A Travellerspoint blog

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia


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from san pedro we entered bolivia in 4x4 offroad vehicles, and for the next three days off road we certainly were. ten travellers and two guides piled into two toyotas and off we went into the bolivian wilderness, a place where even dirt roads are a luxury. up from the san pedro desert we climbed, slowly winding our way up the andes, reaching a maximum altitude of around 4,500 meters. at this height life is different: the mere act of walking up a small hill (and sometimes, it seems, the mere thought of walking up a small hill) will leave you winded, while just a few hours under the all-too-near sun will leave you roasted.

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the first day of the excursion we spent crossing the border and stopping at a few stunning lagoons and a boiling mud pit reticent of the eternal bog of stench. this day we also made the acquaintance of coca leaves, the traditional bolivian defence against altitude sickness. an estimated 90% of rural bolivians chew these leaves for hours a day to suppress hunger, sustain mental clarity, and avoid fatigue. as we were to learn later at the coca museum in la paz, the leaves are nutritious and are not in themselves deleterious. however, the working conditions they made (and make) possible definitely are. native slaves under the spanish empire worked 40-hour days fueled by coca, and present day miners also rely on the leaves to get them through their long, claustrophobic days.

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we arrived at a lonely hostel/hotel the first afternoon around 3, and were free to explore the surrounding area for the rest of the evening, which offered a pleasant gully and miles of shrub-dotted hills. the following day was not so relaxed, though, as we were in transit for about 12 hours. but there were many incredible stops along the way, including lagoons crowded with flamingos, a rock forest and the famous arbol de piedra, and a smallish salt flat. we spent the second night in a hotel constructed primarily of salt, replete with salt-brick beds and a carpet of salt crystals.

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the third day was spent entirely on the salar de uyuni, the world's largest salt flat. it is a surreal place. for hours on end we drove across a perfectly flat, perfectly unpopulated expanse of white. not a plant, not a stone could be found. at last, we arrived at a small island inhabited entirely by cacti. here we stopped to walk around a bit and take a few photos under the glaring sun, lost amidst a sea of salt. then it was back into the car for a few more hours of travelling, until we reached the original salt hotel (now a museum) and the salt mountains, the product of salt mining. at last we arrived at the town of uyuni itself, where, thanks to reciprocity laws, we had to purchase bolivian visas. after this we found a bar and watched a football game (we were travelling with an avid liverpool fan) and caught a night bus out of uyuni just as quick as we could, having decided that the dusty town had little more to offer.

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Posted by jtwires 15:10 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Sucre, Bolivia


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we arrived in sucre on friday evening, knowing in advance that we would be leaving on saturday evening, since a few of our group had only a little time before they needed to reach cusco. with that in mind, i don't think any of us had particularly great expectations for the city: we expected to walk around, enjoy the uniform whitewashed walls and the colonial architecture, perhaps visit a museum, and generally just take it easy. it being friday night, however, one thing we all hoped for was a nice cold beer or two.

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unfortunately, we hadn't arrived on just any friday -- we had chosen good friday to make our acquaintance with sucre, and in sucre, on good friday, beer is a very difficult thing to find. we wandered around the city center, stopping in every plausible bar and restaurant we passed, asking for beer like beggars asking for alms, but with very little luck. in very vague terms, we were told that the sale of alcohol after dark on good friday was proscribed by a city ordinance. at one restaurant we found a waitress who would serve us beer in tea cups, but the cups were so small, the prices so large, and the service so slow, we gave the enterprise up as a lost cause.

finally, almost devoid of hope, we stumbled into a hole-in-the-wall bar/den. inside we saw no beer or wine, but on the few occupied tables stood large jugs of what looked like koolaid. upon sampling the vibrantly-colored liquids contained in these jugs, we found that it did indeed taste like koolaid, but with an extra touch of vodka. at this point we called for more jugs. we ended up spending the rest of the night in this den. shortly after we arrived, the proprietor locked the doors. we were treated to a medley of pop music videos from the 70s to the 90s, and, many jugs of koolaid later, we stumbled home, more or less happy.

