Sunday, September 23, 2018

Cusco - navel of the world

Puno (Peru) to Cusco (Peru)
11 MAY 2015 – 13 MAY 2015

I wasn’t entirely present for our stay in Cusco. Whatever virus or food poisoning had attacked me in Puno had somehow lay dormant for a day and then attacked me once again with a vengeance through various ‘outlets’. Perhaps I was ambitious in my desire to defeat this interloper, notwithstanding, it was cunning in its continuous deception, biting back and causing nuisance at regular intervals.

Cusco, the once mighty Inca capital sits at an elevation of 3400mtrs, not quite where La Paz is situated in terms of altitude but high enough to literally be breathtaking. Of course it’s the gateway to the fabled citadel of Machu Picchu which lies some 80kms to the north-west. The city itself is cloaked in Inca legend. Legend has it that the Sun God directed Manco Capac, his son, to go and find an area of land of fertile and good quality. This he was able to do and this is the place that become the capital of the Inca Empire for some 300yrs.

Machu Picchu - I was finally on the way

The city is built in colonial style but still contains many pre-Columbian structures, a reason as to why is became UNESCO heritage listed in 1983. With that said, I can say that I didn’t fully immerse myself into the city and  was only capable of moving in small, non-expansive circuits where the proximity to a bathroom was equivalent to personal safety. In my down time however Inga did manage to do a lot more exploring especially around Plaza de Armas, the place where Francisco Pizarro proclaimed the lands for Spain after capturing and killing the Inca emperor Atahualpa.

We did however manage to organise our ‘expedition’ to Machu Picchu from here. Not via the well known Inca trail, or in fact other trails that are now being utilised for 3-4 day hikes but via a simple mini-van through the Sacred Valley. The trail itself has been placed on a ‘bucket list’, to come back to at the right time. Still, one of THE highlights of the South American continent was only a few short days away. The burning question, would my body be in order to make it there?

Lake Titicaca - The sound of violent illness –‘kombucha’

La Paz (Bolivia) to Puno (Peru)

08 May 2015 – 11 May 2015

If you’re like me then with the onset of a rancid, dirty bout of viral gastroenteritis…or is it food poisoning…whatever it was, there’s an internal dialogue that progresses from early detection, through denial, trade-off and then finally, begrudgingly, acceptance. In the end whatever ‘it’ is and whatever ‘it’ was just becomes too great for all your good will and internal fortitude, but, lets check that carry bag in here, we don’t need to be walking through security with this story just yet.

We were on the way out of Bolivia, slinking our way north west around the waters where the Sun was believed to have been born (according to Andean legend). Desolate & austere, the landscape looks just like what a daze feels like when your eyes glaze over, your mind wanders and you linger in those moments of blank comfort with no thoughts. Ephemeral and transient, moving through these ancient lands of legend we stop on the shores of Lake Titicaca in the town of Copacabana, just as the sun is taking its last bow for the day. The waters shimmer in burnt orange as the small crowd stands on the shoreline, clapping as the gold orb disappears from sight.

Sunset on Lake Titicaca - Copacabana - Bolivia

After crossing into Peru we made our way up the coastline under the blanket of darkness, spotted with the most incredible starlight we had seen, equivalent to what we had experienced in the Elqui Valley (Chile). Arriving in Puno mid-evening we checked into the Kuntur Inn and quickly set ourselves up for an excursion onto the Lake Titicaca the next day, specifically to see the floating Uros islands. Again, this had always been on my wish list and was probably inspired by a few travel documentaries hosted by Greg Grainger – who, as a side note, Inga and I ran into whilst staying on the Great Barrier Reef that same year – a story for a later blog however.

Inga and I headed out to downtown Puno that night for some food and a few drinks, and one pesky, errant, subversive Tom Collins. This one non-descript drink. This one small insurrectionist. This dangerous subversive. It was to hold my life for ransom for the next few days with a vice like grip on my well being….and you know…when it strikes, just when the death knell is sounded, what it was that brought you to your knees. That model citizen of the cocktail world, the one that never causes trouble and quite likely would be a very good neighbour, on this morning, took out a baseball bat and hobbled me. I woke up on a bright Puno morning with the violent sounds of ‘KOMBUCHA’ shattering through the walls of the homely Kuntor Inn. How in the world was I going to make it to the front door, let alone the shores of Lake Titicaca this morning?

