A Travellerspoint blog

February 2018

Amazing Uyuni

sunny 15 °C

We must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all we ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by; And we watch our vessel's bow wave as it fans out towards the horizon and we follow it until it dissolves into the blue yonder...
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For hour after hour, as we scud serenely over the mirror-like waters, we marvel at the everchanging sky and its perfect reflection as the mirage of an island appears sandwiched between the clouds..,
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And then a bus speeds by at 25 knots and shatters our illusion...
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O.K., So we are obviosly not on a boat, but we are on the ocean. A hundred million years or more ago the biggest salt lake in the world was part of the Pacific. When the Andes were pushed high into the sky by the movement of the tectonic plates this great lake was marooned more than 12,000 feet above sea level. As the lake slowly evaporated the salinity level increased until a thick crust of salt formed on its surface. In the Southern Hemisphere's winter from April to September the lake is dry and the salt shimmers pure white, but now the summer rains lay on the surface and turn it into the most incredible reflecting pool...
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We have driven some 20 kilometres out onto the lake and as we picnic with our guide, Johnny from Bolivian Salt tours, we are sitting on a sheet of salt a few metres thick with a hundred metres of water beneath us. But we are not entirely alone. However, with more than 10,000 square kilometres of salt lake to choose from our neighbours are quite distant...
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All around us are scenes of such beauty that we simply cannot believe our luck. While we often revel in clear blue skies, here on the Uyuni salinas it is the constantly evolving clouds and their reflections that turns nature into works of art...
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The brine on the lake's surface is 70% saline and when we put in our hands and lift them into the air the water evaporates almost instantly leaving our fingers encrusted in salt. The salt bed that lies a few inches beneath the clear water is naturally laid like paving slabs...
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The Uyuni salina is the flattest place on earth. The bus that passed us as we picnicked was travelling nearly 250 kilometres to its next stop at the opposite end of the lake and during that 5 hour journey the salt surface would never vary by more than a metre. Since 2009 the Dakar Rally has crossed the salinas and here we are at the start point where the flags of participating nations are flown...
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The Dakar Rally start point is located next to a hotel built entirely of salt some 5 kilometres out onto the lake...
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The hotel was closed a few years ago due to it causing pollution, but there are hotels, museums and houses, built entirely of salt on the lakeshore. With an estimated 10 billion tons of accessible salt on offer it is obvious that the major industry here would be in its production. However, silver mining is a more lucrative enterprise and a century ago was a major industry. When the industry collapsed in the 1950s dozens of steam locomotives were abandoned in the desert and are slowly rusting into the sand...
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The Uyuni salina contains half of the world's known lithium deposits. This mineral is in very high demand for batteries but the Bolivian government refuses to allow foreign companies to exploit its resources and wants to develop it itself – judging by the state of much of what we have seen here we are not holding our breath. However, whatever happens to lithium mining, nothing will change the fact that the Uyuni salt flats are one of the wonders of the natural world.

Posted by Hawkson 05:44 Archived in Bolivia Comments (9)

Sugar and Salt – Sucre and Uyuni

semi-overcast 12 °C

After the frenetic chaos of La Paz we looked forward to the tranquility of the colonial city of Sucre. The city was founded by the Spaniards in 1538 and was built in the Andalusian style. Many of the elegant 16th Century buildings remain and have been well preserved...
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Like most Spanish colonial buildings our hotel had a beautiful inner courtyard and a fairly austere exterior abutting the street...
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The city's central square is particularly attractive with its gardens of palms and hibiscus trees and wide well-kept walkways ..
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Surrounding the square are the city's cathedral and many goverment offices...
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Sucre is obviously a very peaceful place – usually. But it is Carnaval time and the peace was shattered by numerous amateur bands as they marched around the city attempting to out blow the competition...
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Each band was accompanied by a motley group of supporters armed with water pistols who exchanged fire with the onlookers who lined the route. More serious opponents threw buckets of water from balconies onto the musicians in an attempt to drown the noise – great fun was had by all...
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Our time in the 'sweet' city of Sucre was curtailed due to weather conditions that delayed our arrival by almost a day and we wished we'd had more time. However, our next flight to visit the World's most extensive salt flat in Uyuni was on time – though the plane was worryingly small for flying across the Andes...
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The small town of Uyuni could be plausibly used as a set for a spaghetti western. The only thing missing from its wide dusty streets is a gringo on horseback. Uyuni's clock tower in the centre of town is sweet enough...
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But the rest of the place is as salty as the surrounding salinas. The town is a major stopping point for the many long-distance buses that ferry tourists from the Atacama Desert in Chile to La Paz. It's a haven for backpackers - offering cheap beds, cheap food and cheap booze. Dinner for two, including beer, for $14 (Cdn.).
The Uyuni salt flats are picturesque when the sun shines – will we be lucky tomorrow when we venture out for a tour? Time will tell.