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Posted by jtwires 15:01 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile


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after another 24-hour bus ride, we found ourselves in the driest place on earth: san pedro de atacama, in the north of chile. there are places in san pedro where no rainfall has been recorded -- ever. the town itself is tiny, and exists primarily as a tourist base camp. if you walk the four or five blocks of the main drag, you'll find fifteen or twenty tourist agencies all offering excursions to some of the many spectacular sights of the regions. you'll also find a few restaurants and grocery stores, and very quickly you'll find that everything costs at least 20 percent more in san pedro than elsewhere in chile.

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while at san pedro we visited the valle de la luna and the valle del muerte. the former is so named because the white salt crust of the valley gives it a lunar appearance, and the latter is so misnamed because its arid red stones lend it a martian appearance, and a dutchman with a bad accent said valle de martes (valley of mars) but was interpreted as saying valley of death. both offered quite stunning sights, and the sunset at the valle de la luna was quite spectacular, culminating in a brilliant, perfectly white horizon beneath a dark sky.

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the following day we woke at 3:30 in the morning to catch sunrise at the largest geothermal field in south america. here we danced about in the negative eight degree celsius weather and huddled together in the toxic sulfuric emissions of the geysers for warmth. after a frigid breakfast and the coming of dawn, we hurried over to a nearby hotspring. the morning ended with a long drive through the desert, with stops at a few lagoons and a tiny native village, where we sampled delicious llama meat.

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we spent our final night in chile at a star-gazing tour hosted by a crazy frenchman. the high altitude and clear skies of san pedro make it ideal for star-gazing, and in fact it is home to one of four internationally organized astronomical research centers. unfortunately, we were unable to book the english version of the tour, but from what we gathered from the french version, france is the center of the world and the greeks were consuming psychotropic substances when they gave many of the constellations their names. after the french spiel, we were given free access to a collection of high-powered telescopes, from which we glimpsed a close-up view of the moon's surface and a astonishingly clear look at what we took to be saturn.

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Posted by jtwires 14:41 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Santiago, Chile


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we made the two-hour journey from valparaiso to santiago one day before radiohead was scheduled to play there in the national stadium, so we had a little time to acclimate ourselves to the city before gearing up for the show. we spent the evening atop cerro san cristobal, which we surmounted via yet another funicular. the top of the hill offers stunning views of the sprawling city.

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the following day we took a ride with a few fellow hostelers to the stadium, where we whiled away a few hours waiting for the show to start. after a too-long wait the gates were opened, and we all piled into the grass field to stake out our spots for the show. the show itself was incredible, except for the rather unappealing opening set by kraftwerk, a german electronica band from back in the day which resembles lebowskie's nihilists in appearance and attitude. their performance consisted of four dudes in full-body leather outfits standing behind four keyboards, which may or may not have actually played some role in the music. occasionally one or the other would move a little, and i think i saw one guy say a few words into a microphone at one point. compound this riveting performance style with song lyrics consisting almost entirely of small sequences of numbers in english and german, and imagine all this endured without any refreshing beverages, and you will probably form some idea of how eagerly we awaited the arrival of radiohead. when they finally did come on, however, they made it all worthwhile.

we made it back to the hostel rather late that night and forgot to inform the front desk that we wished to stay another day, so in the morning we found ourselves evicted. we spent an hour checking at nearby hostels, but most were completely booked due to radiohead's second engagement that night. at last we found a brand new establishment in the bella vista area, and the move turned out to be a good one, as it better acquainted us with this colorful, bohemian neighborhood, which we rarely left after discovering its charms. in more than three months of travelling we had yet to encounter such a densely packed area: in perhaps a twenty block region we must have found twenty big clubs and around five or six bars and restaurants per block. at around one or two in the afternoon the bars' patios and terraces would start filling up with locals enjoying beers; dinner was consumed later in the evening, and then everybody made their way to their club of choice for the nightly entertainment.

