May 25, 2004

Welcome to Peru, we have no change

So what have we been up to since our last log entry. Well we have been to La Paz, capital of Bolivia, mountain biked down the "most dangerous" road in the world, visited the island where the Inca empire started, made it to Puno, Peru before a massive roadblock/protest at Llave, Peru, and finally gone from Puno to Arequipa from which we toured the Colca Canyon for 2 days. Click below to read more about this.

From Sucre we had a long and cold bus ride to La Paz via Pototsi. It was over night and around 2am the bus got really really cold for some reason, which made it pretty difficult to sleep. The approach to La Paz by bus is interesting. You first go through the suburb of El Alto where tons of people are moving to from the Bolivian boonies in hopes of a better life. El Alto is at just over 4000 meters and La Paz is at around 3500m in a valley bellow El Alto. As you come to the edge of the valley you get a spectacular view of La Paz before descending down a steep and forrested road to La Paz. It was unusual seeing trees because most of Bolivia is alpine.

Our bus stopped by the side of the road somewhere near one of La Paz's many bus terminals and we all got off. We got our bags and caught a cab to Hostel Happy Days, since it sounded, well, happy. It was OK, kind of expensive compared to what we were used to from the rest of Bolivia but we did have a nice view of the city from our room. Since we were so tired we only managed to change some money before sleeping for most of the day. Then it was out to dinner, which I don't remember so it couldn't have been that good. On the way back from dinner we walked by the movie theater and saw that Starsky and Hutch was playing in 10 minutes, and being fans of Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller movies we had to go see it. The movie was a refreshing dose of North American media, its hard to ween yourself off of that stuff.

The next day we did a little shopping in the street market near our hotel and bought a few goodies and then did some internet'ing and uploaded some pictures. After doing this I felt kind of sick and we went back to the hotel without dinner and by the time we made it back to the hotel I had some serious chills and felt like being sick but didn't. This worried me a bit because earlier in the day we had made reservations with gravity assisted tours for a mountain bike down the "most dangerous road" in the world. I didn't sleep so well but did feel a bit better in the morning, well enough to do the bike ride. The ride starts an hour by car outside of La Paz at La Cumbre, the summit of the road out of La Paz to the Yungas. This is at 4700m approximately and is a bit chilly, quite chilly when you are bombing down the still paved and seriously steep road. Luckily we stopped pretty frequently and I could warm up my ears before they froze off my head. After half an hour or so of all downhill you reach a drug checkpoint where they check for the chemicals used to make cocaine from coca paste (which they also check for). Not carrying any of said chemicals or past we cruise past the check point for the only uphill section of the trip. This section wasn't too bad but we were still up pretty high and I almost puked. Then it was all downhill to the turn off to the most dangerous road in the world, a goat path of a dirt road on the edge of a cliff with 600-900 meter drops off the wrong side, with traffic :) We had 22 people in our group and it wasn't always to pass people so I ended up going slower than I wanted to most of the time, but it was still a lot of fun and it got a lot warmer the further we went. In all we went about 60 Km and dropped from 4700m to 1100m. At the bottom we all had some complementary beer and were shuttled up to the town of Coroico where we stay for a couple of nights and enjoyed the warm weather and lush vegetation.

Then it was back to La Paz with the Gravity Assisted guys returning from that days trip. We made it about half way up the dangerous road and got stuck for two hours where a backhoe had broken down. If it was a car it could have just been rolled down the hill a bit to a wider section, but backhoes are a bit more complicated. It seems that without an engine running there is no way for them to lift their scoops off the ground since you can't get any hydraulic pressure without the engine. So we stood around for a couple of hours while a huge group of people tried to push the backhoe to rock it to the side so cars could get past. They did this for a long while then used my idea of jacking it up and pushing it off the jacks and eventually it was far enough over for our bus to attempt to get past. We all got off while it sneaked past the backhoe in the recently fallen darkness. Then back on the bus for the trip back to La Paz.

