Day 116: Sucre

Sucre is quite a stark contrast to Potosi.  This is where all the wealthy families with money from the mines in Potosi settled. It’s the capital of Bolivia, and called the white city, it’s easy to see why as nearly all the buildings are white.

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We looked around at all the alpaca goods. I got a sweater, which Darren says is perfect for ugly sweater parties, but it’s so warm, I don’t care what it looks like. A number of dreadlocked travellers were trying to fund their travels by making and selling bracelets in one of the squares.

The buildings were fancier than anything we’d seen in Bolivia and most of Spain too, even the street signs were very ornate.

We visited the cemetery, which was actually a great public space. It was shaded and cool, and lots of school kids were hanging out here.  There were walls and walls of small crypts with photos and memorabilia of the loved one, some even had mini awnings.  Many had musical cards, which all played Für Elise at different tempos.  It was a maddening sound.  The school girls wore Wichita coats that made them look like doctors or scientists.

The city has a very nice central plaza – not too big, not to small, with lots of seating.  The important buildings line the plaza, the church, the city hall. We sat here for most of the afternoon watching pigeons and people.  People were selling snacks for the pigeons and snacks for the people.

During rush hour there are zebra mascots helping people cross the road, an idea that started in La Paz.  It’s a fun idea, but unfortunate that it’s needed.

Zebra crosswalk attendants

Zebra crosswalk attendants

We had another amazing meal at a different veggie restaurant – this is proving to be a very us friendly city.

We had to walk to a different part of the city to catch our overnight bus, this was a little less pristine white and a bit sketchier.  We made it all right though, and our bus was the nicest I’ve ever seen, which seems a little strange.  We arrived in La Paz in the early morning.

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Day 114 & 115: Potosi

We left early this morning on a bus for Potosi, which we hope will be warmer than Uyuni.  We had heard that busses in Bolivia were a little bit iffy, so we shouldn’t have been surprised when we blew a tire.  Luckily it was in a very scenic area and also that 10 minutes later an empty bus that happened to be passing by was able to take us the rest of the way.

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Potosi is a mining town, previously for silver, and currently for tin.  Its other claim to fame is that it is the highest city in the world.  I don’t know if it’s the elevation or the exhaust from the cars (the smokey emissions here are atrocious) but we felt pretty rotten, and took a pretty short tour of the city.

This pub is named after the elevation.

This pub is named after the elevation.

There was a rooftop terrace with an amazing view.  The city is nestled among mountain peaks, … Rico (rich) mountain being the prominent and pointy one.  We could see the mines up on this hill.  There were workers welding on a nearby roof and the host family eating in their elevated dining room.

The people are the same as we had seen in other places, most in traditional dress, but the buildings here were colonial, as opposed to pare concrete and very ornate.  There were a number of extruding sunrooms.  The power lines were a tangle across the street, reminding us of Saigon.

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It was Mother’s Day, which we found out later. It was apparent there was some sort of celebration going on. There were a number of people carrying white cakes, and given the crowded sidewalks, it’s surprising that we didn’t see anyone get a cake in their face. Confetti was on the sidewalks and in people’s hair.

Cake!

Cake!

The next day we found out that much of the traffic from the day before was people leaving the city before a protest began.  From what we could gather, they are protesting road conditions, and a stretch of road leaving the city (in the direction we were planning to go) was barricaded.  This put a damper on our travel plans, but there was word that it might be cleared up by the afternoon.  We met a traveller who had been to 83 countries and had been on this trip for 2 years already!  His Spanish was better than ours, so he was able to get a bit more information.

While we waited we walked around the city, which was completely transformed.  There were no cars in the streets, but there were a lot of people.  It was like a festival day, many places were closed so people could protest.

We had lunch at an amazing vegetarian place.  For 20 Bob ($4) we got a multi course lunch special. We were so full, but the food kept coming.

Back at the hostel,  we hatched a plan to cab to the barricade and try to catch a bus on the other side.  When we got there, there was no barricade, but also no busses.  The driver offered to take us to Sucre (3 hours away) for 17$ each, expensive by Bolivian standard, but not when you think about what a three hour cab ride would cost at home.

During the cab ride, we quickly descended in elevation.  Leaving the mountains around Potosi behind.  There were formations that looked like spiny dinosaur backs, but the driver was going too fast for us to photograph. There was a flat plain for a stretch, then deep ravines broke the surface of that, which eventually gave way to more mountains.

