Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Wining and dining in Argentina

As we had initialy planed to fly straight to Buenos Aires from La Paz we were now well and truly off our original itinary. Instead we were working our way down Argentina by bus.

Our first stop was a town called Salta. One of the most famous sites in Salta is the museum holding the findings of archilogical digs at the top of the sourounding mountains. The Incas used to burry offering at the top of the mountains to unite the different communities and appease their gods. The Incas used to pick the child who they considered the most pure and beautiful from each community send them to the capital in Cusco to get married with a child from another tribe. Unfortunately once the children returned from their communities the incas used to get them drunk on beer and then bury the poor children alive at the top of the nearest mountain. Because the mountains are so cold, the children were perfectly preserved and one was on display in a specially sealed cabinet. It was really freeky seeing the little kid with his hair and skin looking just as it would on the day he was burried. You just have to hope that he never woke up to realise what was happening to him.

While that might sound all a bit morbid our next stop in Argentina was much more cheery. After being told, when we were in Bolivia, by a couple of drunken Australians that we would love it we decided to go to the small town of Cafayata. The town is in the heart of Argentina´s wine country so we thought it would be rude not to sample what they had to offer. We started off going to a wine museum so that we could know a bit more about what we were drinking. The museum was beautifully put together and all of the displays were written in poetry. Off the top of my head, the one fact I can remember is that the wine is so good because the sun is always shining during the day but it gets cold at night. What we also learnt from the tasting sessions is that we like drinking wine, but I suppose I already knew that.

To have a break from drinking wine we decided to rent a couple of bikes and go on a bike ride that we had been recomended. We jumped on a bus with our bikes and set off to a local landmark to start our ride back into town. The bus kept going and going and I started to realise that a 48km bike ride was not going to be that easy for someone like me who has barely rode a bike in years. Fortunatley we met some nice people on the bus who were doing the same ride and agreed to join them . On the way back we stopped at a number of sites including a gorge where you could here your voice echo off the rocks and a giant rock shaped like a toad. Half way through the trip we found a little house by the side of the road selling wine in unmarked bottles and decided that we it was probably time to sample the loca drink again. Posing for tourists at the wine stop was the best looking lama we have ever seen. He had the funniest goofy and pomposs look on his face as if we were disturbing some very important work he was doing but he would deem to allow us a photo. By the end of our ride I was completly broken I felt far worse than after the Inca trail but it was worth it for a great day.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Gaining perspective...salt flats, flamingos, cacti and canyons

After another night bus we arrived in the dusty very cold town of Uyuni which literally felt like it was in the middle of nowhere and it pretty much was! It was the gateway to the 3 day salt flat tour which we hadnt intended to do originally but we had had it recommended by so many people that we thought we couldn't miss it out. we spent ages trying to decide which tour to go with as we had heard that the quality of them can vary so much but we finally settled on one and we were in luck - we had four other people in our jeep and they were great fun - a couple from Australia and a couple from London like us. it was a good thing we all got on as we would be in the jeep for hours on end for the next 3 days as we had such big distances to cover. we also had a friendly driver who only spoke Spanish so Millie and i were the translators which was generally successful with one very funny mis- translation which i"ll get to later.

Our first stop was at a site with loads of abandoned trains hundreds of years old. it was pretty surreal walking round the train grave yard and it definitely looked like a film set or music video location. Next we headed on to the salt flats. The flats go on for miles and it was hard to make your brain understand that it isn"t snow and that it is in fact salt. They are the largest salt flats in the world. we all got stuck into trying to work out how to do the perspective photos and got more and more inventive as we went along with different props coming into it. The salt flats completely mess with the perspective and as you can see you can make yourself look smaller than an apple or a toy dinosaur or even look like you are standing on somebody's tongue (like I am on Jontys)!!

After hours of driving across the white expanse and feeling like we were never getting anywhere we made it to our hostel made out of salt - of course!! Jonty and I hiked up a hill with cacti and got a great view of the flats and then as the sun was setting we walked across the flats. We felt like Arctic explorers as it was so cold and the whiteness just stretched on for miles! We had a fun evening chatting with our group and the other people staying in the hostel.

Our second day was a day of lakes and volcanoes. we had breakfast at sun rise and then set off in the jeep. The landscape was incredible - desert with massive mountains and rock formations and no roads - just occasional tracks our 4wd could follow. It also felt like you were never getting anywhere as the landscape just stretched on for miles and miles. We got to this stunning lake which was full of flamingos and it was here that jonty and i turned into wild life photographers or thought we had! We couldn't stop taking photos of flamingos so i challenge whoever is brave enough back home to sit through the medley of flamingo images!!! We visited two more high altitude lakes and spotted lots of llamas and vicunas - the posh llama.

It was as we were singing along to some driving music that we spotted another creature on the side of the road and this is where the language miscommunication started. I got out to look at and take a picture of it as it looked so cute and rabbit like (in the attached photo) but i then heard panicked shouts from the other 5 in the car telling me to get back into the car quickly as the creature is highly dangerous. i couldnt believe it, as they looked so cute, so i stayed outside but at a safe distance. Admittedly i was slightly prepared if they did spring at me and bite me, which had entered my mind after the frenzied warnings from the others. It turns out that the guide had mimed eating because he was suggesting that we could feed the creature if we wanted to but the others had thought that he meant that it was a 'killer rabbit' and would attack me! We all found it absolutely hilarious that we had been worried about this fluffy animal. Luckily our spanish served us better over the next couple of days.

