Monthly Archives: October 2009

Chile Round-up & Budget

Poor, underrated Chile. I didn’t meet a single backpacker in Latin America who reckoned Chile was their favourite country. Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia…yes, frequently. Chile? Never.

They always start with a couple of obvious negatives that I must admit I have trouble disagreeing too much with – first off, it’s expensive. Compared to the rest of South America, that’s certainly true – however it’s still cheap compared to home, and anyway, it wasn’t all that hard for me to save money by eating out less, especially considering negative number two: the food. I’d been forewarned, but boy do the locals love their fast food. KFCs & McDonald’s everywhere, and a lot of rather greasy Chilean options too. Luckily there are plenty of decent foreign options (especially Peruvian), and the supermarkets are great, so I still ate pretty well despite the lack of great local cuisine.

The third negative I kept hearing is, I think, rather unfair. Santiago seems to get a bit of a bad time from traveller. I can kind of see why – it’s not the most amazing sights or museums, but despite that, I loved it. It’s got a stunning location, with the peaks of the highest point of the Andes towering behind the city. It’s a lovely city to wander around in, with loads of cafes and great shops to spend time in, and it’s clean, modern and safe too. The nightlife around the Bellavista area is some of the best I’ve come across as well, with dozens of bars and restauraunts spilling out onto the pavements. It even has it’s own uniquely Chilean form of seediness – the famous Cafes con Piernas (Cafes with legs) – a bizarre combo of strip joint and Starbucks, where besuited businessmen go to have coffee served by women in extremely skimpy bikinis, something I got to see after being dragged there by two Peruvians who couldn’t believe such a thing existed.

I’d even go so far as to say it’s the first place apart from Mexico City on this trip that I can actually imagine living in – helped in part by the fact that it’s one of the few places in the world where you have ski resorts 90 minutes drive one way, and a beach 90 minutes in the other direction.

Aside from Santiago, I’ve already noted that Valparaiso is one of the best cities I’ve been, and the landscapes of the Atacama desert were starkly beautiful. Best of all was the friendliness of the people, something I’ve found time and again in every country I’ve been to so far, but I have to say I think I found the Chileans the friendliest of all.

It’s yet another country I really want to go back to – in particular to explore further south, including the Lake District and Patagonia, especially the Torres del Paine national park, home to the region’s best hiking.

Anyway, that’s it for the round-up, onto more serious matters – the budget. Considering Chile is supposed to be the most expensive country in Latin America, and that I visited the most expensive places in the country (San Pedro, Santiago & Rapa Nui), I didn’t do anywhere near as badly as I thought. In fact, if it hadn’t been for buying a replacement camera, Chile would actually have worked out cheaper than several of the countries I’ve visited, mainly aided by my lowest activities cost yet, and all that hoime cooking kept the food spend down too. Sadly, the expense of the camera negated all my hard work at saving, and it meant the country did indeed turn out to be the costliest since my brief stop in the USA.
Accommodation: $12.13
Transport: $9.01
Activities: $3.15
Misc (including that Camera): $19.07
Food & drink: $20.40
Total: $63.77

And of course on to all those other numbers:
Funiculars ridden: 6
Buses: 3
Flights: 3
Taxis: 2
Cars: 1
Jeeps: 1
Cash withdrawals: 3
Phone calls: 2
Postcards sent: 2
Volcanoes climbed: 2
Beaches visited: 2
Laundry: 1
Beds slept in: 6
Canyons: 1
Deserts: 1
Moai seen: dozens
Cameras broken: 1
Cameras unable to be fixed: 1
Cameras bought: 1

And onto the people I met. Interestingly, this was the second country in a row I spent more time with locals than with foreigners. Chile was also the first country so far where I spent more time with Latin Americans than I did with gringos – more than half the people I spent time with were Spanish speakers, and it was a fitting end to my stay in the continent that my last few nights out were conducted almost entirely in Spanish (although I have to admit that was mostly chatting to the Peruvians, as I can barely understand a word Chileans say when they speak Spanish to me, which would be a bit of an obstacle if I were to decide to live there). On the gringo score, yet again Brits dominated the list, but surprisingly Chile was the first country where I didn’t meet a single USian.
Chile: 14
UK: 10
Brazil: 3
Germany: 2
Peru: 2
Australia: 2
Argentina: 2
New Zealand: 1
France: 1
Uruguay: 1
Venezuela: 1
Israel: 1

That’s it now for stuff on the individual Latin American countries – just a few general South American round up posts to come, and then on to New Zealand.

