A Travellerspoint blog

Bolivia

Getting down and salty and reaching new heights!

Uyuni, Salt flats tour and climbing volcano Licancabur

So from the lovely Sucre, we moved on to the distinctly less lovely Uyuni, the starting point for our 3 day Salar de Uyuni (Salt flats) tour which would finish in Chile. We had heard some pretty bad things about Uyuni (dead end town, shoddy accommodation, bad service...) so we were pretty excited to arrive(!) after an 8 hour bus ride and thrilled to see that it completely lived up to its reputation. All this was compounded by the fact that when we arrived at our hostel, we were told that they had given our room away to someone else, and there was no room left at the inn so to speak!

Happily we found somewhere else to stay fairly quickly, run by a grumpy and inhospitable Bolivian woman (something we are starting to consider pretty typical I'm afraid to say) who insisted we pay up front, would not let us see the room and sternly told us we were allowed one shower each in 24hours to last no more than 3 minutes! Let's just say we were pretty glad we only had to sleep there for one night!

On a happier note, we had been met off the bus by a representative for the tour company with whom we had booked our tour, who confirmed our places on the tour departing the following morning. Having read so many bad reviews about all the different tour companies who run the salt flats tours, we had been prepared for the worst, so to find everything was in order was a relief.

The following morning, we reported to the office and were assigned our jeep and driver (Miguel) for the tour. We also discovered that our jeep would be one of a convey of 4 jeeps, each carrying 6 passengers, so we would have 24 travelling companions - no bad thing for a tour departing on New Year's Eve!

Our first stop was at the 'famous' train cemetery just outside Uyuni. This is something that seemed to appear on the itineraries of all the tours we looked at and is basically a group of old trains rusting on the side of a disused railway line. As we got out of the car begrudgingly, we noticed that everyone else seemed to be having the same thoughts as us, mainly questioning why all the tours stop here and mumbling about what a waste of time it is. However we were all clearly equally fickle as, as soon as we were told you could climb on the trains, we were off - happily crawling around and striking various silly photo poses on top of and around them. Such children! Give Shaun something to climb on and he's gone...

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Our next stop was the salt flats themselves. The Bolivian salt flats are the world's largest salt flats, measuring 180km by 90km and were created when the Andes came into existence, land-locking a section of the ocean which subsequently dried up in the sun. The flats really are a sight to behold, the blinding white ground for as far as you can see contrasting with the blue sky and creating the impression of vehicles in the distance floating rather than driving away from you. Also, since we are in Bolivia during their rainy season, some rainwater had settled on certain parts of the flats, creating perfect mirrors. It really is quite incredible.

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We spent the rest of the day exploring the flats (including stopping at a huge coral island in the middle which is filled with giant cacti, many 20 feet or more high - they grow 1cm a year and the tallest is 9 metres!) and spending plenty of time taking lots of pictures, mostly silly ones! I'm sure most of you have seen them before but, for those who haven't, the lack of ability to gain perspective on the vast plains of the flats, reveals some bizarre and hilarious photo opportunities!

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I should mention that, while we were doing this, our guides/drivers all disappeared off to hunt a stranded llama that had been spotted wandering on the salt flats the week before for our dinner!

We finished the day watching the sunset over the flats, which despite there being a lot of cloud around, was pretty spectacular.

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As the sun went down, the weather came in and we set off to find our hotel in the pitch dark with rain lashing down on the windscreen. After driving for a while, we realised we seemed to have lost the other jeeps and our driver Miguel was looking increasingly vexed. Eventually he explained that we were lost and he had no idea where he was going, the darkness, rain and lack of horizon or landmark making every direction look the same! We tried not to get too worried, consoling ourselves by listing the snacks (and alcohol) we all had in the car and would see us through the night, but in truth none of us were relishing the prospect of spending New Year's Eve night in the car! Happily, after a while we spotted some lights in the distance and when we got closer we saw it was the other cars - great! Well, until we pulled up next to the them and it was clear they had no better idea where we were! After continuing to drive around for a further while longer, regularly making u-turns and driving back in the exact same direction from where we had just been, thankfully eventually it seemed the drivers had found the road and we were heading towards some lights hurrah!

