Sunday, May 29, 2005

Peru again (this time on purpose)

The strikes were on again yesterday morning between Copacabana and the border, much to the my dismay and that of my three companions, one English guy and two Kiwis I´d met the day before. We took a taxi to the strike zone, then had to walk the remaining 3 miles to get to the border post (me grumbling the whole way because the woman at the post office wouldn´t let me send a 4 lb package because of the strike, so I had to carry it with me). We were feeling pretty intrepid, though also quite cautious, as reports from La Paz are of strikes getting more and more violent: rioting crowds throwing rocks and dynamite and police attempting to control the demonstrations through force and frequent use of teargas, with at least two deaths as a result. Outside the big city, however, the strikes are notably calmer: we passed a very long stretch of road covered in good-sized rocks, and then found the strikers, who kindly stopped their soccer game, wished us "buenos dias" and smiled as we walked by.

We were pleased with our accomplishment as we crossed the border and soon got a bus to Puno, where we arranged a tour of the Uros, or Floating Islands, which were on strike last time I was there. These are islands made entirely of reeds and I was really happy to get to see them--pictures to come soon, hopefully. We had a quick walk around Puno, ate dinner (both the New Zealanders had alpaca) and at 8 our bus left for Arequipa, with an estimated arrival time of 2 AM.

Will I ever learn? When somebody here says the bus will take 6 hours, I should always remember to add at least 25%! (Just as when they say the bus will leave in "5 minutos, amiga!" I should always remember to add between 500 and 1000%). Thus, it should have come as no surprise that after a long, sleepless journey we pulled into Arequipa at quarter to four. Part of the delay was a bit of excitement at a police checkpoint. Four customs police officers, ominously wearing black uniforms and black masks over much of their faces (probably for the cold, but still) came on board and for some reason started roughing up one of the passengers. When this happened, many of the other passengers started shouting at the police to leave him alone, respect his rights, or else simply shouting insults. There was a baby crying and a general sense of pandemonium for about a minute. My neighbor told me that the police can pick any type of package: products that might be resold, or which might somehow be used to smuggle drugs. She told me that on a previous bus the police picked out a man who was carrying a case of shampoo, and in the tussle punched him in the face, causing him to bleed heavily from a cut on his forehead. She said that the eventual goal is to get the passenger to come inside the office and pay a "fine" for what they are carrying. So, I will be careful not to carry more than a personal amount of toiletries with me anytime I take a bus trip. Incidentally, this morning I was told one of the 20 Sole notes I had been given somewhere along the way was it looks like the general sense of law and order here might have some surprises in store for me.

Friday, May 27, 2005

The hottest spot (south) of Havana...or not quite.

Yes, thanks to Dad for guessing correctly, and to Barry Manilow for providing the soundtrack to the past two days. After much adventure, I finally made it here to Copacabana, on the shores of Lake Titicaca (stop giggling, that´s just the way, did you know there is also a lake in Bolivia called Lago Poopo?) You may not be surprised to hear that at 3,800 meters/12,300 feet, this is the highest navigable lake in the world. It´s also the home of the Bolivian navy. If there is ever a high-altitude fresh-water war, the Bolivians will definitely have an distinct advantage.

This is far off from the the more well-known Copacabana, the famous beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a tropical paradise of palm trees and tanned bodies. Here it´s mostly tourist restaurants, souvenir shops and, at night, bodies bundled up in as much warm clothing as can possibly be worn. It is freezing at night, although by day, and in the sun, it´s pretty nice...when the wind´s not blowing. I took a boat trip today to the Isla del Sol, which is, according to myth, the birthplace of Inca culture. I met some nice people on the boat and we had a walk through some Inca ruins and across the island´s hills from one end to the other. The lake is beautiful, perfectly clear and lined on one side by snow-capped mountains.

I must say, I am a little disappointed in Copacabana, having perhaps let Barry Manilow influence me into thinking this might be an exotic place where one might wear yellow feathers in one´s hair and dance merengue and cha-cha from eight to four. In fact, I find myself at the end of my patience with the altitude and most of all the cold. I long for a place where I don´t have to wear my winter coat and woolen hat to dinner, and pile on the blankets in order not to suffer frostbite in my sleep. Thus, tomorrow´s destination (barring unexpected strikes) is Arequipa, Peru, at a reasonable 2,500 meters. (Still, this towers over all of the mountains in the Appalachian trail, but really, beggars can´t be choosers.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


My newest vocabulary word: strike! has now been the cause for another adventure-filled day. And again, I find myself in an unexpected destination. Yesterday, my visit to the floating reed islands, the Uros, was cancelled because the residents were striking. So I took a quick look around Puno, made a new friend and decided to head to Chucuito and eventually to my next destination (the one that may make you want to guesses?) But the road was again blocked by strikers! It wasn´t too much of a problem, our bus emptied out, we walked a mile or so past the strikers and the rocks and bits of broken glass they had strewn in the road, and found another bus to take us the rest of the way.

