Magical Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

After discovering Machu Picchu was only an overnight bus ride from La Paz, I decided I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit.  I made a fleeting trip there with a friend last weekend, and it proved to be well worth it.  After previous excursions across the border, I surmise that of all Bolivia’s neighbours, Peruvians bear the most resemblance in terms of both physical appearance and accent, likely due to the large indigenous population.  

Often referred to as “The Lost City of the Incas”, Machu Picchu means ‘Old Peak’ in Quechua and dates back to the 15th century.  It is thought to have escaped the Spanish Conquest, lying undiscovered for centuries, thanks to its hidden location amongst thick vegetation high up in the Andes.  Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, Machu Picchu overlooks the Urubamba valley with majestic Huayna Picchu (“Young Peak”) towering above.  

Up until 2011, this legendary tourist attraction welcomed an astounding 4,000 visitors daily.  However, the number of visitors has since been limited to 2,500 per day, with a view to preventing erosion and preserving the ancient archaeological site.

With limited time, hiking the Inca Trail on foot over several days was sadly out of the question, thus my whirlwind visit included various modes of transport instead.  Having booked a tour that involved several transfers, I was instructed to look out for someone holding a sign with my name at the train station.  A novel concept for me, I was highly amused to spot a sign for “Juni Wats” on the outward journey and “Yoni” upon my return – two brilliantly original variations to add to a lifetime list of misspellings. (“Like Mitchell!” isn’t as effective an explanation around here.)

The train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes is a picturesque journey, with breath-taking views of rolling hills, waterfalls and snow-capped peaks.  After so many lengthy and unpleasant bus rides, the train seemed positively luxurious in comparison, despite the pan-flute instrumental of Elton John’s ‘Sacrifice’ which played every 15 minutes.  A small town nestled in the mountains at the base of Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes caters to the constant crowds of tourists and boasts natural aguas thermales (hot springs) in a truly idyllic setting.

From Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu is an uphill hike or a shuttle bus ride away.  Waking before 4am, I made the steep, sweaty hike up to the entrance as soon as the gateway opened at 5am.  I quickly realised hiking up a mountain through rainforest in utter darkness is less than ideal, but with a steady stream of hikers it was easy enough to follow the flickering lights of torches.  A breathless 50 minute climb later, I emerged from the trees.

At dawn, the mountains were shrouded in thick fog and a steady rain was falling.  Gradually, as the sun rose and the mist lifted, the spectacular sight of Machu Picchu was slowly unveiled.  It was surreal to be confronted with the stunning postcard image in person, that I’d seen so many times on screens and in books.  Even with the throngs of tourists, somehow it did not feel remotely congested, but peaceful and awe-inspiring instead.  I spent a full day contentedly taking in the scenery before making the hike back down.

Cusco was only a brief stop before heading home to La Paz, but from what I glimpsed it struck me as a beautiful, captivating city.  With its colonial feel, the historical area is a maze of winding, narrow, cobble-stoned streets and a mass of terracotta roofs spreading for miles.  

Morning fog over Machu Picchu, 6am

Morning fog over Machu Picchu, 6am

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Incredible stonework from centuries past, somehow not involving machinery

Incredible stonework from centuries past, somehow not involving machinery

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View from Intipunku, the Sun Gate. The morning hike began down at the river and cut through the forest

View from Intipunku, the Sun Gate. The morning hike began down at the river and cut through the forest

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Cusco

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Tango, tombs and Malbec: a week in Buenos Aires

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Having heard nothing but rave reviews about Buenos Aires, I was excited to head there for a week`s holiday last month.  Often referred to as the `Paris of the South`, it was a far cry from La Paz with its European air and cosmopolitan feel.  There was not a bowler hat in sight and suddenly I was back to being short again.  Porteños (BA residents, literally `people of the port`) are much taller than paceños it seems.  The Argentinian accent threw me completely at first, but with the speed slower than in Chile, I had half a chance of being able to keep up.

As far as I`m concerned, it`s hard to go wrong holidaying in a city where the staple diet comprises steak and Malbec (note to self: resume yoga immediately upon return).  Thanks to the Italian influence, Buenos Aires also boasts some incredible gelato, with mouth-watering flavours like super dulche de leche, and the streets are abuzz with coffee shops.  I was overly excited that my cortado automatically came with biscuits and accompanying sparkling water.  Montreal – take note!