Lake Titicaca - Peru

After downing a cup full of cement for breakfast I handed over all my valuables, all responsibility and all direction of my motor skills to Inga. I must have looked like a dead man walking in a fait accompli. Arms limp by my side, head bowed, shoulders drooped, I was shattered at 7:00am and there was nothing I could do. Those first few ours on the boat out of Puno were brutal. Occasionally I stuck my head up and looked around in order to appreciate where I was, but I had nothing, I was the one in the pack that would have been picked off out on the plains of the Serengti.

The sun here is piercing, it prickles your skin. The waters are a deep, rich blue and the equally magnificent skies are punctuated by cotton like puffs of white cloud, painting like. This lake is sacred in Peruvian legend and there is the belief that the Sun God, that was born on this lake, created Manco Capac, the first Inca King. Completely aside from  that, but as interesting, are the Uros Indians that life on great floating read islands. They are effectively the guardians of the lake and have inhabited this corner of the world in their unique and ingenious style for generations, utilising water reeds that grow in the lake to make their own floating terra firma. It’s quite incredible and really, not matter what my state, I felt absolutely fortunate to have both seen and set foot on a couple of these islands.

The best I could muster - its the most fake smile in illness that I could muster - Lake Titicaca - Peru

Uros floating islands - Lake Titicaca - Peru

Uros floating islands - Lake Titicaca - Peru

Uros islands - Lake Titicaca - Peru

From what I understand the reeds need to be replaced constantly, or indeed, islands need to be rebuilt frequently. The groups are generally small but with that said, even here the ever forward marching band of technology has made its way. TV’s, mobile phone, electronic devices, they are all common places and well utilised through the assistance of solar powered batteries. The children head out by boat to local floating schools and the elders, either do what they do, or, cater to tourists such as us. It makes the whole situation feel a little contrived but that, to me, is affecting me less and less these days. That’s the nature of necessity and human interaction, so if cultures adapt and pander to what we bring, then OK, if it’s beneficial for all I can accept that.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

La Paz - Nuestra Señora de La Paz

La Paz (Bolivia)
08 May - 11 May 2015

Welcome to the jungle. This urban sprawl has liquid mania coursing through its veins with every coloured mini-van, every honking horn and every screaming ticket tout whose destination sounds about as recognisable as the lyrics of a Lil Wayne ‘song’, or should that be a cerebral vasospasm? It’s an exciting place that can take some time to get use to. It cajoles you, almost taunts you into scaling its steep roads, only to smack you down to size with its own innate knowledge that ‘the air up here is thin man’. The home town experts have adapted but for those of us that have simply popped into La Paz, the trick at operating at 3500mtrs + is what the change in atmospheric pressure does to the body. Less pressure equals less oxygen which means that the heart and lungs up their capacity to do the very same thing that they would need to do at sea level. It’s exactly the reason why Bolivia fought so hard to have all their home games played at the Estadio Hernando Siles. The likes of Messi & Neymer are often brought to their knees in games where any sort of physical exertion can cause dizziness, headaches, loss of breath and loss of the very skills that they own.

Diesel, soot, detritus. Masked gunmen cleaning shoes on the street corner. Zebras guiding you across Av.6 de Agosta. Bank guards with machine guns. Shadows. Light. Heat. Cold. Conflict and resolution, that’s kind of what La Paz seems to be. This is also where the urban skyway comes into play. In order to beat the congestion and find the most practical way to get the city moving the Mi Teleferico was built. This is an aerial cable car urban transit system and it zips people above the jumble of houses and terrain, to points that sit above the bowl. Back in 2015 we saw a few lines operating but from what I understand the plan is to have a network with an intended reach of somewhere close to 35kms.

The amazing La Paz - Bolivia

Making our way up to El Alto via the teleferico on one of our days we gazed in awe at the vast jumble that spread out before us. It’s not practical but it’s certainly impressive, and from a few metres above, and more specifically, from the view points at the end of the line, you get to see what this city needs to contend with on a daily basis.

One of our highlights in La Paz on this occasion was the afternoon we spent jumping out of an open window some 16 floors above the city centre. This was another of those mental v.physical challenges that I inevitably place myself in when opportunities of this nature arise. A psychic civil war, a fight against the accepted laws of my mind, Urban Rush in La Paz is the ticket you buy to trigger that internal conflict of fight or flight. You need a couple of chugs of ‘harden the f**k’ up to be able to conquer this one but abseiling or rappelling down a building in this city just felt like the thing we needed to do.

