The Edge of the Map

After catching the train from Oruro to Uyuni, I arrived with my new friends Bethune and Hannah and we looked for a hostel. Bethune had caught the nasty flu that’s going around and was not terribly coherent. I found us a place to sleep near the bus terminal (really just a dusty street where the buses stopped with a couple of ticket offices). Uyuni was full to bursting with people who had left Carnaval earlier and been stuck due to the recent heavy rain. The town was previously a mining hub but is in a tourist boom these days, thanks to its proximity to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. Many tours in recent days had been cancelled because roads were impassable. Our group was continuing on to Tupiza to the south where we could also take a tour, but a longer one with fewer people.

We found a bus the next morning but it didn’t leave until 8:30pm so we had a lot of time to kill. Bethune and I both felt like crap so we ended up napping on a bench while Hannah used the internet. Not the best day of my trip to be sure, and things got worse when our bus showed up. Because of the bad roads, the company was using a 4 x 4 bus and it was probably the roughest thing I have seen in five countries worth of travelling. The road itself was no better- hours of washboard before things started to improve. We were also right in the back of the bus so got the worst of the turbulence- Bethune actually threw up at one point. This being a night bus, the idea was to sleep through most of it- managed to pass out about half way through the 8 hour journey, don’t ask me how.
Finally, we arrived in Tupiza at 4 am. Absolutely nothing was open, but after knocking on the doors of a couple of hostels, we found a decent option. Later in the morning we tracked down the tour agency recommended to us by some fellow couch-surfers, La Torre Tours. We booked a trip for the next day- four days through the south-west of Bolivia, ending at the Salar de Uyuni. The two others who joined our tour were Tijs from Holland and Aimee from New York City.

So in the morning we started out in our 4×4 Land cruiser with our guide Angel, and his wife Modesta, who was also the cook. They didn’t speak English but both Hannah and Aimee were pretty fluent so we always managed to understand each other. They were old enough to be retired, but I am not sure if that is a real concept in Bolivia. They were so sweet; it was like we had a new set of Bolivian grandparents along on the tour.
After stopping for lunch, the road got a little rougher and eventually we came to a river we had to ford. Our vehicle made the crossing easily but one of the other SUVs in the caravan got seriously stuck in the mud part-way across. After breaking a tow strap and getting another vehicle stuck in the process, eventually everyone was free and across the river (3 hours later). We kept going and eventually split from the other 6 vehicles, leaving only us and one other La Torre SUV. That night we made it to a small village where we had supper and unpacked for the night. As the sun set we could see a double rainbow on one side of the horizon and the snow-capped Andes on the other, and once the sun set, the stars were absolutely insane. We climbed into our sleeping bags and passed out- it had been a long day. The second day brought us through some more barren alpine scenery and our sister vehicle got a little stuck after breaking through a layer of frozen mud. Modesta pulled out the pick-ax and got to work along with the other cook and guides. Free again we made our way toward the Chilean border with more mountains and lagoons. The best was the hot springs overlooking a shallow lake and yet more mountains – Banff, eat your heart out!


We slept in a windswept stone hostel in the middle of nowhere. I think it used to be accommodation for nearby mines, as it was a bit spartan, though we made the most of it with numerous games of Asshole and some Dutch card game I still don´t think I understand. On the third day we went to some sulphurous geysers within an old volcanic zone (at 5000 m!!!), along with some crazy rock formations and even a lagoon full of flamingos (what flamingos are doing at that altitude, I have no idea). Rather than staying at one of the expensive salt-hotels along the salar, we spent the last night in Uyuni, and made for the salt flats before dawn on the fourth day so we could watch the sunrise there. It´s wet season until the end of March so the entire expanse was covered with several centimeters of water. This made for some very surreal vistas with mirror reflections of everything- it was the strangest sunrise I have ever seen. I was the only one of the group that had waterproof boots (thank you gore-tex!) so I got to wander around the empty expanse a bit while everyone else was limited to the area around the salt hotel in the middle of the salt flat.

