Lodgey and Life on the Road. Stories from South America.

17 May 2010

Salar de Uyuni and Bolivia!

Our tour into Bolivia starts off with a bang – literally. We’re not ten minutes out of San Pedro when a tyre blows on the trailer loaded with all our backpacks. We wait for a replacement tyre to be brought out and two muppets from the tour company arrive (minus the tyre) to concur with the driver that – yes the tyre has blown.

We arrive at the Bolivian border where I’m given grief about my passport by a mean looking meat head on border control. We then discover that the dodgy tour company hasn’t sent enough jeeps for everyone and, after much protesting, 15 of us are crammed into two jeeps.

Our first day is spent driving through a desolate landscape stopping at lagoons of different colours and a hillside that looks just like a Salvador Dali painting. We arrive at the world’s highest geyser where there is a lone Canadian man on a bike... cycling all the way through the high altitude desert by himself. I tell him he’s brave and he replies that he’s just crazy!

We arrive at a hostel in the middle of the desert and discover that the temperature is about to drop to -10 degrees. We are at an altitude of more than 5000m, it’s hard to breath and it is freezing. We are given watery mashed potatoes, something that I think is a sausage and moody looking tomatoes. The owner refuses to light a fire until the temperature has dropped well below zero when he gives us some moss and one log to burn. The four of us spend the night absolutely freezing, unable to sleep because our hearts are racing from the high altitude. There are no hot showers and no electricity. Hell on earth!
Unimpressed, we leave the next morning to see pink flamingos, red, green and blue lagoons, and a smoking volcano. Our accommodation that night is a hotel made entirely of salt – the walls, beds, even the chairs and tables are made of salt. The temperature is significantly warmer and they serve a great dinner with wine!
We are up at 5am the next morning to watch the sunrise over the salt flats – the moment we have all been waiting for. Not realising that our other jeep has a flat tyre we leg it across the salt flats just as the sun is rising. We are completely surrounded by the white of the salt and a pink sky. The sun eventually peeks over the edge of the salt flat and we can make funny shadows on the salt. It is so surreal.

I wish we can stay longer. But we have to go. I close my eyes to soak it all in and we catch the last bit of sunrise from Fisher Island, a tiny island on the salt flat with 1200 year old cacti.

We then drive to a part of the salt flat where the horizon is white against the blue of the sky. Because the landscape is all white we can create some pretty cool pictures. One of Geezer up close looking like he has miniature people in his hand.

And one of me climbing out of a shoe.

Our last stop is at a train cemetery where we can climb over rusty old trains like kids. My favourite train has ‘ASI ES LA VIDA’ graffiti-ed on the side – ‘SUCH IS LIFE’.

The zig-zagging comes to an end: part two

After a quick hostel change, we arrive at Hostal del Centro which is a stone’s throw from the main square of Salta and has some of life’s little luxuries – marmite and HP sauce! We bump into English Lou, the chick I met on our girly shopping trip in Bariloche. She is meeting up with a girl she also met in Bariloche and it turns out to be, Rachel, who we met in our hostel in Ushuaia – ahhh... the small world of backpackers! So the four of us form a delightful  travelling pack. Rachel - the Irish doctor, Lou – the English performance arts teacher, Geezer and me!

Salta is a lovely town in the very north of Argentina. It is a hopping off point for tours to the Argentinean salt flats, stunning mineral-rich mountains of every colour imaginable and quaint villages. We opt for a tour that takes us to the salt flat and Pumamarca, a tiny cactus village that has great views of the mountain of seven colours. 

We are picked up before dawn by Juanco, our guide with terrible breath, good English and a great sense of humour. Thinking we would be on a giant tour bus, we are surprised that there is only four of us in a little car – an Austrian couple and us.

Our first stop is Pumamarca then we climb our way up a mountain pass that hits a breath-taking altitude of 4170m above sea level. I run to take a photo of the view and have to grab on to the car to catch my breath. Puff, puff, puff! 

