Thursday, January 25, 2007

Mendoza, Argentina

Written by Lynn

The city of Mendoza is situated just on the Chilean border, seperated only by a thin strip of Andean mountains, visible from the town square. It is the heart of wine country here in Argentina, and every other shop is a bodega advertising fine wines and tours. The wines here are world famous, made special because of the "terroir" of the area. Of course, I have no idea what this means, but did have it explained to me.

There is a combanation of factors that makes Mendoza the perfect wine growing area. The first is it´s high altitude. Most of the grapes here are grown at an altitude of between 3000 to 5000 feet. This allows for a wide variation in tempuratures from day to night. The cool evenings stop the grapes´growth, which allows the flavour to mature and sugars to concentrate. The next special feature is the desert soils, whose low organic content actually increase vine yield. They also allow for proper drainage of the fields, promoting deep and vigorous root growth. Finally, the area is actually quite arid, averaging only 8 inches of rain a year. Initially this appeared to be an obstacle for many of the European wine growers that immigrated here hundreds of years ago. It was overcome by the building of a complex system of irrigation channels that can be seen running along side the roads in the area. This allows the vineyards to control the amount of hydration the vines get, preventing the grapes from becoming "watery and fragile". Because of the low humidity and rainfall, in combination with the higher elevation, it means that most fungi and parasites that are the bane of other wine areas are not viable here, meaning all the grapes are grown organically. The end result - a wide variety of wonderful wines. Apparently they are also amazingly healthy for you! Comparison to a selection of red wines from France, Spain, Italy, Chile and Australia show that the wines grown here contain 6 times more polyphenol, meaning they are even better for your heart.

On top of the large number of high class drunkards running around the streets, there is also an inordinate number of mountaineers. The reason being that Mendoza is the jumping off spot for those interested in climbing Aconcagua - the highest mountain outside of the Himalayans, topping out at almost 23,000 feet (Mount Everest is 27, 000 feet for comparison). Being that it takes 14 to 21 days to summit (including acclimitization) we decided against attempting it (oh, and we are NOT climbers and people actually die doing this trek!).

We did decide to go for broke and rent a car to get out to the town of Uspallata, right in the middle of the mountain range. Uspallata and the surrounding area were the site of the filming of the 1997 move "Seven Years in Tibet", starring Brad Pitt. This means that everywhere you go in this small village you see pictures of Brad (pre-Angelina), and there´s even a pub called the Tibetan Bar.

While out in Uspallata we went out to see the Rock of Seven Colours (I only counted 5, but it depends on whether or not white and off-white are two different ones) and met some university students that were heading out there as well. The difference being we were in our crappy car, and they were on foot. It should be noted that the Rock of Seven Colours is about 7 km outside of town on a dusty "road" in the middle of nowhere, with no signs giving you an inkling of where you are going. Feeling a bit bad for the trio we stopped and picked them up in our fancy rental Chevy Corsa. Turns out the three - Fredirico, Paula, and Christina - were final year law students on their summer break. Given our new found auto freedom, we promised to pick them up the next day to take them out to the moutains with us.

So bright and early the next day the 5 of us set out to see the sites. The first stop was the Puente del Inca (spanish for "Inca Bridge"). This is a naturally formed, bright yellow, rock bridge spanning the Rio Mendoza. It is believed that it was formed because of the unique meeting of frigid mountain run offs and hot thermal springs, which allowed for sulfurous water to collect and settle on top of ice dams. You used to be able to walk across the bridge to reach a now defunct Thermal Resort and Spa, but recent evidence that the bridge was starting to shift meant that this was no longer possible.

After stopping here for a bit, we made our way to the El Christo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer). This 8m tall statue was erected at the border of Chile and Argentina on the old border road. It sits at an elevation of 3800m and is accessible either by hiking along 9km of a sinuous dirt road that climbs up the mountainside, or can be driven in a 4WD in the summer. Happily it was summer, sadly we had no 4WD. But that didn´t deter us from taking our poor little car, loaded down to the axles with 5 adults, on the road anyways............the things the car rental companies don´t know won´t hurt them.

The last stop of the day was Aconcagua National Park. Here there is a small hike that leads you through an alpine valley and, on a clear day, offers an amazing view of the peak of Mount Aconcagua. It is where the serious mountaineers begin their long trek to the summit, and was quite busy this time of year as the mountain is best climbed from mid-December to end of February. The 5 of us just stuck to the smallish hike, content to watch the "real deal" start out with their massive packs.