As commonly is the case between Inga and myself, the process by which we settle on an activity like this is as follows;

Henry: “Oh wow, URBAN RUSH. You can jump out of a building over the city

Inga: “That looks cool, lets do it if it doesn’t cost too much

The idea to invest in our stupidity then sinks into that section of unspoken conscience. We have the awareness of the activity, our plan and the spoken desire to execute. I say spoken desire, as for me the bravado of mentioning what we can do is surpassed by the internal fear of what may happen if we do what we said we would. My role now, as seems to be the case, is to let the idea slide out of sight and then somehow manufacture an excuse as to why we couldn’t continue with our plan but at the point where the requisite time we would need to do so had passed. This however was not one of those occasions. This time…this time Inga called me out on an afternoon when we were looking for something to do.

Inga: “So, are we going to do Urban Rush?

Henry: “Hmmm, maybe, I don’t know”

Inga: “What price would be too much? What would be your top price?

Now this last question give me an opportunity. It allows me to ‘seem as though’ I’m interested but also give me the escape clause all in the one response. What I need to do here is work out a price that sounds reasonable and rational, one not too low so as to show that I want to back out, but also, one not so high that commits me to the task either way. I run the numbers in my head like a Phd student on the verge of a mighty breakthrough in string theory and come up with the number…

Henry: “250 bolivianos”

Now, I know this is expensive, for Bolivians. Actually, it’s extreme for Bolivians. For Australians though, $50AUD is a fair deal and not at all an issue. My hand is now played. I’ve banked the cost being over 250 bolivianos and knowing Inga, if that price is higher, at say 350 or so, then we will cancel the option. I know that for a fact. For right now we commence the walk and head to Urban Rush headquarters.

We arrive at the reception area of URBAN RUSH.

Inga: “Hi there, we are interested in knowing how much the abseiling costs?

Reception person: “250 Bolivianos

F**K!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  I’d just signed by own death warrant.

Inga hanging out in La Paz - Bolivia

That's called an 'ultimate leap of faith'  - Inga - La Paz - Bolivia

Twenty minutes later we were high above the city, dressed in fluorescent orange jumpsuits staring at a gaping hole in the wall of this perfectly solid structure.

Now I have abseiling experience. Back at camp in Year 7 I abseiled down a rock ledge that might have been 6 mtrs high, so no problem right!? Just multiply that by 8 or 9 and reversing your rear out of a building with some supportive staff and partner watching should be an absolute piece of cake.

I put on my ‘big boy pants’, regressed back to year 7 and backed out high above the cacophony and madness of what was going on below me. It was a little surreal. An endorphin filled sail through the Bolivian stratosphere. Mini-jumping down the dirty green façade of the Hotel Presidente, apparently ‘La Paz’s finest’, quoting the Urban Rush Bolivia site.

La Paz - Bolivia

Urban Rush - coming at you - La Paz - Bolivia

Then it was Inga’s turn and she stepped up without hesitation. Feet on the edge, back to the city, 50mtrs above the ground, 10 mins training in her back pocket. I’m not sure what it is with these Latvian women. Absolutely fearless. I was very impressed as she sailed down the wall as the gaudy Urban Rush sign framed her orange outline.



La Paz - Bolivia

Inga - 'fly time'

Undertaking your induction into the world of face first rappelling via an indoor 2 metre practice wall doesn’t quite have the same impact as stepping up to an open window and knowing that you’ll be taking a casual stroll down a wall whilst the rest of La Paz watches. For perspective I’ve add a YouTube video of exactly what this looks like;

After the vertigo and the inability to let go of THE BUILDING, you make peace with the fact that a few ropes ‘have you covered’ and thus your walk commences. It progresses all as outlined in the ‘training manual’ mind you, to the letter, until you get about 6-7 floors from the finish line – that’s when they say, ‘Just let go and jump’. Obviously holding on to anything is unnecessary right? Jumping from 6 floors is perfectly sane, especially when wearing a Batman costume!

Still, for anyone reading this and thinking about giving it a go I would say ‘absolutely’ do it’.

If you do, here are the details:
Calle Linares #940
First floor, Office 5
Two drop special is 200Bs these days / First drop 150Bs

Just remember, signing of the ‘death waiver’ is obliligatory!
La Paz, Bolivia, Urban Rush, South America

Thursday, September 20, 2018

La Paz - it's just so dense

La Paz (Bolivia)

06 May 2015 - 08 May 2015

It's been a few years since I've made a visit to these travels. I've moved so much in those years and my need to make a return to once again swimming in my vast sea of memories is being outrun by the hours I have available to me and the size of the task. My challenge now is to delve into the memory banks and studiously, meticulously, craft lines through what I can recall and tenuously trace that line from the now to the remembered without colouring too much of my memories with hindsight.