I found Buenos Aires a great city to roam around, since many of the neighbourhoods are unique in their character and appeal.  Rather like Montreal, it struck me as a city to be experienced, in that there is not an abundance of major sights to be seen, so much as ambience to be soaked up.  Strolling along the wide city streets, I was reminded of the advice of a friendly, proud Argentinian I encountered at the airport – to look upwards – so as not to miss the eclectic architecture, with its spires, domes and shuttered buildings.

La Casa Rosada (Government House)

La Casa Rosada (Government House)

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Evita`s image projected on a downtown building

Evita`s image projected on a downtown building

View from the rooftop terrace of my hostel

View from the rooftop terrace of my hostel

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I spent time exploring the various quarters: La Boca`s Caminito, a vibrant cluster of streets with brightly-coloured houses and outdoor tango; San Telmo, the oldest area of the city, with its narrow, cobblestoned streets and a huge outdoor flea market on weekends with traditional handicrafts and antiques galore; Palermo, a lively area with leafy streets boasting many of the capital`s restaurants, shops and bars; and Recoleta with its magnificent, sprawling cemetery housing Evita Perón`s tomb (I had that darn song in my head for days).

Outdoor tango in Caminito

Outdoor tango in Caminito

A statue of Maradona, football in hand (of God), smiling from the balcony

A statue of Maradona, football in hand (of God), smiling from the balcony

The colourful houses of La Boca

The colourful houses of La Boca

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Recoleta`s cemetery, with its winding alleys of crypts

Recoleta`s Cemetery, with its winding alleys of crypts

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Evita`s flower-adorned tomb

Evita`s flower-adorned tomb

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Recoleta Cemetery spires

Recoleta Cemetery spires

Another highlight was El Ateneo Grand Splendid, a gorgeous bookshop housed in an enormous, ornate former theatre.  With its decorative ceiling, cafe on the stage and plush theatre boxes to lounge and read in, it was well worth a visit.

I also ventured across to Uruguay for a day trip, taking an hour-long ferry ride to explore Colonia del Sacramento.  A quiet, pretty town with hummingbirds darting in amongst the trees, its historic quarter is a UNESCO site.

Dog-walkers are a common sight in Buenos Aires and it is not unusual to see porteños walking 10 or 15 dogs at a time.  An absurd spectacle to the untrained tourist eye, I was very amused and ever prepared to chase a tangle of dogs down the street for a photo opportunity.

The beautiful El Ateneo bookshop

The beautiful El Ateneo bookshop

El Ateneo

El Ateneo

Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay

Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay

Calle de los Suspiros (Street of Sighs), Colonia, Uruguay

Calle de los Suspiros (Street of Sighs), Colonia, Uruguay

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

Dog-walking, porteño-style

Dog-walking, porteño-style

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Buenos Aires is, of course, reknowned for being the birthplace of tango.  I dutifully attended one of the many tango shows on offer, preceded by a class, just for fun.  It was an impressive spectacle (the show, that is) and the drama and passion was palpable.  From my amateur perspective, I concluded `tango face` is a combination of looking sultry and furious all at once – effective when demonstrated by the professionals on stage, and downright comical in the class I took.

Tango show

Tango show

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Unfortunately, scams, theft and pickpocketing are rife in Buenos Aires and it seemed as if almost every traveller I met had a (horror) story to tell.  I luckily escaped any misfortunes myself, though I moved hostels after an anxiety-inducing incident on my first night.  A local man allegedly checked into the hostel for 15 minutes during the night, swiftly stealing a whole host of valuables from various dormitories, including the one I was sleeping in.

There is a fascinating phenomenon of money-exchanging in Argentina, which I was tipped off about before arriving.  Due to heavy Government control and the ever-decreasing value of the Argentine peso, US dollars are in constant, high demand.  Consequently, there is a growing disparity between the official and `informal` rate of money exchange.  The difference between the official government exchange rate and the dólar “blue” (black market dollar) has been known to climb to a staggering 70% or greater; a fact which many tourists and travellers capitalise upon, to make their dollars go much further.  With the current exchange rate, withdrawing money from a cash machine or exchanging at a bank would give only 5 pesos = US $1.  On the notorious mercado negro (black market), however, it is possible to receive a substantially higher rate of 8+ pesos = US $1.

