot, cramped jeep for 6 hours getting up to Uyuni. Apparently we get to see other cool stuff like geisers an volcanoes but I don't want to think about it right now lest I build the trip up in my mind and get disappointed. No doubt I'll write a full report when I finish the trip in Uyuni and I'll try to get photos up as well.

Tupiza is like an old wild west town. Dry, dusty and with a browny beige colour scheme that may not be intentional. It's also close to the spot where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid died. I'm glad we stopped here.

Bolivia looks like it's going to be an interesting place. The older women especially wear really strange clothes. It's like stepping straight into a guidebook. I want to take pictures but don't want to seem like a stupid annoying tourist. Must be subtle. Stealth-like.

I have a pocketful of Bolivianos. It's about 15 to the pound. The hostel is only 20 Bolivianos for a nice dorm bed. That's only 1.30 in proper money. Excellent.

I'm quite excited about my trip. There's just going to be 6 of us travelling around with our guide I think, and because we're going from a less popular town to start we'll be on our own for a couple of days before we hit the salt lake and joining the other tourists. Hmmm. It's all very interesting. As we leave tomorrow I'll finish in Uyuni on Thursday so might blog it Friday and then leave for Potosi or somewhere. As ever, I'm pretty much making it up as I go along.

It's cool travelling on your own, meeting people all the time. You definately get in some interesting situations that you wouldn't if you were with a big group of friends. But I'm not one of those people that says 'travelling alone is the only way to go man'. No, every travelling scenario has it's pros and cons. Solo travelling makes you accesible, you make new friends easily because you have to talk to people. If you have an established group or long term travelling buddy it's easy to not do things as you still have someone to talk to. But then sometimes it can be lonely moving to a new place and no-one speaks good English, only Spanish or Hebrew! Likewise travelling with a friend or partner is great because of the whole 'shared experience thing' (which will be great when Laura comes out to visit me), but long-term, think of the compromises to possibly make, and the tensions that could develop. Ah, in the end it's all good experience. If you travel alone you have to be social, form groups and friendships whenever you can and go on trips with your new friends. If in a group or with a partner just be as accessible as you can, I guess.

It's nice travelling with Lynn. Despite her ignorance of classic British snack food she's a lovely girl. She's been in Buenos Aires studying for 5 months which of course is a great specific insight into a place. Living in a place is the only way to get to know somewhere really well, like I feel I did in South Africa. But you can't do that in every country you want to visit! It's best to get a mixture of experiences I think. Oh, and Lynn speaks very good Spanish. Which helps in Bolivia. Because I don't think many people here speak great English.

My last day or two in Salta were interesting. Iwent to the MAAM museum which is all about the discovery of the mummies of 3 Inca children in 1999. The children were 500 years old and the best preserved mummies, pretty much ever! There were photos, info, documentaries about it all at the museum. Apparently they were found over at 6,700 metres up an Andean mountain near Salta. They had travelled there as part of an Inca sacrifice ceremony. Crazy. Google it, it's really interesting.

My last meal in Argentina was suitably an Asado, a bbq with more meat than you can shake a stick at. What' s more when I went to pay they said "don`t worry about it." Amazing.

There were a few late nights in Salta, reminded me of being ing Buenos Aires. I liked Salta. Interesting architecture, museums, bars, and good exursions by all accounts (I didn't go on any).

Arrgghh, James Blunt is playing! You're bloody Beautiful. In a wild west town in Bolivia! He seems to seep through the tectonic plates like a disease, or maybe even like that slimey stuff from Ghostbusters 2. He has infected the planet and invaded every pore of the world. It is the end. There is NO ESCAPE!

Book update! I have just finished Kurt Vonnegut's bizarre novel Timequake. There's no plot to it. It's kind of part biog, part fiction. Very funny and strangely thought provoking. At one point in the book Vonnegut declares that he actually knows how many people in the world have lives worth living.

It's 17% apparently.

Next I'm moving onto either Charlie and The Chocolate Factory or a book about The Yorkshire Ripper, aka Pete Sutcliffe.

Right, gotta go. Will report back later in the week.


Saturday, November 18, 2006


The view of Salta in northern Argentina, from San Bernardo mountain.
The cable car, or teleférico. That's how you get up there.
A statue of Saint Bernie.
The Catedral in Salta.
Some weird cocktail involving kiwi.
Claudia, a Chilean/Swedish girl. She liked that gun.
Me helping the Argies carry the flag.
I like to entertain.
Some monument in Cordoba.
Jen and Bernie on the wine tour.
Barrel aging.
Marcus and his Maté.
All smiles at the dinner table in Mendoza.
Marius assumes some cooking duties.
Troy gets started on the Parilla.