Bolivia, Chile & the salt flats

March 2016

I caught my final night bus from Cusco to the town of Copacabana situated on the side of the world’s highest lake, lake Titicaca. I wasn’t too interested in staying in Copacabana so decided I would catch the afternoon boat to the small island within Lake Titicaca, Isla Del Sol. While I waited for the afternoon boat I climbed a hill looming over the town to see an incredible view of the lake as well as a cemetery set on a hill. Afterwards I jumped on the boat but didn’t catch any of the beautiful view as I immediately fell asleep, exhausted after my night bus. I arrived to the small town of Yumani, set on a hill against a cove in the lake. I have stopped booking accommodation in advance because I want to see it before I book it, but now I could IMG_20160317_122438see I would have the unpleasant task of climbing the hill with three bags searching for reasonably priced accommodation. The first one had rooms for $60 AUD, well out of my price range. I was called over by a lady offering rooms for 10 AUD, I surveyed the small mostly clean cabana, I wasn’t particularly impressed but it was good enough for a night. I was too tired to think about carrying all my luggage up the hill for something that would probably look very similar.

I had a shower and gathered my laundry and went to ask the Senora where the local lavanderia is located, she pointed to two buckets that her son started filling. There were no washing machines or lavanderia’s on the island, I would have to hand wash the laundry myself. I stared at the buckets blankly, I don’t know how to hand wash clothes. Eventually the Senor offered to do it for me for un propinita (a tip). I sat down with one of his kittens and watched him methodically wash and rinse the clothes. I felt like an idiot, of course I know how to hand wash clothes but I had never hand washed that amount of clothes like that before. After feeling completely ashamed about my lack of basic hand washing skills I set out for dinner, and found all the restaurants offered the same thing. Trout. Or if you are lucky, pizza. For all my health issues before leaving my stomach has mostly been fine except getting sick in Colombia, but for the last few weeks in Peru I had been feeling a bit green around the gills. Additionally I am so sick of Trout, in South America you usually just get two IMG_20160318_120550options. Meat or Trout. I reluctantly ordered Trout and sat back to watch the sun go down over the lake. I settled in for an early night and just as I was going to bed and pulled back my blankets a spider crawled out, I escorted him out the door and jumped back in bed to notice a small brown bug crawling across the bed. Oh god, not bed bugs again. I had searched the bed but found nothing before settling in, it didn’t look like a bed bug but it is hard to tell. After anxiously debating whether or not to leave I decided grabbing three bags and searching a town with no street lights or a torch for different accommodation in the night wasn’t the best idea. I settled uneasily in to the bed and was thankful when I woke up without any bites. Must have been a flea.
I couldn’t decide if I wanted to stay on Isla Del Sol longer, on the one hand I just wanted somewhere to relax, read my book and go for walks. On the other hand my accommodation wasn’t great and the thought of facing another trout meal made my stomach turn. After a disappointing breakfast and finding a dead fly in my coffee I decided to head back to Copacabana that afternoon and go to La Paz early. I had a short walk around the island, puffing away as Lake Titicaca is at an altitude of almost 4000m above sea level. I spent the rest of the afternoon reading my book in the sun before jumping on a boat back to Copacabana.

I found some tolerable accommodation in Copacabana (despite being yelled at by the owner of the hotel because I checked the bed for bed bugs) before catching a bus to La Paz. So far the accommodation in Bolivia had been very basic and although I usually try to avoid party hostels I booked in to one in La Paz as the only other option I found had a shower that been known to electrocute you. Despite the hostel being filled with very young drunk English folk the staff kept it immaculately clean and they had a good restaurant catering to all my western food needs. I didn’t eat outside of the hostel once while I was in La Paz.

La Paz is a very gritty city with sketchiness bubbling just under the surface, most people come to La Paz to cycle down the death road, known as the world’s most dangerous road. This road can and does kill around 300 people a year, both tourists and locals alike. No thank you. So with death road out I was limited with my options imageson what to do, so I spent the days shopping through the markets searching for just the right alpaca item in the so called witches market where among other things you can buy preserved baby alpacas. The only touristy thing I did while in La Paz  was go to the Cholita wrestling, which is basically normal wrestling but with local ladies in traditional dress. It’s quite a sight to behold.

Finally after a lazy few days reading my book and shopping I hopped on a plane to Sucre, the capital of Bolivia. Sucre was a welcome reprieve from the grittiness of La Paz, I could see why they call it the most genteel city in Bolivia. Sucre had a lot of hiking and adventure sports to offer but I decided to take it easy and wander through the city, read my book and of course visit the local dinosaur park. During the IMG_20160323_132203Cretaceous period dinosaurs migrating south left footprints that turned in to fossils, and due to the shift in the tectonic plates they are now vertical. I love dinosaurs so this park was an incredible way to interact with them as close as I possibly could. I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and packing before my final bus to Uyuni to start the tour of the salt flats between Bolivia and Chile.