You can read all my posts about Chile here and see all my Chilean photos here.

Finally making it to Easter Island

You’d have thought that after waiting a lifetime to visit Rapa Nui (the increasingly commonly used native name for Easter Island), an extra day of waiting wouldn’t matter all that much. But seeing as I only had three full days planned, being bumped from my flight by LAN meant missing a third of my time. And I was furious.

I’d heard before that flights to the island are often overbooked, so I reconfirmed my flight at a LAN office the day before, I chose my seat, and I arrived at the airport nice and early. All to no avail. They’d already decided I would be one of the ones not flying that day, so I ended with insulting compensation and an extra day kicking my heals in a sterile hotel in Santiago. To say I was unhappy was an understatement.

But, after a frustrating day of waiting, I finally made it to the island, to be greeted by glorious blue skies and a fantastically friendly welcome from Marta, owner of Camping Mihinoa. Considering I’d been warned that a stay on the island could be extremely costly, I couldn’t have been happier with my choice – at 7,000 pesos (roughly $14), it was a complete bargain, considering the next cheapest was almost double the cost. And cheap certainly didn’t mean nasty – for the price I got a lovely clean dorm room, a big kitchen & dining area, a big communal TV room, and best of all, probably the best location on the island, sitting right on the water’s edge on a rocky outcrop facing some of the most dramatic waves on the coast. Absolutely stunning, I can recommend it to anyone planning on visiting the island.

Easter Island sunset

For my first evening and as an introduction to the island, I made the short stroll up the coastline to the other end of town, to see the sun set behind the most accessible collection of Moai (statues), which was quite an incredible sight. Despite having seen countless photos over the years, nothing could have prepared me for quite how impressive the giant statues are in real life.

Ahu Tahai sunset

The second day was much colder and windier, so I decided to postpone my plans to head out to see the other main Moai sites until the following day, and instead hiked up Ranu Kau, an extinct volcano sitting on the south-western corner of the island. It’s a pretty easy hike, and the views at the top down the steep-sided crater and across to the wild Pacific beyond are stunning.

The next day started out pretty clear, so I decided to set out for one of the biggest hikes the island has to offer – the 34km coastal hike from Anakena beach at one end of the island, all the way back to Hanga Roa via the major archaeological sights along the way. First stop was Ahu Nau Nau, an impressively restored collection of four Moai, all with their topknots reattached (unlike most other restored Moai). Unfortunately by the time my taxi dropped me off there, it had already started to cloud over, as the sight of the four Moai, surrounded by palm trees and overlooking a deserted beach, would have been ever more magical with the previous day’s skies.

Heading away from Anakena along the North-east coast, I really began to appreciate quite how remote I was. Rapa Nui is 3,500km from mainland Chile, and over 4,000m from Tahiti, the nearest major population centre in the other direction, making it one of the most isolated inhabited places in the world. Walking along the empty coastline, with not a single person in sight (all the inhabitants live on the other side of the island, and there were no tourists around), and the huge waves of the Pacific crashing onto the black volcanic coastline, was a strangely moving experience.

