Bolivia, Chile & Argentina
After three years living in Ecuador, Jane traveled in Bolivia with her boyfriend Javier. Jane died her blond hair in order to miss some of the harassment that a blond receives in Latin America. Her previous adventures and photographs from Ecuador are in the following order: In the Shadow of Tungurahua, Galapagos, No Pasa Nada, Siga No Mas and Cuenca. Travel Tips for the Ecuadorian Andes
Welcome to adventures in Bolivia.
Estoy aqui en Copacabana with Javier. I’m telling you that you absolutely feel the altitude. Even athletic Javier feels it. I feel like I’m on top of the world and driving in we went around Lake Titicaca. The mountains are very barren and brown and the lake changed colors with the passing of the clouds from blue to green to black. It reminds me of what you would imagine Mars to be like if all of the seas became unfrozen. Well, I'm pretty light headed so I should go.
Well, I’m having a fantastic time here. The lake is just absolutely incredible. It’s like being around a lake in the sky. Yesterday, Javier and I took a small hike to a view point and we stayed for about 2 and a half hours just watching the lake and sky change colors.
Other than that, last night we played hopscotch with a few neighborhood kids. Javier came in second. I came in last.
Oh, and guess what Javier said about my hair? I’m so glad that you dyed your hair a orange brown instead of a blue brown. A blue brown wouldn’t have looked very good on you. I hadn’t even told him what Emily had said. (Before Jane left, Emily had asked her if her hair was an red brown or a blue brown. Jane didn't even know there were two browns.) It’s also nice to have a tour guide. Because he studied anthropology and geography, he has been able to tell me all kinds of things about the customs, rock formations and plants. This is great.
About 2 years ago, I read a National Geographic article about the Andes and it described the wind as being almost its own entity here. It talked about the wind as if it characterized the Andes themselves or as if it were a God. Living in the perfectly climated Ecuador, I always wondered how the author came up with that idea. I was never disturbed by the wind.
Last night Javier and I spent the night in a hostal on top of Isla del Sol with one side overlooking the Peruvian border of the lake and the other the Bolivian. I awoke in the middle of the night and I heard the wind roaring and whipping through the mountains and along the lake. I soon realized what that author was talking about and why most of the people here have chapped cheeks.
In the morning, we took a three hour hike to the northern side of the Island starting from the south. Even though there weren't any steep climbs, I don’t know if I would have made it without the help of Coca leaves which take away the sensation of cold, allow you to breathe better and take away your hunger. There were ruins at the end of the walk but the trail itself was more impressionable than the ruins as we were on top of the island with a panoramic view of the lake--blacks, blues, turquoises and greens. Then, there are the snowy peaks that surround the lake--you really feel like you are at the top of it all. The people have all been friendly. I read in the guidebook that 65% are indigenous and this is evident as everyone still dresses traditionally and seems to live pretty traditionally. We saw several couples in there felt hats and clothes left over from the conquest (the women have the custom of wearing the long skirts because that's what the women wore when the Spanish conquested them) herding their sheep, pigs, and vicunas. It couldn't have been a nicer day. To top it off, we were able to rent a private boat to take us back to the south for only 10 dollars.
Tomorrow, we’ll be traveling to Cochabamba where there are supposedly fiestas. I tell you what. I’m really glad that I brought my hiking shoes and my down parka. I definitely needed them.
Forgot to tell you about the ruins which were supposedly where the first king of the Incas appeared and where the sun god was born.
Well, I'll tell you what--Javier was absolutely right about dying my hair. I have not received one whistle, one comment and people are not staring at me. This includes the times when I'm not with Javier.
Right now, we're in a town called Cochabamba that's at a lower altitude and has a pleasant climate. We went to the markets today where they had all different kinds of produce--avocadoes the size of large grapefruits, melons in a color of yellow that mom would describe as yummy, all different kinds of spices and vegetables, but the most interesting were the potatoes. I sat and talked with one of the vendors for about 20 minutes about the 10 different types of potatoes and how you cooked them and what you ate them with. There was the potato shaped like a tiny yam that you left out to bake in the sun for 3 days to bring out the sweetness, then boiled and eaten with chicken, the purple potato, the freeze dried potato, the normal boiling potato, the small muñocos that you serve cold with salad dressing. I have never seen so many. Then, the different typed of corn are also incredible. I tried four different types of corn, yellow, brown, purple, white--all with their own distinct flavor. The vendor there was more than happy to give me the taste of something new and never asked me to buy anything. People especially seem to be interested in me and Javier as a couple, and everyone asks where both of us are from. One aged woman held out her hand and asked me to try some ají only because she wanted to see my eyes water and my expression. She got a big kick out of the whole ordeal and had to add the obligatory, ''Hot, isn't it.''
So, I'm having a great time here. The bus ride from La Paz to this valley reminded me of driving from Texas into New Mexico, only at about 14,000 feet and higher. Javier wasn't so impressed with the scenery, the barrenness, the absence of towns, the straightness of the road, the yellow high plains vegetation. He's spoiled by the greenness of Ecuador, the patchwork fields on the sides of mountains, the dramatic turns of the bus as it winds around mountains (we definitely later wound through mountains after our 4 hours on the straight road). However, I enjoyed it the contrast of yellow against the purple and grey of the mountains in the background and the blue of the sky. The small farms also interested me--sod brick houses, thatched roofs, mud walled corrals and then the people weathered in traditional dress--bright red, long skirts colorful shirts and woolen hats herding the sheep or pig or lama. This solitary figure against all that barren yellow short grass and dirt was dramatic enough for me. I wished I could have taken a picture of it all, but we were in the bus, so I'll just have the memory.
Other than that, both Javier and I noted that the small towns we saw in the mountains could've been the small towns belonging to the Inca hundreds of years ago as the settlements look similar to the ruins of pueblos we've both seen. I'm sure the dress and weavings haven't changed very much either. I guess if you want to see the Indigenous population of the Andes and ancient cultures which still run strong you come to Bolivia.
Well, I think I've found my favorite colonial city in Latin America. Javier and I are in Sucre and it's clean, well kept and absolutely beautiful. The other nice thing is that there aren't very many tourists. The central park is huge with lots of trees and benches surrounded by buildings with baroque architecture and a clock tower that was constructed in England and sent here. It's really evident that the silver mines brought in a lot of money.
