Posts tagged ‘Uyuni’

The backpack diaries – our top ten South American experiences

So this post is a little late – over a year late to be precise – but that’s okay because we still remember every miniscule detail of the trip as if it was yesterday. We’re determined to get back on the blogging horse and we have a few great European posts up our sleeves for you, including (home sweet home) Dublin, so don’t go away yet. To get the ball rolling here is our long overdue Top 10 of South America, it took almost a year of arguing, biting and scratching to compile so you had better enjoy it…

10. Paraty, Brazil
Pretty little Paraty may not make it onto many Top 10 of South America lists but this picturesque gem of a town beat tough competition from Ilha Grande to appear on ours. The reason is its unusual charm, the product of pristine beaches married with a picturesque historical centre. In town you have uneven cobbled streets lined with white-washed cottages, windows and doorframes a flipbook catalogue of bright blues, reds, yellows and greens. Outside of town there are endless perfect beaches backed by rainforest that get quieter and quieter as you trek through the forest, away from parents sipping beers on plastic chairs and kids playing football. Walk far enough and you’re sure to find your own deserted patch of sand.

9. Colca Canyon, Peru
Hidden away from the world by towering canyon walls is a tiny gem of a place. Giant cacti bearing bright red fruit, birds with a three metre wing span, terraced fields, well tended orchards, winding paths sheltered by overhanging fruit trees and little girls chasing stray sheep. This is where the mighty Amazon begins as the gurgling stream we dipped our toes into after the long slide downhill. The only problem? What goes down must come up. It was a hike that for me at least, was more difficult than the three day Lares trek – but we did it in two hours.

8. Wineries in Mendoza, Argentina
Take six wine-loving backpackers, six dodgy bicycles, one hand-drawn map and dozens of world-class vineyards, chocolatiers, olive oil producers and absinthe brewers. Throw in a dash of sunshine, a sprinkling of local characters and you have yourself one hell of a day.

7. Trekking in Tupiza, Bolivia
Who would have thunk it? In the arse end of Bolivia, itself the (lovely) arse end of South America, we found the whirlwind adventure we had been chasing all this time. Our reluctant partners in crime, advertised as Argentinian stallions, turned out to be a bunch of fat, grumpy Bolivian mules. Together we cantered across arid scenes of red-sand cliffs and rocky terrain worthy of John Wayne, we crossed railway tracks, fast-flowing rivers and fields of waist-high grass. When we slept it was metres away from them. When we ate they were tied to the trees under which we sat. We wore cowboy hats, chewed coca leaves and spat a lot. It was breath-takingy beautiful and eventually, bum-numbingly painful and it was our biggest South American adventure.

6. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
You don’t walk in Rio de Janeiro, you dance. You tap your toes as you sit in a restaurant, wiggle your bum on the beach and shake yo’ thang at the Lapa street party. Here salsa is king but caparinhas shaken by large-bottomed women with infectious smiles are a close second. Rio lives up to the hype. We came expecting endless white sand beaches with beautiful people playing volleyball, City of God slum towns where kids wandered alleyways with guns slung over their shoulders, skyscrapers that winked in the sunlight and entire neighbourhoods that spent all night dancing in the streets. It was all of that and more, so why isn’t it better than Buenos Aires? Because we were expecting it.

5. World’s Most Dangerous Road, La Paz, Bolivia
At certain points, if you go over the edge of the World’s Most Dangerous Road you fall 600 metres before there’s anything to grab hold of. So obviously we had to try it. And obviously we were bricking it. The start was a fantastic warm-up – smooth tarmac road, a metal barrier and space enough for everyone – but eventually the road changed into a narrow, gravelly track that wound blindly around corners. Then came the trucks, hurdling towards us at video game speed. They took the inside lane while we spun out to the very edge, our toes teetering over a vast drop where birds circled above a rainforest canopy far below.

4. Iguazu Falls, Argentina
At Devil’s Throat it wouldn’t be hard to convince yourself that the waterfall is actually inside your head. With the way it thunders and pounds, sheet after sheet of white noise, it’s hard to think of anything else really – just the waterfall and those suicidal little sparrows that nose dive into huge clouds of spray. Foz Iguazu is actually 275 waterfalls spread over 2.7km in two countries. At it’s highest point it drops 83m, that’s 29m more than Niagara and at one viewpoint, visitors can enjoy 260 degrees of waterfall – a fact that prompted Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to sigh “Poor Niagara!” on her first visit. Poor Niagara indeed. Surrounded by national park, the Argentina side has a fantastic array of wildlife too, from rainbow coloured butterflies to (reportedly) tigers. And no visitor should miss a chance to take a speedboat into the waterfall either – all those screams you hear are happiness at it’s most hysterical. Just leave your clothes on dry land.