Despite the various dangers involved, such as counterfeit money, it appears to be a widespread, booming trade and one only has to walk a few paces along Calle Florida to hear cries of “cambio! cambio!” at every corner.  Generally, crisp US $100 bills are most sought-after, offering a higher rate; and the larger the amount, the better the deal.  After negotiating a rate, money is either exchanged on the street or more often than not, customers are led to an inconspicuous store-front office nearby.  Thus (hypothetically-speaking of course…) if one were to engage in this sort of illegal behaviour, a hostel bunk bed could cost as little as $10 and a bottle of excellent supermarket Malbec only $4.

Up next: Easter celebrations and live football!

Melting glaciers, llama love and hanging effigies

PampalaramaA little while ago I took a hike up to Glacial Khuno Tinkuta, which is situated in Pampalarama, an hour and a half`s drive from La Paz.  Sitting at 5000m above sea level, the glacier was a short hike but a strenuous one nonetheless due to the altitude.  Almost immediately I was out of breath (which I initially attributed to over-consumption of potatoes) and developed a persistent headache, which meant for a slow climb. The landscape was fairly barren and except for a lone shepherd, my friend and I did not encounter a single person on the trails.  Herds of llama and alpaca grazed in the lower slopes, generously obliging my frenzy of photo-taking.

According to recent studies, Andean glaciers have shrunk by as much as 50% since the 1970s.  The nearby peak of Chacaltaya used to be home to the world`s highest ski resort, before its glacier rapidly melted over the years, disappearing entirely in 2009.  Glaciers act as a vital source of water for thousands of Bolivia`s inhabitants in El Alto and the Altiplano, as well as supplying hydro-power.  As a poor, landlocked country, the impact of climate change is felt more than ever and sadly the future looks bleak with Bolivia`s few remaining glaciers receding fast.

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Journeying back into La Paz, we wove our way along steeply sloping cobbled streets in the outskirts of the city.  Several Guy Fawkes-like effigies were strung up on telegraph poles, a sight I was curious about, having noticed them often in El Alto.  As it turns out, these hanging dummies are warnings for rateros (thieves) and potential criminals, in areas where crime is rife.  Often they are hung with accompanying signs, macabre messages professing that captured thieves will be lynched and/or burned alive.  It is perhaps indicative of a lack of faith in the judicial system and local police force (considered to be somewhat corrupt and inefficient), that residents claim to resort to `community justice`, prepared to take matters into their own hands.

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Stay tuned for an upcoming coffee-related post, before I head to Buenos Aires on holiday next week!

Carnaval celebrations in Oruro

Feb 107Carnaval is celebrated throughout Latin America, the most renowned being Rio de Janeiro`s Mardi Gras.  In Bolivia, Carnaval is a lavish affair with the biggest festivities taking place in Oruro, a sleepy mining town that bursts into life every February to host thousands of dancers and spectators.

On the Friday preceding Carnaval, a ch`alla (blessing) is offered to Pachamama (Mother Earth) in the workplace to bring about good luck.  At FONCRESOL, this involved draping colourful streamers around the office and showering the floors with alcohol and confetti.  Similar ch`allas take place in homes on Shrove Tuesday, when the celebrations come to a close.

Upon many recommendations, I headed to Oruro with a friend for the renowned Saturday entrada, a day-long procession of indigenous dances in elaborate costumes.  I left La Paz at dawn, joining the masses of Carnaval-bound paceños and tourists.  The 4am bus was packed and the bus station overflowing.  Arriving bleary-eyed at 8am, the dancing in Oruro was already in full swing.  We picked our way through the crowds, dodging drunken revellers stumbling about, presumably still going strong from the previous night.  The streets were lined with rafters, sectioned off with seats for sale, and after negotiating a price we settled in for the day.

Each folk dance, with its own distinct music and costume, represents a specific aspect of Bolivia`s history.  Dances include La Diablada (Dance of the Devils), Morenadas, Llameradas, Caporales and Tinkus.  Every costume tells a story, with the predominant theme being good triumphing over evil.  Somewhat disturbing was the black body paint and chains used in dances depicting the tribulations of African slaves, whom the Spaniards brought over to work in the silver mines.  I honestly could not tell whether one of the dancers dressed up as a slave was a tremendous actor or genuinely lurching about looking distressed because he was heavily inebriated.  Either way, it struck me as one of the more disconcerting dances.

The costumes are incredibly ornate, adorned with jewels, feathers, mirrors, bells and spurs.  Some weigh up to 80 lbs, which makes the energetic jumping that some of the dances entail even more impressive.  The Diablada costumes are particularly elaborate, their devil masks works of art with curved horns and bulging eyes.  Live bands accompany the thousands of dancers, many exuberantly dancing as well as marching, crashing cymbals as they leap.