We finally made it to our accommodation around 9pm and found it to be a cosy 'salt hotel', with the walls made from tightly packed salt bricks and the beds and tables made of salt! Pretty cool! As it was New Year's Eve, to kick off the party, the drivers brought in a complimentary bottle of Bolivia's finest (!) bubbly for each table, which came as a great surprise and got everyone in the party spirit. Shaun and I had also befriended a lovely Aussie couple and sharing our red wine and their bottle of champers, made for a great evening drinking and laughing. The countdown came and went and after many happy new year shouts and hugs, we all piled outside to see some fireworks that were going off in the local village. It all felt surprisingly new year-sy considering our remote location! More alcohol was consumed and we finally crawled into our salt bed at 3am, a mere 3 hours before our wake up call for day 2, ouch!!

Day 2 predictably brought a fair few hangovers so it was a good job we only had to sit in a car and be driven around, although it was a shame about the bumpy terrain! Today we would be heading away from the salt flats, towards Chile, through some pretty spectacular scenery - volcanos galore, volcanic lagoons home to hundreds of flamingos, driving across the Siloli desert and seeing enormous natural volcanic rock formations (more climbing opportunities for Shaun!) and finishing at Laguna Colorada (aka the red lagoon).

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That night we stayed at a VERY basic hostel near the lagoon, which was run by another group of inhospitable Bolivians, who frowned and shouted at us in Spanish when we dared ask what time dinner was and generally looked at us with disdain every time they walked past. The evening was saved again though by the great company of our jeep companions, the Aussie couple and a Canadian couple, and topped off by a fabulous bit of after dinner star gazing - well this was until our kind Bolivian hosts decided to lock us outside! We finally got in, after much banging, only to be shouted at in Spanish for banging on the door (quite what else we were supposed to do who knows?!). Gotta love those Bolivians!

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The third and final day of the tour brought an early (5am) start, a welcome trip to some natural hot springs (the cleanest we have felt in a few days!) and more fantastic scenery including natural geysers, more desert driving amongst beautifully colourful volcanic mountains and topped off by our final stop, Laguna Verde. Laguna Verde is so called because of its bright green colour caused by the minerals and arsenic (yes, arsenic!) present in the water and sits directly in front of the perfectly conical Volcano Licancabur, which was to be mine and Shaun's next challenge - we had arranged to stay two further nights in Bolivia and, with a local guide, attempt to climb the volcano the following day. At a height of 5960m, and with incredibly steep sides, it was certainly going to be a challenge!

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We sadly said goodbye to our great group at the border and our driver took us to the Refugio which would be our home for the next two nights as we attempted the volcano climb. We arranged the guide for the following day and were told that it would be a 3am start(!) since we had to make the summit by around 10am, before the wind gets up.

So the next morning, or should I say, in the middle of the night(!) we were up and at 3.30 we were off, in the pitch dark to start our ascent. Probably a good thing as we couldn't see how steep it was again and chicken out!

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For the first couple of hours we walked in the dark, headtorches on, until the sun came up around 6am, revealing a gorgeous clear sunny day - perfect weather for the climb.

Unfortunately, pretty early on into the climb I started to suffer pretty badly with altitude sickness, feeling nauseous and dizzy (we started our ascent at 4400m and it wasn't long before we were over 5000m) so we had to take it pretty slow and take regular breaks. We continued in this way for a couple of hours until, at around 8.15, the guide decided I was too sick to make it to the summit before our turnaround time, so suggested I wait in a sunny spot while he and Shaun went ahead and then came back for me a couple of hours later. I happily agreed, anything to get rid of the nausea.

That said, being the stubborn person I am, It didn't take long for me to start to feel frustrated that I had come so far but was to be stuck sitting on the mountainside for the next few hours. So, when about 10 minutes later, I was found by a hilarious Brazilian guy and his wife, that we had met earlier, who insisted I continue walking with them and that they would get me to the top ("taking small steps and big breaths"), which they said I was only 30 minutes away from, I had to continue.