Other than that, I thought I would tell you about our bus journey here. We were on a dirt road that winded through the Andes having the normal sheer drops into nothingness and scary roads. All the buses travel through the night, and Javier and I have decided that it's because of how bad the road is. At any rate, the worst part was when we felt our bus suddenly tip over to the right side. The driver turned on the lights which meant that the passengers were to get off the bus. Everyone was very frightened to say the least. Javier and I thought that the bus was about to fall off the side of the mountain. Luckily, that wasn't the case, but what had happened was that there had been a landslide which had destroyed the main part of the road. To the right was the narrow part where the traffic had been passing, which was really washed out and looked like it was about to collapse into a landslide itself. So, we all got off the bus, everyone pretty scared for how tipped to the side the bus was. All of the Bolivians and ourselves refused to get back on the bus until it passed the narrow detour.
The attendants and driver dug the bus out of its hole and then we all walked to the other side of the wash out. The bus driver by some sort of miracle drove straight towards the ledge sharply turned back towards the road and made it across. When we got back on the bus, the driver was crying I suppose from relief and wiping the tears from his eyes with a handkerchief. It was one of the scariest moments of my life, and I won't be coming back on this road. As scared as I am of flying, I think that the trip might be worth a flight between La Paz and Sucre.
Luckily this city is so beautiful that it makes it worth the scare, but I thought I had been toughened up by the Ecuadorian highways only to show me that I can still be scared.
Today we went to the anthropology, archeology, colonial and modern art museum and I think that I have finally found someone who takes more time in a museum than Emily. I always wondered what Emily was thinking about when she examined each museum piece and today I got to ask another museum delayer what he was thinking. I returned after finishing the entire museum to find Javier on the first room, and I asked him what he was doing. He was taking each section of the museum to learn about the cultures and what the pottery said about them. I guess because of his archeology class, he had studied the technology, design and material and what those said about the culture. Then, when we got to the colonial part, he studied each piece of furniture and talked about what materials they were made out of, the inlay of shell, the designs of the wood. I think that when I get presented with a lot of items, I can't look at any one carefully, so I scan them all until I see one item that I find particularly interesting. I just couldn't believe that I found another person that could take as long in a museum as Emily. As of yet, we're averaging one museum a day.
Yesterday, we spent the whole day in the indigenous art museum which was probably one of the most interesting museums I have ever been to. Bolivia is culturally rich. The indigenous groups seem to have preserved their traditions and clothes, and seeing the way they dress, their festivities is understanding how people have lived for hundreds of years. It helps that I speak Spanish because I spent about an hour and a half talking to the weavers about their lives and cultures. The textiles themselves are incredible and the weavings show how the different indigenous groups think and see the world. One of the group's textiles was very linear and showed the customs and daily practices of the people. The colors were very strong and clear. My favorite, however, were the textiles from another community which showed the world as a chaotic place, dark in the background with crimsons, fucias and oranges in the foreground. Zoomorphic figures which form a circular maze without meaning. Sometimes there are humans lost in the geometric shapes and animal like figures. It's pretty incredible. I'm always interested how different people from different parts of the world relate to their surroundings. I think that this comes from a philosophy class which taught me about Western and Eastern logic and how Western logic is more linear while Eastern logic is more circular. I also remember seeing parts of the Jewish Torah and learning how it is not necessarily joined by linear sequence but by theme. I believe that probably the indigenous groups here have more of a circular logic, as even there writing spirals instead of reads from left to right.
We also saw examples of their traditions, which primarily rely on the earth. This makes sense since most of the communities are agricultural. At any rate, some groups believe that the materials used to construct the modern day statues of the Virgin Mary are sacrilegious and instead should be made of natural materials. As a result, there are many sacred rocks in the countryside that become idolatries to the virgin. The way that they know the rock is sacred is if it moves by its own accord or if the person passing by is suddenly frozen or moved to tears. Then, a shaman is brought in and he has to declare whether or not the rock is sacred. Once declared sacred, they have festivities commemorating the rock and decorate it for the virgin. People bring flowers and other presents to dedicate to the virgin.
We also saw offerings that the communities make to the sky and others to Supay which seems to be an invisible god that inhabits the interior world. In the offerings for the sky, they say this is for the sun which watches us, rather than we as humans pertaining to the center of the world watching the sun. The offerings included all sorts of items ranging from incense made from the copal tree to spices to fake money to lama fetuses to alcohol. These offerings to god are burned, and small favors are asked usually pertaining to the land or crops. For Supay, the items are buried so that the desire will travel to the earth. Supay also has been turned into a sensual figure by many of the women in the communities because he has such an affect on him.
I really need to talk to Javier more about what he understood of everything and hopefully buy a book on the mythology of Bolivia, but it's just fascinating. Tomorrow, we're going to Potosi which was the richest town in South America and one of the biggest cities in the world. The mines supposedly had enough silver to stretch all the way to Spain and have some left over. The history is tragic and I'm sure there are still problems. Talking to the indigenous weavers, they said that there was quite a bit of discrimination against the indigenous in Bolivia and that they had problems finding work with good pay. I know that this is the case in Ecuador and seeing the way that some of the mestizos treat the indigenous, I'm sure that it's true here.
I don't understand how someone could seed clouds, but I agree with you that I don't think that it would be a good idea. Maybe, they should do like the indigenous people here and burn some offerings. It's the same story as usual, man has the uncanny desire to control nature.
Miners enjoy a drink after a hard day.