After parting ways with the "kids", as we called them (I feel so old) we stayed another night in Uspallata then headed back towards Mendoza, a 1.5 hour drive away. We were looking for an inexpensive place to stay amongst the wineries on the edge of town, but were unable to find anything. What we did find (quite exciting) was a Wal-Mart!! How embarrassing, we actually stopped and bought some new cheap t-shirts as we were getting tired of seeing the same ones day after day.

Unable to find a suitably priced place outside of town we went back to Mendoza and got a cheap room. We had arranged to move into an apartment the following day where we had planned to spend a couple weeks relaxing, doing nothing and just generally trying to lead a more normal existence. We did not return the car, as it was due back the next morning at 10AM, and we thought we´d be smart and use it to move our packs the next day, saving the trouble of us dragging them the 10 blocks to our new home. Sadly, this was a mistake. That night the window on the passenger door was smashed and Gilles´ hiking shoes stolen. On the bright side, it only cost us $40 to have the window fixed, on the down side Gilles still has to figure out what to do for shoes.

Our new landlady, Viviana, felt so bad for us, and shocked that this would happen in Mendoza, she upgraded our accomadations. We had originally rented a 1 bedroom apartment with a kitchen and living room for 90 pesos a day (about $30). Instead we ended up in a 4 bedroom condo with 2 washrooms, huge kitchen, living room, dining room, internet, cable tv, air conditioning and yard, all for the same price. Viviana said no one was using it anyways.

Turns out it was a good thing we had the yard, if nothing else. The next day we went to walk to the local zoo. Along the way we found a puppy lying in a ditch that had likely been quite recently hit by a car. We called her Stella, for the number of beers we could have drank had we not had to pay vet bills (I know, all you non-vets are laughing your ass off at me, suddenly on the other end of the stick). She looked pretty dejected, a 4-month old german shepard pup, sitting up to her haunches in dirty water. So we pulled her out, flagged down a cab and went to the vet just down the road from our apartment.

For all the vet-ish people out there (and others that care), the following is Stella´s problem list from front to back - tick infestation (I removed about 50 of the buggers - gross); goopy eyes; mandibular canines were growing in base narrow requiring the extraction of 704 and 804 (that´s for you MVH!); moderately sore left foreleg; wet coughs with dyspnea (problems breathing) with an abdominal effort (gums were nice and pink though); tachycardia (high heart rate); abdominal guarding on palpation but no fluid wave (sore belly, but no sign of internal bleeding); mild stress diarrhea (yum); initially unable to support any weight on her hind limbs but with good proprioception, withdrawal and conscious urination, no obvious fractures or dislocations (sore back legs, but no obvious nerve damage or breaks); puppy vaginitis; and a bit of a skin infection, likely from sitting in dirty water.

Well, the rest of this story I leave to Gilles, and is in an upcoming posting. Kinda like a blog cliffhanger......................

Enough said about that. We had put all our plans on hold this week as we didn´t want to leave Stella alone at the apartment. With 3 full days left until we went to Santiago, we decided that it would be a shame to not get out to see some of the winery bodegas. Originally we had planned on paying to do a full day tour, but had scrapped that idea when we thought we would have no time. But in the meantime we had discovered a company that would rent us bikes and provide us with a map of wineries. So we headed back out to wine country and wandered around for the day. The first winery we visited was partially set up as a museum and walked you through the differences in how wine was first produced in the area centuries ago (grapes crushed in large leather vats by stepping on them and the juice then buried in clay containers to ferment) in comparison to now (picture a highly scientific and strictly controlled environment in which measuring pH, tempurature, and sugar content is performed twice daily; in combination with traditional time tested methods of oak aging wine). After this we went to see a few other wineries and a chocolateria then staggered our bikes back to where we started.

After a few more days of relaxing, required to recover from our winery tour, we got back on a bus and headed to Santiago. Apparently I lied when I said the Bolivian-Argentinian border took a long time. It was a 2 hour ordeal to process our bus when we crossed into Chile, the biggest problem being an extensive search through bags for fruits and vegetables being spirited into the country. When we finally made it to Santiago we rented a room in the historical district of town. We spent the night wandering around town and wondering at the enormous number of hotdog stands - apparently Chile´s national dish - served literally dripping with mayonaise, guacomole and ketchup. Yuck!