Posted by Hawkson 16:15 Archived in Bolivia Comments (5)

Life on the Street in La Paz

semi-overcast 13 °C

Wherever we go in the world we visit markets as a way of getting an insight into the daily lives of the locals. Marketplaces are the lifeblood of many communities in poorer countries and here in Bolivia almost everything can be bought on the street. It is as if La Paz is simply one great market. There is hardly a street that does not have some vendors and many are totally clogged with stalls offering all manner of goods and services...
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While many street markets have an eclectic mix of stalls, others cater to specific needs. In the Witches' market, the dried foetuses of alpacas are supposedly a traditional ingredient for powerful potions. The dead babies are prominently displayed to freak out the tourists, but we thought you'd rather see the ladies selling all manner of medicinal herbs...
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Some traders have nothing more than a wheelbarrow in which to display their wares. This lady is selling prickly pears, known locally as tuna...
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While here's a stall selling colourful party hats just right for Carnaval...
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This baker has his breads piled high on the sidewalk to catch the attention of shoppers and the fumes from the passing traffic...
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In addition to the markets there are entire streets of shops dedicated to specific products. For example: one long street is lined entirely by liquor stores, another solely with furniture shops while another is dedicated wholly to electrical appliances. There is a cellphone street, a leather goods street, a shoe street and even a street where almost every shop sells toilet bowls and urinals. Most Bolivians seem to have weight issues and it is not surprising considering the large number of stores and market stalls selling vast quantities of sugar coated popcorn and other sugary starches...
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Because it is Carnaval time everyone is stocking up on booze and candies and the street in front of our hotel is jammed with stalls selling party costumes and 'gifts' of seeds and nuts painted gold and silver to represent wealth – it's called Challa...
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Few people can afford cars or even individual taxis so most travel in collectivos, (mini-buses). The narrow streets of La Paz are often at a standstill as thousands of these vehicles try to navigate the roads where stop signs and pedestrian crossings are a waste of paint and traffic lights a waste of electricity.
The best way to view the choked streets of La Paz is from above...
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Like a number of overcrowded and polluted South American cities the government has had the good sense to build a network of commuter cableways. Ultra modern, environmentally friendly, cable cars zip you smoothly, silently and safely across the city, high into the mountains and beyond - into the sprawling suburbs where the street markets make driving virtually impossible...
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La Paz's Austrian built, Mi Teleferico, is the longest cable car system in the world and will stretch some 34 kilometres when the 11 lines are completed. Travelling on the cable system is a great way for us to practice Spanish with fellow riders and each journey costs only 50 cents Cdn. (30p).

We can't help but wonder how an impoverished nation like Bolivia can install such an advanced, clean, and sensible transportation system when certain cities close to home can barely run a bus service!

We are now leaving La Paz for Sucre, (a city that shares some of the governmental responsibilities with its big brother) and we will miss the Carnaval in La Paz. After witnessing the mayhem in the run-up to the big event we are not sorry to leave. The streets are already awash in cheap booze, deafening firecrackers and vomit, and this is just the first of a four day festival. These Bolivians may not have a lot of cash but they sure know how to let their hair down.

Posted by Hawkson 15:23 Archived in Bolivia Comments (7)

