Countries Visited

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Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mo' Bolivia, Mo' Problems...

Sad to admit, but we did continue to have some issues in Bolivia after the whole backpack incident. Nothing nearly so bad--nothing else was stolen (though another attempt was made in the same bus station! See Andy´s next post), and we are still in one piece and safely across the border in Peru now, but read on to learn more about our recent adventures and misadventures in the land of Evo Morales.

Oh, Bolivia, you are an enigma. You have some beautiful, relaxing, and affordable places, like Copacabana, the town on Lake Titicaca where we spent our first nights in the country...
And then there´s La Paz. We kind of have to hate it on principal because that´s where we were robbed and dealt with a lot of subsequent annoyances, and it´s certainly not the prettiest city close up. But you can´t deny that its sloped setting, surrounded by mountains, is beautiful.

The night before the incident we´d rather forget, Andy and I spent a strange evening at the Teatro Municipal, the main theater in La Paz. We showed up in the afternoon and scored free tickets to a show we knew nothing about, except that it was a music performance. When we turned up that night, we found ourselves pretty much the only in a packed house of fans of the Familia Valdivia, who was having their 25th anniversary reunion concert there. We can only describe this outfit as a kind of Bolivian Von Trapp family, if there were only four Von Trapps, and they sang rather drippy Spanish love songs instead of Austrian folk music, and had a mariachi band backing them up during their second act.

Hey, at least it was free. We have no pics of the show itself (oh, we wish we had), but here´s the theater.

OK, so, two days later, we finally had our emergency passports and a fair amount of new gear for Andy (check out his snazzy new hat and small backpack, modeled here)...

...and were finally able to get the heck out of town. We had missed that day´s bus for Rurrenabaque, our original destination, so instead that night we headed in the opposite direction, south to visit the famed salt flats and desert outside of Uyuni.

On the bus, our troubles began. We thought we were lucky to get two of the last available seats on the bus that night...until we boarded and learned that they were the very back row, meaning the seats didn´t recline. Combine that with an extremely bumpy, unpaved road and a broken window latch in front of us, meaning every time the bus hit a bump the window flew open and blasted us with freezing mountain air, and you had pretty much the worst night bus ride we have experienced yet in South America.

But we arrived in Uyuni in one piece, booked a three-day jeep tour of the area, and were off that very morning!

The first two days of the tour were great, and the last day was largely abysmal. Lets start with the great.

Our first stop was the "railroad graveyard" just outside of Uyuni. Some very old trains were apparently running to Chile up until 1997; we got to climb on their rusting hulks. (We also think that this is where our train-loving friend Andrew slept one night when he visited the area--Andrew, if you´re reading, are we right?)

Then it was off to the Salar de Uyuni, which I think is the biggest salt flat in the world. What´s a salt flat, you ask? It´s an area where there used to be ocean millions of years ago, but thanks to all sorts of geological and climate changes, the area is now a desert, and all that is left of the ocean is miles and miles of salt, which you can drive on, walk on, and build stuff out of. Like this giant salt llama...

...and furniture like this table. Mmm, salty.

When you walk on the salt you see all these geometric cracks that have formed when the salt has gotten wet and dried again. As we moved south into drier areas, they got even more pronounced than the ones you see here.

Also, you´d often find water holes in the salt, where giant rectangular crystals formed. You could reach into the holes and pull out some crystals. Very neat.

Also, left over from the days when it was a sea, there are more than 25 "islands" dotting the salt flats. The largest is called Fish Island (we are not sure why, actually) and used to be a camping point for the Incas when they crossed the salt flats to go a-trading. Fun fact: They had to make shoes for their llamas for these trips so that their feet wouldn´t be damaged during the trip across the salt. These shoes were made from the skins of other llamas.

Anyway, on Fish Island there were amazingly tall cacti. The tallest was 9 meters, and our guide said it was 900 years old. One meter of growth every 100 years.

I thought it was fun that the trash cans on the island were made out of cactus wood.
One of my favorite things about our first day on the Salar is that it was the perfect backdrop for all sorts of fun pictures.

Everyone was taking these jumping pictures, and Andy didn´t want to be a follower and take one, but me and the other group members convinced him that he had to, and I´m so glad because this is really one of my favorite pictures of us from the whole trip.

We also spent ages putting the scenery to our advantage taking funny "perspective" pictures. I must extend special thanks to one of our group members, Ray from Ireland, for sharing his terrific picture ideas (not to mention his amazing person-shrinking machine and giant Pringles can!).

Husband in hand:
Such balance!

It was also fun to play with shadows. Anyone who has seen that classic film, "Da Ali G Movie," will surely recognize the "easside" and "wesside" signs we are throwing here...