As for myself, I'm in Potosi, and I would like to write you about the two days I've spent here, but I'm too overwhelmed by my experience today to talk about it. I think I have to let it absorb during the night and write in my journal tomorrow. I also have a slight headache due to the altitude. I guess I can just tell you that today we visited the mines of Potosi, and while the experience was rich in historical value, it was one of the most terrifying and uncomfortable days I've had. The sensation was probably worth it, because I now have a lot more respect for the people who mine silver, tin, zinc and other minerals. Seeing the hard lives of these laborers and then seeing the amounts of silver and gold in the museums used for chamber pots, vases and other luxury items makes me a little nauseous to say the least. Probably for every sign of wealth and luxury item that the Spanish nobility had, someone lost a life. They say that Potosi had enough silver to build a silver bridge from Bolivia to Spain and then some left over. They also say that there would be enough bones from the lives lost in the Potosí mines during the colonial time to build a bridge to parallel it. I would believe that this is true because reports say that 8,000,000 died in the mines. At first, they used indigenous laborers, and then when they were not enough, they brought slaves. Under the ordinance of one king, the slaves were not allowed to leave the mines for three to 4 months and were forced to work 12 hour days. When they finally got out, they had to have their eyes bandaged because the light was too strong. All in all, most had a life expectancy of 6 months. I would like to say the conditions were a lot better, but I'm afraid that some of the workers who operate the compressed air pumps only have a minimum life expectancy of 5 years after working in the mines and 15 years maximum.
I can understand why as we saw a demonstration with an air pump. The amount of dust and the strength of the sound---the air which sounded like running water--made me want to get out of there immediately. Then, when they told me they were going to do a demonstration with a small stick of dynamite, I voiced that I wanted out. I stayed after the guide explained that he had been giving tours for 12 years and that every week they did this demonstration. That however did not prevent me from grabbing the person in front of me when I heard and felt the exploitation. The tunnels themselves were scary enough, cramped spaces that we had to waddle through luckily with hard hats and holes in the ground that we miraculously climbed through on wooden ladders. At the end of the tour was the god Tio, who the Spanish had used to motivate the people to work. It seems that they took the indigenous idea of the god of the interior world, Supay, and also the ideas behind some of the deities from Africa to create El Tio, the god of the mind. Supposedly the miners weren't working because the conditions were so bad. As the result the Spanish put El Tio in the mines to watch over the miners so that they would do their jobs. El Tio looks very much like a devil, always smokes a cigarette and has a giant erection. Today, the miners still offer El Tio coca leaves and cigarettes and ask him for favors or to keep them safe.
Supay & Javier
That's one thing that the miners seem to always be aware of--the fact that they could die at any moment--most likely due to sillicosis pneumonia. Javier commented that all of them were making sarcastic jokes about death before entering the mine, saying all of us were born to die.
Miner Jane at the mine's entrance.
As for myself, I'm not sure if I ever want to buy anything silver again, and if I do, I'll have to think twice before doing so.
I'm going to the salt flats and I won't have internet for 4 or 5 days, so if you don't hear from me, don't worry.
Through the desert rock formations, you can see the great salt flat.
Javier and I have had our share of adventures in the past few days. I'm not sure where to begin. Right now, we are in San Pedro de Atacama Chile which is an Oasis in the middle of the most arid desert in the world. Unfortunately, a sand storm has arrived and the streets are full of dust clouds and wind. They say that it usually takes about three days for these storms to past. So, as a result, there is dust everywhere--a film covers every surface and as I write I feel the grit against my fingertips.
We were going to leave for Argentina today, but it turns out that there are only two buses per week, and the one that's leaving today is all booked so we are forced to wait until Sunday. The town itself is nice, full or restaurants and bars. However, with the sandstorm also arrived some dysentery probably from the Bolivian food and I'm not feeling up to eating much.
Other than that, we had a firsthand experience with Bolivian corruption yesterday and if it hadn't been for Javier, we would've been in big trouble. We had signed up for a 3 day tour of the salt flat and surrounding lakes which ended in San Pedro de Atacama Chile. When we paid for the tour, all of us had to give our nationalities and get an exit stamp from Bolivia. At any rate, our 4 wheel vehicle dropped us off on the third day at the very beautiful White lake which is actually an aqua green with a back drop of snow streaked black mountains. It is an incredible sight as with all the scenery the previous days, but also incredibly cold and windy. I was wearing a down Parka, long underwear and still felt the bite. From the White Lake, a bus run by the travel agency picked all of the tourists up to take us to Chile.
Flamingos on the white lake.
Red Lake with volcano in background
At the border crossing, the bus driver spotted Javier and asked him for his nationality. When Javier told him that he was Ecuadorian, they said that he couldn't get across the border unless he had 2,700 dollars with him. I said that this was absurd since no one travels with 2,700 dollars in cash. Then, the bus driver went to talk to the immigration police, and the immigration police in Bolivia also said that he couldn't get across. The bus driver and his assistant said that they wouldn't drive us to the border, and that they wanted to take us back to the military outpost at the White lake. I asked in front of the police if there was anyway we could get him across, and the bus driver and the police asked me if I had 2,700 dollars. I said that I would never travel with that much money, and so they asked me how much I had. I stupidly told them (without telling them the amount) that I had some travelers’ checks and credit cards and asked if this would help. Up to this point, the immigration police was going along with everything the bus driver was saying. Then, however, the policeman found out that Javier already had his exit stamp from Bolivia and backed off. I also said that I would sign a letter of responsibility for him at the Chilean border, so the police told the bus driver to go ahead and take us to the border.
As we were leaving the office, the bus driver from the travel agency (Colque tours) pulled Javier aside and told Javier that he would have to pay him 100 dollars to take him to the border. Javier told the bus driver that he wouldn't pay the money and the driver said he wouldn't take us to Chile. As we got on the bus, Javier said to the driver in a loud voice and in front of the other 30 tourists, “Señor, why are you asking me to give you 100 dollars to take me to the border. That's a bribe and that's illegal. We already paid for our journey like everyone else to Chile and you have to take us there and let the Chilean authorities handle this. If you don't take us to the border right now, we'll get there eventually and report you to the authorities.”
