Posted by: vivalatinamerica | March 9, 2012

Salar de Uyuni – Tupiza to Uyuni, Bolivia, Part 3

This is the final part of a three part account of a Salar trip from Tupiza to Uyuni, Bolivia.  Check out Part 1 and Part 2 for the full story!

Day 3

We get up before dawn to pack as much into the day as possible. As the sun rises, it’s a stunning drive. Every turn demands another photo to be taken – majestic mountains, tranquil lakes and sweeping landscapes. Pink flamingos grace the water and fluffy clouds catch the early light.

We arrive at Rio Amargo and strip off to take a dip in the hot springs. We lower ourselves into the soupy bath and gaze out into the lake. The steam is rising and everyone is giggling in this warm and soothing natural bath.

Feeling totally relaxed, we dry off and hop back into the cars for more flamingo watching. There are thousands of these birds nesting and we find some discarded eggs that have been washed ashore. (The eggs are white, sadly, not pink).

Each lake is more beautiful than the last and we are sad to leave their watery reflections and calming effect.

The landscape is starting to feel more desert-like. This is a place of intense volcanic activity, and we stop to check out steaming geysers and bubbling mud. It’s also our highest point, at 5000m above sea level; and we’re feeling on top of the world.

We carry on into the desert, to find amazing rock formations and ancient volcanoes. It’s like a lost world and we all feel truly lucky to have found such a magical place.

Day 4

At 10,500km2, Salar de Uyuni is the biggest salt flat in the world. Cars have been known to get completely lost in its vastness, requiring helicopters to form a search party to retrieve them. We stick carefully to the path, and although I don’t fancy being airlifted out of the white abyss, I’m a little disappointed that so many other tourists have decided to join us at the salar this morning.

The cars splosh along in about a foot of water while taking us to a slightly dryer patch. In dry season, the salt flats are bare and their dazzling whiteness inspires countless photo opportunities where gleeful tourists play with the lack of perspective.

As it’s rainy season, we can see the horizon, but we’re thrilled to see that the layer of uninterrupted rain water mirrors the sky perfectly. It’s like folding a wet watercolour painting in half. Inky blues and blacks stretch out as far as the eye can see, and we gawp at the ever-changing masterpiece.

With all the drama of the first couple of days behind us, our cars take one last victory lap, sending endless ripples across the surface as we glide back towards dry land. It’s a perfectly surreal ending to our unique and action-packed trip.

Cath Millman

The Salt Flats are a popular edition to any Bolivian itinerary, and there are countless tour operators and routes to choose from. Tour groups head out there every day (weather permitting) and we booked our trip the day before. Listen to other travellers and their recommendations to get the latest advice. Spend as much as you can afford to get the best quality tour. The drivers and cooks deserve a fair wage and the last thing you want to scrimp on is the quality of the car or the equipment.

Bring warm clothes, bottled water, waterproof shoes and sunglasses. Coca leaves help to ease the feeling of altitude sickness and you will need plenty of sunblock. You’ll need some change for the toilets and you may want to buy some bits and pieces along the way, so take a bit of cash. Shorter trips start and end in the down-at-heel town of Uyuni.

Visit http://www.tupizatours.com/eng/index.php for more information.

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Posted by: vivalatinamerica | March 9, 2012

Salar de Uyuni – Tupiza to Uyuni, Part 2

This is the second in the three-part account of a Salar trip from Tupiza to Uyuni, Bolivia.  See the previous post for how the story began, and stay tuned for Part 3!

Day 2

Everyone is feeling optimistic. Surely today couldn’t be as bad as yesterday? We begin to climb ever higher and the roads are getting more and more dilapidated. But Jorge is as smiley as ever and we’re cracking jokes in the car. Snow-capped mountains are popping into view and we drink in the stunning views.

We begin to relax but before long, we get stuck again. Now we all know the drill and everyone pitches in, grabbing rocks and twigs. We are now in a convoy of four cars and it feels like we’re encountering problems every five minutes.

