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Archive for July, 2011

There we sat at Tupiza Tours, our bags piled in one corner of the office, as several other tour groups had a landcruiser pull up in front of the hotel and whisk them and their bags away into the ether of beauty and adventure. A tour lady called a number and told us that Victor was running a little late… they were stopping to pick up fresh vegetables for the trip. We took this as a good sign. Among other things, the French couple from the hotel had informed us that the food had been very good, thanks to Ema. And luckily for us, delaying our trip a day to accommodate Anne also meant that Ema could make this trip, so all seemed quite good. The sun was shining and we were ready to be amazed.

Before long our bags were secured on the roof with a tarp over them along with the extra barrels of gas and a canister of propane for cooking. We weaved through town for a little bit and then began the long climb out of Tupiza. It wasn’t long before we were in a train of Landcruisers (and at least one Nissan Patrol, I should mention, just for correctness) stopping at a high point… a saddle with crazy rock formations below us to the right (Valle de Luna) and a wide vista of mountains, folded valleys, and colored rocks. The area around Tupiza is a truly magical place, and here we were with a condor’s view of it all.

It was about this time that we learned, to our disappointment, that we were actually paired up with another Tupiza Tours Landcruiser. Ema mentioned that we had to wait for the other ‘cruiser because she was fixing them lunch, too. This is what we had tried to avoid when booking the tour… and why we delayed a day so that Anne could come with us. And, as it turned out, this day might have been pretty important.

Overall, Victor and Ema were pretty quiet. Victor pointed out a few things, and was very knowledgeable when asked questions, but it was clear from the start that he was a quiet, respectful person by nature. Ema was more talkative, in a motherly sort of way. She wanted to know if we were comfortable, and did we want some coca? We did. I would like to think that this was the beginning of a fine relationship between us and our hosts. I am sure that all tourists like to believe that they are somehow more special to their guides than other tours, but I think in our case this might have actually come to be true. Sharing coca leaves in Boliviais an ice-breaker… a way of saying hello and initiating a bit of time spent together. And so, contently chewing hojas de coca, we left the colored canyons of Tupiza behind and found ourselves on a high, grassy plateau.

And it was here that I began to fall in love with the golden bunchgrasses in the high country ofBolivia…

I can’t explain it, but sometimes a place just feels right. And beautiful. Perhaps beauty is the key to it all in the end. To me, these endless expanses of yellow grasses in the foreground before a blue sky and reaching ridges and peaks… it touched me somehow. I kept looking at the grasses, knowing that a photograph couldn’t capture it, but admiring the subtle texture and color they added to everything. This would continue for days until we dropped down into the salt flats themselves.

For lunch we found ourselves on a wide, flat valley floor covered in bright yellow grass and llamas. While the various cooks set to work, the tourists scattered to collect their llama pictures. A few of the llamas, two in particular, had obviously learned something about the Landcruisers and associated tourists, for they were soon wandering among the vehicles looking for handouts. They seemed willing to eat anything.

Or try anything…

Denis corrupts a llama

Our partner Landcruiser seemed full of loud and somewhat obnoxious tourists. Two fromCanadaand two fromBritain. We heard one of the Brits saying that she was not getting out of the vehicle for lunch (it was a bit cold in the wind), and one of the Canadians, Nick, seemed to need a lot of attention and was loud enough to demand it. We tried to separate ourselves from them, but it was hard with two rigs parked side by side. Even Ema seemed less-than-enthusiastic about them.

a quick stop for some futbal - photo by Anne Kalker

After lunch was a blur of bunchgrass and scenery. And some vicuñas. Vicuñas are llama-like animals of the high country… long-necked like a llama, but less fluffy and more compact. They are a soft brown and white, a slightly more delicate version of a llama. We learned from Victor that vicuña wool is a prized commodity – it sells for $100 US dollars per kilo! They are protected animals inBolivia, so the local people capture them once a year (I don’t know how), liberate them of their wool, and then let them go. A similar story for alpacas, though their wool is worth much less, and the llama is unprotected and its wool worth the least.

vicunas and bunchgrass

Over the course of our tour together, I really came to like and admire my French friends, Denis and Léa. It started the first evening as we pulled into a small village to spend the night. A nearby mountain towering over everything with snowy flanks caught all of our attention, but so did Victor and Ema unloading the Landcruiser. The helping hands were quick to come from all three of us, carrying supplies to the kitchen, getting all the backpacks into a room, checking to see if there was anything else we could do. The kitchen didn’t have a light, and Ema was soon wearing Denis’ headlamp.

