Suitcase on wheels     stuck in the snow   sniffer dog

Friday, September 30, 2005

48. 4WDriving (Uyuni, Bolivia)

map of bolivia
Map stolen from

After the horse-riding and the river visiting in Tupiza we managed to get our Lakes and Salt Flat tour organised. The standard trip is 4 days, from Uyuni, to the Salar de Uyuni (the world's largest salt flat at 12,000 square km), South to Laguna Colorada (Coloured Lake) and Laguna Verde (Green Lake), then back to Uyuni. For many this is a highlight of their trip to Bolivia, and it would be taking up a big chunk of Mariángeles' ten day holiday.
I'd received a tip from the lonely planet thorntree that you could do the same trip from Tupiza, saving a 7 hour trip to Uyuni. The tip also recommended doing a 5 day trip instead of 4 days, and to go with the Estrella del Sur tour company as they offer 5 days for the same price. We met with the driver and the owner of the company and the driver really sold us on the 5 day trip, saying that you get to spend so much more time at each site and see more things and don't have to spend so long in the Toyota Landcruiser each day.
So we finally got the thing organised and would pay US$95 each which included US$5 for a night's accomodation in the Salt Hotel, a hotel made entirely of salt. Picture that if you will.
The next morning they picked us up from the hotel and I paid for my tour. Our group introduced themselves - 2 Australian girls, 2 English girls, Mariángeles from Argentina and me. 5 girls and me! Also on board were our 2 drivers/guides/cooks. It didn't take long to realise they'd been a few discrepencies with what each of us had been told we were paying for. Four of us paid US$95 and two US$90. Two were told the guides spoke English (they didn't) while the other two got shown my name on the list of passengers and were told not to worry, I spoke Spanish and could translate(!). But worst of all, 2 thought we were doing a 5 day trip (Mariángeles and me) and the others a 4 day! Consultation with the driver revealed that they couldn't find enough people to do a 5 day trip, so we were on a 4 dayer - thanks for telling me before you'd taken my money! Talk about an unprofessional start! Once we'd stopped for lunch on a llama farm I complained to the driver and he didn't even give an apology, just shrugged his shoulders and looked at the ground.

Salar Trip - 01 - Rocks
Rock formations

First day: lots of rocks and mountains and tussock and desert. Similar to what I'd already seen in Northern Argentina and around Tupiza, no surprises there. 6 or 7 hours in the jeep. We stayed in a hostel in the tiny town of San Antonio del Lipez, with cold showers and no heating and solar powered electricity for a few hours in the evening, so it was no showers and early nights all around.

Salar Trip - 06 - Church sunset
Sunset behind the church bell, Day 1

Second day: 6am start, yawn. Bread and tea for breakfast which most of us skipped while waiting for the rice concoction the drivers were cooking up roadside. We waited about an hour, only to be told that that was the lunch they were cooking, for later. Same old scenery, with a stop to see some ancient Incan cave paintings and Laguna Amarilla (Yellow Lake, because of sulphur) and Laguna Celeste (Light-Blue Lake, because of manganese or magnesium). We stopped for lunch at a small village where I was introduced to a couple of local kids who'd killed a huge condor by throwing stones. The condor was seen attacking their flock of goats so they'd come to the rescue. The kids were only 5 or 6 years old and the bird seemed bigger than them! 8 hours in the jeep.

Salar Trip - 21 - Tussock
Desert scenery, Day 2

Salar Trip - 22 - Condor Kids
Two brothers with their trophy, a condor

So far the trip was OK, but we were all sick of being in the jeep so much. The Australians actually thought the trip was 4 days around the salt flats so were pretty disappointed to be cruising around the desert. The rest of us were pretty bored too. We spent the night in Quetena Chico, another tiny town in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do and no electricity nor hot showers.