3. Buenos Aires, Argentina
Since we’ve been home people have asked us time and time again where did we like best. Now we don’t like to play favourites but if we were to pick just one place where we could stay suspended in time for ever and ever, it would be Buenos Aires. Maybe it was because we had a reunion with a long-missed friend or maybe it was just because Buenos Aires really is just that good. It has tango dancing in the streets, steak you can cut with a spoon, a nightlife that never seems to stop, real life cowboy markets, a cemetery you could easily build a home in and so much to do that you could never get bored here. Buenos Aires is all that and a bag of chips.

2. Lares Trek, Peru
Okay so there was a little bit of altitude sickness but there was also a team that sprinted ahead of us to cook four course meals three times a day in an oven made from stones, a guide that made us giggle, hours of singing The Sound of Music while we skipped down mountain sides, and eye-opening visit to a Quechun village, beautiful scenery, much coca leaf chewing, a night spent drinking macho tea under the stars and of course, the star of the show, Machu Picchu. I defy anyone not to include this beauty on their top ten of South America list.

1. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
For two days we saw nothing. The sandstorm was so bad it tore the roof off a hostel (the temperature was -20°c), so bad that it blasted all the paint off one side of our jeep, so bad that we couldn’t see to the end of our bonnet. Then we arrived at Salar de Uyuni and it stopped. At first it was just a mirage glimmering on the edge of the desert but as we got closer it sucked all the colour out of the world until all that was left was a bright blue sky and a ground so dazzlingly white, we needed sunglasses. This wonder of nature is one of the few places in the world where you can clearly see the curve of the earth.


There are more pictures from South America available in the gallery


December 21, 2011 at 11:44 am 10 comments

What’s flat and salty and dusty all over? San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni, Bolivia

For a while it seemed as if it would never happen. It felt like we were doomed to spend eternity bumping and crawling across a barren wasteland, forced by protruding rocks and roaming livestock to take the longest route across the desert plain. Then just as we started to give up hope there it was, glimmering on the horizon. For a moment we admired it from a safe distance – the way it played with the senses, creating reflections where none existed and the way it seemed to stretch forever. An instant later it had absorbed us completely, sucking all the colour out of the world and leaving just the vibrant blue of the sky and the dazzling white of the earth’s crust. Everywhere we looked was white – just miles and miles of smooth, flat, sparkling white land joining the distant mountains that surrounded us. We had finally arrived in Salar de Uyuni – the world’s most famous salt flats.

As momentous as our first sighting of Salar de Uyuni was, every ounce of wonder and happiness had been hard earned. The first indication that this was a less-than-wise decision came when we arrived at the Bolivian border crossing and were ordered out of our minibus. Barely had we pressed a toe against the ground before gale force winds hit us hard in the chest sending us staggering, clutching our hats with both hands, towards a tiny shed in the middle of the desert. Surely that couldn’t be immigration? It was of course the immigration office and 30 minutes later we had defrosted, had our passports stamped and were once again trying desperately to bridge the 20m gap between the shed and our jeeps without being blown away.

Back at the jeep we met our driver Felix who laughed and joked as he climbed on top of our jeep (in those winds?!) and strapped on our backpacks. After hearing countless stories about the drunken cowboys who often drove 4×4 tours through the desert, we were pleased to find out that our driver for the next three days had a solid head on his shoulders – especially since there were no seatbelts in the backseat. Things were definitely starting to look up and our first stop to the beautiful frozen Laguna Verde left us feeling a little more hopeful.

It’s a good thing that we were feeling so positive because our next stop was a little more trying – a quick dip in the local hotspring. Our affinity for hotsprings and hot water in general is no secret but it has to be taken into account that at this particular point in time we were in the middle of a desert, the air temperature was hovering way below 0°c and windspeed was around 40 km/hr. Still, we were hardened backpackers used to cold showers and a bit of dust (argh!) so we stripped off and sprinted as fast as we could towards the pool. Inside the hotspring it was absolutely divine just as long as we kept as much of ourselves as we could under the water, turned our backs to the ever-changing wind and ignored the sand that was quickly coating our scalps. Heaven.