And it continued later, when we made sure that both Victor and Emma sat with us for a bit and sampled the rum that we had brought for the trip. There was a sense that we were all in this together, while the four from the other Landcruiser were happy to stay separate and to be served. I was quite happy with our side of the room.

The other driver, Raoul, joined us for a bit, too. He was another quiet, unassuming Bolivian, but often joked with Victor, and his face was capable of lighting up with a brilliant smile. The other group also had an English-speaking guide, Reynaldo, who was funny and outgoing. It quickly became obvious that he was already developing quite a crush on our young, blonde-haired Anne.

And sometime in the course of our conversation and imbibery, I stepped out of the walls of our little enclosure for the night, and found it to be snowing. And there was already an inch or so on the ground.

It was to become the theme of our trip.

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Being in Boliviafor any length of time has the effect of curing you of any inclination to take a hot shower for granted. It also makes you begin to consider the value of safety laws and building codes. But then the less fearful side of your brain comes back and says… yeah, but it seems to work down here. And it is true… for all of the chaotic traffic, there are few accidents. For all the exposed wires and lack of fire alarms, you don’t hear much about electrocutions or fires. Maybe I should start reading the papers…

When I first got toBolivia, the first showerhead I saw looked much like the one pictured above. And mind you, this was in one of the most gringo hostels I’ve slept in down here. I turned the water on, was pleased with the pressure, but noticed that the water was lukewarm at best. Being an enterprising, curious person, I examined the device. There were three settings. Maybe, I thought, someone had changed a setting. I reached up and clicked the knob to the right one slot, and was rewarded by a somewhat unpleasant tickle of electricity in my finger and hand. Yikes. The water got colder. I braved the lick of current one more time to return the knob to its original position. The water warmed ever so slightly.

Eventually my brain caught up with the world and realized that there were coils inside the showerhead heating water as it passed through, and that maybe, just maybe, if there was less water, there would be more heat. I tried this experiment with success. Less pressure, more heat… more pressure, less heat. And so I was indoctrinated into the culture of standing beneath a trickle of pleasantly hot water… the Bolivian shower.

Since then, I have used many a bathroom and shower in Bolivia, mostly compartido, some privado. The bathroom is usually a small, completely tiled room with a toilet in one corner and a showerhead in the other. Usually this space is less than 6 feet across. In lieu of a shower curtain, there is a 6 inch high border around the base of the shower area. There is a drain in the shower, and also a drain in the center of the room. As you take your shower, the 6” high “curtain” does very little, and you tend to splash water all over the room, including the toilet and the toilet paper, if there is any (which is rare).

There is always some variation, of course. If you look closely, you’ll notice that some kind person has wrapped the water handle with electrical tape… so that you don’t get shocked a little when you touch the metal handle (I forgot to mention that this is also somewhat common and unnerving). And of course, notice how the breaker is conveniently located within splashing distance of the showerhead. At least there is a breaker…

Above is a luxury bathroom. Note that they have installed a shower curtain to shield the toilet from water, and see that brown pipe coming in from the left? That’s hot water! Note the normal showerhead… this shower is fueled by a water heater somewhere. No chance of electrocution here. Hotel Alem inLa Paz… a very good deal at 40 Bolivianos a night.

