A Travellerspoint blog

Travelling across the Desert

The Atacama & Uyuni Salt Flats


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After arriving at San Pedro I discovered this little town is quite pleasant and small, consisting of only about 3 significant streets but is no cheaper than anywhere else in Chile and therefore very expensive compared with the remainder of South America. The town however offers a great starting point to visit the atacama desert which includes death valley, the valley of the moon and also for trips into Bolivia through the great salt plains of Uyuni.

Firstly it was off to tour the death valley which is simply remarkable for its complete lack of life and rain with it being the driest place on the planet. The trip out there is a cross between the nullabor (with less tress) and what one would normally assume to be giant stockpiles caused by erosion. After this it was off to see valley of the moon at sunset when the pale white desert soil under dimming light supposedly mirrors the surface of the moon complete with craters. This is quite an interesting sight and made for good viewing and hopefully photographs. Also the erosion here created some quite spectacular land formations including one that closely resembles a amphitheatre which is quite remarkable as well as many valleys and sand dunes.

Next day it was time to continue my long road trip back to Lima by travelling to Uyuni through the salt flats. The three day tour looked to be very interesting combination of sights along the way as well as being an easy way to cross into Bolivia. Firstly as we crossed the border as expected the border crossing in Chile was easy and went off without any drama, enter Bolivia. To say that the Bolivian border was an old squatters shack is probably overemphasising the positives in a way that a real estate might do to sell the place. It hardly looked capable of being any sort of abandoned dwelling let alone an official border control office. Never the less we persevered and through the ¨shack¨and were then met with the almost typical Bolivian problem of not having any change. Why the ATM´s and money changers insist on giving you 100 (and in my case 4 x 200) notes is beyond me because nobody ever has change for anything more than a 20. Here the official entrance fee was 21 Bolivianos (about $US3) as I waited about 20 minutes to get change from 25 Bs, I laughed at the attempts of the girls behind me to pay with a 100 note. Welcome to Bolivia!

Despite the fun and games at the border it was off to have some breakfast amongst the mountains and see some lakes of both usual and unusual colours. The first of which was a very white looking lake owing to the high salt content, which is high enough to actually float on if you want. Whilst the sun provided generous heat the wind chill factor was ridiculous with most people having up to three layers on - my jacket was on the roof. I did however find myself a nice little half made windbreak that I managed to finish giving me some protection! The other notable thing about this lake is the presence of wildlife most notably in the form of pink flamingoes which provided some entertainment and photo opportunities despite being very shy.

After breakfast we headed off to see the green lake, the colour provided by the high presence of magnesium which looked quite surreal almost like a carribean beach sort of colour. After a few photos here it was time to drive past the Salvadore Dali desert and then too thermal springs for lunch. After lunch we headed to the geysers, which erupt periodically under pressure if not particularly high. Next it was off to see the third coloured lake, this type and red or atleast a very strong pink complete with some 8000 pink flamingoes that added to the photo opportunities. Finally after travelling for about 6 hours through barren desert we arrived at a point where plants and animals existed amongst some picturesque mountain ranges.

The next day involved a morning of touring the many natural rock formation in the area before heading off to the so called llama paradise. A nice open area with a river flowing through it and plenty of plants seemingly home to 100´s of llamas. Next it was off to a giant canyon to chase a glimpse of a shy condor that is seen in the area infrequently. After much looking and talking to the locals they settled on the place most likely to spot the condor but atlas today the guides were left to point out only the discolouration on the mountains due to the condor crap!

The next day it was off to see the highlight of the trip the Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt flats in the world. It was really quite surreal standing in the middle and being able to see nothing but white until the horizon and the brilliant white nature offers some interesting perspective style photos. As we continued along the salt flats we saw the island of cactii apparently the only thing that can actually survive out here and the salt hotel which is built completely from the dried salt bricks which was quite interesting. Over this trip we managed to climb up to 5300m, an altitude that had a few people struggling a bit, all in all the trip was really well worth it and the only casualty was a kids bike (thankfully no kid) that one of careless drivers managed to run over. Arriving in Uyuni it was pretty clear there was little to offer there so a night bus to Sucre and Potosi beckoned.