Car Surfing

We made it back to Uyuni by lunch time and said farewell to Angel and Modesta. Aimee went on to Argentina from there and I was planning on going to Sucre, but Tijs, Bethune and Hannah convinced me to go to La Paz for a little fun, so we booked a night bus for the four of us. This time the bus looked slightly better than the last one I took and was a double-decker. We had seats in the front of the top, so had a great view. Too bad it was dark by the time we left at 8 pm. Things went smoothly until about 4:30 in the morning when the bus pulled off to the side of the road and stalled. I woke up briefly, but then fell back to sleep. At 7 am the bus was still parked there and as I woke again, I noticed many of the locals were abandoning ship. When I got outside, I saw that one of the wheels had been removed and there were several people hitching on the side of the highway. A quick check on my GPS told me we were still 80 km from La Paz. Hannah took some initiative and asked the driver what was going on. All he said was that there was no replacement bus coming, with no other information. Wonderful. After a few false starts, we managed to flag down a local collectivo bus, and got on. Several stops and a couple traffic jams later, we made it into La Paz, but nowhere near the bus terminal or our hostel. From where we got off we had to take a taxi and finally made it to the hostel by 11 am. Gotta love Boliva- she is always full of surprises.


Another Kind of Carnaval

Arriving in Oruro on a surprisingly decent bus, I contacted my couch-surfing host, Juan Carlos, from an ancient payphone.  He gave me an address to meet him and I headed off with my backpack. Juan Carlos set me up in a room in the basement and invited me out for a drink with the El Salvadorian couple staying in the other room.  I politely declined since the altitude and the jet lag were kind of getting to me (3700 m in Oruro).  I spent the next day wandering around Oruro, a rather dreary town in most cases, but the streets were bustling that day as everyone set up for Carnaval.  Within a day or two, welders had constructed stadium seating along hundreds of meters of street, and in the main square several stages were also constructed.  That night a few more couch-surfers showed up and Juan Carlos helped us all make a traditional Bolivian casserole with some sort of grain only found in Bolivia.  Delicious!  The next day was the beginning of the main event.  I met a couple of Canadians and a Japanese girl and we headed out for the pre-parade.  Most out-of-towners had not yet arrived so it was mainly locals having a party in the street.  Many folks wore their traditional costumes and drank beer in the street as they practiced their dance numbers for the next day.  We managed to get into the parade somehow and joined the human river moving slowly for the main square.  One old fellow even got me to dance a bit along the way.  Only at Carnaval! 

That afternoon we checked into the Collegio Americano, a school where we would be sleeping for the next four nights.  At 50 Bolivianos per night instead of the $80 being asked for at crummy local hotels, it was an unbelievable deal, even though we had to sleep on mats on the classroom floors.  In the evening a few of us headed out into the city – Thursday was La Noche de la Mujeres, which basically translates to “Ladies’ Night”.  The men all played in various brass bands as the women danced through the streets, dressed to the nines.  A bunch of us joined in the dancing and stayed up until the wee hours.  Friday was a bit quieter during the day, but in the evening there was more dancing and partying in the streets and after midnight I found myself in a huge mob of people at the main square with a live band and a DJ as thousands of us drank and danced and cheered.  I finally dragged myself home by about 3 am or so.

On Saturday morning all of the couch-surfers congregated in the main courtyard of the school, where we all picked up our tickets for parade seats along the main route.  Starting at 9:30 am, the parade went on into the night and finally wound down at about 4 am. With over 50 000 dancers, this was not surprising. All throughout the day people everywhere were drinking and throwing water balloons and spraying each other with foam. I only lasted until around 9 or 10 pm, as my stamina was waning.  The parade started up again at 10 am on Sunday with most of the participants now as drunk as the spectators, but my partying had caught up with me and I now had a bad cough, so I stayed on the sidelines.  Carnaval was truly a marathon of partying and I won´t soon forget it.  Unlike other well-known Carnavals, like Rio, the party in Oruro is chiefly a local affair.  There is certainly a lot of gringos around, but the main group of revelers are the normally reserved highlanders of Bolivia, who completely let loose.  In a place where the average temperature rarely gets above 15 degrees, even in the summer, you can see why they might need a big dust-up once in a while. 

The trains weren’t running on Monday so I finally made my escape from Oruro on Tuesday- myself, along with Bethune from Toronto and Hannah from Germany decided to check out the salt flats down south together- onward to Uyuni!