Sometimes I find it a wonder that there is electricity at all inBolivia. While on a stroll in the nicer part ofLa Paz, I happened to look up at all of the lines crossing and re-crossing the streets. And when I looked at the utility poles, well, let’s just say that being a lineman here in Bolivia looks to be very hazardous and frustrating work…

a typical utility pole in La Paz

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Tupiza

Not far from Tupiza is a tiny town called San Vicente, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid famously met their maker at the hands of a contingent of the Bolivian army. As our second bus to Tupiza began to wind its way down and into the town, it was easy to see why a couple of bandits from the American southwest would make their way down to this area. The landscape of Tupiza is a combination of the red rocks ofUtahand the ridges and cacti ofArizona. It is a beautiful place, and having spent a fair amount of time in such desert locales, I immediately felt at home and happy. Not for the last time, I uttered the words, “Wow, this reminds me ofUtah…” It wouldn’t be long before this became a joke among our crew.

But there was work to do. Friday morning… we needed a place to stay, a tour company, and a fourth person to fill the last seat in a landcruiser (6 seats – driver, cook, and 4 passengers). Annexo Mitru filled the first need, and turned out to be a very nice hotel at which to stay. The hot showers were wonderful, the breakfast buffet a good one, and one of the two men who worked the front desk was friendly and helpful.

The Mitru hotels are affiliated with Tupiza Tours, which claimed to be the oldest tour company in town and by all reports was well-respected. Plus we had a first-hand recommendation. A French couple was staying at the Annexo, and as it turns out, Léa had met them in La Pazbriefly. A rapid and long conversation in French ensued. I drifted away, but heard the report later from Denis in English – the couple had loved their tour and highly recommended their driver/guide, Victor, and the cocinera, Ema.

And so it began. Tupiza tours tried to get us into a two-jeep caravan with one cook – 6 other people we didn’t know (British). We didn’t like the sound of it. We pushed for our own jeep and cook, and asked if they had anyone to fill in as our 4th. They didn’t… but told us to come back at 6 and see if any single person had shown up. Otherwise, we agreed that we would spend a little more money and go as 3 the next morning.

When we came back, they had a person. There was confusion about if it was a boy or girl, and what its name was. But we had a country…Holland. AND… the mystery person couldn’t leave the next morning… wanted to leave on Sunday. We took the deal.

So with an extra day in hand, Denis and Léa went for a tour on horses, and I figured on a mellow day of bumming around town and perhaps getting some writing done for the blog.

Funny how my mellow days go sometimes. I ended up on a four-hour or so hike. It started with my climbing a little hill I’d seen with a cross on it. Once up there, I could see the jeep route that led to the sights and canyons listed on this awful little tour map I had in my pocket. I had some water with me and a small bag of peanuts… and decent navigational skills… why not?

I aimed for Canon del Duende, and only missed it by a little bit. I followed horse tracks up a fine wash with some lovely red fins of rock beside it, and found myself traipsing into Canon del Inca.

entrance to Canon del Inca

My timing was good, too. Just where the horse tracks ran out, there was a small crowd of horses and guides sleeping in the shade… and the tourists were just arriving back at the horses. This meant that the upper part of the canyon, accessible only by walking, bouldering, and climbing, was now blessedly free of other human souls.

There are, after all, people like myself out there that long for moments of pure solitude and beauty. For me, it is worth some physical exertion, the danger of slips and falls, and the knowledge that if I were to truly hurt myself, there would be no one there to help. The reward is being surrounded by towering rock, a slice of brilliant blue sky above, and a profound silence that somehow the occasional whispering breeze or echo of a bird do not disturb. And so, on this day, I climbed and scrambled away from the horses and people and into beauty and solitude.

in the canyon

Refreshed and happy, I sauntered back out of the canyon, and wasn’t really that surprised when I ran into a few horses with a couple of French people I knew. Not entirely in control of their steeds, there was only a quick hello and yes, we’re enjoying our tour before the horses got on with their business.

All of us found our way back to town successfully, and that evening we met Anne, a 19-year-old Dutch girl traveling solo. It turned out to be a pretty good match. And the next morning, lugging all of our bags and warm clothes, we arrived at Tupiza tours for our four-day tour, which would culminate at the Salar de Uyuni.