So, I visited the Temple of Fertility, which is basically a garden of stone phalluses, including one big one which women come to sit on during the full moon in the hopes that they´ll get pregnant. Unsurprisingly, despite the moon actually being full, I wasn´t even remotely tempted to have a seat. My guides were a 12-year-old boy and his 7-year-old sister, which I found a little strange...did she even understand what she was talking about? After the visit, I attempted catch a bus to Yunguyo by waiting at the side of the road, along with 30 or so other people trying to catch a ride. I chatted with the other ladies who were hanging around, and one offered that I, along with another woman who was waiting, could stay at her house if no buses came for us. I had planned to stay in a hotel if I couldn´t get a ride, but that sounded like fun. The sun set, it got dark, and it got cold! But finally, after 3 1/2 hours of watching buses go by headed to other destinations, just as I was about to take her up on her offer, a bus pulled up and the driver shouted out "Yunguyo!" So my opportunity to stay with a local was thwarted, but I was really glad to get here. The strange thing about both Chucuito and Yunguyo is that Edward Scissorhands´ less-talented cousin has been at work here, sculpting the trees in the main square to look like animals. Just barely. I often can´t really tell what they´re supposed to look like.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Hoja de Coca no es Droga

Coca leaves are not a drug. This is a slogan I saw on t-shirts in La Paz, illustrating a current political issue that causes lots of strife in Bolivia. Coca leaves are used in tea, or chewed by miners and many residents of the Altiplano (the high mountain regions) to ward off cold, hunger, pain, and the effects of altitude. As mood-altering as this might sound, coca is not a drug. However, the coca plant is also used in the production of cocaine, and as a result, many countries, chiefly the U.S., have been pumping millions of dollars into an effort to eradicate the entire coca industry. As this is one of Bolivia´s major industries, understandably this causes some, er, disagreement amongst coca production workers. Not to mention that it creates some anti-American sentiment. So when I heard there was a strike planned, involving closing off all the roads leading out of La Paz and as rumor had it, the little old coca leaf was going to be at the center of it, I decided that a week in La Paz was enough and it was time to go.

So off I went yesterday to Tiwanaku, the site of ancient ruins of a pre-Incan civilization. Yesterday I checked out the town, earning perplexed and/or amused looks from the locals, as I was the only gringo in town. This morning I went off to see the ruins. Well, do I feel ignorant or what? Apparently the Tiwanaku culture lived for nearly 2000 years in this area of the world, and spread their influence to many neighboring cultures. They had lovely pottery, tools, jewelery, an advanced systems of canals and architecture which is still being discovered. Also, they were several millenia ahead of the rest of the world in the trend for lip-piercing. In comparison, the Inca society apparently lasted only 90 years or so! (I´m not sure if you even qualify as a civilization in my book.) When I asked Elias, my guide, why it was the world is largely unaware of the Tiwanaku people and the Incas get all the glory, his answer was that it is all in the marketing, and Bolivia is a poor country, which can´t afford to promote its history on a global scale. Whatever the reason, I was certainly surprised and humbled to learn about this entire culture which had not previously come to my attention.

So anyway, I was pleased with myself for getting ahead of the game and getting out of the city before it got closed off due to strike (a strike which, in the end, apparently had nothing to do with coca production, but which had to do with the nationalization of the gas industry, which is another big topic). Imagine my surprise to find out that all the roads are blocked, including the road to little old Tiwanaku. So the only solution was: I would hitchhike. I walked about a mile and a half to the junction of the highway, avoiding the road-blockers in case they sensed my nationality from a distance and started throwing rocks. I chatted with some Bolivian high-school guys, practicing their trumpets (I sincerely hope they are not planning for a musical career) who gave me a ride to the optimal spot on their bikes. There were loads of people looking for rides, but I was happy to be the only one going in the direction of Peru. After three hours I got picked up by a young Bolivian couple, who brought me to the next town and then asked for payment--turns out they were profiting from the roadblocks by spending their day going back and forth on that stretch of road picking up stranded hitchhikers. But that wasn´t the end of it; I then had to pass through the military checkpoint and wait another hour or so for a taxi to come along, take it to the Peruvian border, walk across the bridge, have my passport stamped (twice, once for leaving Bolivia and once for entering Peru), then get another bus to Puno, where I am now. There was a Mexican guy in the cab, headed the same way, which was nice because I could let him do the talking...Bolivians definitely seem to trust him more than me. By the way, he came from La Paz via a taxi-taxi-bike-taxi combo today, and said that there were actually rioters in the streets and they were actually throwing some kind of explosives. So although that would make an interesting story for the grandkids, I´m glad I got out while it was still fairly calm.

