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Bolivia

Tour of Southwest Bolivia, including the Salar del Uyuni

An amazing five day 4WD tour: climbing Volcan Uturuncu (6008m!!), geysers, lakes of many colours, flamingoes, more volcanoes and the worlds largest salt plain.

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Day 1

Early on Sunday morning, all 4 of us, Ben and Tanis, Deb and me, head down to load up the 4x4 Toyota jeep that will be our transport for the next few days. We meet our guide, Alan, and our cook, Carmen, and hit the road. Glad that we decided on a trip for only 4 of us, we all get a window seat, though the back seats are a little cramped, especially for 6 foot 4 Ben! But we stop often for photos and keep swapping around.

First on the trail is the Luna landscape of El Sillar a dry craggy wind scarred landscape of red sandstone.
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Entertainment during a tasty lunch (arranged amazingly quickly by Carmen) was an exploding Coca Cola bottle. Tanis did not get much sympathy, only laughter, but she took it well! During the afternoon, other than many long miles on the road, we explored the desserted ruined town of San Antonio. Here we saw what appeared to be an overgrown rabbit with a curly tail, known as a Viscacha, almost wallaby like in appearance with the way it bounced along. Apparently they are quite tasty, and they clearly knew that as they kept their distance!
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Once we arrive, tea, biscuits and dulce de leche are out for us. Dulce de leche is a sticky sweet caramel spread made from milk and sugar, and very more-ish! As dinner took a little while to arrive, we hit the sack shortly after, all anticipating the tough day ahead!

Day 2

And so the challenging day had arrived, the climb of a volcano over 6,000 metres, Vulcan Uturuncu. After a very bumpy, stoney and steep ride to the starting point, we commenced our climb. Immediately the climb was steep fine scree, painfully difficult to make progress on, as for every 2 steps upwards you made, you slipped back almost as much. We were impressed that Carmen and Alan decided to join us, even though we had hired a local guide. She even brought us snacks for one of the many stops that we had to make along the way. Being above 5,000m was new for all of us, and it soon showed. We were stopping every 10 minutes or so for a rest, and even when climbing, it was slow steps, that lack of oxygen was starting to take its toll. But we persevered, and were eventually rewarded with all of us managing to reach the summit, and wow, was it worth the climb. Being the highest volcano in the area, the 360 degree view we got was awesome.

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After plenty of photos, and snacks to keep the energy up, we started our descent, significantly quicker as we 'surfed' for want of a better word down the scree slopes. The noxious sulphurous fumes soon made us all feel nauseous, but thankfully that had passed by the time we got back to the hostel, and at a mere 4,200m, we were gulping in the oxygen!

Day 3

After exploring the Dali Rocks, bizarre shaped wind sculpted rock statues sticking up in an otherwise barren sandy landscape, we chilled by Laguna Verde, the first of many different coloured lakes, this one being an impossibly light green. Before lunch we visit some hot springs, a great place to chill - in fact Deb and I were the only ones in the hot spring. After lunch the lake we visited (Laguna Colarado) was a deep red/copper colour, and much to our delight, full of flamingoes. While for most of the time, they had their heads in the shallow water feeding, the lake contrast to the pink birds was quite something.

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We also got to explore some active geysers, making Deb feel very much at home, with the eggy smell reminiscent of Rotorua in New Zealand and our night's stay is next to another lake full of flamingos.

Day 4

More lakes full of flamingoes today, and new scenery to explore, each seemingly more amazing than the last, and lots of photo stops again! Lunch was spent in the shade of more bizarre rock formations, listening to Elvis from the jeep (not that our guide was a secret Elvis fan...it actually came from Deb's Zen...), and feeding apple cores to grateful local viscachas. The afternoon was equally eventful with not 1, but 2 tyre blow outs, apparently a regular occurrence, and nothing to do with Alan's driving, which thankfully we are all very happy with (he was definitely not a taxi driver in a previous profession!). Our accommodation tonight was in the Salt Hotel on the edge of the Salt Plains. A building, yes you guessed it, made entirely of salt, even down to the tables and seats! And more importantly for all of us, our first shower for 4 days!

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Day 5

We had all agreed on an early start to catch the sunrise, and it was so worth it. There is simply no where on earth quite like the Salar de Uyuni. At over 4,000 square miles, it is by far the largest salt plain in the world, estimates put the actual quantity of salt at over 10 billion tonnes, and in parts it is 140 metres thick! But perhaps more astonishingly is that over the entire area, the height variation is no more than 1 metre. On the plains are a few craggy islands, and Isla Incahuasi is where we had our breakfast. This outcrop is covered in Cacti, and the elevated summit gives us the perfect place to contemplate the extraordinary sight of the Salar de Uyuni. Incidentally the cacti grow at only 1 centimetre a year, and many are around 8 metres tall! Yes 800 year old cacti!