Then next day we went to the "world famous Santiago zoo", or so our guidebook labelled it. Now, it´s been a number of years since I´ve gone to any zoo, and this trip reinforced why. The zoo is quite small and built on the side of a hill, further restricting the size of the pens. Some of the enclosures, such as the one for the monkeys and the aviary, were quite well done, and in their defence the zoo was in the process of remodelling the chimpanzee area as well. But the poor elephants were standing in a small fenced area with nothing but a dead tree and a shallow pool of water. The jaguar was locked out of his resting area so he could be more easily seen. Worst of all were the polar bears. Now imagine walking around and sweating your ass off because it is just plain HOT out. You come around a corner and there are 2 polar bears. One is lying beside a small pool of water on cement in the shade panting, and the other is locked in a different area with no pool and is just pacing - back and forth, back and forth. Poor bears. I think it will be another few years before I make it to another zoo.

The following day it was finally off to the airport. We are leaving mainland South America and I am very excited as our next stop is Easter Island, a place I have always wanted to visit.

Don´t Cry For Me, Argentina

Written by Lynn

It was a reverse culture shock...........

We left Uyuni in the dead of night on a train that by the morning had delivered us to the
Bolivian-Argentinian border. After waiting for an hour in the slowest passport line yet, we crossed into Argentina, home of the gaucho cowboys and of Eva Peron, Madonna´s character in the pop rock musical (first written by Andrew Lloyd Webber), listed above. Our first shock was how much more expensive buses were, as we booked our tickets to our first stop, the colonial city of Salta. The tickets were three times as expensive as any we had bought in Bolivia, though, admittedly, it could be argued that the bus was three times as nice (and EVERYONE actually had a seat assignment, no one in the aisles!).

When we got to Salta, it was our second shock. We had come from a very indigenous town, with the traditional markets, the less than clean streets full of children begging and what we North Americans would consider to be often "sub-standard" restaurant and lodging facilities. What we arrived at was a town that could have easily been mistaken as being European in origin. The main square was ringed with small, intimate cafes surrounding busy streets crowded with well dressed people. Other travellers had told us that Argentina was much more "european", but we weren´t really prepared for the immense difference between the two countries - Bolivia so poor that most people struggle to put together an evening meal, to Argentina where the day´s biggest concern is what outfit to wear to the club that night. And the two widely varying lifestyles seperated by a minor 12 hours of travel.

But far be it for us to complain. We had been looking forward to making it to New Zealand as a way to get back to more "normality" so were a bit shell shocked to have it happen sooner. The biggest problem turned out to be the Argentian accent, that slurs all the spanish words together, making it almost impossible for us to understand anything. Happily, however, we managed to settle into our air conditioned hotel room with private bath, hot showers and maid service quite quickly. We also found out that the food was everything that had been boasted about, and more. Red wine and more red wine, enormous steaks and other assorted meats done as a "parrilla" (grilled over aromatic woods), croissants dripping with butter and served with espresso - wow! All that weight I had lost during my starvation periods in Venezuela and Bolivia seemed doomed to find me again...............

In an effort to stave off complete and utter indolence we rented bikes and did a trip out to a small community just outside of Salta, called San Lorenzo. Here there are million dollar homes set on acreages with in ground pools, horse barns and private wineries -
no $200 a month salaries for these people! We checked into house prices and found that for a mere $500, 000 US we too could live with the rich and possibly famous. Of course, being that we had to quibble over the price of a bike rental for an afternoon, this didn´t seem like it was going to happen any time soon.

The next day we took a trip to the Museum of High Altitude Archeology of Salta. We were
drawn there to see an exhibit of mummies that had been discovered a mere 7 years ago in the mountains surrounding the town. There are over 200 high altitude shrines and archeological that have been discovered in the Andes, with 40 of them in the region of Salta. In March 1999 an archeology team, headed by Dr. Johan Reinhard, an anthropologist from the United States, discovered the "Llullaillico" children - 3 frozen mummies, the oldest only 15 years old, found at 6700 m (about 20,000ft) near the summit of the Llullaillico mountains. These children who had lived over 500 years ago at the height of the Inca empire just shortly before the Spanish conquest, had been sacrificed to the Incan gods. Along with the mummies, over 146 artifacts that made up their burial troves were also uncovered.

