Patagonia, part two: El Chaltén

El Calafate had been about the Perito Moreno Glacier, pretty much.  El Chaltén is about hiking, and about Fitz Roy – a particularly famously picturesque and – for climbers – difficult mountain in the southern Andes.  (It may also have been a bit about cheap sugary pastry things from the bakeries, and about the DVDs of live rock concerts favoured by our host at our excellent hostel, Albergue Aylen-Aike.)

Mount Fitz Roy (right), seen from the end of the hike out to Laguna de los Tres

Mount Fitz Roy (right), seen from the end of the hike out to Laguna de los Tres

Hiking is a big deal in Patagonia.  Trekkers come from far flung places, armed with The North Face this, Kathmandu that and Colombia the other, bearing tents and sleeping bags and walking poles and sturdy boots, and sporting more layers of clothing than I have pairs of socks.  (I saw one couple pause in the sunshine to shed some of their skins at one point:  they each took off two jackets, a tshirt and then a long-sleeved tshirt, to get down to their innermost tshirt, before putting one of the jackets back on.  I was wearing a thin woollen tshirt at the time, and had only just stopped sweating from the climb up the hill.  I have no idea how they weren’t drowning in a sea of their own perspiration.  Seriously, someone from some deodorant company needs to get in touch with these guys and sign them up as advertising models.)

We weren’t quite so thoroughly outfitted as many of the travellers around us.  (Including one Eastern European group who’d also been on our Big Ice tour in El Calafate, and whom I took great pleasure in naming the “Poles with poles,” in a joke that was apparently much funnier to me than to anybody else.)  In particular, we weren’t set up to do any camping, so absent a strong desire to go hire a whole bunch of stuff to allow us to sleep less comfortably than we otherwise would in, y’know, a bed, we were restricted to the day hikes.  No five-day ‘the W’ Torres del Paine trek out of El Calafate for us, nor the two-day trek to Laguna Torre out of El Chaltén.  (Though in fairness, we confidently assured ourselves that we probably could have quick-marched the latter in a single day had we anticipated seeing anything particularly interesting at the other end of it.)

But nonetheless, El Chaltén offers a fair number of day hikes, and some beautiful scenery for them, so having lazily used up a whole day for the three hour bus ride from El Calafate (it’s alright, the weather was shit that day anyway), we set about planning how much of the area we could traverse in the time we had available.

A slightly more distant – but cloudless – view of Mount Fitz Roy, from partway along the trail out to Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

A slightly more distant – but cloudless – view of Mount Fitz Roy, from partway along the trail out to Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

Nearly all the treks in the area focus on getting a good view of Fitz Roy and/or its glaciers.  The problem with this is that Fitz Roy is, like Everest, quite often entombed in cloud.  Thankfully, Sebastian, the ever-helpful rock-DVD-loving owner of our hostel, was armed with weather forecasts and excellent advice.  Don’t do the Laguna de los Tres hike first, he said (this is the hike that is most specifically pointed to a front-and-centre prime viewing of Fitz Roy), do the Piedras Blancas one instead (a hike that ends over a lot of large boulders – the piedras blancas, or white rocks – to a nearby glacier, Glacier Fitz Roy East, aka Glacier Piedras Blancas).  The weather’s supposed to clear up in the afternoon, so if it looks clear once you’re done, then you can whip up to Laguna de los Tres.  And if it doesn’t, you can do that tomorrow, when the weather’s better.  Anyway, almost no one goes to Piedras Blancas, which is a pity, coz it’s cool.

So Piedras Blancas it was.  And it was cool.  First, we got to climb over big rocks.  And because we’re apparently about nine years old on the inside, that was fun just by itself.

In front of Glacier Piedras Blancas

Look, ma! Check out this picture of me on this big rock I climbed!

And second, the glacier was really awesome.  It’s on a rocky mountainside, and so rather than just being a big wide flat sheet of white, it’s carved out in a more interesting shape by the protrusions of the rock beneath.  And more than that, it has waterfalls.  There were several, but the most impressive was a huge cascade running down the right hand side of the glacier.  I don’t know why, but to me the fact of a glacier having a huge gushing waterfall is in itself very cool.  But cool was not sufficient.  This waterfall was alive.  Every ten or fifteen minutes we’d hear crashes and quickly look up to the waterfall.  Sometimes you’d just see a little more water pouring out, or watch as the waterfall changed course slightly, reminding you just how dynamic a glacier really is.  But sometimes you’d look up to see a cavalcade of ice tumbling down, the waterfall doubling or tripling in size and ferocity, sending large chunks of previously immovable glacier down into the lake as well as a torrent of water.  You’d see the waterfall seek out new, additional courses downwards, as the normal route filled and overflowed around the frozen barrier under which it normally fitted just fine.  And you’d sit and watch as everything slowly returned to normal, waiting for the next several tonnes of ice to break off a little later, just as thunderously, leaving just as little visible impact on the imposing façade that remained behind.

Glacier Piedras Blancas, with awesome waterfall on the right hand side

Glacier Piedras Blancas, with awesome waterfall on the right hand side

It was impressive stuff.  And Sebastian was right – almost no one else ventures out to Piedras Blancas (at least, not the whole way out – quite a few turn back once the boulder-bashing begins), and so we had the whole spectacle to ourselves.