Rain ponchos are worn by most onlookers, since water balloons and spray cans of foam feature heavily in the festivities.  People hurl water bombs across the processions into the facing crowds and douse each other with foam, tourists being the main target for both (my sneaky attempt to blend in with the locals worked remarkably well).  Although the celebrations continue for several days in Oruro, it is generally understood that the first day of Carnaval is the best, since the event descends into increasing rowdiness and mayhem.  Dancers and onlookers consume huge quantities of beer and chicha (a very potent drink made from fermented corn), the dancing deteriorates with the debauchery and it is not uncommon to find people sleeping in doorways or the middle of the street.

After a full day of spectating, I set off on another bumpy bus ride back to La Paz.  Having had my fill of Carnaval, I chose to forgo the remaining festivities in order to explore Chile during my days off.

Energetic musicians

Energetic musicians

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A condor, Bolivia`s national bird

A condor, Bolivia`s national bird

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Before I sign off, a special shout out to my dad on his 60th birthday –
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DAD!  xx

As requested, here is a photo of me in a typical Aymará bowler hat.  Petro, the housekeeper, took great pleasure in dressing me up in her cholita attire, though she lamented my hair was not in the traditional two plaits (maybe next time).

Happy 60th Birthday dad! This should make you laugh... x

Happy 60th Birthday, dad!     This should make you laugh… x

Sand dunes and sea lions

Sunset in Iquique, Chile

Sunset in Iquique, Chile

With a few days off for Carnaval last week, I took a spontaneous solo trip to Chile.  The closest destination from La Paz is Arica, Chile`s most northern coastal city, which lies only 18km south of the Peruvian border.  With a major commercial port, Arica manages a large amount of Bolivia`s trade, as was the case for the container of fair trade coffee that left for Canada last month.

Relations between Bolivia and Chile are strained due to a long-standing dispute over Bolivia`s loss of access to the ocean.  (More to follow on that, once I witness the `Day of the Sea` next month).  The hostility between the two countries has been apparent in conversations I`ve had with both Bolivians and Chileans.  Indeed, Bolivia`s lack of access to the sea features on a list of taboo topics of conversation – along with coca production and politics – that are apparently best avoided in the workplace.

On the whole, I found Chileans exceptionally friendly and open.  Chileans speak far more quickly than Bolivians and with a different accent so I floundered to keep up at first.  In Arica, I stopped to ask three city workers for directions and ended up chatting with them for well over an hour as they gave me their take on the Chilean/Bolivian feud, poked fun at my accent and questioned my decision to spend seven months in Bolivia rather than Chile.

A local woman runs a Santuario del Picaflor (hummingbird sanctuary) just outside of Arica, having created a haven for the birds with exotic flowers and plants in her enormous, beautiful garden.  It was already dusk by the time I found out about it but I hurried there anyway (I have an even bigger affinity for hummingbirds than bats) and though most were sleeping, I came across one very sweet bird nesting in an olive tree.

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Jorge, Freddy & Alberto - friendly Chilean city workers

Jorge, Freddy & Alberto – friendly Chilean city workers

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Hummingbird in an olive tree

Hummingbird in an olive tree

My stay in Arica was fleeting, since I was eager to reach Iquique – a 5 hour winding, desert bus ride away, further down the coast.  Back in 1907, Iquique was home to a massacre of hundreds of striking nitrate miners and their families, committed by the Chilean army.  Nowadays, Iquique is a vibrant city and a popular holiday destination for Chileans, travellers and particularly surfers.

Iquique was a welcome break from congested, chaotic La Paz and I was in seafood heaven, indulging in fresh fish and crab empañadas.  I also sampled my very first pisco sour (yes, it`s possible I`ve been living under a cocktail rock) – definitely not my last.  I felt considerably safer as a lone traveller in Chile and it was refreshing to be able to eat street food freely (unfortunately not advisable in La Paz) and to rediscover the joys of traffic lights.  After only a few hours, I resolved to try and extend my holiday and ended up spending the rest of the week there.

Huge sand dunes rise up abruptly behind the city and the desert climate is hot and sunny even during the winter months.  The city centre – with its beautiful, brightly-coloured, often crumbling buildings – is a fairly peaceful place, since the nearby sprawling `Zofri` (duty-free shopping zone) keeps most of Iquique`s commerce outside of the centre.  A bustling hive of activity, the port is home to fishermen, pelicans and sea lions that loll and grunt on the docks, piling on top of each other like giant, whiskered slugs.