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The Salt Plains were the perfect surface for driving on and, as many of you know, world land speed records have been acheived on similar surfaces. We took advantage of this, and made our way to the volcano on one side, where we saw some old mummies in a cave. They were left in sitting positions, still have hair, and included children, bizarre and chilling! On our journey back across the salt plains, we stopped off at another salt hotel, played a game or two of twister (yes Deb brought that all the way from England!), and took some fun photos of each other using perspective to confuse the mind's eye!

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Here we also met people travelling by both motorbike and amazingly, bicycle! All with incredible stories to tell, and crazy distances covered! Before we knew it we had arrived in Uyuni, our final destination on this tour. And so we grabbed some lunch, and said our goodbyes to Alan and Carmen, the trip ending all too quickly.....

Posted by DebandMatt 07:20 Archived in Bolivia Tagged bolivia volcanoe uyuni salar tupiza Comments (0)

Horse riding in Tupiza

Galloping on the quebradas, wandering through craggy canyons and admiring the rugged rainbow coloured rocks and colossal cactuses.

On a bright sunny morning I meet my guide Jose (who only speaks spanish and is a youthful 16 years...), get given a cowboy hat and chaps and get taken a few streets away to where Don Rico, a Bay gelding who will be my stead and Mora, a grey mare who Jose rides. The saddle is a metal frame with layers of blankets placed under and over, and topped with a piece of leather. Rather than buckles for the stirrups and girth the leather straps are looped around and through themselves - it took me a couple of times to get used to the hang of it (very different to the wintec saddle I used to use).

We start out riding along the road and railway track. The first trot we do I feel that Don Rico has a slight limp and point this out to Jose. He tells me it's just because the ground is hard. But when we hit the softer desert track the limp remains...hmmm, riding a lame horse for two days isn't cool for either of us.

We arrive at the first sight - a rock archway followed by a canyon of red rocks. I dismount to explore the canyon on foot and leave the horses with Jose.
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On exiting the canyon I see that a number of other riding groups have arrived, including an older guide (on a beautiful chestnut stallion - although that's not the point of this story...). Jose asks him to take a look at Don Rico and a few minutes later he's given me another horse to ride - a grey called Moro who happens to be Mora's brother. We leave the canyon to a tourist calling out "Oi! That's my horse!", I reply "And, you've got mine" and leave the confusion to the guides.

I like Moro. He's cheeky and has spirit. Within minutes Moro gives his sister a nip on the rump and jumps out of the way to miss her kick. Jose throws a concerned glance my way, but when he sees me both still on Moro and laughing it sets the tone for the rest of the ride. I kick Moro on into a canter and when Jose joins me both horses pull forward. I let Moro rip and we start racing along the desert track. We politely stop as we pass another tourist and her guide only to start again when we're a hundred meters ahead of them. A few moments later the sound of horses hooves gets stronger and I notice we're being followed. The four of us stop for lunch and I get chatting to the Dutch girl. She tells me how she wanted a bit of speed but her guide had said no, but when she saw us she decided to go for it, and now she was grinning from ear to ear!

After lunch we part ways - my Dutch friend heads back the way we came while we use the wide, and mainly dry, river bed as our highway. Lots of racing dispersed with some sedate plodding to take in the scenery follows.

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A storm is brewing as we arrive at Quiriza and the heavens open shortly after we've watered the horses and I'm inside enjoying a cold beer. Perfect timing!

I try to teach Jose the 'game with no name', despite my spanish for card games requiring some development. I thought he would help me out a little, guessing what I was trying to say, reading my exuberant sign language, but no, apparently 16 year olds are the same in Bolivia as anywhere else in the world - with few words, a distinct stroppy side that is hard to hide, and bad taste in music (which was at this point blaring from the TV). So after the storm has passed I head out for a wander through this small village. Ten minutes later I'm on the other side...but there are a few points of interest; rocky outcrops, goats being fed their dinner and a church.

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My dinner is a groaning plate of panfried chicken, potato chips, beetroot and tomato that friendly Santina has prepared. Well fed I give my leftovers to the dog, bash my head on the doorframe built for exceptionally short people and decide it's time to get an early night.

Day 2 is fairly similar to day 1...lots of riding and some great desert scenery. We do a bit more on the road, until I spot an opening onto the river bed and head down there ignoring Jose's protests - it's the right direction, looks safe (certainly safer than a road containing lunatic jeep drivers) and apart from the word 'no' I can't understand what he's saying anyway.

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We finish the day with a race along a deserted railway line (where I enjoy an unexpected ditch jump) and splashing through a not so dry section of riverbed to cool down again. A thoroughly enjoyable couple of days!