Human sacrifice was a rare event amongst the Incas and performed on only the most
important of occasions, such as the death of an Incan ruler. 1 or more children from each of the suyas (aka. "communities") were chosen and taken to Cusco for a ritual ceremony. These children were usually born into royal or ruling families and chosen for their physical perfection and beauty. After a number of animal sacrifices the children were joined in symbolic union to others from different communities, thus sealing alliances. Following the ceremonies, the children (some just babes in arm) returned to their suyas along with their attendants and priests, ritually travelling a straight line rather than using throughfares, forcing them to overcome often huge geographical obstacles. Once home they were greeted with great joy and celebration, dressed in their finest clothes and taken immediately to the offering site. Here they were plied with chicha (corn beer) until they fell asleep and then buried with an assembled treasure trove. It was the Incan belief that these children did not die, but rather were reunited with their ancestors and protected the village from the peaks of the mountains where they now lived.

The three mummies were all in an amazing state of preservation when found, naturally
mummified by freezing. The first mummy, called the Lightning Girl, was about 6 years old. At some point after her death her body was struck by lighting, leaving significant burns on the left side of her face, neck and shoulders. She was seated with her legs bent and facing west-southwest. Her skull had been deformed into a conical shape when young, indicating nobility. The second girl, known as the Maiden, was estimated to be 15 years old and had her face painted with red pigment. It was believed that she was an "aclla" (Virgin of the Sun, a woman gifted to the inca ruler, who then lived in the House of Chosen Women). CT scans performed on her body revealed that when she died she was suffering from sinusitis and bronchitis. The only boy discovered at this site was 7 years old and sat with his head facing the rising sun. He had the largest trove of artifacts with him, including slings and groups of miniature statues arrayed to appear in a diorama as finely dressed men leading caravans of llamas. He was also apparently a member of the ruling class, having a short hair cut, a white feather head ornament and a deformed skull.

All of these mummies are present in the museum available for viewing, though contained in
atmospherically controlled display cases. During the study of the mummies it was decided that minimally invasive techniques would be used to study them. CT scans, odontological survey radiographs and punch biopsies to obtain DNA were all done in limited 20 minute time frames to prevent thawing of the bodies. The mummies today appear pretty much as found, even their clothing still intact.....or so we heard. After building up the anticipation by going through the various rooms and religiously reading all the English literature available, we arrived at the room containing the mummies - only to find it was closed for maintenance. What an incredible disappointment. So as a warning, all the pictures of the Llullaillico children you see here, they´ve been stolen from another website :(

After hanging in Salta for a few days we decided that we HAD to see Iguazu falls. Unfortunately, it´s not the easiest place to get to. Situated on a small finger of land that makes up the border of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, it is in the proverbial middle of nowhere. But having recently seen "The Mission", with Robert DeNiro (fine movie, check it out for a better understanding of the history of the Jesuit mission in the area), it seemed like it would be worth the effort. So after 2 days of back to back travelling (with an overnight stay in the incredibly boring town of Corrientes) we made it to Puerto Iguaza. My first impression - oh my god, is it hot here! It was easily 40 degrees celsius with humidity ratcheting that up another 10 degrees or so. Sweat just starts when you leave the air conditioning, and then has no where to go. I am not a heat person, so suffered a bit, but it was worth it to see the falls.

The word "iguazu" come from the local Guarani language and means "big water". The falls are made up of a series of 270 cascades that are up to 82m in height. The most impressive is the Garganta del Diablo (or "devil´s throat") that is a U-shaped behemoth that is 150m wide and 700 m long. From the Brazilian side (which we didn´t make it to) there is apparently a perpetual rainbow during daylight hours that is created from the amount of spray sent up. As a comparison that you can relate to, Iguazu falls have a peak flow of over 400,000 square metres during wet season, in comparison to Niagara´s piddly 180,000 square metres. To its credit, however, Niagara´s overall yearly output is apparently higher than Iguazu´s as it is not subject to seasonal variation (apparently, had we shown up 6 months from now, it would be barely a trickle).

To get to these falls and many of the others you take a small train out to a series of well kept trails that meander through the jungle ecosystem of the surrounding national park. While on these trails you can view a huge variety of birds and over 50 species of butterflies, the occasional reptile, and, if you´re really lucky, even a monkey or two. Collared anteaters are all over the place, apparently the raccoons of South America, often seen with their long striped tails hanging out of garbage cans. You also have the pleasure of viewing these marvels with THOUSANDS of other tourists. Considering how remote this place was, it was truly amazing the number of people to complete this pilgrimage (though it is the summer holiday season here in Argentina).