Tupiza was a wonderful town, and in the event of my return to Bolvia, I will be sure to schedule some more time there, and in the tortured rock that surrounds it. Maybe find me a landcruiser…

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I noticed a couple in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Some more in Cochabamba. There were probably a few in Sucre, but it was Potosi that had me really noticing the Landcruisers in Bolivia. And I don’t mean the ones I was used to seeing occasionally in the United States… the elongated SUV kind. I mean the old ones. The ones that look like Land Rovers, like square jeeps, like they could get you anywhere. The ones with the curved glass windows in the back.

think this might be a Nissan Patrol

note the Che sticker...

Once I started looking, these things were pretty common. They’re cool, people. I want one. It’s almost enough to make me move to Bolivia. Maybe I could start my own tour company, with 4 seats instead of 6… Wait, that might not work.

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I can honestly say that I nearly died getting to Tupiza. The other eighty or so people on the bus, too. Yet another episode of the overnight bus ride…

Denis, Léa, and I got on a bus – Boqueron was the company – hoping in vain for the ever-elusive overnight ride in a comfortable reclining seat, thus getting to our destination and claiming some much-needed rest in the process. It all sounds so lovely.

According to the company, we could expect to arrive in Tupiza at around 6:30 in the morning or so.

It didn’t take long for me to notice that it was a very difficult ride to get any sleep on. The road seemed very rough, and the bus kept listing one way and then the other. Or was it that we were going very fast?

Sometime in the middle of the night, all of the passengers suddenly levitated in their seats and then came back down. There were audible gasps of terror. I believe that the bus was actually airborne for a second or so, which is quite a feat for one of these big passenger busses. And then a hard swerve to the left and the bus leaned hard to the right, more audible breaths… and then we were still alive.

Several cholitas began making a fuss, knocking on the door that separated the driving crew from the passengers. Turns out the driver was quite drunk. There was no response from the cab of the bus. At about 5 in the morning we came to a stop. We lingered on the bus, thinking that we still had a little bit before Tupiza. I noticed a police car pulling up with its blue lights turning circles. A man came and told us we needed to get our bags because we were at the end of the line… in Villazon. The Argentinean border. Apparently we had been going so fast in our inebriated bus that we flew through Tupiza at 3:30 in the morning (I still don’t know whether we actually stopped) and were now well past where we needed to be. The police had stopped the bus 200 yards short of the terminal, and it looked as though our driver might be in a little bit of trouble.

So we bought another set of tickets for Tupiza and waited out the cold dawning of the day on the edge ofArgentina. But at least we were still alive.

Once again I told myself, never again will I buy an overnight ticket

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Somehow, in flipping through the pages of Lonely Planet and comparing hostels, I failed to notice that in leaving Sucre (2750 meters) and finding my way to Potosi (4070 meters) I was gaining over a thousand meters in elevation and actually getting higher than I would be in La Paz. 4070 meters… that’s 13, 431 feet! The bus topped out its climb less than an hour from Potosi, and on that high, open plateau (altiplano) there was nothing stopping the wind. Some form of grass-like weed here had released millions of small, yellow seeds that were jettisoned sideways by the gale… and there were foot-deep or more accumulations in ditches and on the lee side of objects.

What this translated to, as I stepped out of Potosi’s sparkling new, modern bus station to find a cab, was cold. Very cold.

Luckily, I found a hostel room with a heater… and fell in love with the rooms there. La Casona Hostel. A restored colonial building with a nice courtyard and some corners and tunnels… a metal spiral staircase near my front door. Perhaps my favorite thing (after the heater) was the arched doorway and door. I even took a picture or two…

Unfortunately, I was less enchanted withPotosithan I was with my hostel room. I’m not sure why, but the place just didn’t do it for me. Narrow streets and buildings crowded overhead are designed as a defense against the wind, I believe, but it gave me a claustrophobic feel and I grew tired of bumping into people on the overcrowded sidewalks. And it was always cold. Still, there were some nice buildings and statues…

