With some stuff in between
01.12.2014 - 23.12.2014
Immediately following the departure of my mum, I took a relatively short bus ride (3.5 hours) to the town of Baños (yes, this word DOES mean "bathroom" in Spanish, although the literal translation is just "bath", referring to the hot springs for which the area is known). This town is also recognized for its abundance of adventure sports, including, but not limited to rock climbing, rafting, bunjee jumping, paragliding, canyoning, and even "extreme" swinging (see pictures). No, I didn't do all of these myself, but I definitely had some fun in this town, and also came to learn the dangers of mixing beards with rappel lines. I hope the next person to use the equipment isn't too grossed out when they find a chunk of hair stuck in the belay device.
One warm afternoon in town, following a day of exploring, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the ice-cream truck tune playing in the streets. My excitement turned quickly into disappointment, as I realized this was in fact the song of the garbage truck. Why would the garbage truck play a high-pitched, overly-joyfull, repetitive melody as it drives around? Beats me. Despite the loss of beard hair and the deceiving garbage trucks, my time in Baños was actually very enjoyable, and I spent most of my time with a new group of friends who enjoyed small talk about as little as I do, to the point where we still didn't know each other's names after spending a full 3 days together. Eventually, it was time to move on again though, and I found myself all the way back in Lima in no time at all. Having already familiarized myself with this area, I felt no need to stick around.
26 hours of bus rides later, I had made it to Puno, a small town on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. What I found most surprising while staring out the windows of these bus rides was the complete lack of any vegetation in most of Peru. It seemed the entire drive was through nothing but barren, desertous, grey, rocky hills. Puno itself was nothing to brag about, so I quickly bused to Copacabana, the largest Bolivian town on Lake Titicaca. After having spent a while in low altitude, every time I climbed the five flights of stairs to my room on the lakeside (at around 4000 m), I felt as though my heart was going to explode out of my chest. It took the better part of a week in Bolivia before I felt relatively acclimatized again. My time at lake Titicaca was short, but sweet. I spent a night on la Isla del Sol, where the massive lake could have been easily mistaken for the ocean. The return trip to the mainland the next day was interesting though, as all faith was put in the hands of the boat driver as he navigated through a rainstorm, with no view at all of the nose of the boat. Even still, he managed to squeeze through a rocky gap only 1.5x the width of boat, while driving with the toes of a single foot (he couldn't reach the steering and see beyond the boat at the same time).
As I continued south, the next logical resting point was in La Paz. I've never before seen a city built with such little regard to the surrounding area. Most cities have found a relatively flat spot to be founded on, but La Paz is literally right in the middle of a steep and jagged mountain range. This fact, combined with the noise, chaos, and thin air of the city itself (La Paz is the world's highest administrative capital, at 3,650 m above sea level) makes for a very unique environment to find oneself in. Interestingly, La Paz also has a rather strong naval presence, despite sharing no boarders with the ocean. They used to, of course, but lost the land during 1879 to Chile. They have maintained their navy regardless, feeling they still have a claim to the Pacific.
Being in Bolivia felt a bit more like Guatemala than the rest of South America had. Markets lined almost every street, selling anything from fresh produce, to pirated DVDs, to bags of unknown powders, to llama foetuses. In front of each market stand was an old Bolivian woman, dressed in traditional garb and a very classy bowler hat, and between the stands ran a river of people, producing even more chaos than the streets filled with cars (which is hard to imagine). Bolivia did have the potential to be the cheapest country I had visited, but it is also the one the rips off tourists the most. Unfortunately, I had never felt more like a travelling bag of money.
After a few days exploring the cracks and crevices of La Paz, I wanted to continue south to Uyuni, a desert town famous for its salt flats and proximity to the Atacama desert (the highest and driest desert in the world, sitting between 4,000-5,000 m, without a single drop of rain ever recorded). The night bus ride to Uyuni was somewhat unique. Not so infrequently, a blizzard of sand would rage across the road and around the bus. I have no idea how the driver could see where he was going... although maybe he couldn't. On top of that, some of the "bus stops" would be nothing more than a person standing in the middle of the desert at 5 AM, without a single sign of any civilization for miles around. I suppose there's a system, I just don't get it.