Posted by DebandMatt 19:26 Archived in Bolivia Tagged horse bolivia riding tupiza Comments (0)

Bolivia (part 1)

Hectic La Paz, restful Coroico, a decidedly non-touristy Oruru, and the cowboy and western town of Tupiza.

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We travel from Copacabana to La Paz by bus, with a short break in the journey to cross a narrow channel of Lake Titicaca. The bus goes on a barge alongside cars, cattle and anything else you can think of except for passengers (we jump on a separate little boat).

There are mountains in the distance and villages dotted across the barren plains of the altiplano. One village is a mass of dancing people and we spot what we guess are the bride and groom in the crowd.

All of a sudden there are mud and brick houses as far as we can see - we've just entered El Alto. This is a city that has sprung up on the flat altiplano right next to La Paz and is the area that houses many of the Bolivians that come to La Paz in search of work.

And next comes La Paz itself. The initial glance takes your breath away - the whole valley is filled with houses, skyscrapers pushing up from the valley floor and mountains rise from the desert in the distance. It is an odd feeling being able to look down on the city from the top of the valley.

We've heard that there is great food in La Paz, but it's a Sunday evening and it seems everything is shut. Finally we stumble on a fairly upmarket 'French' restaurant called La Comida, which was a restaurant we'd been recommended, where we eat some great cheviche (raw fish), meat and chocolate mousse.

Unfortunately, something in that meal wasn't so great and the next day was a rather unpleasant one of being sick. Oh well, we hope that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger in the long run.

We decide to head to the town of Coroico - this is a lovely quiet town perched on top of a hill in the 'high jungle'. It's also a much lower altitude (only 1800m! The lowest we will have been since Lima!), so we figure it'll be more conducive to helping us get our strength back than busy, polluted, 3800m La Paz.

We spend our first night in town at a hotel with amazing views down the valley from it's large patio.
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And the patio also proves to be a lovely location for a spot of early morning yoga :) But it's a bit pricey and I've seen some cabanas advertised, so we move a 20min walk out of town to them. There are two little cabanas available at El Rincón Pichilemino and Ben and Tanis, an Oz/Canadian couple we met at the hotel in town, join us for some rest and relaxation in the hammocks and cooking up some yummy, healthy grub :)
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Town is ventured into for groceries, saltenas (a bit like little cornish pasties filled with meat or chicken, egg, olives and potatoes), and helado made by an Italian family (their liquor de naranja was also rather good, especially when mixed with some fresh orange juice, Mmmm) :) Oh and one energetic morning we hiked to the three waterfalls - which were fenced off with barbed wire and not too impressive anyway...maybe we should have stayed in the hammocks.

It would have been very easy to have whiled away a few weeks in Coroico, but as there seemed to be a gap in the blockades that had been going on (and off) and stopping traffic from flowing between north and south Bolivia for the last few weeks, we decided it best to press on south to Oruru via La Paz.

Our time in La Paz was short - just enough to catch the Sunday carnival and fill our tummies. Then it was a bus to Oruru where the plan was to pick up the train to Tupiza. Only problem was that the train (or someone running the train) decided not to run. It took us two days to realise that 'quizás mañana' meant 'you foolish tourists, don't you know that we're not going to run this train for weeks and you're much better on the bus'...so after a couple of days we caught the bus. But in the meantime we explored Oruru. It's a city for locals...there's a great big market full of useful things for around the house, such as buckets, sieves and blankets (which in hindsight would have been perfect for our overnight bus trip) and several pleasant plazas for office workers to have their packed lunch in...and a cinema with a really good icecream bar. I got very excited when I saw there was a Govindas in town - curry! My excitement soon dissipates when the menu turned out to lack anything containing chillies or cumin seeds...soggy veggie lasagne and other types of overcooked pasta were the food of choice for Oruru's Hare Khrishnas.

Anyway, one bumpy and chilly night on a bus later, we arrive in Tupiza.

Tupiza has been plucked right out of a cowboy movie, long wide dusty streets, and even a 'saloon' with swinging wooden doors. The barren desert landscape is striped beige and red and rugged cliffs rise either side of the flat river plain. And just like in those cowboy movies, there's lots of horses :)

It's the start of the wet season and we encounter a couple of short but torrential downpours. But as it's so dry, the rain is soaked into the ground almost instantly and an hour later you are left with just an odd puddle here and there, and maybe a rainbow...
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We're starting our tour of SW Bolivia and the salt plains of Uyuni from Tupiza and have Ben and Tanis joining us in a couple of days...which gives me just enough time for an excursion in the saddle, YEEHA!

Posted by DebandMatt 11:18 Archived in Bolivia Tagged la bolivia paz coroico tupiza oruru Comments (0)

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