Bolivia, rich with culture, history, landscapes and colour, but unfortunately the poorest country in South America. Arriving at the border we immediately felt the difference between Bolivia and Argentina. To cross borders you have to exit out of one country and then enter the next. The border patrol on the Argentinian side while still fairly flexible in terms of what we´re used still had an official feel (however I think they are only official with tourists because you see Bolivians and Argentinians just scurrying across without even stopping). When we arrived at the Bolivian border, the guards were jovial (much like the rest of the Bolivian people), joking with us and random people kept coming in to chat. Justin, because he is a US citizen, had to pay an entry fee and get a visa. Fortunately we had looked into this the day before and he had purchased his mug shots for the visa. He also needed $135US in crisp notes, however the casa de cambio was shut in Salta and he was planning on figuring it all out at the border. This would have been fine if we weren´t delayed for three hours on the way there because of picketers and arrived at 8:00pm. At first, one of the guards said we could pay in Argentinian Pesos, then the next said no it needed to be dollars. Then the other agreed and told Justin that there was a casa de cambio open 2 blocks up the street (I swear you get the same answer when you ask for any direction. It´s always 2 blocks that way, or 1 block then 1 block to the left. I rarely bother asking for directions anymore). As you can probably guess the casa de cambio didn´t exist or was shut. When Justin returned the guards had decided that he could pay in Argentinian Pesos but it would be $50 more! Joke city! Finally after much deliberation and going back and forth, one of the guards conveniently remembered that there was an ATM 4 blocks up the street that dispensed US $$. It was now 9pm and the one dark alley way we could see just kept looking dodgier and dodgier. Justin fortunately got the money, got a ride back on a scooter from one of the nicer guards and then we were out of there. The border town was called Villazon and was not exactly the nicest place to be so we took a cab straight to Tupiza. This may sound a little extravagent but it only cost $25 for a 2 hour journey! Not to bad…although I did have visions of the taxi drivers stopping halfway, letting us out in the middle of nowhere and telling us we had to pay more if we wanted to carry on. All worked out though and we finally arrived to the very comfortable hostal Salares at 11:30pm.
The next day was a our first real sighting of Bolivia and it was a pleasant surprise. Tupiza is a hot spot for starting the Antiplano and Uyuni Salt Flat tour, however still doesn´t feel too touristy (this will probably change soon as an international road is being built straight through the town). The town is described in Lonely Planet as a cowboy town, not sure if I would call it that but it definately has a wild west feel with the red rock canyons and formations serving as a fortress around the town. It´s also on the route of Butch Cassidy and the Sundace Kid. Walking through the streets, it feels like you have been transported back in time a hundred years. The women still wear traditional Bolivian dress with what look like bowler hats, long dark braided pig tails and pleated knee length skirts. They usually have a brightly coloured blanket filled with either goods or a child slung over their back. While you see men working in some of the stores, it´s normally the women who have the street side tiendas selling snacks like chocolate bars or something indiginous to the area. We spent the day trying to figure out our tour. A five day tour including a volcano climb was our goal, however most people wanted to do a four day tour. We could have gone solo, however it would have been ridiculously expensive. In reality you need four or five people to make it economically feasible on a travellers budget. After 4 hours of searching and not really finding anyone we reserted to going to the bus station and bombarding the people coming off the bus. In the end we found three french girls who wanted to do the same as us. As much as I hate saying this because we have met a couple of cool French people along the way, it was a bad idea to go with the french!
Unfortunately the night before our tour Justin ate something bad and got food poisoning. Thats one area you have to be really careful with in Bolivia…the lack of hygiene. In the smaller towns they rarely wash their hands and god knows what they cook your food in. He pretty much spent that morning on the loo and we nearly didn´t go. The owner of the hostal made him some coca tea with papousa and it seemed to help his stomach a bit. With his chin up we decided to carry on with the tour and we all piled into our tight but trusty jeep. The jeeps the tour companies use are hardly spacious and really only fit 5 people, however we had 5 in our group, a driver and a chef; or so we thought until the chef never showed up. It actually worked out best and Justin could sit in the front. Plus the guide seemed happy to cook for us. As Justin was in the front, it meant I was stuck in the back with the three french girls! We had agreed beforehand that we would speak in Spanish as we all pretty much could converse in the language, however they seemed happy to just carry on chattering in French. I tried speaking to them in Spanish…they answered my question and then kept talking in bloody French. Things were even worse at dinner that evening. Justin was in bed and so I was sat with the three of them. There were two other groups staying at our…well…shack, one of which was English. Not only did the French carry on chattering between each other but they blocked me from the English group. After about half an hour of ‘cava…j´mapelle annoying (that´s the extent of my french) etc etc’…I decided to just talk across the table to the English. Things did kind of get a bit better after 3 days however I wouldn´t call it fun. The accomodations we were staying in..well they did have running water so I can´t call it basic, although one night we were eating in a room that had a curiously hung curtain to the side of the room. Justin pulled back the curtain just to see what interesting things were behind it and a dead pig was just hanging out on a sofa! Great! We were eating and a sleeping in a meat house! The hostal on the third night however, was very comfortable and Justin and I even had our own bedroom and bathroom. The hostal was made out of the salt right from the lake.
