Sunday, March 22, 2009


We left Argentina behind and crossed into Bolivia. After all of Lonely Planet's warnings about police scams and dodgy characters at the border we were a bit trepidatious. It was our easiest terrestrial border crossing yet: the officer checking us out of Argentina joked around and practiced his English with us and the Bolivian officer checking us in couldn't have been more tranquilo. No bag searches, no questions about cheese. We met Kris, a really nice Polish guy, at the border office, and caught the Wara Wara train with him and with some Swedish guys we'd met in Salta. It was great to be on a train, though I was glad we weren't going further than the 3 hours to Tupiza.

In Tupiza we met Barbara, a U.S. woman lately living in Paris but for the past year living on the road, and Deborah from Wigan, UK. Along with Kris, the 5 of us went in on a 4-day jeep trip through the weird and wonderful landscape between Tupiza and Uyuni.

Alfredo was our driver and his wife, Marleny, prepared the meals. They are such kind people and work so hard, away for days at a time from their 6-year-old son Dylan. They both talked about never having been able to study since they had to earn money. They were always smiling and enjoyed sharing information about what we were seeing as well as lots and lots of music. Alfredo (and his 11 siblings!) are from the Chaco region of the country and Mike and I both loved the Chaco folk music. Marleny definitely prefers clubby dance music.

The trip was mainly sitting in the jeep with stops for photos and meals. We drove through beautiful volcanic landscape dotted with herds of llama and vicuña and many small mudbrick villages and quinoa fields. I love that the llamas' herders mark them with bright woolly pompoms on the tips of their ears. One ghost town we walked through had many of our chinchilla-like friends the vizcachas playing in the snow.

We passed a number of lakes, one very green lake called Laguna Verde is concentrated with arsenic and magnesium and cannot support life. Another called Laguna Colorada was crowded with flamingoes. The algae and iodine in this lake give the water a red color that is most apparent in full sun. We saw it under clouds, but the flamingoes were as pink as ever. The volcanic activity all around this area also created great pools of boiling mud, sulfurous geysers and hot springs. After taking a dip in the last of these Mike said it sounded like a London pub after work.

The most remarkable thing we saw was the Uyuni salt flat, 12,000 square kilometers in area. It is flat and white and goes on and on. We headed there early in the morning for the sunrise, which happened behind the clouds while Alfredo was changing our flat tire. We climbed around among the cactus on the Isla del Pescado, which must have been a real island when water covered the area, and then took silly perspective-bending photos. Water runs under the salt and in places breaks through the surface in ojos. From these, Alfredo and Marleny pulled out giant salt crystals.

We stopped for a tailgate lunch each day, and then for dinner and sleep at several mudbrick hospedajes along the route. Our last evening we stayed near the Uyuni salt flat in an hospedaje built of salt bricks, with salt brick furniture and coarse salt covering the floor. A poster of El Presidente presided over our dinner table.

Now we are in Potosí and tomorrow will descend for a tour of the mines that honeycomb Cerro Rico, the mountain and silverlode that defined the colonial life of this city.

Humahuaca, Iruya, y San Isidro

When we returned from our road trip, we spent a couple more days in Salta with Steffen eating ice cream, hanging out with people dressed as giant kidneys, and visiting a folklórico museum dedicated to a banker, bohemian, and patron of local arts who went by the name Pajarito (little bird). Sadly, we had to say goodbye to Steffen yet again, but we hope to meet up with him in Cochabamba or in La Paz. Steffen took a bus to Missiones and Iguazu Falls and we got on a bus that took us through the otherworldly Quebrada (canyon) de Humahuaca to the town of Humahuaca. We got there after dark so we didn't get to see much of the town, but I did get to have my first taste of llama. Put it on the recommended list.

Early the following day we got on a bouncy bus that took us over a pass over 4000 meters above sea level (over 13,000 ft.) and down to a wonderful little indigenous village called Iruya nestled in another spectacular canyon. That day we took a walk up to the holy mirador to look down on the city and also visited the chanchos (a word that means both filthy and pig). We slept in a very comfortable and inexpensive hospedaje with a view of the muddy river and we were joined by our Austrian friends, Katrin and Wolfgang, who we met in San Martín and Mendoza.

In the morning we started walking down the canyon and then up another to the village of San Isidro. On the way we met a nice woman from Buenos Aires named Gabriella. After a while the trail crossed and recrossed the river. We saw a couple of locals do it but it was very swift and deep. We started up a trail that took us high up above the river but I foolishly turned us around because I thought the trail was too dangerous. It turned out to be a good alternative to crossing the river. Hilary kindly told me to go on to the town. San Isidro was similar to Iruya only smaller and inaccessible except by horse or on foot. After crossing the river several times, I came to enjoy it and ended up crossing it twelve times on my walk back to Iruya. The evening sun in the mountains was spectacular and donkeys stood patiently at the sides of the trail. It is a very different world in northern Argentina.

After two nights in Iruya we took a bus back to Humahuaca, had a little time to explore, spent the night, and then got on a bus to the unknown unknown that is Bolivia.