Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Burrrr, Bolivia

What other way to spend Valentine’s Day than travelling into South America’s highest, most isolated, most rugged, coldest, poorest (yet richest in natural resources), coca growing country: Bolivia.

Up early to join our tour and young driver Freddy in his Phillies cap, we checked out of Chile (as American) and headed for the Bolivian border and the Southwestern Circuit. The fact that it is referred to as “a circuit” makes it seem built up and well established--- erase that image from your mind! It is actually one of the harshest wilderness regions in the world, the territory of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Why did I want to go here? You’ll see. It was awesome (a word I seem to use more and more—I am beginning to worry about my 80’s flashback), even in rainy season.

Driving past Volcan Licancabur (5960m, which you can ascend, but I chose not to- burr) we arrived at the Bolivian Border—it reminded me of the chumpy shack in Lesotho; however, the border agents were a bit savvier. Sure, they didn’t yell at me for taking a photo, but they did notice I had no Chilean exit stamp in my Irish passport. Yes, I was turning Irish to avoid the $135 fee levied on Americans (relations between the US and Bolivia are not so great based on our refusal to extradite their former president and cocaine). After a $20 bribe I had fresh stamp in my pristine Irish passport—a $115 savings!!! Look Mom, I’ve become a bargain shopper. ;-)

Our jeep of six was set (Michele and my plan didn’t exactly work as planned for the five man jeep): the kiwi couple, Liz and Kim, Michele, an Italian who never spoke (the exact same one from the cab from Calama) and a total character, British/American/Irish Nick.

Our first stop after driving into Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, a 7150 sq. km. reserve, was Laguna Blanca, the first of many lagoons colored by the minerals in the water. We were pretty impressed with this milky one, but we didn’t know what was to come. Of course, the tranquility was disturbed when Nick cursed god after realizing his camera battery was dead and there was likely no electricity up ahead- oops!

Laguna Verde was far more spectacular--- green due to the high con- centration of lead, sulfur, arsenic and calcium carbonates. It was beautiful, but damn was it cold! Sadly the photos don’t really do it justice.

There was a chance to warm up at the Termas de Polques, a hot-spring nearby, but after nearly vomiting at the stench of the bathroom and the chilly air temperature, I opted against the whole thing.

We could have gotten really toasty (aka boiled) at the geyser with its bubbling mud pools if we hadn’t kept our distance. Of course, you could have jumped right in if you wanted since there are no guard rails to keep you away from a potential cave-in. At this point I confirmed that geysers aren't my thing—perhaps it is the sulfur stink?

I already mentioned it was rainy season, so no surprise we had to cut our day a bit short at the lodge (if you can call it that--- was sort of equivalent to the teahouses in Nepal, and just as cold) where we huddled under blankets stolen from other rooms for the rest of the day, with some pretty bad meals in between (wow, it is just like Nepal). It was cold, but the weight of the blankets started to become oppressive.

No worries, the next morning we made up for lost time at Laguna Colorado which is huge (60 sq. km.), shallow (only 80 cm.) and bright red due to the plankton and algae. The lake sediments are used to make all sorts of random things from toothpaste to aviation fuel- go figure! The best part is the thousands of flamingos who call it home- surprise, they aren’t just in warm climates. We read how they eat, but I will spare you the details that include things like hairy mandibles. Like Laguna Verde, it was much cooler in person than in photos.

Nick, who was concerned he hadn’t showered, decided it was a good place to take a dip to wash his feet which got dirty since he also neglected to bring socks or closed shoes into the frigid temperatures (the t-shirt and rag wrapped around his feet were comical).

After Michele turned up from his photo session, we drove 18km. to the Stone Tree in Desierto Siloli. It was a bunch of pretty cool rock formations and had a cleanish bathroom, but we were there way too long with a tire/brake issue (so glad we paid extra for the company that claims to maintain their vehicles). I didn’t have much faith after all the banging, but Freddy had us racing through the desert again (which is good since there is NOTHING out here and no mobile reception!)

I said it was cold. I said the terrain varied. But come on--- snow!!!!!! It is summer!!!!!!!! Apparently there was also some danger, but we couldn’t decipher this sign with the dead animal- thoughts?

It was a long day in the car, but really fun driving fast through rivers and canyons, with views of lagoons, flamingos, cool rock formations and more snow-capped mountains—and we had the mud to show for it. The llama steak to end the day was unfortunately not one of the highlights (the framed glittery Jesus pictures made up for it). Perhaps things would have been better at a salt hotel, but we couldn’t stay in one since the salt gets mushy (aka dangerous) in the rainy season.

The best was most definitely saved for last.

First a brief stop at the train cemetery, a decaying collection of old steam locomotives and cars, which you can climb all over since again there are no safety regulations in Bolivia. I didn’t see the point really, but it was quick.

