Published: April 21st 2009April 21st 2009
We left Buenos Aires for the third and final time the day after our short trip to the Iguazu Falls. As we boarded another luxury bus, this time bound for Salta, we were handed some leaflets in Spanish and a huge can of insect repellent each. At first we thought they’d come back around asking for money, like people seem to do in Argentina, but in fact it was a freebie from the government, and a warning that we were heading for a Dengue Fever area. It was a bit disconcerting and I wasn’t looking forward to leaving the comfort of first class travel only to be bitten by an infested insect, which I became convinced would happen. Luckily, it hasn’t, so far.
On our first night in the city we booked a table at a Peña music and dance evening. As we were pulling on our finest heavily creased glad rags somehow I managed to drop my camera on the floor, causing the screen to break and in so doing cause a significant amount of stress. It still took photos, but it was a case of point at something and hope. Not good for the aspiring professional photographer that
Catherine has become.
The Peña evening didn’t start until 10pm, which is pretty late for us, and we were the first people to take our seats and order our steaks. The dancing and music was really good, the dancing especially, with lots of drumming and macho foot stamping. The band wound up at about half midnight, and we left. The next day, when we told the guy at the hostel we left at 1am (we lied a bit to make ourselves look cooler) he virtually laughed in our face for being lightweights and not seeing it out until 5am.
We needed an early start the next day though to start the great camera hunt. To our surprise there was an abundance of electrical shops in Salta, each with a small selection of digital cameras. We spent hours walking around then jumping on the internet to see which is the best before plumping for a camera very similar to the one that had met its maker the night before. The best thing about it, we discovered when we carefully booted it up back at the hostel, was that it didn’t work. We were so happy. Annoyingly, the shop we
bought it from was shut when we went to take it back and there was no sign it would re-open. After a lovely and relaxing 3.5 hr lunch break for the staff, it reopened at 5.30pm and in jumbled Spanglish we managed to get a refund. As dusk closed in, we finally got our hands on a third camera in 24hrs and so far, so good!
On Easter Day we took a trip out to sample life on the ranch, with a bit of trekking in the mountains followed by some gaucho horse riding. We thought we’d be amongst a big group of tourists but when we arrived and were introduced to the extended family of the head honcho (including Gran, who wished us a ‘Felices Pascuas’) we realised we were all alone. After the morning walk with the guide Rodriguez, we settled down for a family Easter dinner. Luckily another couple of tourists turned up for lunch, taking the pressure off a bit. As the freshly grilled meat settled in our stomachs, the horses were lassoed and saddled up ready for the afternoon. We thought that it’d be pretty much the same experience in terms of riding as
we had in El Calafate - that is one horse walking patiently behind the other for a couple of hours. We were wrong - you could actually make these horses do stuff! After a short warm up, Rodriguez fashioned us whips out of branches and we were fully galloping along the tracks. It was great, apart from the extreme discomfort in the groin area!
We got a bus up to the Bolivian border on Easter Monday having become very familiar with the interiors of Argentine electrical shops but having not seen as much of Salta as we’d have liked. It looked like a lovely place but we had to move on. The six hour journey took us to La Quiaca, where we said farewell to Argentina and crossed a short concrete bridge that delivered us in Bolivia. Crossing that bridge bought us an extra hour, which meant we got to the border town of Villazon in time to catch the train further north to Tupiza. There were only first class tickets left but at just under four pounds for a three hour journey it hardly broke the bank. First class was full of tourists, which was slightly sad considering
the locals were squeezed into cattle class in the next carriage. The scenery on the journey was brilliant, as we have come to expect from our Bolivian experience so far. The train snaked along the side of steep mountains and through tiny villages with children waving at the trackside.
Tupiza is a small town nestled amongst countless mountains, and the starting point for our trip to the Salar de Uyuni. The way of life is a stark contrast to that we had experienced in Argentina and Chile, with evidently far less money and a poorer infrastructure. Despite that, we were met with so many friendly smiles and welcoming people. In preparation for the cold nights at high altitude, we took a trip to the town’s little market, where Catherine hand picked a fetching pale blue woollen sweater that any grandmother would have been proud of and had the miraculous effect of ageing her by at least 40 years.
