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Published: October 26th 2013
For an amateur geologist like myself, Tupiza was so delicious. The little town was nestled in a spectacular setting of red-rock canyons, multicolored hills, and cactus forests and bisected by a dramatic, ever-changing river. With only 25,000 people, it was small enough that I easily got out of town and accessed fine hiking trails. Plus, in Bolivia, everything was wonderfully affordable, so I had an upscale room, went horseback riding in Butch Cassidy country and gorged on gorgeous tropical fruit. As usual, time stretched and my planned days became weeks.
Cry for Me, Argentina I left the multi-colored canyons of my beloved Iruya when the Argentine holidays began; on January 3rd, the once-peaceful town had become swamped, and I lost my room. With a week left on my visa, I went to little-visited, adobe Yavi (population 150) for great hiking and exploring. Then, I left Argentina for good. I'd woven in and out of the country for two and a half fabulous years; leaving was indeed sweet sorrow.
The border crossing from La Quiaca, Argentina, to Villazon, Bolivia, proved true sorrow--a three-hour long line, first in the blazing sun, then in a drizzle. Finally, my $135
entrance payment was rejected because a bill had a microscopic tear, causing me to schlep all my stuff to a money changer who was happy to rip me off. By that time, I was tired, hungry and wet. I spent the night in Villazon near the chaotic bus terminal in a tawdry room that rented by the hour and had a shared shower even I wouldn't touch. The next morning, my suitcase was hefted on top of a minibus, and I was sandwiched among portly indigenous women with tons of bundles. Over the next few hours, these women dribbled off, some in tiny settlements, others seemingly in the middle of nowhere in the desert. Finally, approaching Tupiza, red rocks reared their heads, and my spirits picked up.
Torn-up Tupiza From the terminal, I walked to a hostel whose dorms were full of Argentinians on holiday. The only space was a private room with a bath--my first ever. While it was more than I'd wanted to pay, I wallowed in the luxury, and on the many rainy days, I watched films on the Spanish language TV. I could get used to that.
The town of
Valle de los Machos
big willies as my Scottish friends say
Tupiza turned out to be nothing special, and I'm sure those spending just a day there were disappointed. It was worse than normal when I was there for all the streets had been torn up for repairs. At first, it was a dusty mess, and I had to pick my way through the rubble and avoid the many deep holes. With the rains, streets were under a foot of water that later became a muddy quagmire. Still, at the end of the streets were inviting views of red mountains. There was potential here!
Cowgirls in the Canyons It was wild west country, like northern Argentina and our American southwest, and it was near here that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their end. One day, I joined a couple of Dutch girls and a great guide for a relaxing ride through dry river beds, picturesque canyons and red rocks in fanciful shapes, such as the giant penis shapes named the Valle de los Machos.
We ended at a little waterfall and were offered a chance to ride further. The three-hour ride was all my tender butt wanted, but one of the Dutch girls
left galloping off with another guide for a few more hours. Ride 'em, cowgirl! Over the next couple of weeks, I explored further and further from the town. Barely outside the center in the locals' part of town, women herded sheep and the local police drove their herds of horses down the unpaved streets. Past the leafy plaza with its statue of a horticulturist (rather than a general) and church with indigenous motifs, I'd often walk up to the mirador for views over the ever-expanding town, and layers of mountains extending into the distance.
I followed streets out of town and took local buses to the ends of the lines, always finding multicolored, wildly-shaped rocks, little communities and friendly locals up for a chat. Although the town was at 3160 mts/10,370 ft, I had no problem since I'd been above 2500 meters in northern Argentina for some time.
Rainy Season and a Wild River I'd arrived at the beginning of the rainy season when the river was only a trickle in its huge, wide bed. However, after five days of nonstop downpours, the river became a dramatic, swirling torrent that filled its bed and
climbed its enclosing walls. The rain was greater than normal (thanks, climate change), causing floods and destruction in the surrounding indigenous pueblos. The town conducted a clothing and goods drive, and I was able to lighten my load and contribute. I loved walking along the river, watching its changing moods. However, the river walk was not a tourist attraction. One side was filled with trash and foul smells while the other side partially followed the road with its toxin-belching buses. There were lots of signs warning people not to urinate, defecate or throw garbage; clearly the signs were ignored. Stout boots and a fragrant rose held under my nose helped a lot. Oh, the sacrifices I make to be with water!
Food Heaven and Hell Upon arrival, I'd noticed restaurants offering pizza or pasta for $5; I planned to eat out every night--wrong! Every tourist place in town offered the same awful food. Eggplant Parmesan turned out to be eggplant with ketchup-like sauce and a sprinkling of unmelted cheese--yuck! Worse was the Bolivian food--meat, fries and white rice--nothing I'd care to eat.
However, the street and market food was delicious though some of
it turned out to be a bit dodgy. At first, I was buying soup and corn-based tamales
from the ladies near my favorite bridge. However, once I saw a seller relieve herself in a little stream and return to hand me a tamale, I realized why I'd been glued to the toilet for a couple of days. After that, I ate in or near the marketplace, which still required a strong stomach, which I fortunately have. My favorite was cut slices of pineapple and papaya (a bit at the mercy of flies), obtained from the country's eastern Amazon parts. The market ladies served a delicious quinoa stew for a $1 which I never found outside Tupiza. On the street, I'd often have a yummy papa relleno--a ball of fried mashed potato with an enclosing an egg with salad on the side. This is a popular street food all over Bolivia and Peru, and each town had a different version--I tried them all!
Salar de Uyuni Tour The hostel and the many travel agencies in town were pushing the tour to the Salar (salt flats) de Uyuni. However, it was the rainy season,
Puerta del Diablo--Door of the Devil
evidence of tectonic uplift and erosion
and much of the salar was under a thin layer of water. Some people got great photos of reflections on the submerged salt flats; others, however, had nothing but rain and clouds and were in jeeps that got stuck in the water. The tour is better (and more expensive) from Tupiza than from Uyuni--fewer people in each jeep, and an extra day exploring the small villages and stunning red rock country between Tupiza and the Chilean border area. However, in my weeks in Tupiza, I'd hiked to canyons and villages sites myself. I wpuld take the tour later from Uyuni when the rainy season was over. For now, I'd visit a couple of cities on the Andean plateau--next stop Potosi, one of the highest cities in the world. Good-by red rock canyons, hello urban ones!
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