This made the driver furious and he turned the bus around to go back to the white lake. All the tourists started screaming at the assistant and the bus driver to take us to the border. The assistant was screaming back at all of us, saying that all Ecuadorians, Peruvians and Bolivians knew that they couldn't enter Chile and that the driver and his assistant were doing us a favor by taking us back to the White Lake and offering us car service through the desolate salt flats to the nearest town Uyuni, more than eight hours away. Javier again reiterated that they had tried to extract a bribe from us and I along with all the other tourists were also screaming at the two men to take us to Chile. At any rate, the assistant made a huge scene, and said that Javier and I were known conspirators and that I was helping Javier to get across the border so that Javier could live and work there. This was absurd since I'm from the U.S. and don't have access to Chilean visas and if that were the case, why wouldn't we go to the U.S. where we could earn more money. However, the assistant continued saying how we were bad people and how he was trying to help us, taking us back to Uyuni and he shouted to all the tourists, ''All of you are witnesses to the fact that I have tried to help these two people get back to Uyuni. When we get to the border, you will all see that he cannot enter and we will be forced to take them back to the Bolivian border where we will be forced to drop them off in the middle of nowhere in the freezing cold and without a way to get back to Uyuni. However, if they get off the bus right now, we are offering them free transport back to the city.''
Well, this scared me and I started to believe them, thinking that perhaps Javier did need a visa to get into Chile and that we were mistaken. So, I told Javier that maybe we should listen to them and go back to Uyuni. Javier told me that he was practically certain that he didn't need the visa, and that he wasn't going to get off the bus, and that I should listen to him. So, after they stopped at the white lake and we refused to get off the bus, and the other tourists yelled at them. They listened to us and turned the bus around. At the Bolivian border, they made another scene saying to the police officer, “You see that we have tried to help the young man. Now he isn't our responsibility and when he gets rejected at the border, we will drop him off here in the middle of nowhere without anywhere to go.”
So during the next hour in the bus, Javier and I were nervous as hell that we would be stuck in the middle of nowhere without transportation back to civilization and without food or shelter at almost 5000 meters altitude in the freezing cold. When we got to the border, the driver's assistant, jumped out of the bus and went to talk to the food and drug control. The food and drug control officer came aboard the bus and in front of the other tourists said, “Who is the Ecuadorian and who is the American along with him?” We identified ourselves and he said that he would need to talk to us after we went through customs.
Well, this made us even more afraid and both of us were sweating as we waited in line. I went through first and of course there was no problem. Then, Javier went through and they stamped his passport right away without any problems. Javier kissed me and the officer then asked if we were together and when we said yes he joked around with us for a moment. At any rate, we figured out right then, that the bus driver had lied and that Ecuadorians didn't need anything to cross the border only a passport. However, we also noticed that the food and drug officers were really watching us every second and when we went through to have our bags checked, they searched thoroughly which they didn't do to any other passenger. They checked every vitamin I had and breath mints and looked inside my cd container and the crevices of my bags. I chewed my breath mints, took my vitamins and did everything I could to show them that we weren't doing anything illegal. At the end of the search, the officers figured out that we were just travelers and didn't even bother to search Javier's other bag very well or the bottom of my backpack. Javier and I then told them that the Bolivian tour bus had treated us really badly.
The customs officers asked Javier to go into a private room with them. I waited outside with the rest of the tourists who had gotten through at least a half hour before us. Javier told the customs officers what had happened to us, and the Chilean authorities told him that they were really sorry and that they had had many similar cases with the corruption from the Bolivian immigration police. They said that they wished that they could do something, but that it was a different country and they had no jurisdiction. They said that we had done the right thing by coming to the Chilean border and that they were sorry they had searched us so thoroughly, but that they had to do their job since the bus driver had reported us as drug traffickers.
At any rate, we were happy that all turned out well in the end. We have both learned the lesson that if the police harass us in Bolivia, we should ask to speak to our embassies and not to trust anyone...only our instincts. Javier saved us in this case. Now we are in Chile, which is much more expensive, but very stable and organized.
I'll have to save the incredible journey in the salt flats for another letter as that part of the trip made all the rest worth it. It was the most extraordinary scenery I've ever seen in my life.
I'll definitely write about the salt flats, but right now I'm too tired to do so. The good news is that the storm passed and since the dust has settled, we can actually see the surrounding countryside and how nice the town is. There are giant volcanoes all around and close to here is La Valle de la Luna which supposedly is very beautiful. Tomorrow, we're going to rent mountain bikes to go and see it.
As for myself, I don't know why I'm so tired, but I think it has something to do with the fact that I swallowed so much dust yesterday. My eyes are also a little swollen and irritated. I'm sure with a good night's sleep, I'll feel much better tomorrow. Other than that, I wrote a letter to one of the more popular guide books about our experience.
We also went to talk to the owner of the agency, but all of the people only laughed at us when we explained what happened.
I will definitely report them to the U.S. embassy. I guess that's all. We've met a French couple and a Brazilian couple that are making it easier to pass the time.
Other than that, our delay in San Pedro de Atacama has actually turned out to be a blessing as most unexpected plans are. Today we spent the day at the baños termales de Puritama which are set inside a canyon. From inside the pools you have a nice view of the desert and surrounding volcanoes. The hot springs themselves are fantastic and have miniature cascades which provide for great hydro massages against your head and back. It was expensive to get there and enter the park, but I sweet talked the driver of a pickup into paying less. The 30 minute ride and 15 dollars per person including the entrance fee was worth it as it seemed like a miniature paradise in such a dry land.
Soaking in the hot pools was worth it as yesterday I exerted myself physically more than I have ever done in my life. We started on mountain bikes at ten in the morning and explored a nice cave and small canyon with an indigenous face carved into the side of a mountain. Then we went to a mountain which had some pretty unspectacular ruins. The best thing about the ruins was the view on top of the mountain, overlooking the Valley de la muerte (translated as the valley of death). The dry land held dark brown spires of earth, complete silence and no evidence of life. We picnicked at the overlook, and then headed off on the bikes again to enter the valley.
I got a little tired and waited with a French girl, letting Javier continue on without me. Her boyfriend also followed Javier. Javier said that the beyond the valley were sand dunes where people were sand boarding and that it was really interesting to see. I, however, am not accustomed to riding bikes and I think if he had told me that he had seen the footprint of a dinosaur I wouldn't have regretted not going. We returned from el valle de la muerte and rode 12 kilometers to el Valle de la Luna, most of which was uphill and full of bumps. It wasn't an easy ride to say the least and I had to fight the urge to vomit from being so out of shape after each bump I hit.