Taking the High Road to La Paz

semi-overcast 15 °C

Our blissful days at Lake Titicaca have come to an end. Despite dire weather forecasts for weeks before our arrival we had gloriously warm sun-filled days throughout our stay, although these were followed by nightly downpours.
We spent our last night on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Copacabana...
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In general Bolivian towns and cities are not pretty, however, the gaily dressed woman and the colourful street scenes make up for the ugliness of the buildings...
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Despite the high altitude and frequent rains it seems that most trading is done on the streets in Bolivia. There are few supermarkets and most fruits, vegetables and meats are sold in the markets that line almost every street in town. The women's voluminous traditional dresses and varieties of bowler hats create an exotic scene...
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In Copacabana backpackers can get a bed for 10 dollars or less a night and restaurants offer 3 course lunches for about 3 dollars (US). Few buildings in the town are finished, (but this is true of nearly all buildings we have seen in Bolivia).. One exception is the Hostal Las Olas, (The Waves)...
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Built up the side of a mountain, Las Olas is a German architect's fantasyland of spires and turrets reminiscent of the works of Gaudi. Our 3 floor “suite” took up an entire turret with massive circular beds, a kitchenette, numerous sitting areas and an abundance of spiral staircases built in natural woods...
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There was even a blazing fire in a ceramic pot-bellied stove...
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However, our delight soon wore off when we discovered that our turret was at the bottom of the mountain and the reception and restaurant were at the top. Oh well – you can't have everything.

The four hour bus ride to Bolivia's capital, La Paz, took us along the lakeside to a ferry: an ancient barge that looked as though it was sinking under the weight of our bus – and all our belongings were onboard!...
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We were ferried in a 25 seat launch, with 6 lifejackets and a spluttering outboard motor, which seemed only slightly safer. But we survived and continued to La Paz through mile after mile of sprawling suburbs where almost every building was in a state of disrepair. While the buildings are generally in pretty rough shape the roads are not nearly as good. Other than the main road, which was clogged with overloaded trucks and parked vehicles once we hit the outskirts of La Paz in the high plains above the city, most streets were just churned up mud.
However, excitement is building in the World's highest capital city. It is Carnaval time and the streets of La Paz are already thronged with people preparing to party. Here is the chaotic scene outside our hotel in the heart of the city as carnaval goers search for just the right costume among the thousands on offer ...
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Posted by Hawkson 12:24 Archived in Bolivia Comments (5)

Lake Titicaca's Islands in the Sun

semi-overcast 16 °C

We are now in the Bolivian town of Copacabana having spent the past two days visiting some of Lake Titicaca's inhabited islands. The world's highest navigable lake is shared between Peru and Bolivia and we began on the Peruvian side by taking a boat to the Uros Islands from Puno...
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This group of 42 islands with houses, medical centre and even some junior schools, certainly looks concrete enough, although it is immediately obvious that all the buildings are made of reeds cut from the surrounding waters. Here's a first glimpse of the islands inhabited by the Aymara people...
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It is only when you step onto the islands that you appreciate there is nothing solid underfoot. As you feel the ground give way slightly with every step you realise that you are actually walking on water. This is not a religious experience. It is simply that all the islands are floating. Great masses of totora reeds grow on the lake's surface and support themselves on dense beds of floating roots. The Aymara build layer upon layer of reeds on these natural rafts until they are able to support the weight of houses and people....
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Although more than two thousand people once lived on these islands, today they are something of a tourist novelty. Most inhabitants actually live on land and only visit to maintain the islands and entertain visitors. Equally entertaining are the garishly painted traditional boats made from the reeds,,,
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In 1970 a replica boat built from Lake Titicaca reeds successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Morocco to Bermuda and proved Thor Heyerdahl's theory of inter-continental migration by early civilizations possible.

From the Uros floating islands we travelled further out into the lake to visit the Quechua people of Taquile Island. Some two thousand people actually live on this steep-sided piece of rock and work on terraces in the thin atmosphere more than 13,000 feet above sea level. They grow native potatoes, corn and lima beans and we are reminded that this is where these three crops were all discovered by the Europeans in the 16th century...
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Here's Sheila dancing with the locals after enjoying some excellent lake trout in a restaurant some 1,000 feet above the lake surface on Taquile Island – and in case you are wondering, we climbed all the way up there.
We later learned the trout are not native but were introduced from Canada in 1940. Here's a view of the lake from the path that took us to the mountain top...
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Our next Titicaca island is the most revered of all. It is Isla del Sol, (Sun Island), in the Bolivian end of the lake. It is a mystical island where it is said the Inca Empire began.
Our ascent to the top of this mountainous island started with the 208 precipitous stone steps cut into the rocks by the Incas some 800 years ago...
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Climbing is very hard in the thin atmosphere above 13,000 feet but we persevered and continued to the top for fabulous views of the surrounding lake and the distant snow capped peaks of the High Andes...
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We also got a smile of welcome from a little girl with her pet alpaca named Albino..
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Next stop - the World's highest capital city.

Posted by Hawkson 06:24 Archived in Bolivia Comments (3)

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