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when we did manage to extract ourselves from this alluring neighborhood, we were able to check out a few very cool museums, including the museo de bellas artes, whose appeal rests more in the building housing the exhibits than the art itself (i was particularly unimpressed with an exhibit featuring sketches of fashion from the twenties, punctuated by the artists' dubious claim that if he were able to read one thing from 100 years in the future, he would select a fashion magazine, since he felt he would learn more of the intervening 100 years from what people were wearing at the end of the era than any other work of writing...), and the utterly fascinating pre-columbian museum, featuring art and artifacts with origins ranging from chile to mexico and presenting a beautiful and informative lesson in history and anthropology. and, on the advice of a fellow hosteler, we found ourselves one day having cafe con piernas, a drink, we are told, that is unique to santiago and is consumed quite regularly by all sorts of business men, even at 8 in the morning. the coffee itself is rather unremarkable; what is more interesting is the establishments themselves, as they are full of waitresses adorned in quite skimpy bikinis.

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Posted by jtwires 14:29 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Valparaíso, Chile


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it's a quick 7 hour bus ride from mendoza to valparaiso, located on chile's pacific coast. the ride itself is quite nice, as the bus winds its way through the precariously narrow andean switchbacks, back and forth, back and forth, with wheels almost hanging off cliffs, and stars shining bright. chile is perhaps the most stringent country we've encountered when it comes to customs and immigration, and so when we arrived at the border around 3 in the morning, we all had to pile out into the cold pre-dawn frost, pass all our luggage through x-ray machines, and stand in a formation resembling a prison lineup while swearing to everything holy that we were not fruit and cheese smugglers.

the bus finally dropped us off on a busy street in valpo at around seven in the morning, where we found ourselves awash in a sea of uniformed schoolchildren on their ways to class. apparently valpo has had a difficult past 100-years, with much of its industry dying away at the end of the san francisco gold rush, but the school industry has remained healthy, probably because so many students find the area so appealing. finding a hostel so early in the morning is a bit difficult, and the only one we could find at that time was a hospedaje with mushrooms growing on the stalls of the showers that (reputedly) had hot water for two hours a day. we spent most of that day sleeping off the bus ride, and the next day we promptly moved to a new hostel.

one of valpo's most distinctive features lies in the innumerable tiny twisting roads crisscrossing over the various hills that look over the pacific. a jumble of colorful houses and apartments line these streets, and at nights millions of twinkling lights imitate the stars, their reflections glimmering in the water. our second hostel was located at the foot of cierro alegre, and the easiest way to get to it was to pay the 45 cent tariff to use one of valpo's many ascensores, funicular elevators dating from the early 1900s.

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valpo is one of three chilean cities in which pablo neruda built his distinctive homes. the valpo house was named la sebastiana, in honor of its architect. although his house was posthumously ransacked and plundered when the hardcore rightest pinochet took over, much of its unique furnishings were restored later, and one of the great charms of the tour we took through the house was reading the stories behind the many strange and wonderful trinkets neruda collected to decorate his residences. on the top floor, in the master bedroom, one can peruse a bit of his personal library, which in la sebastiana consisted primarily of literary journals and detective stories, including a novel from john d. macdonald. also on display was the original manuscript of the poem he wrote to describe the process of building his house and searching for his beloved baubles in markets and bazaars all over the world.

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another of neruda's houses is located just a couple hours from valpo, and we made the bus ride there, to isla negra, to check it out. this house he designed himself, with a strong nautical motif, owing to his lifelong love of the sea. aside from the meticulous interior decoration, the beauty of this house is its location, which looks over a rugged beach bordered by a tempestuous stretch of sea. one can easily imagine neruda spending hours on end contemplating the water while jotting off love poems.

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and just twenty minutes to the north of valpo resides vina del mar, the posh sea resort lined with modern apartments and hotels. we arrived in chile just after the holiday season, so the beaches were rather empty, and while the barren sand and frigid water presented a stark contrast to the bubbling beaches of brazil, we enjoyed them all the same and spent more than a few days sprawled out on the sand (in windbreakers and pants) or jogging along the coast.

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Posted by jtwires 10:18 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

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