Portrait of our tour group: The lovely David and Malin from Sweden, the most excellent Ray of Ireland, and me and Andy. True stars, one and all! (A cheesy statement, yes, but also a detail that was to come in handy when stuff hit the fan on day three of the tour.)

OK, we moved on from the salt flats and visited a cave and burial site. Local people come leave gifts of coca leaves for the ancestors buried (or, well, not so buried anymore, I guess, in the case of these skulls) here.

We watched the sun set from near the cave...

...and then went on to our "salt hotel." Yes, most of it really was made of salt! (We just wish they had built more salt bathrooms, because really, one toilet + shower for 14 people just ain´t enough.)

On Day Two, we traveled through desert south of the salt flats, near the Chilean border. Many amazing views of mountains and volcanoes...

...just don´t pee on them!!

We encountered several specimens of this strange plant, which looks like a fungus-covered rock but is actually some kind of tree. Our guide said that this particularly large one was about 900 years old.

The desert was dotted with some beautiful lagoons. This one was a little stinky thanks to the sulfur, but lovely to look at. Much like the two human specimens you see in front of it.

Most of the lagoons also had large colonies of flamingos! There are five types of flamingos in the world, and three of those types live in these lagoons in the Bolivian desert.

Here is my impression of a flamingo.

It was REALLY windy in the desert, which meant we often were only able to jump out of the jeep, race down to a lagoon to look at birds and take pictures, and jump back into the jeep before we blew away.

The most impressive lagoon of the day was the Laguna Colorada, or red lagoon. Algae in the water that makes beta carotene is what makes the lake turn red. It´s the same stuff that makes flamingos turn red when they eat it.

The strong winds in the desert have sculpted rocks there into some pretty unbelievable formations. I think that this one looks pretty Dali-esque, and in fact, south of this rock, there is a whole area called the Salvador Dali desert, because it really looks like one of his far-out landscapes.

That night, we stayed at a "basic" hostel. Which meant no hot water, no heating, and no electricity except between 7 and 10PM. Luckily there was a fire, where Malin (shoes on the far right) and I (center) spent lots of time toasting our feet.

And the next morning...well, I´ll try to be concise here. We all woke up in the dark and bitter cold at 4:30AM, as we had been instructed, and were ready to leave by 5...except that our driver, Jimmy, was nowhere to be found. Over an hour later, the other group´s driver, Jerry, found Jimmy drunk, with a woman, passed out in our jeep several miles away.

It gets better. When Jimmy was finally roused, the first thing he did was drive our jeep into a wall before managing to drive it back to our hostel...where he staggered out of the car, insisted that nothing was wrong, and said that we should all get in the car with him. Of course, we refused.

After way too much back and forth and nearly another hour wasted, the three guys in our group had to drag Jimmy out of the driver´s seat and grab the keys. Andy and David sat the protesting Jimmy between them in the middle seat, while Ray, who luckily had stick-shift and off-road driving experience (we were hundreds of miles from anything resembling a paved road) became our driver for the morning, following the other car for several hours to multiple stops. Each time we stopped, Jimmy tried all sorts of shenanigans to get the keys back, including messing with the engine of the car at our first stop so that it would not start. This lost us nearly another hour and gave everyone a ton of grief. In the end, we had to take turns guarding the car at the different stops so he couldn´t mess with it, which meant stress for everyone and that people had to miss various parts of the day´s itinerary. Thank goodness our group was so awesome, backing each other up and doing the dirty work until Jimmy finally sobered up in the afternoon and we allowed him to drive the jeep back to Uyuni.

The story gets only more unbelievable the more details you learn (like that he was drunk on wine he had stolen from the guests--apparently we were supposed to have wine at dinner the night before!), and when we got back to town the tour operator fired him in front of us...or at least pretended to, who knows if he was still fired the next day. The tour operator turned out to be a sleazeball (surprise, surprise) and there were many heated words exchanged between him and our group before he handed out a very paltry partial refund. In short, if you ever take a tour of the Salar de Uyni in Bolivia, DO NOT GO WITH EXPEDICIONES LIPEZ. They suck.

But, even that incident couldn´t ruin the trip for us. We absolutely loved our fellow travelers, and even on the third day we saw some cool stuff. Like hot steam geysers...
...and the Laguna Verde in the very south of Bolivia, which had a bunch of minerals in it making it a beautiful green color.
Also, we had been told by our guide that there were rabbit-like and chinchilla-like mammals in the desert, but we never saw any...until the very end of the third day, when we came across this.

Yeah, OK, so he´s dead. But still a chinchilla, right? You know, that´s kind of a good metaphor for how all of Bolivia has been for us...not exactly what we expected going in, but, well, sometimes you just can´t take your eyes off of it.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I'm stunned by the tour guide story. Crazy! But a great story. And I think these are some of my favorite pictures so far. It looks like a really otherworldly place.