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Archive for the ‘Bolivia’ Category

Bleary early start
Dark – pack backpacks
Sleepy jeep creeping
Brittle river ice
Mares’ tails – black
Morning star punctuates
Serpentine headlight procession
Dust trails drifting
Geyser – jet roar
Dawn blaze hills
Sulphur cauldrons blurping
Smoulder earth
Boulder earth
Colder earth
Turner mist-light
Thawing finger-ice
Dirt track luge
Inexorable sun rise
Dazzle lake steaming
Barefoot frozen tiptoe
Hot spring sting
Cosy enrobing flow

While the Haiku is perhaps the Canon SLR of word-pictures, I have opted for a quick Instamatic point-and-shoot approach; phrases jotted as we jolted.

Thus began our last morning in Bolivia; up at a painful 4.30am after a (literally) freezing night. Indeed, this was the sort of night we feared would be frequent at altitude in South America, and had escaped until now.

Dawn blaze.
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Sol de Manana geyser.
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Geothermal area.
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And by 8am we were having breakfast beside our Toyota. I was the only one of our group of six to try the pool; the girls shivered in the car much of the time, Zenning. I feared the transition from warm pool to chill air, but nothing to fear in the end.

Landcruiser showroom.
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Hot springs

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We continued through a Dali desert (the rocks supposedly owed something to him, but I wasn’t convinced)
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and our last stop was the Laguna Verde; coloured thus by copper. (That red lake is down to the micro-organisms which give the flamingoes their hue; I asked.)
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Then it was but a short hop to the Chilean border. We got there a bit early (target time 10am), but we were immediately swept away to a waiting minibus (Cordillera Traveller for real this time) to take us down to San Pedro and immigration. Just time for a quick group photo,
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and then we were filling in our name, passport number, etc., three times over (why?) on a bumpy bus – though the road soon improved on the Chilean side. Quite extraordinary to drive straight downhill at 50 – 60 mph for about 40 minutes, seeing the Atacama plain spread out down below – like a plane coming in to land.

We disgorged at the frontier post; passports carefully checked against faces and stamps issued, then all bags through the X-ray machine. Severe warnings about not importing any vegetable of animal products. Where do they draw the line? Chocolate bars? Peanuts in chocolate bars? Souvenir reed boats from the floating islands? And customs staff brandished latex gloves to put the wind up would-be smugglers.

Anyway, we all got through without the need for thorough baggage or body searches, so back on the bus and a short way on to the office of Cordillera Traveller, where we were to be met and taken to the B&B.

Of course, no-one was there to meet us. We waited a little, I went off to find an ATM, then Kirsten phoned up. No problem; they’d send a car to arrive in ten minutes.

Forty minutes later, Kirsten called back (we were all hot and tired by now). We were told that the car was there waiting for us – where were we? So Kirsten explored all the surrounding streets and at last found a lady waiting on the opposite side of the block to our left. There are two ‘Cordillera’ offices, but she hadn’t thought to check the other one, the one where arriving passengers have the temerity to be deposited.

So some time after noon we were shown to our room; crammed with two bunk beds and a single with a pull-out mattress. Right next to the communal kitchen, for better or for worse. One drawback; there is no wireless or wired internet connection available, but there is internet access. How can this be? Guests share one laptop which has a 3G mobile connection (slow), and thus we can’t use our machine at all.

We were given a lift much of the way into town and we walked the main street looking for somewhere to eat. We settled on the Adobe Cafe, and this turned out to be a good if pricy choice. We ordered a ham and cheese sandwich (for me, this time), an Italian salad for Kirsten and two tomatoes filled with tuna mayonnaise for the girls. But these were far more than you might imagine; the giant tomatoes were on a bed of lettuce with grated carrot, sliced knobbly cucumber and an olive on top, and my sandwich came with ample chips. A good start to our Chilean food experience.
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But the fresh fruit juices were frighteningly expensive; £3 for a glass whereas we have paid 30-50p in Bolivia for the same. This is a tourist town, but we opted out and shared a Coke.

We then found a very small market and bought a pineapple, half a watermelon, four bananas (of humbling length) and a grapefruit; the market is open on Saturdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays only.

For supper we stocked up with two slices of fresh quiche from a cafe (plus a carton of cherry juice); I guessed 5000 Pesos and I was only out by 100 Pesos (still getting a feel for the new currency and prices; I think 1000 Pesos is a bit over £1, but I’m not sure what percentage more).