Madly chewing on coca leaves to combat the altitude, we wind our way through the desert arriving at the salt flat which makes for great pics and a view that leaves us spinning. Next stop is San Antonio, a very poor village that serves a mean lunch of baby goat stew (eeek!) and a weird dessert. Strangely, it starts to snow even though there is blue sky.

We drive alongside the tracks of the Tren de Las Nubres (the train to the clouds) and make our way back to Salta where we discover that the border to Chile is closed. So it looks like we will be stuck in Salta until it re-opens. We don’t mind. There could be worse places to be stuck!

Salta has a museum displaying the Sleeping Children of Llullaillaco - three perfectly preserved children that were sacrificed to the mountain by the Incas 500 years ago. They were found in a crypt several years ago high up on a mountain and brought to Salta. There is only one of them on display – a six year old boy who looks like he is sleeping. He is so immaculately preserved that you can see the dirt under his finger nails. I feel a bit traumatised by it. He is so little and hardly has any clothes on.

The Chilean border finally opens and Lou, Rachel, Geezer and I leave Argentina with a bang, not really caring that we have to be up at 5:30am for a bus to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. It seems to have become a habit to get stuck in to the red wine when we have an early bus to catch.

San Pedro de Atacama – our last stop in Chile and the end to all the zig-zagging between Argentina and Chile up from Patagonia. We have zig-zagged between the countries five times and our passports are filling up!

We are marched off the bus late afternoon to have our passports stamped into Chile not realising that we are already in San Pedro. We walk into the dusty, desert town, hungover as hell and my first impression is – where the hell are we?? But a short walk around town reveals a fabulous place with unbelievable food and a list of sights to see as long as my arm. We run around like maniacs booking tours for all the things we want to see – five tours all within a 30 hour time period!

The first is sandboarding down one of San Pedro’s massive sand dunes in the Valley of Death. Our guide is as useful as a shag on a rock so the four of us fudge our way into boards and climb up the ridiculously steep dune. I nudge over the edge and face plant the sand (apparently while making chimp-like noises). 

Realising it’s not my forte, I watch Geezer fly down the dune at lightning speed. On his second run, he crashes and burns with a full 360 flip, his board flying off, catching him in the ribs and leaving him shaky and winded.

We drive to the Valley of the Moon to watch the sun set over the 20 volcanos that surround San Pedro with a pisco sour (THE Chilean drink) in hand. 

We arrive back in town for a short rest before heading off on our next tour – stargazing in one of the world’s best night skies. It’s 10pm and we arrive in a Frenchman’s backyard full of giant telescopes. Ordinarily there are 1000 stars visible to the naked eye but here there are 6000! 

The Frenchman’s wife gives us a talk about the differences between the northern and southern skies. She shows us the plane of the milky way. When you look at a picture of the universe, it looks like a giant ring of stars and here the milky way is so clear that you can actually see this plane.

She points a laser at various constellations – the Southern Cross, the Centaur, Scorpio, Sagittarius, the big dipper (upside down because we are on the other side of the globe), Saturn, Venus and Mars. We then get to look through the telescopes and see the rings of Saturn, a gas cloud, a cluster of stars that to the naked eye looks like one star and a line of stars of different colours (called the Jewel Box). I whirl around in the dark, mouth wide open, eyes up at the sky in awe of yet another of Mother Nature’s marvels.

We arrive back at 1am with our next tour departure at 4am to see the sunrise over a field of geysers and mud pools.

The girls head off on no sleep without us because Geezer needs to get his ribs checked. We arrive at the medical centre (or makeshift hospital) to be told that there is only a doctor in on Mondays between 8am and 12pm (it’s now Friday!). The alternative is a paramedic and I explain to her in poor Spanish about Geezer’s ribs. The medic prescribes Geezer some painkillers, tells him to wrap a towel around his middle (!?) and thankfully thinks he is probably OK. We leave with a healthy appreciation of our own health system - the sheets on the bed here are filthy and there is a woman giving birth a few rooms away.