At one point, our car is deep in gushing water. As the water rises and we realise we can’t open the doors to get out, things get scary. The car is leaning to one side (my side) and the water is willing it to roll over or carry it away altogether. Luckily we’re yanked out by another 4×4. These are tough cars but the drivers tell us it’s the worst conditions they’ve seen for ten years.

Later, we’re cruising along and see the car in front has stopped abruptly and everyone has got out. This is not a good sign and we all hold our breath. A closer inspection reveals that the road ahead has been completely washed away by the high river.

We all get out once more, this time to collect enough stones to build a bridge across the river. We’re now at an altitude of over 4,000m above sea level and the conditions are taking their toll. Picking up one big stone leaves us completely out of breath, and the sheer excursion brings headaches and dizziness. Nevertheless, we carry on and two hours later all the cars get across to the sound of whoops and cheers from the exhausted bystanders.

We finally enter the national park and other than our car getting stuck once again in a river it’s fairly painless. Our drivers are exhausted so we stop for the night in a simple little hostel in the park itself. We’re disappointed to have made so little ground, but we all have this hugely satisfying feeling that thanks to our teamwork (and the skills of the drivers, of course) we have all got here safely. It’s fair to say that it’s been quite a road trip so far.

Cath Millman

Posted by: vivalatinamerica | March 9, 2012

Salar de Uyuni – Tupiza to Uyuni, Bolivia, Part 1

This is a three-part account of a Salar trip from Tupiza to Uyuni in Bolivia.  Stay tuned for more!

It’s important to do your research before embarking on a tour of Bolivia’s famous Salt Flats. After reading some hair-raising blogs featuring drunk drivers and ancient vehicles, we decide to go for a four-day trip with Tupiza Tours, a trusted company with glowing reviews from the online community.

Day 1

The trip starts in high spirits. Falling on a special day of Carnaval, each 4×4 gets ‘blessed’ with good luck streamers, balloons and a dousing of beer. Our drivers, two brothers, have a spray foam fight in true fiesta style.

The younger brother, Jorge, gets into our car with a huge grin on his face. He’s barely 18 years old, but luckily for us has experience and maturity beyond his years. His brother Milton takes the wheel of the other car and eight tourists, two drivers and one cook, Maura, head off into the wilderness.

Within half an hour the scenery is jaw-dropping. Starting off in a Spaghetti Western-style canyon and beginning a 3000m ascent, the 4x4s rock and bounce along, taking on the severely eroded lanes and climbing into the clouds. Teetering along rocky roads with sheer drops below, the journey is already exhilarating.

The bluish-green tones of the mountains are strikingly beautiful, and the clouds tickle the crowns of these amazing giants. Cardon catuses spike out from the earth and llamas stare in awe as the cars climb ever higher.

We pass El Sillar, or Moon Valley, which really does look out of this world. The landscape is completely untouched, and we half expect pterodactyls to be flying overhead rather than condors.

The day is drawing to a close, and other than stopping to change a flat tyre, the group is doing well. The terrain, however, is getting tougher. It’s rainy season and little streams are eating away at the path. Eventually, we are faced with a road that would be better travelled by boat.

The drivers press on and the first of the 4x4s wobbles over the raging water. It almost makes it, but sinks into the opposite bank, half submerged in water. Unperturbed, Jorge follows. We make it across, and then promptly sink into the mud. The two groups look over the water at each other. Car number one is sinking slowly, and there’s a real possibility it could get washed away.

We knew the roads were tough, but this isn’t normal. We later found out that Maura was praying quietly on the back seat.

The two drivers are now knee-deep in water, looking at the engine of car number one. It’s a nail-biting ten minutes but these amazing men manage to get the engine going again, freeing the first car and then towing the second.

We thought this was the end of the drama for one day, but just 15 minutes drive away from our rest stop for the night, both cars get stuck in the mud again. Now, rather than simply acting as weights in the car, the passengers have to jump to action. We collect rocks and twigs and lay them out in front of the wheels while the drivers dig away some of the mud. The first car pulls free but the second is stubborn. With the night drawing in and a storm quickly approaching, the girls are ordered into the first car, leaving the guys behind. It was an anxious wait at the hostel, but all the men (and one girl who acted as a translator) appear an hour later, soggy, but safe.