We ended up spending another couple of days in La Paz for various reasons and managed to upload all of our pictures in these days. Then it was off to Copacabana on the shores of lake Titicaca. We visited the Isla del Sol via a slow boat from Copacabana. This island is the site of one of the Inca creation myths, supposedly the original inca gods came out of the lake here. It was a nice island with a slow pace of life. We walked from the north end to the south end in about 2.5 hours. While waiting for the boat back to copacabana we were pestered by two little girls that really wanted us to take their picture, for a fee of course. We refused and they refused to go away. Eventually they found a new set of gringos to bother and left us alone.

While having dinner in Copacabana with a couple from Saskatchewan and a couple from Florida we determined that if we wanted to do the inca trail we had better book asap. The next day we called some tour agencies in Cusco and found that the rumors were correct, there was at least a two week wait to start the trail. We managed to book a date for May 31st which was the earliest of the places we called by far, some places were full until late June!

From Copacabana we took the gringo bus to Puno in Peru. This bus stopped at every hostel/hotel in Copacabana to pick up more gringos before finally continuing on to Puno. No problems at the border, more efficient stamping in tripplicate. We did see here two female motorcyclystis from Alberta, funny seeing bikes with Alberta plates. Then it was an uneventful trip to Puno which was lucky because a few days later a huge protest happened in Llave, just south of Puno.

We had been warned about Peru and little scams that you'll find there like fake money and claims of no change by taxi drivers. We were mobbed by people at the Puno bus station and told them to screw off basically. Then we were mobbed by taxi drivers outside the station, they always just come running at you which is kind of unnerving. We told the cabbie where we wanted to go and he said it would be 3 soles (about one US dollar). Along the way to our destination he tried to convince us to go somewhere else and we said no, more than once. Then when we got where we were going I gave him a 5 soles coin and he said that he didn't have any change. I told him he better find some change or he wasn't getting anything, which I don't think he liked because I think that he genuinely didn't have any change. We manged to get him some change from the hostel and he left.

Most people go to Puno to visit the floating islands on the lake. We read that they were kind of exploited and nothing too special so we skipped them and just hung out in the town. We took a sweet tricycle cab to the bus terminal to buy our tickets to Arequipa and then to the dock where there was supposed to be the oldest boat on lake titicaca that was built in England and shipped to Peru, a process that took 6 years. But it had moved across the bay, which I suspect was just to generate more business for the water taxi guys that mobbed us when we got there. We skipped the boat museum and just went back to our hostel. The next day we left for Arequipa at 9am on the cheap bus, which has seats spaced apart the exact distance of my upper legs (ie no leg room whatsoever, even when seat ahead is not reclined) and it stops in the next town after Puno and basically waits until it is full or over full. We made it to Arequipa 6 hours after leaving Puno and had a reasonably nice cab driver that still wanted to take us somewhere else.

We spent a day in Areiquipa and visited an old nun's convent that was closed to the public for 400 years until 1970. It is a city within a city and was pretty interesting to visit, although I have a feeling the nun's were pretty short because a lot of the doors came up to my neck. We went to see Troy the first day in Arequipa as well, we thought it was Thursday and it was really Friday which explained why it was so busy and we had to see the 9:30pm showing instead of the 8:40 we had aimed for. Our cab driver was smarter than the Puno driver and asked if we had the 2.50 fare exactly. We didn't so he pulled into a gas station and got 2.50 in gas from the 5 we gave him and he gave us the change.

The next day we started a 2 day, 1 night tour of the Colca canyon which is deeper than the grand canyon. The first day was just driving to the canyon and lounging in some thermal baths. The next day we got up early to make it to the Condor cross to see condors riding the morning's hot air up and out of the canyon. Then back to Arequipa where we saw the protected Vicuna, which we saw plenty of in southern bolivia so we were surprised that they are protected. But supposedly a kilogram of their fur is worth about $800 USD, and one Vicuna only has about 250 grams of fur on them so I can see why they might need to be protected in populated areas.

And that brings us to today, sitting in an internet place uploading more pictures and writing this log entry while we wait for our bus to Cusco. We will spend a couple of days there taking in the sights before starting the 4 day hike of the inca trail to Machu Pichu.