Salar Trip - 26 - Laguna Celeste
Laguna Celeste

Day 3 promised to be a good one. A morning dip in the hot springs, followed by Laguna Verde and Laguna Colorado, followed by geysers and boiling mud, a rock formation shaped like a tree, before arriving at the Salt Hotel to stay the night. If only it went to plan. A 4:45am wakeup call (in the dark with no electricity) followed by a 3 hour drive to the hot springs. The drivers had forgotten to buy bread so it was crackers for breakfast. Meanwhile it was snowing and the wind was blowing cold and hard, so we didn't even want to get out of the car let alone sit in the hot springs! The drivers boiled some water for tea with their gas stove in the shelter of the hot springs changing shed, while the rest of us pondered why the hell didn't they have a thermos of hot water.

Salar Trip - 30 - Aguas termales
Our drivers outside the hot springs changing shed

After the cracker breakfast we drove to Laguna Verde before backtracking an hour and a half to the park entrance. Only to be told by the park ranger that the route was snowed in so we'd miss the geysers and everything and have to return to Quetena Chico and then proceed directly to the town of Uyuni.

Salar Trip - 31 - Laguna Verde
Laguna Verde. Couldn't see the whole thing

So another 3 hours of driving and we were back where we'd started that morning: tired, weary, and grumpy. I had to change my socks as I'd accidentally gotten ankle deep in mud taking the hot springs photo, and when I was given the suitcaseonwheels one of the zippers was now broken so I could no longer lock it. Another thing to add to the list, I told the drivers, who again offered nothing more than a shoulder shrug.
Fortunately everyone's spirits for the afternoon drive were livened up with a decent spliff, first one of the trip, and whoo we were wasted. Me and one of the other girls especially. Made the trip bearable, with group giggling sessions etc. We finally arrived in Uyuni after 7pm, I think it was about 14 hours in the jeep. Because of the detour we didn't stay in the Salt Hotel.

Salar Trip - 35 - Flamingos
Pink flamingos on Day 3

By Day 4 no one could be bothered getting up to watch the Sunrise over the Salar so we agreed to leave for the Salar (Salt Flats) at 8:30am. Inexplicably the drivers showed up late so we weren't on the road until closer to 10am. Finally we arrived, what we'd travelled 4 days to see. Yeah, it's a lot of salt all right. But I couldn't help but feel a tinge of disappointment, given the shit trip we'd been through to get there. I certainly wasn't the only one moaning, in fact I hardly moaned at all until I'd reached breaking point after about 12 hours in the jeep on Day 3. Worst trip ever, one of the girls said. Also, although it is huge I thought the Salar would be bigger. I thought it would be salt as far as the eye could see in all directions - a huge dry white desert - which it kind of was, except you could always see mountains on the horizon on three sides so you knew where it ended. Nevertheless our spirits were lifted and we stopped a couple of times to take silly salt photos.

Salar Trip - 41 - Matt jump salt
Me doing a salty Trent-jump

Salar Trip - 43 - Matt handstand
Salty hand-walking

Salar Trip - 44 - Star formation
Salty skydiving star formation

The surface itself was quite hard and rocky, and varied in depth from 2 inches to about 2 metres. Underneath the salt is a river system.
We stopped for lunch at Isla Pescados (Fish Island) which was a rocky outcrop in the centre of the Salar covered in cactuses. We walked the short trail around that, taking more silly photos, while the drivers prepared a tasty lunch.

Salar Trip - 47 - Matt cactus cock

We enjoyed Fish Island a lot, the weather was warm and for the first time in 4 days an icy wind wasn't blowing in our faces. The cactuses were amazing, I've never seen them growing so close together anywhere. I'm fascinated by cactuses - they take so long to grow that the 3m ones are hundreds of years old. A sign in front of a 12m cactus said it was 1200 years old!

Salar Trip - 49 - Matt 12m cactus 1200 years old
Me and the 12m tall (1200 years old) cactus

After lunch we visited a Salt Hotel, it wasn't the Salt Hotel we were supposed to stay in but the original one which is now closed to guests because of environmental contamination from the toilets and showers.

Salar Trip - 54a - Salt Hotel
The Salt Hotel

It was pretty cool, the walls were made of bricks cut from the salt, and the tables and chairs inside were all salt too (with pillows). The salt in this form is just like a white rock - very hard and very heavy, so rearranging the furniture was out of the question.