The girls chose chocolate cereal, vanilla yogurts and cereal bars. We were in need of an ice cream (this is the desert where it hasn’t rained for 400 years) and my guess of 7000 Pesos was wildly out; four lollies (including a Magnum) came to just under 1300 Pesos. So at least frozen treats are cheap…

We walked back in the heat of the afternoon; quite a long way with no shade, and we were all in need of a chunk of watermelon when we got back. We flopped after our early start but the girls seemed to have plenty of energy to spare. We borrowed the ‘house laptop’, checked emails and put some entries on the blog, but the connection is too feeble to put any photos yet.

Supper and then an early night for the girls. We are a bit concerned about noise next to our room – tonight the girls are tired enough to sleep through anything, but we can’t expect everyone else to keep quiet in the kitchen. For now it is occupied by the owner’s family who have been quietly baking bread for tomorrow’s breakfast (and it smells good…) but other guests may not be so considerate. There are four other rooms off this kitchen area as well as a toilet/shower room. We shall soon see if this B&B will suit us for the entire week or if we need to start looking elsewhere (noise and lack of internet are the main concerns).

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Salt flat tyre

We slept soundly in our salt hotel after the previous night’s wine (by the way, what do you do if you spill red wine on a salt table?). But I woke early, well before the 7am call, and there was a clearer view of San Juan from the window – yesterday’s dust storm had passed.
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Breakfast consisted of slightly stale rolls with jam or dulce de leche spread. We then packed our bags, loaded the Toyota and went on our way. First stop was a pre-Inca chullpa site where some of the coral funerary towers still contained skeletons. Our guide claimed that this 1500-year-old race averaged a height of only one metre, but the remains didn’t look that small.
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Then some rock formations to clamber over, and a view of a semi-active volcano (we saw the fumarole issuing steam) – apparently it last erupted in 2001.

Kirsten’s stone tower.
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Desert plants.
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A series of lagunas (Canapa, Hedionda and Honda – hang on, it’s the Renault Laguna, not the Honda Laguna…) populated with flamingoes; lots of scope for panoramic views here. The Andean flamingo has a black tail, but the majority were James flamingoes.
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Today’s road was far bumpier than yesterday’s; we were off the flat salt plains and going cross-country where the way was hardly marked at all (the guides navigate using the hills as landmarks).

We stopped for lunch at the second laguna, which was clearly set up for the task; each jeep parked next to a permanent picnic table. Chicken Milanesa with potatoes, beans, carrots and twirly pasta, then a banana for dessert. Not Inca Trail standard, but it filled us up nicely.
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Much of the afternoon was spent driving through a barren wilderness; miles and miles of stony soil with scarcely a plant maintaining a foothold at this altitude. We passed a lone cyclist pushing his bike for miles in the cold, dusty wind beneath intense sunlight. A mile further on we got a puncture, and during the twenty minutes needed for the repair the cyclist took the lead again.

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Further on we came to the mountain of seven colours (no, not quite a rainbow, but various earth tones of rock), and then to one of the most famous landmarks of this trip, the Arbol de Piedra (the stone tree). This is a Dali-esque rock apparently defying gravity, ridiculously top-heavy like those elephants on stilts.
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A little way on to our final site of the day, the Laguna Colorada. It has extensive red patches, but our guide wasn’t forthcoming about what causes the colour. A lot of the time it’s just ‘here it is – you have ten minutes to take your photos’.
Laguna Colorada

After this we paid 30 Bs each for entrance to a Reserve (the girls were free again) and soon were at our hotel. Well, it’s a dorm room sleeping up to seven, so we are sharing with Manuela and Enrico, our German co-travellers. One toilet/basin for three groups, no shower, and the usual tables (one per group) for tea, supper and breakfast. As I look out of the window I can see two chunks of meat hung up to dry on a washing line. Is that our supper?

Our table was set up for tea/coffee and biscuits and as we were enjoying those the room was getting colder and colder and we were all slowly putting on extra layers of clothing.  Soon it was 7pm and time for supper, or so we thought.  The other two tables were laid out and served a starter and main course *before* we even got our plates.  In the end I went to ask whether we were given some supper and soon a lady came in with plates and cutlery.  Then another long wait before we were served our soup.  At last, we could start to warm up, as the little stove was hardly burning. 

We had half a bottle of wine left over from yesterday, and again I had to go and ask for glasses.  We felt pretty let down by the lady looking after our table.  After the delicious soup we were offered pasta with freshly made tomato sauce (no meat), but the food cooled off pretty quickly.

On top of this we hadn’t seen our guide since tea time and we needed to know the plan for tomorrow.  Eventually he turned up and apologised for not being there for us – apparently he had been repairing the flat tyre! 