So I step back onto the salt flats in the Bolivian outpost of Uyuni. Described often as a bleak, unremarkable stop of necessity, it's commonly the point where journeys across the Salar end and where gringo's on the trail make up their minds as to where their finances may take them next. Five years earlier this would have been the next stop on my very first adventure to the South American continent but bad luck and a lack of commitment saw me return home with a pocket full of dreams and a head full of unfinished business...perhaps that should be written the other way around.

Salar de Uyuni - Uyuni - Bolivia

The train cemetery - Uyuini - Bolivia

For all the misdirected angst that Uyuni has absorbed, I'm here to tell you, it's not the Trumpian red state Republican disaster that you'd expect to ghoulishly arise from the the arse end of the Salar . Sure, tumbleweeds, dust filled tempests and lettuce infused sangria, crafted nonsensically by the locals, don't bode for a burgeoning metropolis of curiosity and thriving tourism, but still, as a stop of necessity it not entirely the disaster outlined in travel guides. With that said, its not more than a 20-25 min 'interest maintainer' either, so waiting 9hrs for a bus and chugging back Pedro's Bolivian adaptation of the Castellano love potion was more than just a lesson in tenacity and intestinal fortitude.

As night shades were drawn on Uyuni and we completed our 16th circuit of Uyuni uptown and downtown,  Inga and finally outplayed father time and lined up for the midnight shuttle to the capital La Paz. Five years earlier I had entered La Paz via a different route from Santa Cruz, having busted out of the madhouse that was Comunidad Inta Wara Yassi. On that occasion we were  held up inthe early hours of the morning by what looked to be a Wiphala protest of critical mass. On this occasion, as the early morning rays of light snuck into the aluminum cabin of this Bolivian transit vessel we found ourselves abstractedly drifting across landscapes of  endless corn fields and potato farms, punctuated by the curious glances of bowler hatted men who must have been wondering if their cocoa leaves had been harvested in Colombia. We founds ourselves that morning literally traversing the fields of privately held farming land in the hope of finding a covert way into the capital of La Paz. Apparently, on this day, we had once again unwittingly fallen victim to yet another elaborate protest. On this occasion it was one being lead by disgruntled taxi drivers who had decided to block the main arterial lines into the capital. I'll never forget one encounter that morning, as this enormous commercial vehicle cut through private farming land, stopping by a farmer out to start his day and the bus driver pulled over and asked quite literally "do you know another way to La Paz from here" - he did not, but neither did he look amazed or even slightly amused by the situation, just like he had encountered this scenario hundreds of times previously.

La Paz - Bolivia

La Paz is an incredible city. Located in a large natural bowl-like depression, it is surrounded by the high mountains of the antiplano, holding the distinct honour of being the highest capital city in the world at an elevation of 3650 mtrs. This in itself makes walking feel like you've just inherited a continuous asthma attack, which I can confirm is exactly what the feel is. You deliberately grab for that additional half breath of oxygen anywhere you walk with the steep streets pushing your heart into the 200 bpm zone. Still, as your head swims and you take in the surrounds, house of adobe cascade down the hillsides into the city centre. It's dense but not in a claustrophobic way but in a manner that simply inspires awe. A true 'South American'  city in the sense that the population is overtly indigenous, not some Spanish hybrid. It's lively, pulsating, chaotic, exhilarating and foreign, to me. I say 'foreign' in the sense that it's difficult to hang your hat somewhere and find something that relates, it's all so different.

We selected the Rendevous Hostel for our few nights and were not at all disappointed by the choice. A warm, welcoming, quite cosy hotel/hostel in the good part of town. It was run by a Canadian who had transplanted himself to Bolivia after falling for the local produce and planting crops (so to speak), and may I had, also produced the greatest Manhattans that I've had in my life!

In addition to all of this, La Paz was the city where my my first adventure had halted. In the gringo invested backpacker hovel known as the Wild Rover my wallet had somehow sailed out of sight, never to be seen. I had myself a moment of small satisfaction when I stopped by the hostel, placed by hand on the front door and said 'I'm back, and now I'm leaving to finish what I'm left'. I promised myself to do that very thing 5 years ago when I made the choice to go home - to come back to this point, pick it all up and go again. Here I was. 

What to do in this city?

