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Crossing the Andes ... to the Brazilian beaches Nine months through Ecuador, Peru, Chile, bolivia, Argentina and Brazil


PERU | Wednesday, 7 February 2007 | Views [1551]

Salar de Uyuni tour

The only ATM in town eventually co-operates so I´m able to liquidate myself and book onto a 3 day border crossing tour.  In fact within an hour we´ve left behind the Chilean fruit bandits and are driving across barren no-man´s land towards Bolivia.

On the otherside we begin the whistlestop tour of the Bolivian antiplano: traffic light lagunas intersperced with vast stretches of nothing; geysers of hot, bubbling pools of mud; and giant rocks strewn out across the desert like a great work of Dali.  We soon realise that the tour will be purely visual as, on the rare occasions that he speaks, we´re unable to decifer the toothless, mumbling taxi driver who has been sold to us as a guide.  Nevertheless, it´s a feast for the eyes and at each attraction we have just enough time for some amateur photography before being whisked to the next.  At Lago Colorado, I rush right down to the shores where hundreds of flamingos are feeding, getting close up to compensate for the weakness of my zoom.  I wade back to the jeep through the deceptively wet marshland and emerge with muddy boots and a strong aroma of stale water and bird shit.  I guess I wasn´t the only one happy that we had an appointment with the hot springs.

After a night spent in the most basic lodging in Bolivia, sharing a room with 6 others and a toilet with 45, we´re on the unpaved, unmarked road again for a day of more-of-the-same.  We head towards the Salar where we´ll sleep in a hotel made of salt waiting for the first light of morning ... And it is the most spectacular sight I have ever seen.  A thin slice of light emerges on the horizon creating a line of fire against a night sky tinged blue, reflected with perfect symmetry in the shallow film of rain water covering the salt land.  As the sun rises, so its reflection comes closer until it is directly above us and directly below.  It is stunning.

When we arrive in Uyuni there is no electricity power due to recent heavy rains. (Although this is an annual phenomenon also known as the wet season, Bolivians are yet to find a long term solution and seem to have resigned themselves to days without power.  In Bolivia the mentality seems to be one of finding a way to cope with situations rather that finding a way of resolving problems for the long term).  We visit the train graveyard on the edge of town and play amongst the rusting locomotives abandoned in the dry, unfertile land.  I can´t resist lying across the antique tracks, stepping back 50 years, flickering black and white images of a damsel in distress.  A train passes on the adjacent tracks and it´s suddenly Back to the Future.


This town on the antiplano is dominated both physically and emotionally by the Cerro Rico, a mountain in which men, women and children have been risking their lives to mine silver, and later tin, for over 500 years.  Abandoned by the state, they are now operated by private co-operatives, although the abundance of solicitors´ offices suggest they´re no safer.  Nevertheless I join a tour.  Woohoo!  We stop en route to purchase dynamite and coca leaves, then begin our journey through the mines.  As we go deeper, the temperature rises and the ceiling lowers.  Despite walking in a semi-crouch position, I repeatedly bash my head against rock or pipes carrying in fresh air from outside (hard hat severly scratched but skull intact).  We stand aside as a light and deep rumbling sound comes closer, and heavy trucks are pushed past us along the fragile rails. Some of the men are only boys and it´s somewhat disturbing to think about how difficult their life is.  We pay our respects to Tio, the mighty, well-endowed devil deity before leaving the miners to continue their work.  I´m not sure why this is a ´tourist attraction´.  It´s certainly educational but something just doesn´t feel right.


Outside of the congestion zone that surrounds the central market, the city is pretty.  Narrow lanes lined with smart white buildings and parks adorned with tributes to the west (technically east) - although I fail to appreciate the attempted replica of the eiffel tower.  I wander through cobbled streets up the the monastry that overlooks the city, where I watch the sunset framed by arches like a renaissance painting.

On the edge of town is a cement factory.  Whilst digging for limestone, the workers stumbled across evidence of prehistoric life and in 1998 it was declared the largest dinosaur tracksite known on the planet.  And so a tourist park was built.  I take the Dinobus and pay the special high price for a foreigner´s ticket to travel back in time.  To 1985.  I am a 5 year old ear old having my photo taken with lifesize fibreglass replicas.  I reach the archaeological site where plants, animals and giant footprints have been fossilised in the rock and am puzzled to find it´s a vertical wall .  Apparently it is thanks to seismic shifting that we are now able to conveniently view it through telesopes at least 100m away.  I feel cheated as I leave without the satisfaction of touching and resolve to stand in the footprints of giants at the Torotoro national park.

Cochabamba and no Toro Toro

I arrive at the Sucre bus station to find that the agency has forgotten to reserve my seat and the bus is now full.  But there´s always a way.  I bargain myself an uncomfortable folddown seat next to the driver and spend the night watching the bus veer around tight corners, negotiating landslides and stray dogs waiting at the roadside for scraps thrown from the bus to which they have become accustomed. (The main method of waste disposal in Bolivia is to hurl things to the side of the road and wait for them to vanish.  Although I heard about an advanced town where waste is collected and dumped at the river source, polluting the town´s only water supply).

I spend a day in the city trying to find a way to Toro Toro - I have a choice of a twice-weekly, 10 hour ride in a chicken truck (10 hours being the Bolivian laissez faire estimation) or a privately chartered flight.  I chat with the only other foreigner about the waterfalls and crystal clear pools, the ancient river banks impregnated with Cretaceous life and the caves of stalagtites sheltering blind fish. It is very tempting. But it´s rainy season and the idea of squeezing through flooded caves in the pitch darkness is not calling to me.  It´s time to move again.