We bolt to meet the girls and go on to our next tour of Laguna Cejar – a lagoon made of 30 per cent salt so that you can float in it – a bit like the Dead Sea. I jump in and immediately flip over, unable to keep my balance in the salty water. 

Our final stop is sunset at a salt flat surrounded by desert and a ring of more than 20 volcanos.

We end our stay in San Pedro – and Chile – with another delicious meal in front of a bon fire and declare San Pedro a winner of a place. None of us want to leave.

So the zig-zagging comes to an end. Our next stop is the Salar de Uyuni – the Bolivian salt flats.

In four days we have said goodbye to two countries that have blown our minds. The jaw dropping beauty of Chilean volcanos, desert and skies, the gobsmacking landscapes, stunning treks and glaciers of Argentina and the people... from the polite, music-loving Argentineans to the friendly, fun Chileans... we leave Argentina and Chile on a high note. Every single day has been an adventure. And as we cross the border into Bolivia we wonder if our trip can possibly get any better!

16 May 2010

The zig-zagging comes to an end

After the weirdness and wonder of Easter Island, coming back to a big, polluted, noisy city like Santiago is daunting. 

But we meet up with a friend of a friend who takes us to the Bohemian district, Bella Vista, for a night out. 

Tomas and his girlfriend, Margarita, take us salsa dancing. I can tell by the horror on Geezer's face that he is as mortified as me. But we say nothing to our new friends. 

The other couples in the class manage to salsa within the space of a square foot. Geezer and I require half the room. And while they make it look so effortless, Geezer and I are clomping around and counting out in booming voices “ONE, TWO, THREE, TUUUUURN..” (usually followed by a “whoops... sorry”). 

After half an hour, we decide that we’ve humiliated ourselves enough and opt for pisco sours instead. 

The next day we combine a visit back to Buenos Aires with a Boca Juniors game. The security is intense and we are forced to wait in the stadium for an hour after the game to make sure the opposition’s supporters have left the area. 

We are warned that cheering for the opposition, San Lorenzo, is a ‘matter of life or death’. So we join in the continuous chanting and camaraderie of the Boca supporters feeling the stadium vibrate underneath our feet. Boca wins, riling the San Lorenzo supporters who leave the stadium shouting obscenities and banging metal grates. 

Next we zigzag west across to Mendoza, Argentina’s wine-making region, on the bus ride from hell – a moody bus driver, food you wouldn’t feed to the dog and the heating so high the bus soon reeks of sweat. I beg the bus driver in Spanish to turn the heat down and five minutes before we arrive in Mendoza he relents.

We head straight to the hot springs to recover arriving early afternoon and, with the bus home not leaving until 7pm, forcing us to spend four hours at the springs... damn! 

The springs are nestled amongst the Andes out in the desert. The springs are so hot that I have a funny turn and spend most of the afternoon recovering on a rock in the sun.

That night we are treated to a special guest in our dorm – a pissed Brazilian guy who comes in at 1am, pees loudly with the toilet door open and spends an hour packing his bag with the light on. I lie in bed pondering the point at which you can tell someone to shut the hell up. We tolerate him for an hour before I yell out “Amigo!!!” so he drags his bag into the toilet and packs it there. He then snores loudly and laughs like a maniac in his sleep. Freak...

The next day we catch a local bus out to the wineries and attempt a wine tasting tour on bikes - our main reason for visiting Mendoza. All the wineries are within a few kilometres of each other and on a flat road so biking between the wineries doesn’t sound too hard (ha!). 

The first stop is a mass-producing winery and when they find out I’m a Kiwi, they insist on asking us our opinion of their Sav Blanc. I politely tell them that we serve white wine cold and omit that it tastes freakin weird. We stumble upon the most gorgeous beer garden set in a paddock with sofas and bales of hay as tables. The delightful owner makes us fresh empanadas and melt-in-your-mouth tapas.