We have a 4.30am start tomorrow morning, so must try and get some sleep…

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Salty Towers

A quietish night in our two rooms, and awake around 7am to sort out bags – what we’ll need during our salt flat tour, and what can be safely packed away until Chile. We had a quick look round the local breakfast establishments, but when none of them inspired us, we returned to Minuteman for six pancakes (with maple syrup or with cinnamon, apple and banana). Once again, really delicious food. The boss is from Boston, and he pointed us in the direction of a gallery of trick shots taken on the salt flats. Our favourites were people crawling into a Pringles tube, a salt shaker pouring out a metre-high pile of the stuff, little people balancing on various body parts of big people… (Our own efforts will follow later.)

We asked to go to ‘Migracion’ around 10am to get signed out of Bolivia (for the arbitrary sum of 21 Bolivianos each), then we fetched our bags and found our jeep (Toyota Landcruiser). We discovered that we were sharing with a German couple, so a full vehicle and a bit of a squash because we only put our large rucksacks on the roof to begin with (we rectified this at lunchtime).
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The wide Uyuni streets.
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A bit before 11am we started our trip, pausing first at the train graveyard (all the tour companies do the same itinerary, I think). Formulae by Einstein and Newton adorned a couple of rusty old engines.
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Then on to a small settlement with stalls selling salt artefacts (dice, turtles, llamas, etc.) and a salt museum – a big llama the girls could sit on, a clock tower, a quirquincho (I think).
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This was the gateway to the Salar itself, and soon we were driving over a dazzling expanse of white; sunglasses essential. Early on we stopped for photos at the Ojos del Salar – cold salt water bubbling up from underground springs.
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A 360 degree panorama of the salt flats.
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On to the world’s first salt hotel (only twenty years old), but now disused because it would pollute the salt flats. Salt walls, chairs, tables, bed bases (but not mattresses).
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Onwards over a section of the salar with a marked hexagonal pattern (similar to dried, cracked mud) where we tried our hand at some trick photos. Hard to get the correct alignment, but here are some of our efforts.
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Okay, here’s a five-sided hexagon…
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We also had lunch here; quinoa, rolls, tomato, cucumber and llama meat – for dessert, watermelon.
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Next stop – one of the ‘islands’ in the salar. initially it seems bizarre to talk of islands, but when you reach them they do indeed appear as rocky outcrops surrounded by a sea of salt, as if the ocean were frozen. we stopped at Isla Incahuasi (rather than the more famous Isla del Pescado), paid our 15 Bs admission and walked up towards the viewpoint. Huge cacti everywhere, some over 10 metres tall and over 1000 years old, apparently. (How do they tell? Count the rings?)
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When we bought our tickets, we had to fill in the usual name, profession, age, etc. But one peculiarity was that our guide completed the ‘tour operator’ column with ‘Kantuta’ rather than ‘Cordillera Traveller’. When I queried this, he said ‘it’s not important’. But this sounded suspiciously as if we had been sold on to a different agency, one whose reputation we don’t know (we chose Cordillera precisely because of its good reviews).

We also discovered that the two Germans had booked with Kantuta, but had paid the same as us (600 Bs). We then spoke to the Cordillera customers in the other jeep, and they had had a flat tyre earlier on – so perhaps we shouldn’t be too ready to complain.

We drove on further and soon approached the far edge of the Salar. A little before we stopped at a spot where they cut out bricks for construction purposes, and this was also our final chance for salt flat photos.
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From here onwards we were back onto gravel tracks, a slightly rougher ride than the smoothness of the salt roads. The terrain became increasingly dusty, and we had to stop a few times when visibility fell to zero. After a couple of hours we reached the community of San Juan where we found our hotel for the night; yes, made of salt.

We were offered a triple room (as had been hinted before our departure), but we held out for two doubles in adjacent rooms. Other jeeps arrived later and the occupants were usually unhappy at the available choice of a triple or a six-bed dorm – so many wanted doubles.

We were offered tea, coffee and coconut biscuits (some other groups got only dry crackers for cheese) as a stopgap before supper. The latter (when it arrived) consisted of a tasty vegetable soup followed by chicken portions with fried potato slices. With some prompting we got a bottle of red Chilean wine; we were given the option of having it either tonight or tomorrow night; in the end we got through half the bottle so we’ll have the remainder tomorrow night.

Our salt dining room.
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At the end of the meal, a desultory performance of three songs by a group of unsmiling local children, one of whom then circulated and refused to leave a table without a suitable tip.