Cath Millman

Posted by: vivalatinamerica | February 17, 2012

Cachi and Cactuses – Northern Argentina

We’re staying in Salta, a pretty colonial city surrounded by mountains. We’ve visited the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña, home to three fascinating Inca mummies who, as human sacrifices to the gods, froze to death on a mountain top and were left undiscovered for 500 years. We’ve toured the main square, and we’ve gone up on the cable car for a bird’s eye view of the city.

After a couple of days we have itchy feet, and decide to take advantage of the nice weather with a trip into the mountains. Salta is bursting with tour operators, but we manage to find a good deal with a girl who works at our hostel (pretty much everyone works for or knows someone in the tourism industry here).

Early the next morning, a chap called Juan Jo is waiting for us in his 4×4. After a bevvy of bad jokes and a sing-along to Phil Collins (Phil is huge in Argentina) the simple homes on the outskirts of the city are becoming less and less frequent. We pass tobacco crops almost ready for harvest, and Juan Jo is waving to all the farmers.

It’s rainy season, so we’re lucky to have a clear day. From December to March, main roads can close due to high rivers and dirt tracks can be washed away. Having missed out on the region’s Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds), which re-opens in April each year, we’re pleased to have a decent run at this.

This is my first glimpse of the Andes, and the blue giants take my breath away. We enter the Enchanted Valley and begin our ascent along the snaking track. The rocks are green in some places and red in others, due to the different minerals in its makeup. Geology enthusiasts should head to Seven Colour Mountain, which can also be visited in a day from Salta.

We pass a little cemetery, and push through a stream that’s trying its best to seal off the road. It seems quite shallow, but we’re told not to underestimate the power of the water here.

The locals are very wary of the elements, and at the little chapel called Capilla San Rafael (at 3457m above sea level, where you can touch the clouds) there’s a little shrine for travellers. A handful of little flames are already flickering amongst the flowers, sweets and pictures, so hopefully the mists and storms will keep at bay.

 

Entrepreneurial locals have set up stalls along the route to Cachi. We are serenaded by two young boys, who bang a drum and sing a local folkloric song. Later, we chat to trinket-sellers about the weather and purchase a few spices.

 

On one of these stops, we see condors drifting high above us. Condors have a wingspan of up to three metres, so from where we’re standing they look like hang gliders. Later, I see one swoop much lower as we pass in the car, but no-one believes me. Apparently you are lucky to see them at all in these parts.

 

 

The landscape is changing all the time and before we know it we’re in Los Cardónes National Park. The cardón cactuses look like an army; spaced out as far as the eye can see. They only grow a couple of centimetres a year, so these towering specimens must be hundreds of years old. Some are punctured with holes where birds have drunk from the water inside them. It’s silent, and it feels like another world.

Cachi itself is a quaint little town with adobe houses and a colonial-style centre. We wander the streets and have a hearty chicken stew for lunch (sadly llama wasn’t on the menu today). After my first taste of the Andes, I can’t wait for more.

A day trip to Cachi from Salta is around $180 pesos and takes about 12 hours in total. Bring sun screen and money for lunch in the town. Trips are easily arranged, weather permitting, until 8pm the night before. We travelled with Alas Nubes Tours http://www.alasnubestours.com.ar/. It’s also possible to hire a car and there are places to stay in Cachi.

Cath Millman

 

Posted by: vivalatinamerica | February 8, 2012

Riding with the Gauchos of Uruguay

It’s just before dawn, and I’m rudely awakened by my alarm clock. It’s that freakishly early stage of the morning that normally passes me by, but today I have to haul ass into the paddock for my first ever horseback ride in Latin America.