The weather forecast was right, too.  The cloud cleared up some in the mid-afternoon, so by the time we were heading back from our glacier-watching, Fitz Roy was clear, and the climb up to Laguna de los Tres would be worthwhile.  Excellent.

Admittedly, it was an energy-sapping climb:  normally I’m the annoying git eagerly suggesting that whatever random direction has a bit more uphill is probably the more entertaining option, but this one had my legs a little tired, especially after the boulders at Piedras Blancas and the scramble up the ridge thereafter.  But while it might have been steep and long, it was also straightforward, and we made it to the top in about an hour.  Which meant were there for some good photos before and after the sun disappeared behind a mountain at 6.15pm.

The view from Laguna de los Tres

The view from Laguna de los Tres

Laguna de los Tres is apparently thusly named with ‘los Tres’ referring to the three peaks in front of you at the top:  Fitz Roy, Poincenot and Saint-Exupéry.  We got our fill of viewing those before we started our descent and turned for home (finally leaving the trail by the light of a brilliant full moon, just after the sun had set).  It had been a good day, all up – 36km walked, in about ten or eleven hours – and we felt satisfyingly tired.  We also felt not a lot like making many decisions for dinner.  So we went back to the same place as the previous night – La Brasería – and I enjoyed exactly the same meal I’d had roughly 23h earlier:  an awesome steak, topped with bacon, and with a side of eggs fried/poached in half a capsicum.  (Don’t worry Mum, there was a hearty salad in there too, as well as the plate of French fries.)

The next day we had a bit of a rest:  only 16km of hiking, to the two lookouts named Los Condores and Las Águilas, plus a waterfall a bit north of town (Chorrillo del Salto).  Nice and easy walks, although there was nothing particularly fascinating about them (we saw neither condors nor eagles at the lookouts, although you’ll be pleased to know that we did indeed see a waterfall at the waterfall).

Chorrillo del Salto

Chorrillo del Salto

On our final full day, we had another long hike:  this time out to Mirador Loma del Pleigue Tumbado.  This is the go-to panorama site for a view of all of Fitz Roy and its surrounds.  Pleasantly, this one delivered at least one condor.

A condor flying high on an updraft over the mountains near El Chaltén

A condor flying high on an updraft over the mountains, seen from Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado, looking towards Mount Fitz Roy (which is out of the shot to the right of the photo)

And it was a very pretty hike through the woods to get there, too, and a rewarding vista at the end.

Mount Fitz Roy and its surrounds, here seen from Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

A view we were getting used to: Mount Fitz Roy and its surrounds, here seen from Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

After that hike, all that was left was to head back and try another recommended local restaurant.  And to try a bit more of the local wine – including a sample of the local Tetrapak-encased fare, ‘Termidor’.  A sample which had us wanting our £3 back.  We were particularly unimpressed to discover that Sebastian had been very accurate in describing it as uncannily like gasoline.  Thank god we had back-ups:  a couple of much more palatable bottles of the local good stuff.

Then, although we had a couple of days to spare before we flew out of Patagonia, it was back to El Calafate:  the internet is better there, and we had millions of photos to sort through and back up.  That and a few pairs of very smelly socks to wash.

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Patagonia, part one: El Calafate

The Perito Moreno Glacier, in Las Glaciares National Park near El Calafate

The Perito Moreno Glacier, in Las Glaciares National Park near El Calafate

Arriving from La Paz into Argentina, we spent all of one night in Buenos Aires before catching an overnight flight down to Rio Gallegos, way down south.  I say ‘overnight’, but actually we arrived by 1.50am, and most of the night was in fact spent waiting, reading, napping, waiting and reading in the airport (we figured it was likely to be slightly nicer there than the bus station).  Eventually the sun came up and we headed off and get on a bus to our actual destination, El Calafate.

Argentina is richer than Bolivia.  Hell, most countries are richer than Bolivia.  El Calafate, in Patagonia, is better off than your average Argentinian town, too.  The contrast with Bolivia was, well, stark.  The bus that got us there was capable of speeds over 60km/h, for a start, and not only that but the roads were good enough to mean that that wouldn’t be an “adventure”.  And we didn’t even have to worry about whether our driver was about to fall off the road.

Where Bolivia had me thinking back to our time in the poorer parts of South-East Asia, El Calafate – which is very much a tourist town, its one real claim to fame being the beautiful Perito Moreno Glacier – reminded me of the South Island of New Zealand:  it’s basically half Wanaka, half Queenstown.  But with Argentine steakhouses galore.

As nice as it is, as I say, El Calafate is kind of a one-horse town.  The Perito Moreno Glacier is somewhat world-famous (as far as glaciers go, anyway), and that’s what everyone comes to see.  It’s slightly hard to explain exactly why it’s famous, to be perfectly honest:  I gather it’s a combination of things.  First, for a giant hunk of ice, it’s remarkably easy for tourists to get to:  you just bus out of town, without having to hike your way through snow fields or anything like that.  You don’t even have to climb up anywhere:  it’s only about 250m above sea level.  Second, like many glaciers, its face forms the edge of a lake (Lago Argentino) – but in a stroke of good luck, the part of the lake it abuts is close enough to the other side for a fantastic view from the shore just at the end of your one-hour bus trip out from town.  Third, it’s one of the few glaciers in the world that’s not receding – it’s in equilibrium, staying roughly put from one year to the next.  Fourth, although it’s in equilibrium, that’s not to say that the ice doesn’t move:  it does, and fast.  About 2m per day in the middle.  So there’s plenty of ice heading on down the valley to then melt or fall off into the lake.