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Braving Bolivian buses

We woke up early after a better night’s sleep to do our final packing, and we were so efficient that we were done by 8.20, leaving us one and a half hours to start typing yesterday’s blog (which Kirsten wrote out in longhand yesterday).

Breakfast was an improvement on previous days; there are more guests staying (i.e. we aren’t the only ones) so they set out a buffet selection including cereal, small pastries and fruit salad.

Not so sure about this hotel. Apart from the obvious security concerns, the apartment was only half-provided with the necessities – no washing-up liquid or tea towels, insufficient crockery and cutlery for four of us, only two large towels provided, less-than-inspiring breakfast which twice failed to reach the promised ‘americano’ standard. We’re surprised it has four stars, given that our La Paz hotel was three star and offered so much more.

Just after 10am we checked out and walked with our bags down to the Uyuni bus terminal (no, the hotel didn’t even offer to call us a taxi). There we joined the waiting group of (mainly) tourists and shortly afterwards a 20-seater ‘Diana Tours’ bus pulled up. We stood there, expecting to be allowed on board, but the driver locked the door and disappeared for a while. The departure time (11 o’clock) came and went, and still no joy.

Not our coach…
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A while later the driver returned, unlocked the door – and drove off into the distance! We heard some rumour that they had gone to look for the driver (so who was driving the bus?) and even the local police came over and gave the office staff a hard time over the delay. Kirsten went over to a rival company’s office (whose bus left at noon) but all the seats were taken.

Eventually, a bigger ‘Diana’ coach appeared and we started loading up straightaway. Our reserved seats placed us in the front row once again – legroom! – but curtains drawn across in front of us eliminated any forward view we might have had.

We set off around 11.45am and for the first 45 minutes we had a good tarmac road. But this was too good to last and the rest of the trip was on a gravel track. We were told that the journey would take between 6 and 7 hours (so make that 7 or 8 hours), and we were concerned about getting our hotel rooms and our salt flat tour booking because of the late start.

The changing views during the journey are quite striking; extensive flood plains, barren scrubland populated by llamas and the occasional group of vicunas (don’t know where they find water to drink), cactus-spiked hillsides, rocky outcrops with a vivid contrast between the red stone, the green hillside and the clear blue sky – Nature’s RGB.
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We stopped occasionally to deposit or collect local passengers, and by the end of the trip the aisle was packed with standees, plus a TV set wrapped in a cloth right at the front between our four seats, blocking the way.

After five hours we asked how much longer the trip would take; the astonishing answer was ‘cinco minutos’! Somehow we had made up the lost time and were due to arrive around 5pm – indeed, it turned out that we arrived only just after a bus that departed a whole hour earlier. There were no loo stops, but fortunately we all managed to hang on…

At the terminal, a lady from Cordillera Traveller met us, and we walked three blocks or so to the office along with six other travellers from our bus and the preceding one (didn’t expect so many people to have chosen the same company). Before she started explaining about the trip, I popped along the road to check in at our hotel. A few scary moments when they appeared not to have our reservation, but eventually it turned up and I got the keys (not next-door rooms but one directly over the other).

Back to the tour company office and a quick run-through of the schedule. Off at 11am tomorrow (later than we expected), but be there half an hour earlier for Peruvian ‘migracion’. See the salt flats. First night in a nice hotel (might be an illegal salt one), second night more basic – dorms. Up at 5.30am on the final day, coloured lakes, thermal pool, then to the Chilean border and down to San Pedro de Atacama for mid-day.

We paid our wadge of 100 Boliviano notes, returned to our rooms and soon ventured out for supper. I had heard good reports of Minuteman Pizza so we tried to find it. It’s at the back of a hotel and not advertised outside, but we located it eventually. And it is as good as the books say; Kirsten and I shared a ‘salad’ pizza with spinach, tomatoes, olives, peppers, etc., and it’s the best pizza we’ve had for a long time. The place is run by an American (from Boston? there’s a Minuteman memorial there, I think). The girls finished their shared sandwich, thereby entitling them to an ice-cream dessert (one scoop of vanilla or coconut).

On the way back we stocked up on drinks and nibbles for the next three days and were taken aback when this came to more than our supper (but Snickers and Twix bars are pricy over here). To our rooms – which we didn’t expect to have ensuite showers/toilets – and then a good rest (we hope).