So...that was a long story, and probably involved more of me spending hours sitting alone on the edge of a highway for some people´s tastes, but here I am safe and sound. Not to mention a little perplexed...after all, I didn´t plan to be in Peru today. I´ll spend a day here and then head off to my next destination, back in Bolivia. I´ll leave its name a secret for now, except to tell you that it might make some of you want to sing. Any guesses?

P.S. I uploaded some more photos of La Paz, as well as some of the ruins, including some completely unnecessary ones I took while waiting for a ride. Click on the appropriate links to check them out.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Festividades del Señor del Gran Poder

Today is the Festival of Our Lord of the Great Power, an annual event here in La Paz. It started at six in the morning, just one block from my hotel, with a series of marching bands...which means by the time I woke up I was already sick of it. But I maintained optimism and went to check it out. My Swiss-resident readers may be saying "annual festival?...marching bands?...starts early in the morning? Sounds like Fasnacht!" And in fact, this festival does have some striking similarities to Lucerne´s Mardi Gras celebration, which takes place in February. Luckily it´s not freezing cold here as it usually is in Lucerne during Fasnacht. The biggest difference, as far as I can tell, was that this festival is actually more organized than Fasnacht.

Yes, I would never have guessed that anything in Bolivia would be more organized than something in Switzerland--after all, this is the country where an 8:30 bus can wait until 10:15 to leave because it doesn´t have enough passengers, and then stop or gas on the way out of town. But it is so. The main part of the fiesta was the parade of marching bands and dancers in elaborate costumes winding their way down all the main streets. These main streets were completely blocked off, so that unless you paid for a seat you couldn´t see the parade. The first seat I checked out was 10 Bolivianos (about $1.25) but I´m cheap, and that´s expensive for Bolivia (my hotel room costs $3.75) so I continued looking. Of course, the seat I wound up in had a worse view and cost 15 Bs. In order to cross the parade route, you had to wait in line at one of several police checkpoints, and cross the street during a break between dancing groups. Anyway, I sat in the sun for a while watching the parade go by. The costumes were fabulously elaborate, but heavy, and with the direct sun I couldn´t imagine being inside one--I even saw one dancer pass out from the heat!

The couple sitting next to me told me that the costumes and dances had to do with the conquest by the Spanish, how they brought slaves to Bolivia from Africa and how they were eventually defeated (at least I think that´s what they said). Apart from one group which clearly had a slavery-Africa theme, to me the rest just seemed to me like groups playing traditional music, wearing traditional costumes and dancing traditional dances, with the occasional person in a zebra costume carrying public service announcements ("Enjoy the festival with control...don´t get drunk" or "You too can be a Gran Poder. Don´t beat your wife"). But although I suppose I would have to be Bolivian to really understand all the symbolism and cultural images involved, I appreciated and enjoyed the festival nonetheless...for a little while, anyway. All that traditional marching band music can get a little tiring. After a couple of hours I was suffering from trombone overload and had to take refuge in my hotel room.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

La Paz and Markets

EDIT: Fixed the link below (to pictures from Tarabuco Market)

After the Death Road experience (and coming back up it in a van, which was probably more scary than the mountain bike descent) I am back in La Paz to get a better feel for this very cool city. Thibaut headed off yesterday to meet up with a friend at Machu Picchu and to go on from there into Peru, so I am by myself again, getting re-accustomed to the solo travel routine. I am sticking around La Paz for a big festival (Festival del Gran Poder, or Festival of the Great Power) on Saturday, which is supposed to be great. I will probably take lots of pictures of it with my new camera! Yes, after more than a month I finally have a new turned out to be less expensive to buy one in the US and ship it, and I picked it up at the Fed Ex office yesterday. What a relief! (And thanks again, Dad!)

