A Distinct Flavour of Salt and Viña

Trip Start May 05, 2011
Trip End Sep 08, 2011

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Bus, desert, salt, desert, salt, lagoon, bus, sleep (coming soon)

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Whoever coined the phrase 'growing old gracefully' clearly had completely the wrong end of the stick. In my experience, it is nigh on impossible to grow old without some semblance of ungracefulness - whether that comes in the form of total decreptitude or in unhealthily gargantuan lashings of fun. Turning 23, I embraced the latter, whilst resolving to flee as fast as possible from the former. Yes, thatīs right - my first ever Winter birthday involved a LOT of fun, followed by a desperate flight in search of physical preservatives.

Ok, when I say it like that, it sounds weird. So I should probably abort confusion now and say that, after a really fantastic birthday in Valpo, I set off in search of the oddest landscape on Earth - the Bolivian salt flats. But letīs not jump ahead. First things first: my birthday.

I woke up to a lovely (but practically deserted) hostel in Valparaiso, and to a flurry of happy birthdays from the few travellers in residence. Mercifully (at this time in the morning, at least) I was spared a rendition of 'Happy Birthday'. I did have a delightful breakfast with one of the more permanent resident of the hostel; I was delighted to discover that he was a roaming philosopher, and so we chatted away about the nature of man, the state, and Europe (he is Danish) for an hour or so. I was less delighted when he recommended that I join the English Defence League, and when I discovered that he was an ultra-nationalist who had been hounded out of Copenhagen by the academic community there for inciting racial hatred against Islam. Meh, swings and roundabouts. Unsurprisingly, I was glad when the sun emerged and gave me a great excuse to go explore the city. And escape, but that's a given.

(Actually, I joke, but this guy was really remarkably pleasant, which made his repugnant ideas all the more inexplicable. Still, I do meet some of the most interesting characters!)

Having successfully escaped, I spent the day touring the city in the sun. Whilst I was less than wowed by the outdoor murals of Valparaiso (the graffiti there is infinitely better), I had a great time in the bohemian district, had a wonderful three-course meal (including some pretty good seafood). The chocolate mousse at the end of the meal deserves a monograph of its own, but I will limit my feedback to this: it was sinfully good. And altogether too European for South America! The evening brought more pleasant happenings: 2 Irish/Latvian girls that I met in Cordoba turned up specifically to celebrate my birthday, bought me a birthday doughnut, and we all headed out (with some random Chilean tour guide, of course) for a great night out. It's not often that you end up partying in 2 cities in the evening, nonetheless, after wowing the locals with my dancing in Valpo, we moved over to neighbouring Viņa (pronounced 'vinya') del Mar for the afterparty. Suffice to say, it was a satifying birthday.

After a fun day in Valpo on Thursday with my newly-arrived European amigas, I soon found myself on yet another bus. It's the only way to travel in South America! This time it was a 25 hour bus ride to San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile, however, so I had a LOT of time to fill. One book, 3 films (finally in English with Spanish subtitles) later, I arrived at this odd little town in the desert. Perversely, despite the fact that all of the houses are made of adobe (and earth-type material) the whole place has the feel of a European ski resort. It was even swarming with Europeans, who shivered in their llama cardies when the desrt temperature dropped below freezing. Bless.

Nonetheless, there is little to report on San Pedro de Atacama, because after about 5 hours sleep, I roused myself, and jumped on the only tour I could find making their way across the border the following morning. The Atacama desert is supposedly incredible; the Uyuni Salt Flat Desert (the Salar de Uyuni) rightly has a reputation as one of the strangest and most amazing places on earth. It was time to add salt to Viņa in my catalogue of experiences.

My tour of Uyuni was really fun,partly for the incredible experiences, but also partly for the group of people who accompanied me - 4 other Brits, all of them northern and from around Manchester (although one staunchly maintained a childhood scottish identity), and a fairly pleasant middle-aged Spaniard. None of them were boring, to say the least, which was good news. I could probably have done with more sleep, though!