Those looking for the gaucho experience have plenty of estancias to choose from in the Pampas of Argentina and the Uruguayan countryside. These vary from huddling around the fireplace with no electricity, to enjoying gourmet food and air conditioning on slick day trips from the city. You can also volunteer on an estancia and really get stuck in.

We settle for El Galope, near Colonia del Sacramento. Not having the time to head up to Tacuarembó for the ‘real deal’, nor the cash to splash on a luxury estancia on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, it seemed a good compromise.

Grabbing the horse’s mane (it doesn’t hurt her) and swinging my leg over Chimanga, a Uruguayan-bred beauty, I realise I’m in for quite a ride.

“She’s very calm, but she loves to gallop,” her owner tells me.

I’m used to naughty British horses that sometimes need a thwack of the crop to actually do what you want them to do. Gaucho horses are trained to herd cattle, and are so responsive it’s like driving an automatic car.

I gently hold the reins across the left side of Chimanga’s neck, and she turns so sharply we go in a little circle.

I’m warned not to keep pulling on the reins after she’s stopped, not because she’ll rear up or get pissed off, but because she will actually reverse! I look over my shoulder to check she doesn’t have tail lights.

The Gaucho style of riding is badass cool. You hold the reins in one hand, and hold out your other hand for balance (or to whirl around your bola). Leaning forward into a gallop, you aren’t holding onto anything – you’re literally flying.

It’s quite a rush, and once I start to remember my childhood lessons, I’m really getting into it. If only the girls in Pontcanna Riding School could see me now! No proper riding hat! No crop! And no attempt at a ‘rising trot’!

We slow down for a stroll and are being followed by a pair of redheaded woodpeckers while we spot birds’ nests made of mud and hares hiding in the grass.

The myth of the gaucho is something visitors can only speculate about, but if you are in this amazing part of the world it’s well worth going out for a spell.

Cath Millman

 

Posted by: vivalatinamerica | February 6, 2012

Hostel Portones de Carrasco – Montevideo, Uruguay

We were looking for a place to chill out for a few days, and in Montevideo we found exactly what we needed: a secluded country house with a huge garden and spacious, airy rooms with high ceilings. Hostel Portones de Carrasco is a relatively new hostel but it’s already a big hit with discerning backpackers and budget holidaymakers looking for somewhere to relax.

There’s a shopping centre and small square full of restaurants and bars close by and Montevideo centre is an easy bus trip away. Treat yourself to a steak dinner at the Port Market in Old Town, or explore one of the quirky museums.

You can walk to one of the many beaches that surround the city, or maybe take a day trip further east to a chic beach resort or surfing town. 

Despite all the attractions nearby, you’ll find it hard not to curl up with a book and just chill out in the house. The hostel’s original period features (open fireplace, wood beams and thatched roof) are thanks to a British architect, who certainly left his mark on a street filled with less quirky but equally classy houses.

With a huge garden, terrace, breakfast room and lounge, there are plenty of places to relax in this very civilized retreat. Portones has all the usual mod cons – wifi, hot showers, lockers, fans, and comfortable beds, but it’s also bursting with character.

The hostel’s owner, Mercedes, cooks the best scrambled eggs I’ve ever tasted, and is really friendly and helpful. The hostel is a family business and you’re very much taken in as one of their own. It really is a home from home.

Cath Millman

Hostel Portones: Pedro Murillo 5826, Montevideo, Uruguay

Posted by: vivalatinamerica | February 1, 2012

Montevideo Carnaval

Carnaval time is just around the corner, and although our budget and timescale doesn’t allow for a jaunt to Brazil, we have another idea. While planning our route from our hostel in Montevideo to the festival in Gualeguaychú in Argentina, we hear about the city’s own event. A fellow traveller tells us that not only is this carnival just up the road, it’s also starting tonight. We immediately dump the maps and laptop and head into town to check it out.

The opening ceremony begins at the end of January, and the party continues for about 40 days. This makes the Montevideo Carnaval the longest in the world. Luckily for locals (and their livers), the event doesn’t involve drinking and dancing the entire time – there are a number of different events in the proceedings that are unique to the country.