The face of Perito Moreno Glacier, forming a narrow channel between the glacier and the land edge of Lake Argentina

The face of Perito Moreno Glacier, forming a narrow channel between the glacier and the land edge of Lake Argentina

Which brings us to the most special thing about the glacier:  the spectacular calving off of giant chunks of ice at its face.  The fact that it’s so close to the opposite shore of the lake means that every so often, it actually makes it across to the other side and forms a natural frozen dam, blocking off the lake’s access to the Santa Cruz River.  When this happens, the lake rises (up to 30m, apparently!) and the pressure slowly erodes away the glacier, leading eventually to a massive crash as it gives way.  Ice and water go everywhere, in a grand cacophony of H2O.  Apparently it’s quite the event.  Perito Moreno would probably be a famous tourist attraction anyway, but this much-anticipated natural extravaganza brings TV crews and spectators from all over, ensuring real worldwide fame every time it happens.

Anyway, we didn’t see any of that – there’s no ice bridge at the moment;  the last one crashed into oblivion early last year.  Nor did the glacier oblige us with one of its more frequent and regular calvings-off of big hunks of the ice face (the last one of them had happened about eight weeks ago, we were told).  So we simply had to admire the largely static face of the ice, and the creakings and groanings that promised that things were still progressing inside, even if they weren’t to come to a head during our visit.  We did hear and see a couple of ice blocks fall, and saw the power of the waves they created, so I guess we could get by with just imagining the rest.  And admiring the ice wasn’t exactly difficult in any case:  it makes for a pretty spectacular vista, even when it’s not doing anything exciting.

From there, it was over to the glacier itself:  we’d booked a ‘Big Ice’ trek, which meant we wandered up the side of the valley a bit, donned crampons, and trekked out over the ice into the middle of the glacier for a few hours.  This was a cool excursion.  We wandered along the ridges, admiring the variety of terrain around us:  the lagoons (all of which were a particularly beautiful blue), the crevasses (some of them tens of metres deep, others shallow but growing;  some of them full of water, some of them just hollow and begging to have rocks thrown down them to test their depth), the streams, the caves, etc.

A brilliant blue lagoon on Perito Moreno Glacier

A brilliant blue lagoon on Perito Moreno Glacier

The fact of walking in crampons was entertaining – even if one of mine broke on the way back and had to be repaired, once I’d half-hopped, half-slid my way along to catch back up to the group first.  It was easier than I’d expected (and I presume the same was true for most:  I overheard a few people asking before they booked the same trek whether the guides thought they’d physically be able to cope OK).  So I guess that’s one more experience I can tick off the list as having achieved on this trip:  trekking across a glacier in crampons.

At the end of the day, though, all you’re doing is walking across ice, and so once we’d got used to the crampons it became just another wander around a picturesque locale in search of pretty views and good photos.

Perito Moreno Glacier up close, just before the beginning of the ‘Big Ice’ trek across the ice

Perito Moreno Glacier up close, just before the beginning of our trek across the ice. Note the cool blue-ish tinge to a lot of the ice.

And once we’d done that, it was back to the bus, back to the hostel, and a second shot at the all-you-can-eat meatfest of a BBQ that our accommodation put on for Ar$100 per person.  Mmmm, food…

We were in El Calafate for two full days, not including the somewhat written-off first day in after our stupid-early morning flight into Río Gallegos.  So having glaciered on the first day, we struck around for things to occupy the second.

There’s a decent-looking hill nearby town, and it seemed like it’d have good views.  And on our first night in town, we’d run into a group who’d climbed it and confirmed its suitability for scenery-admiration purposes.  So we thought we’d do that.

The hill next to El Calafate – a good climb for a good view, but, err, slightly tricky in parts

The hill we climbed next to town. We climbed up the side that’s facing towards the left of the photo. Looks nice and gentle at the bottom, no? Yeah, about that… You want to go with the side right over to the right of the photo.

We queried our new friends for more detailed information on how to get up there, and utterly failed to follow their advice.  Result being that instead of a slightly-difficult climb with some scrappy bits, we spent two and a half hours scrabbling up a substantially more vertical than necessary hillside.  After a good fistful of effort, a hearty pinch of whingeing about the wind, and only a very restrained dabble of swearing, we made it to the top.  At which point we let loose with some more whingeing about the wind.  Because by jeebus was there a whole lot of air buffeting its way over that ridge.  Enough to nearly blow you sideways, if you weren’t paying careful attention.  I was grateful that it at least had the courtesy to be blowing you away from the edge.

We admired the scenery:  you can get a great view of the lake and the town from up there, although admittedly neither is particularly featureful.  And then we scouted about for a way down that looked less shit than the way up.

El Calafate, seen from the top of the somewhat arduously-climbed hill next to town

El Calafate, seen from the top of the somewhat arduously-climbed hill next to town

Eventually we found one, and we powered on down the hill, slapping ourselves on the back and noting condescendingly how easy it would all have been had we only come up this way.  And six hours or so after we’d set off, we returned to the hostel, heading for the beer fridge, and congratulated ourselves on an effort well expended, if not well planned.

Then, next day, to El Chaltén, where hopefully we would have the sense to follow the established trails rather than walk straight up the bloody side of shit.