I stepped off my final ever bus on to Uyuni, a small nothing town that had exploded with tourism over the last ten years without the infrastructure catching up. I had no IMG_20160325_112537booking for accommodation so had to weave my way through the markets and animal shit before finding the tiny plaza that all the tourism centred around. I found myself a basic but clean room for the night and set off to pay for and check in to my tour the following day. After the formalities were through I found some surprisingly good wood fired pizza before catching an early night. The following morning I was up early and arrived to meet my new friends for the next three days and wait for the departure. As we were packing the bags on to the roof our guide Lucio ran over what we would be doing for the next few days, and how much money we would need. I had taken out money but panicked that I hadn’t maybe taken out enough, crap. I asked Lucio if I had time to run to the ATM, he did not IMG_20160325_142309look pleased but gestured for me to go. I ran through the hordes of backpackers to the ATM I had used last night to find that the ATM was out of cash, a common occurrence in South America. I ran back to the car to see I had not endeared myself to my guide for the next few days. I jumped in to the car apologising to the other occupants who were very gracious. Along with Lucio we had the driver Jovencito, a Bolivian lady and her Spanish boyfriend, and finally three English folks who I would come to get on with like a house on fire. The first stop for the day was the train graveyard, a collection of rusted out old trains that had been abandoned by the British in the 50s and left to decay. It looked like an abandoned set for a steam punk movie like tank girl, stopping briefly afterwards at a small town bordering the salt flats that sold handicrafts and salt harvested from the plains. But we had come for the salt flats so finally we set off for an hours drive to arrive at the start of the flats and the salt hotel, we got out at the hotel and hat to put on hats and sun glasses to protect against the blindingly white IMG_20160325_154731surroundings. After snapping pictures and having a look around Lucio yelled vamonos and we started to climb in to the cars, I opened the door to our Jeep and as the Jeep next to it was so close it sat against it, unbeknownst to me Lucio was yelling at us to be careful and the Jeep next to ours starting driving forward taking our door with it and crunching the side of it. Lucio was furious, didn’t I hear him yelling at me to be careful? Of course I didn’t, I was too deep in conversation with my new best friends Becks and Stew. Eventually Stew had to tell him to calm down and that it wasn’t my fault. It got a little heated but eventually fizzled out, but that was strike two. I was number disliked person on the tour from our guide. No time to think about that, next we drove deep in to the salt flats and stopped to take some amusing optical illusion photos, and after lunch we set out for an island set deep in to the salt flats covered in cacti and a few Alpacas, we watched the sun start to dip and set off to a better vantage point to watch the sun set. As dusk set in the salt below my feet started to crackle and I realised how freezing it was in the shadeIMG_20160325_170944 so we hopped back in our 4×4 and set out for our accommodation for the night. We pulled up to our accommodation, a salt hotel made with salt bricks, with a crumbled salt floor and a salt brick base bed. You can’t make this stuff up. We were told by Lucio that the showers were hot water, but were told by the other guests that there was no such thing. After being buffeted by salt and sand all day I decided to brave the shower and found that it was not IMG_20160325_182602just cold but freezing, when I emerged from the shower my room mate told me in a very deep Lithuanian accent he could “hear my suffering”. After an interesting meal of a strange sausage casserole we all turned in early for a very snug sleep in our otherworldly hotel.

The following morning we woke at 6am to watch the sun rise over the salt flats, coffee in hand. After breakfast we jumped in the Jeep to take our final drive over the flats before descending in to the desert and up high again to lush green pastures where adorable Alpaca grazed with colourful IMG_20160325_190227adornments on their ears. Becks and I tried to sneak up on them stealthily, crawling along the ground while they pretended not to notice only to dart away right at the last minute. We then set off for the first of the salt lakes and could see small dots of flamingos dotted throughout them, we drove past several of these types of lakes before stopping at the large red lake that had flamingos close enough to see them up close. I loved watching them picking there way through the red swamp elegant as though they were walking on heels. As the sun started to wane we stopped at some active geysers and wound our way through so close you could see bubbles bursting metres from your face. Finally we arrived at our final nights accommodation in the desert of Bolivia. This hostel was rustic to say the least, IMG_20160326_144634with no running water, heating or any privacy. But what it lacked in charm it made up for in proximity to the hot springs, and the tour I had gone with had exclusive rights to use them at night. So after another strange meal we put on our bathers and grabbed a bottle of wine and dipped in to the perfectly hot waters and marveled at the incredible stars above us. Not long after we got in the water we watched the moon, blazing orange as it was rise in to the sky. I suggested the perfect song would be the score played in the background of 2001 a space odyssey as they found the monolith, instead someone was blaring an Eminem. You can’t always get what you want. Afterwards we made our way back to the hostel and under the moonlight as the power had been switched off we drunk the rest of the wine and set in to some sweet rum, I didn’t remember going to bed but I certainly remember waking up. Oh the hangover. I IMG_20160327_074050dragged myself out of bed for breakfast and packed as quickly as I could before pulling my socks up to brave the long drop toilets where I tried not to vomit through a combination of terrible smells and a terrible hangover. We stopped to look at some “Salvador Dali rocks” which really just looked like rocks to me before setting off for our final destination of the green lake. The lake itself wasn’t much green but it was very pretty and here myself and the two other girls who were continuing on to Chile changed in to one Jeep and said goodbye to my new friends. We were driving to the Chilean border while they had to make the 8 hour drive back to Uyuni. I checked in with Becks a few days later to see how the drive back was, and she said that after they dropped me off they had come across a fatal Jeep accident and Lucio tragically found the driver dead. I had read that drunk drivers were a real problem for tours across the salt flats and so had done my research in to the best company, the one I went for was one of the most expensive but in addition to being the only ones that had access to the hot springs at night they also had an excellent record for safety. Later when I was at the Calama airport I overheard some girls talking about how their driver was drunk the first day they showed up and then kept falling asleep at the wheel, he eventually drove them in to a ditch but none of them were hurt. I was incredibly glad that I hadn’t had any of those issues. But I digress.