At the parade, the atmosphere is jovial and friendly, with families sharing mate tea and dancing along to the drumming. Children are spraying the passing performers with silly string and confetti, while the grownups are giggling and taking photos.

The music, the costumes and the party atmosphere keeps us dancing until late into the night, and despite our hangovers the next day we’re keen to do it all over again.

Tonight, samba groups young and old are strutting their stuff. Scantily clad girls (and guys) with plumes of feathers and brightly coloured costumes are shaking what their momma gave them to the sound of llamadas.

The llamadas (Spanish for “calls”) are drum parades where the drummers combine syncopated beats with some snazzy footwork like a Latin-style marching band. This is serious stuff for the participants, who are battling it out for various awards (the presentations and judging events are partly why the carnival is so long).

Each group dresses up as a certain character, which is a special Uruguayan tradition. We see gaggles of men in drag and also pirates being led by a sexy Tinkerbell fairy. Apparently, dressing up as old men and women is also a popular choice.

Dancing amongst all the glitter and campness, we haven’t even noticed that we are the only non-Latin Americans in the crowd. The event is popular with tourists from Argentina and Brazil, but it feels like word hasn’t got much further than that.

The fact that we were in town and didn’t even know it was on sums up the lack of advertising. The most famous part of this carnaval in February, but many people don’t realise it’s already over a week into the proceedings.

At the event itself, it’s hard to find any information (especially in English), but luckily it’s easy to just turn up and find a (free) spot to stand in the street. After another night of laughing with entertainers and gawping and the amazing colours and floats, all to the soundtrack of carnaval spirit, I can see why the Uruguayans want to keep it to themselves.   

Cath Millman

Posted by: vivalatinamerica | January 30, 2012

Learning to Love Buenos Aires

Everyone has a vision of BA before they arrive. I’d seen images of the ‘Paris of the South’ and had imagined myself tango dancing down the brightly coloured streets with a handsome Argentinean. (A girl can dream).

The reality is that those pretty cobbled streets with houses painted in primary colours are only in El Caminito in the barrio of La Boca.

El Caminito is a pocket of houses near the harbour that’s been carefully maintained so tourists can take pictures and watch tango dancers (participation optional). Tour buses set down visitors who wield expensive cameras for an hour or two, then everyone gets back the hotel in time for a steak dinner.

Shiny and cheesy as it may be, it’s well worth a look. Just make sure you get a cab or the bus – La Boca has the highest crime rate in the city and the surrounding area is supposedly a little sketchy. We caught the 29 and were treated to a tour of the town for a few coins.

We passed the old streets of San Telmo, which come alive on Sundays with an enormous flea market, pretty churches, and a few parks. But no ‘stand out’ sights.

In fact, when we start walking around in the 30C heat, getting splashed by air conditioning units above, dodging dog poo and inhaling the fumes from the frantic traffic, I began to wonder what all the fuss is about.

One place we wanted to see was the Plaza de Mayo. The scene of many protests, rallies and speeches, including Eva Peron’s famous speech (not Madonna’s), it’s pretty battered and down at heel. The hundreds of pigeons seem to be having a good time though, and some scruffy protesters have set up camp opposite the Casa Rosada.

We walked around this huge city for a few more days, and as our jetlag subsided and we came across lots of happy, helpful and friendly Porteños, I started to see BA in a new light. Not the postcard-perfect BA in my daydreams, but the cool, unpretentious, laid-back BA that’s full of energy and life.

Artists are doing their thing in spacey warehouses, musicians have come to town to make it big while making friends, tourists are happily soaking up everyday Spanish lessons from enthusiastic locals and fashionistas actually smile back.

At night, the place really gets into the party spirit and young revellers dance well into the next morning. Their love for music and dance is in the genes, and they’re equally comfortable dancing to DJs or tango (tango songs will crop up in even the coolest clubs).