Posted by bforsyth at 12:57 PM | Comments (2)

May 16, 2004

Sucre, Bolivia

From Potosi we took a 3 hour bus ride to the official captical of Bolivia (or so I think, it is pretty confusing). Also known as Ciudad Blanca or white city since many of the buildings in town maintain the colonial white paint job. We arrived on a saturday night and found that everything we wanted to do was closed on Sunday. So we just kicked around town, eating now and then at the Joy Ride Cafe, which was very good. I restrained myself and didn't shell out the 23 bolivianos for the Erdinger beer though, that was two capirinahs after all. We met Barbara, a Canadian photo-journalist, here for the second time. We (well I) met her for the first time on the bus from Potosi to Sucre. Sarah recognized her from somewhere and it turns out that she had met her before in Guatemala in 1999, a small world after all.

After having a relaxing and warm Sunday we did everything we wanted to do in Sucre on Monday. The first thing we did was go to the Textile museum. This museum has many interesting displays of various indigenous textiles and has a weaver's gallery where you can watch indigenous people weave. It looks incredibly difficult to do well. The museum is trying to get native people to start doing high quality weavings again by selling their stuff in the museum's shop. They have lots of very very nice weavings in the shop and we did our part by buying 3 different things, one for our selves and two for other people.

We spent so long in the shop that we missed the noon dino truck. So we killed some more time until the 2:30 dino truck which was cutting it close to our 5:30 bus to La Paz. The dino truck takes you to a dinosaur footprint wall, the largest in the world. Tectonics have pushed a long ago beach almost vertical, and on this beach there are lots and lots of dino footprints. Sarah was a bit of a keener, answering all the guides questions about the various foot prints, aparently she likes Dinosaurs. The footprints are on a cement factory's land and were only discovered a few years ago as the cement factory removed all the usable lime from infront of the footprints. Luckily the soil that the footprints are on is of no interest to the cement factory.

Then it was back to the hostel to get our stuff and get on the bus to La Paz, which was supposed to take about 13-15 hours. We had one small problem with the axel which I helped with by providing some bright LED light but other than that no problems than traffic near La Paz and freezing cold temperatures in the middle of the night.

Posted by bforsyth at 03:44 PM | Comments (0)

Potosi, Bolivia

From Uyuni we ventured to Potosi, once upon a time it was the second largest city in the world with over 200,000 inhabitants. At that time it was one of the ritchest cities in the world as well thanks to the large amounts of silver in Cerro Rico (rich mountain). Click below to read what we got up to in Potosi.

The bus ride from Uyuni to Potosi went by some incredible scenery, and two swiss bikers just outside of Uyuni :) They were pushing their bikes up the first big hill outside of Uyuni but I have heard from them and they did make it safely to Potosi, although after a few cold nights. It took us about 5 hours on the bus to reach Potosi and to our releif our packs were still on the bus. We caught a cab to a Resedencial (cheap hostel) that sounded OK in our guide book and went to get some lunch. I ordered a tortilla, which I thought would be of the mexican variety so I was a little surprised when what arrived was an omlette ontop of some rice. Luckily I'm not picky and like omlettes. I think that was about it for that day, pretty lazy.

The next day we went to the Museo de Moneda (mint museum) in the morning but found that the next english tour (our spanish still isn't that good) wasn't until 2:30pm. So we went to Koala tours and booked a mine tour for the next day at 8am. Eventually 2:30 rolled around and we went to the mint. The ticket lady wasn't in and some Isreali girls were getting kind of anxious that the tour hadn't started yet and the gaurds weren't letting them into the museum yet. After a couple of minutes the ticket lady returned from lunch and we all got our tickets. As we were waiting around a blond girl in our group was asked to pose with some guys infront of the fountain and ironic smiling face in the first courtyard of the museum. It turns out that this girl was from Quebec so we chatted with her through out the tour. The tour was very interesting, especially the old machines that they used for making coins (well, interesting to me at least). The most impressive was a set of metal flatening machines that are made of wood. They occupy two floors, the bottom floor is where mules would drive a large shaft that would transfer power to rollers via some gigantic would gears. They were in perfect condition because of the dry, cool air in Potosi, very impressive. The more modern machines were interesting as well. The other machine that stands out in my memory was a trunk that the Spanish used to send silver coins back to Spain from Potosi. It had an incredible locking mechanisim, moving 12 bolts with one key. And to get the key to move at all you had to do what looked like a magic knock, tapping the key three times while moving it clockwise before the locks would open. Sarah says that I took too many pictures and was slowing down the tour :)

We had coffee with Valerie, the girl from Quebec, after the tour and she invited us to diner at a museum/theater later that night. We are very glad we took this invitation because it was the best dinner we had in Bolivia so far with good live music even. We ended up going back the next night as well. Before that next night however we had a mine tour to go to!