Altiplano Llama Sausage

As I type, I am sitting in an internet cafe in Oruro, Bolivia. It is cold as hell, and the altitude is around 3700m, but I think coming here was definitely a great idea.
Backing up a bit, I spent most of the last week at Lago de Atitlan in Guatemala. My flight to La Paz, Bolivia was to leave on Monday, February 13, so I couldn’t stray too far from Guatemala City. Lago de Atitlan is a gorgeous 83000 year old caldera, created by a huge volcanic explosion that basically collapsed into itself. The lake (lago) is rimmed by steep slopes, cliffs and two extinct volcanoes. With all the geologic beauty of the area, the sad thing about the Atitlan region is that the lake is basically being poisoned. The amount of runoff and trash that has accumulated has meant that the biological state of the lake is pretty dire. The huge algal bloom in 2009 has since dissipated, but the lake is far from healthy. Sigh.

I took a shuttle from Antigua and arrived in San Pedro, where I met an American gal named Whitney who was learning Spanish so she could do a midwifery internship in a couple weeks. Very interesting chick. From San Pedro I caught a small boat to another village along the lake, San Marcos, where my friend Kia was hanging out. We traveled together a bit in Mexico and it was nice to see her again. We made a plan, along with her friend Mattea to go to San Pedro for happy hour and then catch a tuk-tuk back to San Marcos for the night. Kia did’t make it but Mattea and I along with Whitney tucked in at a couple of pubs, eventually ending up at the Alegra which had 5 Queztal screwdrivers (that is less than a dollar, by the way). As we were drinking, a huge thunderstorm rolled in, adding a nice bit of drama to the evening. Suddenly, all the power went out and we were sitting in the bar in the dark. The bartender brought over a candle and we finished our drinks, before heading out to find some transportation home. Whitney was staying in town so she was fine, but Mattea and I had to get back to San Marcos. Our original plan was out once we discovered that the tuk-tuks would’t do the drive on a stormy night in case of being robbed. Hmmm. Finally, one of the tuk-tuk drivers flagged down a proper taxi for us, but he wanted Q150, which was twice what I paid for my shuttle from Antigua. Double hmmm. Luckily Mattea spoke great Spanish and was able to get another proper taxi for Q80. Our tuk-tuk driver also got in for a ride and along the way we picked up a little old lady walking in the rain by the road. We made it back to San Marcos, no worse for wear, nary a robber to be seen.

Mattea joined me when I went back to Antigua on the 10th and with her great negotiation skills were able to snag a relatively affordable private room in the pricey town. Antigua is like Copan on steroids, with cobblestone streets and colonial buildings everywhere. Surrounded by highlands and volcanoes, it is beautiful but a bit of a tourist trap; the coffee was amazing at least. I splurged and bought my first souvenir, a gorgeous silver jade necklace made with local stone. At Q350 ($45), it was the most expensive thing I bought so far, but I have a feeling it would be three times the price back in Canada.

On Monday I said goodbye to Mattea, took a shuttle from Antigua and flew out of the surprisingly modern airport in Guatemala City. Two connections later (San Salvador and Lima), I arrived in La Paz at about 12:30 am. I met a musician couple, Joe and Pam from Edmonton at customs and we shared a cab into the city. The MEC backpack gave them away as Canadian, but it was rather cool to meet some northern Albertans in such a random, far-flung place. The elevation of the airport in La Paz is 4000 m with the city itself situated a little lower at 3600-3800 m. I was pretty worried about the effects of the altitude, but so far the only symptoms I have had are a mild headache and a lack of appetite. Last year when I drove up Mauna Kea in Hawaii, I got quite nauseated and a bit dizzy, but I think it was because I was driving up from sea level (… in a red Mustang convertible).

Strolling on the Square

Yesterday I took a bus from La Paz to Oruro, across the famous Altiplano, a huge mountain plateau that is only 400 m lower than the Tibetan Plateau. Rolling barren hills as far as the eye can see, there is very little vegetation other than some small scrub and grass. Oruro is smack in the middle of all this emptiness, which may explain why they go all out for their Carnaval. Normally a small mining city, the place completely transforms for the festival. I´ll let you know how it goes in my next post.

Party Time in Oruro

Currently I am staying in the basement at the house of a local named Juan. When I first looked up accommodation for Carnaval, prices were triple the norm, running upward of $80 per night for a crappy hotel room. I decided to check out, which connects travelers with people willing to let them crash for free at their place. Juan has been taking in couch-surfers for over 3 years and says that he absolutely loves meeting so many people from around the world. I thought that was pretty cool. Since there would not be near enough placements for everyone during the actual Carnaval, Juan and some other locals have set up a cheap place to stay at a nearby school (couch-surfers only). So instead of $80 I will be paying $2. I will be moving over to the school tomorrow night. Juan even took me out for brunch this morning – I had a llama sausage sandwich and a grain-based sweet drink that I can´t recall the name of. Who knew llama would be so yummy?