I made my way to to the small Chilean town just across the border of San Pedro De Atacama. As I only had a limited amount of time I wanted to fit in as much as possible, although I was very tired and hungover. I dropped my bags at the hostel and went in search of an afternoon trip to the valley of the moon. I organised one to leave in half an hour and in that half hour organised a tour for the following morning for sand IMG_20160327_173346boarding. Myself and several other tourists loaded on to the bus heading for the valley of the moon, I started chatting to my seat mate but then had to apologise that I wouldn’t be a great companion today as I needed to nap. The first stop was to look at small hills covered in a white mineral that made it look like the surface of the moon, even in my sleep deprived state I was impressed. Afterwards we did a small hike through a desert that blew me away in size and grandeur. Finally we pulled up to a ridge to watch the sun set over the desert, flanked by both the Andes and Cordilleras mountain range. Once we arrived back in town I sat down for a delicious steak and wine, but was shocked to see the prices – $25AUD. I had heard Chile was a lot more expensive and although the food was much better than in Bolivia (which was the worst) it was more expensive than back home. Finally I collapsed in to bed ready for another early start the following morning.

I woke at 7am to find the room was still in total darkness, had I set my alarm wrong? No, the other occupants were up too and they confirmed the time. I got ready and left to get some breakfast before sand boarding, as I walked the short distance to the town I looked out to the mountains and could see the sun glowing behind it but not yet breaching. The sun didn’t rise properly until somewhere after 8am. I had a delicious omelette before meeting up with the sand boarding group and driving out to death valley. I haven’t been snow boarding before but the gear for sand boarding is exactly the same, the principle seemed simple enough but with one difference to snow boarding. Instead of catching a ski lift up to the top of the mountain you had to slug it out carrying your gear up sand dunes in the desert heat. I finally made it to the top and after careful instructions started my way down. I had worried that I would go hurtling IMG_20160328_111239~2down the side of the sand dune but my fears were allayed when I realised that it would be harder to get started going than it would be to stop. Eventually I made it down all in one piece and got up to go again, by the third time I was exhausted and not particularly impressed with the sport and so gave up and sat in the car to read my book. Eventually we made it back to town where I packed up my gear and jumped on a bus to Calama, the nearby town where I would catch the plane to Santiago the following morning. The town itself was nothing to write home about but I had my own hotel as there were no hostels so I relished the privacy of my own room, and set about throwing out my old manky clothes and repacking for my flight home the following day. The next morning I rose at dawn to jump on a flight to Santiago. The flight was smooth and I arrived around 11am, dropped my bags at the airport storage and jumped on a bus to downtown Santiago. I went straight to the central market for a seafood lunch before walking down to the memory museum. The memory museum of human rights is dedicated to the period where the government was taken over by a military dictatorship lead by General Pinochet lasting from the late 70s to the early 90s. During this period tens of thousands of people opposing the dictatorship simply disappeared never to be heard of again. It was a well put together museum about the tragedy of what some people can do to their own countrymen, something I have seen throughout many of the countries I have visited. Afterwards I caught a train to the trendy Lastarria neighbourhood and for my last meal in South America I thoroughly enjoyed a Pad Thai. Finally I made it back to the airport and enjoyed a glass of very expensive wine before hopping on my flight back to New Zealand. I had spent the last few weeks and indeed probably months running on minimal sleep, the first night I was back home I slept 16 hours. My sister came in to check that I wasn’t dead at one point. Every night after that I slept for 12 hours, I really needed it.

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