We were warned to wear shorts and tshirts for the tour since it got very hot in the mine but 8am in Potosi is not exactly warm. I decided to wear a tank top under a long sleve shirt and shorts under my MEC pants. After breakfast we got into a bus that drove us to the place where we got to put on some super sexy overalls, helmet and lamp. I stripped down to the tank top but left my shorts and pants on. This left me at a reasonable temperature.

The next stop on the tour was the miner's market. This is where miners, and anybody else for that matter, can buy things like dynamite (the best is from Bolivia, most nitroglycerin!), fuses, blasting caps, lamps and batteries (or calcium carbide if you still have a 'lime light'), pop, smokes, 96% alcohol (for drinking on fridays) amongst other things. We bought some pop and coca leaves for our gifts to the miners, other people bought some dynamite, amonium nitrate and fuses (the completo).

From here we went to the newest stop on the Koala tours Cerro Rico tour agenda, a processing plant. The state shut down their mines in the 80s with the collapse of the world tin market. Now the mines are run by sets of miner co-ops. They get ore out of the mountain and sell it to processing plants nearby depending on the quality of their ore. It turns out that most of the processing plants are Canadian owned, which is kind of disturbing because they don't seem to have any environmental ethics. All the plants just dump their waste, which includes such nice things as cyanide, into what our guide Juan (aka spicey) calls the black river. This river eventually ends up in a lake in argentina and kills fish. But I digress, we went to a bolivian run processing plant, which was a WCB disaster waiting to happen. But since I don't think that they have anything like the WCB in Bolivia, or at least it isn't enforced, there is no problem :( Basically it consists of a set of open pits of bubling stuff that is being skimmed by giant paddles that are driven by shafts which in turn are driven by very quickly moving belts with no protection whatsoever. It was a scary place to walk around in.

From here we went up and up and up Cerro Rico to the Candelaria mine, one of the oldest Spicey told us. We entered the mine inbetween little train buckets full of ore heading out of the mine. The first destination was a museum in the mine which we got to after a 10 minute walk through some very low roofed tunnels and dusty air. It was not comfortable. Sarah was a bit nervous because while we were back at the processing plant Spicey told us that the mountain is like Swiss cheese, full of tunnels. Suposedly 10 years ago an American geological survey gave the mountain another 7 years before it collapsed under its own weight. So this made Sarah a little nervous. The museum had some interesting information, such as 8 million people died in the mines over 300 years while the Spanish used indian and african slave labour. There was also a statue of the Devil, or Tio (uncle) that the miners pay their respects to all the time. Since it was Friday, and specifically the first Friday of the Month, the miners were starting to booze it up to ask mother earth for a good haul for the month. This involves spilling some 96% alcohol at Tio's feet and then drinking some. I tried some much to Sarah's dismay, I think that it must be what like rubbing alcohol tastes like (I didn't go blind).

The next stop was a small tunnel down to the 3rd level (we started on level 2). This tunnel was pretty small (had to slide on one's bottom) and steep and hot. This was more than Sarah could handle and she went back with some other people that didn't feel like squeezing down the tunnel. I on the other hand was first down, right behind Gordito (fatty, one of the guides). I thought it was pretty cool once I got over how difficult it was to breathe. The 3rd level had tunnels that were easier to walk around in since they were pretty tall in most places, still had to watch out for the occasional ore cart hurtling down the tracks. At the bottom of the inter-level tunnel we met three miners who all had exceeded the expected life expectancy of 45. The miners breathe in the dust all day which happens to contain asbestos and arsinic. One guy was 49 and had worked in the mines for 33 years. He had a bit of a cough, ok quite a cough, but he was smoking and drinking the 96% alcohol, I'd say he had at least a few more years in him. Some of the miners actually get to retire. I'm not sure how many retire because of old age, I think most get injured or have too much of a problem breathing. If they are members of the miner's union, which requires working 4 years as a helper and paying a one time fee of around 3000 Bolivianos, they get basic health care coverage. But considering they make at most around 30 Bolivianos a day, 3000 Bolivianos is a big hurdle to jump.

