Right...where to start. We FINALLY arrived in Mendoza and found ourselves a cool little hostel. We went out that night with some New Zealanders...Argentina is a little like Spain, they don’t do anything until after midnight! We left the club at 5am and then got kicked out of our room at midday! So that day was a write off! The next day we went wine tasting...I really want to make it clear that this trip is not all about tasting the local alcoholic beverages but sometimes you have to apply the rule: ‘ when in Rome’! We had a great day, very different to the one in New Zealand, we actually learnt about wine and how it’s produced and had a nice bottle with a steak lunch! From Mendoza we headed to Salta, this was just meant to be a quick stop before Bolivia to see a bit of the desert and Canyons. We didn’t leave the city in the end; it was in some ways nicer than Mendoza, very colonial and once again very friendly. It’s hard to write about Argentina and make it sound incredible because it’s quite European but there are a few things about it that make it one of my favourite countries. Firstly, the Argentines are incredibly friendly; the British would never treat tourists as well as most of the world does and certainly not as well as the Argentines do. Secondly, there is a great mix between old and new but not necessarily poor. I think even people who have no interest in cars would still be fascinated by some of the heaps of junk out here; it really makes bus journeys go very quickly! The food is great too, especially the steaks but again quite European so hard to shout about it. Anyway, that’s Argentina done with for the time being, we come back here in June to see Buenos Aires and to fly home! Now comes the hard but fun part; getting ourselves round the perimeter of a whole continent and back to where we started in 2 ½ months! It couldn’t really have started more dramatically than with Bolivia, probably the poorest country I’ve been to but also the highest and most impressive in so many ways.
We arrived at the border town of La Quaica, Argentina, and walked across the bridge to Villazon, Bolivia. A quick stamp from customs and we were in! We got a bus to Tupiza, a small town about 200km away but on a bus with an exhaust that exploded every few seconds and roads that resembled a bridleway! Tupiza is the place to go to see red rock canyons, cacti and is also where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid spent their last few days before being caught and killed. We booked a 3 hour horse riding trip for £6...horse riding hasn’t appealed to me since I was chucked off one into the sea but if I was ever going to do it again this would be the place! It was actually really good fun despite the few days of pain afterwards! Our guide was about 14 years old and we had no kind of helmet or protection whatsoever. We started trotting slowly which was fine; I stupidly thought ‘this horse-riding business is easy!’ Our guide then galloped off and we followed! Galloping was fine because the horses feet move so that u don’t fly up and down but that middle speed was an absolute killer! We also did a jump at the end over a stream, not sure what all the fuss is about!
From Tupiza we headed to Uyuni, pronounced e-uni. This is the place to book a Salt Flats trip. We paid £50 for a 3 day 2 night trip in a Land Cruiser with 2 Danes (Jonathan and Jonas), 2 Argentineans (Emiliano and Laura) and our driver/guide/cook Lucio! It was an absolute bargain, we went 800km through deserts, up mountains, across the Salt Flats (which destroy cars!) and included all food and accommodation! The trip was amazing and once again I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking. Just to put it all into perspective the Salt Flats are 420km wide and 3500m above sea level. On the outskirts there is about 10cm of water on top of the salt creating the incredible reflections, hiding the horizon by making the ground look like sky and also making the ‘islands’ look like they are floating. We had a great group, Emiliano and Laura happily translated loads of things for us and told us so many things about Argentina and Bolivia. We all quite enjoyed our beer, Emiliano especially who was an absolute trooper starting each day at about 10am! Both evening we met up with the other groups and on the last night we all sat around drinking beer, wine, vodka (thanks Emiliano!), 96% alcohol and a strange drink I’d never heard of! We finally got to bed at 3am and got up at 4am to go and see the Geysers! After the Geysers we drove to the thermal springs and lazed about in naturally baking hot water at about 4000m before braving the cold and getting back in the jeep and heading back to Uyuni. Because of the extreme altitudes Bolivians chew Coca leaves and also put them in tea. Coca leaves are the pure source of Cocaine but without all the chemicals and processes used to make cocaine the only things they do are help with altitude sickness and also reduce hunger. This is why nearly every single Bolivian has a mouth full of Coca leaves at all times! We found they really did help with the altitude and because it’s legal here we’ve got some to make tea with when we feel a bit ill. The main thing you notice is your breathing, it gets really heavy and just walking 100m feels like a marathon! Anyway, the Salt Flats were incredible and we couldn’t have had a better group or guide.