Ahu Tongariki

It took a few hours to reach the next main sight, probably the most famous image of the island – Ahu Tongariki, the biggest single collection of Moai on the islands. There are fifteen in total, all toppled from their Ahu (ceremonial platform) in the 18th century civil wars, damaged further by a tsunami, and finally re-erected with Japanese government help in the 90s. Sitting in a line with their backs to the swirling seas, and facing towards the volcano of Ranu Raraku, where they were made, they make a pretty impressive sight. It’s amazing to thing that such a small island culture could make (and move!) such massive statues at all, although famously the statue cult was to prove the society’s undoing, as the island simply didn’t have enough resources to support such endeavours.

Unfinished Moai in Ranu Raraku

A short walk from Ahu Tongariki sits the other major attraction of the island, the volcanic quarry of Ranu Raraku. The place is testament to quite how quickly and dramatically the social order collapsed, as the quarry is home to dozens of statues that are either complete and still waiting the move to their final home, or still in the process of being carved out of the rock face.

As I began to the long walk back along the south coast to Hanga Roa, the heavens suddenly opened, and I soon began to curse the islanders (for having chopped down all the island’s trees, thus denying me shelter) and LAN again (if I’d arrived a day earlier, I’d have had a day of sunshine and few clouds to complete my hike in). In no time, I was soaked to the skin, and contemplating a 17k walk back. Not an enticing prospect. Luckily, I soon spotted a car pulling out of a beach and managed to get myself a lift from the commander of the local naval base, who had been spending his day off fisghing on the empty souther coast line. All in all, a very lucky escape, considering quite how little passing traffic there is on the island.

Despite my anger with LAN for costing me a day on the island, the two and a bit days I stayed there were incredible, and a beautiful way to spend my last major stop in Latin America before the next leg of my trip began.

You can see all of my Rapa Nui / Easter Island photos here.

Valparaiso Graffiti & Street Art

One of my favourite things about Valpo was the huge amount of fantastic graffiti and street art dotted around the walls of the city, which help make an already beautiful and colourful city even moreso.

Here’s a selection of some of my favourites:

You can see the full collection of my Valpo street art photos here

Gorgeous Valparaiso

Much as I love the great outdoors, I’m a city boy at heart. And I’ve been to some fantastic cities so far – Mexico City, Guanajuato, Guadalajara, Medellin, Lima, Mendoza & Cusco stand out – but Valparaiso (or Valpo for short) may just be my favourite yet.

I do like a bit of faded seaside glamour, and Valpo has it in spades. In the 19th century, it was the biggest port in Chile, and attracted immigrants from all over the world, particularly Brits & Germans. You can still see plenty of traces of that era – The ‘dissidents’ cemetary is full of graves that tell fantastic stories of all the Brits and Germans that found their way to the city is one of the best examples.

Valparaiso cemetary

Valparaiso cemetary

Elsewhere, the history of immigration to the city can be seen by the former volunteer fire companies, with one one for each of the main immigrant nationalities – the British & German ones sit right next to each other, and still maintain links to their home countries, as can be seen by the fire trucks donated by the home countries.

The British Fire company

The British Fire company

Valpo isn’t really a city to go admire its museums and galleries – rather, it´s one that reveals its charms best by wandering and wandering round for hours on end. The port itself, and the commercial heart of the city, lies on a narrow strip of flat land by the coast, and for me the highlight of this part was the wonderfully curvy trolley buses.

Valpo Trolley Bus

Valpo Trolley Bus

. Other than that, the city sits perched on a series of steep hills, most of which can be reached by rickety, often English built, ascensores, or funiculars that trundle up and down for less than a dollar a journey.

One of the many ascensores

One of the many ascensores

The hills are where my favourite bits of the city are to be found. They are mostly covered in houses clad in corugated metal, brightly painted, and with fantastic views out towards the ocean. I was lucky enough to have stayed in one, yet another fantastic South American hostel, the Patiperro, in the middle of one the nicest hills, Cerro Alegre.

Valpo houses

Valpo houses

One of the things I love about the place is the sense of being somewhere that was so grand back in the 19th century but that has faded – not into obscurity, but into its own comfortable, slightly dirty, but still glamorous present. It has a life and energy that many cities ten times its size would kill for.