Surprisingly La Paz is filled with options for the curious, for the well heeled and for the stupid. It's an unexpectedly great city to explore and does provide opportunities for the adventurous. Just outside the city are  the mountains that provide it with protection, and past that, and attraction well known around the world as the "Death Ride" along the Camino de la muerte. 
The 'Death Road' - La Paz - Bolivia

The 'Death Road' - La Paz - Bolivia

I had done this ride previously in 2010 and was indoctrinated to the gang of the 'worried' with stories of cyclists gliding over un-barricaded bends and flights into the abyss via 200mtr sheer drops to the valley floor. Stories both manufactured and embellished to create the myth, and to create profit on the shoulders of legend. This time around I was more 'schooled' in the art of the camino but had promised Inga that we would take on this thrill ride as our first order of death defying business in a city where the art of civil liability, over protection and idiotic sensitivity has not as yet made its way.

The 'Death Road' - La Paz - Bolivia

The 'Death Road' - La Paz - Bolivia

The 'Death Road' - La Paz - Bolivia

Without so much detail as in previous writings I can add that the anxiety that builds up just prior to the start of the ride was familiar and I could see the thinly veiled nervous excitement coming out with each question directed as me as a now two time participant, "is it scary?", "is it safe?", "how do the bikes handle the terrain?" - and with each nonchalant response of "you'll be ok, I'm living proof", came the equally uncertain answer of "A-ha, ok".

Starting on quite stark, barren landscape at 4900mts, we were greeted with a dusting of snow as we cruised downwards in snake like formation, winding in and out of traffic with the full understanding that the real star was still some 20kms away.

The rally point, the station for final checks prior to the 30+ km ride is a subtle prayer stable. A place we reassurance is sought and blatant lies are accepted. The fact of the matter is that before you head off the uninitiated simply don't know what they don't know. The fear of failure could be broken limbs at best, death at the worst. The understanding being there have been those that have gone before and those that have told stories of their success. Inspiration for sure. A warranty and a promise to defeat the pessimistic among us.

In reality, the most daunting section is the first 200mtrs. The width of the road is a little more than a few meters and the drops are extreme. You realise quickly however that the real fear would lay in the hearts of the poor souls journeying up or down the road via bus where the ability of the driver and their general level of alertness is where the ownership of your future resides.

The ride itself is easy, not particularly challenging, but then you don't really need it to be. Dropping from 4900mtrs to 1300mtrs over 2hrs, from the barren lands of the mountains into rainforest, it's an experience that's worth taken on the mental challenge for, as that's all it is. The ability to allow the body to do something very basic whilst quelling those notes of self doubt and fear.

Worth doing? For sure. 

Scary? Not the second time around but hey, I was living proof for the rest of them that this good be conquered without becoming victim #33.


Monday, May 2, 2016

Salar de Uyuni - From moonscapes to vast seas of salt

Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni - Bolivia) via San Pedro de Atacama (Chile)
02 May - 06 May 2015

Sometimes when travelling you find yourself in the midst of one, or sometimes many, travelling stereotypes. Heading north out of La Serena, via what ''should have been" a direct route to San Pedro de Atacama was a wailing 2 yr old that had such a piercing scream it would have made Rob Halford put down his microphone and walk away from the scene. In those moments, when homocide feels more than justifiable, I usually resort to trance like medidation induced through unfocused gazing at the surrounding scenery, but, in its stead, on this day, whilst cruising up the Chilean Pacific coast, in an area where the desert meets the sea and sea mists painted everything in a shade of dirty grey, this noise just needed to be ended. Thankfully the bus gave out prior to me doing anything idiotic and possibly getting sentenced to living 12yrs in squalor and unnecessarily acquiring the attention of  random prison bum buddies named Raul and Ramon.

In typical South American fashion, when the bus broke down the driver kind of sat there bemused for a while, stepped outside, kicked a few tyres and then gazed forlornly down this empty stretch of road. It took Inga and I around 30 mins to figure out that these jokers had no clue as to what the next step should be in the process of transporting people from one predetermined destination to another after a forced stop had occurred. In my mind it should have gone something like this;

1. Call for back up bus,
2. Advise passengers of arrival of next bus,
3. Advise of likely arrival time at location. 

The way it actually went down was like this;
1. Pray for a bus from the same company to show up,
2. Pray that a bus, any bus really, shows up,
3. Advise passangers that they'll be lucky if they make it to the nearest down by the next day,
4. Advise passengers that walking would not be the worst option but neither would it be the best.