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Miner’s trip

What a bad night we’ve had. Tim woke up in the night with really bad diarrhoea and was up or awake for most of the night. Today was the one day in Potosi that we couldn’t have a lie-in as we had booked ourselves on a trip to the silver mines. We also had to drop off our bag of dirty washing as we won’t have a chance over the next four days (travel to Uyuni tomorrow, followed by three days across the Salt Flats).

I had been lying awake worrying about lack of accommodation in San Pedro and not being able to have the laundry done.

We went down for breakfast shortly after 7am but none of us was hugely hungry. The girls spotted what they thought might be fresh orange juice, but we were all very disappointed when it turned out to be some other less tasty fruit. The girls opted for a glass of water instead, so did Tim as not to upset his tummy even more. We’re getting slightly bored with the sliced banana and apple/watermelon, followed by cold toast with butter and apricot jam. Tim and I opted for chamomile tea instead of coffee, which was a nice change.

Another welcoming change was extra tourists. An elderly French couple were also in the breakfast room (they weren’t offered eggs either, like us on our first morning) – I saw them leave with their suitcases later on.

After breakfast a quick stop in the apartment to use the bathroom and grab our bags and then we were off. All morning I had had a funny feeling about this launderette we kept walking past and has been closed for the past few days. Tim was quite optimistic about it though, and convinced it would be open. As we were walking down, I noticed that not all the shops had opened yet and as it turned out the Lavanderia was still closed.  We carried on to “Koala Tours” office in time for our trip.  I asked the man in hte office when the launderette might open and I was disappointed and annoyed when he said 9 am!  When I explained the situation (we had loads of washing and were leaving tomorrow) he offered to take our washing down later on in the morning.  I couldn’t believe my ears, I was just so pleased and impressed and grateful that he was willing to do that.

We handed over the bag and scribbled our name on a piece of paper – “PRICE” and he double checked it was our name and we weren’t asking him how much it would cost! 

Then our bus  arrived to take us on our 5 hour tour.  In the meantime two more men had turned up, a young gentle French guy and a chap from Hampshire.  We had just set off and the bus crashed into a car resulting in a dent in the car’s bonnet – and our bus driver just drove on!

A little further the driver stopped to pick up anothe 8 passengers and then we were off to get our miner’s outfits.  We went through a little doorway, up some steps and arrived in a small courtyard where we were handed our over trousers, coat, wellies, helmet and lamp and were offered to purchase bandanas (2 red H&K, 1 blue E and 1 warm yellow T), and we certainly needed them later.  The girls just looked so cute in their mine gear!
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We were allowed to leave all our stuff in a room behind  the courtyard, and then it was on the coach once more to drive down to hte miners’ market.  What I hadn’t realised wht that the miners have to buy their own equipment – helmets, lights, dynamite and extras like alcohol, coca leaves, soda and cigarettes  Our guide, who was extremely funny and sweet towards the girls, explained to us about the different gifts we could buy for the miners and we ended up with two complete sets of dynamite and a big bottle of fizzy drink.  Then we had about 10 minutes to wander around the market, but instead went to sit down in the shade as Hannah’s tummy felt unsettled and Tim was still feeling a little rough.

Drinking alcohol, 96 percent.
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Miners’ shop.
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Hannah with a stick of dynamite.
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Explosive Ellen.
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Then on to the bus again and finally we were driving towards the actual mines.  On our way we made two more stops, one at the viewpoint (the guide told us we had 2 minutes to take photos, Japanese tourists would get 3 minutes maximum!) and the second stop at the refinery where our guide explained abut the sifting method (it was all a little unclear to me, though).

Flotation processing plant.
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Cerro Rico.
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Then at last we could go to the actual Calanderia mine and Ellen could finally switch on her light!  Before entering the mine I made it clear to our guide thaat we only wished to walk in the upper part of the mine and weren’t planning on crawling through the narrow tunnels.  No problem, we could turn around whenever we wanted.  When booking this trip we were told that the upper part is a comfortable walk, not too low a ceiling and not too narrow.  Well, that wasn’t quite true, even I had to duck several times and I noticed it was slightly more difficult to breathe.  I kept checking with the girls that they were alright and had their bandanas covering mouth and nose.
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After a good 15-20 min walk we arrived at the so-called museum where the miners have put three statues; one of a black man, one of Francis Drake (Hannah remembered the name from school) and one of a god called “Tio” (derived from the Spanish “dios”).  This god is meant to look after the miners and keep them safe.  The miners offer this Tio drinks and llama blood (4 times/year). 