It was a crazy downhill drive, with crazy corners taken at even crazier speeds.  The only time the driver slowed was when two cows were sauntering down the middle of the road.  The vegetation grew greener and greener as we decended, until we saw palm trees around Sucre. The weather was warmer too.

Our hostel is a flashback to Berlin, called Kultur Berlin and is a hub for German travellers.  It’s one of the nicer ones we’ve stayed at.  We found a very good restaurant El German, and enormous portions of potato and quinoa bakes.

Day 112 & 113: Salt Flats Tour Day 2 & 3

Day two of the tour, we headed out early in the morning.  We passed some pretty barren farmland, and saw llamas and vicuñas (the rarer and finer wooled relatives of the llama).

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It’s so incredibly isolated out here – sometimes it seemed like we were driving on the moon.  There aren’t really roads, just impressions in the dirt.  Parts of the road were bone jarringly bumpy.  Overall its a good time – listening to regaton in the jeep.  The tours travel in groups so they can help each other in case of  flat, which has happened a couple times.

A little village we stopped at with an awesome old lady.

A little village we stopped at with an awesome old lady.

Today we are at a much higher elevation – around 4,500,  and I’m suffering a bit, even standing up makes me tired and dizzy.  We stopped and viewed the Ollague volcano that was still steaming a bit, right by the Chilean border.  It’s peak is 5,000 meters.

We spotted a few groups of bikers – I’m not sure if brave or loco is the right word.  The scenery is amazing, but I don’t think it would be worth the dust, the elevation, the insane wind and the need to reach somewhere before it froze at night.

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We also spotted a fox, who timidly came to eat food that one of the jeeps put out.

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Next was a series of lagoons. We stopped for lunch by one, I forget the name but it meant deep lagoon.  We were told there may be flamingos, but when we arrived there weren’t any.  After lunch we spotted two white ones, with just a bit of pink on their wings.  The colour depends on their diet.

The next lagoon translated to smelly lagoon, accurately named as it smelled like sulphur.  Here, there were hundreds of flamingos in various shades of pink.  There are apparently three species living here, though I couldn’t identify them.  We’d never seen them in the wild before. They are such surreal creatures and so fun to watch.  When they take off and land their long legs run along the water.

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The last lagoon was Laguna Colorada, named for the red colour, which comes from fine sediment and minerals in the seaweed.

We headed to our accommodation for the night, even more remote and cold than the night before.  There was only power until 10:00, but again there was a mountain of blankets.

The next morning we woke to snow – around 10 cm on the ground and falling fast. It was the first time the Australians in the group had seen it.  It isn’t uncommon for this time, but there was more snow than they were prepared for.  The first part of the drive back was just a blur of snow.
We were supposed to visit some thermal hot springs, but once we arrived and tested the water and found it no warmer than a kiddie pool we decided to move on.  There were a couple of natural vents, blowing steam.

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Next stop was the Laguna Verde. I imagine it’s stunning in the sun as well, but it was unreal in the snow.  The clouds and the snow drifts on the mountain looked like a painting.  Some variety of seagulls were hanging out here, with their feet in the snowy water.  When they tried to fly they ended up just moving backward.

Our group, painfully waiting while the guide took pictures on 6 cameras.

Our group, painfully waiting while the guide took pictures on 6 cameras.

The snow cleared and the sun came out by the afternoon.  We saw, but didn’t capture two vicuñas running in the snow, which was pretty National Geographic looking.
We stopped at a small town for a break and the highlight was seeing a lone llama eating out of a dumpster.  A police man drove by and it raised its head and gave its wide eyed stare with lettuce in its mouth, typical llama style.
We arrived back in Uyuni early afternoon, had dinner, and a power outage forced an early night.

Day 111: Salt Flats Tour day 1

We woke up early and got ready for our three day salt flat tour.  Everyone in the hostel is either going on this tour or has just returned, so we swapped stories.  Actually, it seems that nearly everyone is taking the same route through this part of the continent, just some head north like us, and other south.  Uyuni is pretty unspectacular.  Its an army base and this morning the soldiers were having a parade.  We picked up some supplies and left on the tour mid morning.  We’re in a jeep with four others and a driver.  There are two Australians, a German and a Mexican, who luckily translated what we couldn’t understand our guide saying.