Somewhere in the midst of the organised mess we were actually delivered to the main bus station in town of Calama, several hours after our scheduled arrival time in San Pedro. There the duty fell upon the stranded passengers notify the bus company that had failed us, because no one else in the company was advised, and ask the bus company to kindly honour the tickets which now needed to take us an additional 110kms south-east from where we were to our original destination. Thankfully they were gracious enough to do this although it meant that we'd be rolling into the small town of San Pedro after midnight. Now if you're like me then you tend to run the logistics of what arriving in a small town, like San Pedro, after midnight, might hold in store for you several hours before actually getting there. You can readily assume that there will be no taxis, a tin shed bus station with two flickering 25 watt globe lights illuminating an area of 2mtrs squared around the back tyres of the bus, a map of the town that will inevitably make no sense and a broken vending machine whose only operating function will provide you with tissues...why? I don't know, it just does!

In any case, we rolled into San Pedro around 12:30am and of course its pitch black. No streets lights, no anything really. The bitumen streets give way to dirt tracks and the bus station seems like the sort of place where you used to sit down to have lunch in high school. All bags are offloaded and the small residual band of gringos that had by now become familiar with each others faces headed to the exit in search of something, anything actually. 

A large black ute pulls up out the front of the bus station, somehow we all deduce that "this is our ride". How the hell we thought that I don't know, perhaps there's some weird type of telepathy going on here in the northern parts of Chile. As we take our places in the back the guy in the drivers seat looks around with a WTF type of expression - huh, this apparently was not our ride then, this in fact was not anything but a random local that was in the right place at the wrong time. A few mins after being dumped unceremoniously to the curb an amphibious vehicle/bus emerges from the desert darkness. At the front door some words of English are exchanged and names of hotels/hostels are mentioned intermittently. It turns out that for a small fee Mr.Random amphibious guy will take us all to where we need to go. OK mate, you have yourself a deal! So off we head, the random French guy with his multi-purpose vehicle driving a bunch of foreignors to who knows where with bastardised Spanish being utilised as the conversational currency. It all makes sense, right!?

Valle de la Luna - San Pedro de Atacama - Chile

Valle de la Luna - San Pedro de Atacama - Chile

Our amphibious vehicle drops us off at the front gates of Cabanas - Camping Altos de Quitor. We buzz a few times at the front gates but there's no movement at the station. Somehow we find a way into the compound and locate the owner standing near a bonfire, beer in hand, talking to a group of Chileans, also with beers in their hands. Quickly we're offered a drink and in the same breath discover that we've arrived on a public holiday when a cross country cycle race had come to town and now that its all done and dusted  everyone is glowing brightly in their amber cheer.

The next day Inga and I utilise the bikes provided by the Cabanas and rode into town. It's relatively small, as in small in stature and size but big on enterprise. Its small dusty streets belie what truly lies behind its mainly adobe walls, that being boutique hotels, quaint restaurants, a myriad of souvenier shops and tourist agencies that go on for days. In fact many people who transiting through this area use San Pedro as a launch point for the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and as a method of finding an interesting way of crossing the border into Bolivia, both of which Inga and I  had elected to do also. After stumbling up and down the main street a couple of times we booked a three day tour with an agent that "looked" the most appealing. When I say "looked" appealing  I think it just meant that it was the tidiest and most organised agent that we saw on first glance, because really, what the hell did we know about the quality of tours in this part of the world? Ten minutes later we were locked into a three day, two night tour through the Eduardo Avaroa national reserve with the culminating highlight to be the well known Salar de Uyuni.

Valle de la Luna - San Pedro de Atacama - Chile
Journey to the Salar
The capacity for Bolivians to organise anything kind of reminds me of the organisational skills of Serbians. The main concept or idea usually gets completed but there's A LOT missed in the finer detail. Whether that detail gets missed out of sheer laziness or re-delegation of duties, due to laziness, I'm not sure, but an example of what I mean can be garnered from our first morning. After being picked up at our accommodation quite early, (6am), we were driven by Chilean drivers to the border post where the standard administrative tasks were completed. Our Bolivian drivers then took over for the rest of the tour. Now at this stage it would have been, and perhaps should have been, nice for our drivers to advise us that we would be immediately climbing to altitude and that temperatures were going to drop significantly due to the climb. Most of us were oblivious to the topography of the area and didn't have any clue as to what altitude we'd be spending most of the next three days, elements that both our agent and drivers could have forewarned us about. Why I say this is because we had all packed and tied our bags onto the rooves, (yes, this is the old school spelling of 'roofs' that I still use), of our respective 4WD's and hence this situation nicely negated our ability to access additional clothing with ease when it was urgently required. I only realised that there might be some sort of trouble when I all of a sudden started to feel like I'd walked out of a café in Amsterdam with my need for oxygen now becoming half a breath short of what my lungs were asking for. That increase in altitude inevitably meant a significant drop in temperature also, so when we exited the vehicles at the Bolivian border post our t-shirts and light pullovers were no match for the low single digit temperatures, high winds and +4000mtrs altitude. Asking our drivers to scramble and take down our bags was also a chore especially when they had it in their minds that their "real" task was to provide us with breakfast first and foremost. Only after that would the desperate need for warmth be catered for.