From level three we descended down another very small and steep tunnel to the even hotter and more cramped level 4. Here we got to go see a guy manually hammering a hole for a dynamite charge in a very small and very hot cave. I had problems crawling on my stomach into his cave. He had been there 10 hours hammering this hole and had about another 2 hours to go he told me. I got the impression that most of the dynamite holes were manually hammered. There are some automatic ones but maintaining a compressor isn't cheap. Some other medevial facts from the mines:

  • Calcium Carbide lamps (lime light) were used predominately until about 4 or 5 years ago. For you of those don't know what these are, they are a container of calcium carbide (lime) to which you add water. The resulting reaction creates acetylene (think blow torch) which exits through a small hole and is lit to create light. This have the advantage that they also act as carbon monoxide detectors since the flame will go out if there isn't enough oxygen. Now they use 'gringo' carbon monoxide detectors Juan told us jokingly.
  • The ore comes out at level two, but there are 3 levels before this where ore is extracted. They now have an electric winch to bring the ore up levels but before this (only about 5 years ago) they brought the ore up manually in backpacks. Juan used to do this, he'd bring 40 to 50 Kilograms of ore up on his back, and he only weighs about 46 kilos.

Level 4 was the deepest we went. On the way out we got to be in the tunnels for a few dynamite explosions which was interesting. They use fuses you light and wait for which is more suspensful than an electric fuse would be thats for sure. There were supposed to be 3 blasts on our level and 5 up one level. There were 2 on our level then 3 very loud ones from the level above. So 3 didn't go off and they have to wait 24 hours before checking them. On level two we ran into a group of drunk miners discussing whether or not they should come back tomorrow with hangovers to do more work. It was an entertaining conversation to watch. Then we left, the climb from level 3 to 2 was draining given the heat and lack of oxygen at over 4000 meters. But before we made it out we had to dodge an inbound, empty and fast ore cart which added a little excitment before seeing daylight for the first time in over 3 hours.

The mine tour has to be one of the best bang for the buck and time tours that we have done so far (only $10 US per person). It was very interesting and our guide, a former miner, spoke nearly perfect english (I had to correct him on his pronouciation of cyanide). If nothing else, it made me appreciate how cushy most people have it in Canada.

Those UCLA geology students have some good pictures of the mine here, We have some good pictures too and they are on their way.

Posted by bforsyth at 01:09 PM | Comments (0)

May 08, 2004

The desert

Our last stop in Chile was San Pedro de Atacama. The Atacama desert seemed to stretch on and on while we cruised by on our bus north. We had a short stay in San Pedro before continuing on to southwestern Bolivia. Click below to read more.

We were supposed to catch a 10:45 pm night bus to San Pedro from La Serena but it didn't come at 10:45 and we were told around 11 that it had broken down somewhere south of La Serena. We waited until 12:30 before the bus finally showed up. It was a semi-cama, which means the seats don't recline all the way, which was fine for me in Argentina. However, I think that Chileans are shorter than Argentinians and I had a hard time sleeping because my head rolls over the top of the seat.

We arrived in San Pedro around 5pm after passing through the interesting scenery of the Atacama desert. We were swarmed by the usual hostel hawkers but we saw a lady with the flyer for the hostel that the El Punto people recommended. It is a hostel a little out of town and we got a ride out there with her, which was nice because we had just gone from 0m elevation to 2500m and didn't feel like walking anywhere with our packs. We relaxed the first night in San Pedro and started to get used to the cold that comes with altitude. The next day we investigated tours to the Salar de Uyuni (salt flats in Bolivia) and settled with Cordillera instead of Colque, mainly because the guy at the office was better at Cordillera, and we got to stay at the new salt hotel. We also organized a tour to the Valle de Luna near San Pedro for that afternoon.