Meanwhile, Shaun and our guide headed off and picked up the pace considerably, making it to the summit at around 9.45 after a gruelling last 300m, which pretty much involved rock climbing, rather than walking. I'm told the views from the top looked pretty amazing, given that it is possible to see Chile, Bolivia and Argentina and a huge lake in the crater of the volcano, making it all worthwhile.

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They didn't linger up there though, keen to get back to me. Only to find me, much to their surprise, trudging up towards them with a couple of Brazilians (and, I quote, "a green face"!) less than 200m from the summit (I should note here that the 30minute time estimate of the Brazilian guy was pretty conservative, given we had now been walking for over 1.5hours and were still not there!)

Unfortunately, despite being so close to the summit (I had made it to 5787m, the summit being at 5960m), and despite the Brazilians' insistence that I could still make the summit ("just another 30 minutes!"), the guide was keen that we head down in case the weather worsened and, for safety (and my stomach and head)'s sake, I obliged, feeling a little frustrated but still pretty proud.

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The downhill was another experience as, in the interests on time, and saving our fast failing legs, we followed the guide away from the path we had taken up to a fairly sheer section of sand and rocks, and watched as he started to slide down the mountain using a sort of sideways skiing motion! At first it was pretty fun, but soon our thighs started to burn and the falls onto our bums became more and more regular. Anyway, after what felt like an age, we finally made it down to the guides jeep (it was still only about 12.30pm!) only to be told that he couldn't get it started and we would have to push it to jump start it!! Literally the last thing we needed!!

Anyway, we both made it back in one piece and feeling absolutely exhausted but pretty proud of ourselves. Unfortunately, we have limited photos of the climb as we focussed on taking great GoPro footage, all of which has subsequently got lost :-( so you´ll just have to take our word for how awesome it was!

Next stop, Chile for a few days before crossing into Argentina and making our way to Mendoza for a well deserved rest and a big glass (or several!) of wine!

Watch this space..!

Posted by shaunandhan 09:58 Archived in Bolivia Comments (5)

To Bolivia...and beyond!!

Part V - Changing countries...

Well, we're one month in, still in Peru and still on page one of our itinerary...we've gone a long way!? Looking back however, we discovered how much we have already seen and done - some major trips such as the Amazon Jungle, Arequipa, the Colca Canyon and the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, and it seems a very long time since Big Al dropped us off at Bromley-by-Bow tube station to head to the airport, only to realise there were no tubes running (and only after Al had set the Jazz in motion on the A12).

Following the amazing Inca Trek, our next destination was Puno - gateway to Lake Titicaca and the Uros Islands, or the "reed islands". We had heard plenty of things about Puno from fellow travellers and all recommended the same thing...skip it and carry on straight through to Copacabana! Despite their top recommendation, we were determined to see it for ourselves.

Opting for a lesser class bus for our relatively short overnight journey (6.5hrs) from Cusco, we thought a little sleep would rejuvenate us for the next day. Alas, our efforts were thwarted by 2hrs of a Danish TV drama playing full blast throughout the bus. Trying to understand any word other than "Tak" didn't prove a problem however, with the assistance of Spanish subtitles!?

We finally arrived in Puno at 5am. It immediately became apparent the advice given by our fellow travellers was...ahem...accurate. Have to say, not the prettiest. Maybe a nice hot shower in our hotel would change everything, oh hang on, no check-in til 1:30pm!! Argh! We therefore decided to dump our bags at the hotel and head straight to the Uros Islands.

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The Uros Islands are a group of 80+ small islands just off the coast of Puno that are made of reeds and float on Lake Titicaca. Their origin stems from the Spanish conquest who forced the inhabitants of Puno into hard labour. Wanting to avoid this, they built boats from the reeds and set sail on the lake. The eventually turned their boats into Islands by cutting and tying blocks of reeds together and then building huts and kitchens on them. The Islands are then anchored down to prevent them floating away (or accidentally into Bolivia!). Thereafter, they have lived tax-free on the lake, only heading to land in order to obtain supplies or medical assistance. Many of the islands today are built specifically for tourists but some still house families who have to replace the reed blocks every 35 years, and replace the top reed layer every 15 days. Despite the touristic nature of the area, we found it interesting to see how they are built (and knowing that they were once built for a purpose other than tourism) and truly amazing that this was how they once lived. Uros Islands - tick.

