A Travellerspoint blog

June 2011

Bolivia's Amazing Salt Flats

A Trip through Tupiza and Salar de Uyuni

-5 °F
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As an update to our last posting, we were having trouble getting out of Salta, Argentina because of snow blocking the road to Chile. Our travel goal was to get to a town in or near Bolivia where we could pick up a tour of Bolivia’s famous salt flats (preferably, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile). We were told by our bus company in Salta that it would likely be another five days until we’d be able to cross into Chile. As a result, given out limited remaining time left in South America, we made a game time decision and took a 12:30am bus to La Quiaca, Argentina. La Quiaca is an Argentinean border town with Bolivia (for some unknown reason, you cannot take a bus from Argentina into Bolivia). After getting off the overnight bus at 6:30 am, we painfully made our way through the Argentina and Bolivia border crossings in sub-freezing temperatures.
As soon as we crossed into to Villazon, Bolivia, we noted immediate differences. For example, the people in Bolivia are much more ethnic looking and the dress is unmistakably Bolivian. The older women wear traditional skirts, stockings, ponchos, and these fantastic hats. A lot of them carry babies, children and goods for sale on their backs in a sling. They are some very hearty looking folks.
After picking up a bus in Villazon, we travelled on dirt roads to Tupiza, Bolivia, which sits at an altitude of approximately 10,000 feet. While we were in Tupiza mainly to catch a tour to the salt flats, the town itself boasts some amazing scenery and was apparently the place where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their makers. We met up with two backpackers who were also looking for a tour to the flats and decided to make a group of four in order to get a better deal. Stephanie, from Australia, and Laura, from France, became our extended family for the next four days. That night, we made our way up to a lookout point, Cerro Corazon de Jesus, to view the sunset over Tupiza - very pretty.
IMG_1619.jpg Sunset from Tupiza

Day 1:
We set out for our tour of the salt flats and the surrounding area the next morning with our group. Our driver, Raoul, and cook, Emma, did not speak any English. Fortunately for us, however, Laura was fluent in Spanish and translated for us. Our SUV was aptly named “Gringo Feliz” (Happy Gringo). On our first day, our SUV climbed up mountainous terrain resembling the American southwest, red rock canyons and cacti. On our way up the bumpy, narrow roads, we spotted packs of llamas and small homes where their herders lived. The scenery was gorgeous. We were warned that the accommodations on our tour were “rustic”, no heat or showers (with one six minute exception on the third night). So when we got to our hostel we were prepared with sleeping bags and put on almost every article of clothing we had.
Day 2:
We awoke to below freezing temperatures and after a struggle to get out of our sleeping bags, we piled back in the SUV for our second day. We started off visiting the ruins of San Antonio, an abandoned town at 15,000 feet which was founded by the Spanish to house natives who worked as slaves in nearby mines. It was partially inhabited until about 30 years ago. We then stopped for a dip in the Termas de Polques (elevation roughly 14,000 feet). Since it was so cold outside, the hot springs felt amazing at 86 degrees. After lunch, we made our way to the Sol de Manana where we precariously walked amongst geysers. In the US you’d never be allowed to get so close to geysers (probably for good reasons). We finished off the day at Laguna Colorado which is known for its red color and hosting migrating flamingos. After dinner, we played poker and listened to 80’s music until we became so cold that we had to get into our sleeping bags.
IMG_1848.jpg Relaxing in the Hot Springs
IMG_1863.jpg Geysers
IMG_1894.jpg Laguna Colorado
Day 3:
We all slept atrociously due to the freezing temperatures, but the next morning we were lulled from our sleeping bags by warm pancakes :) On day three, we passed through the Desert of Siloli where we saw famous “Stone Trees” - volcanic rocks carved down into amazing shapes by wind carrying sand. We passed several lagunas (some frozen solid) and even spotted a vicuna, a desert rabbit that apparently likes pancakes. We passed by the Ollague Volcano, an active volcano which spews smoke, but has not erupted for hundreds to thousands of year (no one quite knows). On our third night, we slept at a hostel made entirely of salt, even the floor was loose salt. Jeff managed to turn our group into a bunch of card sharks playing poker, Bull, and 21 until the electricity was turned off. We also got a hot shower for 10 Bolivianos (bobs, as most call them), which was most welcome after two days without.
IMG_1910.jpg Jeff in front of the Stone Tree
IMG_1912.jpg Just to give some scale..the black dot on the left is a car
IMG_1959.jpg Volcano Ollague
IMG_1983.jpg Our "salt" room, the whole structure including the floor is salt