Posted by rhinoc 10:58 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Back on the Road Again

Santiago, Chile


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Well after my short trip back to Australia it was time once again to get on the plane and head back to South America with the first destination being Santiago.

Initially this is a very non Latin American city with transport to and from the airport not only easily available but also easy to use. Also the city is very clean and civilised with the extremely rare result of you actually being able to achieve what you want to do within a reasonable time frame and without much (if any) difficulty. Like I said very un Latin American. There is however the interesting language of Chilean spanish which is incredibly fast, misses half the letters and involves a large amount of slang - not exactly what one needs and I will be glad to return to Bolivia and Peru for the langauge spoken.

The city itself is quite pretty with large numbers of parks and memorials to celebrate independence and also various military victories. They are also very proud of their historic buildings with many around the city centre but the most impressive thing is that you always seem to see people cleaning even if the streets/parks aren´t that dirty. The city itself is quite well setup with plenty to do around it but not actually that much to see there.

The first day I chose to visit the virgin statue on the hill (almost a necessity in south american capitals) which is a solid climb of about an hour and offers some very nice views over the city, so myself and kiwi couple I met decided this would be a good place to have a beer and watch the sun set.

The second day it was off to visit the military fortress of santa lucia situated in the middle of town but nicely preserved for everyone to walk around. Photography was slightly difficult here as this also appeared to be the local spot so no sooner would you see a photograph opportunity only to see that the photo would no longer carrying anything less than an M rating. Still a nice park all the same. After this it was off to experience the uniquely chilean cafe con piernas which translates roughly to coffee with legs. From what I have been told these range from a uniform of a short skirt right through to something you have to pay a cover charge for. I chose one of the more respectable ones and amazingly it is rather sedate atmosphere where people (mostly guys admittedly) go for a coffee and a chat with one of the waitresses amongst reading the paper ect. The girls don´t ask for tips and the coffee (the only non instant coffee in town by the way) is cheaper than at home so ¨When in Rome¨.

The next two days were independence days which basically renders the city both closed and drunk, I went out to a concert with about 60,000 chileans in the middle of the city which was quite the spectacle and I think we have missed the spirit of the occassion by turning up sober, that made about 4 sober people in total then. All the same the concert was a nice mix with lots of local bands although the programming seemed a little strange with the crowd really up one minute and then sombre the next. Different.

With nothing more to see and time running out I headed to San Pedro de Atacama in the middle of the desert and bordering with Bolivia with an itenerary of seeing the valley of the moon and the great salt flats of Uyuni. The bus was good with the only weird thing being that I was in my own compartment for the full 25 hours with two movies in spanish and one Friends episode in english on loop. it was a long trip but I did get to finish my book!

The other highlight of the bus trip was the shear nothingness that I encountered along the way, kind of like the nullabor but with a few less tress on the way. As we approached the north of Chile I did however see some very framilar looking heap leach sites not exactly what you want to see but framiliar all the same.

Posted by rhinoc 13:45 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Adventures in Bolivia w/vids

The Birth Place of the Sun God, The Worlds Most Dangerous Road & Quadbiking in the River


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Now according to anything you read you will be lucky to survive a visit to this city owing to taxis, pickpockets and corrupt police officers. However most of this is usually over ther top so I decided to check it out for myself. The worst part about the visit to Bolivia is the bus rides involved and the lack of tourist buses that offer the journey. This involved us getting a semi tourist bus (basically a local bus but with only tourists on it and something that looks nothing like the photos you are shown) to the border and taking little more than an iced up mini bus from then onwards - not exactly luxury travel but oh well.

First stop was Copacabana which is the town opposite the Puno on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, coincidently this was also the first time I had attempted to use my emergency passport crossing the border. In prepartion I had visited the immigration office to ensure there would be no dramas not having a current stamp in my passport and was warmingly reassured. So after needing to bribe the border officials on the peruvian side to be let out of the country (yes you read that correctly) I arrived in Bolivia not exactly full of confidence but was relieved to find a friendly border officer who was more than happy I was visiting his country. Success!