We had 4 stops on the tour. One was a lookout over the town and small salt lake next to it and a view of the mountains in the background. Then we went to the valley of death which had some interesting scenery and some sandboarders on a sand dune along the way. I never found out why it is called the valley of death but I overheard someone say that there are about 3 different explainations. From there we went to a salt cave where I managed to bang myself up a bit because nobody had a good flashlight and the cave got a bit tight. A swedish guy in our tour started impersonating Golum and that kind of freaked out Sarah which I thought was kind of funny. Then we went to see the 3 Maria's, a set of three pinnical rocks that weren't that impressive. Then we went to a large sand dune where all the gringos watch the sunset from. There must have been about 10 tour vans at the bottom of the dune. The sunset was pretty impressive, although in the opposite direction that you would think. Where the sun actually set wasn't very impressive, but the colour on the Andes in the opposite direction was amazing.

That night we had a tasty dinner at one of the many restraunts in San Pedro, there were way too many restraunts for the number of people in the town when we were there, but that wasn't the busy season. We sat next to a large fire and had a 3 course meal with Derek from South Africa whom we met at the Cordillera office. He is a computer geek too so we had some good dinner conversation. That is until the house band started to play with some questionable audio engineering (way too much reverb, crappy wireless mics and poorly placed speakers), but it was still interesting. The band consisted of one guitar, one charango (small guitar like ukelele), flutist (mostly pan flute), and one drummer. They played some good songs and were entertaining. They wore traditional ponchos over modern clothes, the flutist was wearing some nastily embroidered jeans.

The next day was a rest day after we decided to not go to the El Tatio geysers which would have required getting up at 4am for the tour. We also tried to get organized for the 3 day Salar de Uyuni tour that we would start the next day.

We had heard lots of good things about the Salar de Uyuni tour from other travelers we met and decided that we had to do it, and it just happened to fit into our travel plans. I think that the standard tour is a 4 day trip from Uyuni in Bolivia but we decided to do the 3 day one way tour from San Pedro to Uyuni. We had 6.5 people in our group, a New Zealand couple and their 4.8 year old daughter (the 0.5 person) (Milne, Sonja (sp?) and Petra), and a Swiss couple, Sandro and Yvonne. I was kind of questioning the quality of our group as we left san pedro not having had good experiences with children so far on our trip and the swiss couple arrived at the cordillera office on bikes with plenty of panier packs. But after having done the trip I don't think that we could have had a better group of people for the trip, we had plenty of good conversations and Petra was the most well behaved and sweetest 4.8 year old I have ever met.

The first day involved a shuttle from San Pedro to the Bolivia-Chile border at around 4200m, where we had our passports stamped, had breakfast and switched vehicles to a 1985 Toyota Land Cruiser. From here we went to Laguna Verde which was kind of green, then to a thermal spring for a brief dip and lunch, then onto some nice geysers at just over 5000m. Then downhill to Laguna Colorado (around 4200m again) near which we would spend the night. This lake has a bunch of flamingoes which were weird to see in such a cold and inhospitable place. After taking way too many pictures of the flamingoes we went back to the refugio where we would spend the night. We all slept in the same room on some uncomfortable beds. We had a better than expected dinner of delicious soup and spaghetti and sauce. It was early to bed because it was too cold to do anything else. It took a while for me to fall asleep because the moon was shining in my face for a while.

It was an early morning the next day since we got up with the sunrise and our guide, Javier, told us that we needed to be on the road by 8am because it was going to be a long day. We passed quite a few more lakes this day and saw a lot more flamingoes too, some even on a partially frozen lake. We saw some surreal landscapes as we drove along the mountains defining the Chile-Bolivia border. We saw lots of animals from the Llama familly (mostly llamas and vicunas) and even some chinchilla type things. We stopped to get a look at a smoking, active volcano and continued on to the edge of the Salar de Uyuni where our salt hotel was waiting for us.

