Friday, 18 November 2016

Bolivian adventures: From Tupiza to Uyuni in 4 days

This is the third post in the series of three.
Part I: Bolivian adventures: La Paz, Titicaca and Sucre
Part II: Bolivian adventures: Potosí and Tupiza
Part III: Bolivian adventures: From Tupiza to Uyuni in 4 days


In the morning of my departure, I walked into La Torre Hotel's breakfast room with certain uneasiness. Three of the people in the room would be my travel companions for the next four days. This was terrifying: I am not a confident group-tour traveller and generally find travelling with others hard. It took me some time to accept travelling with my husband - arguably the one person I can comfortably be around for long spells at a time - and I still prefer to travel alone whenever I can. Travelling with strangers definitely does not rank very high in my books (see my musings on why I love travelling alone).

I needn't have worried, however. I was only minutes away from meeting some of the funniest and friendliest people I have ever encountered. They were a group of friends from Barcelona - a Frenchman, an American and an Italiana - all travelling together across South America from Rio, where two of the trio had volunteered at the Olympics. We got along immediately, which, given that we had to share a room for three nights and a jeep for four days, was extremely important - especially for me, as I can easily get anti-social when forced to share personal space with strangers. I even found hiking the gorgeous Torres del Paine earlier this year difficult for the overbearing number of hikers all squashed into small rooms together. Thankfully, the experience in Bolivia was different and possibly made me a slightly better individual for all the friendliness and laughter shared with my companions. But I digress!

Happy moment: basking in the sun on the shores of Laguna Verde

As I mentioned before, the decision to visit the Uyuni Salt Flat on a jeep tour from Tupiza rather than Uyuni was probably my best on the whole trip. First, the Tupiza trips are 4 days and 3 nights long while the Uyuni trips are shorter at 3 days and 2 nights, meaning one sees more of the Western-inspired landscapes around Tupiza. Second, Uyuni jeeps are reportedly absolutely stuffed with travellers, fitting 6 people in an 8-seater car, while Tupiza companies top the number at 5 (I was also able to pay extra to end up in a jeep with only 3 other travellers). Third, since Tupiza travellers are heading in the opposite direction from the Uyuni crowds, the arrival times to some (not all) sights of interest are different. And, finally, Tupiza tours visit the Uyuni salt flat in the better light at sunrise while Uyuni tours get there during the day - as you can imagine, the resulting experience is very different.

While the Uyuni trips to Bolivia's Altiplano make part of the continent's rather infamous "gringo trail" and are offered by numerous companies, there are only a handful of Tupiza-based agencies. I opted for La Torre Tours (yes, the same name as my hotel) and would recommend them unreservedly. The guide, Jorge, was friendly and knowledgeable, and our sweet cook, Valentina, did her best to vary our meals with the limited choices she had (all our food supplies for four days had been pre-loaded on the jeep ahead of the departure).

And the trip itself? I struggle to put into words the unearthly beauty of the landscapes of the Bolivian Altiplano. Call me lazy, but I will guide you through my journey in fewer words and more photos. Consider it a photo journal: there are plenty of blog posts dedicated to popular tours in Bolivia everywhere on the web, but one could never get enough photos to tickle their imagination. Enjoy!

TUPIZA TO UYUNI: DAY 1


The first day took us from Tupiza to the viewing point for a large canyon just outside town, Quebrada de Palala. We continued to Awanapampa, a valley swarming with grazing llamas, and on to the small village of Cerrillos with postcard-pretty adobe houses. We then reached the eerily abandoned former mining village, aptly named Pueblo Fantasma, or literally "ghost village". Finally, after passing through numerous stunning alpine landscapes, we arrived to a small village of Quetena Chico for the night.