So Copacabana exists solely because of the islands on the lake that people want to visit specifically the Isla de Sol the supposed birth place of everything under the sun (uncluding potentially the sun god himself). To say that tourism has taken off on the island is to say that australia struggles against the swinging ball in england with tourists not only having to pay an "entrance tax" to get onto the islands but also having to continue to pay a kind of advancement tax as you walk around the island to check out the ruins and catherdral. The half day trips (all we could afford time wise) is also a bit ridiculous with the 1.5 hour boat ride ensuring you have roughly an hour to explore the island. This allowed us just enough time to climb up to roughly the top enjoy the view, have a coffee and climb back down again. Some people opt to stay on the island however the massive storm that was coming in as we left convinced us that it wouldn´t have been the best idea. The next day it was off La Paz again on yet another tourist bus (pronounced local bus with only tourists), which had one of my most unique experiences on a bus. At a small crossing of the lake it is deemed to expensive to build a bridge and as a result they simply get you off the bus and put the bus onto a small (pronounced very small) barge to take the bus across you will have to see the photos to fully grasp the situation. After this it was a short trip until we emerged in La Paz initially thinking the city looked terrible until we descended down to the see the main city is actully located in almost a bowl, a quite surreal view that was difficult to photograph with the bus roaring down hill but I tried my best.

Coming into Bolivia one of the first things you notice is the graphic nature of the war memorials on offer to their three worst wars, two in a confederacy with Peru fighting against Chile and the other with Paraguay. In their attempts to replicate the record of the washington generals they managed to lose all three of these bloody wars and with them they also lost significant territory. The first referred to as the "War of the Pacific" resulted in Chile taking significant land that was rich in mineral deposits from Peru & Bolivia and left Bolivia as a completely landlocked country. The war with Paraguay was also over perceived oil deposits and despite losing the Bolivians maintained their access to the atlantic via the Paraguay river and by more dumb luck than anything kept the area that contained the significant natural gas desposits.

The first day in La Paz saw us check out some of the nightlife that was a major dissappointment after Cusco and after subsequent attempts we have come to realise that the pool table in our hostel is generally the best option and we are developing a reputation here for holding the table for long periods of the night. The next day it was off to quadbike through some of the back villages of Bolivia approiximately an hour out of La Paz. This was extremely good fun being able to travel through some of the less visited villages and then also spend some time cutting up a muddy field before finishing up by climbing the nearest local mountains for some awesome views and pictures of the valley below. Definitely great fun and $30 well spent for the whole afternoon, with time running out in Bolivia we are hoping to get up to the jungle to check out some animals and then head down to the supposedly spectacular salt flats.

Its quite scary really but Bolivia is reminding me so much of Cuba in the way and speed at which things operate, initially it was quite frustrating but now I have got use to it. To give you an example last night we waited for almost three hours to get dinner and then when we did it was cold - this was at the best thai restaraunt in town to aparently. When our jungle trip was cancelled it took 9 hours to track down our travel agent and get it rebooked for the next day and then a whole morning to arrange refunds after finding out there is little chance to fly this week!

On the plus side we have had some excellent food in La Paz, though none of it Bolivian. The restaraunt food quality is quite good especially for indian, japanese and argentinian. Yes I finally gave in and went to a steak house and I can honestly say it was one of the best decisions ever with a massive steak cooked to perfection with a glass of red wine for about $15. Simply sensational and makes me very keen to visit Argentina and sample some more steak houses.

Our jungle trip was continually cancelled due to rain, apparently out there they have little more than a field for a landing strip and require 24 hours without rain to even consider flying. This left us to do the worlds most dangerous road bike ride which was something that I really did want to do when I got to Boliva anyway. The bike ride was nothing short of spectacular with a quite surreal unpaved road providing a challenging ride to go with the sheer drops on one side of the road. But before you all start panicking and worrying for my safety the bikes that we did it on were top of the range with full suspension and hydraulic brakes. To give you an idea how good the bikes are I managed to puncture my back tyre completely owing a nail on the road and had no problems with an emergency stop and no danger of falling off anywhere (that may be due to the rider skill though!). The ride was simply amazing and everything about it was really professionally run with the possible exception of the cold beers at the end being a fraction on the warm side. Despite the title the road really is relatively safe and I figure if you can´t keep your bike in a lane then there is something wrong with you however there are still a small number of tourists that don´t respect it and often end up hurt - thankfully for our group we were all ok and nobody fell off and we all got the survivor T-shirt.