Luckily, the valle de la luna was incredible and is appropriately named as it looks like you would imagine the moon. We climbed a giant sand dune, climbed along its edge until it ended at a cliff and watched the sun set. The sunset was nothing, but paradoxically what it did to the earth was something out of this world. Every color that you normally see in the sky were absent, just blue, but on the white tiers of clay appeared oranges, reds, purples and pinks. The earth became our sky and as we road back to town, we had the advantage of seeing the volcanoes along the horizon turn to fire with color. Unfortunately, we also had to return part of the way in the dark and while desert skies are beautiful, I would've rather been in town, warm and off of the bike. we got back at 7:45 and I honestly have never exercised so much in my life. We went 35 kilometers in all, and my body felt every kilometer of it.
Javier said to me afterwards, ''Jane, do you know why I wanted to make it to the viewpoint to see the sunset instead of turning back?'' (I had suggested turning back earlier) ''Well,'' he said, ''If you take a truck or a bus and you don't make it to your destination, it means that the machine failed you. However, if you're on a bike and you don't make it to your destination, it means that your own body and your own force has failed you. This makes me feel worse that anything else.''
I just shrugged my shoulders and said, ''I think that my body already failed me.''
Javier and I are still continuing our adventures. Yesterday at 11:30 a.m, we boarded the bus in Chile and began our journey to Argentina. The border crossing was fine apart from the fact that we crossed at almost 5,000 meters, so high that a baby on board the bus needed an oxygen tank at customs. Javier didn't have any problems entering Argentina except that he only got a month long stay in the country while the rest of us got three months--no questions asked.
During the ride itself, the countryside was vast, empty and dry. Red raw earth with some sort of fluorescent yellow weed which grew in patches along the sides of the mountains and ground.
The only sign of life, aside from the border crossing, were small herds of huanacos which are like a cross between a deer and a llama. They grazed the plains and mountains in small herds like antelope. As it became dark, we ascended to the heights of a quebrada, and the scenery and skies reminded me of Texas although at about 4,000 meters. We then needed to descend about three thousand meters through the canyon. I thought that I had gotten used to scary roads in Ecuador, but the roads in Bolivia and the road that we took last night have shown me wrong. To give you a hint at how terrifying the road was, the signs for the curves were pictures of acute angles rather than hairpin or right angle turns. The road itself was dirt and the bus was filled with dust.
At each angle we approached, the bus seemed to be heading towards blackness with only a few seconds to make the turn. I've never driven to the ledge of a cliff and seen complete darkness in front of me, but last night we headed into obscurity taking a short turn right before the drop for more than an hour. I don't know how many, acute angle turns we took, but I imagine about 50. Our bus literally spiraled down the canyon, descending 2000 meters in about an hour.
Those of us not lucky enough to be sleeping were on the edges of our seats. At the end of the descent, we had engine trouble, and the driver and mechanics spent over an hour fixing the bus. We finally arrived at 3 in the morning to Salta, only to be surrounded by 10 to 15 different owners of hostals trying to attract us to their particular one. Unfortunately, we chose a bad one because of the availability of rooms. The room itself was tiny, which didn't bother me, but what bothered me worse was the fact that it was dirty.
I don't need luxury, but I do need cleanliness. We decided to go ahead and stay in the humid, murky, smelly room for one night. It only cost about 2 dollars per person, and Javier woke up early this morning to find us another hostal. Now, we are paying 5 dollars a person for a very nice, sunny, beautiful room with a private bathroom, television, and breakfast included. The owners are also very friendly and we are only a block and a half away from the center.
Salta seems to be a very pleasant city, more like Europe than any city in Bolivia. It's colonial and clean. I've heard the main attraction is the cowboy life outside of the city and the scenery which looks almost exactly like the landscapes in Westerns.
Being a cowgirl myself, the world of the Old West is an image of my own home, but all the other tourists are very excited by the canyons, plains and cowboys. Other than that, we are traveling with a French couple, who had been on another very scary bus ride with us in Bolivia from Cochabamba to Sucre. We met them again on the border crossing from Bolivia to Chile and have become good traveling friends. We will be spending the rest of our time in Salta with them and will hopefully meet up later in Buenos Aires. In the meantime, they are going skiing in Mendoza.
Luckily, we have another friend in Buenos Aires who is reserving us a hostal and has promised to show us around the city.
Although very organized and nice, Argentina has been hit hard by the economic crisis. What is nice for the tourist shows what is very hard for the Argentinians. Before, going to Buenos Aires was like going to Western Europe, now with the crash, prices are cheaper than in Bolivia.
Javier and I have both noted that Ecuador now seems like an expensive country for Latin America. Chile, however, is one of the most expensive with prices almost equal to a cheap city in the United States.
Apart from that, you'll have to excuse my English. After speaking Spanish for 2 and a half weeks, I can't find my words as easily.
There is one story that I didn't write anyone about because it was right after we got through the border crossing and I didn't want anyone to worry. At any rate, most of the tourists from the bus wanted to get a drink with us to celebrate Javier's entrance into Chile.
We all went to a very nice restaurant that had a fireplace in the center of the room to warm the cold desert nights. We cut a deal with the waiter to get 3 bottles of wine for half price and settled down for a good meal. With excellent company, we finished our meal and got ready to ask for another bottle of wine. However, just as we started to browse the wine list, BANG, there was a huge explosion, sending burning charcoal everywhere. Our French friend was so scared that he fell back from his chair into hot timber that had settled on the floor from the explosion. Luckily, no one was hurt, only a few holes in some clothes. Even our French friend didn't have any bad burns.
I walked away unscathed but a charcoal had fallen into my cup of wine. Javier's sweater was ruined. We asked the owner of the bar the reason for the fire, and he said that possibly a piece of wood was wet and had exploded. A waiter told us that the fireplace had been made that day, and that possibly it had been made badly. Regardless of the reason, the owner was very nice to us and did not make us pay for our food. He also offered to take us to the hospital, but since no one had been hurt this wasn't necessary. (ed. Jane's sister, Emily explains: "The reason the fireplace exploded was because they used limestone in the construction of the chimney. If you heat limestone to a certain temperature, it will explode.")