Watching a llama graze in Awanapampa not long after we left Tupiza

Sleepy village of Cerrillos and its adobe (earth material) buildings

Approaching Pueblo Fantasma through colourful landscapes

Frozen stream crosses the road

Alpine lake near Quetena Chico village

This rabbit-like creature called "viscacha" is actually of the chinchilla family

Pueblo Fantasma (literally "ghost village", also jokingly known as "poor man's Machu Picchu") is an abandoned mining village

Quetena Chico village was our stop for the first night

TUPIZA TO UYUNI: DAY 2


The morning started with a frustratingly long argument between Jorge and the villagers, who blocked the road and insisted we pay extra to pass - fairly illegal by all standards, but we had no choice but to pay in the end. We were then off to Laguna Kollpa, a lake with massive borax deposits which the locals use as detergent, and Desierto de Dali, a desert whose shapes and colours resemble Dali's paintings. We had lunch on the shores of the impossibly turquoise Laguna Verde and enjoyed a soak in the thermal springs nearby (which came in especially handy for the lack of showers in that night's accommodation), before continuing to Sol de Mañana geothermal field. The highlight of the day was our final stop: Laguna Colorada, an orange coloured lake dotted with thousands of flamingos. We spent the night in the Villamar village nearby.

More stunning landscapes presented themselves on the way to Laguna Kollpa

On the shores of the surreal Laguna Kollpa

Borax deposits (yes, it isn't ice!) in Laguna Kollpa are used by locals as a detergent

Landscape on the way from Laguna Kollpa to Laguna Verde

Shapes and colours of Desierto de Dali ("Dali Desert"), so named for its resemblance with Dali's surreal paintings

Culpeo (Lycalopex culpaeus), also known as Andean fox, is South America's second largest native canid

Arsenic and other minerals in Laguna Verde ("Green Lake") define the lake's unusual colour; the volcano in the backdrop is called Licancabur and is shared between Bolivia and Chile

Stunning colours near Desierto de Dali and Laguna Verde

Lake best known for its proximity to the "aguas termales" ("thermal springs") complex, affectionately known among the Bolivians as "gringo sopa" (literally "gringo soup"!)

More views near the "aguas termales" while the other gringos are soaking up the heat

Despite a common misconception, Sol de Mañana ("morning sun") complex in the Bolivian Altiplano does not contain geysers and is a field of geothermal sulphur springs

These steaming mud lakes in Sol de Mañana are wells in an artificially created geothermal field

Lookout to Laguna Colorada ("Red Lagoon") towards the end of our second day on the road

Laguna Colorada is full of James's flamingos whose pink colour contrasts with the lake's white borax deposits

Laguna Colorada is so named for its reddish colour, the result of the lake's high content of red sediments and certain algae

Late afternoon colours near Villamar, our stop for the second night

TUPIZA TO UYUNI: DAY 3


Today was less about lakes and more about interesting rocks. We visited three fascinating rock formations, all with pretty cool names: Copa del Mundo, Camello and Italia Perdida, before taking a walk around Laguna Negra (which, surprisingly, did not look black). We then admired a dizzying look into the deep Anaconda canyon and listened to our own heartbeat in the virtually entirely abandoned village of Julaca. After parking our backpacks in Chuvica village for the night, we ended the day watching a stunning sunset on the corner of Uyuni Salt Flat - our first glimpse of this stunning landmark.

A llama graciously agreeing to look into the camera near the "Italia Perdida" rock complex

The "Italia Perdida" ("Lost Italy") rock formation is reportedly so named after an Italian traveller who went missing in the area (though other interpretations of the name's origins abound!)

