Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Salar de Uyuni: Three day tour on the world's largest salt flat

Coming into Uyuni there isn't much going on, the outskirts of it look run down and there isn’t much to see in this dust bowl of a town in the south of Bolivia until you approach the town centre, which is constantly alive with the constant flow of traffic heading out to the Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt flats in the world and this area’s biggest attraction.

Finding a tour is easy, there are so many tour operators so to pick the best one, as mentioned before, just go with your gut or take the advice of other fellow travellers, the chances are you’ll meet loads of people going the other way who have already done it.

Tours can range from 1 to 3 days but by and large most people stick to the classic three day/ two night tour. This includes driver (unlikely to speak English but loves to be called Macho Man, real name Franz), food and water (but I recommend bringing some of your own water as it’s easy to get dehydrated) and accommodation. Alcohol is not included but can be bought along the way for a cheeky mark up; my advice, bring some with you. It will keep you warm in the cold nights and make you very popular with your peers. 

Day one starts off at around 10:30am where you meet the rest of your group and your driver. After looking the Land Cruiser up and down and giving it your seal of approval (everyone is a car expert in these situations of course), you set off to the train cemetery on the outskirts of town. There is actually a functioning railway in Uyuni but this section has long been disused and for the past fifty years the trains and carriages here have slowly been rusting away to become part of the landscape.

After jumping off trains and posing on the old carriages you are then whisked away to a local market in Colchani where you have the option of buying yet more alpaca products if you haven’t already bought loads. There is a salt museum where you can see how the salt in the area is refined but this is pretty much a stop to try and get some more tourist money into the local economy.

Once on the road again, you drive out onto the Salar de Uyuni itself, here the landscape changes completely as you leave the dry, sandy roads behind and head out across the salt flats with nothing but blue skies merging into white salt on the horizon. Upon arriving at the salar hostel some thirty minute drive into the flats, lunch is served and you can get started on those all important poses with props. It’s remarkable just how many photos you can take in such a short time.

After this, the tour leads onto Incahuasi island: this is basically a hilly outcrop in the middle of the salar with cacti growing all over it. Amazing that it is just there in the middle of nowhere but I wouldn’t say it was all important to pay the 30 Boliviano fee to walk around it, although this does include toilet privileges which are always important on jeep tours of this nature. This is also another great spot for photos and larking about in the salt. After here it is an hour or so drive across the flats to San Juan to get ready for the night at the hostel and get to know the other people in your tour group over dinner and wine. 

Depending on the tour, you could get up early on day two and see the sunrise on the flats, unfortunately this wasn’t included in our itinerary even though we were told we could do it. When booking these tours you have to take the rough with the smooth, it wasn’t the end of the world though as one of the drivers of another tour was hammered by 8am, so some of the people on that tour had to drive for a bit. These Bolivians like a cheeky tipple when behind the wheel now and again I'm afraid.

The day starts off driving through the much smaller salt flat, Salar de Chiguna which hugs the Chilean border. The railway into Chile actually passes through this salt flat and you have to cross over here to then head south, passing the active volcano Ollague as you go.

During the course of the next couple hours, there are several lagoons on the way where flocks of flamingos gather and strut around. All the lagoons are different colours due to the minerals and are always changing shade depending on the sun, over the course of the next two days you come across five: Canapa (blue), Hedionda (red), Charcota (green), Honda (brown) and Ramaditas (grey).

The next stop is Arbre de Pierre, this is basically a rock that looks like a tree surrounded by other interestingly shaped rocks which have no business been in the middle of this harsh, sandy environment. After yet another photo shoot it is on to the hostel for the night which is located by Laguna Colorada, here a park entrance fee is of 150 Bolivianos is required which is pretty steep but once you walk to the viewpoint of the lagoon it's totally worth it as the view is astounding. 

There's an early start on day three, up at 5am (give or take an hour depending on how much your driver had to drink the previous night) and on to the geysers nearby. There's a small one you can pose by and jump through and then some hundred metres away there are a few more, but these are substantially bigger. Getting close isn't a good idea. Following here you receive breakfast and head into the thermal spa outside the breakfast hut. It's pretty small but after a couple days of not showering, the warm, soothing water feels amazing.

At this stage you are pretty much at the borders of Chile and Argentina so from here it is a long old slog back the way you came to Uyuni through the desert until you come across the main road to get back to town. Having seen most of the sights the previous two days this day is more for getting back more than anything else apart from the odd lagoon which you didn't see before.

All in all I had a cracking time. I made some great new friends, had a solid driver who spoke no English beyond 'very good' and 'Macho Man', the food was good, plenty of wine to be found and some spectacular scenery which constantly changed along the way. I wasn't originally going to do this trip but I'm a changed man and would recommend it to anyone. A real must for any visitor to South America, let alone Bolivia.


Monday, 15 April 2013

World's Most Dangerous Road by bike, La Paz to Corioco, Bolivia

Known as the 'Road of Death' and dubbed the most dangerous road in the world, the Yungas Road  leads from La Paz to Corioco, and for 70 or so breathtaking kilometres you can cycle downhill and let gravity do all (most) of the work.

From La Paz, there are several tour companies who offer trips up to the mountains for you to free wheel down at break neck speeds and varying conditions. You can shop around but the best thing to do here is either to go on the recommendation of other travellers who have done it and didn't get into any bother, or to just trust your gut.

The tour starts with hotel pick up (depending on the tour agency you use) and then you drive up to La Cumbre, 4700m above sea level, the start of the trip. Here, you leave the minivans and everyone is given a jacket, knee and elbow pads and a helmet, obviously you get a bike too. After safety instructions where the same thing is repeated for quite some time, essentially the guides kindly asking you not to get yourselves killed, you start off down the hill.