The beaches are lovely and I spent a couple of blissful afternoons being tossed around in colossal ocean waves that come crashing down only metres from the shore.  Merchants offer ceviche, fresh fruit and ice cream, clamouring to be heard as they haul their coolers across the sand.  Some go to wild lengths to be noticed and the result is hilarious.  Each has his or her own distinctive cry and they compete loudly like crazed birds experimenting with mating calls, making for an entertaining spectacle.

All in all, I had an idyllic stay in Chile and was so glad I made the trip (despite the tedious 18 hour bus ride home).  Stay tuned for a full report of Carnival festivities, which preceded my Chilean getaway!

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Iquique`s town theatre

Iquique`s town theatre

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Fisherman`s market

Fisherman`s market

Expectant sea lions

Expectant sea lions

Sunbathing sea lions

Sunbathing sea lions

Also, they like to fight...

Also, they like to fight…

...a lot

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Sand dunes rising up in the distance

Sand dunes rising up in the distance

Pelicans

Pelicans

Spectacular Salt Flats

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Earlier this month, I took a trip to Salar de Uyuni with three Bolivian friends.  At a whopping 12,106 square km (3653m above sea level), the Salar is the world`s largest salt flat and contains more than half the world`s supply of lithium.  It is estimated that 20,000 tons of salt are extracted and processed each year, for sale in Bolivia as well as international export.

Lonely Planet describes the twelve hour ($14/£9) bus ride from La Paz as `bone-shaking` and it was no exaggeration.  The final third of the journey was over dirt road which proved to be a rude awakening at 4am.  Picture the roughest aeroplane landing you have ever experienced (sans seatbelt) and then imagine it lasting for four solid hours.  Suffice to say, I emerged bleary-eyed and more than mildly grumpy after two such overnight journeys (especially on the way back when my window was scotch-taped together and rattling incessantly).  The only upside of the turbulent ride was being awake to witness the sunrise, the sky slowly turning pink as our double-decker bus barrelled through the desert.

Uyuni itself is a fairly uninspiring town, with tour agencies, pizzerias and little else.  Just outside the town is an ancient train cemetery, an eerie and desolate place where the wind whips around rusted shells of abandoned trains dating back to the 19th century.

Uyuni's train cemetery

Uyuni’s train cemetery

Train cemetery

Visiting the Salar requires an organized tour, and unfortunately guide books and the internet are rife with horror stories about drunk-drivers, poorly maintained vehicles and accidents, claiming `it is impossible to recommend operators with any confidence`.  Perfecto.  Dubious agencies reputedly squeeze up to seven people into their jeeps – gas canisters, food and rucksacks strapped to the tops of the vehicles – with little regard for either safety or the environment.  Fortunately one of our group works for a travel agency and had a somewhat reliable contact, and I was instructed to stay quiet (and pretend to be half-Bolivian, if anyone asked) as my friends negotiated a private, made-to-measure tour for the four of us at a `national` price.

We set off with our guide and driver, José, and his 9 year old son, also José.  I waited until we were sufficiently far into the wilderness before attempting to make conversation, thus revealing my non-Bolivian identity.  José senior was a man of few words, but a taciturn driver was preferable to a drunk one, and he admirably doubled as a mechanic when our jeep broke down on day two.

It is difficult to describe just how stunning the scenery is, nor do my photos do the landscape justice.  It felt as though we were crossing through different planets, as we sped across the vast white expanse of salt and bounced our way through the desert.  At times bleak and eerie, the desolate desert plains stretched for miles, turning from arid cactus-laden hills to rust red sand.  Volcanoes tower above the sands, some of them active, while Andean peaks as far as Chile are visible in the distance.

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Desert sunset

Desert sunset

Desert sunrise

Desert sunrise

Herds of llama and vicuña (a wild relative of the llama) graze in the brush, scattering as jeeps approach.  As we lurched along, I was lucky to spot two rare rheas – Bolivia`s version of the ostrich – bounding through the dusty plains with their feathered middles fluttering like tutus.  Everyone but the driver was asleep and we were moving too fast for a photo, so it was a surreal moment that I half-wondered if I`d imagined (I was heartened when I later Googled ‘ostriches in Bolivia’).