The steps to the Patiperro

The steps to the Patiperro

There’s not much more I can say about the place – I didn´t do much, I didn´t see that many of the ´sights´ (although I did go to Pablo Neruda´s house, which the guidebooks make out to be fantastic for its artsy eclecticism – but to be honest, when you´re in such a fantastically electic city as Valpo, the poet¡s house just paled in comparison), I just wandered, and I fell in love. Oh, except for that feact it´s just hit me that the other city I adored was Guanajuato, which is also a hilly city with lots of colourful houses. If that´s all it takes to please me, can anyone suggest any other places round the world tjat fit that description.

On a final note, if you don’t have the time or the money to visit Valpo right now, you could do far worse than spend some time flicking through the pages of Corrugated City, a fantastic blog written by an English expat in the city that I’ve been reading and loving since my trip began, and is a way better introduction to the city than any guide book could ever be (and it’s not just helpful on the city – I followed his tips on how to make a substitute bacon sandwich when faced with Chilean ingredients and it worked pretty damn well).

You can see all of my photos of Valpo here

Argentina (steak) Round-up & Budget

Five days in Argentina is nowhere near enough. But it certainly was wnough to stuff myself with steak, drown myself in red wine, and clog my arteries with dulce de leche.

For if my little jaunt through Argentina on my way from Bolivia to Santiago was about one thing, it was food and drink. Boy do the Argentinians know to how to live. I managed to eat steak in some form or another every day I was there – and they were some of the finest steaks of my entire life. On the first night in Salta, I went out with Jade & D’Arcy, who I´d met on the Salar de Uyuni trip, and we treated ourselves to a Parillada, the classic Argentinian mixed grill, which consisted of two different cuts of steak, two types of chorizo, chicken, pork, kidneys, black pudding and some other unidentifiable (but still delicious) offal. The next day’s lunch saw the best steak sandwich of my life, and the following night’s bus a more than passable steak dinner (which was far better than any airline meat I’ve ever had). My first night in Mendoza I had the best steak of my life – a chateaubriand that was practically the size of my head, perfectly tender, perfectly cooked, nice and brown on the outside and perfectly pink and just bloody enough on the inside. And all for less than $10. My final night, in the marvellous hostel Lao, we had the best hostel dinner I´ve had, with the whole hostel sat round a huge table working our way through a fantastic barbecue and (unusually enough for Argentina) an equally terific salad…

…which gets me onto something I wondered the whole time I was there. How on erath are all Argentinians not fat, or dead of heart disease by the age of thirty? When you order a steak in a restaurant there, that´s what you get. A steak. On its own. Side orders are available, but most people seem to content themselves with chips at best. And then polish it all off with lots of red wine, and probably some dulce de leche (the classically Argentinian gooey caramel) for dessert. Lovely for a few days, but I’m sure if I had the diet I did for much more than five days I´d be dead pretty damn soon. Maybe vegetables are a dirty little secret that people only consume in the privacy of their own home? Answers on a postcard please (or the comments box if you can’t be bothered).

The wines were all pretty fantastic too. I’m not a huge wine drinker back home, but being in the home of Argentina’s finest reds, I couldn’t not try them – and they were all great. I think I must have somehow picked up a certain European snobbery about the Malbec grape (the most common in Argentina) because I’ve never really drunk much before, but I’m a convert now. Sorry to any family reading this – I had planned to ship a case home for you all for Christmas, until I saw it came to $150 just for the shipping. Ouch.

Those five days were wonderful (other than a few struggles to understand the Argentinian accent) and the country is now even more firmly on my list of places to visit after this trip – I have heard so many good things about Buenos Aires while travelling, and Patagonia is up the top of my future hiking plans.