Bolivia travel advice

Another of those random straight-from-the-unsorted-chaos-of-my-memory-to-the-unsorted-chaos-of-the-intertubes advice/tips-and-tricks posts.  Feel free to skip if you don’t have a trip to Bolivia potentially pushing its way into your not-too-distant future, especially since there aren’t even any pretty pictures to distract you with.

Altitude

Most of Bolivia is high.  (Insert inevitable drug reference here.)  There are bits of it that are at, shall we say, normal altitudes (below two thousand metres) – in fact, Wikipedia tells me that two-thirds of the country is lowlands, and the lowest point is a delightfully oxygen-rich 90m above sea level.  But except for the areas you might visit to see the Amazon jungle, the bits you’re likely to encounter are all at three thousand metres or higher.

La Paz is the world’s most up-there (de facto / administrative) capital city, at 3650m, and when you fly in, you actually land at El Alto, La Paz’s higher next-door neighbour, so that you’re touching down at 4060m.  We came to Bolivia from Cusco and Machu Picchu, so had acclimatised to altitude a little – and our previous experiences with oxygen-deprivation in Nepal gave us confidence that we wouldn’t have too much trouble dealing with the thinness of air.  But that doesn’t mean we didn’t expect still to be puffing and panting our way around, and we were definitely on the money with that assessment.

Other likely destinations in Bolivia are not going to offer much respite:  sure, Sucre is lower, at 2750m, but at 3840m, Copacabana is even higher than La Paz, and the Uyuni salt flats are La Paz’s equal, at 3650m.  (The 4WD tours you do from Uyuni will have you sleeping above 4000m, and visiting as high as 4800m, so you want to be coping well with the elevation by the time you embark on one of those bastards.)  While we didn’t go there, you could get a bit of relief in Cochabamba (2570m), but don’t expect any such kindness while visiting the silver mines of Potosí, which at 4090m is one of the world’s highest cities.

So come to Bolivia expecting that altitude will affect pretty much everything you do:  walking up hills will be hard, and won’t be made any easier by the polluted air from the bus/truck thing that is having just as much difficulty ascending as you are.  Hell, even taking a hot shower will leave you short of breath by the time all the steamy goodness of a well-enjoyed hot water service takes over half of your lungs.

Long story short:  be prepared for shortness of breath, and make sure you know a bit about altitude sickness.  It probably wouldn’t hurt to have some Diamox with you, just in case, and you should definitely be willing to change your travel plans and seek out some low-lying rest stops if you start suffering the more severe symptoms of altitude sickness.

Cross-country transport

I get the impression that this has improved markedly in the last couple of years, but be aware that buses in Bolivia are, well, crashy.

Stories of drunk or drugged-up bus drivers abound – one girl we met on our tour of the Uyuni salt flats seemed remarkably sanguine about having just survived an overnight bus trip which included a group of other passengers having to force their way into the driver’s compartment at 4am when the driving became erratic, to discover that the driver had pissed himself, vomited, and more or less passed out behind the wheel.  It all ended well, with a replacement driver installed and the original shoved unceremoniously into the baggage compartment for a not-so-well-deserved nap.  But it’s one of those stories I’d rather hear than experience nonetheless.

If you’re bussing between La Paz and Uyuni, the Todo Turismo bus – while expensive by Bolivian standards, at Bs 230 (£22 / $US33) per person – is basically the only acceptable option.  It’s a perfectly comfortable trip, and nothing to worry about.  The alternatives, not so much.  Todo Turismo’s offices are at Avenida Uruguay #102, in a blue building basically across the road (and down a little) from the Terminal de Buses in central La Paz (not the one in El Alto, which Google Maps will happily direct you to if you’re not careful to distinguish).

After our salt flats tour, we took an overnight tourist bus from Uyuni to Sucre – there are a number of operators on this route, and we just went with the one that our salt flats tour company booked for us (6 de Octubre, I think it was).  Probably should have researched that a little more beforehand, but it was fine, and I get the impression that that route isn’t typically a problem.

We ended up flying from Sucre back to La Paz – partly to avoid yet another overnighter with little sleep, and partly because the research I’d done suggested that the buses on that route are historically more problematic.  If you’re going to bus it, there’s a few recommendations on this Lonely Planet thread (check out comment #10 in particular).  With little more to go on than appearance, I’d back the suggestions there:  of the bus fleets we saw, El Dorado and Bolivar did look to have the nicest buses.

Bussing between La Paz and Copacabana doesn’t seem to be nearly as much of a problem as other destinations:  it’s a shorter trip (three to four hours), and the buses run during the day.  We did have one nervous nitwit on our bus tearfully imploring the bus driver to slow down, citing fearfulness due to an overturned bus he’d come across elsewhere in Bolivia (he even had a photo on his camera to show the bus driver), but actually the driving was perfectly safe and reasonable.  We went with Diana’s Tours (getting there) and Tur Bus (coming back) – but basically any of the tourist buses would be fine, I’m sure.  I can’t vouch for the collectivos going from the cemetery area, but plenty of people out there on the interwebs do recommend them as a cheaper and more flexible alternative.

4WD tours of the Uyuni salt flats

Again, do your research to avoid drunken and drugged-up drivers.  There are plenty of horror stories out there:  crashes, drivers drinking while driving, drivers too hungover to drive the next morning, drivers too drunk to bother preparing meals, cars constantly breaking down, wheels falling off, etc.