We stopped at various lagunas, where flocks of flamingoes gather to feed on minerals in icy, rose-coloured water.  After a lunch of llama steaks, we piled back into the jeep to visit surreal rock formations and geysers, spouting clouds of sulphuric-smelling steam from their depths.  José senior broke his silence to make a wry comment that the odd feckless tourist has been known to slip and fall to their death in the geysers while posing for photos.  (I chose to believe him, though that particular Google search came up empty).

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La Laguna Colorada

La Laguna Colorada

Flamingoes

Flamingoes

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Arbol de piedra (Stone Tree)

Arbol de piedra (Stone Tree)

Bubbling geysers (they look fascinating and smell revolting)

Bubbling geysers (they look fascinating but smell revolting)

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Salt hotels have sprung up to accommodate visiting tourists, but we stayed in cheaper, basic accommodation (beds of stone rather than salt) in the middle of the desert.  The weather is extreme in the Salar, switching from burning hot during the day to freezing cold at night.  Breakfast was served at 5am, and we set off on the long and bumpy ride back to the Salar, with a brief mechanical failure and lunch at an island that looked like a pincushion of cactuses.

One week prior to our trip, a group of five Australian tourists and their guide became lost in the Salar for five days before being found safe and sound.  Since returning two weeks ago, two more groups have survived being missing for several days.  Rain obliterates the trails of other vehicles and plays havoc with visibility, and in these vast salt flats, an inexperienced guide can easily become disoriented.  Guides rely upon the distant volcanoes as navigational markers, but when heavy rains strike, there is nothing to be done but come to a standstill and wait.

The salt makes for a blinding surface, akin to driving across an enormous mirror.  It is a breath-taking, brilliant white expanse that seems to be endless.  At some points the surface is slick and smooth, at others there are cone-shaped mounds of extracted salt, and yet further, hexagonal salt tiles spread as far as the eye can see.  We had fun taking some obligatory cliched perspective shots and later watched the Josés demonstrate salt extraction with a hammer, locating cracks in the tiles that conceal deep, salty pools.  After chiselling and banging away, they unearthed glistening mounds of crystallised salt.

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Cecilia with her beloved Kermit (Rana René in Latin America)

Cecilia with her beloved Kermit (Rana René in Latin America)

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José & José, extracting salt

José & José, extracting salt

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This post is coming a little late since I`ve been busy with work, travelling to attend FONCRESOL`s three day AGM (where I presented to the five regional offices, causing a predictably disproportionate amount of anxiety).  The meeting took place seven hours away, just outside Cochabamba, a city renowned for its abundance of food (five hearty meals a day) and whose inhabitants possess possibly the greatest name ever: Cochabambinos.

Burning brakes and bat caves

Gruta de San Pedro

I escaped the hustle and bustle of La Paz for a weekend sojourn to Sorata just before New Year.  Sorata is a picturesque town perched in the valley beneath Mount llampu and Ancohuma, in the Las Yungas region (where Caranavi is also located).  Back in colonial days it provided access to the Amazon Basin, as well as the goldmines and rubber plantations of the Alto Beni.  These days, Sorata is a popular retreat for Bolivians and travellers alike, the idyllic setting acting as a base camp for hiking and mountain-biking trails.

The 3.5hr journey involved yet more hair-raising twisting trails with steep drops.  As we wound our way down the valley towards the town, the minibus I was travelling in began to emit a strong smell of burning (I suspect from overworked brakes) and I breathed a big sigh of relief when we arrived.

La Gruta de San Pedro (San Pedro cave) is a 5-6 hr round-trip hike from the town and is approximately 400m deep.  It houses bats as well as a large enclosed lagoon that can be crossed by pedal boat.  I`m quite fond of bats, and thus endured the oppressive humidity to watch them flitting and squeaking above, while unsuccessfully trying to photograph them.

The cave`s guide was 15 year old Janet, who explained she was taking her turn in the local community giving guided tours and that it was helpful she could add to her mother`s income.  In flip flops and armed with a small torch, she admitted to finding it spooky when alone in between visits, particularly when the string of electric lightbulbs fail, leaving her in complete darkness.  Children seem to be well and truly incorporated into family and community labour here.  During dinner in the town`s market-place, my waiter was 11 year old Imanol, who single-handedly served the restaurant in between watching cartoons.