In terms of costs, two things conspired to wreck my daily budget – all that good steak and fine wine meant my food & drink spend was near the highest so far, and that 19 hour luxury bus trip (in all fairness, it was my longest bus ride to date, so I figured it was worth treating myself) meant transport costs were easily my highest yet – nearly double the next highest country.
Transport: $20.40
Accommodation: $7.50
Activities: $3.75
Misc: $0.75
Steak & Wine: $21.10
Total: $53.50

A briefer than usual round-ip of the other numbers:
Buses: 2
Car s: 1
Bikes: 1
Taxi: 4
Postcards: 2
Cash withdrawals: 3
Wineries: 5
Cows eaten: several

..and finally the people I wined & dined with. This is the first country since Mexico where the natives have made up the largest group of people I met, and also the first since Mexico where Brits or Americans weren’t number one, thanks to the large and very friendly Irish contingent I met in Mendoza.
Argentinians: 7
Irish: 4
Dutch: 2
UK: 2
US: 1

Next, and final stop in Latin America, a return to Chile.

Wobbly Wine-tasting in Mendoza

After the camera-death incident, Salta did nothing to improve my mood. After warm, sunny San Pedro, I arrived in Salat to find it in the grip of the coldest spring they’d had for 60 years, with even daytime temperatures barely rising above five degrees (oh, and it was cloudy and raining too). The local camera shop told me that repairing my camera was out of their league and I’d need a proper Canon repair centre (which in my case meant waiting til Santiago). So I was well miffed, and feeling a bit sulky, all plams to visit the stunning nearby canyons went out of the window, and instead I booked myself onto a night bus to Mendoza for the following day.

San Francisco de Salta, by mtchm @ Flickr

San Francisco de Salta, by mtchm @ Flickr

I thought treating myself to the rather deluxe full cama service (near fully-recling seat, free steak, wine & champagne included) would be a good idea, and so it seemed at first, as I had my best ever night’s sleep on a night bus. So good in fact, that I was still fast asleep when we arrived in Mendoza, and leapt off the bus in a hurry while still half asleep – managing to leave behind my only jacket (which had been draped over my legs) in the process. So in the space of just three days, I’d managed to break my most valuable item, and lose the third most expensive. Financial worries aside, that also meant I’d managed to lose both my wind & rain protection and my main warm layer (my fleece) in the space of just two weeks. Considering I never, ever lose things back home, I was beginning to worry what was happening to my mind.

Still, despite my foul mood on arrival, Mendoza refused to let me sulk any more. The good stuff began with me finding myself in one of the nicest hostels I’ve been to in six months (the Hostel Lao – pretty perfect in every way). That was soon followed by the best steak of my entire life at a restaurant recommended to me by the hostel. And then, best of all, was the cycle tour of the local wineries.

This was yet another attraction that I’d heard about many a time from other travellers, and boy was it fun. Starting off in the hostel at 9am, we were dropped off by the tour company in the nearby wine village of Chacras, given bikes, a map, and a timetable – and then we were left on our own.

So we spent the day navigating our way from winery to winery, tasting a fine selection of wines along the way, in most cases for just a couple of dollars, and in some cases, for no charge at all. I really can’t think of a much more civilised way to spend a day then to be gently cycling around (all on the flat, thank god) a pretty little village with a stunning view of the Andes in the background, tasting some of the finest wines in South America along the way.

Mendoz vineyards & the Andes by Ecofotos - Adilson Moralez @ Flickr

Mendoz vineyards & the Andes by Ecofotos - Adilson Moralez @ Flickr

We managed to make it through five wineries (and god knows how many glasses) over the course of the day, and by the end of it we’d had just enough to make us ever-so-slightly wobbly but nowhere near as drunk as I’d feared (I’d heard stories of other cycle tourists having to be given a police escort back). All the wines were pretty damn good, but if I had to pick some out I’d definitely go for the wines of Lagarde, which were some of the nicest reds I’ve ever had (although we were tasting some of the pricier ones, thanks to us arriving at the same time as a much bigger group of rich Americans). The Weinert & Altavista ones were pretty impressive too, and the tours themselves in both places were the best we had. I shall be looking out for all of the above when I get home.