It was a freak accident, but a little too much adventure for us the day that we had almost been left in the middle of the salt flat.
We are trying to make safe decisions, but even safe choices like going to a nice restaurant to have a meal can hazardous. Maybe that shouldn't surprise me...When I ski, I always fall down when I'm standing still rather than when I'm going down the mountain.
Tomorrow, we'll be in Buenos Aires. Today we went hiking in a resort town and then had lunch in a castle. The suites in this castle normally cost 200 dollars, but are now priced at 55 dollars due to the crisis.
We are in Buenos Aires, which seems more like Europe than Latin America. Actually it seems more like Paris than any other city I've ever seen in South America.
Javier is amazed and has been walking around with his mouth wide open all afternoon long. This is a big change from Cuenca, and even though he lived in Quito for a year, it's still a culture shock.
We are staying in a great Youth Hostel in one of the nicest and safest neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. The French architecture, stone walls, wide sidewalks and avenues, great parks, cleanliness and sidewalk cafes could be in any metropolis, but are still impressive.
I actually prefer any natural beauty to a city, but it's fun to be here with Javier because he's never seen anything like this before. He says that he feels as if he were wearing a pancho and a straw hat walking around the city. I suppose a little like John Voight in Midnight Cowboy.
As for myself, I'm exhausted. We went to dinner with the French couple last night in Salta and didn't get home until 1. Then, we had to wake up at 6 to get to the airport.
Even though there is evidence of The Tango everywhere in this city, I'll have to save it for the weekend and catch up on my sleep tonight.
Well, I'm still a bit overwhelmed by life in a big city. I'm just not used to all of the stimulation, all the well-dressed people, all the things to do, all the parks, all the cars, all the lights, the cafés, the restaurants, the noises, the buildings, the incredible architecture. It's a lot to take in.
Javier and I have only visited one museum because we spend the majority of our time walking around the city, looking at the people and buildings and enjoying the well kept parks. We actually feel like slobs here in our jeans and tennis shoes, since everyone looks like they've stepped right out of a fashion ad. This morning, I went to a cafe next door to our hostal for breakfast. I had slipped on my flipflops being too lazy to put on my shoes.
Two teenage girls sat next to us, and spent a long period of time examining my outfit, and gawked at my feet. I wish that I could dress as formally as everyone else, but I went by the principal of packing light, and this didn't allow for sheekness.
Due to the formality and appearance of the city, you really wouldn't be able to tell there was a crisis. Actually, Javier and I couldn't feel the impact of the economic depression at all until we went out for dinner at night, and saw the number of people digging through the trash for food. These were not your typical bums, but people who obviously had some money about a year ago, and now have nothing. These were people who were dressed better or the same that Javier and I dress.
In Bolivia, people told us that Argentina was cheaper than Bolivia (this is true), that the people were badly off, that they had broken into zoos to get meat (I'm pretty sure that this is a rumor), that they don't have anything, that they are selling everything they have on the black market and exporting the goods to Bolivia and Chile. I'm assuming this is also true as Javier and I bought black market Argentinean wine in Bolivia for about 2 or 3 dollars. Last night, we went out with our Argentinean friends who told us that in December people had broken into the banks because the banks wouldn't give them back their money. The banks had to hire guards. Then, they gave bonds to replace the lost money, and there was a choice. Bonds for 10 years that guaranteed your money in pesos, bonds for 12 years that mixed dollars with pesos and bonds for 20 years so that you could receive your money in dollars. In Salta, there weren't enough pesos to go around, so the banks fabricated bonds acting as bills that could function only in the province of Salta.
I felt bad talking about how cheap everything is in Argentina, as two years ago the peso was tied to the dollar. So, when we eat a full lunch for 9 pesos...today it costs less than three dollars when two years ago, the same lunch cost 9 dollars.
Our friends told us that, everyone had begun to trust the banks since the country had had 10 years of stability, but then everything crashed, and the people who had had money in the bank, lost it.
I know that the same thing has happened in Ecuador, but the people there never really trusted the banks. The country of Ecuador also is not as developed and well off as Argentina. For South America, Argentina had been almost a model of prosperity. I guess that Argentina could be compared to a king who suddenly without warning found himself in poverty.
We're having a great time in Buenos Aires, but we really didn't see much of the city in the light until today. It turns out that Buenos Aires is a lot like Spain in that the people stay out late and when I say late, I'm not talking about until 4 or 5 in the morning. I'm talking about 8 in the morning the next day. They don't even start to go out to the bars until 2 or 3 in the morning. Our friends had us really tired. On Thursday, we went out until 4. On Friday, we went out until 5. Luckily Javier got tired and wanted to go home, because I was ready to stay with our Argentinean friends who didn't go back home until 8:30 a.m. Saturday, we were invited to dinner at a friend of a friend's house. We ate at 1 a.m., and didn't get home until 6:30.
Javier's and my jaw dropped when we realized that every weekend, the people go out like this. Last night, I fell asleep at 8 and we slept until 10 this morning. I'm just getting too old to do this.
Other than that, I don't think you ever have to worry about Argentineans becoming vegetarians. The meat here is incredible and people eat a lot of it. At the fiesta, someone made a salad which included potatoes, butter and eggs. Apart from that, we ate beef. I actually don't think that I've had a meal without beef, and to be honest Texas might have some competition with the quality and tenderness of the meat. Then again, we're eating in 5 star restaurants where plates normally cost 15-20 dollars and we're eating it for about 4 to 5 dollars. Life could be worse.
We're staying in Buenos Aires until Sunday. It's such a big city, that it takes a long time to cipher through.
I forgot to tell you about the market last Sunday. It's called ''La Feria de Mataderos,'' and is a celebration of country life in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Essentially, it commemorated the Gaucho or the Argentinean cowboy. Aside from stall after stall of handcrafted goods ranging from leather items to folk art to music instruments to herbal remedies, there was a stage which housed some of Argentina’s most famous folk singers. The cowboys still walk around in traditional dress, which strangely enough resembles the costume of Zorro, but without the mask. As the day proceeded, people danced in the streets, couples in side bars donning clothes that looked like a mix between the old west and 19th century dress, danced to old-time music. Others danced a slower dance entwining their partner with scarves.