Sorata

Sorata

Janet, the cave`s 15yr old guide

Janet, the cave`s 15yr old guide

Blurry bats

Blurry bats

Hiking past the scene of a tragic accident. In November, a minibus plunged 300m, killing 6 and injuring 9. The shell of the vehicle was visible in the valley below.

Hiking past the scene of a tragic accident. In November, a minibus plunged 300m, killing 6 and injuring 9. The shell of the vehicle was visible in the valley below.

Sorata in the distance

Sorata in the distance

Look out for Bolivia in the media over the next couple of days:

UK folks:
‘World`s Most Dangerous Roads’ – Wednesday 9th January, 9.30pm on BBC Two
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pw3yx

Canadian friends:
David Suzuki`s ‘The Nature of Things’- Thursday 10th January, 8pm on CBC-TV
http://www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/episode/david-suzukis-andean-adventure.html

Both shows feature the spectacular Salt Flats of Salar de Uyuni.  I just spent the weekend visiting the Salar – stay tuned for a full report!

Hiking up Devil`s Tooth

La Muela del Diablo

La Muela del Diablo

I recently took a hike up La Muela del Diablo (Devil`s Tooth), the craggy peak that features to the far right of my home page image of La Paz.  An extinct volcano, La Muela sits at 3825m above sea level and is a foreboding sight.  Legend has it that La Muela del Diablo and Mount Illimani once fought against one another, sending bolts of lightning across the valley.

Located high above the city`s most affluent neighbourhood, la Zona Sur, La Muela is a pleasant, if slightly breathless from the altitude, half-day hike that begins with winding dusty trails to the grassy base and becomes a rocky scramble to the peak.  I made it to the V-shaped point between the two right-hand pinnacles, beyond which point technical climbing gear and nerves of steel are required.  The daunting climb up the rocky outcrop was well worth it, with magnificent views of the bowl-shaped city of La Paz and the surrounding valleys as a reward.

La Muela is known to attract brujería (witchcraft) and I was warned against touching any evidence of this, such as the small piles of rocks scattered at intervals along the trail, remains of campfires and especially the abundant knotted grasses closer to the peak.  It definitely adds an element of fear, when scrambling up a slope of scree, to know that any deliberate or accidental contact with knotted grass might have ominous consequences.  I was somewhat relieved to leave the witchcraft behind and be picking my way through potato fields and clusters of cacti on the descent.

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Unexpected outdoor restaurant

Unexpected outdoor mini-restaurant

Outdoor oven in the middle of nowhere

Outdoor oven in the middle of nowhere

Knotted grass, evidence of witchcraft

Knotted grass

Knotted grass, evidence of witchcraft

…evidence of witchcraft

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The distant skyscrapers in the top left of the photo indicate La Paz`s city centre

The distant skyscrapers in the top left of the photo indicate La Paz`s city centre

With that, I wish you all happy and peaceful holidays!  ¡Feliz Navidad a todos!

Cemetery celebrations on La Isla del Sol

* monster post – you might want to put the kettle on…

November 1st was Todos Santos/El Dia de los Muertos (All Saints Day/Day of the Dead).  That meant a long weekend and I seized the opportunity to travel to La Isla del Sol.  This is an island on Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest altitude lake, which borders both Bolivia and Peru.

By incredible luck, I travelled with a delightful Bolivian family, who took me entirely under their wing and ensured I had an experience vastly different than travelling as a lone tourist.  After daily greetings with Rosa, the office cleaning lady and her 8 yr old son, José Luis, it transpired we were all heading to La Isla del Sol for the holiday weekend and suddenly I had instant travel companions.

We left at 4am (not my ideal departure time but well worth it for the good company) and travelled by taxi, minibus, boat, another minibus and finally another boat.  The final stretch of the journey involved catching a lancha (motorboat) from the town of Copacabana to the island.  As I was about to pay the tourist fee of 20 Bolivianos ($3) for the 2hr journey, Rosa intervened and sternly told the boatman “No es turista!  Es familia!”, ensuring I paid the half-price ‘community’ fee.  We were only just becoming acquainted at this point, but it was one of many remarkably generous gestures on the family`s part.  They insisted upon hosting me at Rosa`s father’s house and shared absolutely everything with me – I truly couldn’t have wished for a warmer welcome.

The family

Our group consisted of Rosa and her children Patricia and José Luis, Rosa`s sister Marcela and her children Omar and Monica (who is one of my colleagues, a nice surprise discovered en route), another sister Ericka and myself.

Marcela and Rosa, in their traditional Cholita dress

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