Palermo is a great place to sample the boutiques and cafes then chill out in the balmy evenings. This chic barrio is also home to La Cabrera, which serves up thick, buttery steak with pickles, breads and salads for a very reasonable price. Tourists and locals wait patiently for tables as free drinks and snacks are handed around. Our 40 minute wait is full of interesting conversation, tasty morsels and people watching, so it flies by. This is typical BA – it’s all about absorbing the atmosphere and enjoying the simple things with friends and family. It’s going to be hard to leave this place.

Cath Millman

Posted by: vivalatinamerica | January 6, 2012

Baluarte Bridge – North Mexico’s Newest Site

Usually travellers stick to the south of Mexico, where there is lush jungle, ruined temples and tourist attractions galore.  Up north (by which I mean anywhere north of about halfway up) there are a few fabulous areas that shouldn’t be missed, including the fantastic Copper Canyon, where you can cycle and hike and generally admire the splendour.

Well, now there’s another reason to go up there:  Mexico is newly home to the highest bridge in the world, the Baluarte Bridge (according the BBC, anyway; Wikipedia is a bit more conservative and hedges bets with “one of the highest bridges in the world”).

This extreme height measures up at 403m.  If you’re having trouble picturing exactly how high that is, fear not: the BBC are on hand to put it in perspective for you.  It’s so tall, they declare, that the Eiffel Tower could fit easily under its central span.  It also extends for well over a thousand metres, so you’ve got a good long stretch of awe, or possibly vertigo, as you zoom across it.

So where is this bridge, and will you be able to fit it into your travel plans?  Potentially, yes, it would seem.  The bridge is located on the Mazatlan-Durango highway, so if you’re heading to the beautiful beachy coastal city of Mazatlan and thinking of heading into the mountainous interior from there, this could work for you.  Durango is famous in its own right, not just for the dodgy mountainous railroads and paths, but for the Wild West feel which has encouraged many a filmmaker to use the region as a set.  Think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and you’ll get the idea.

The terrain of the interior of Mexico is spectacularly rocky and jagged, with the road prior to the building of this bridge affectionately known as the Devil’s Backbone.  Not a particularly safe road at the best of times, the Mexican government has seen fit to work on a modern highway to put in its place, of which Baluarte Bridge will be part.  There are going to be another eight bridges (though not quite as high) and over 60 tunnels, the idea being that the journey time between Mazatlan and Durango will be cut by six hours.  And presumably not carry so much risk of falling off a cliff.

So, if you’re heading to Mexico, see if you can fit Baluarte Bridge into your itinerary.  The government are very excited about it, hoping it will bring more tourism – but improved roads alone through the Sierra Madre Occidental will open up areas of Mexico that travellers previously wouldn’t have had time to work into their schedules.  Eventually – though exactly when is anyone’s guess – the modern highway will extend from east to west, ocean to ocean, making travel in the region a million times easier and safer.

Sophie Carville

Posted by: vivalatinamerica | January 3, 2012

AIRES, LAN and Flights To and From Colombia

One of the big questions which arises with all travellers between Central and South America involves… well, getting between Central and South America.  Making that leap.  As previously mentioned, I hadn’t thought further ahead than Mexico when I started travelling from the top of Central America downwards, and realising in Nicaragua that it wasn’t going to be another standard case of just getting on a bus from Panama to Colombia came as a shock.

All because of the dreaded Darien Gap.

But that’s fine: there were options.  Boats.  Planes.  Cheap flights, if you looked long and hard enough…

Wait.  I’m afraid you can’t anymore.

Let’s hear it for the global recession – plenty of airlines have closed down various routes or gone bankrupt, and one such airline was the Colombian AIRES.  98% of AIRES shares were bought out by Chile-based LAN, and LAN aren’t even so much as keeping the name, let alone the flights or the low, low prices.  Very sad indeed.

So, if anyone comes across cheap-ish flights or reliable airlines flying between Panama and Colombia, do let us know.  In the meantime, as of Jan 2012, Copa Air do one-way flights for about US$450 with all the tax and extras tacked on, so it’s actually better value to do the boat trip via the San Blas Islands.

Sophie Carville

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