Salar Trip - 54b - Salt hotel lounge
A lounge inside the Salt Hotel

Salar Trip - 51 - Salt driving
Leaving the Salar

Finally, we visited the train cemetary near Uyuni. Dozens of old English and German locomotives from the silver mining days are parked end to in a grass area just out of town. I enjoyed it, but the girls stayed in the car sheltered from the unyielding wind.

Salar Trip - 58 - Matt train
Toot toot

So, that was the tour over with. 3 of the group left town that night while 3 of us stayed. I was in no mood for getting into a bus so I stayed in town. I'd also left my keys behind in Quetana Chico when we'd returned to the hotel and I'd changed my wet socks on Day 3, so I had to somehow get them back. The keys aren't too important and are replaceable but the keyring is a tiny Leatherman pocketknife thingee given to me before I went on my SE Asia trip in 2002 (thanks Mikey!). Those of you who read my trip journal from that trip may recall I made a six hour return trip involving paying a guy on a motorbike and riding atop a truck local-style to retrieve the Leatherman when I'd left it behind in a hotel on Flores Island in Indonesia. Trouble is, this time I'm not 100% sure I left it in the hotel and its more like a 14 hour return trip. So here I am stuck in the town of Uyuni 3 days now, trying to get hold of the hotel owners by CB radio and asking them if they've found my keys and if they can send them here.

Uyuni - 03 - Clock tower
A policeman in front of Uyuni's Clock Tower

Uyuni is pretty boring, it's also full of backpackers coming to see the Salar. So I've had plenty of time to catch up on the blog. Food and internet are my two major expenses here and they're both twice the price they were in Tupiza. I've got an appointment booked with the CB radio at 8am tomorrow morning so hopefully I'll know whether they've found them, in which case I'll wait for them to send them here, or whether I can move on.
Update: at 8am they told me they'd found my keys and keyring and would be sending them on the next tour bus. That was yesterday, so they should be arriving today, in which case I can get out of here tomorrow. If they arrive!

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

47. Into Bolivia (Tupiza, Bolivia)

From Salta I headed north into Jujúy (pronounced hu-huoy), the final province before Bolivia.

Jujúy - 03 - Cabildo
Town hall in Jujúy

My girlfriend returned to Buenos Aires for work so I was now travelling solo. I was looking forward to going to Jujúy for a while because Trent, one of my best friends from NZ, did a high school student exchange in Jujúy in like 1994. So I was hoping to meet some of his old school friends and see his old turf. Trent'd emailed me a bunch of people's contact details so I sent them an email, and hung out in Jujuy for 3 days waiting for a reply. Which never came, I presume because they didn't check their email while I was waiting. I did manage to get hold of Trent's host family and I had a weekend lunch with them. There I met one of Trent's school mates Guillermo and he showed me around the town and it's surroundings which was great. We drove to nearby Purmumarca where there's the famous Cerro de Siete Colores (Seven Colour Hill), as well as checking out the lake and their old High School.

Quebrada de Humahuaca- 02 - Matt Cactus
Me and a cactus

Quebrada de Humahuaca- 07 - Cerro de Siete Colores
The Seven Colour Hill to the right

The towns around here had a real Andean feel, dirt roads, and the people visibly have more indigenous blood than in the other parts of Argentina. The countryside was moreorless dry and cactus-filled, but I'm told in summer it's a lot more green.

Humahuaca - 05 - Cactus table
Cactus-wood table

Humahuaca - 09 - Boy Llama
A young boy with his young llama

From Jujúy I travelled north to the border town of La Quiaca, which borders the Bolivian town of Villazón. There I met up with Mariángeles, a friend of mine from Buenos Aires who was my Spanish teacher for six months. I also gave her classes in English when I was teaching. She had a ten day holiday so wanted to see Bolivia, which coincided nicely with my schedule. Crossing the border into Bolivia was no trouble, but getting hold of the local currency was. For some reason my ATM card wouldn't work in the only ATM in town, so I crossed back into Argentina to try my luck there. And the damn thing wouldn't work in the 3 ATMs on the Argentine side either, so in the end I had to use my emergencies only Mastercard to get cash out, carry it across the border, and then deal with the money changers on the Bolivian side. They gave me a good rate though, changing all my Argentine pesos into Bolivian bolivianos.