As if the day couldn’t have got any better, we arrived back at the hostel in time for the hostel barbecue – and yet more delicious steak. Thank you Mendoza, you really know how to cheer a boy up!

Seeing as I had no camera for my Argentinian trip, you can see more of other people’s photos of these two beautiful cities at Flickr – click here for Salta & here for Mendoza.

Valley of Camera Death

Unlike the transition between Peru & Bolivia, on entering Chile you could tell straight away you were in a very different country.

Chilean flag...with the Andes (& Bolivia) in the background

Chilean flag...with the Andes (& Bolivia) in the background

For a start, the scenery changed dramatically – from the Bolivian Altiplano, to the Atacama desert. The town of San Pedro de Atacama, my first stop, is a dusty town of single story houses that was more reminiscent of Mexico than of anywhere I’ve been in South America. The fact that virtually every single building was festooned with a Chilean flag (possibly prompted by the fact the town was once part of Bolivia until the 19th century War of the Pacific, and is probably very glad it’s now part of much richer Chile, a wound that still hasn’t healed on the other side of the border) further underlines the fact. And then there are the prices…ouch. I’d been warned Chile was the priciest place on the continent, but San Pedro was practically at US prices.

Atacama

Atacama

With just a couple of days to kill before crossing the border to Argentina on my rush south to get my flight out of the continent, I didn’t have time to do much except visit the nearby valleys of death & of the moon.

Atacama

Atacama

First up was the Valle de la Muerte, a narrow sandstone canyon with spectacular views down to the sandunes below. The narrow canyon was a perfect wind tunnel, so strong that we were whipped with sand and even walking forward was a bit of a struggle.

Windy!

Windy!

All that wind and sand may well have turned out to be my downfall, for just minutes after we’d arrived in Valley of the Moon, my beloved camera died. The lens came out half way, and then stayed there, refusing to go back in or come out further. I was gutted. My Canon G10 was newly purchased for the trip, and taking photos, and gradually learning to improve my initially ropey camera skills has been one of the highlights so far. So to see it die left me gutted – made worse by the fact that I feared that getting it repaired would be a far from easy matter. Even losing, it breaking it irreparably or having it stolen would have been better – as I could buy a new one and get the cost back on insurance. A broken camera on the other hand, means I’d only be able to claim to get it repaired. This was the first real piece of bad luck on my trip so far, and it left me in a foul mood that was to last several days.

The last photo before my G10 died :(

The last photo before my G10 died :(

You can see all of my photos of San Pedro & the surrounding valleys, up to the moment of camera death, here.

Bolivia Round-up & Budget

I could have sworn when I was planning my trip that I’d left myself enough time for a month in Bolivia. But somehow I screwed up and that month turned into two weeks, which really isn’t enough time to get to know a place properly.

Colourful balloons in Sucre

Colourful balloons in Sucre

But, having said that, the two weeks I had were great fun. As usual for Latin America, the people everywhere were incredibly friendly. La Paz is a wonderful place to visit, one of the nicest big cities I’ve visited so far – I was expecting the capital city of one of the poorest countries in the Americas to be big, dirty and dangerous – but it turned out to be none of those. It’s relatively small size means the centre is all easily manageable on foot; it was clean and with well-preserved colonial buildings, and it had a really nice selection of shops, restaurants, museums and bars, all of which were pretty safe to wander around to. On top of that, it’s blessed with one of the finest locations of any city I’ve been to yet – La Paz is crammed into a canyon that cuts through the Bolivian Antiplano, meaning on all sides you can see colourful houses filling the slopes, and in the distance sit the snowcapped mountains of the nearby Cordilleras. Quite spectacular.

La Paz panorama

La Paz panorama

Sucre too was another fine colonial city, and one that I particularly enjoyed fot its fascinating cemetary (and its rather cool Dino-phone, presumably a reference to the nearby largest collection dinosaur footprints in the world).

