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La Paz and Parting Thoughts...

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After our four day tour of the salt flats, we were beat. The combination of sun, wind, altitude and cold really started to wear on us. To make matters worse, at the conclusion of the tour, we immediately caught an overnight bus to La Paz (i.e., tried to sleep sitting up on a bouncy road in the freezing cold). So even though La Paz was our last stop in South America, we took it pretty easy.
La Paz is one of the highest cities in the world at an altitude of over 10,000 feet. Even more impressive is the fact that the city itself sits in a canyon. Of all the places we’ve been in South America, it seemed to have the least Western influence. There are definitely people wearing jeans and other western clothes, but there are also lots of women in traditional clothing selling anything and everything. For example, in the Witches Market, these traditionally dressed women sold dried llama fetuses. No joke. Apparently, it is considered good luck for Bolivians to bury a dried llama fetus under a new home.
On our first day in La Paz we visited the oldest church in town, even hanging out for Mass (we had no idea what was going on, but it seemed pretty standard). We also stopped by the main square for some people watching and saw the bullet-ridden presidential palace. In the afternoon, we checked out the Coca Museum which was very interesting. The Coca Leaf is a very big deal in Bolivia and is considered a part of their national heritage. Coca leaves are “macerated, not chewed” by most of the population. The chemicals in the leaf act as a stimulant and historically, the Spanish forced the indigenous population to consume coca leaves in order to increase stamina and production. The Bolivian government actually expelled the American Ambassador around 2008 after the US and Bolivia got in a dispute over the growing of coca leaves and US drug enforcement efforts.
3IMG_2207.jpg Alleyway in La Paz
IMG_2216.jpg Classic Bolivian woman in front of the Presidential Palace
IMG_2238.jpg The Witches Market (the small items on the rights are llama fetuses)
On day two, we took a taxi to a lookout point where we got some nice views of the city and the surrounding mountains. We then walked to a small square in a less touristy/business part of town and got some Mexican food for lunch (Jeff was ecstatic!). We also stopped by the Black Market, which wasn’t as shady as it sounds - pretty much a big market selling every kind of good imaginable. We called it an early day and headed back to our hostel to pack up and get some sleep.
We parted Bolivia via Aerosur, Bolivia’s national airline. I have to say, I was a bit skeptical about flying a non-US carrier (I know it sounds a bit snobby, but flying is not my favorite thing to begin with). Moreover, taking off from La Paz, one of the highest airports in the world is pretty crazy in and of itself. However, after two flights on Aerosur, I was pleasantly surprised. When we took off from La Paz, we just barely cleared a mountain range (see picture). Almost as shocking as the take off was the fact that Aerosur served us meals, drinks and fudge for dessert on both our flights (the first flight was only 50-minutes). After two Aerosur flights, we ended back where our South American journey started, Sao Paolo, Brazil.
IMG_2251.jpg Taking in a view of the city
IMG_2265.jpg The Black Market
IMG_2279.jpg Just after take off...the mountain range we just cleared
Now that the first leg of our trip is over, we have been very reflective about our time in South America and journey so far. South America definitely has a lot to offer. It could keep a traveler occupied for far longer than our 40-days. The terrain, climate, cultural and activities change with each country, and even several times within some counties. Having never been to Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina or Bolivia before, we can safely say that they are all very captivating in their own ways. We found it pretty easy to navigate South America thanks to good public transportation. The South American infrastructure, while better in some countries than others, was reasonable, even on a tight budget. We exceeded our budget in Brazil and saved a lot of money in Bolivia, but for the most part, travelling was affordable in all of the countries we visited. Despite our lack of Spanish and Portuguese, we managed to get around just fine by using short phrases and talking with our hands - most people were sympathetic. Highlights for us include seeing Rio de Janeiro and the Iguassu Falls, spending time with Jeff’s family in Buenos Aires, and exploring the Bolivian Salt Flats. In the end, it was an unforgettably experience!
We are off to Johannesburg, South Africa and a whole new chapter in our travels! We will write more soon…

Posted by geldere 03:54 Archived in Bolivia Tagged mountains market high cold altitude witches Comments (0)

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)

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