Anyway, I spent a good portion of today walking around an absolutely huge market portion of La Paz. This city is really amazing, it is very large (more than a million people), and has skyscrapers and billboards and traffic and all the usual big-city things, but in many places it maintains a very rural feel. The market I was walking around in was mainly for fruits and vegetables, although there are plenty of stands selling all the shampoo, toilet paper, laundry detergent and boxes of Frosted Flakes you could want. Sometimes the market is really specific--I walked down an entire street selling mainly potatoes! And there are buildings dedicated to selling meat...walking through there you can see pig or cow heads hanging from hooks and all manner of organs and parts for sale. Almost all the stands are run by women, usually wearing traditional clothes, arranging their onions or carrots in the most appealing display, shouting "comprame (buy me) señorita!" or occasionally taking a nap amongst the turnips. And among all the shuffle, it´s not uncommon to see a man in a business suit buying fruit for his lunch. It´s all very photogenic, but I´ve discovered that Bolivians generally don´t like to have their pictures taken. They turn their heads, or yell at you, or alternatively, ask you for money. Sometimes they just don´t want you to take a picture, regardless of whether or not they are in it. This is why I have no pictures of the potato street; no one would let me take pictures of their potatoes! As a result, I try to go with stealth photography techniques, taking pictures while looking the other direction, or under the arm, or around the back, or while seemingly holding the camera in my hand and walking aimlessly down the street. This, unfortunately, doesn´t produce too many award-winning photographs.

The first attempt at stealth photography happened about a week and a half ago, at the Tarabuco market, outside of Sucre. The first attempts were of the tops of many people´s heads (Bolivians tend to be quite a bit shorter than me). Luckily, I had the chance to get some pictures using Thibaut´s super-zoom lens, unobtrusively snapping portraits from across the street or on a park bench. I uploaded the photos yesterday, so you can see them now by clicking here. There was a busy fruit and vegetable market, where one could buy 20 figs, or 10 mini-avocados, for 1 Boliviano, or around $0.12. It also had a fantastic selection of alpaca-wool clothes and fabrics. (You´ll notice that I came away with a hearty helping of souvenirs). That market was full of people in traditional dress, including several variety of hats, which you can see in the photos. The hat worn by the woman in the photo above is less typical, but the way she carries her baby is not. Everywhere I go, in cities or in the country, women carry their babies like this. Yesterday I saw a woman strapping her baby onto her back, and I have to say, it was a little scary. She wrapped up the baby and then swung the whole parcel around her shoulder as if she was tossing on her backpack. I suppose they have lots of practice at doing this, but I bet doing it for the first time would be a challenge.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

More Superlatives

As I said, everything in Bolivia seems to have a superlative. The most recent (and scary) one I encountered was with Monday´s mountain biking expedition down the World´s Most Dangerous Road. This is a narrow dirt road, skimming along the edge of steep cliffs, which descends from La Cumbre, outside of La Paz, at 4,700 meters, to just below Coroico, at 1,300 meters. The road makes this descent over 75 kilometers. Let´s convert that: a descent of 3,400 meters (over 11,000 feet) over a stretch of 75 km (about 47 miles). Yikes! I´m not exactly sure if "World´s Most Dangerous Road" is a scientifically-proven moniker, but I would not be surprised if it is true. Nevertheless, this is one of the top tourist attractions of the La Paz region, so we followed along. And after all, if trucks and full-sized buses can go up and down the road all day long, surely it can´t be a problem to do it on a bike.

And for the most part, it wasn´t a was lots of fun. We were equipped with high-quality bikes (with suspension and disk brakes and other fancy things), as well as helmets and gloves and windbreakers and pants. We also had a guide, Victor, who was a very good guide, and made sure we didn´t get hit by any trucks, which was nice. The first third of the road is paved, so you absolutely fly down it. It had taken some convincing to get Thibaut to join me on the adventure, but after approximately one minute, he flew past me, saying, "what...are you braking!!??" After an hour or so, we cycled uphill for about 15 minutes (uphill? I wasn´t told about any uphill!) and then the road opened up onto a beautiful green valley where we could see thousands of feet down, and across to the winding path we were to follow for the next couple of hours. Also, we could feel warm breezes coming up from the valley, which was very exciting, because it´s kind of cold in La Paz.

The second part was fantastic. It was a dirt road with some rocks, but not too bumpy, and the scenery was beautiful and there were tropical plants on the roadside, and sometimes we even passed under waterfalls which dripped down onto us! But the adrenaline was on high, because the road was definitely very narrow, and if you lost control of your bike at the wrong place you would almost certainly plunge to your death. Unfortunately, many (too many) roadside memorials, and names like "Englishman´s curve" bear witness to bikers or guides or drivers and passengers who have done just that. But I´m not what you might call a crazy daredevil, and I was definitely cautious--the sore muscles I have now in the palms of my hand prove that I didn´t hold back on using the brakes.