The only problem with the hotpools was that we had to get out eventually and this we did with as little grace and as much speed as possible. Chasing towels as they blew across the desert and shoes as they caught in the wind we struggled to get dry and clothed as quickly as possible. In all it couldn’t have taken us more than 3 minutes and 35 seconds to get dressed yet as we reached for our swimming togs we realised that in that time they had frozen solid – some even had small icicles hanging from the strings and ties.

Unfortunately the hotspring turned out to be our last stop of the day. Since morning the wind had become more and more violent and Felix had decided that it was unsafe for us to get close to boiling water in unpredictable winds. Never mind, we had packed 6 litres of wine between us and we were looking forward to getting to know the rest of the people on our tour – especially Kiwis Matt and Sarah. Even if they didn’t say “Sweet as, bro!” as much as we would have liked them too.

Little did we know that that night was to prove a turning point in our trip. After drinking more of our wine than we should have we climbed into our sleeping bags and under our six blankets and settled in for a long sleep. A few hours later those of us who had been sleeping were woken by a huge bang that shook the hotel. And that was just the beginning of it. For the next five hours a vicious desert storm raged outside, beating our roof until it groaned and screeched in pain, threatening to cave at any moment.

Up at 7am for breakfast and to assess the damage. As it turns out, while the winds were a little quieter they were no less fierce and a cursory look outside the hotel windows revealed a thick haze of dust covering the entire world. The hotel was out of food though so we had no choice but to make tracks. Not such a great idea. Within minutes all three jeeps were lost in the storm, engulfed by thick clouds of dust and sand that sometimes broke to offer glimpses of the road we had veered off or the lake we had narrowly avoided but which mostly muffled out every single sound and sight.

This went on for almost the whole day. Once or twice we did see a real attraction – visiting a valley of stones carved into faces and shapes by the sand or spotting a live flamingo struggling against the winds. Mostly though we were lost in an endless abyss, unable to move more than a few inches at a time in case we drove off a cliff. Lunch was a worst-case-scenario affair, put together at the last moment in somebody’s mother’s kitchen while we sat and shivered in what could have been a classroom or a bedroom. For the next four hours the enterprising hostess charged us 1 boliviano every time we needed the toilet as we tried to wait out the storm. If it didn’t stop we would have to spend the night here and there probably wouldn’t be any dinner – plus we were going to run out of bolivianos soon. So we sat and waited.

Fortunately the sandstorm finished just before dusk so we piled back into the jeeps and started to make our way across the desert towards the salt flats as the dust-laden sky revealed the most beautiful and unlikely sunset.

And so it was with dust lacing every inch of our weary bodies that we leaped out of the jeep at the salt flats on day three of our epic journey into Bolivia. Our first salt flats stop was to an island in the middle of the white desert where cacti grew up to a startling 20m tall. The island is made mostly from coral, reminding visitors that the salt flats were once underwater and housed an entire eco system.

Of course we made the obligatory in-the-middle-of-nowhere stop so that we could take a hundred photographs that played with perspective – Gary standing in my hand, Swati balancing on a bottle, Paul and Sophie balancing on Paul’s shades… It’s not as easy as you would imagine though.

Before we headed to a nearby village for lunch we stopped at one of the old salt hotels for a gander and also at the edge of the flats where they extract salt from the earth for processing nearby. I could talk forever about the wonders of Salar de Uyuni and the immense fun that is to be had on any visit but Gary’s pictures would always do it far more justice so I’ll leave it to him.

More pictures from our salt flats tour are available in the gallery

Note to anyone considering the San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni tour:

Lonely Planet warns that tour operators working this route are notoriously dodgy and that has definitely been our experience of it. We booked through the only company they recommended – Cordillera – and paid a little extra so that we would be more comfortable. Our list of complaints is endless and starts with bad organisation (eg. the bus driver forgot to collect Swati and we had to argue for ages to get them to drive to her hostel), not nearly enough food, almost none of the food we were promised, no hot showers although we were guaranteed at least one, not enough sleeping bags on the second night for all the people who had already paid for them, the staff refused to light us fires although they had firewood crackling away in their lodgings, the guides refused to bring us to see sunrise although it too was promised etc.

All in all it was hardly worth the extra cost apart from the fact that our guide was very good (although other guides in the same group weren’t). That said, this seems to be a reoccuring theme with all Bolivian tours and San Pedro is actually a really good starting point if you are going that way anyway. In other words, I would still recommend the trip to a friend but I would warn them to bring extra food with them and if possible, a sleeping bag.

July 30, 2010 at 2:19 pm 3 comments


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