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Published: February 27th 2006
In this episode - the 3-day Tour, The Rasta Llama, Gringo Bingo and the search for the Lost City of the Drinkas….and also getting to Potosi, Carnival in Oduro and La Paz. (mainly due to cyber USB phobia in Potosi and Oduro without which this would have been in long ago!)
Well, hasn’t Bolivia turned out to be another gem! Back in the land of cheaper prices and good service. Pity to have missed so much of Chile South but you know…and maybe things were better down south as one has to say that not only was Chile expensive, the service in many places was not up to scratch, and Bolivia has the prices and friendliness of my experiences in Argentina.
As the road into Bolivia had been closed we had come in thru’ Calama and Ollague a bit more north and made our way to Uyuni, the central hub of all tours south.
I’m writing from the rooftop solarium of a hotel in Potasi on the way to Oduro for the Devil’s Festival, quite appropriate after all our other ‘Devil” experiences. I’m still having trouble breathing sometimes, it’s over 4,000 metres here but I thought after a
couple of weeks between 3,000 and 4,500 I would be more acclimatised! But not so, I still have to take a few deep breaths every now and then with this awful oxy-starved sensation, weird, can’t wait to get back to the coast. In fact Raf just tells me this is the joint highest city in the world! (4,067m) Also once was the biggest city in the world! 8 million people died I the mines here! But this is all factual stuff!
So, the tour. Uyuni is home to several thousand tour operators, ranging in quality from nothing to sufficient. They are all the same, go to the same places, do the same things, have the same Toyota 4x4 Landcruisers (here’s one of the differences, some are new, some definitely are not!) The basic is a driver and a cook, then some take 4 people, luxury, some 6 and some forgo the cook and the driver looks after 7! We thought we’d bought a pup as we were the last of the daily convoy of 8 or 10 outfits to leave town, but it turned out we got a beauty, best cook and driver even tho’ the equipment wasn’t so
Our 4 partners were 3 Swedish backpackers and the Ecuadorian wife of one of them. Actually they were on their way to Conception to set-up bible groups, and back packing their way there from Ecuador. Like always you soon get to know each other and also the other groups as we all stop at the same places etc etc the net result is meeting about 30 or so new friends, one of the upsides to taking tours and a nice break from the relentless riding.
(I’ve got to say tho’, that is was very nice to back on 2 wheels again this morning)
Lucky again as our tour has great food, Elba, our cook was a real little dynamo, fixing amazing grazes three times a day.
The tours also know all the spots, as in San Pedro, many of the toury spots are not signed so you have to go with a local to find some of them!
Starting with the Uyuni famous salt lake, to get there we drove 20 kms out of town and then turned off on an unmarked road, came to a small pueblo, wound thru’ the back streets, knee deep puddles, mud
and dogs, finally out the back and the road to the solar…then off across the endless salt plain, the biggest, highest, you know the drill, most of it still wet and the 4x4s race out to the famous salt hotel!, yes, made entirely of salt bricks, salt fixtures, salt carved souvenirs…right out in the middle. We had to drive thru’ a couple of kms of axle deep water to get to the hotel, then back to shore. Local families shovel the raw salt into old trucks then process and sell it, like it’s still a small business enterprise for the local indigenous population.
Then to the equally famous train cemetery, yes, a couple of old tracks over a kilometre or so with dozens of old locos, some canabalised, some just rotting away, looks like if you want some 3/4 inch plate or similar, you just rock up with the gas axe and help yourself!
Then we’re off into the wild brown yonder…Stayed in some primitive places, ultra-cute native pueblos, (villages) fantastico! They are llama farmers and grow sporadic crops, well, one crop, a sort of cereal (quinuo ) the first night pueblo has 2, count them, little squares
with ultra modern sculpture and plaza stuff, too weird. All the buildings are mudbrick and adobe. Lots of dogs, of course, and a few people, kids out in the morning dressed to look real cute, then charge for photos!
Out on the road again…saw some more mind-boggling scenery, this high plain is more than I can tell you, barren, windswept, gravel expanses surrounded in the far distance by the usual snow cones and flat top mountains, nothing, absolutely nothing growing out here but the odd vicunya roaming around. Then the rocky outcrops or mountain ranges to cross, up and around steep rocky switchbacks, vicious, tyre slashing slate, the next with rounded boulders, smooth and shining in the sun like a beach of seals, fabulous shapes in the rocks that just seem to pop out of nowhere, wind carved shapes, dragons, turtles, dinosaurs, huge stone lizards basking in the sun, stopping for photo ops, and just to gawk.
