Blog 8th May - 18th May
"Soaring Salt Flats"
With the bus strikes finally lifted we eventually got back on the move. Sadly there was no vino or bubbles on this 24 hour marathon and we were forced to stand for half the overnight journey due to overcrowding. Nevertheless we arrived safely into Salta, north west Argentina.
This picturesque little city is lined with pedestrian streets and a lovely central plaza. Having not slept we soaked up some sun and observed the locals as they supped on the local 'mate' tea brew. This engrained habit requires hauling around the special 'mate' chalice and straw (the Argentine's pride and joy), a separate hot flask and a bag of the god awful 'mate' tea mush. Its a logistical nightmare but they absolutely love it. I'd take a bag of builders Tetley tea any day.
As well as housing some incredible colonial buildings and churches, Salta also offered us our first taste of Incan history and culture. We visited the fascinating yet haunting Museum of High Altitude Archeology to see the "LLullaillaco Children". These three incredibly well preserved mummified children we uncovered at the summit of a nearby volcano, after
being sacrificed in 1500AD as part of a great Incan celebratory ritual. The youngest mummy, a six year old girl, had at some point over the last few hundred years been struck by a bolt of lightning attracted by her metal necklace. The clear burn marks across her face made for harrowing viewing. The exhibit provided many questions which we hope to find answers for as we head deeper into the Incan empire through Bolivia and Peru to Cusco and Machu Picchu.
Not wanting to say goodbye just yet we made time for one last Argentine adventure. We tried our luck as Gauchos and spent a couple of nights at the wonderful Sayta Estancia Ranch. We came here for the horses but undoubtably stayed for the wine! Having spilt the beans that I was used to horses, our rodeo specialist cowboys decided to put me on their wild mare and use me as a guinea pig for the first day. Within minutes I was being lassoed at speed to the laughter and hysterics of Jo and our co-riders (I guess I asked for it). Following two mornings in the saddle we were treated to the most amazing Asado BBQ
lunches. Our eccentric but adorable host ensured the wine was free flowing at all times and any hand capping over a glass resulted in wet red fingers. We then spent the afternoons practicing our own lasso skills. Needless to say with more wine our targeting skills were not at their best and our step ladder prey rarely had much to worry about.
Finishing Argentina on a high we only had one last thing to conquer before reaching Bolivia - the border. Our 8 hour night bus dumped us in the dark, cold and deserted town of La Quiacha. Suddenly hit with our first bout of altitude we wandered like lost lemmings for 2km to the border. After Several wrong turns down some 'interesting' back streets, crossing football pitches and fields we finally made it. Thankfully we'd caught the chaps at immigration on a good day and we luckily made it through relatively stress free. After off loading our last Argentinian pesos for a shocking rate (nobody wants them), we waved bye bye to hyper inflation and multiple currencies, and hello third world wonder with rock bottom prices.
Our first Bolivian base was the small but pretty town of
Tupiza, the launch pad for our four day desert and salt flats tour. Here, we spent a couple of days acclimatising to the altitude and preparing for our trip. We had a few nervy moments when our cards were rejected at the local ATM, but thankfully found the bank very willing to offer cash advances. Looking back the process was worryingly simple.
Loading up the jeep with oxygen canisters, coca leaves, and enough food to feed a small army we set off into Bolivia's volcanic mountain range, on what has been our best tour to date. With our super scouser co pilots Sammy and Jack, our veteran driver Willman, and our bonkers but brill guide Nancy we were all set for an amazing week. Over the course of four days we rallied up to altitudes over 5000 metres and were blown away by the jaw dropping scenery. We were treated to snow capped volcanoes, hot thermal pools, petrified lava fields, bursting geysers and mud pools, Mars like deserts and huge icy mineral lagoons which glowed white, green or red. It was amazing to see local communities surviving in such harsh and remote areas. We'd see herded Llamas hours from
civilisation, complete with their multi-coloured ear tassels. There was plenty of wildlife to marvel at too - like the curly tailed wild rabbit and three varieties of flamingo. Needless to say Jo was obsessed!
It wasn't all postcard glam however; at night the temperatures plummeted into minus double figures and the air was often so thin that we were in a constant state of dizziness. Jack and I made the error of challenging three ten year olds to game of football. At over 4500 metres we nearly keeled over in seconds while these little energiser bunnies hammered us five nil. That said I'm not going to lie, the whole experience was bloody marvellous.
The climax of the tour was our final day on the great Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat. Spending the night before in a neighbouring hotel made entirely of salt (not the infamous pollutant hotel de sal), we got up at 4am to drive out onto the Salar for sunrise. The cloudy sky mirrored the perfect white below creating a brilliant sun sandwich. In day light it was an eerie sight, this great white expanse of nothing as far as the eye can
see. The salt flats are home to over half of the worlds lithium deposits (essential for future hybrid/electric cars and rechargeable batteries) and the country has been dubbed the Saudi Arabia of Lithium. Whilst we saw salt excavators at work, we were more focused on creating silly pictures. Jo literally had me in the palm her hands, an ominous thought!
But like all good things, the tour had to come to an end. We finished up in Uyuni, a soulless place. We popped to see a train cemetery (a lot more interesting than it sounds) before getting an overnight bus to La Paz. But it seemed the social unrest in Argentina had followed us to Bolivia. The country has been crippled by road blocks. With the highways closed our bus was forced to take alternative dirt tracks and cobbled roads. We bounced and jolted continuously for 12 hours straight before finally reaching La Paz.
Appearing through the mist we had arrived at the highest capital city in the world.
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