Barren landscapes en route our next stop, Laguna Negra

Laguna Negra ("Black Lake") did not actually look black at all

Gravity-defying boulders on the craggy rocks surrounding Laguna Negra

The "Anaconda" canyon gets its nickname from the river's meandering shape

Llamas grazing in peace in stunning backdrop, near the Julaca village

These railway tracks in the largely abandoned Julaca village lead all the way from Uyuni to Chile

Despite people still living in the Julaca village, it was eerily quiet

Capturing the sunset in the Uyuni Salt Flat with the 50mm lens, from lying flat on my stomach

Salar de Uyuni ("Uyuni Salt Flat") covers 10 square km and is the world's largest salt flat

TUPIZA TO UYUNI: DAY 4


The last day of our trip started at 5am as we drove off into sheer darkness to watch the sun rise over the Uyuni Salt Flat from Isla Incahuasi. I was certainly looking forward to breakfast at the foot of the Isla when the sun eventually did rise! We took hundreds of hilarious photos ("fotos locos", as they are affectionately known here) playing with odd perspective in the salt flat. The day continued with lazy visits to Hotel de Sal and "Ojos de Sal" (outlets for subterranean rivers flowing under the Uyuni Salt Flat). We made a souvenir stop at Colchani village and ended the tour in Uyuni town around 2pm.

Freezing sunrise as viewed from Isla Incahuasi ("Inca House Island") in the Uyuni Salt Flat

Isla Incahuasi is the top of a massive ancient volcano, which was submerged many years ago

Gigantic cacti are Isla Incahuasi's best known inhabitants

The cacti are positively photogenic in the soft morning light

Uyuni Salt Flat's iconic sheet of endless hexagonal tiles is a natural phenomenon

Mandatory "foto loco" in the Salar #1: Matt gives Hugo a kiss of life (Hugo is unimpressed)

Mandatory "foto loco" in the Salar #2: The "Quatro Llamas" (as we nicknamed our little foursome) jumps for joy

Mandatory "foto loco" in the Salar #3: I shrink Matt and Hugo in size and make them pose on my hands

Before I forget, Bolivia's iconic woollen jumpers in Colchani

Finally the 4-day journey is up: arriving to Uyuni's best known landmark, the central clocktower

After saying goodbye to Jorge and Valentina, my companions went off to have long showers in their hotel. Impossibly jealous, I instead waited for my jeep transfer to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Another shower-less night in the middle of the Bolivian Altiplano was not something I was particularly excited about. My beloved Chile was only one night's sleep away though... but that is a different story altogether.

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View all my photos from Bolivia (including La Paz, Lake Titicaca, Sucre, Potosí, Tupiza and the 4-day trip to Uyuni across the Bolivian Altiplano) here

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Friday, 4 November 2016

Bolivian adventures: Potosí and Tupiza

This is the second post in the series of three.
Part I: Bolivian adventures: La Paz, Titicaca and Sucre
Part II: Bolivian adventures: Potosí and Tupiza
Part III: Bolivian adventures: From Tupiza to Uyuni in 4 days


POTOSÍ

One of the world's highest cities, Potosí is best known for its mining riches. At its peak in the 16th century, the city produced 60 percent of all silver in the world and was associated with remarkable wealth. Centuries later, Potosí's Cerro Rico (literally "Rich Mountain") has been honeycombed to great depths by extraction workers yet still contains the world's largest silver deposit.

Panoramic Potosí with Cerro Rico in the backdrop

My main motivation to visit Potosí was precisely to explore its mining heritage. Tours to Potosí's many cooperative mines are organised by numerous agencies in the city (I went with Altiplano) and often come discounted in low season. In theory, it is better to shop for an agency with a fair profit sharing scheme with the miners, but few travellers normally get this picky.

I had been expecting a very muddy and dusty experience and came wearing my worst gear. While that would have been essential a few years ago, these days most agencies provide visitors with protective outer clothing, hard hats, rubber boots and even surgical masks. Our small group must have made quite a comical sight emerging from Altiplano's changing outpost in the outskirts of Potosí into the steep narrow streets, ready to stock up on presents for miners and continue further up Cerro Rico.

Local lady selling our group coca leaves and sugary drinks for the miners

My "before and after" selfies... notably less enthusiastic "after" on the right!