The sights (which we reallywent for) on the tour were amazing. Travelling through Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve we saw Valle de los Rocas, which is a sandy valley scattered with big rocks that came from the volcanoes, salado petrificados, and Lagunas Verde, Negra and Colorada. Laguna Colorada had to be the most amazing for me as the water changes to a purple color in the afternoon because the pink flamingos disturb the minerals in the bottom of the lake which change its color. At Laguna Negra it was also fun to watch the different birds dabbling around the lake and making laughing sounds. We also saw geysers, bathed in a thermal spring and gazed up at the star filled night sky. It´s funny that even though we obviously don´t know all of the constallations of the northern hempishere the night sky down here definately looks different. The fourth day was the piéce de résistance (oh look there goes my french again). We woke up early and drove for half an hour along the salt flats to catch the sunrise. Driving over the flats was ridiculous…one minute you’re driving on land and then the next your on a salt lake and it´s white as far as the eye can see. Salar de Uyuni is the worlds largest salt flat at 4,086 sq miles and was formed by prehistoric lakes. It is made up of layers of salt and water, but it is still tough enough to drive on. We spent the day hiking up the islas and taking funny illusional photos. Our last day we hiked up Vulcan Tunupa which was at 5300 meters. The hike was not easy, half of the hike had a trail and the latter half we were treading on loose rocks. Our guide kept yelling back ‘peligroso!’ (danger), just what you want to hear when you´re climbing up a volcano. I have to say the last bit up to the top was a bit frightening as were were walking on a path about two foot wide with steep drops either side. However suffering through the climb (and for Justin, altitude sickness…poor guy thought his head was going to explode) rewarded us with a 360 degree view of the salt lake and the volcano. The colors of the volcano were incredible, a mixture of different shades reds and a bit of green. After a little while, we headed down, ate lunch and headed to Uyuni and the end of our tour.
As tourists, Uyuni really is only a pit stop to either start or finish the Salt Flat tour. The main business here is farming the salt as well as extracting the lithium. 50-70% of the worlds lithium is found here. Being tourists, we finished the tour at 5pm, saw the town and decided to get the 7pm bus to Potosi and then continue on to Sucre in a taxi. This was our first experience of busses in Bolivia. At first everything seemed great; bus was clean (even still had the plactic wrappers on the seats), and we even had semi cama. Just before we set off Justin asked me ‘Who do you think we´re going to get stuck next to on this journey? The snorer, the whiny kid or the person on their mobile that doesn’t know how to put it on silent.’ Not only did we get stuck next to two of the above, fortunately we dodged the snorer, but the bloody bus driver thought he was a DJ at a disco and kept blaring the Bolivian music at high volume for 2 thirds of the 6 hour journey. We were relieved to finally arrive in Potosi, and hopped straight into a cab which drove us to Sucre. At this point it was 1:30 in the morning, freezing cold and raining, AND we had climbed a volcano that morning. There was one other person in the cab, which was good to begin with because he would help us with the cost, but Justin sat in the back with him and after about half an hour the guy was alseep and almost falling in Justin´s lap. The taxi driver kept his window open the whole way, proceeded to chew coca leaves (we had them on our tour and the rank smell almost makes me vomit) and then chain smoked for the majority of the 3 hour journey. The music wasn´t too bad, basically top ballads from the States or England translated into Spanish. Can you tell we are becoming weary travellers yet? We decided to get some relaxation and take some time out of the hostel world, so when we arrived in Sucre we wanted to get a hotel. Unfortunately the one we wanted was full (at 4am) so the cabby drove us around the block to another. We couldn´t see what it was like because the power had gone out after a little bit of rain. However, finally some luck…we got to our room saw a big fluffy bed and passed out.
We´ve now been in Sucre for the past week and a half, the old capital of Bolivia (however the locals will tell you it still is the capital), which is a lovely city full of beautiful colonial architecture. We’ve been taking more spanish lessons at Me Gusta Spanish School, getting into the culture with cooking lessons (we had tongue the other night, see photos), visited a Fexpo showcasing local artesans and went to the Tarabuco Market this past Sunday. The market, a long 2 hour bus ride away from Sucre, is one of the most famous in Bolivia held by the Yampara culture, and was quite a colorful site to see. The plaza is surrounded by artesans selling their blankets and artisanal pieces, and parades fill the streets. The Bolivians do love their parades, I think we´ve seen one almost every day that we´ve been in Sucre. Unfortunately the town of Tarabuco is less to be desired with the side roads smelling of urine. I think we even caught one women peeing in the road!
Tonight we head to La Paz, the highest capital in the world, for some halloween fun!!