The only downside of Bolivia so far has been the cold. At this elevation it usually sits around 12 degrees all year and can drop down to -15 in the winter at night. Right now is technically summer, but that just means it rains more only gets to -2 at night. I had to make an emergency stop in La Paz to pick up a small sleeping bag and a pretty alpaca scarf. At least it´s not snowing!


Llama burger.

Delays and Detours

Having been stuck in Copan for 6 days waiting for my eternally delayed DHL package, I am finally out of Honduras and merrily typing away in an Internet cafe in Antigua. I spent most of the last week sleeping in, reading and drinking beer in Copan as I waited. I did have a couple of interesting evenings, though.On Thursday night I ran into my German friends from Utila, Alyssa and her boyfriend Merion. They were hanging out with another German couple at the local tourist bar, Via Via. The other couple decided that there must be a cheaper place for beer and we eventually ended up at this local hole-in-the-wall attached to someones home. It didn’t have a name, but there was a picnic table and a pile of vegetables in sacks in the corner. At the bar was a friendly lady and her husband passing out beer for a mere 22 Lempiras (compared to 35 at Via Via). A local guy sat down beside me and proclaimed his love, but I tactfully brought up my (imaginary) boyfriend who hadn’t come out with us that night. The imaginary boyfriend comes in very handy when I have to explain to love-struck Honduran fellows at the bus stop ask why I am walking around by myself. This version was a teacher and volunteer but he has also been a pilot or mechanic or chef, depending on my mood.

Later in the evening a mariachi band randomly showed up, doubling the occupancy of the bar. They had just finished their shift at a tourist hotel and were still in full costume. I think they were friends with the guy who ran the place- after a couple of beers they launched into several out-of-tune numbers, at which point my Honduran paramour tried to get me to dance. Yet another unexpected and surreal night in Central America.

On Superbowl Sunday every American within driving distance of Copan congregated at the only pizza place in town and sat down in front of the flat screens brought in for the event. There were several Americans in my hostel so I joined them for the first half, but I don’t really follow NFL so I left to meet Alyssa instead. We got a six pack and sat drinking in the central square as the citizens of Copan played with their kids and the sun set. Two little girls sat watching us intently as we drank. At first I thought they were just curious but then one of them got bold and asked me for my can. After that, every time I finished a can, she ran up with her little bag so I could put it in. They waited until we were done all six before running off into the night.

As it was not yet 9 pm, Alyssa went to get Merion and I brought them to a great bar I had found the other night. It was run by a German fellow who imported his hops directly from Bavaria. Alyssa was from Bavaria, so she was ecstatic to have some “proper” beer for once. Running at 60 Lempira, it was the most expensive beer in town, but it was well worth it (and it worked out to a mere $3 Canadian dollars, so is probably the least I will ever pay for a German microbrew).

The next day I FINALLY got my package at about 1 pm, but all the cheap shuttles had already left. I was NOT going to spend another day in Copan so I splurged and took the Hedman Alas bus to Antigua. At 789 Lempira, it was definitely out of my normal price range, but it was nicer than any bus or plane I have ever been on, with steward service, free sandwiches and drinks, along with the comfiest bus seats that leaned almost all the way back. I got into Antigua last night at 9 pm and booked into the Black Cat Hostel, which had beds that were the opposite in comfort from the bus seats, but the huge free breakfast made up for it. I only have a week in Guatemala now because I have decided to make a drastic change in my itinerary.

The other night in Copan, I dreamed that I went to Carnaval, and when I woke up I thought that sounded like a great idea. It sounds flaky as hell and was probably a result of my increasing boredom, but the next day I started looking into places in South America that had good celebrations (Brazil was out of the question because it would take too long to get a Visa, and was also the most expensive). I narrowed it down to three places: Port-of-Spain, Trinidad; Barranquilla, Columbia; and Oruro, Bolivia. All had huge celebrations and were accessible by flight or bus. Eventually I chose Oruro because I had been to Trinidad before, and because Boliva put me smack in the middle of all the things I wanted to see in the continent. So now I am flying from Guatemala to Santa Cruz, Boliva on Tuesday, Feb 13 and will make it to Oruro by Feb 16, just in time for Carnaval. Random, I know, but what the hell, why not?


Yet more bumpy roads.