I awake early and head down to the bus station where I take the last seat on a bus to Samaipata as it is pulling out of the garage.  I have the front seat at the top of the bus, with the best view I could ask for so I make myself comfortable and prepare for the real-life movie ahead.  The scenery is amongst some of the most beautiful I have ever seen. 
The bus stops a few times in order to, I presume, fix some problems - it later transpires there are people sleeping underneath with the bags so they were probably stopping to check they were still alive.  There are a few scheduled stops for breakfast and lunch, but otherwise we are making good progress and I mentally plan what I will do for the evening.  Just an hour and a half away from my destination we pull up behind a line of trucks and buses and sit waiting.  And waiting.  And waiting.  News comes that the rains have caused a waterfall to flood the road and the traffic has created mud levels so high that vehicles are trapped, unable to move forwards or backwards.  Nothing is moving tonight.  So a night on the bus it is.
I wake early the next morning to a bus full of mosquitoes and am amazed to find I have been bitten only once.  Through my trousers.  But they´re still hungry so there´s still time for a full body job. I climb down and walk along the train of vehicles until I reach the site of the disruption.  A little digger is moving mud to the side of the road, allowing 5 or so buses to pass until one gets stuck and the surrounding crowds are brought in again to pull it out.  The rain is still coming down and the water is still running across the road.  But it´s being ignored.  No-one seems to have had the forethought to divert the water away, and so the mud continues to build up.  It´s incredible.  A crowd of about 500 people surrounds the road, watching the vehicles pass, or not, and shouting conflicting instructions to the next driver in line.  And still the water is flowing.  Perhaps out of exasperation, perhaps just out of boredom, I start to dig a small ditch to divert some water.  I´m joined by a few kids, and watched by puzzled faces of adults.  It is working until people start to come to wash their shoes (n the muddy water) and break down the banks.  Eventually 2 big diggers arrive and literally dig a new, deeper road.  When the next rains come, it´s going to be the same story again.  Another case of Bolivia finding a way of dealing with a situation rather than solving a problem.  I head back to the bus shaking my head and wait for our turn to pass through.

Samaipata http://www.samaipata.com/ingles.htm

Twenty seven hours later I have arrived in Samaipata, translated from Quechua to mean ´resting place in the mountains´ - and I understand why the minute I step off the bus.  Already I love this place.  A cute little town surrounded by beautiful mountains and forest, and populated by friendly locals and expats.  Within hours I´ve met a great bunch of people and adopted them as my companions in the town for the next week.

We take a tour to Amboro national park.  The track is still muddy from the rains but the guides are crazier than they are sensible, and plough through, skidding sideways and leaving the jeep in a ditch.  We continue on foot through the Parque de Helechos (giant fern forest) and are a little more friendly with the inhabitants than I´d anticipated - flat brown slugs that secrete yellow liquid when provoked, a rattlesnake that spits venom onto the guides machete and an array of wierd and wonderful caterpillars.

After a day of rain that passes with food and movies, it´s time for an education so we pay a visit to El Fuerte, "one of the most remarkable pre-colombian ritualistic sites in the entire world".  We don´t have a guide so invent our own stories and explanations for the impressively carved rock and surrounding walls.  The stories are brilliant and most likely very accurate.  On the way back we visit the waterfalls at Las Cuevas, wading through sinking mud to reach the furthest and stripping off to swim in the deepest pool, tinged red by the mud.  I am eaten alive by the waiting mosquitos.

We spend a night at the home of an Israeli family living almost self-sufficiently on an organic farm in the mountains.  They´ve learnt how everything works through trial and error: buying a goat out of milk; introducing too many roosters and creating a mini cock fighting factory; and planting banana trees where they were doomed to failure.  They share their home with visitors up to 365 days a year so there´s not much privacy.  Although they´ve managed to have 2 kids.  We spend our time there in complete relaxation mode - painting pictures, making origami animals and eating massive helpings of vegetarian food.  Our only contribution to the working farm is a short spell pulling peanuts from the ground under the supervision of their 3 year old son (who orders us around in 3 languages) and shelling them once dried.

To the Brazilian border

We arrive at the bus station in good time for the start of our 20 hour journey and wait an hour while they slowly load bags onto the roof of the oldest bus in Bolivia.  There is a laid-back feeling, the passengers resigned to the fact we´ll get going eventually.  The bus pulls away from the station and there are immediately problems with the engine.  Or was it the tires?  They play around with a few things and fill the bus with fumes before starting up again.  Just 2 hours later the bus pulls to a halt.  I manage to decifer that the road is impassable due to the rains (and they couldn´t anticipate this?) and we have a choice - continue along another route that will take an extra 5 hours and cost another 10 bolivianos or we go back.  Someone decides we´ll continue.  Probably the biggest, loudest man.  But we decide not to pay - a decision the driver accepts as he reaches our seat then continues down the bus collecting money from donors.

It´s surprisingly easy to sleep on the bus and we only really come around at about lunch time as we pull in for lunch at which point our ETA is re-quoted - we should arrive at 9pm.  So another 6 hours to our already impressive journey time.  We sit down to study Nurit´s map and locate ourselves in San Jose de Chiquitos, a town founded by the jesuits and a tourist detination for many.  We´re tempted to spend the night, but given our track record we´re reluctant to delay our arrival in Brazil any longer.  Even when the restaurant owner ups the 6 hour estimation to 9 hours!  So we´re resigned to entertaining ourselves on the hot, and by now stinking bus, as we drive through the middle of nowhere with no realistic arrival time.  Finally, at 2.30 AM we arrive at the border town ... and find the border closed.  So, another night on the bus which now feels like home.   When we finally cross into Brazil the next day, despite being exhausted and feeling the dirtiest and most disgusting I have ever felt in my life, I am unable to stop smiling.

Tags: On the Road


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