Tio Jorge
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It was also here that Ellen had had enough and asked to go back.  We let the guide know and initially he tried to persuade us to carry on a little further, but when I checked with Ellen she was adamant she wanted to get out.  We decided to listen to her and all planned to return with one of the other guides.  But first we had to wait for the miners to fill the last of the three trolleys before we could make our way out again.  Once out we felt relieved (and never regretted our decision).
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Miners’ changing rooms.
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Emerging safely.
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To be honest I was secretly pleased when Ellen asked to go back, I don’t feel comfortable underground.

Our guide walked us back to the coach where we rested – Tim sprawled out on the back bench, I sat near the open door for fresh air and Hannah & Ellen were pretending to be train drivers and looking out for potential passengers.
The guide had told us it would probably be about an hour before the others would emerge from the tunnels – they were either brave … or mad!

I later heard from some of them that it was pretty hard and that some struggled with their breathing – knowing that almost freaked me out and I’m glad we stuck with our decision.  Anyway, we would *never* have taken the girls down at all.  When the others had come out again it was time for some explosions  I think several people had bought extra sets of dynamite to have a go themselves.  The tube of dynamite was kneaded (like play dough) and the fuse was pushed into it at one end, then they lit the other end.  We were told earlier that it would take exactly 2min 40sec before it woulld explode.  The guide was so funny when he said that the tourists would get a much longer fuse as they can only run like tortoises – ha ha.

Kirsten with lit dynamite…
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who then passed it on to Tim.
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Altogether I think 4 or 5 dynamite sticks went off, the girls weren’t too keen on the loud bangs so chose to stay on the coach with some of the other guides.

By now we were all starving but we had left our daypack at the miners’ outfits place and were pleased it was only a short drive back.  I was glad to take off the big boots and trousers and wash my hands (as it turned out they needed washing several times to get rid of the awful mine smell!)

Before getting on the bus for the last time, we said farewell to our great guide who handed us little samples of minerals he got out of the mine earlier.  We all really liked him as he was extremely funny but also gave me the impression he cared for the wellbeing of his group as he constantly kept checking that we were OK.

Shortly before 1.30pm we arrived back in the centre of Potosi where we headed straight for the office – a) to let thme know we had a great time and b) to find out about our laundry …

For some reason this kind man had taken the laundry to a different launderette (one that was mentioned in one of the guide books) and said it would be ready for us by 6pm – what a service!

We headed straight next door for a light lunch of sandwiches and Tim risked a slice of banana cake.

We were all pretty tired and in need of a flop on our beds, and on the way back stocked up on snacks for the bus journey to Uyuni tomorrow.  While the girls had a TV rest, we got on with some more accommodation sorting and managed to phone “Incahuasi” in San Pedro de Atacama and book a quadruple room for 6 nights.  Our first choice, Hotel Al Elim, was already booked up.  The lady I spoke to kindly offered to meet us when we arrive after our Salar de Uyuni trip.  Afterwards we realised that this hotel offers transfers to the airport in Calama, so we might conisider staying an extra night and ask them to take us to Calama for our flight to Santiago – it will save time sorting out a hotel for one extra night in Calama.

After we all had had a good rest we headed out towards to bus station to sort out tickets for Uyuni tomorrow.  I feared we had left it too late, but we were in luck.  One of the companies had a coach parked outside, it looked alright to us so we decided to go with “Diana Tours”.  We entered the little office and it was a pleasant surpirse to see our mine trip guide.  He was there with his wife and two daughters.  We had a lovely chat and felt reassured about the company – well, if he is happy sending his eldest daughter to her grandfather in Porco using this company, then it should be alright …

Our tickets cost 30 Bolivianoss/person (same price for the girls as they will be taking up a seat each), and we could even pick our own sets.  Well, we were offered the two front rows and settled for that.  Only 7 other people had booked tickets so far, but I’m sure the coach will fill up by tomorrow.

Back to the hotel for another rest and for Tim to try and replace his driving licence.  Around 6pm we went to collect our laundry (all clean and folded) and found a nice place for supper.  We decided  to give “La Plata” Cafe a go  Jacqueline in Sucre recommended it for afternoon tea, but supper was good.  Tim & I chose pizzas (meaty for T, ham & pineapple for me), Hannah had the usual ham sandwich and Ellen chose a tuna/tomato sandwich.

Then back to the hotel for hopefully a better night’s sleep and some packing ready for tomorrow.  To be honest I’m not at all looking forward to the coach trip, it is meant to be a bumpy, uncomfortable road and it should take between 6 & 7 hours – let’s hope none of us will be sick!

