Andes - you took my breath away - literally!

Published: February 14th 2013
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Salar De UyuniSalar De UyuniSalar De Uyuni

The salt flats stretch out to the horizon
After leaving Cordoba, my final stop in Argentina was to be the colonial city of Salta. Immediately I was able to put my improved Spanish into practice, first with an incredibly friendly taxi driver (especially considering my bus had arrived about 5.30a.m.!) and then with the Spanish speaking crowd at the hostel. Here, for once the language around the communal dinner table in the hostel was definitely not English!

My memories of Salta will probably not be of the abundance of colonial architecture, but instead of the natural sciences museum which was stuffed to the gills (literally) with the widest possible array of stuffed animals from around South America. It was similar to the science museum James, Steve, Chris and I had visited in Bariloche on the previous trip – so I thought it only right that I leave the same juvenile, armadillo based comment in the guestbook as a tribute!!!

Leaving Salta I needed to cross the Andes to arrive in the Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama, so it was to be my first taste of real high altitude on the trip so far. Unfortunately, I didn’t take it all that seriously as I thought we’d
Volcan LaskerVolcan LaskerVolcan Lasker

Our motley crew that made it to the summit
just be scooting across in a bus – hence having one too many lagers the night before leaving! What I hadn’t reckoned on was that good old Argentina would stick their immigration point at the highest pass on the journey at 4,600m, (for reference Mount Blanc is a shade higher at 4,800m), and then they would then make us wait for 2 hours in the bus, followed by another hour in a queue. This was unfortunately far too much for my slightly hungover body and I ended up fainting in the customs hall! Not a good start to what is going to be at least two months at high altitude!! Special thanks to the Italian hippy, who – although certainly lacking in soap – he wasn’t lacking in kindness as he helped me to a seat and somehow sequestered a sachet of sugary jam to help my body on the way to recovery!!

Given the trauma of the crossing, it may have appeared a bit stupid to try and summit a big volcano just two days later, but that’s what I did!! This time I took the guide’s advice to heart – no red meat or alcohol the night
5,500m (what's five metres between friends!)5,500m (what's five metres between friends!)5,500m (what's five metres between friends!)

One of the guys had this super flash altimeter to confirm our height
before and drink plenty of water the previous day. This meant that at the point we had reached the start of the climb at 4,800m I was still feeling reasonably good. I knew from my experience of climbing a couple of even larger peaks on my previous travels that the key is a slow, steady almost metronomic pace that keeps your exertions within yourself. Climbing peaks at very high altitudes I’ve found my body finds it virtually impossible to recover once I’m out of breath, leaving me hunched over and wheezing like a geriatric!

This time though, I did follow my own advice and took it slow and steady as we gradually climbed the 700 vertical metres needed to achieve the summit. It was definitely hard going, but at no point I felt it was impossible or that I wasn’t going to make it and on reaching the 5,500m summit the reward of the stunning views was brilliant. A lava field stretched out into the altiplano below us (the Altiplano is the vast high altitude plateau between the two Cordilleras into which the Andes has split), evidence of the most recent eruption in I think 2006. There were clouds
View from Volcan LaskarView from Volcan LaskarView from Volcan Laskar

The lava field and altiplano stretch out below us
of gas were spewing from the crater and possibly my favourite aspect was simply the distance that the views extended for. From our high vantage point, the altiplano stretched out into the distance occasionally punctuated by other huge peaks that reached up to the incredibly blue sky. It was an exhilarating time. Special thanks go out to my heart and lungs for getting me up there and not exploding en-route!

The remaining time in San Pedro was spent exploring the huge variety of other-worldly landscapes that form the Atacama Desert in this part of the high altiplano. The appropriately named valle de la luna (valley of the moon) provided caves, dunes, geysers and crazy landscapes sculpted by wind erosion, and probably my favourite, the Coyote viewpoint - named because of the massive sheer drop akin to the one the poor old coyote manages to fall down every single time when he’s chasing after roadrunner!