I may have been well equipped, but nothing could prepare me psychologically for the actual experience of entering a working mine. I very much hate enclosed spaces: one of my most recurring nightmares is getting stuck in a dark cave, unable to see my next step. I can get aggressive if I feel cornered in any way. None of that, of course, made a great case for visiting a place as claustrophobia-inducing as a Potosí silver mine.

As we entered Rosario mine inside the mountain, lighting the way with torches attached to our hats in a true miner fashion, I found the experience almost tolerable. I could stand upright and found our guide's commentary on the geological peculiarities around us fascinating. But things quickly got worse: the air got both hotter and dustier as we went deeper and the passage narrowed down, forcing all tall Europeans to walk bent nearly in half. Already struggling to breathe properly at altitude, I found breathing inside the mountain even more difficult due to the high concentration of minerals and dust in the air. And the surgical mask I had been given only made things worse: clinging to my face in the heat (temperatures in the mine can reach 40 degrees Celcius), it left me panting desperately for breath – the breath of that chemical-filled air already thin on oxygen.

Having a brief chat with the miners inside the Rosario mine

The Rosario mine had celebrated a 14-year anniversary the day before and there were very few miners around. The few that were there made for a heart-breaking sight. Imagine thin men all covered in black dust, emerging from dark alleys manually pushing heavy wheelbarrows and frequently stopping to spit violently, and you will get the picture. Some cover their noses, eyes and mouth with protective gear but most go without. Each stint underground is several hours long, and a working day can last anywhere between 10 and 12 hours, six days per week. No wonder life expectancy of a miner rarely exceeds 40 years, and life-threatening diseases like silicosis and asthma are ripe.

The miners believe that the underground areas are the property of the Devil, or "Tio" ("Uncle"), as the miners call him. To pacify Tio, miners erect simple clay statues of him in the mine and leave offerings of alcohol, coca leaves and cigarettes. As interested as I was to see the local version, by the time we reached it, I was suffering a mild-form panic attack. For the past 10 minutes, we had descended into holes emerging under our feet and were almost reduced to crawling through some particularly narrow sections of the mine. I was panting for breath, tears and sweat streaming uncontrollably down my cheeks, and desperately wished to return to an open area.

Thankfully, the Tio had been placed in a slightly larger niche at the end of our walk. I sat down for a rest and managed to compose myself sufficiently to walk slowly back and out of the mine – forever.

Broken rails outside the Rosario mine with Potosí in the distance

Storage buildings for mining equipment outside the Rosario mine

Potosí was not all about visiting claustrophobic places reeking of chemicals though. I had a quick walk around the city on two afternoons and found numerous architectural pieces in colonial style. I am possibly completely wrong, but some buildings in Potosí would not look out of place in Tbilisi or Baku all the way in the Caucasus.

Some colonial buildings in Potosí could well belong in the Caucasus!

As in Sucre, I found the best way to see Potosí was from the rooftops of tall buildings. I got a private tour of the city's main religious symbol, the Cathedral, which included a visit to one of its bell towers for a great view of Potosí's main squares, Plaza 10 de Noviembre and Plaza 6 de Agosto (commemorating independence of the Potosí region and Bolivia, respectively). My second rooftop visit was to Convento de San Francisco and I found the view from its large dome even more impressive.

Stunning view from the Cathedral

Rooftop of the Cathedral, carefully restored

View from Convento de San Francisco towards the Cathedral

One of Convento de San Francisco's domes with Cerro Rico in the background

TIPS: Following a very good experience, I recommend Altiplano Tours for visits to one of Potosí's silver mines. If visiting a mine, take plenty of water along as temperatures can soar up to 40 degrees Celsius. I found the experience borderline unpleasant so prepare yourself mentally and remember that it will soon be over and it will all have been worth it! Potosí itself is somewhat run down but worth a couple of days' stay. Like everywhere in Bolivia, I found it difficult to photograph locals without upsetting them, but the square behind the central market building is often busy and lets even an obvious “gringo” keep a low profile, providing perfect ground for candid shots.