After a few beers we wobble our way to the next winery – the luxuriously modern Tempus Wines – that has a giant balcony, fantastic music and the best lamb burgers imaginable. Instead of doing the wine tasting we treat ourselves to their best red and kick back in the sunshine. 

By this stage, being the lightweight I am, we are wondering how on earth we are going to ride our bikes back to the start. We befriend the owner of the winery, the charming, party-loving Christian, who encourages us to get another bottle of red, reassuring us that the bike ride back is no problem. But when he sees me staggering back to toilet, he phones the bike hire place and says that ‘his amigos’ have had too many beers and kindly offers to drive our bikes back in the morning. 

We eventually stagger out to catch a local bus back to Mendoza but soon realise we are on the wrong bus and in danger of missing our very expensive bus to Salta. So we jump in a taxi with an unhappy driver and I tell him to drive to our hostel in Mendoza to pick up our bags and then on to the bus station within half an hour. He nearly has a heart attack.

It is peak hour and he’s not impressed at having two pissed gringos in his cab. We throw some money in his lap and he speeds through the traffic like lightening. We make our bus with two minutes to spare. Geezer passes out before his head hits the bus seat but I’m too wired to sleep and spend the entire bus journey sobbing loudly from watching movies about bloody dogs dying. Geezer occasionally wakes up, sees me bawling and shakes his head before passing out again. 

The bus company puts on a game of ‘bus bingo’ where they give all the passengers a bingo card and call out numbers in Spanish. In my inebriated state I manage to win the game and when the bus driver broadcasts that I’m a kiwi, someone makes sheep noises from the back of the bus. Bloody Australians!

We arrive in Salta about 20 hours later hungover as hell (hiding my puffy eyes behind sunglasses and cursing the bus driver for putting soppy movies on). We have no expectations of Salta but it is our last stop in Argentina so we are determined to make it a good one.

To be continued...

4 May 2010

What sort of backpacker am I?

Last night the Geezer and I retired to our huge double room with ensuite (a luxury in backpacker terms) while the rest of the hostel partied on in to the night. It was 11:30pm. The main courtyard where everyone was drinking was right outside our door and we lay there listening to the giggling and storytelling of the other backpackers. They were having a ball. We wondered if we were old and boring.

For both the Geezer and me, this trip is not about partying but the chance of a lifetime not to be splurged on booze and midnight kebabs (although in Argentina the midnight kebab is more like 8am in the morning since they don´t go out until 3am!). We´ve seen backpackers stagger on to tour buses after a boozey night out and sleep the entire way through breathtaking scenery.... We´ve looked at each and gone... errrrrfff!

I want my photos to capture moments of magnificence or a split second of time in my life when I am so awed by what is front of me that I want to capture it on camera... not ones where I look like I´m about to puke.

Don´t get me wrong... we are not hostel snobs or straighty-one-eighties by any means. We´ve had some ripper nights out. And being a 20 year old backpacker is about discovering who you are and how much alcohol you really can tolerate. 

Of the people we have met over the last three months and had great times with, some will be friends forever... even if they are on the other side of the world, we know that we will always have a couch to sleep on! And vice versa!

But the promise I made to myself when I jumped on the very first plane was to enjoy South America without a hangover and droopy eyelids (unless it´s the result of age degeneration - which frankly I´d also rather do without).

On our Antarctic cruise we watched with slight envy the other young travellers form a tight knit group as they stayed up night after night drinking. But when a couple of them almost missed the landing on the actual Antarctic continent itself we agreed that we had made the right decision. We worked damn hard to get there and neither of us wanted to waste a single precious minute of being in that place. Needless to say the last night on the boat was a blur... footage has since emerged of yours truly and other girls on the boat dancing on a Columbian tall ship docked in Ushuaia while balancing 25 drinks. Geezer had to carry me and both our backpacks off the boat the next morning.

At 34, am I old and boring?? In backpacker years... probably! But it´s not every day that you get the chance to travel with someone who loves the same things you do, to places that leave you lost for words, at the right time in your life. I don´t want to miss a thing.