Sadly whilst this was a great day for me personally I received some bad news from home that halted my travel plans south to the salt flats. With a flight back home beckoning I decided to head off and once again go quadbiking with the guys I was travelling with and we once again had incredible fun, this time slightly more fun owing to our guides complete lack of regard for his equipment allowing us to plow along a creek for about an hour. Needless to say when i got back I was completely soaked head to toes and badly in need of a shower but it was great fun especially for the price. It was then time to wish my comrades well in their journey to Potosi and spend my last day in La Paz before returning home. Hopefully to resume my adventure around the world next month.

Posted by rhinoc 07:36 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Cusco

Taking in a Piece of Peru

So what have I been doing for the last three weeks you may well ask.....

Well after travelling from one city to the next throughout Peru spending little longer than a day or two there I decided it was time to actually spend some time in one place and see what it was like to live there as opposed to just shooting through. From the cities on offer I decided to stay in Cusco because there it a fair bit to do around Cusco and it is also one of the better places in Peru to study spanish, whilst also having a traveller feel about it.

The city itself has a fairly obvious tourist section full of gringo bars and restaraunts ect where the you can fairly easily break away from the peruvian influence. However it is also very easy to avoid this and get to places where they speak mostly quechuan with some spanish which is very good for practice! There is also ways to live really cheaply with set meals (3 courses no less) for around US$1 if you know where to look. There is also plenty of people willing to rip you off if you let them but with a bit of spanish and some sarcasm (playing to my strengths if ever it were possible) you can get the same price as the locals as if you are staying more than just the couple of days to do Machu Picchu then you are very much treated differently.

The spanish school I attended was kind of strange and for the first week I was stuck with people who knew very little to no spanish which was a bit more difficult for me as alot of it was revision. For the second week I decided to go more with the one on one class which despite being a little bit more pricey (a grand total of $8 an hour) was worth it as we spent most of the time conversing in spanish and getting me comfortable with developing a statement and processing a response and my spanish has definitely come along to a reasonable point. I have definitely got over the first hurdle of not being intimidated by conversing in spanish so I´m happy.

The other thing that Cusco has going for it is one of the best nightlifes that I have found and after conversing with other travellers it would seem that it is one of the best in South America. Strangely enough there the girls actually out number the guys in the night club (approx 3 to 1) which is odd and also a nice change. Sadly the music varies with a lot of local music giving way to typical nightclub music later on in the night but all in all very different feel to clubs elsewhere around the world. Also with the high turnover of people you can make quite alot of friends by just virtue of the fact that you are there for more than a day and it wasn´t till I had my last weekend in Cusco and I had to say goodbye to everyone I knew that I realised I knew half the people behind the bar in town. Was great for me as I was able to go out and have a good time spending very little money indeed, the great thing is it also very safe so there is no dramas getting around town.

Outside of Cusco I visited some more ruins, the major inca fortress typically pronounced "sexy woman" as well as the markets at Pissac which is one of the major cities in the sacred valley. On top of this was another trip down to the floating islands to actually spend more time on them and this was really quite cool and I really marvel at the abilities to construct some of the things they make with very little materials. The other cool thing is that they all have electricity on the islands owing to solar panels, very good.

All in all it was a nice place to settle for a couple of weeks and learn some spanish, meet some locals and relax before heading off on what promises to be a very rushed trip of Bolivia.

Posted by rhinoc 09:21 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

The Amazon & Tears

White Water Rafting & Animal Watching in the Jungle Before Saying Goodbyes


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So after the excitement of the Inca Trail it was off to go white water rafting with a few members from my group. The river was supposed to be relatively easy with only class III rapids owing to it being the dry season but it sounded pretty good anyway.

We managed to arrive as a group of 6, which worked out perfect with the 6 per boat policy. We started off with myself and the other guy at the front with the four girls following and the guide at the back to give the general directions (this fell apart a bit when the directions came in spanish!) and look after us. After the 10 minute startup course we were all knowledged up and it was time to head the water.