Locals chilling on Plaza 10 de Noviembre

Potato vendor near Mercado 10 de Noviembre

Sampling the local produce on sale at Mercado 10 de Noviembre

Sitting by the walls of an army garrison

Playing with the phone in her shop

Relaxing on a bench

POTOSÍ TO TUPIZA

My departure to Tupiza could not have been better planned. I had thoroughly investigated all bus timetables and was going to take the first departure at 7am, with a view to arrive in Tupiza around 3-4pm and still have some daylight hours to explore – before continuing to Uyuni the next day.

What I failed to incorporate into my plans was Bolivia's Día del Peatón y del Ciclista (Pedestrian and Cyclist Day), which takes place every first Sunday of September. Between 8am and 6pm on the day, no automotive vehicles (besides some emergency services) are allowed to run in the entire country. Scheduled public services are cancelled and not a single car is in sight on Bolivia's vast road network.

I could hardly be blamed for not knowing. Despite being around since 1999, the event is unique to Bolivia and is unknown elsewhere. I had seen the day being advertised on a large poster in Potosí but paid little attention: it is fair to say that no-one would reasonably interpret a “pedestrian” day as one with no vehicle traffic whatsoever. I had previously made inquiries at Potosí bus station for the specific date and was given the standard timetable. And even my hotel in Potosí readily ordered me a taxi to the bus station in the very morning of the Día del Peatón – mentioning nothing about the bus station being shut and no buses departing for the next 12 hours.

Learning the news at the bus station, I was more amused than anything else. I could of course stay on in Potosí until the evening and catch the evening bus to Tupiza. That would however mean getting to Tupiza well in the middle of the night and having barely a moment of rest before departing on a 4-day jeep tour to Uyuni the next day. That would also mean missing any chance to see more of Tupiza. And, frankly, two days were more than enough for Potosí.

After two days in Potosí, I was keen on moving on

My Spanish is not the world's best, but I quickly found out that a limited number of vehicles were running for another 30 minutes (8am being the cut-off point). I made my way from Potosí's glitzy new bus terminal to the "old" bus station, still used informally by locals for southern routes. Predictably, of the handful of buses and minibuses there all were heading to Tarija, Bolivia's vineyard capital a much larger city than Tupiza. I briefly considered going to Tarija and continuing to Tupiza in the evening but the thought of 8+ hours in an impossibly crowded vehicle seemed anything but appealing. Moreover, I was not at all sure how those informal transfers would be allowed to run the entire way: I was told police checkpoints had been planted on all roads precisely to prevent locals from bending the Día del Peatón rules!

After a second's consideration, I ended up playing my “rich banker on holiday” card and stroke a private deal with a minivan owner to take me all the way to Tupiza. This would cost just south of Bs. 800 – ridiculous money for a budget country like Bolivia – but would solve all other problems. Conveniently, I had been told that the price included the bribes payable at police checkpoints along the way and would get me to Tupiza in under four hours.

We exited our first checkpoint at Potosí city border at 7:59am sharp. A little longer and I would not have been allowed to travel on! The checkpoints continued and the adrenaline was positively overflowing at every stage. About half-way to Tupiza, in Santiago de Cotagaita, a key bridge had been cordoned off by police and lengthy negotiations by my committed driver did not help. We ended up driving our modest (and decidedly non 4WD) minibus around the bridge along bumpy country roads and even crossed a not-insignificant river (heaven knows what damage was done to the vehicle) before rejoining the main road for the final stretch to Tupiza.

Albeit miffed by the whole Día del Peatón experience, I could not help complimenting myself on choosing to pay up and depart in daylight. The landscapes along the way were increasingly spectacular. The mountains around became more and more colourful, and the terrain – more and more dry, with cacti of all shapes soon dominating the landscape. In the backdrop of the impossibly blue skies, the surroundings were absolutely breath-taking. I would definitely have regretted travelling overnight and missing this.