I was relieved to find that the tacky christmas songs playing over every loudspeaker in Bolivia had been replaced by live music in Uyuni. I especially enjoyed the man playing "Silent Night" on his accordion, not bothering with words, but rather un-melodically singing "blaaahhh blah blaaahhh". After becoming quickly familiar with the town that spanned a whopping 9 square blocks, I set up a 3-day tour of the desert and salt flats, and before I knew it, I was riding in a jeep across a seemingly endless landscape of salt. The sunburn I had given my face in lake Titicaca also decided to peel at this point. I wouldn't be surprised if my tour group figured I was a leper for the first day or two.
Spanning more than 10, 000 square kilometres, the Uyuni salt flats are the largest in the world. We would drive (rather quickly) for long periods of time in a single direction and not see a single change in the flat, white landscape. It was bizarre. Another strange sight was the small rocky island in the middle of the flats, which supposedly used to be a coral reef when this 4,000 m high land was in the ocean. We spent the first night in a hotel built almost entirely out of salt, before leaving the flats and exploring the rest of the desert.
The desert surrounding Uyuni is a strange and barren place, filled with various multi-coloured lakes and mountains, and of course, flamingoes (from africa to the galapagos to the desertous Bolivian highlands, where don't these guys live?). After a day more of exploring around, we settled down for another night in the middle of nowhere, and were able to enjoy another amazing feature of this part of the world: the night sky. The altitude of our location (now 5,000 m) combined with the huge distance between us and any city resulted in one of the most spectacular starry nights I could imagine, with the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon. The following morning began with a trip to the nearby geysers at sunrise, and took us afterwards to a much anticipated bathe in the neighbouring hot springs. After a few hours in the jeep back to Uyuni, I wasted no time at all and jumped straight onto another bus, bringing me to the Argentinian boarder.
This was certainly one of the stranger bus rides I have taken in Latin America. The bus drove all through the night (not so unusual), but at around 3 30 in the morning, it decided to stop in the middle of nowhere. Too tired and confused to do anything, I fell back asleep in the stationary bus. I woke up again at around 7 AM to see a long line of Bolivians walking endlessly down the "highway", next to my still stationary bus. Now alone in the bus, but convinced I hadn't yet reached my destination, I stayed seated for another hour until, sure enough, a driver jumped back in, picked up a bunch of the walking Bolivians, and continued on. We stopped again half an hour later, when two more buses blocking the road prevented us from continuing. The bus driver assured me that the town was a 20 minute walk away. An hour and a half after walking down a desert road with a sea of Bolivians, very unsure of exactly where I was going, I arrived in the town of destination, and made my way to the boarder. Supposedly, all of the roads had been closed as a protest to their poor state and lack of upkeep. I still don't get why there were SO many people though, or why my bus felt the need to make two separate stops in the middle of nowhere. The boarder crossing wasn't any less confusing, but after standing in lines and running back and fourth to an Internet cafe, I made it into Argentina, and immediately jumped on another bus to the city of Salta. This bus was also held up for about 2 hours by protests. The roads looked fine here, so I'm not really sure what they were about.
In Argentina, I was able to feel for the first time that I was in summer, as opposed to a rainy or dry season. I was far enough south that true seasons had returned, and it wouldn't even get dark until 10 30 PM. It felt as though I was in some strange spanish-speaking parallel of North America. Daily routine, however, was hugely different. Everything shuts down completely for a siesta between 1-5 PM every day (a time of the day I had previously believed to be important for actually doing things), and the entire country becomes one big ghost-town. This is something I'm still not used to, although I suppose it does make sense when dinner time is at 10 or 11 PM, bed is at 1 or 2 AM (or sometimes never), and the day still starts at 7 AM.
After a day or two spent in Salta to recuperate from the plethora of busing I had endured, I took yet another bus down to Mendoza, the wine capital of Argentina (and arguably, of South America). Indeed, it was hard to avoid the huge flow of wine that runs through this region, especially when wine is served for free on buses, is handed out for free at the hostels every night, and cost about a fifth of the price of soy sauce when it wasn't free. None of it was bad wine, either (by North American standards, that is). Nevertheless, Christmas was a few days away, and I didn't much feel like spending it on a bus or in a hostel, so I quickly set up a volunteer position in Chilean Patagonia. Yet another few days on buses (South America really is huge), and I had arrived in the 7th country of my trip, thrilled to be in a place where I could stay put for a few weeks.
Stay tuned for the full set of photos!