The real treat was the Salar De Uyuni- the world’s largest salt flat at over 12 THOUSAND sq. km. and producer of 20,000 tons of salt per year! When it is dry it is apparently just white, blue sky and you. I can’t imagine it is better than the day we had with a couple inches of water and blue skies--- one of the best sites in 11 months!!!

There is literally no horizon. It appears like you can see forever and are floating, with the clouds and mountains perfectly reflected in the water. Super cool.

We drove out onto the water/salt and played around for a bit. Yes, this seemed like the ideal time to do cartwheels. Cool picture. Not cool that I am now covered in salt for my overnight bus ride to La Paz. That was shortsighted.

A little further out and there was a structure made of salt where we grabbed a beer and took a thousand more pictures, where I am proud to be temporarily Irish (I bummed it off a few guys).

Now I only had time for a few beers with my new friends in Uyuni’s town square, dodging dirty water balloons the kids were throwing in prep for the upcoming festival, before the dreaded overnight bus. Another Nick-ism--- he lost his sunglasses which were conveniently on his face at the time--- too funny!

I have been on a lot of buses, but despite the Jesus painting on the back, this was THE WORST trip of my life. First, I had the worst seat- the middle seat of five in the last row. The road was so bad that you were violently tossed from side to side when the bus sped through the bumps within the bumps. Then we arrived in La Paz and I thought this may have been a mistake.

Lucky for me, Nick took the ride to La Paz so I had continued entertainment.

La Paz feels very different from Chile or Argentina, much less cosmopolitan and more exotic with the women dressed in their indigenous clothes. It is also super high at 3660m—I had been at altitude for a few days but I was still out of breath doing anything here and it didn’t help that the entire city is built on hills. Interestingly, unlike the US, the higher up the hills the greater the poverty--- I guess at least they have a good view. I didn’t appear anyone was rolling in money, but they were for the most part really nice.

I liked it!

Despite rumors, it also felt pretty safe, but perhaps that is because there are armed police everywhere since they have protests non-stop. We ran into a protest while there and it was amusing when Nick jumped in with the leaders for a photo op.

It is really just a place to wander the narrow streets and get a sense of the vibe, unfortunately most of the time in the rain. We hit the witches market and saw the dried llama fetus (for good luck if building a house), saw the plazas (full of pigeons- gross!) and cathedrals, hit the gold museum and enjoyed our time at the Coca Museum. Other than that it was all shopping (it is SO cheap here) and aimless taxi rides in search of restaurants—the duck at La Guingette was so worth it and I got way better at giving directions in Spanish and reading maps.

Although tempted, caution prevailed and I did not bribe my way in San Pedro Prison (actually I was never tempted) or bike down the most dangerous road (which I do regret, but they highly discouraged doing it in rainy season).

Copacabana on Lake Titicaca was the last stop. It is the world’s largest high altitude lake at 8400 sq. km. and sits between Peru and Bolivia. The bus there was fairly mundane, except for the part where we had to get off and take a boat across while the bus was ferried across on an old wooden boat. It was not until after we were back aboard that they told us a few buses have capsized recently- oy, Bolivia!

Copacabana isn’t much to look at, especially not when you are trapped in a restaurant by hail. It is summer, right? It was okay, I made friends with a few fellow travelers, one of whom looked like Santa and gave me a quick tour around town.

The tour basically consisted of the market and the cathedral where it seemed we just missed the blessing of the auto- mobiles. Yes, people come from all around with their cars decorated in flags, flowers, garland, etc. for their blessing by alcohol. It actually smelled of cheap beer, but hey they can use all the help they can get on these roads.

The Cathedral’s claim to fame- it houses the Camarin de la Virgen de Candelaria statue which was carved by the Inca Tupac Yapanqui’s grandson and is never moved since it is believed to prevent Lake Titicaca from flooding.

There were a few walks, but the walk to my hotel made my lungs about explode, so I skipped them.

That only left a day trip to Isle del Sol, yes, the birthplace of the sun! And yes, it was sunny- yay!

After a 2 ½ hour boat ride I was dropped at the northern end of the island and hooked up with three med students for the 9km hike south. We had 4 hours to get there which is plenty of time- ehhh, as it turned out maybe not.

After about 45 minutes we came to the Chincana Ruins and the Palacio del Inca, a ceremonial table and rocks that were supposed to resemble a puma, but I couldn’t see it; a good precursor to Machu Picchu and some spectacular views of the lake. Those Incas were pretty clever!

The rest of the hike was along the ridge path to Yamani, over the ancient terraces which are still cultivated, smelling the lovely incense brush and running into an occasional alpaca. All in all, a really nice day, even if it was much harder than expected as we raced to get back for the return boat.

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