Since there wasn´t much to do in Puerto Iguazu other than see the falls and sweat a lot, we left the following evening on an overnight bus to the capital - Buenos Aires, where 45% of Argentina´s population of 38,000,000 live. Here we managed to get ourselves into a hostel right down town so we could wander around and enjoy the sights. We also decided (as we had never taken one before) to pay for a city bus tour. What an incredible waste of money!! It was almost 5(!!) hours of driving from one souvenir booth to another, with a few stops in between at the football stadium and main squares. Suffice it to say we will never do that again. The advantage of the bus tour was that it did show us the various districts of Buenos Aires, including the infamous La Boca, a colourfully painted neighbourhood infamous as the original site of Tango.

We did manage, while we were in town, to take in our first movie on the big screen in months. We also went to the infamous Cemetery of th Recoleta. This enormous "city" houses over 6400 family masoleums, many of them works of art, adorned with life size carved marble statues. Should you want to buy a plot here (if you can find anyone to sell it to you) it would cost you a mere $20,000 per square metre to lie with the presidents, general and Argentinian "royalty". In this cemetery you can even view the grave of Eva Peron, also known as Evita (or "little Eva"). She was the beloved wife of Juan Domingo Peron, president of Argentina
from 1946 until 1955 when a military coup unseated him. From 1946 until her death in 1952 at the age of 33 from cancer, Evita was incredibly active in politics. She founded the Eva Peron Charitable Foundation (which stills handles over $100 million dollars annually in charitable donations) and the Female Peronian Party (the first large scale female political party in Argentina that won the right for women to vote in 1951). Just prior to her death she was declared the Spiritual Leader of the Nation. Interestingly, her body is buried 8 metres underground in order to prevent it from disappearing as it did in 1955. After Juan Peron was overthrown, he fled into exile and Evita´s body was spirited away. It was not until 1971 that the Argentinian military revealed that it was buried in Italy under an assumed name "Maria Maggi". In 1974 her body was finally returned to Argentina and now lies in her family´s tomb protected by several layers of marble and metal.

As we had only a few days in Buenos Aires, it was with great regret that we missed out on a tango show. Happily there is an almost constant parade of street performers in many districts, so we did manage to see a little bit of dancing. After a few days we continued on to our final destination in Argentina - the city in the heart of wine country, Mendoza.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The World´s Most Dangerous Road

Written by Gilles

The World´s Most Dangerous Road--La Cumbre to Coroico, Bolivia.

What you need is 64 kms of paved and unpaved road, cold, rain, hail, dirt, mud, 1000 meter drop offs, lots of cross´s commemorated the dead, some traffic and a change of underwear.
An hour outside of La Paz starting point for this so called "Danger ride" is a place called La Cumbre, at an altitude of 4670 meters (14260 ft)!! it feels like being on the moon, a bare landscaped and this particular morning it was blanketed by a thick fog that added to the ambiance and.....DANGER!!!

We are high in the Andes, high enough that when I tried to ride up a small hill with my newly rented Rocky Mountain (Canadian made bike) that within 25 meters I felt like my chest was being crushed and my lungs and legs were begging for oxygen!!

Not a good start, but lucky for the 7 of us it´s all down hill and requires very little pedalling, or so we hoped. A couple of minutes warm up and off we go down the paved section of the road for 30 kms of cold, rain and hail. We are all a bit frozen by km 10, toes and fingers have no feeling left and all we can do is keep descending towards the warm jungle of Coroico in hopes to regain sensation in those parts. It´s a pretty simple descent snaking it´s way down the mountains, the views are spectacular and the altitude of course breathtaking. It´s a very uneventful and safe 30 km descent that most people could do quite easily. We did however manage to hit about 65 to 70 kph on these clunker bikes which added to the fun. After a quick snack we stop at the dirt section of the road and where the "official" Worlds Most Dangerous Road begins and listened to some wise words from our tour guide.

In 1995, the Inter American Development Bank (?) christened it the most dangerous road in the world, there have been many articles written about this road and one of the most recent was in the BBC. It paints a pretty grim picture of the road which we just paid to ride down for fun doesn´t it?

Aside from the BBC article, riding the road on a bicycle is a complete other story. A story which of course includes DEATH!, so I guess it really isn´t all that different. Anyhow, according to my guide at Down Hill Madness over the last 5 years or so, 6 or 7 deaths on bikes have occurred. Different types of people have lost there lives to the road from a young 21 yr old Israeli girl who just rode off the cliff, not paying attention, to a section of the road that is now called Italian Corner for two Italians racing down the hill and not making the turn completely, the bike stayed up but one of the riders did not..there´s a cross bearing each of there names there now.