Surprisingly good road between Potosí and Tupiza

Cacti, cacti everywhere

Driving in the backstreets of Santiago de Cotagaita

Typical scenery approaching Tupiza... note the amount of rubbish

Tupiza's iconic rainbow-coloured mountains

TIPS: Do remember that the first Sunday of September in Bolivia is Día del Peatón! No vehicles will be running for most of the day anywhere in the country. Not having vehicles around will be a joy if you want to explore a city but a nightmare if you need to get somewhere far. Scheduled public transport will restart again at 6pm on the day. On any other day, getting from Potosí to Tupiza is easy enough: there are at least two early morning buses and two evening buses daily. The distance between the two is nothing insurmountable (about 250 km), but this is Bolivia and the journey will not take less than 8 hours.

TUPIZA

Upon reaching the city border of Tupiza, my driver seemed to have had enough of the police-dodging stress and refused to go any further. I walked the final 3km to my hotel. This is when I truly appreciated the advantages of Día del Peatón: choking traffic everywhere was one of my biggest challenges in Bolivia and made every city exploration an ordeal. Seeing Tupiza residents strolling and cycling casually on roads normally occupied by vehicles made a welcome change.

Void of obvious tourist attractions, Tupiza quickly won a place in my heart for its peacefulness. The city certainly did not look deserted, but the pace of life here seemed to happen slowly. Locals were enjoying their Sunday sitting along the banks of what would have been a river (Rio Tupiza) but had dried out almost entirely. Tupiza does not receive much rain during the year, and pretty much none at all during between June and August.

Rio de Tupiza, all but dried out after the dry winter months

Typical street view of Tupiza

Horse, eyeing me with suspicion

I spent a few hours walking around Tupiza's quiet streets. The central square (Plaza Independencia), first eerily empty, was gradually filling up with local families. On top of a small hill in the middle of the town, Cerro Corazón de Jesús, local teenagers were busy taking selfies and making attempts at smoking: pretty much like anywhere else in the world. The views from the hill towards the crimson red mountains around the city were absolutely worth the short hike to the top. And a delicious fry-up was waiting for me in town after descent. The border with Argentina being quite near, several eateries in town were advertising meat "straight out of Argentina".

Colourful yellow gate in the backstreets of Tupiza

View of Tupiza from Cerro Corazón de Jesús

Local teenagers enjoying the sundown on top of Cerro Corazón de Jesús

Tupiza's amazing backdrop

Cathedral and central Plaza Independencia

Tupiza is a perfect base to explore the surrounding countryside, which can best be described as a series of stills from a western movie. The scenery here is criss-crossed with deep ravines (quebradas), colourful mountains and entire fields of cacti. It is popular to explore on foot and horseback; sadly though, I did not have any time set aside for Tupiza's spectacular surroundings. After a short night's sleep I had planned to depart on a 4-day jeep trip towards Uyuni, across some of the most amazing scenery I will have seen in my life.

TIPS: Tupiza may look boring at first but I would personally have loved to stay longer, just chilling before continuing to Argentina (via Villazon) or Uyuni on a jeep tour. There is little to do in Tupiza itself but its spectacular surroundings certainly justify a longer stay. Tupiza has a train station, with trains departing to Uyuni and Villazon erratically and often during the night. The railway link to Uyuni reportedly follows a non-scenic route, making the bus a much better choice (having taken the 4-day jeep tour between the two cities, I missed out on either). I can highly recommend El Arriero restaurant on Tupiza’s main street (Avenida Regimento Chichas): it may look a little shabby but serves great churrasco (jucy grilled meat) during the entire day (and not just lunch and dinner as is common in Bolivia).

~~~Continued in Bolivian adventures: From Tupiza to Uyuni in 4 days~~~