The rafting went really well with all of us able to keep things afloat even if our timing was slightly off occasionally. After a while our guide got so confident that we decided to start paddling upstream (thus we were aptly named team salmon from that point on) and back into the rapids. The second rapid worked perfectly and the two girls were amazed to see me completely dissappear under the rapid water. This was a great idea apart from the 10 degree water but oh well you have to get wet sometime. After cruising down the river a bit further we hit the popcorn rapids and amongst being thrown side to side we momentarily went down to a 5 man boat with Molly dissappearing into the cold water. Between the two sisters screaming we managed to notice and a not so quiet minute later we managed to get her back on board. After this eventful minute it was time to jump in and have a bit of swim before heading back to the main camp for a much enjoyed sauna and some lunch.

The next day it was a short flight off to the Amazon jungle in Peru. The jungle here is quite civilized and much to the relief of some of our party we were in quite a nice resort style eco lodge about an hour boat ride fron the city. The ride down the river was quite nice and we did manage to spot a caiman (a small aligator) as well as a turtle and several birds along the way to our lodge. The dissappointing thing is that the lodge and therefore boat ride were not actually down the amazon river but only one of the tributries (I may have to find the real Amazon later in my trip).

The lodge itself was very civilised with well laid out huts with mosquito nets and individual bathrooms. The lodge provides a nice place to start off your jungle hikes from and comes complete with some animal co-habitants. This one in particular helped to house a tarantula (sorry nanna) and also some bats that delighted in flying between our cabins at night and breaking up our sleep patterns.

We managed to go off on a few different hikes to see the canopy tower, the clay lick macaw area, the medicinal forrest as well as the otter sancturary. The otter sancturary was particularly cool with 5 otters happy to swim around and fish quite close to the boat provided we kept a little bit of distance and a lot of silence. I think i managed to get some good photos of them and it was really cool being able to see them firstly fish and then eat the fish with a very satisfied look on their faces. The other cool thing about here was that we were able to go fishing for pirhanas and to also feed the sardines that call the river home.

The canopy tower is a 35 metre high viewing platform (that coincidently swings uncomfortably as you climb it) that rises above the jungle canopy offering up unreal views of the jungle and the birds that are playing with the trees. We got to the tower just as the sun began to set offering some awesome views of the river at sunset and also of the parrots that were playing in a nearby tree.

The clay lick area followed which is essentially a cliff face that is made up of clay (elementry really) the advantage though is that the macaws use these to neutralise the acids that develop in their stomach by eating other jungle foods. However the hour or so we were there the macaws simply refused to play the game and were content to meander about in the trees above not quite out of view but certainly not what we were hoping for. The lack of activity and early morning start (4am this morning) did provide us with the opportunity to leave one of our group behind and he awoke to quite a shock when worken up by the next group coming through. On the way back to camp a couple of monkees did however make up for the lack of macaw viewing by playing no more than 5m away from us at one point and were completely unfussed by our presence offering up some great photo opportunites.

After a much needed siesta and some lunch it was off to the medicinal garden and a date with the local sharman (not quite a witch doctor but pretty close). After being shown around their plant cures for many things including uppers, downers, food poisoning, viagra, love potions and the like it was time for a few samples. Despite what they tell you these remedies certainly taste bad enough to work but my jungle red bull didn´t quite do the trick and I was back in a deep siesta before dinner soon after we got back to the lodge. Indeed the highlight of the actual medicinal garden itself was the clear views that we had of two macaws albeit breifly.

The next day it was time to farewell the jungle (again early) and head back to Lima for a series of goodbyes as we all went our seperate ways. To celebrate the end of a good tour we decided to hit one of the best restaurants in Peru for some first class cuisine. With the recent decision to postpone my trip to Argentina, I was craving a steak so a lovely rib eye and a bottle of australian cab sav put a dent in both my apetite and my wallet but it was well worth while. Nicely we were able to catch up with the South African family and Molly ensured that the goodbye was not without some tears!

Next off its back to Cusco to work on my spanish check out some ruins I missed and absorb some peruvian life. After my spanish has improved I will work on my itinerary into south american further.

Posted by rhinoc 19:19 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

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