Plaza 10 de Noviembre with liberty statue and Cerro Rico in the background

And, as luck would have it, this is the place where I finally met Denis and Léa. After dinner at a nice place (Potocchi…loved the Quinua) I stopped by a place described as a hip evening spot. 4060… named for its elevation in meters. I wasn’t that impressed, but lingered long enough to finish my beer at the bar (which can take a while, they’re big beers). About halfway through, I recognized the couple from the hostel and the bus station inSucre. They sat down beside me and made introductions. As it turned out, they too were leavingPotosishortly for Uyuni and the salt flat tour. A four day tour, like me, and they had another Belgian friend who might be coming down to join. This was a fortuitous turn of events, because that would make our group 4 people, which was perfect for filling a landcruiser. They seemed nice, and apparently liked me, for we agreed to make ourselves a group and go together for the tour. I gave them my phone number and called it a night.

It wasn’t until the next day that I realized that phone calls inBoliviaare notoriously difficult. Denis had said he would give me a call in the afternoon once he heard from his Belgian friend. By 4 o’clock I was kicking myself for not giving my e-mail address or even finding out what hostel they were in. I imagined a lost opportunity, and resigned myself to a Uyuni tour with random people I’d never met. But, as a last hope, I went back to 4060 that night hoping that perhaps they would be there again… and there they were, smoking contentedly and happy to see me.

We went to the “mint” inPotosi, but ended up on different tours (English/French).Potosimade its name as the world’s biggest supply of silver, and at one time supplied coins to most of the world. The tour itself was ok… the building was really cool (and cold) and the mule-driven machinery for pressing coins was impressive (supplied bySpainof course). The most amusing thing about the tour was that when we arrived, in the early afternoon, the fountain in the entrance still held icicles. Ugh.

icy fountain and strange Bacchus face at the Casa Nacional de Moneda

I should mention, too, that I did not go on an infamous mine tour inPotosi– and it is the city’s star attraction. On the tour you get to experience the inhumane and frightening conditions in which the miners under Cerro Rico work. My French friends were visibly shaken from it, and said it was an experience they wouldn’t forget.

Plans changed a little… the Belgian friend hadn’t gotten in touch, so we were moving ahead – to Tupiza instead of Uyuni. Most agree that doing the Uyuni tour “backwards” (Tupiza to Uyuni) is a better experience… especially the opportunity to be on the Salar at sunrise… and avoiding most of the other tours. Denis had his heart set on climbing up to a vantage point on Tunupa, a volcano on the north side of the Salar. It all sounded good to me, and as we were to find out, Tupiza was a much better place to spend some time than Uyuni.

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On a late morning in Sucre, after trying to sleep through the party that was Hostal Amigo, I shed the unfriendly, uninformative staff and went to the tourist office to ask about a train. There was a vague mention of a pleasant (if vertigo-inducing) train ride from Sucre to Potosi… and I found a blog online from only 3 weeks before describing the experience. But, once the information office opened, the man there said no, there was no train.

So I gathered my things, checked out of the hungover hostel, and climbed the hill to the bus station.

While sitting beside the bus, waiting for the departure, a couple of familiar faces appeared with their backpacks for the same train. They had been staying at Hostal Amigo, too… I got a nod from the man before they proceeded to smoke and wait for the bus. I would later learn that these French people were always smoking.

This bus ride made me declare that I would never take an overnight train again. It was a slow, creeping climb into the Andes mountains, and I was fascinated to see the world open up outside the bus window.

I had gotten a brief mountain experience in Cochabamba, and had been surrounded by mountains in both Cochabamba and Sucre, but this was the first time I felt like I was really going into the heart of them. Wide, flat, gravelly river beds filled the spaces between, and the size of the washes told a story of a rainy and raging world here during the summer wet season.

And I wondered, for not the first or last time, what this country would look like in the summer season, green and flowering.

In the afternoon, I disembarked into a frighteningly modern bus station in Potosi, and took a taxi into the claustrophobic and frigid confines of the city of silver, Potosi.

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