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Before catching our next bus over the border to Bolivia, we were pleasantly surprised to run into our hilarious Swiss trekking buddies Vince and Michael from the Inca Trail on the main high street. Deciding to meet later for dinner, when we arrived we had yet another pleasant surprise...more of our trekking buddies from the Inca trail had happened to bump into Vince and Michael on their way to meeting us and we had a great little reunion dinner.

The next morning we caught our bus from Puno to Copacabana (our first stop in Bolivia) with one border crossing en route. By sheer coincidence, Vince and Michael happened to be on the same bus so time was spent laughing and joking with them which made the bus journey so much more pleasant. Well, this was before Vince told us that Copacabana had no ATM's. (Thanks Vince! ;-) Ignorance would have been bliss) and with very few Peruvian Soles to exchange and even less US dollars, panic set in. With no option but to chance it, we arrived in Copacabana to find one cashpoint (yay!) but one only - naturally we bled it dry!

We said our farewells to the Swiss contingent and boarded a boat to our next stop Isla del Sol. Our hostel was at the southern end of the island at the top of another set of giant Inca steps! The recommendation to leave your main 'mochilas' on the mainland and only take day packs was well-founded!

The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent drinking cervezas, listening to Christmas carols on our iPod, eating pizza and watching an amazing sunset on the west side off the Island followed by a lightening storm. For the first time, it actually felt like we were on holiday - no horrible smells, no cars, no horns - silence. Pure relaxation.

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The storm made for an interesting nights sleeping only because our ensuite bathroom (check us out) was basically a shed attached to our room which was part of the main building, with a plastic corrugated roof on top. In the middle of the night, the rain and winds were so hard I was half expecting to open the bathroom door in the morning and see a scene out of the movie 2012, bathroom completely removed and just the plumbed toilet still standing!

The next day involved an early start in order to take the 3-4 hour hike from Yumani, through the Challe Communidad to the north end of the island to Chincana (a set of Inca ruins) and Challe'pampa (a small fishing town). This was an amazing day. For the entire duration, we saw no other people ahead or behind us. It was so peaceful and scenic - walking along the top of the hills, beautiful sunshine, the azure blue waters of the east and west coasts on each side of the path and no signs of any modern technology.

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At the end of the island were some ruins where we chilled out for a while with a bottle of agua and some gummy bears. Sitting there above a pristine beach below with a little stone jetty and turquoise waters, we couldn't help but think how much it reminded us of Orapiu on Waiheke Island in New Zealand. When we get back, there will be even more pressure exerted by the Round/Lacey/Round-Lacey household to build on that land Al and Marilyn!

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After our walk we caught a boat back to Copacabana and enjoyed just chilling out on the roof, soaking up the great weather.

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A 3hr bus journey then took us to La Paz, our destination for Christmas. The scenery along the way was breath-taking and involved at one point, getting off of the bus, so it could then be transported on a flat-bed barge across a short stretch of water, whilst we took a boat. As a Christmas present to each other, we had decided to treat ourselves to a little bit of luxury and 2 nights at the Stannum Boutique Hotel in downtown La Paz. For Christmas Day, we planned a duvet day, consisting of watching DVD's in bed with room service throughout the day. A bottle of bubbly and a couple of cocktails on the swanky bar in the evening made for a great Christmas as did catching up with family via Skype.

Boxing Day brought around a day I had been looking forward to and which Han had been dreading - the North Yungas Road Bike Ride. For those that have seen Top Gear's Bolivia Special, this road is more aptly known as 'The Worlds Most Dangerous Road' or even better, The Death Road! Leaving at 6:30am, I said my farewells to Han. If I was going to die, there couldn't have been a better day for it, the weather was amazing, with even better vistas. It The first 22km of the 62km was on asphalt, giving everyone time to get used to their full suspension Kona mountain bikes. Before starting the 40km stretch of narrow dirt track, with waterfalls eroding it even thinner, falling rocks and vertical drops ranging from 500m to over 1km (it looked like a scene out of Avatar) our Aussie guide (Marcus) made sure we made an offering to Pachamama - 96% alcohol. To the tire, to Mother Earth, to our lips!! It still burns now! But if you were asleep before, you were definitely awake now!