My friend Chris had by this point flown out to visit me for 5 weeks on the road together, and San Pedro was to be where we would celebrate New Year's Eve. Initially, things weren't looking too bright as it seemed every restaurant in
Coyote viewpointCoyote viewpointCoyote viewpoint

My highlight of the valle de la luna
town was offering either a 3 course fixed meal for about £60, or if it was offering the normal menu it was unsurprisingly fully booked up. After wandering what seemed to be the whole town we managed to sneak a table, and as midnight came round we headed out to the street to celebrate. There were some fireworks being let off, but unfortunately not the full-on display that our hostel owner had mentioned! One of the definite highlights was all the “guys” that had been constructed and were sitting on wooden chairs out in the street. As midnight struck these were set on fire, and as they had all been filled with small fireworks and bangers it certainly added to the spice when small explosions started coming from each guy's belly as the flames took hold!!

Our next destination was Bolivia, a country I had previously spent 2 and a half months in and absolutely loved. To someone like me who loves the natural landscapes, mountains, lakes and forests, Bolivia has pretty much everything. The altiplano dominates much of the south west of the country, with towering Andean peaks, lunar landscapes and unique features like the world's largest salt lake and the world's highest navigable lake. Moving to the north you plunge from over 4,000m to practically sea level, to the sweltering jungle that stretches to its border with Brazil. In fact about the only thing Bolivia doesn't have landscape-wise is a coastline, and they did have one of them up until an 1883 war when they lost their coastline and nitrate rich lands that now form part of the Chilean province of Antofagasta!! In fact the Bolivian's don't seem to be too good at wars, as it also lost a big chunk of its territory to Paraguay in the 1930's in the so called Chaco wars!!

Our introduction to Bolivia was a 3 day tour through the amazing national park Eduardo Andina culminating with a day spent visiting the Salar de Uyuni (aforementioned salt lake – with an area of over 10,000km2 it’s about the size of Jamaica). The two days we spent in our 4x4 driving through the altiplano landscapes that make up the national park were stunning. We saw various high andean lakes with their resident swathes of flamingos – the most impressive of which was the appropriately named “coloured lake”. There were geysers, mountains,
Often outnumbered, but never out gunned...Often outnumbered, but never out gunned...Often outnumbered, but never out gunned...

Although I think the German couple had me on tripod size on this occasion!
fields of inquisitive llamas and incredible landscapes formed by the wind erosion including the Arbol de Piedra (tree rock) and “city of rocks” with its superb towering pillars of wind eroded rock.

We had a group of 18 people split across three 4x4s. Each of the guides only spoke Spanish, and as our group contained no native speakers it was a great opportunity for me to practice my language skills as I acted as translator for the group and posed whichever questions the guys were looking to have answered. Other fond memories of the journey were certainly the accompanying soundtrack. Our guide had a seemingly endless supply of cheesy classic 80's rock, and it was a slightly surreal, but very enjoyable experience to be driving through endless miles of incredible scenery with the whole group singing along to the classic retro tunes!! Toto's “Walk the Line” certainly became the anthem of the tour!

The final day of the tour we reached the Salar itself, with the first stop being Isla Incahuasi, a large cactus strewn island that offers great views of the Salar. But the highlight was definitely when we drove out to the middle of the salt
Dinosaur or Pac-ManDinosaur or Pac-ManDinosaur or Pac-Man

Wind erosion in the valle de la luna
flats where the salt is pure white and the small ridges that form whenever it rains and make the surface look like crazy paving are pristine and unbroken. Because the expanse of whiteness makes it very difficult to judge distances, the “done” thing is to try and take comedy photos taking advantage of this lack of perspective. I'm not sure our attempts were all that successful, but for me I was happy just to marvel at the views into the distance with the endless white stretching to meet the horizon.

Next we took a bus belching black smoke along the beautiful brand new road that connects Uyuni with Potosi to arrive in what’s regarded as the highest city in the world at 4,090m. The reason someone would choose to found a city at an altitude where any activity more demanding than a leisurely stroll leaves you fighting for breath is Cerro Rico (Rich Hill), which towers above Potosi at 4,824 metres. This mountain was at one point so choc-full of silver that around the turn of the 16th century, Potosi was the richest city in the Americas and it rivalled London in size!

These days the mines are all but played out and the miners scrape an existence looking for any tin seams that may have been overlooked. What it does mean is that now you can take a guided tour of the mines with an ex-miner – certainly an eye opening experience. Chris and I got lucky, as we were the only two English speakers on the tour so we ended up with a private tour. Our amazing guide was nicknamed “llama face” by all his mates – it seemed a bit harsh but I could definitely see some resemblance! We had bought gifts for the miners – coca leaves, water and of course dynamite! However, Peruvian health and safety laws have tightened up in the seven years since I was last here as the guides are no longer allowed to blow up one of the sticks as a demonstration to the tourists – booo!