Crossing the border was an 'interesting' experience. Ok, so were were in a 4x4, but I swear that the Bolivian immigration post was essentially just a shack. In the desert. Minus the bag searches (but hey, I guess no one's worried about people smuggling drugs INTO Bolivia. All I managed was some raisins - accidentally forgotten, in my food bag. But I still get smuggler points). From there onwards, we had a day of constant amazement. Desert that stretched for miles, broken on the horizon by snow-capped mounains. Smoking volcanos. Lagoons that came in all the colours of the artist's palette. I kid you not; in addition to impossibly beautiful blue and green lagoons, there was a massive stretch of water that shone blood red (a result of the rather hardy algae that lived atop it). Almost like an unreal, biblical landscape, this water streched from rusty-brown to crimson and purple. It was incredible.

Luckily, despite having gone from sealevel to around 5000m altitude in the space of 36 hours, I escaped most of the symptoms of altitude sickness. (I cheated, too - Mum will be glad to hear that I am making use of the Diamox I was prescribed). But that night I did suffer partial insomnia - not because of the altitude, but because I ate too much. It seems incredible that they were able to provide good food in the middle of the dryest and most remote place on earth; somehow, they accomplished it. On the second day, we even ate lama steak (I'll never be able to look a llama in the beady eye again. Oh well).

Sunday's desert tour was a little less impressive - a string of fairly generic lagoons, and a volcano. But at least we were able to bond over the drive to the salt hostel, on the edge of the salt flats. Here we stayed in a building almost entirely constructed from salt.I thought it was incredible. Apparently, others felt the same: in awe, one of the girls on my tour had informed her mother (in advance) that she was staying in a building made of salt. Her mother's reaction: 'Well, don't lick the walls, then'.

It was FREEEZING. Still, all great travellers suffer for their great experiences.

Next day, we got up before sunrise. Arg. Still, it was all in a good cause, as we headed out to see the sun rise over the salt flat: an expanse of pure, white salt, formed in massive hexagonal formations. It is all that remains of a great overland sea, and in some places, a shallow covering of water remains (whilst in other places it's perfectly dry - a desert of salt). Where water stands, the landsape and the sky are reflected so perfectly, that it's almost like looking onto a gigantic mirror. clearly, sunrise was the time to go, and despite subzero temperatures, it was worth it.

Later, we 4x4'd it across the salt flats, and attempted to get a few spectacular photos, utitising the distortion of perspective that the slat flat provides. It was rather frustrating (and heartbreaking for two members of our party, who had a series of impossible tableaux planned). Nonetheless, it was fun, and there are a number of great photos, that are guarenteed to BLOW YOUR MIND (not a guarantee).

After the salt flats, we headed to a rustic train graveyard outside Uyuni, once a great fronier mining town. It wasn't so much humbling to look on those great rusting beasts of the Industrial Revolution, as fun to clamber into them. Yay for lax safety rules in Bolivia! And (although we didn't hurt ourselves at all - after all, we were extremely safe really) yay for tetanus shots!

Another overnighter, this time to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, was considerably less comfortable. I've been spoiled by the quality of roards in Chile and Argentina. Damn develpoed nations, building roads which allow me to sleep on buses! Despite a 2-hour breakdown and a rather hilarious man next to me who screamed in his sleep (yet another reason for insomnia), I got here safe. And slightly rested.

Today has been very cool; exploring La Paz, including the Witches' Market (where they sell llama foetuses, which apparently bring good luck if you bury them under your house). I went on a bit of a shopping spree (though I still managed to spend less that twenty pounds all day) and got myself a very warm (if a little itchy) alpaca jumper. Here, I look like a massive tourist. At home, I am convinced, I shall be a fashion icon. Thereafter, I made my way up to the roof of the incredible franciscan monastry, carved in beautiful native baroque. La Paz is a beautiful city (nestling in a mountain valley), but it's amazing colonial buildings like this that make it unique. Can't wait to explore tomorrow. Tonight bodes sleep - much needed, I assure you - before I continue my Bolivian adventure.
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