Sucre cemetary

Sucre cemetary

The dinophone

The dinophone

Cholita’s wrestling, the Death Road, visiting the mines of Potosi and the Salar de Uyuni were all real trip highlights (for very different reasons), but it’s all just left me wanting more. Unlike Mexico, Colombia & Peru, where my six weeks left me enough time to feel I’d begun to get to know the country and its people, two weeks in Bolivia leaves me feeling I’ve barely scratched the surface, and all those experiences were so different I feel like I have no sense of the country as a whole. There’s still so much I want to see in the country – the jungle, the pampas, the Cordilleras, and the Jesuit Missions of the south east in particular – that I’m pretty certain I’ll be back the the near future.

So, onto money then. Bolivia is supposedly the cheapest country in South America, and yes, it did indeed beat Guatemala to become my cheapest country so far. But, as is probably becoming familiar to any regular readers, not as cheap as I’d hoped. I pretty much fell down across the board – staying in hostels that were probably a bit too nice meant I spent way more than I had in Guatemala and Honduras; I continued to splash out on nicer meals (although my food costs were still the lowest so far), and all those activities added up in cost. But overall, not a bad result, and at least it brings the overall average back down (but not as much as I’d hoped).

Transport: $2.96
Accommodation: $7.29
Activities: $12.50
Laundry & miscellaneous stuff: $2.43
Food & Drink: $16.21
Total: $41.39

And onto the other numbers…
Buses: 5
Taxis: 2
Bikes: 1
Beds: 7
Jeeps: 1
Boats: 3
Hot Springs: 1
Laundry: 2
Postcards: 2
Cash withdrawals: 5
Islands: 1
Volcanoes: 1
Geysers: several
Salt Flats: 1
Wrestling Bouts: 5

…and the people I met. New nationalities to add to the total this time were an Austrian and the Bolivians. Surprise showing by the French & Dutch this time, with usual suspects the Americans, Germans & Israelis falling way behind. Most of all were the Brits, who have finally taken the lead in my overall tally from the Americans.
UK: 18
French: 5
Dutch: 5
US: 4
Australians: 3
Bolivians: 3
Swiss: 3
Belgians: 2
Czechs : 2
Spanish: 2
Irish: 2
Austrian: 1
Canadian: 1
German: 1
Kiwis: 1

That’s it for Bolivia now – next up, a brief stop in Chile and then straight on to Argentina. You can see all my Bolivian photos here, and read all my posts about the country here. And remember, if you want to be notified of all future updates, you can click on one of the links top right to get updates via RSS or email.

Photo silliness on the Salar de Uyuni

Let’s face it, spectacular as its landscapes are, one of the main reason every backapcker wants to go to the Salar de Uyuni is to take lots of silly photos and videos. I had thought that all those trick shots would be tiresome to set up and take, but it turned out to be some of the best fun I’ve had all year.

and a quick look behind the scenes:

All this photography was but a warm up for the main event, our first video – ladies and gentlemen, let me present our crowning glory:
Vodpod videos no longer available.

The Salar de Uyuni

If there was one place more than any other that I was excited about visiting in South America, it was the Salar de Uyuni. Before I traveled, I read countless blog posts and saw hundreds of amazing photos about the place, and I couldn’t wait to see it for myself.

After a slightly frustrating evening in the rather dull town of Uyuni (everyone told me it was only good for one thing: Minuteman Pizza, allegedly the finest pizzas in all of South America. We went quite early in the evening. It was fully booked for the entire night. Grrr.) our little group – two Brits, one Irish girl, one Belgian, one Kiwi & an Australian set off in a jeep for what would be a three day tour across one of the world’s strangest and most amazing landscapes.

First stop was the train cemetary. Uyuni is one of the main railway junctions in Bolivia, and on the edge of town sit dozens of old, rusting trains, which were great fun to clamber all over.