At this stage, the road is paved but at this elevation the weather can be erratic at best and on this day it was tearing down with rain and with no mud guards on my bike (decent tread and brakes were my only pre-requisite) it wasn't long before the standing water was blinding me and I couldn't see a thing. Pretty soon you reach ridiculous speeds and overtake all the slow moving traffic, hoping there isn't another truck or bus coming around the next corner.

After a drop of about 1600m, there is a check point where a mandatory fee is required before carrying on. At this stage, some tour companies load the bikes and drive the next section as it is pretty hilly and at 3000m oxygen is pretty scarce when cycling, mercifully the company I was with did this rather than having to cycle uphill, heaven forbid.

Once the road is basically all downhill again, the bikes are offloaded and with the assistance of gravity, the group takes off down the hill again. There are various stops along the way to get the group together again, to take advantage of photo opportunities and as you head down into the valley, all those layers at the top are very unnecessary and various stops are needed just to de-layer. Come the end of the tour, everyone is just in T-shirt and whatever pants they have on as around 1100m it is much warmer.

Depending on the tour, there is an all you can eat spread waiting for you at the bottom and a shower, this you will need as the road is rocky, then sandy, then wet and so at the bottom you really are covered in muck from head to toe. However, the adrenaline is still pumping as you recall all those hairy turns with sheer cliffs and all the crosses that act as a reminder that this is a dangerous road where deaths happen often enough. Recent years have seen a decline in these as there is a new road which most trucks and buses use now so the road is now basically for the use of cycling down. An awesome experience which can be taken as slowly or as quickly as you like, just make sure your brakes work and you are holding on tight.

Check point

Snacks if you so wish

Start of the 'dangerous' section

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Mendoza: Wine capital of Argentina

Mendoza is pretty much on everyone's itinerary when they come to Argentina, I haven't met anyone who hasn't already been or isn't planning on going. Situated pretty much bang in the middle of the country and with a front row seat of the Andes mountain range, it is a picturesque city in an unimaginably beautiful setting. With an elevation of around 800m above sea level and winds whipping down over the Andes, it really is an optimal place to grow grapes and olives.

As well as being a lovely city with a sprawling park, wide avenues and many places to relax, enjoy a drink and people watch, the main attraction here are the cycle wine tours. There are two ways to do these: go through a tour company as with everything else, or just go on your own steam. The second option allows much more flexibility, less money and at the end of the day is probably more enjoyable as you can go at your own pace and stay at a particular vineyard longer if you so wish.

From Mendoza, hop on one of the many buses heading out to the Maipu area, this takes about 45 minutes and all the bus drivers are familiar with tourists getting on and dropping them off at bike rental places. There are plenty to chose from and they pretty much all offer the same thing: a bike with helmet and discounts at vineyards which they are in league with. 

The main road through the town runs on for kilometres, with many roads branching off and leading to different vineyards. At the rental shop, a map is provided so the easiest thing is to suss out which vineyards you fancy going to (usually the ones where a discount is available) and just cycle off in that direction.

As a group we decided to head to the olive farm first to check out how olive oil is made and try out some liqueurs. There are a few places in Maipu to go for this so we just chose the one recommended by Mr. Hugo, the guy who owns the bike rental place we went to.

At the olive farm we were given the exclusive tour of the place where basically we were shown the machine which presses the olives to make the olive oil, a distilling machine for booze and a single olive tree (that's right, one), apparently you don't get to see the actual fields of olive trees (assuming they exist). After this slight let down we were escorted into the tasting room where, to start, there was a table laid out with bread and various forms of olive paste. The garlic and olive one was particularly good and something I will be making for sure when I get back home. After these starters, we got to try some liqueurs; these ranged from palatable rose petal and tia maria to whisky and absinthe. Needless to say the absinthe was like drinking fire but the whisky was pretty good.

From here it was on to the actual vineyards. On a map, everything looks pretty close together and our initial thought was how unnecessary the bikes were, however, some 6km further up the road you soon start to realise how not to scale the map is. At the first vineyard things were looking up as the group was taken outside to be given a talk on the grapes used, however that is where it ended and we were chaperoned into the old winery, seeing a distinct trend emerging here.

The winery turned out to be ancient, circa 1854 or there abouts, and as a result of this it is now a listed building so the owners can't make wine in there anymore. Consequently, this is now the wine cellar and the place where the tour and the tasting takes place. Four different types of wine to try but I would hardly call those tasters now, going to have to up their game I think.

Had the unfortunate occurrence of getting a puncture within the group but no matter as Mr Hugo will replace bikes when this happens, all this did was give us a cheeky half hour to just buy some more wine, chill in the 'picnic area' (old machinery graveyard) and wait, nothing wrong with that.

Now I know it's 'tasting' but I wouldn't mind a little more in my glass and the inevitable group decision was to just buy bottles of wine at the next place which had an affable host, excellent views and delicious wine. With the sun beating down and good company we easily killed an hour or too before heading off to the local beer garden, accompanied by our own police escort, for pizza and a pint. A wonderful way to cap the day.

I'd recommend this to anyone. Don't bother booking it with a tour agency or anything like that; get the bus to Maipu, turn up on spec, rent a bike form the rental place you feel most comfortable with and just go. Simple. Just don't buy the 4.75 litre bottles of wine available at the local shop by Mr Hugo's, apparently a little overindulgence can lead to a mild case of memory loss.