From there we caught the afternoon train to Tupiza, 3 hours away. It was a waste of time paying double for the executive class seats as they didn't give us any food or anything since we were only going to Tupiza. And the ticket seller bullshitted as there was no air conditioning either.

Near Tupiza is the town of San Vicente which is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made their last stand and were killed in a shootout with the police. The hostal we stayed in rented us the 1969 movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford which was actually really good.

"Bolivia!? What the hell's a Bolivia?"
"I don't know it's a country in Central or South America or somewhere."
- Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

In the movie the outlaws had robbed one train too many so to escape the heat they fled to Bolivia, which at the time had the richest mine in the world in Potosi Pulacayo. However they soon made a name for themselves as the Banditos Yanquis (Yankee Bandits) and it was ironically when they tried to go straight that they got themselves shot. That was how the movie played it, but talking to locals the story was that they robbed the payroll of one of the mines, so the owner put all his miners up to the task of getting their salary back, and that they killed the duo.

Horseback - 04 - Matt
Riding out of town aboard Chocolate

Tupiza was our jumping off point for a 4-day 4wd lakes and salt flat tour, which we were hoping to book that very night to leave the next day. We were trying to hurry because of Mariángeles' short schedule. But there was heaps of other cool things to do in Tupiza so we decided to stay an extra day which turned into 2 days. The first day we went horseback riding which was great. Well, the first 3 hours was real cool - riding through the red desert, surrounded by cactus, it felt like being Butch Cassidy in the Old West.

Horseback - 08 - Valle de Los Machos
Valle de los Machos. Can you guess why it's called that?

The last 2 hours sucked though, I swapped horses with one of my guides and couldn't get the damn thing to gallop, it would only trot, and with the rock hard saddle and an old worn sheepskin for cover my ass took a beating.

Horseback - 15 - Eddy trail
Following our guide Eddy up the hill

Unfortunately Mariangeles wasn't such a horse-woman. She was a bit slow on the horses, too scared to get them running. At one point we had to dismount to walk our horses down a steep part - well, she couldn't even walk herself down the slope and had to slide herself down it on her backside.

Horseback - 26 - Cactus
Cactus in a canyon

The next day we decided to relax in the sun by a river. But to get to the river we had to either walk 12km, wait 3 hours for a bus to take us there, or try hitch a ride on a truck. We went for the hitching option, asking a truck driver if we could ride in the back of his truck for a couple of bolivianos. He agreed and we set off, only to stop a minute later and pick up about ten locals who were also hitching a ride down the road. The guy drove pretty fast and although it was rough going we were soon there. Mariángeles didn't enjoy the ride anywhere near as much as I did, she was really scared we were going to crash and wanted to get off early. Even getting into the back of the truck was a mission for her.
We soon found our river but finding a swimming spot was difficult as there was a fierce cold wind blowing down the canyon which we couldn't find shelter from. After a couple of hours of looking we found a quiet spot in front of La Torre (The Tower), a giant natural rock landmark.

La Torre - 02 - Matt Torre
Me and La Torre

La Torre - 03 - La Torre wank

That afternoon we shared our packed lunch with a couple of local kids of about ten years old who we'd met fishing in the river with their bare hands. They followed us around keeping us company which was cool. I caught another truck back to the town and Mariángeles decided not to risk another truck ride and walked back into town with the two local kids.

La Torre - 05 - Gustavo
Gustavo, age 11, one of the local kids we met

Monday, September 26, 2005

46. Road Runner Territory (Salta, Argentina)

From Cordoba we headed north first to Tucuman, and then on to Salta.

map of argentina
Map stolen from

From Salta a famous attraction is the Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds) which is an expensive tourist trap. However, it hasn't been running since July since the train is out of order, so we couldn't do it anyway.