Uyuni Train Cemetary

Uyuni Train Cemetary

After a brief stop there, we were soon onto the star attraction, the Salar de Uyuni itself. It was once part of a giant inland sea, but over the millenia it has dried out, leaving behind the world’s largest salt flats. And they are enormous. Once you get out into the centre of the lake, all you can see for miles around is one giant expanse of endless whiteness. It’s a very weird sight, quite unlike anything else on earth I’ve ever seen.

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

If that wasn’t strange enough, sitting in the middle of the lake is the Isla de Pescados, which is completely covered in ancient, giant cacti (some are up to 1000 years old), making the place feel even more alien.

Isla de Pescados

Isla de Pescados

If the mornings attractions had been pretty awe-inspiring, it was really just a warm up for the main event – taking lots of silly pictures and videos, as the endless white expanse of the Salar offers possibilities for mucking around with perspective. The hour or two we spent doing that was one of the most fun things I’ve done on the whole trip – you can see the results in a separate post here.

After the wonders of the first day, there was nothing to do once we got to the hotel but block out the sound of the whiney French woman from another group (who was complaining about EVERYTHING in a VERY LOUD VOICE) by playing cards and drinking lots of wine (which also had the beneficial effect of helping us ignore the freezing temperartures).

Day two began with a very early start to catch the sunrise over the Salar (tip: don’t bother) before heading off into the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, home to colourful lakes, strange rock formations, and lots and lots of flamingoes. (oh, and as an aside, it was interesting to discover that the Spanish word for Flamingo is Flamenco – as in the dance & music – which in turn is also for the Flemish language and people. Any Spanish speakers know if that’s a coincidence or is there some link between the bird, the dance & the people that’s not exactly obvious to me?!

Flamingoes

Flamingoes

The day turned out to be rather an eventful one, as the Australian & the Belgian decided they’d liven up the long hours of driving by polishing off a bottle of vodka and several cans of beer between them before lunchtime. It wasn’t until we arrived at the first lake that we realised quite how drunk they were, when the Aussie decided he wanted a closer look at the Flamingoes, and waded straight into the freezing cold lake. Amusement soon turned into anger, but luckily he’d peaked a bit too soon and promptly fell asleep as soon as we’d managed to herd him back into the jeep.

Next stop was yet another lake full of flamingoes – the reserve is home to three different species of them – which was a stunning sight, with the lake being surrounded by huge mountains.

Highlight of the second day was the Arbol de Piedra (Rock Tree), so-called because the high winds of the Altiplano have eroded a rock so it balances precariously on a very narrow point, making it look a bit like a tree.

Arbol de Piedra

Arbol de Piedra

Final stop of the day was the Laguna Colorada, which gets its name from the algae that colour the lake red (which for some reason was particularly difficult to capture in photos), and yet another freezing cold night in the hostel.

Day three was pretty brief, but equally spectacular. We had yet another early start to make it to a nearby geyser field which is at its most active at sunrise, which was a truly ghostly sight, with the bubbling pools of mud and stark landscape shrouded in clouds of steam from the geezers, gradually being lit up by the rays of the emerging sun.

Sunrise over the Geysers

Sunrise over the Geysers

Fed up with three days of being absolutely freezing, our final stop was absolutely perfect: a natural hot spring for bathing in. Despite the brief agony of having to strip down in the baltic morning temperatures, it was all worth it for the chance to submerge ourselves in a bath-hot pool, looking out across a lake with the early morning sun scattering light across the water. Beautiful.

After our dip and a quick breakfast, it was a short ride to the border; bye bye Bolivia, hello Chile…

The rather isolated border post

The rather isolated border post

Three long days of driving in a Jeep is pretty damn uncomfortable (another tip: bring your iPod with you, most of the jeeps have connectors so you can plug into the car stereo, which helps make the drive a lot more bearable, as long as you don’t end up fighting over the music!), the temperature is mostly bloody freezing, and the accommodation is at best basic. But all the discomfort is worth it – I’ve never seen anywhere like it.

You can see all of my photos of the Salar de Uyuni & the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa here.