Chris came prepared with a list of four of the more reputable companies:  Red Planet, Quechua, Cordillera, and Empexsa.  They all have their fair share of atrocious reviews, but they seemed to have fewer than the rest…

We ended up going with Empexsa, since we were hunting around on the morning we got to Uyuni and wanted to leave that day.  We were incredibly lucky:  we not only had a very safe, sober and reliable driver (Johnny – thanks, mate!) but we also had a great group of people in the other four passengers (a big thanks to you lot, too!).

So I can recommend Empexsa, especially if you have Johnny as your driver.

But one final word of warning:  even being selective about the company you book with might not be enough.  Companies will regularly offload their passengers into another agency’s car when they don’t have the right number of passengers to fill a car themselves – so the car you actually end up in might not belong to the agency you booked with.  Not really sure what you can do about that, other than book at the last minute, like we did, with an agency that’s looking to fill the last few spots in their car.

Internet

Bolivia has terrible internet access.  A fair number of restaurants and cafés do have the wi-fis, and almost all accommodation will too, but speed and reliability are nowhere to be found.

There’s enough that you’ll be able to touch base every so often and do a little bit of online research when you need it, but good luck trying to get a Skype call going.  And if you happen to be the narcissistic sort and have a travel blog, good luck getting new posts up – especially if they involve pictures.  (Sigh.)  Similarly, your legions of Facebook friends may have to wait until you make it to Chile or Argentina or Peru or wherever else you happen to be going next to see yet another picture of perspective feats and weirdness with giant toy dinosaurs on the Uyuni salt flats.

When you’re doing your normal research for accommodation, it’s worth seeing what the reviews say about the wifi.  And when you’re planning your trip, it’s worth saving information offline (on your phone – say with Pocket and/or Evernote and/or emails to yourself – or on your laptop) for future reference.  Don’t rely on being able to get it back out of the cloud when you get there.

Copacabana and Isla del Sol

Copacabana (Bolivia), featuring the cathedral which put the city on the map (bottom left)

Copacabana (Bolivia), featuring the cathedral which put the city on the map (bottom left)

After Sucre, we didn’t have a lot of plans until our upcoming flight to Argentina to start exploring the eastern side of the South American continent.  But we did have some extra time in Bolivia, since we’d allowed plenty of buffer for potentially difficult transport issues and delays and hadn’t needed any of it.  It seemed silly to spend it all in La Paz – there wasn’t a lot else that we wanted to do there.  So even though it’s normally visited as a pitstop on the bus from Peru into Bolivia before proceeding on to La Paz, we headed down to Copacabana.

No, by the way, it’s not that Copacabana – the world-famous beach in Rio de Janeiro.  Interestingly, though, the one in Rio is actually named after this town (or, more specifically, the cathedral in this town, which is historically important – and architecturally so as well, I’m told), so there’s that…

Copacabana is a tourist town on the side of Lake Titicaca, so at the very least, the trip would give us the opportunity to make juvenile jokes about the name “Titicaca”.  At the risk of continuing an already not ecstatically enthusiastic set of blog posts about Bolivia, though (except for Uyuni), it just isn’t a very interesting town.  Cheap, yes.  Pretty, reasonably.  Full of hippies who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying their time there, tick.  But nothing particularly setting off my fun-o-meter, I’m afraid.

Copacabana (Bolivia), seen from the hill just beside town

Copacabana (Bolivia), seen from the hill just beside town

One of the must-dos from Copacabana is a boat trip across to the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), one of the oldest holy sites of the ancient Incas.  Unfortunately, that too was a bit boring:  the ruins are really not much to look at at all, and I really didn’t feel that the fact that they were older than many other sites made up for their lack of, well, content.

This hole in the rock (centre) is supposed to look like a puma.  It’s one of the main features on Isla del Sol.  Exciting stuff, no?

This hole in the rock (centre) is supposed to look like a puma. It’s one of the main features on Isla del Sol. Exciting stuff, no?

The main set of ruins on Isla del Sol (top left)

The main set of ruins on Isla del Sol (top left). Unfortunately not really worth the trip, I’m afraid.

And that’s about it, really, sorry to say.  Copacabana gets a thumbs-down from me:  unless you really want to see the cathedral, find somewhere else to spend your time and money.

Sucre

In hindsight, visiting Sucre was a mistake, really.  It’s not that it’s not a nice city.  But when we booked our tour of the Uyuni salt flats, we needed to tell the travel agent which bus we wanted her to book for us for when we returned, and it was either off to Sucre or back to La Paz.  We didn’t really know much about Sucre, but we hadn’t been there yet, whereas we’d been to La Paz (and were going to be back there again), so why not something different?

It was a mistake, though, because contrary to the picture I had in my mind, Sucre is actually not in any way on the way back to La Paz, and so for all the upside of visiting yet another random city, it actually meant more hassle than it was really worth figuring out how to get back to La Paz.  (We ended up flying – easy enough, but more costly than we would otherwise have bothered with.  Let’s be realistic, this is Bolivia, so we’re not exactly talking piles of cash here.  But still…  It was a bit of a waste.)

That said, just because it wasn’t worth it, doesn’t mean that it was terrible.  In fact, Sucre is a lovely city – cleaner and prettier (and lower!) than La Paz, and with a nicer collection of restaurants and cafés.  Actually, it’s a city that a lot of tourists find themselves spending a lot of time in:  if you’re looking to find a nice (and cheap) city to just relax in for a bit, or maybe for somewhere to learn Spanish, or maybe to find a place to volunteer, then Sucre would be a great spot.