Our trip to the Salar de Uyuni was a four day, three night job and we were to be stuck in a little jeep with just two other tourists for the whole time. In the event, we were lumped with
an eccentric Spanish/Venezuelan fella of proportionate build named Enrique and his shy retiring Icelandic boyfriend called Einar. I have never met anyone who talks so much or so loudly as our friend Enrique, which proved to be physically painful at some points. One day he either talked or sang for literally every minute of the nine hours spent in the Jeep, it was quite a feat.
The tour was just out of this world in terms of the scenery. It did not just include the amazing salt flat of the Salar, but took us past some types of terrain that I didn’t even think existed. It is times like this that the camera lens is just not wide enough and a picture can’t do it justice. We passed mountains formed of hundreds of needle type rocks, huge expanses of barren desert, snow capped peaks, colourful lakes and bubbling mud geysers. It was totally sci-fi, man. We also got up close to flocks of bright flamingos, perching eagles and grazing llamas. It was all at a pretty high altitude, up to 5000m (around the same height from which I did my skydive) and it really got to both of us.
I had a splitting headache for 48hrs and Catherine spent day two either curled up in nauseous pain in the back of the jeep - with Enrique constantly shouting Spanish to the driver - or sitting on a rock overlooking yet another awesome sight with her head bowed to the ground.
The pinnacle of the trip was undoubtedly the Salar de Uyuni itself, a 12,000km square salt lake of brilliant white. We got up early and watched the sun rise over the Salar, casting long shadows and lighting up the small ridges in the salt with illuminous orange. Later and with the clear deep blue sky above, as we looked at the horizon we could not tell where the land ended and the sky began. The sun was beating down, creating a mirage effect and the appearance of mountains floating above the ground below. Because it is so hard to work out perspective and judge distances across the huge expanse, the must do thing there is to create some ‘crazy’ perspective photos that defy logic. It was very amusing to watch some of the other tourists spend half an hour trying to get the perfect shot of them holding
their mate in the palm of their hand, squatting on the top of a mountain in the distance or defecating a Pringles tube. ‘Facebook’ really has a lot to answer for. Of course we had to join them and couldn’t resist the hilarious shot of us apparently sitting in a shoe.
The tour ended in the strange little town of Uyuni, where we recovered for a night before our first taste of the infamous Bolivian buses. The journey to Potosi the next day was not enjoyable, despite more stunning views. We sat in tiny bone shaking seats along the dusty dirt track for six hours, stopping only once for a roadside (literally) toilet break. The most reassuring thing was that at one point, when we were travelling at around 40kmph and with a Jeep heading towards us, the driver and the bloke sitting next to him swapped places. I decided it would be better to just not look.
We have spent the past couple of days in Potosi, once the biggest city in South America but now slightly more down on its luck and the stopping point for tourists wanting to see the once rich silver mines in
action. That’s why we came, anyway and yesterday we went on one of the hair-raising tours. Our guide, Julio, was a 42 year old ex-miner and a rude, racist, sexist, obnoxious idiot. He had a touch of the Robert Kilroy-Silk about him. After kitting up, he dragged us to a little shop, where we could (we had to) buy presents for the miners, including dynamite, drinks and coca leaves. With our sticks of dynamite and fuses and lighters we ventured into the mine which, if I was to guess, hadn’t had to pass any sort of safety certificate. It was a real working mine and the conditions were awful. After fifteen minutes, Catherine was having trouble breathing and decided it wasn’t for her so wisely escaped back to the safety of daylight. I continued on undeterred and despite the intensely arrogant Julio previously informing us to the contrary, we were scrambling up and down six foot vertical drops, tip toeing around 20ft deep water shafts and crawling on our bellies through tiny holes. The actual climbing part was quite fun but when we stopped and heard the sound of dynamite explosions from below, thoughts started to creep in about where
we actually were and it was quite scary. The gift giving situation was a bit of a joke and Julio ensured that we dished our presents out to his favourite miners, who were chiselling away a couple of feet from us at the end of a small tunnel. One group of miners we came across were obviously thirsty fellows and Julio shouted to us menacingly, “They need Sprite! Who has got Sprite?!” Luckily I was able to produce the goods, I don’t know how they would have survived otherwise. Actually I do, when we walked past I saw that they had two other fresh bottles of fizzy pop waiting to be enjoyed.
It was a huge relief to be greeted by daylight at the end of the tour, especially since Julio just walked off and left us to find our own way out. He didn’t get a tip.
Our plans had to change slightly this morning due to a strike in Potosi, so now we are in the official capital of Bolivia, Sucre. We got a taxi over here and got totally shafted, but that’s another story!
There are more photos below