We got back to Uyuni at 6pm and got the bus at 7pm to Potosi which wasn’t ideal after 1 hours sleep but there is literally NOTHING in Uyuni worth staying for! We got to Potosi at 1am and found a hostel. It was a really cool town built high up in the mountains with many colonial buildings but the main attraction there is the mines. We booked a mine tour the next day for £8; this included our guide Julio who had worked in the mines in his 20’s, a hard hat and waterproof gear. Julio knew absolutely everyone and wasn’t afraid of telling us how brilliant he was every couple of minutes! We were encouraged to buy presents for the miners so we bought coca leaves, drinks, a pair of gloves and most importantly dynamite!! They use dynamite to blow holes deep in the mountain to make the tunnels but mainly to break up the rock to find silver. We headed into the tunnels and we were pretty much on our knees running through water, along the tracks where the trucks run and ducking even more for pipes and wooden supports. It was exhausting especially at that altitude but we stopped a few times to talk to miners, give presents and to see them working. The best part was climbing through a tiny hole into an area with 4 miners who were filling the walls with 14 sticks of dynamite and then packing them in with sand. It’s incredible how dangerous this is and that boys as young as 12 do this every single day for 60 Bolivians, or £6 in our money! We then headed to an area with a big devil statue. The Bolivians have many different beliefs but many focus around respecting the mother earth and that the ground is the devil’s land. Every time they drink alcohol they pour a little on the ground for mother earth. Many miners also offer presents to the devil in hope they are rewarded with silver but also so that they are protected. Julio was telling us that some tour guides send tourists into unsafe parts of the mines so that they are killed by cave-ins etc because a human life is the greatest sacrifice to give to mother earth. Babies have even been taken into the mines and sacrificed. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking sacrificial ceremonies were a thing of ancient civilisations such as the Incas, Aztecs and Mayans and not of the 21st Century! We learnt an incredible amount in those few hours and it was an amazing experience and just shows how easy we have it in life. There are kids working 6 days a week risking their lives underground just to make enough money to survive where their life expectancy is 45 years and yet we moan about a 35 hour week in a comfy office! Don’t worry I’m not going to start hassling people with clipboards when I get back but I wanted to pass on the experiences I have had that really make me feel lucky and that we do take so much for granted. Oh and while I’m on the subject whatever you do DO NOT moan about the weather over there! It is absolutely freezing over here, I feel like I should be skiing because I’m wearing 2 t-shirts, 2 fleeces, a coat, gloves and wait for it....sunglasses because it’s a glorious day! To put the altitude in perspective the highest I have skied in the Alps is about 3000m....I haven’t been below 3000m since I’ve been in Bolivia and we’ve been as high as 4900m!
Onto La Paz, the highest capital city in the world even though it’s not the official capital! (Sucre is if you’re interested) What a place, 1.2 million people live on the side of a mountain at 3500m and another 1 million live 500m above in El Alto right on the rim of the canyon. It’s an incredible sight and in a way one of the most breath-taking views I’ve ever seen. We needed rest when we got here at 7am on Wednesday so we slept and lazed about in our room all day before venturing out in the evening for some food! It’s a crazy city, people everywhere, minivans that work as shared taxis pushing in all over the place and riot police on every corner with pump action shotguns and tear gas guns. I absolutely loved it and it’s one of my favourite cities so far in a strange kind of way. We wanted to go to the prison, apparently you can pay someone to take you round by bribing the guard but we were watching the news and something had kicked off in the Prison that day so there were riot police and tear gas everywhere. We went there the next day but it didn’t look like we could get in. We headed down to the main road and there was a big demonstration with yet more riot police! This is quite a common occurrence in La Paz due to the political differences with the indigenous leader Evo Morales and the population (most of which however are indigenous).
Anyway, I’ve said more than enough but you can probably tell from this that I love Bolivia! I love countries that are openly honest and where you can really experience how the people live. Bolivia is incredibly friendly (I know I say that about everywhere!) but it offers so many incredible sights, so much history and so many things that are just so different to the western world that we live in. For me this is travelling.
We are now in Copacabana on the edge of Lake Titicaca where much of the Inca history lies as well as in Peru of course. Right now I’m sat on my bed in a nice hotel watching the England game with a cold beer and the room cost £3 a night and the beer 80p! We hope to visit the Isla del Sol tomorrow and then head into Peru probably on Monday. Then comes the expensive and touristy bit which will no doubt wind me up but Machu Picchu has to be done despite the US$80 price tag just for entry!
Chao para a hora Amigos. Peudo hablar a hora un poco Espanyol! O Spanglish!