It’s just that if you’re coming through in the hope of finding interesting attractions to go visit or unique experiences to be had, well… there are better alternatives.

One of the higher-rated attractions, for example, is the 15m model Eiffel Tower in Simon Bolivar Park.  Which is not particularly attractive, and doesn’t much look like the Eiffel Tower (albeit that it was in fact designed by Gustav Eiffel and shipped over from France).

Not the Eiffel Tower

Not the Eiffel Tower

Sucre is a hilly city, like most others in Bolivia, and so a decent lookout – in this case La Recoleta – provides a nice panorama.  But in the end it’s just a city.  (Albeit one that strangely reminds me of Sarajevo, of all places.  Not quite sure why…)

Sucre, as seen from La Recoleta

Sucre, as seen from La Recoleta

But actually the thing I will most fondly remember from Sucre is the pedestrian crossings in the main plaza, Plaza 25 de Mayo.  We first saw them after we’d sat in the plaza on the Sunday morning of our arrival, waiting for something to open that could serve me some form of bacon and eggs.  (Our bus from Uyuni was an overnighter that arrived at 3am – it parked on the side of the road once we got there and they let passengers sleep on the bus until 6, but then we had to find our own place to plonk our behinds, so we taxi’d to and sat in the square for a few hours reading while we waited for the city to come to life.)  They were people in zebra costumes, policing the zebra crossings.  (Well, traffic and pedestrian lights, but you get the point.)  And they were loving it.  Prancing and dancing, gesticulating madly at cars to stop and go, and escorting pedestrians across the street.  Somehow, it was actually a quite mesmerising scene.

Zebras at the zebra crossing

Zebras at the zebra crossing

So, good work Sucre.  (Although we later saw the exact same thing in La Paz, where it was just as entertaining.  So actually, good work Bolivia.)

Even better, we could all this from our favourite location in Sucre:  Abis Café, on Plaza 25 de Mayo, where we spent far too much time drinking their coffee and milkshakes, and eating their fantastic breakfasts and salads.

Other than that, we spent our time relaxing and figuring out what else to do in Bolivia, and our only other particularly entertaining experience was the process of buying a plane ticket out of there.  It was just like the olden days:  you go into the airline’s office in town, talk to the nice friendly gentleman behind the counter, and buy your ticket for tomorrow, paying a fixed price (no extra “but you talked to a real live person” charges), and watching the dude use an old-fashioned slidey-style credit card imprint machine, etc.  It sounds silly, and it was, but that was actually a highlight for us, given how often we buy plane tickets, and how much time we spend hunting around online to find the best price, and the airline which will charge you the least baggage fees, credit card surcharges, etc., and whose prices will vary the least between when you first look for it and when you actually book.  It was a strikingly simple process, and we boarded our plane the next day reflecting on how different airline travel typically is these days.

Touring Salar de Uyuni (the Uyuni salt flats)

Any farmer will tell you – I presume;  it occurs to me while writing this sentence that I don’t actually really know many farmers all that well, come to think of it – that a large amount of salt is one of the most thorough ways to render a tract of land completely useless.  And yet the Uyuni salt flats in southern Bolivia are one of the country’s biggest money-earners.  It would be a little harsh to claim that as emblematic of Bolivia’s position in the world:  that the country’s best (tourist attraction) is other countries’ worst (threats to sustainability, etc.).  But there you have it…

The Uyuni salt flats

The Uyuni salt flats. Not the most riveting photo, I’ll agree – but it’s basically a big sheet of white. What did you expect to see?!

Aka Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats are just that:  large expanses of salt – as far as the eye can see.  They’re up in the Atacama desert, in Bolivia’s south-western highlands.  And are the highlands ever high:  our four-day tour had us sleeping above 4000m every night, and cresting 5000m on a couple of the days.  My lasting memory of which is going to be the observation that there’s a lot more high altitude snoring that goes on when unacclimatised.  (Not that I’m claiming that I was magically unaffected by this, of course.)

Touring the salt flats is a little bit surreal, to be honest.  Basically, you’re being driven around the desert for several days so that you can see (a) some salt, (b) some rocks, and (c) some lakes.  Still, they’re all much-vaunted features of the Bolivian landscape, and so it seemed silly not to go see them.  And they were very pretty.

We got to Uyuni on an overnight bus, and spent the morning shopping around the various tour agencies for a tour which satisfied our two primary criteria:  first, was it leaving today;  second, was there a high likelihood that we would return alive and uninjured.  (Bolivia does not exactly have a reputation for great driving conditions – nor for great drivers – and many a salt flat tour has ended very unhappily for those who have chosen their provider poorly.  See upcoming post for recommendations on avoiding that fate yourself.)  Finally we found one and set off, discovering as we did that not only did it seem like we’d picked the tour operator well, but also that we’d been particularly fortunate in the travelling companions who’d chosen similarly – the four others in our 4WD were fantastic company for the time we spent with them.

Actually only one of the days of the tour is about the salt flats.  Probably a good thing, too – as fun as it is taking fancy photos playing clever tricks with perspective, it’s an activity which I imagine you’d tire of pretty quickly if you tried more than a couple of hours of it.