That evening it was unbelievably cold and a few hours in we were wearing pretty much everything we owned. Cameron even had his board shorts on over his jeans! But, despite the cold we had a fun time playing cards and drinking warming red wine.

Up at 5am on our final day and it was still sooo cold but after a short drive (to 4950m) the sight of bubbling mud pots and incredible geysers and sulphurous clouds really woke us up! It looked like an alien landscape and it was strange as nothing was roped off and you could get as close to them as you wanted to or were prepared to. The Bolivian safety systems, this and what we saw on the death road, were vastly different to the cotton wool safety of the UK!! But, we of course didnt go crazy and get our early morning shower there. Instead we visited some hot springs a little further on. After a few more stops at some striking rock formations we made it back to Uyuni and relative warmth of a hostel with heating!

Up at 5am again and we caught a slightly scary bus to Tupiza a town famed for being where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their makers. It was a big bus that didn't have much room to spare as it wound its way along cliff hugging roads. We frequently had to do 3 point turns on the side of a cliff and one Australian couple, sat at the front of the bus, woke up and shouted as they were stunned that they couldnt see the ground!! Luckily the driver was very used to these roads and we made it there safe and sound. It was hot and sunny in Tupiza and Jonty and I were so happy to feel warmth again. We checked into what has to be one of my favourite hostels so far, that even had a swimming pool and spent a lovely 3 days in Tupiza relaxing by the pool, walking through the impressive red canyons and dry river beds and visiting the markets. Cameron and Millie from our Uyuni tour were also in the same hostel so we had a fun meal out with them too one evening.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Stranded high and dry in La Paz

Getting to La Paz was a bit of a nightmare. When we went to book our ticket some companies told us there was a strike in Bolivia so no buses were going to run, others told us not to worry but that we would need to change bus in Puno. One man however offered us a bus which for a little bit more money would take us the whole way on luxurious seats which were more like beds. Of course when it came time to leave the bus was nothing like the picture and more like an old national express bus. At about 5.30am we were told we did have to change bus after all and this time we were put on a cramped rickety old mini bus and driven to the boarder. There we were told to make our own way to La Paz and were given 10 Peruvian Soles to get a taxi. Thankfully we had already got some Bolivia money as the Soles were quite useless in Bolivia!!

We finally arrived in La Paz smelly and tired mid afternoon admiring the strange looking city perched in a valley 3660 meters above the sea. Unfortunately we had to go straight to the Argentinian embassy to sort out Katie's visa as she needed one to go with her emergency passport. The Argentinian consulate was however very helpful and we managed to get our application in that day.

We decided to wait in La Paz for the Visa application to go through but the whole process was delayed when the bus drivers in the city decided to go on strike. They managed to blockade the entire city preventing anything from getting in or out for two days. It was surreal wandering around this normally hectic city with no traffic on the road, the place almost had a festive atmosphere as everyone walked around town.

Fortunately there are lots of fun and random things to do in La Paz while waiting for a visa. One evening we managed to get our fix of South American football going to watch the local derby between a team called the Strongest and their bitter rivals Bolivar. While you get a good atmosphere at a Spurs Arsenal match these fans were CRAZY. The two rival groups were singing and bouncing up and down, lighting flares and constantly firing fire works off. We were worried they were going to hurt themselves but it turns out it was the players who were in danger. Mid way through the second half the Bolivar goal keeper was hit by a firework thrown from the crowd and looked like all hell was going to break lose. The ref considered calling the game off, the Strongest players had to beg their fans to calm down while the Bolivia goalie made angry gestures at them. However everything in the end calmed down and the match continued. By the time we left everyone seemed to be good natured and we walked home in a happy crowd.

On the Sunday night we were tempted to go for an even stranger experience a night of Cholita wrestling. We were driven to this big warehouse with a wrestling ring in the middle and a mixed crowd of locals and tourist watching. The star attractions were not the typical men wrestlers in their lycra outfits and masks but the cholitas, women in traditional andes dress. It was a surreal experience cheering on the 'goody' Cholita as she acted out her fight with the 'bady' Cholita. With the fights occasionally moving out of the ring and even one point one trying to strangle the other with her long braids of hair.

One activity in La Paz I never thought I would do was the Infamous death road. This is a downhill mountain bike ride made famous for the number of people who have plunged to their death into the valley below. For months I had said I was not going to do it as I had said the clue was in its name and that I would much rather do the sprained ankle road. Throughout La Paz we kept meetings people with their arms in plaster casts who had hurt themselves falling off their bikes. I therefore surprised myself when I decided I was going to do it after all. Fortunately the company we picked, Overdose, supplied us with very good bikes and full protective helmets and clothing. The ride itself was pretty exciting on a narrow gravely road cutting back and forth down a steep mountain. It was not however too dangerous as long as you were sensible enough to use the breaks a fair bit. The views were incredible as we went down 3600m from a cold early morning start to ending up in hot jungle like conditions. To celebrate surviving with our limbs in tact we joined the new friends we met on the ride for a night drinking in the fun backpacker bars of La Paz.

Fortunately the next day Katie's visa was ready the bus drivers strike was over and we were ready to head off to our next adventure on the Bolivian salt flats..