First stop was the train cemetary, just outside of town.  Its the final resting place for a bunch overused trains.  I imagine any place that needed to boost their tourism could make one of these – people love old stuff.

Next was the salt flats, called Salar de Uyuni.  It’s over 10,000 square kilometres and very flat indeed, only varying 1 meter in height across.  They were formed from a series of prehistoric lakes and now have a crust of salt several meters thick over a briney lake.  At times we could crack the surface of the salt and see little pockets of green liquid.  This is apparently very high in lithium, containing over 50% in the world. During the wet season, there is a thin layer of water over the entire flat, making a huge reflective surface.  We were visiting during the dry season, so the salt had dried with hexagonal ridges – pretty amazing.

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As we approached the flats, it created a mirage, making the mountains look like they were floating.

As we approached the flats, it created a mirage, making the mountains look like they were floating.

Near the edge of the flat there was a processing plant.  Out on the flat they create small mounds of salt that can be easily transported for processing.

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We ate lunch in a building made entirely of salt – salt bricks for the walls, loose salt on the floor, salt tables and chairs.

After, we drove further into the white abyss.  The only way the drivers could tell the way was the slight compression of the ridges.  Once in the middle where it was completely white as far as you could see, we stopped and took some goofy perspective photos.

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This is one off the blooper reel. Darren didn't tell me the perspective wasn't working, he just let me run around like a dweeb.

This is one off the blooper reel. Darren didn’t tell me the perspective wasn’t working, he just let me run around like a dweeb.

Next stop was the Incahuasi Island, incredibly located in the middle of the salt flats.  There were cactuses over 1000 years old (we were wondering how you tell a cactuses age).  There were flocks of little yellow birds, strange to see in the middle of nowhere.

I waited a long time to catch this little guy eating quinoa

I waited a long time to catch this little guy eating quinoa

We drove a little further and reached our accommodations – a salt hotel.  Again the walls and floors were made of salt.  So remote – no WiFi,  but somehow we survived.

Our accomodation for the night - everything is salty, yet there was no salt at dinner.

Our accomodation for the night – everything is salty, yet there was no salt at dinner.

We watched the sun set, then checked out the stars.  It’s a crazy world in the southern hemisphere – we didn’t recognize the constellations.  The milky way was easy to see though.
We huddled and had dinner, then went to bed, to try and stay warm.

Day 110: Crossing into Bolivia

It was freezing – literally, when we went to catch our very early bus to La Quiaca, a town on the border of Argentina.  Luckily it was running on time and we didn’t have to wait.  Not so luckily we arrived in La Quiaca early before anything was open.  We huddled in the bus station along with a bunch of locals and waited for the sun to warm things up.

We walked around the town and watched locals crossing the between Argentina and Bolivia over the dry riverbed and through a hole in the fence.  After a couple hours the official border crossing opened and we walked across into Bolivia, to the town of Villazon. This town was noticeably more affluent than the Argentinian one.  Tip to anyone travelling to Argentina – you are required to have your ticket for leaving the country.  Unfortunately no busses go directly across the border where we were going that can be bought online ahead of time, so we had to buy a plane ticket which we then cancelled.  I’d recommend incorporating a flight into your Argentina exit strategy.

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We had a while to wait before our train, so we dropped our bags at the train station and walked around a bit.  The women here are facinating: short and stout, with wool stockings, pleated skirts, sweaters and an apron, two long braids and sometimes a bowler hat.  They would carry either children or other loads tied to their backs with colourful blankets.

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There were food and clothing markets on the streets. Some stalls were selling porcupine skins and tried bird carcasses – a mini version of the witch market in La Pas.  People were sitting around juice and soup stands.  The produce was so fresh and so cheap.  Among other things, we got two grapefruits for one Boliviana (equal to less than 20 cents)

The train ride from Velayzon to Uyuni had some of the most incredible scenery.  It transformed  from the dusty highlands with small shrubs and distant mountains to farmland to amazing rock formations.

We arrived in Uyuni at midnight, even higher in elevation and very cold.  Luckily the beds had a mountain of blankets.

Day 108 & 109: Colourful Humahuaca

24-hour bus ride – yippee! We got on the bus early and were very much the minority, the only tourists and the only people over five feet tall.  Andean people of all ages boarded the bus, including a lady, at least 100 years old, who used my face to steady herself.