Salta - 04 - Viejo telefono
What about the cellphone on that guy

I was looking forward to Salta but I found it to be a bit of a disappointment, as all the touristy activities were overpriced. This is the reverse of what I expected, since generally things get cheaper the further north you head - to me it seems the tour agencies have a price fixing agreement. Although the train isn't running, you can do the same trip by bus as the road follows the train tracks. The agencies charge $140 - $200 pesos to do this tour. For $200 pesos I could hire a car myself for a day ($130 pesos) and enough petrol for the 500km round trip ($80 pesos). Divided by four people and that's only $50 pesos each which is closer to what the tour agencies should charge.

Salta - 06 - Corpse
Old guy who'd dropped dead in the street

Salta itself was pretty nice, narrow streets and footpaths like Buenos Aires, and a lot cleaner. Lots of shopping and clothes and shoes shops, with some of the lowest prices I've seen in Argentina. Everything shuts down from 2pm until 5pm for the midday lunch and siesta, the first time I've seen that in Argentina.

Salta - 16 - Street
Salta house

I'd been inspired to head to Salta ever since I saw my friend Danielle's photos here. Course I'd gotten the names confused and it was the red rock of Cafayate I was dying to see, not the surrounding of Salta. Fortunately Cafayate wasn't too far from Salta so we did a tour from their. The best thing about the tour was the guides pointed out the names of various rock formations which otherwise we would have missed. I filled my camera and drained the battery taking photos, here's some of my favourites.

Cafayate - 09 - Iguana
An iguana atop a mountain

Cafayate - 12 - Pano

Cafayate - 14 - Llama

Cafayate - 15 - Llama Herder
Llama herder

Cafayate - 17 - Titanic
This one's called the Titanic

Cafayate - 18 - Titanic pano
4-shot panorama with Titanic on horizon far right

Cafayate - 28 - Rocks Matt
Me and some rocks

Cafayate - 30 - Obelisk pano
Souvenir seller in front of the Obelisk

Sunday, September 18, 2005

45. Down on the farm (Cordoba, Argentina)

From Mendoza my girlfriend convinced me to return to Buenos Aires for a few days, which turned into about ten days. During that time I convinced her to go travelling with me, so finally we set off for Rio Tercero in the province of Cordoba, where one of her friends named Mirian now lives. Quick background info: Mirian was once picked up by a guy in the street who later turned out to be married. But he fell in love with Mirian and made good on his promise to leave his wife, and that she (Mirian) wouldn't have to work, he'd support her. Well, turns out she is working, she's now living the country life as a farmer's wife in a modest farm house, not quite the country-club life of daquiris and polo I'd pictured her having when I first heard her story.

Farm - 07 - Windmill
The farm

So we arrived and it turns out Mirian was home alone, her husband was away for work a few days. Which meant we had absolutely nothing to do, and were an hour by dirt road from the nearest town. Mirian kept busy doing her endless housework in between feeding the goats and chickens (the cows fed themselves), but 2 days of doing nothing had me restless so we all set off on a 9 hour bus-ride for Termas de Rio Honda in Santiago del Estero province, the town where my girlfriend and Mirian were brought up.

Farm - 06 - Sunset
Sunset on the farm

Farm - 09 - Sunrise
And from our bedroom window... the sunrise

Well, I was presently surprised by Termas. It's too small to be mentioned in my guidebook, so I'd always pictured a dusty town in the middle of nowhere. What I found was a large town of mainly hotels and candy stores, which was clean and chilled out. The main attraction is that the town is full of hot springs, so every bathroom has three taps - cold, hot, and natural hot water piped from the springs. Every hotel has a hot swimming pool even in the middle of winter. The winter climate is hot without humidity. All this means that at this time of year the town is full of geriatric Argentine tourists playing shuffleboard, bowls, or lazing around poolside. It felt like being on a pleasure cruise without the boat.