Day 4:
The day most of us were waiting for, our trek out to the famous salt flat, Salar de Uyuni. The salt flat is a prehistoric lake (Lago Minchin) that dried up ages ago leaving behind salt beds as far as the eye can see. We left our hostel by 5:30 am to make it to Isla del Pescado (a dried up coral reef in the middle of the salt flat) to watch the sunrise. It was well below freezing, but still amazing. After sunrise, we explored the island and took photos of the salt flat. The island is peppered with cacti and there is still evidence of the coral that existed thousands of years ago. Once the temperature warmed up a bit, we made our way onto the middle of the salt flat. It was blinding white in all directions and it looked like snow. We took a lot of pictures, most of them goofy. The Salar de Unyui was unlike anything I’ve ever seen…it was as close to being on another planet as I could imagine. After stopping at Colchani, a salt extraction town, we made our way to Uyuni which concluded our tour. There we parted ways with Raoul, Emma, Laura and Stephanie, and caught an overnight bus to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia…we’ll catch up soon!
IMG_2004.jpg Salar de Uyuni at Sunrise
IMG_2052.jpg Isla de Pescado
IMG_2089.jpg Our travel group including Raoul and Emma
IMG_2145.jpg Busy guy...
IMG_2155.jpg I don't know my own strength
IMG_2191.jpg Salt Mining

Posted by geldere 10:19 Archived in Bolivia Tagged mountains de bolivia salt flats uyuni salar tupiza Comments (0)

Livin' La Vida Gaucho...

Exploring Salta, Argentina and visit to an Estancia

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After our R&R in Buenos Aires, we took another overnight bus ride (22-hours) to Salta, Argentina. From BA, we had to decide whether to go north or south. In the end, we decided to head north for warmer weather (Florida has thinned our blood considerably) and the Bolivian Salt Flats (Salar de Unuyi) won us over. We’ll have to save the Argentinean Lake District and Patagonia for another trip.
We noted upon our arrival in Salta that we were a bit more winded walking around town. Yes, it could be all the assada and flan we’ve been eating, but we thought it was more likely due to the elevation change. Salta sits at approximately 4,500 feet above sea level and is surrounded by the Andes on all sides. The scenery is pretty impressive.
We spent our first days orienting ourselves with the town and hitting up some of the recommended sites. During the first day, we visited two historic churches and a convent. Then, around sunset on the first day, we made our way up Cerro San Bernardo (a surrounding mountain) via teleferico (a gondola) for some great views of Salta and the surrounding Lermo Valley. On the second day, we saw the very impressive Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana. The museum documented the discovery of three children mummies on Llullaiaco Volcano. The mummies and their contents were nearly perfectly preserved due to the dry climate and high altitude. The museum gave so much information and insight into the mummies and Inca culture, it was fascinating.

IMG_1385.jpg Church Downtown
IMG_1402.jpg At the top of Cerro San Bernardo

One of the more prominent cultural aspects of northern Argentina is the gaucho. Gauchos are basically cowboys and most of them still live on and run estancias (ranches/farms). Since we were here, we figured we may as well see what it’s all about. If there was ever a place where you felt the need to swing your leg over a horse and ride into the sunset, this was it. We hooked up with Cabalgatas Gauchas for some horse riding and an overnight stay at their estancia. It was quite a bit of dumb luck, but the day we decided to go to the estancia was also a national holiday for Gauchos (June 16th). To celebrate the gaucho history and life, there was a huge parade in Salta. Approximately 4,000 Gauchos participated in the parade and it made for an interesting cultural experience. Later that day, we were picked up by one of our Gaucho tour guides and driven to a different estancia for lunch. Jeff and I stepped out of the car and laughed to ourselves…we could not have looked more conspicuous. First, everyone was dressed in the traditional Gaucho garb (the pants, boots, ponchos, hats, etc), and second, no one else was a tourist. The lunch turned out to be an after-party for the gauchos who participated in parade (including our guides). We were welcomed with multiple kisses and plopped down on a long picnic tables. We were served a traditional Gaucho meal which consisted of beans, corn, pork, and other unidentifiable things (we didn’t ask) and it was delicious :) After our meal, we were escorted to our horses and left from there on our ride. My first thought was “oh man…all of these Gauchos are watching and we’re going to awkwardly get on our horses for their enjoyment”. But, as it turns out, most of them were leaving at the same time and the one guide gave me his poncho so I’d look more authentic, so he said.
IMG_1454.jpg Gaucho Parade
IMG_1471.jpg Gaucho Parade
IMG_1483.jpg Gauchos up close and personal
Our ride up to the estancia was beautiful. We literally went through a mountain pass, steep and narrow in parts, and then had a gorgeous view of the valley below. Enormous cacti and shrubbery dotted the landscape, and we periodically passed through huge cornfields and pastures. It was a pretty ride. Thankfully, my horse behaved. It has been years since I’ve seriously ridden a horse and I was slightly concerned she would develop a mind of her own.
Once we made it to the estancia, we were treated to a delicious Argentinean BBQ (parilla). The experience was especially nice because we ate dinner with the ranch owner, his family, and our guides. The estancia was located in an old converted convent and since nuns give up all creature comforts, our room was basic and did not have central heat (we made do with a portable heater). Overall, it was a fantastic experience and we would highly recommend it to others.