Perspective tricks on the Uyuni salt flats  (Photo courtesy of Chris, taken on Shannon’s camera – thanks to both)

Not sure which of these two girls is the angel on my shoulder and which the devil… (Photo courtesy of Chris, taken on Shannon’s camera – thanks to both)

Because of course part of the point of the salt flats is that they’re so surreal, so unusual, so uniform, that you lose all sense of perspective.  Which means you can play fun tricks.

Chris falling into a boot, courtesy of the Uyuni salt flats

Chris falling into a boot, courtesy of the Uyuni salt flats

So, once we’d done that, what else was there to do with our three days?  Well, there was a train graveyard, there were flamingo-filled lakes, there were beautiful sunsets, there were colourful lakes with mirror finishes beautifully reflecting mountains in the background, there were cool-shaped rocks in the desert, there were…

Well, there were lots of pretty things.  Which I guess means they’re better looked at than described.  Uyuni – and all of southern Bolivia – is most definitely a visual sort of area.

At the train graveyard near Uyuni

At the train graveyard near Uyuni

Flamingos reflected standing in a lake in southern Bolivia

Flamingos reflected standing in a lake

Lakeside in southern Bolivia

Lakeside in southern Bolivia

Funny-shaped rocks in the desert in southern Bolivia

Funny-shaped rocks in the desert

A prettily-coloured lake in southern Bolivia

A prettily-coloured lake in southern Bolivia

The colours of sunrise at a geyser in the desert in southern Bolivia

The colours of sunrise at a geyser in the desert

Casting a shadow on the steam from a geyser in the desert at sunrise in southern Bolivia

Casting a shadow on the steam from a geyser in the desert at sunrise

A great spot for a hot spring bath in southern Bolivia

A great spot for a hot spring bath

Driving through the desert in southern Bolivia

Driving through the desert

La Paz and the Death Road

Bolivia is an interesting place.  Unlike most of the rest of South America, it has a predominantly native population throughout – most of the rest of South America has a much higher proportion of Latinos (European ancestry) and mestizos (mixed European and native ancestry) than does Bolivia.  I’m sure I’ve been told several times that it’s the only country in South America with a non-Latino head of state, too – though I can’t claim I actually know whether that’s true.  Through most of South America, the Latinos and mestizos tend to be better-off, and more centred in urban areas, and the natives tend to be poor and rural.  This is very much the case in Peru, for example, with a very obvious ethnic divide between Lima and, say, Iquitos or Cusco.

Perhaps Bolivia is where this difference is most clearly illustrated at a country level:  as a country-wide generalisation, it’s overwhelmingly populated by people who are both native and poor.  It’s perhaps South America’s least developed country.  For the tourist, this means two things:  it’s cheap (yay!) and it’s harder to get around safely and reliably (boo!).

For lack of many other interesting photos, here’s a weirdo statue I spotted out the bus window in La Paz one afternoon

For lack of many other interesting photos, here’s a weirdo statue I spotted out the bus window in La Paz one afternoon

We came to Bolivia after our Machu Picchu trip, and really our only major plan was to see the famous Uyuni salt flats.  (Bolivia’s other main tourism drawcard is the Amazon jungle, but we’d already done that in Iquitos, Peru, so we weren’t so interested in going to the effort of doing it again here, as fantastic as it had been the first time around.)  We allowed ourselves a couple of weeks, knowing that there was a significant possibility of transport delays (aka less than trustworthy buses), and wanting to make sure that we minimised the risk of missing our flight to Argentina on March 20.

We started and ended our Bolivian travels in La Paz – and having left ourselves that buffer time and in the end not needed it, we actually had a decent amount of time to kill there.

La Paz’s claim to fame is that it’s the highest capital city in the world.  It’s kind of a bullshit claim to fame, because although it’s where most of Bolivia’s government is, actually La Paz is not legally the capital of Bolivia:  Sucre is.  Hence the weasel words when La Paz is described as the world’s highest “administrative capital” or the world’s highest “de facto capital”.

Still, the point is it’s pretty high.  Its airport, technically in the neighbouring city of El Alto, is even higher.  Entertainingly, at over 4,100m, El Alto is actually higher than the effective altitude of normal cabin pressure on a passenger jet.  This is most entertaining when you fly out:  the 2L water bottle I carried onto the plane kept imploding from take-off until we reached our cruising altitude at around 12,000m, since after take-off the plane will actually be increasing the cabin pressure to reach normal levels.  (Landing in Lima the difference was noticeable too.  After spending two weeks in Bolivia – all of it in the highlands – breathing felt like drinking oxygen soup.  Very invigorating!)

Anyway, La Paz…

As I say, we spent a decent chunk of time there, but to be honest, we didn’t do all that much with it.  Recent travel had been hectic, and we appreciated some time not doing a whole heap.  We caught up on sleep and washing.  We enjoyed good food – fairly easy to do when even the budget Western traveller can take their pick of some of the country’s pricier restaurants.  And we spent some time figuring out what the hell we were going to do once we got to Argentina.

A section of El Camino de la Muerte (aka the Death Road)

A section of El Camino de la Muerte (aka the Death Road)

As far as, y’know, actually doing something in the place we’d expended money and effort to get to goes, our main goal was to cycle the Death Road – aka El Camino de la Muerte.  It’s a winding cliff-sided road down through the mountains near La Paz, and it’s famous for the number of fatalities it used to cause when it was the main route between its source and destination.  (They built a safer bypass years ago, so now although the road is still in use by the few locals who live along it, its primary users these days are tourists like us.)