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Burgled in Bolivia

Yes, we still like Potosi – and Bolivia – and South America. And we have come across hundreds of helpful, honest people in our time here. But one not-so-honest individual called while we were out…

It was probably shortly after we arrived in Potosi on Saturday that it happened. We dumped our stuff in our room around 12.30pm and then went out in search of lunch. We locked the door to our apartment, but what we didn’t realise at the time was that a window was open, hidden behind a net curtain; moreover, it was folded back 180° and wedged behind various items of furniture, so that it required us to move a lamp, a heavy chest of drawers and a sofa to close it again. This was a window onto the interior first-floor courtyard – not onto the main road – so we can only assume that someone came in off the street (on the offchance), walked upstairs and opportunistically reached through the window to grab my daypack which was lying on the sofa.

So what did we lose? Fortunately, I had just unpacked the laptop and bags of electronics accessories from it (including all our video footage), so we think it contained just a Gorillapod tripod (which we had never used) and slightly more importantly, our counterpart driving licences packed in a moneybelt. So nothing that will be of any use to the thief – apart from what he/she can get for a nice Osprey daypack (it saw me through the Inca Trail).

This slightly threw our plan for the day, which was to visit the thermal pool at Tarapaya. Instead, we walked into town to get a replacement backpack (we found one for 110 Bs) and booked our mine tours for tomorrow while we were there.

We returned to our apartment and ate a few of yesterday’s rolls for lunch, but they were getting a bit tough (they were to have been our picnic lunch). Eventually we set off on our postponed day out; we walked down to the Tarapaya ‘bus station’ and boarded our first colectivo. Think old minibus with seating for 14, but somehow accommodating 25 passengers… At least we got our own seats, and the half-hour ride was surprisingly smooth on a recently-resurfaced road.

The man sitting next to me kindly informed us that the lake at Tarapaya was not open today, but that everyone else was going to the hot baths at Miraflores. I assumed that this might be another 30 minutes along the road, but almost immediately we stopped amidst a gauntlet of refreshment stalls and everyone got off.

We followed the crowds through a dank concrete tunnel and paid our admission at the entrance booth; 4 Bs for adults and only 1 for the girls. Into another down-at-heel concrete building housing two hot pools. Changing facilities? Three little cubby-holes with a curtain to pull across, and a muddy floor.
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I assume that the water is piped from the thermal lake that was closed today, and because it is not chlorinated or otherwise treated, a slimy green film had built up on the floor and walls of the pools. The water itself was murky, but even so we lounged around for quite a while, the only non-locals there. So this is what Bolivian families do on a bank holiday…

Once we became rather too overheated, we got out and changed under our towels. Outside we bought a couple of lollipops and a drink, then waited for the next colectivo back to Potosi.
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The first few colectivos induced a mad rush for the doors and we held back, wanting to make sure we could all have a seat. But just as in England, you get three coming along at once, and with most of the scrum out of the way we had our pick of the empty seats on the last one. (The guide books claim they leave every half hour. What rubbish! They leave as soon as they are full.)

A slower journey back; it’s uphill most of the way and the engine was struggling. And we also waited while an accident was cleared – a van was on its side in the middle of the road following a collision with a car, and a group of men pushed it upright again, then backed it onto the verge. Every journey is an adventure here…

Back to the hotel for tea time, though our supplies are a little sparse (an iced biscuit or two). We have had a disappointing response to our hotel enquiry emails, so we may need to follow up with more phone calls. Kirsten bravely called our preferred Salt Flats tour operator (Cordillera Traveller) to book our places, and we were pleasantly surprised to be quoted a lower price; 600 Bolivianos each (500 for the girls) instead of the official website rate of $135. That’s £52 instead of £82. (I think there is more competition on the Bolivian side.)

Our hotel – Cima Argentum.
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Out for supper to one of the very few restaurants which seemed to be open;  once again, mediocre but acceptable fare, with lasagna, spaghetti and a ham sandwich to share amongst us. Then back to base – bed for the girls, blog and booking ahead for us.

So we’ve had our obligatory theft – something of a rite of passage for long-term travellers, perhaps. It could have been a lot worse, had our visitor been nimble enough to hop in and out of the window and find the rest of our goodies. I have colour scans of the driving licence counterpart documents (and of our immunisation records that I think were also in there), but I don’t know if this will pose a problem for our car hire in New Zealand and Australia. From what I understand, you can’t just replace the counterpart; you have to apply for both parts of the driving licence to be replaced.