IMG_1489.jpg Me and my horse, Princess- and in my snazzy poncho
IMG_1506.jpg Jeff and his ride
IMG_1530.jpg My new buddy on the Estancia
IMG_1554.jpg View of the Estancia after a walk up the mountain
On what was supposed to be our last day in Salta, we went to San Lorenzo, a small town north of Salta which is known for its rainforest. We took the afternoon to climb along a winding trail and up to a lookout point for some great pictures of the surrounding valley and town. It was pretty steep in parts and we were both seriously out of breath (because of the altitude, not our physical condition of course :)). Small side story…on our way to get the bus to San Lorenzo, we were told the bus only takes exact change, no bills. Easy enough, we’ll go get change. Not so much. We asked a dozen vendors for monedas (coin) and they all said they didn’t have any. Finally, after going at this for the better part of an hour, we found a cabbie that would oblige us. Apparently, coin is treated like gold here because it is in short supply. Supposedly, the bus companies take the coin and then sell it on the black market for an up charge of five to ten percent. Strange.
IMG_1563.jpg Taking in the view from the Lookout Point
IMG_1567.jpg View from the Top
We were supposed to catch a bus to San Pedro de Atacamas, Chile the following morning, but apparently snow is blocking the road and so we are trapped in Salta until the road clears. You never know what is going to happen when you travel! We’ll send updates after our next town…

Posted by geldere 19:35 Archived in Argentina Tagged mountains horses salta estancia Comments (0)

Cloudy With a Chance of...Ash??

5 days in Buenos Aries

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In case you haven’t heard, a volcano erupted in Chile spewing ash and snarling flights in South America. We first learned of the volcano when looking at a weather report which read: “partly cloudy skies with some ash”.

After finishing our travels in Uruguay, we headed across the bay via ferry to Buenos Aires (“BA” - as travelers call it). We arrived in BA and immediately noticed a difference in architecture from Brazil and Uruguay. BA has a very European feel and on certain streets, if you did not know any better, you would swear you were in Paris. BA is a dynamic, bustling city with a host of things to see and do which could keep a visitor occupied for weeks.

We were very fortunate to have family in BA who let us stay with them. Jeff’s Uncle John works for the US Foreign Service and is currently stationed in the city. After experiencing the hostel lifestyle for a few weeks, it was wonderful to have a home for a few days.

In addition to putting us up for a few days, Aunt Heather and Uncle John gave us their local perspective on the city and acted as our tour guides on several occasions. We spent time downtown visiting the Cementerio de la Recoleta, a large mausoleum that houses the remains of wealthy and famous Argentines, including Evita . We also went to the neighborhood of La Boca, a bohemian section of town built by Italian immigrants which is a mecca for local artists. We managed to take in some tango over lunch and coffee in San Telmo, known for its antique stores and fairs. I’ve officially become hooked on cortados (an Argentinean coffee with milk) and have had enough caffeine to make a rhino’s heart explode. I should also take a moment to comment on how fabulous the beef and wine are in Argentina. We were treated to a fabulous dinner by Jeff’s family and had a steak to die for (the restaurant’s name was “Kansas”). Whoever said we’d lose weight on this trip did not sample any of the food, wine or beer in South America.

Our other days of sightseeing included walking around downtown to Avenue Florida, a bustling part of the city where we ate at the swankiest McDonald’s I’ve ever seen (we finally broke down after three-weeks on the road) and went on to see the pink presidential palace, known as Casa Rosada, where Evita roused the masses around 1950. We probably walked several miles that day viewing Iglesia San Ignacio, BA’s oldest church, as well as Palacio del Congresso, which was modeled after Washington DC’s own capital building.