 Laguna Blanca - Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve - Sur Lipez Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia
After finishing up customs formalities and an uncomfortable breakfast we jumped into our 4WD's and were off cruising the altiplano, a sparse, stark and desolate region but filled never the less with richness in terms of colour and contrast. The mountains of the Andes act as the border between Chile and Boliva, their slopes coloured uniquely with rich veins of purple, dark blue, orange/red and green soil. The sky at these altitudes also seems deeper and fuller, providing a magnificent backdrop to the rugged scenery. What a few of us  started to notice at this time was the mild onset of hypoxia (oxygen deficiency). That continued need for an additional half breath or the light headedness that we were encountering was simply due to the fact that we had made the climb to 4000mtrs+ rather rapidly that (again, something we should have been alerted to). Something we also should have been advised of was that our sleeping quarters for that evening was going to be at an altitude of 4900mtrs. Not that we could do anything about it now, we were already up and away, it just shows however that those finer details are never really at the forefront of these Bolivian minds.

Bolivian colours -  Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve - Sur Lipez Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia

I found that most of the first day I was struggling to keep warm. With frequent stops and jumping in and out of the vehicle for photo ops, there seemed to be a constant struggle between enjoyment and need for well being. The highlight of the first day was a stop at Laguna de Colorada, a shallow salt lake whose red colour is derived from red soil sediments and the pigmentation of some algae. The lake is also home to a colony of James's flamingos (yes, their really name) whose pink colour is apparently derived from a carotene rich diet, although in all honesty that didn't mean much to me other than the ability to take cool pink flamingo shots. 

Laguna de Colorada - Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve - Sur Lipez Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia
 James's flamingos (yes, their real name) - Laguna de Colorada - Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve - Sur Lipez Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia

James's flamingos -Laguna de Colorada - Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve - Sur Lipez Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia
James's flamingos -Laguna de Colorada
The one thing that we were advised of by the tourist agency was that accommodation on our first evening would "basic", as in, there would be running water, there would be no showers, electricity would be restricted to just a few hours and the blankets they provided would probably not be enough to keep us warm. To this they stuck true to their words. Generators powered two lights for a duration of about three hours, enough to make it through dinner and allow for a handful of dumb refugio selfies. Once the mountains were blanketed by darkness however it literally was lights out. We were all in bed at about 7:45pm wondering out aloud and in our minds as to how the hell we'd force ourselves to sleep for the next 12 hours. Not only was that concept mind numbingly boring but the shortness of breath and dull headaches brought on by our oxygen deficit meant that all of us were finding out what it was like to have a prolonged asthma attack/or panic attack, take your pick. Either way, when the first rays of sun busted through our windows in the morning we were thankful for both the alleviation of boredom and the much needed warmth - sleeping under a mound of 10 blankets does not make for a good time.
Day 2 of our 4WD drive adventure was relatively uneventful. It was more of that rugged altiplano terrain, shallow salt lakes, the odd interesting rock formation and a late afternoon arrival at the salt hotel/motel, the later of which was interesting in part. The salt was real, the walls were real salt and so too the floors. I wonder if it ever suffered from severe bloating? I mean from my perspective I couldn't be sure. Needless to say, even though I'm a doctor (and not the real type, just a Juris Doctor, which really isn't even a fake/fake doctor, like say, having a Phd in Philosophy isn't really a 'traditional, fix your spleen Dr', but more of that fake Phd fake/fake, like I have the title of Dr without going the actual Phd miles...anyway...that really is a whole other story), so where am I...Oh yeah, my credentials don't allow me to make any sort of accurate diagnoses from the symptoms. Anyway, the REAL DEAL, as in the real highlight, of not just the three days but one of the REAL highlights of the entire trip was scheduled for the next, so why the hell should I wax lyrical any more than I need to regarding what was a pretty ordinary salt hotel, all things considered.
Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve - Sur Lipez Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia
Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve - Sur Lipez Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia
Day 3 of the 4WD excursion commenced at the head spinning time of 4:30am. An awful time to commence any day of course but for me this was to be special for more than just one reason. The idea of seeing the Salar had been with me for many years and five years earlier this was to have been my very next port of call after La Paz, that part of the journey was of course was halted by the stolen wallet incident, the moment in time when my 1st South American escapade unravelled completely. This day therefore  felt like I had almost come full circle. Not a bad place to have it happen either, let me say.
As we headed out into the morning the moon was high and shone brightly, the night lights were on display and the sky seemed beautifully clear. With our early morning coffees wearing off quickly, most of us dosed the 40 mins of the drive until we hit the salt plains but the moment we did everything changed. The vehicle glided effortlessly along the flat surface of salt and as the sun started to awake from its own slumber we started to get a feel for our immediate surrounds, a totally surreal world that felt more like a moonscape than anywhere I knew on this planet. Several minutes later our driver slowed to a complete stop in sight of Isla Incahuasi.
The scene that morning on the Salar was unworldly. To use words such as mystical or transcendent to describe the scenery might seem odd but standing out in the midst of that vast,flat expanse of cracked, plated salt, the purple, blue sky carrying the setting moon on one side of us and the orange hues of the sun stretching further into the frame with each passing second, it was something else. Even the nasty bite of the cold wind running across the plain added to the rare atmosphere. It was a picture that I had waited quite a few years to see and one that in only a few seconds had surpassed all of my lofty expectations.