Our first stop was at the refining plant. This was eye-opening, with so many exposed chemicals, gears, pulleys, cogs and general whirring things that with no safety guards seemed ready to gobble up an exposed limb if you were careless! I guess it was safer than the mines though!! The mine tour was certainly a physical experience and involved a good deal of crawling and scrambling and really gave us a sense of just how tough it must be to earn a living. At 6ft5 Chris certainly wasn’t enjoying the fact that the mine tunnels had been designed with a Bolivian’s slightly smaller stature in mind! A lasting memory of our visit will certainly be of a man working a tiny seam barely wider than his body all on his own.

Back in Potosi itself I had a bit of a culinary disaster as I ordered the local specialty “pique a lo macho”, a nice sounding mixture of onions, peppers, chorizo, beef, chips, egg, tomato and olives. Unfortunately, the “macho” part refers to the fact that you are considered macho if you can finish a plate as the portion is not only huge – but devilishly spicy. I failed miserably on both counts and gave up when my vision started blurring due to the spice!

Christmas celebrations were still on-going while we were in Potosi, and I got to experience Bolivian families treat their kids to – which was absolute comedy gold. The Potosi equivalent of Santa's sleigh is a tractor pulling two carriages, all of which are decorated in fairy lights. If this isn't corny enough, to power the lights the tractor also needs to pull a generator behind it, taking away even more from the aesthetic beauty! Any hope of a pleasant experience is then extinguished when both the tractor's engine and the generator are fired up in rapid succession. The din is unbearable, but despite my scepticism, the locals absolutely love it and are clamouring for a ride around the main plaza. I think the experience can only be done justice with the video I took so hopefully it works!

Our final Andean stop on this part of the trip was the colonial city of Sucre. Having lived here for nearly a month last time around I was looking forward to returning – but was slightly surprised that virtually nothing seemed familiar – not even the main plaza! Nevertheless, we didn't really need my “insider knowledge” as we trusted our guidebook when it recommended the amazing “hotel de su merced” ( A 4 star colonial mansion that had been converted into a hotel is not the usual style that I'm accustomed to, but
Arbol de Piedra (Tree Rock)Arbol de Piedra (Tree Rock)Arbol de Piedra (Tree Rock)

Another demonstration of the power of wind erosion
luckily this is Bolivia, and when I had used my Spanish to play the poor impoverished traveller card and negotiate a 15% discount, the price came to £35 between us per night. Less than the price of a travel lodge for 4 star colonial luxury – I'll take that!

When we arrived in Sucre it dawned on us that Bolivia seems to have a bewildering amount of beers. Therefore Chris and I made it our mission to try and sample one of everything while we were there. This was not as much fun as it might sounds as the beers were uniformly awful, with the prize for the worst of the lot certainly going to “Bock” a virtually undrinkable bottle of bilge water!

Our night life continued in this vein when I was trying to explain to Chris the rancid nature of every Argentinian's favourite drink “Fernet and Coke”. Fernet is some sort of super-strong fortified wine, which is terrible on its own, and only slightly improved when mixing it with coke. The best description I can give of it is bad tasting mouthwash – but unfortunately you have to drink this rather than spit it out!! In
Coloured LakeColoured LakeColoured Lake

Exactly what it says on the tin!
order to convince Chris that it was a good idea for me to buy him a Fernet & Coke I said that in return Chris could buy me a drink of his choice. Quick as a flash he ordered a large glass of the cheapest Bolivian house white wine available! Bolivian wine in my experience is generally terrible, and this particular tipple surpassed itself by being absolutely atrocious!! Unfortunately as it was white wine, the longer I left it, the warmer it got and the worse it tasted. It was a comedy end to our time in Sucre!

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


City of the RocksCity of the Rocks
City of the Rocks

More examples of wind erosion
Altiplano nothingnessAltiplano nothingness
Altiplano nothingness

To me its an amazing landscape stretching out into the distance
Its the "done" thing...Its the "done" thing...
Its the "done" thing...

...not sure we pulled it off though!
The pretty part of PotosiThe pretty part of Potosi
The pretty part of Potosi

The rooftop view from the San Francisco church
Hotel del su MercedHotel del su Merced
Hotel del su Merced

Our travelodge priced slice of luxury!!

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