I’ve learned that Argentineans by nature are very nocturnal. Dinner generally does not start until 10 pm, with cocktails and drinks at 12 am, and then heading out to the clubs or bars around 2 am. Most clubs seem to close around 7 am, like I said…nocturnal. Many people in Argentina (as well as Uruguay) drink tea from a Mate. The tea leaves get scooped into a bowl like cup and hot water is poured over top. You drink from what looks like a porous spoon connected to a straw. The basic concept is that the spoon acts as a tea filter.

Our time in BA was a combination of sightseeing and relaxation. We had a great stay and are very thankful to have family that was so accommodating. After being spoiled, it’ll be an adjustment going back to group bathrooms and bunk beds :)


Our next stop is Salta in northern Argentina (not to be confused with Salto, Uruguay where we hung in the hot springs)…we’ll write again soon!

Posted by geldere 17:18 Archived in Argentina Tagged paris buenos mate evita aries Comments (0)

Traveling Uruguay

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After exploring the Iguazu Falls and leaving Brazil behind us, we made our way into Uruguay. I had no expectations for Uruguay, either good or bad. I didn’t know anything about the country and, to be honest, probably couldn’t have pointed it out on a map before we started our trip. But after six-days in the country, I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. Uruguay is a gorgeous country - wide open spaces, cattle farms, rolling hills, and nice beaches – and the people are very laid back.

Our first stop was Salto, a town known for its hot springs. With travel come experiences that are good, bad, and weird. Getting to Salto was definitely a weird travel experience. There are no direct busses from the Iguazu Falls to Salto. Instead, we had to travel to Concordia, Argentina first, a border town about an hour from Salto. Normally, arriving in a town by bus, you get dropped off at the central bus station. However, for Concordia, you get dropped off on the side of the highway…no joke! Our overnight bus from the Iguazu Falls (we splurged for the first class experience and got a hot meal - very exciting) let us off on the side of the highway at 6:30 in the morning. It was pitch dark and about 40-degrees outside. Thankfully, there was one car sitting on the side of the road nearby. Seeing us, an old woman got out of the car and, using one of the few words in English she knew, said: “taxi?”. Yes, please! In the end, after the cab ride and a bus trip across the border, we made it to Salto five hours later. Travel is full of surprises :)

The town of Salto is nice enough, but there is not much going on, with one notable exception. People flock to Salto in order to soak in natural hot springs. The most famous and well developed springs are called Termas de Dayman. Sitting in the hot springs was amazing, especially since it was cold outside (our blood has gone thin in Florida). It is also pretty entertaining to watch old people rockin’ bath robes walk from spring to spring. It was a relaxing way to spend an afternoon!

Our next stop was Montevideo, the capital city. Unfortunately, it rained on and off for the two days we visited Montevideo, so we saw most of the sites huddled under umbrellas. We stayed in a Che Legargto hostel located on Independence Square, in the heart of the city and close to the main sights (we stayed in a hostel owned by the same chain in Paraty, Brazil). We stopped at the Mausoleo Artigas, where the remains of Jose Artigas are kept. He lead Uruguay’s revolution against Spain for independence and is their version of George Washington. We had lunch at Mercado del Puerto, where you pull up a stool and order from a vast menu of grilled meat cooked right in front of you (Jeff was in heaven). The staff was super nice, they even let us come around to the grill and get a picture holding a long rack of ribs (see below). It was delicious and their chimmichurri sauce was out of this world! We also rented bikes from our hostel and took a long bike road along the coast stopping to take a photo of the American embassy. Apparently, however, you are not allowed to take photos of the American embassy. Shortly after snapping the shot, two Uruguayan police officers came over and made us delete the photo. Solid security it seems, but they were very nice about it!

Our last stop in Uruguay was a small, picturesque town called Colonia de Sacremento, right across the bay from Buenos Aires, Argentina. We stayed two-nights in an awesome hostel called Hostel El Viajero (it had a fireplace!). It is the fall in Uruguay, so the town’s tree lined streets were beautiful. The town is easy to walk and has a high concentration of sights in a small area. It is basically Uruguay’s version of Colonial Williamsburg. We bought a museum pass which got us into all the museums in town. The more famous sights include the Puerta de Campo, a fortified wall which surrounded the city and the Iglesia Matriz, Uruguay’s oldest church. The town was beautiful and full of history!

Our next stop is across the bay…Buenos Aries :)

Posted by geldere 09:30 Archived in Uruguay Tagged bridges town old Comments (0)

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