Arriving at the North Yungas Road, it was a little disconcerting to see several graves on the road side as well as burnt out cars and buses at the bottom of some of the drops when I looked over the edge. With instructions to go slow and stay near the back, I did exactly as I was told. Sitting directly behind the guide at the front, going pretty quick (I had a GoPro on, it was only fair) I safely made my way to the bottom where an ice cold, refreshing beer was waiting for me. This was followed by a short trip to a monkey rescue centre for a hot shower and a tour of centre. Getting up close and personal with squirrel, spider and howler monkeys was pretty cool as well as the colourful macaws.

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I made the mistake of thinking I was safe but then I was told we were taking the bus back up the death road. I thought a bike was wide enough but a bus!!?! This was a hell of a lot more scary. We stopped at the thinnest part of the road and the gap between the bus wheel and the edge was about 10cm with a 1.1km vertical drop just the other side. Marcus thought it would be funny to open the bus doors right at that point and hang off the edge! The road then got worse as the cloud cover came in - no idea how the bus driver could see the road, and even more so the edge of the drop! With 35 years experience of driving it however, he got us to the top safely. With Han a little nervous about me riding the Death Road, I had strict instructions to text/call her as soon as I had made it to the bottom (or not) as the case may be. So I did what all good husbands would - failed to do either. In my defence I had no signal for most of the day and when I did, I had no credit on my phone. She had to instead settle for a hug back at our new digs when I arrived at 9pm at night, some 13hrs after leaving.

We did think about visiting La Paz's San Pedro prison, famous for it being (in effect) run by its inmates, who live inside with their families and who have jobs. Having found that tourism in the prison is illegal (despite there being hundreds of stories of tourists visiting the place) and getting in requires the (increasingly difficult and expensive) bribing of a guard and their trust to release you once you're ready to go (having been branded with a number so they know who to release and who should rightly be there), we thought it best that it remain something we only read in 'Marching Powder'!

The next day brought our next stop - Sucre, Bolivia's "white city" and their judicial capital. Getting here was not without incident however - a 14hr bus journey with no toilet on board (I rephrase, there was a toilet but the assistants just refused to open it). If we needed to go, it involved telling the bus drivers' assistant who then told the bus driver to pull over. When he pulled over, we asked where the baño was, he just gesticulated in a circular motion next to the bus, as if to say, "anywhere here." This was fine for me but not so dignified for Han. To signal their displeasure at the inconvenience of us having stop for us (because of course it's a ludicrous notion that someone would need the toilet even once in 14 hours!), they even tried to drive off! It meant that we had to take it in turns to hang out of the bus door to prevent it from closing and driving off without either one of us!!

But it was all worth it. We finally arrived in Sucre, where we were due to spend a couple of days, and it is a gorgeous place. Our hostel CasArte Takubamba is amazing. It's like a little Spanish villa complex with a small courtyard for sunbathing and chilling in a hammock (which is where I am right now!).

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Another colonial city, it had a completely different feel to it to any other part of Bolivia we had seen so far (clean, polite folk and no smell of urine, well once we left the bus station anyway!). On our second day here we happily bumped into a couple of Aussies Luke and Hannah, who Han made the mistake of calling Kiwis (sorry NZ family!) who we first met on Isla del Sol, with whom we spent a great evening of dinner and drinks, chatting about anything and nothing as well as reminiscing about the same horrendous bus journey we had both endured only one night apart. It seems our trip is very similar to theirs and so our paths are sure to cross again in the future.

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It's a shame we cannot stay here longer but the new year, the salt flats and hopefully plenty of funny photos await!!

Feliz Navidad y prospero Nuevo Años to all our family and friends.

Posted by shaunandhan 18:57 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

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