The hotel is made of large blocks of salt from the salt lake (which is the largest and highest in the world). Our guide told us that the salt is 6m deep over most of the lake. The salt blocks aren't a blinding white like table salt, but a kind of grey brown with horizontal dark lines through them. It was still spectacular and somewhat luxurious considering where we were. Before dinner we went out for a guided tour to some caves about 20 minutes away where there are mummies from the 1200's which were pretty creepy. The dry air and cool temperatures from altitude (about 3600m) preserve the mummies very well. Then we walked back to the hotel for dinner and were treated to another fantastic sunset with near full moon. After dinner of bbq'd chicken and some more of that tasty soup we showed the swiss couple how to play cribbage, and have a wee dram of Teacher's highland cream scotch whisky while we were at it. We had an extremely close game decided by only 2 or 3 points.

The next day we didn't need to rise as early and we managed to sleep in a bit (8am instead of 6am if I remember correctly). We had a good breakfast of scrambled eggs, bread and coffee (instant of course) and set off to cross the Salar. It took about 10 minutes to get onto the salt lake proper but once we did it didn't end until about 4 in the afternoon. Having never been on a salt lake before I was blown away, there is a lot of salt! The lake bed gets rained on in January and February and dries out into a hexagonal pattern that is mesmerizing. Within each hexagon are large salt crystals that sparkle in the sunlight. We had two destinations on the salt lake, first fisherman's island and the old salt hotel second. On the way to fisherman's island our driver/guide took a bit of a nap while driving, which was slightly scary but once you realize that there is nothing to hit for ages and the ground is perfectly flat I had no problems with it (that and I was sitting in the front passenger seat so I could grab the wheel if needed). Fisherman's island is a park and covered in cacti. We hiked around there for an hour or so taking lots of pictures and got back on the road (well, salt lake that is, no real roads across it). Then it was another hour or two at 90km an hour and more driver napping before coming to the old salt hotel. It is a derelict place and has a sign saying that you have to buy something from the little kiosk in the hotel before you can take pictures or walk around the hotel. This was the end of the salt flats, kind of sad really. Well, at the edge of the salt flats near Uyuni there are mounds of salt that they are mining. Aparently there is water under the salt flats and they drill a hole to get some water onto the surface to make the salt easy to shovel. They shovel it into piles to dry and then snowblower it onto trucks (at least I think that is what those snowblower like machines were for).

Then we drove off the salt flats and towards Uyuni. This was our first real 3rd world small town which you can easily identify by the kilometer or so of garbage strewn land surrounding the town. We cruised by the town to the train cemetary. Uyuni used to be a major train junction, and it seems that once the old trains died they pulled them just out of town and left them there. They were in pretty good condition considering that some of them were from the early 1900's, although they were covered in grafiti. Then we went to town, which brought to an end one of the more memorable experiences of our trip so far.

A geology class from UCLA did a trip to Bolivia in Sept. 2003 and have some good pictures, including a trip across the Salar.

Posted by bforsyth at 02:51 PM | Comments (1)

The rest of Chile

From Santiago we headed north stopping at two more towns, La Serena and San Pedro de Atacama. This log entry talks about what we did in La Serena and the surrounding area. Click below to read the full entry.

We left Santiago without visiting Valparasio or Vina Del Mar because we have this itch to get north fast, and Chile was the most expensive country that we have been to so far. So we headed from Santiago to La Serena about 11 hours north. It was a nice bus ride and a few hours in we finally did see the Pacific again. Once in La Serena we walked to a hostel recomended in our guide book, hoping that it was still there. It was there but under a different name, El Punto. It is a very nice hostel run by a German couple from Hannover.

La Serena is pretty much on the coast, on the mouth of the Elqui valley. The Elqui Valley is known for Pisco and as the home of some of the world's largest telescopes. I kind of wanted to visit the Tolodo observatory, some of the largest telescopes in the world, but you have to book a tour months in advanced and you can't even go there at night. So instead we did a combination tour of the Elqui Valley and an amateur observatory.