Being an ex racer, the road is pretty easy to descend while riding at a controlled pace and a good guide keeps everything in check and the riders safe especially in the blind corners. One can certainly understand how accidents happen, it doesn´t take more then a second of not paying attention in the wrong area and you can go flying off a cliff of a 100 meters or less. It´s easy to be distracted by the beauty of the surroundings and getting caught rubber necking at the carnage left below of the cars, trucks and buses that have driven over the edges. I´ve caught myself a couple of times day dreaming about how easy it would be to fly over the edge and corners coming up at you fast. Our guide makes us stop every 20 odd minutes to regroup and to tell us the horror stories of the road. You actually get to a point where you don´t want to stop anymore in order to avoid the gruesome details of the roads victims, like this next one!!

3 months ago was the last big accident on the road, of course exactly at the spot where our guide chose to stop and tell us about it. A bus carrying around 60 passengers drove right off the cliff, 30 some odd died and 20 some odd managed to live by jumping out the windows while the bus plummeted to it´s final resting spot. As we look down we see the remnants of the bus and can only image the horror of the descent. We thought that was the end of his story but no, he proceeds to tell us in his non chalant Bolivian manner that the very next day he had to guide a tour down this road and where the bus had met it´s maker (GOD if you´re wondering) and all the decapitated bodies where still on the road because it took rescue teams more than 2 days to retrieve the dead!! He said the group he was guiding was horrified and that it was a slower (and SAFER) ride down than usual. No kidding.

What makes matters worse on this road is that we the bikes have to ride on the left side of the road while the cars and trucks have the right of way closest to the actually mountain hugging it as tight as possible. But now that the new road is open just of last week the traffic is insignificant and not really a hazard at all. It takes a way from the Danger aspect and it looks like "The Road" will lose it´s title in the end to some other road in Tibet.

A rank it high on beauty, adreneline and horror stories..glad I survived.

Gilles Champagne reporting, live from Coroico, Bolivia- Good Night and Good Luck!

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Salar de Uyuni

Written by Lynn

The Bolivian Salt Flats (aka. Salar de Uyuni) are the biggest in the world. At a staggering 10,500 square kilometres they are approximately 25 times the size of the more well known Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah (see the movie, The World's Fastest Indian, if you've never heard of these ones). They contain about 10 billion tons of salt, in some spots 10 metres deep, of which 25,000 tons are extracted annually. The local townspeople will even cut blocks of salt to use as bricks in making their homes, or carve tables and chairs from them.

Right on the edges of this amazing vista the landscape makes a sudden and dramatic change, as it is ringed by chains of volcanoes and colourful, briny lakes. At times, groups of wind carved rocks reminiscent of a Star Wars landscape burst out of from behind massive sand dunes. Because of its bizarre and varied landscape it also happens to be a must see on the Bolivian tourist trail.

The first challenge is to get yourself to Uyuni, a small dustbowl of a town on the edge of the salt flats surrounded by a lot of nothing. It's a 6 hour bus ride on yet another incredibly bumpy road, only difference being that during Christmas and New Year's there is even more travel than normal, which means not only are all the seats sold out the day before, but there is standing room only in the aisles. If you've never driven 6 hours with an old man using your shoulder as a stool, you really should try it. It suddenly makes you appreciate the Toronto subway.

In Uyuni it is possible to arrange to take a tour of the salt flats that last anywhere from 1 to 6 days, even longer if you wish. We were lucky enough to be able to hook up with some friends we met while touring Los Llanos in Venezuela. Daniel and Kay, from England, happened to be travelling in the same general direction as us, though we missed them by less than a day in Cusco. Since there were 4 for us we were able to modify our tour a little, though we had a pay a bit of a premium price for it. First we asked that they limit our group to the 4 of us. Not because we're antisocial, but because most tours will try to stuff 6 or 7 tourists in a Land Rover, not fun for 4 days on a bumpy road. Next we asked that we detour off the normal gringo trail to visit the Mirador Volcano, where we wanted to do an easy 2 hour trek up to a look out point over both the salt flats and the now dead volcano. As an added bonus we found out that along the way we were going to get to see some mummies found in the local hills.