And the lakes, high salt lagoons, ever-present flamingos the only sign of life, don’t know what they get out of these lakes as there doesn’t seem to be anything alive at all in them. But they make good photo foregrounds.
colours of the ranges and the textures of the rocks and the quality of the surfaces we drive over are constantly changing, brilliant colours on the hills, snow caps on top, green hues from the copper content, greys, whites, browns, and the texture from conglomerates to basalt to granite, many stratum curled and twisted, eroded softer layers making spectacular vistas.
Out across the desert, miles and miles of nothingness, then the valley of rocks, Dali valley, a sand dune about 5 kms off with really Dali-esque rock outcrops, and more lagoons and lakes…at one point we can see the other side of the active volcan I saw at Ollague, now about 50 kms away.
Another grotesque squirming, squashed, rock pier, eroded away to extraordinary visual effect, we stop and once more take particular care…not to fall off, but to avoid the results of a few thousand touristas’ appalling toiletry habits, why they can’t set aside one area I don’t know, but for many people the aim seems to be to just get away from the truck and go anywhere. The bano of piedra!
Then the famous arbole de piedra (tree of stone) where the famous BMW promo
shot was taken, I pose, bike-less in the spot, photoshop to the rescue! but all around this area, wind shaped rock outcrops, the turtle of stone, the mushroom of stone, the rock faces often with perfectly vertical slices, some eroded to resemble the space ships from Star wars intricate, meaningless pockmarked hulls, ancient as all this.
The Chilean border is just over those huge snow capped ranges but we’ll find a way thru’. I get the distinct impression that we are travelling a long way sometimes to go a short distance, yes, that one just slipped in somehow.
Sometimes the rock faces in the distance look just like cities, high rises and spreading office blocks, the lost city? Others resemble Stonehenge, groups of monoliths right out in the middle of the sandy nothingness.
Then the thermals, the hot springs, Laguna Verte, fabulous mirror image of the mountains beyond, until some rasta wannabe from another tour starts chucking rocks into the lake and all the mirror is shattered…. on to the border, where we would have come in, to drop off our 4 companeros, hopes of full-seat spreading for the long haul back shattered when we take on 2
The famous Arbole de Piedra
3 days in the south of Bolivia
It’s a long way back with few redeeming features, a different route, and I appreciate our driver’s skills even more, from the start we turn off at unsigned and barely visible tracks, always choices where the road suddenly diverges into 4 or 5 options, water hazards, sand traps, the nastiest, cruellest razor sharp slate, all of the vehicles have tyre repairs, these guys are amazing, they can get a wheel off, tyre off, tube repaired, back together in 15 minutes, bleed the brakes, blow out the carby, adjust the timing, all this is just matter of fact stuff but from time to time I realise just how isolated this is, I mean like nothing for a million miles. Sort of glad to have done this in the truck, on the bike, even in the best weather, this would have been a chore, and probably I would have missed a lot.
So, so glad to get back to Uyuni and wash off 3 days of dust, yes, the relentless, talcum of the desert, had it today as well, 210 kms of good ripio thru’ to Portosi so had to wash it all off again!
So, tomorrow to
3 days in the south of Bolivia
the Devil’s festa in Oduro, and maybe an internet place tonight if I can.
Well, now it's Sunday night and this started some 4 or 5 days ago...where have I been?
Water bombs, military strength water pistols, cans of santa spray, buckets even, it's a traditional water fight for the carnival and I have been dodging them from Uyuni to here, soaked by kids in the back of a truck I was passing on the road, sprayed and chased by chicas in Oduro, everyone is wearing plastic poncho things, it's hysterical here in La Paz with the cops having to move in from time to time to rescue wet and shivering chicas...great mobs of kids, and not-so-kids, chasing each other and anyone all over the main drag...I only copped some collateral damage from being too close to better looking targets..sheeet and altho' it's sunny it's still around 3,600 metres I think and freezing if wet!..and I can't run far as the oxy runs out and it's pant, pant again...still not too acclimatised to the altitude yet, fark but its hard to breathe sometimes!...anyway, inally found a cyber cafe that takes USB!..more stories from the trek across to here later
Flamingo, Lake & Mt
3 days in the south of Bolivia
and the carnival in Oduro, well, what can I say?..and coming into La Paz..man, gotta be one of the most impressive entrances to a city..just too much..gotta go..chau, besos, B
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