It was pretty enjoyable as far as 24-hour bus rides go.  The scenery was amazing.  All day we saw the the Andes to our right, so straight and tall, with perfectly flat fields leading up to them.
Along the road were some pretty ramshackle stands and houses.  The cars here are pretty old school too.

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The next morning at sunrise we saw the coloured mountains that the region is known for.
The villages in this area were clusters of houses, all identical, with the water tanks elevated above.

The best part of the bus ride is that we gradually got to an elevation of 3,300, which meant we didn’t suffer much from altitude sickness.

We got to Humahuaca, found our hostel and headed out to explore. The sun here is blazing, but its very cold in the shade.

It’s a small town with very dusty roads, simple stucco buildings, and a bunch of healthy looking albeit dirty stray dogs.  There was a celebration at the church and all the kids were dressed up in traditional clothing.

We went to the market and found some amazing fresh fruit and vegetables for dinner.  It was very good prices for everything except the quinoa, which was the same price as at home, and sadly probably out of the price range of most of the locals.

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Other than the market, there were a couple of bakeries with pastries and alfajores,  and a few convenience stores all selling the same cookies, candy and dulce de leche. They love sweet stuff here.

We headed across the “river” which was just a wide flat riverbed, with a tiny stream winding through and walked up to a lookout in the hills across from the town. Wild cacti everywhere – we hadn’t seen this before.

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We befriended a cat at the top of the lookout who followed us back down. Humahuaca in the distance.

We befriended a cat at the top of the lookout who followed us back down. Humahuaca in the distance.

The ceiling and a lot of the furniture in the hostel was made from cactus wood.  I don’t think this is a very rapidly renewable resource.

In the afternoon we took a tour with 4 others from our hostel to Hornacal, also known as the mountain of 14 colours.  By tour I mean we packed into a pickup truck 25 kilometers across and one kilometer up to reach this point.  We picked up a local boy and drove him a ways to cut down his 3 hour walk over the mountains to his village.  The road was all hairpin turns as it zigzagged up the mountain.

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On the way up the mountain we kept seeing glimpses of the colours - unnaturally bright pink.

On the way up the mountain we kept seeing glimpses of the colours – unnaturally bright pink.

The view was incredible, layers of colours zigzagging in the mountain.  We were about 4,300 meters up here and it was pretty hard to walk up the hill from the lookout.

Are there 14 colours?

Are there 14 colours?

We rode in the truck bed on the way back - very dusty.

We rode in the truck bed on the way back – very dusty.

We had a very early night to catch our 4:00 am bus the next morning.

Day 105 – 107: Mendoza

In the afternoon, we caught an overnight bus to Mendoza, from Buenos Aires.  The busses are how most people get around, rather than flying, so they’re pretty comfortable.  We practised our Spanish watching an odd curation of subtitled movies.

We arrived in Mendoza the next morning and headed to our hostel in time to catch some free breakfast.

This is a wine and olive oil region, and also a popular destination and the last stop for those climbing in the Andes.  We walked around the town, trying to avoid the treacherous gutters that are nearly a meter deep. The town is very walkable, well shaded streets, small blocks, and lots of public space.

The Plaza de Independancenis a large, well used public space.   After an earthquake in the 1800’s, four smaller plazas were added to the corners of this to increase the amount of open area to take refuge in another quake.  Some of the water fountains had Koolaid blue water.

It wasn’t a particularly exciting town, and after a walk we spent the afternoon resting and planning.  The highlight of this hostel was the crepes at breakfast and unlimited dulce de leche!

The next day we headed to the neighbouring suburb Maipu to visit some wineries. Argentina has major inflation (30% per year for the last three years) and as a result the prices of everything had more than doubled from the information we had.  We stuck to the basics and visited the wine museum. We saw the old school equipment they used to use for pressing grapes, testing and bottling the wine.

Next stop was an olive oil farm.  We sampled several different varieties of oil and tapenades with both local and Spanish olives. We also tried wine jelly, chocolate and liquors made here.

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This isn’t the most picturesque wine region.  The main street of Maipu is fairly industrial, but the side streets with the wineries were treelined country roads.  You could see the Andes across the fields like a huge grey wall.

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