We had an excellent guide for the Elqui Valley tour. He told us all about the climate there and how it changes as you go inland, stopping to point out different crops. We stopped for a while at a Chirimoya and a Papaya farm. Chirimoya are also known as custard apples (so I have been told, not knowing what a custard apple is). They are mostly sugar and expensive because they have to be air freighted to their export destinations because they have a short shelf life. It wasn't the season for them so we didn't get to taste them. The papayas are not your normal papayas but they are very tasty and full of nutritous things. Supposedly the Pope eats a chilean one a day and it has helped his parkinsons symptoms.

Eventually we passed a large water reservoir designed to help prevent a drought like the one they had in 1996 which lasted for 3 years and they were rationed to 3 hours of water a day. Past this reservoir the climate changes to a mediterrainian one, fairly dry and warm. Here they do some serious pisco and wine grape growing, as well as citrus fruits and avocados. Pisco is distilled wine and requires very sweet grapes. You can spot pisco grapes from wine grapes because the grapes grow on the tops of the vines to get the most sunlight which gives the grapes a higher sugar content. We did go to a Pisco distillery but before that we had a special lunch.

North of Vicuna, the main town in the valley itself, we had lunch at a restaurant where all the cooking is done by solar power. Our guide told us that it was a project of some engineering students some 10-15 years ago to try to improve the quality of life in a small, poor village. The restraunt had a bunch of very simple solar cookers out front with things like bread, stew, and goat cooking. Sarah and I had a Vascuela (a very nice Chilean stew) and most of the other people in our group had roast goat. It was a tasty lunch. After lunch we headed further north east to visit a smallish pisco distillery.

Along the way to the distillery the road went up the side of the narrowing valley providing an excellent view of the vinyards below. It looked like solid ground but really it was a bed of grapes 2 meters above the ground. The distillery was in a town called Pisco Elqui, a charming small town. The distillery was on of the Three R's brand, which we were told is a famous brand. We had a short tour amongst the busy workers as it was harvest time. We got to see a truckload of grapes arrive which was neat to see. One of the workers gave us a bunch of grapes that were the most delicious grapes I have ever tasted, probably because they were so sweet. We got to taste some pisco, straight up or in the more popular pisco sour form. I had some 46% straight pisco that was very tasty. I'm kicking myself for not buying a bottle because it was very cheap for how good it was, about $14 canadian for a 750 ml bottle.

After the distillery we headed back down to Vicuna where we transfered some people around and headed up to the amateur observatory, Mamalluca. There are so may observatories in Northern Chile because the air is very dry and these towns get about 350 clear days a year. The world's largest observatory, the creatively named Very Large Telescope is futher north near Antofagasta. Mamalluca has a few 12" telescopes and once again we had a very good guide for this. First we got to see good views of the planets that were visible, Venus (cresent shaped), Saturn with rings, and Jupiter wth moons. We also got a good view of the moon and got to take a good picture through the telescope. Then we went inside to the telescope with tracking hardware so we could look at smaller stuff, like gas nebulas and clusters. All very interesting. Then we got a little presentation on constellations (including Inca constellations) using some astronomical software called Starry Night. After this we headed back to our hostel and off to San Pedro de Atacama the next day.

Posted by bforsyth at 07:20 AM | Comments (0)

May 07, 2004

Travel log website

Mark, who we met in Bariloche and happend to be from Roberts Creek, introduced me to this website while we were in Bariloche but I had forgotten about it until today, Continento. It seems like a pretty useful site for people that don't have access to something like what I have here at antiflux. It even has some features that aren't available with gallery and/or moveabletype, such as allowing you to enter towns you've been too and adding log entries and photos to these towns. You can then look at someone's trip on a map and click on towns and get their photos and log entries. Pretty cool.

Posted by bforsyth at 03:26 PM | Comments (0)

May 01, 2004

Adios Chile

Tomorrow we leave Chile for a 3 day jeep tour across the salt flats of southern Boliva, all at >4000m (well at least some of it is). We have spent the last few days in San Pedro de Atacama, gringo central. We have heard lots of good things about Boliva and we hope that there isn't another general strike like there was in October. I have registered with the embassy in La Paz to be on the safe side. There probably won't be any new pictures until we get to La Paz or possibly even Peru.

Posted by bforsyth at 10:07 AM | Comments (1)