The next day at a very civilized hour of 10:30 we headed out on our tour. The four days are jam packed with one after another awe inspiring sites. I don't think we drove more than 2-3 hours at any time without seeing something different and, at times, very freaky. Our first stop was the Uyuni train cemetary. Piles and piles of rusted metal litter the abandoned tracks here. Having never seen a real steam engine up close before, it was quite an interesting half hour spent climbing in and out of all the trains.

After an hour on the dusty roads we reached the very edges of the salt flats and were already amazed. As far as the eye could see stretched an endless sea of blindingly white salt. It was a challenge for us to convince ourselves we hadn't been dropped off in Iqualuit on the edge of the frozen ocean, though the fact we were wearing shorts and t-shirts really helped. Amazingly, because the flats are so extensive it creates an optical illusion that eliminates all depth perception (notice me holding up Gilles and Daniel in minuature).

We made a few stops right along the edges of the salt flats. Once was to see a salt processing factory, where the local women, assisted by their children (sort of, the kids spent a lot more time building salt castles than helping), bag the fire dried salt to sell at the local market for 8 bolivianos ($1US) per kilogram. We also went to see the infamous Salt Hotel, which no longer is allowed to rent out accomodations because of thier inability to handle all the waste created. We stopped to dig salt crystals out from pockets where the salt continues to bubble through to the surface. The flats are actually the remnants of a 40,000 year old ocean, and underneath the surprisingly thick crust there still remains an unknown depth of water that continually renews the salt that is harvested. Salt crystals form on the bottom of this crust, probably because of electrical currents when there are lightning strikes on the flats (amazing electrical storms out here!). After this we headed to the northern edge of the salt plains where we were being put up in a local village just below the Mirador Volacano. Right along the edges of the salt plains water was collecting, creating an enormous mirror that reflected everything with crystal clarity. Sunset and sunrise were both unbelievable as a result.

The next day we started our trek up to the overlook by the volcano. We climbed up approximately 1000m, topping out at 4300m, with lots of rest stops on the way. The first was to view some mummies. There was a family of 4, including 2 children, who were found in the cave we went into. They had apparently died there of either exposure or starvation, likely in a period about 100BC. The cave was then expanded and used to house 3 other mummies along with these ones. The new mummies were buried in a traditional fetal position, the ligaments of their legs having to be severed to allow for it.

After lunch it was onwards to the Isla Pescado (or fish island; a bit of a misnomer for a chunk of land covered by cacti in the middle of an enormous pile of salt, but apparently from above it looks like one?!). This might be my worst possible nightmare of a island to be deserted on. There is nothing but dead coral making up a rocky landscape covered by cacti, some as tall as 8metres. The only upside is the fact that I got to try cactus fruit, which is delicious!

On day 3 we spend hours travelling across high altitude deserts, seeing active volcanoes from a safe distance and a variety of lakes that are a haven for flamingoes. There are apparently 3 different types of flamingoes that make this area their home (the Andean, James and Chilean), feeding off the algae rich waters. In addition to the flamingoes we were also lucky enough to see an indigenous fox, several types of ducks and other waterfowl, wild llamas and the elusive vicuna (though this one was obviously not that elusive as it was standing at the gas station begging for cookies). There was also a wide variety of plants not seen anywhere else. The most interesting of these was the yareta, that looks like a big green brain. It only grows at 3500 - 4000 metres and is used as a source of fuel by the locals. We also saw several very interesting rock formations created by centuries of blowing sand, including the Arbol de Piedra (or ¨tree rock¨).

This worked out to be New Year´s eve, spent on the edges of Laguna Colorado. All sounds lovely, except that we had to be up at 4AM the next day, so we celebrated the UK New Year´s Eve (happened at 9pm Bolivian time) and were off to bed.

At 4AM in the middle of nowhere Bolivia, the stars are amazing and the big dipper is upside down (surprised me for some reason). We loaded up the truck so we could make it up the mountain, topping out at 6000m this time, in order to catch the sun rise by the Sol de Manana geysers, an awe inspiring example of the earth´s crust being unable to contain the power of the magma beneath it. After this we drove to the hot springs and had a quick swim before breakfast.

After this it is a VERY long day getting back to Uyuni, thank god there were only 4 of us in the truck so we could sleep comfortably. All in all it was likely one of the most impressive tours I´ve ever taken, and completely unexpected what we saw. Bolivia - it´s cheap, it´s amazing, it´s worth the trip!!