Moonset on the salar - Salar de Uyuni - Daniel Campos Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia

 Panoramic shot of Salar de Uyuni with Isla Incahuasi in the foreground- Daniel Campos Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia
After making a morning pit-stop for breakfast on Isla Incahuasi and then almost missing our ride out onto the salt plains due to my poor comprehension of Spanish, (we figured out something was wrong when both Inga and I walked to the other side of the island, on what we thought were the correct instructions, only to witness vehicle after vehicle shooting off into the salty sea horizon without us), we got the opportunity to stop in the middle of the blindingly bright salt plain and utilise our cameras to play around a little with perspective and depth of field.

 Salar de Uyuni - Daniel Campos Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia

"Message in a bottle" -  Salar de Uyuni - Daniel Campos Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia

 Looks like a Bolle sunglasses advert (just ignore the obvious RayBan brand name) - Salar de Uyuni - Daniel Campos Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia 

 Salar de Uyuni - Daniel Campos Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia

 Inga, Building bridges - Salar de Uyuni - Daniel Campos Province - Potosi Department - Bolivia


Dakar Bolivia - a reminder of a stop on the salt flats and a reminder that the Paris to Dakar is no longer what it used to be
Some 90 minutes after we were dropped off onto the plains both Inga and I had somehow outlasted our more energetic happy snappers of earlier that morning. I think by the time we had well and truly established our photo taking rhythm the others in our vehicle had tapped out their energy reserves by having gone too hard too early.
After spending most of the morning on the lake we moved on to the one street town of Colchani for lunch before heading the Cemetario de trenes outside of Uyuni in the early afternoon for a view more shots. Surprisingly a great place to take photos, especially black and whites.
Our three days came to an end in the small town of Uyuni, a place that was nowhere near as depressing as some of the guide books had suggested. Some of the write-ups had us worried that there may just be piles of dirt and a bus station to look forward to but it seems that the town is fully aware of the attraction residing on its doorstep. In any case, for those of you that are wondering about doing the trip that we did then here's a few handy tips should you choose to take it on yourselves;
1. Additional warm clothing always comes in handy
2. Be prepared that altitude may affect you in odd ways. To counter that start with anti-altitude sickness pills 3-4 days prior to heading onto the altiplano
3. Take a sleeping bag or two
4. Uyuni is not a hole
5. Take flashlights, candles, things to do when hanging out in the refugio on night one
6. Take toilet paper, you just never know when necessity will strike
7. Take additional food/drinks with you
8. The tour guides recommend taking 4litres of bottled water. It's a waste. Grab a few bottles that can easily be carried in a bag or in the car and not tied down to the roof rack of the 4WD
9. Get onto the Salar just before the sun rises

Cemetario de trenes - Uyuni - Bolivia

 Cemetario de trenes - Uyuni - Bolivia