I wonder if I’ll spot my backpack in the market tomorrow…

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City with altitude

Potosi is supposedly the highest city in the world, at a little over 4000m above sea level. The change in altitude took its toll first on Hannah (who was unwell during the night but later recovered), then Kirsten and Ellen (who had headaches towards the end of the day). I am now waiting for my turn…

This is why we are stopping here for a few days to acclimatise before we hit the salt flats of Uyuni. And this morning we added an extra night to our stay, so we’ll now be travelling on Wednesday rather than Tuesday. This also gives us time to get our laundry done as Monday is a public holiday.

Our hotel breakfast here does not compare with the La Paz spread; we got a small plate with neatly stacked slices of apple and banana, followed by three slices of toast with apricot jam. There is supposed to be egg on the menu, but none was offered (although another guest got his plate of scrambled egg); in the event, we wouldn’t have had room, but it’s the principle…

We walked up to the city centre and found the main square; a pleasant spot surrounded by yellow-painted colonial buildings and the impressive cathedral. If Sucre has its dwarf Eiffel Tower, Potosi has a mini Statue of Liberty in the middle of the square.
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We then explored the surrounding streets, popping into a few tour agencies to find out about trips to the hot springs and to the silver mines. At the first agency we were simply advised to take a colectivo bus for 4 Bs to Tarapaya, where the entry fee for the thermal baths would be 5 Bs; honest advice when they could have charged us five times more to take us there in a minibus. (And on two occasions when I have accidentally proffered too much money for an item, the overspend has immediately been returned to me.)

We got two quotes for the silver mines, 80 Bs per adult and 70 per child, or 100 Bs per adult and 50 per child – so no difference overall. But Koala Tours are well reviewed so we might go with them; they also assured us that we could have as short a tour of the mines as we wished – we wouldn’t be forced to stay underground for the full two hours.

The miners don’t work this Monday, so Tuesday morning looks the likely time for a visit, leaving tomorrow for the hot springs. Should be the other way round, perhaps, to get the grime off…

We stopped for a drink and a cake in the Koala Cafe next door, and the portions were so huge that this served as our lunch; Ellen’s vast slice of apple pie was especially noteworthy.
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View of la Casa de la Moneda from the Koala Cafe balcony
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Back to our hotel for a rest and for some serious internetting, attempting to sort out hotels for the next four weeks up to New Zealand. So I fired off emails to San Pedro de Atacama, Santiago and Easter Island, but we failed to phone our preferred Uyuni hotel using Skype; we could hear them but they couldn’t hear us.

The courtyard of our hotel.
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It was my turn to brave our nearby market, my mission being to buy washing-up liquid, milk and water. A bit of a walk to get past the clothes department (the stalls are sometimes grouped according to product category, and sometimes in gloriously random juxtaposition). But it was now nearly half past three and they were starting to pack up, so a quick whizz around to get what I needed.

We walked back into town for supper, but so many places were closed on a Sunday that we found ourselves back at the Koala Cafe. Now, despite its vegetarian credentials, every meat-free option we requested was off the menu so we finished up with three beef/chicken burgers and a ham sandwich for Ellen. Too much food to get through, sadly, and not quite as appetising as most meals we had in Peru.

But we like Potosi. We were expecting it to be a grim, bleak mining community, and it’s nothing like that – it has more character than square-gridded Sucre, which left us somewhat underwhelmed.

On the way back we stopped at an Entel telephone booth to get in touch with Hotel Avenida, Uyuni. But the number didn’t seem to work, with the phone beeping wildly before Kirsten had completed dialing. She tried again at a second place, and this time the proprietor kindly explained that we needed a zero prefix with the area code (just like in the UK). This did the trick, and soon Kirsten had reserved two twin rooms for us, all for a quarter of the price of the other good hotels in town. But I’d hate to arrive somewhere and have to rely on pot luck – I’ve seen so many dire reviews (and by dire, I mean rude staff, dirty sheets, bed bugs and/or insider theft from the hotel safe).

Finally, a quick update on my recent miscellaneous musings. First of all, the peculiar spelling of ‘Jhonny’ has logic to it if the digraph ‘jh’ is used to indicate the English ‘dzh’ J-sound as opposed to the Castellano ‘ch’ (as in ‘loch’) J-sound; for example, today I saw ‘Jhoel’.

Secondly, ‘llamataxi’ or ‘llamagas’ are more the Spanish equivalent of ‘dial-a-taxi’, etc., given that ‘llama’ = ‘call’; it’s not really a white horse equivalent (and I’ve never seen an ‘alpacataxi’).

Anyway, it’s late (thanks to losing a portion of this entry) – do look at the photos I’ve put on for recent days (including those dinosaurs!)…

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