Before it became a tourist attraction, it had turned out that having trucks and buses passing with only centimetres of clearance on a poorly-maintained road with a vertical drop-off on one side was not as conducive to road safety as would be ideal – hence the road’s reputation.

More of the Death Road

More of the Death Road

Even now, it’s still a regular – if much less frequent – cause of tourist casualties.  But at this point I should quickly get in a “don’t worry, Mum”:  while it’s true that a number of tourists have still died while cycling down it in recent years, a bit of asking around quickly leads to the conclusion that in every case, this was a result of someone doing something stupid and riding well beyond their ability.

In any case, the ride starts early and high – very very high, at around 5000m above sea level, if I remember rightly.  At that time of day, there was a tonne of cloud about, making for some beautiful scenes of the road disappearing off into the mist.  As you slowly – or quickly, depending on your levels of confidence and recklessness – make your way down (your altitude by the end is only about 1500m above sea level, so there’s quite the drop in store!), the mist lifts, and the cold makes way for sweaty, humid heat.  But the views down the valley remain beautiful throughout, and the dirt and gravel road remains entertaining to ride the whole way.  The roadside waterfalls help with the heat, too:  especially on those occasions when they’re not so much “roadside” as “water falling onto the road”.

Cycling off into the mist on the Death Road

Cycling off into the mist on the Death Road

On a recommendation from a traveller we’d befriended earlier in our travels, we found a reputable and not unreasonably-priced tour company, hired our mountain bikes, and thoroughly enjoyed our ride down the hill, arriving unhurt with neither Chris nor I having had any incidents.

With only four people in our group (we were very lucky:  the previous day had been a busy one for our guides, with thirty-odd people doing that same thing with the same company!), it was a fantastic day.  Fun mountain-biking, picturesque views, and a nice leisurely beer or three at the bottom.

A waterfall falls directly onto the road on the Death Road

A waterfall falls directly onto the road on the Death Road

(For anyone wanting to cycle the Death Road themselves, we went with Barracuda Biking.  I’ve recommended them to several others since, and had satisfactory reports back from those who have been trusting enough to take my word for it.  Your main concern evaluating an outfit is obviously the quality of their bikes – Barracuda’s are not new, but instead are good condition hand-me-downs from their much more expensive sister company.  The bikes are only a couple of years old, and most importantly, they’re well maintained.  Regardless of who you’re with, though, you want to have a very careful look at the brakes of whatever bike you end up on.  It’s all downhill, so if your gears aren’t perfect, that’s not a problem – you’ll hardly be doing any pedalling anyway.  But you’ll be using a lot of brakes, sometimes pretty hard, so you need ones that can take a bit of punishment.)

Besides that bike trip, though, there wasn’t much about La Paz to really get our pulses racing.

And it has to be said that a lot of the time La Paz isn’t necessarily a hugely pleasant city.  I don’t have a problem with the fact that it’s a poor city in a poor country – Bolivia is another data point bolstering the apparent correlation between poor countries and friendly, outgoing locals.  But that said, the level of substance abuse amongst those on the street was a particularly ugly side to the poverty:  wandering out to dinner at 8pm on a Sunday night, it did look remarkably like the national drink might be some kind of industrial solvent (admittedly it was St Patrick’s Day, although somehow I doubt that was the inspiration).

Aside from the Death Road, the other two noted tourist attractions are the Witches’ Market and the San Pedro prison.

Dried llama foetuses for sale in the Witches’ Market

Dried llama foetuses for sale in the Witches’ Market

The Witches’ Market is your run-of-the-mill street market, but includes a few slightly more bizarre products in most of the stalls:  embalmed llama foetuses, primarily.  That’s a bit odd, definitely.  Apparently they’re there because of an old superstition that has them ceremonially buried for good luck when christening (well, obviously not ‘christening’, but you know what I mean) a new building.  Though for all I know, they’re there because snap-happy tourists find them entertaining.

The San Pedro prison is famous not just as a really particularly corrupt version of corrupt third-world prisons (it was one with a fully functioning internal economy, where prisoners had to buy their rooms – which weren’t really cells – etc), but as one which a certain Westerner imprisoned there used to exhibit (by bribing guards, etc) by guiding tourists through.  You used to be able to pay him money to stay overnight in the prison, in his room.  If you want to, you can read his story about it in Marching Powder, a book which I saw gestured to on many an ereader during my conversations with other tourists in and near Bolivia.  (I subsequently read it, although I was perhaps a little less shocked by its content than I expected to be, given other people’s reactions to it.  Gee golly, it turns out there’s a lot of corruption in a prison in a very poor country, and that that corruption means that the prison functions very differently from those in more, err, well-regulated countries.  Who’da thought?)

Anyway, we didn’t bother to visit the prison – the tours a la the book no longer exist, and while others have sprung up, they’re not exactly a great idea (tour-takers who spend a night within the prison walls these days are typically doing it not of their own free will:  there have been a few kidnappings and other unpleasantnesses reported in the last few years).

Kind of an anti-climax to end on for La Paz there:  something that we didn’t do.  (Woohoo, great blog you’ve got here, Sam!  Real fascinating.)  Oh well.  The fun stuff in Bolivia was always going to be the Uyuni Salt Flats, and you’ll have to wait for the next post to get to that.  And the anti-climax kinda sums up La Paz a bit for me anyway, so, really, I’m gonna call it even.