As for food, there was plenty, and the smell of grilled beef drifted throughout the market from the number of open air parrilladas (grills). They also offered any number of sweets, ranging from pie to cakes to sweet tamales. There was no shortage of anything made from the country and to top it all off, we even bore witness to the spectacular horsemanship on the fringes of the market where three was a peculiar game. Each horseman took turns riding their horse at full speed, holding a silver dart in his mouth, he approached a stick, which had suspended a metal ring the size of a coin. At full speed he had to remove the pin from the stick with his dart.
It was the strangest game I have seen in a long time, but really fun to watch.
Buenos Aires might contain art museums with the finest and most famous artists, buildings the quality of any great European city and parks that satisfy any city dweller's craving of the country. However, the Feria de los Matederos is by far my favorite thing that I have seen in Buenos Aires as of yet.
Sorry I haven't written, but I have a bad cold probably due to so many late nights in Buenos Aires. We also left Buenos Aires on Sunday, spent one night in Juy Juy Argentina and then took a bus to the border of Bolivia.
We arrived at Villazon (the Bolivian Border town) at around 1 p.m., got a hotel room, slept until 7 at night, and got on another bus that took us to Tarija. Last night, we slept in a pleasant hostal and Tarija seems like a nice town, but I'll only be here until the afternoon when we have a flight that leaves for La Paz.
I'm not looking forward to flying. Apart from my fear, I've got a cold and it's never good to fly with a runny nose and congested ears, but I would prefer flying to taking another bus in Bolivia.
If you can remember that road we took to get to the Black Sheep Inn, I should tell you that that would be a normal Bolivian highway, except with sheer drops for I don't know how far. Javier calls them abysses, and even he was scared last night. There were curves where we went down hill towards the drop-off, stopped with our front wheels touching the emptiness, and then we had to go in reverse to make the sharp turn.
I'm all for adventures, but these highways are just too scary. I think that for those who seek jumping out of planes where there is at least the security of a parachute...they should head off to Bolivia where there isn't any security just the faith you have in your driver and the knowledge that he has probably made the drive a hundred times before.
Javier and I actually asked one of the passengers if they took the journey often and when she said that she had, this also gave us hope.
Other than that, before we started on the treacherous canyon road, we were stopped by the police. Evidently there is quite a bit of contraband passing from Argentina to Bolivia because of the economic crisis in Argentina. I think every passenger had a bag full of something that they were transporting, wine, oil, beer, etc. At any rate, the passengers were able to bribe the policemen at the first stop, but at the second they were forced to leave their sacks of black-market goods behind.
Afterwards, there were several old women crying and pleading with the police, but the police upheld the law. Javier and I didn't have any troubles as we are just tourists passing through. I had bought a really nice wool sweat in Buenos Aires for 6 dollars, but it got stolen at a disco two days later.
I'm feeling better, but I still have a red and runny nose. We're in La Paz today and it's quite a change from sheik Buenos Aires.
There's so much gray and deterioration and crooks and crevices and narrow roads which wind and drop and rise throughout the city. There's chaos and traffic and honking horns and people pushing you from behind and people yelling out their products and 20,000 different products to buy. It's dark and murky and grimy and not at all clean, but with white capped mountains and blue skies and you feel as if you're in a bowl of a city with avenues and commerce at the bottom and shanty town and basic houses lining the sides up to the rim. This is La Paz which is actually the shape of a bowl and has steep mountains all around and people live on the wall of the city in places you wouldn't even dare to walk.
You would think that I would feel in danger, but strangely enough I feel pretty safe here for being in a big city. Much safer than we felt in Potosi, when we almost got robbed by three men--if Javier hadn't have been watching.
Well, tomorrow we head off to a trip in the jungle and pampas of Bolivia. Supposedly, you see all the animals that you can't see in the jungle in the pampas. I might be out of touch for a few days, but I'll write you tales of capiberas and long nosed pigs, when we return. We should have internet tomorrow in Rurrenabaque, but if all fails, we will be returning to La Paz on the 25th.
Well, I wrote the first day of the salt flats down in my journal today and will send it to you on Saturday, when we get back from our pampas trip. I guess I should've brought my journal here to write it. Maybe, I'll try to write from memory in an e-mail right now while I have time. I'm afraid that when I get back from the pampas, I'll want to write about that experience.
Right now, we're in a small jungle town called Rurrenabaque, and I don't really feel like I'm in the jungle except for the climate and the surrounding forests. The town itself is pretty calm and tropical. It's actually relaxing being here. I went swimming in a swimming pool and I think that my cold is pretty much cured.
I guess that I'll start writing about the Salt flats.
People write or dream about lands of nothingness...Worlds inhospitable to all life forms, without any plants or green or animal at all. Perhaps this conjures up the image of an apocalyptic world, a grey one at that, with far reaching scapes of dirt and dark skies.
However, what if I turned that image around and say that I visited a land of nothingness, and that it was not at all dark, but a place of clarity and that the landscapes that you normally see full of trees and hills or plains and bushes or cities with tall buildings and cars were all erased and what was left was simplified into two planes of color. Or should I say, one was the absence of color being white and the other the bluest blue of the sky. This is the Uyuni Salt Flat which is the largest salt flat in the world and to stand in the middle seeing a far reaching white plane which is not the white of paper, but the white of crystal and the pure reflection of light being shot right back up at the sky is an experience which I will never forget.
In the distance are the mountains, the closest sign of familiar territory, but all around is the brightest and most extraordinary world I have ever seen. There were cones of salt poking out of the flat white which dotted and broke up the stillness of the land. And the place was quiet, a quietness that could only come from the lack of life, but the fullness of wind. It was incredible, and well worth the long trip to Uyuni. We drove in our 4 wheel vehicle the first day across the immense flat for hours until we reached an island which was almost incredible as the flat itself with large phallic cactuses with their yellow spines stretching several meters up towards the sky. The coarse land itself exhibited evidence of the long dried sea as it was evidently a coral reef with fossilized shells and plant life. We hiked to the tops of the island and then picnicked on the shores.