Termas - 17 - Bochas
A señor lets one rip in bochas, which resembles lawn bowls

So, in Termas it was another 3 or 4 days of lazing around not doing much other than work on my mid-winter tan poolside. The final day I took a tour of the town in the tourist train, which was a bus dressed up like a train. We drove out to the hydroelectric dam and nearby man-made lake (22km x 4km) which was a rich man's playground of yachts and jetskis.

Termas - 12 - Dique
The dam

Being the weekend we tried going out both Friday and Saturday night but the town's nightlife was dead (no pun intended). The girls assured me Termas has a nightlife, but only in the 2 month winter high season which we'd just missed. We visited the casino (every city in Argentina has one) and it was quite nice, it even had a bingo room in which we played a couple of cards (I was two numbers away from a bingo). It was my girlfriend's first bingo experience and she made a slight fool of herself by shouting out linea! (line) about 30 numbers after the first line had already been claimed.

Termas - 20 - Chivito
A chivito (goat) on the asado

Sunday night we caught the 9 hour night bus back to Rio Tercero and the farm, since Mirian's husband Christian had returned, so hopefully he would show us around the province a bit. Which he did, taking us to nearby Embalse one afternoon, and Villa Carlos Paz (both in Cordoba province) another day. Embalse was a tiny town with a nice lake; Villa Carlos Paz a small city with a nice lake. Neither place was even mentioned in my guidebook which was surprising, as I was told Carlos Paz is a major Argentine tourist destination in summer, drawing visitors to it's Lake.

Villa Carlos Paz - 05 - Beach
The lake-front beach in Villa Carlos Paz

Mirian had a cousin she hadn't seen in ten years living in Carlos Paz, so we visited her and her boyfriend, and they invited us to stay with them. Which was most hospitalable, since they only had a one bedroom house and a toddler daughter. South Americans are famous for their hospitality, and we bid Mirian & Christian goodbye and thank you and stayed in Carlos Paz.

Villa Carlos Paz - 02 - Cookoo
A giant cookoo clock. I waited 20 mins to miss a shot of the cookoo

The weather was great, hot and clear, so the next day we spent the afternoon climbing the hill which overlooks the city to get to the lookout.

Villa Carlos Paz - 10 - Cruce
Our host Pablo in front of the giant hilltop cross

The next day the weather had turned cold and windy so we caught a bus to nearby Cordoba city, to do the tourist thing there. Unfortunately Cordoba all but shuts down over the weekend so there wasn't too much to see, other than the annual book fair which took up most of the central town plaza.

Farm - 12 - Matt baby
Me on the farm with the neighbour's baby

We returned to Carlos Paz for one more night, before moving on again the next day which meant passing through Cordoba city for the 5th time. I decided we should stay a couple of nights just to see it better. My guidebook didn't mention any hostels at all in Cordoba, so I wanted to check it out with the idea of possibly starting a hostel of my own. Well obviously the Lonely Planet writers haven't been to South America in a while as I spotted ads for about 5 different hostels in the bus terminal alone.

Cordoba - 10 - Street
The streets of Cordoba

Man is this entry getting boring? I'm getting bored writing it. Mind you it's Friday night and the cafe I'm writing this in serves beers so I'm getting a little tiddly. I know on my last trip in SE Asia in 2002 (some of) my friends back home loved reading my trip notes in every detail but I guess on a web page I should write less, not more. Give me comments... At least with the web page I've got photos to make it more interesting. By the way, this entry took me like 4 hours to write.

Cordoba - 07 - Catedral
Cordoba's cathedral

Oh yeah, back to my hostel idea. My girlfriend thinks I should spend my savings by starting a business rather than blowing it all backpacking around South America. A good idea I suppose. Ideas so far include a kiosco, hostel, cybercafe, or cafe. But my main impediment is my fear of Argentine bureacracy. So I doubt I'll get around to doing anything. One thing I won't do is start a hostel in Cordoba as there's plenty, but maybe a hostel in Villa Carlos Paz as I didn't see any there...

Cordoba - 13 - Sacred Heart Church inside
Sacred Heart Church in Cordoba