Afterwards, we boarded our four wheel vehicle again and headed back to our familiar world where we would spend the night in a small town called San Juan. The town consisted of earthen adobe houses, painted doors and a small church. The majority of the people was indigenous and lived as they had lived for centuries. As we walked around the town in the evening, we saw a seated woman separating the shells from the Andean grain quinua. She used the wind, holding her hand up into the air, letting the grain sift through her fingers so that the wind would carry the shells away and the hard grain would fall onto her blanket.
We then walked up to watch the sunset and the shepherds return from the country with their sheep and llama. This they had also done for centuries....as I saw in a museum in San Pedro de Atacama describing how the tribes tended their agriculture in the times before Christ. In this town, it was the same. For the corrals, they did not use modern day fences, but circular fences made of rocks and when the sheep entered, they opened up a space in the rocks, until the last lamb was with the herd and they had placed the last rock to fill the hole.
Although our accommodations were very basic, it was one of the neatest experiences I've ever had, seeing a town that has been isolated from the rest of the world and has truly preserved its way of life.
I'll have to tell you about the lakes and flamingos later...but the first day is here.
If you want to see the jungle animals, where do you go? The answer should be to the jungle, but it's actually the Pampas, where we were inundated with animals. On the first day, we took a boat ride, and we must have seen over 50 alligators and caimans resting on the shores of the river Yacuma. Now, I don't know if we saw twenty pink dolphins or if there were two following our boat, but we caught at least twenty sightings of the pink creatures spouting their blowholes out of the water and stretching their rose colored fins up to the sky.
We also saw howler monkeys and another type of small monkey that was adorable. We saw all kinds of birds from eagles to fishers in bright blue to a bird with spikes of feathers on its head and other species that came in colors of turquoises and reds and yellows and greens. It was absolutely spectacular.
The next day, we went searching for anacondas in a swamp and found a small one that was only 6 feet long. They supposedly grow to 20 feet at times and eat alligators and rats and whatever else they can find. We also saw an alligator graveyard that contained the skeletons from alligators poached and thrown away after their skins are taken and sold to another country on the black market.
In the afternoon, we fished for piranhas and I caught the first fish which wasn't a piranha and Javier caught the only piranha out of all of us.
Coming to see you
At night we used our flashlights to spot the red eyes of the alligators in the river and there must have been hundreds of them glowing like small flames out of the water. There was also a new type of firefly which held its light above its head glowing a brighter green and never turned it off. There were bats that swooped down around us and ate their mosquitoes for dinner.
As we slept in our lodge, which was like a screened in porch with twin beds, we listened to indescribable sounds from unknown and unfamiliar animals and slept divinely. The next day, we searched out a family of monkeys, which answered to our calls, climbed down from the trees and onto our bodies and took bananas from our hands. They were the cutest monkeys I've ever seen and the size of a kitten. I can't tell you how worth it our journey is, but tomorrow; we head off to the real jungle. I'll be back in La Paz in three or four days and be in contact then.
Javier and I are back from the jungle and had an incredible time. The place where we were staying was on a very clean lake and was absolutely beautiful. All the cabins and furniture were made of mahogany and there weren't very many mosquitoes. I think I might have gotten one or two bites.
The best thing about it was that it was developed as a community project and half of our money goes to help build schools and water facilities for the town. Everyone who worked at the place was from the community and they all worked hard to give us a good time. We had great guides who combined the information about the plants and animals with folklore from their village. The project itself has changed the whole face of the town, and I'll have to describe how later, but here are some stories:
Before the project started, the community used to burn down the forests to cultivate the land and one day our guide found a sloth in a tree he had cut down. He said that when the sloth saw him with the machete, the animal started to cry. At any rate, the guide (at the time he was only a teenager) took the sloth to his house and the village kept him as a pet until one day he went back to the forest.
Other than that, the guide told us that the village elders have set new rules since the project started, and now each family is only permitted to hunt one animal a month--usually deer. Actually, while we were in the jungle, we saw a baby dear, a pig, capibaras, lots of great big blue butterflies, a caterpillar that looked like a piece of cotton and was poisonous to the touch. We also saw three different species of monkeys--howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys and capuchino monkeys. Actually, one day when we were walking through the forest, there were tons of monkeys above us and they were probably more curious about us than we about them. They stared at us for a long time, decided that they didn't really like us, and threw tons of fruit at us. None of us got pelted, but it was pretty funny to watch these little animals climb down from the heights of their trees to throw things at us. Oh, on the first day, we also saw a coral snake and a whip snake. The second day, we saw the second most poisonous snake in the jungle--a feather lancer. We didn't see the most poisonous snake called the bushmaster which supposedly chases people for up to one mile.
Our guide told us that the bushmaster doesn't like pregnant women, and that his father had killed 2 in his lifetime. One was when a pregnant woman was returning to the village and suddenly called out because the bushmaster was in her path and wouldn't let her cross. When she moved to the right, the snake moved to the right, when she moved to the left the snake again followed her. Since that time, it has been prohibited for any pregnant woman to enter the forest. The guide said that this also has to do with a mix of their own religion with Catholicism as has something to do with Eve and the snake and how she stepped on the snake's head. At any rate, it was interesting. Our guide was just incredible. He spoke English, was born speaking the language of his tribe, then learned Quechua, and then Spanish. I think that if anyone goes to the jungle, they should go to Chalalan.
The lake was just beautiful and Javier and I spent a lot of time swimming in it. The food was also delicious as the cooks had been trained by international non-profit associations. I just enjoyed the whole trip. Javier did too, but is more of a city boy than I am. We heard about a dangerous mosquito that only bites at two or three in the morning and can cause and leprosy like illness. The disease is extremely rare, curable and only occurs on average in one person in every 15 or 20 years. Well, a mosquito bit Javier on the forehead at around 4 in the afternoon, and Javier was convinced that it was the fatal mosquito, and asked me every five seconds to examine his bite to see if I noticed anything strange.
Jane has returned to the United States. She will be updating this page with more stories and lots of photos.
Jane's previous adventures in Ecuador are in the following order: In the Shadow of Tungurahua, Galapagos, No Pasa Nada, Siga No Mas and Cuenca. Travel Tips for the Ecuadorian Andes.