The third part of the ride wasn´t as much was really bumpy, which actually really hurt our arms and hands, and also it was very dusty. Very dusty! Every passing van would send up a huge cloud of dust for us to choke on for several minutes. At the end we were completely coated with dust, and I don´t even want to think about the thin layer of dirt now on my lungs. But it was a really fun activity anyway, and left us feeling fully deserving of a day spent by the pool at our hotel in Coroico. Yes, a pool! Unfortunately, we only had a half day of sun...but still...a pool! Yippee!

And on a side note, if anyone is looking for an Industrial Designer with a university degree, I would recommend my brother, who officially graduates from UArts today. Congrats Dan!

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Bolivia´s Two Capitals

Here´s your bit of trivia for today: did you know that Bolivia has two capitals? Sucre is the actual capital, and La Paz (which is considered by the rest of the world to be the capital and thus earns its own superlative, the highest capital city in the world) is the seat of government. I´m not actually sure how it works, and I am still undecided as to what I would respond if forced, by, say, Alex Trebek or Regis Philbin, to choose one.

Anyway, after Potosí, we headed to capital #1, Sucre. We got there last Saturday, in time to head out the little town of Tarabuco for their famous Sunday market. I´ll post on that later...hopefully I should have some good photos. Sucre is a really nice place, very relaxed, and thankfully, at 2,500 meters, it´s a little warmer than Potosi or Uyuni. It has a central square, Plaza 25 de Mayo, with palm trees and benches, surrounded by colonial buildings. Our hostel had a lovely garden where we spent some hours in the sun with Greg and Fanny, two friends that Thibaut had met in Patagonia, Valparaiso and again in Potosí. (It´s funny how you run into people...on the Uyuni tour, I ran into a German guy I met in Ushuaia!) There was also a hilltop café with a view over the city and some nice music. And after nearly giving up on a visit to the church of San Felipe de Neri--all the church doors were locked, but finally we found the entrance a couple of buildings down--we had a private tour of the church and former convent, including the roof terrace with a panoramic sunset view of Sucre. The city center´s buildings, which are almost all white, are generally about two stories high, which means you can look out over all the houses all around, with their red clay tile roofs and their central courtyards.

Sucre also has a big central market where all kinds of fruits and vegetables were on was really fun to pick out some fruit for breakfast, but unfortunately it was pretty disappointing. The avocados were hard as rocks, the oranges were moldy after 12 hours and the cantelope tasted like fish! It shouldn´t have come as a surprise, considering we had already realized that Bolivia is not what one might call a culinary hotspot. Between worrying about how meat is stored and cooked and trying to avoid anything that has touched the water (salads, drinks with ice cubes), I´m basically functioning on a steady diet of pasta and cookies. Luckily, they do make some good cookies.

Wednesday night´s planned bus trip to La Paz (capital #2) was foiled by some striking miners blocking the roads, so we had an extra unplanned day in the sun before leaving for real on Thursday evening. Unfortunately, it meant that Thibaut spent the evening of his 31st birthday in a bus, which wasn´t all that exciting. Road blocks and strikes are a pretty common method of protest here for working conditions, salaries, etc. (I tease the French people that it must make them feel right at home) And in fact, a country-wide indefinite road block is planned for tomorrow, so that should be very interesting. But La Paz seems like a great city so far...and if I was stuck here for a week I think it would be ok.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

¡Es un Potosí!

Up here in the Andes, it seems there´s a superlative for everything. After Uyuni, we headed to Potosí, which is lucky enough to have two! Not only was it for a long time the richest city in South America, thanks to its silver mines, it is also the highest city of its size in the world (altitude 4,070 meters, population 110,000). In the 1500s, the export of silver from Potosí was the main reason for the colonisation of much of the rest of South America. The Spanish expression ¡es un Potosí! means something is really rich. Major cities were founded to provide customs checkpoints and exit roads for the silver en route to Europe. If there was no Potosí, there would be no Lima and no Buenos Aires. For this reason, I was excited to check it out. However, getting there involved what was supposed to be a 6-hour bus ride. As only 5% of Bolivian roads are paved, I was expecting a bumpy ride. However, what I didn´t expect was that we would have to stop twice for mechanical difficulties, including one time when they actually had to take a tire off of the bus to repair the problem. Then the road was so bad that it took us 3 hours alone to go the last 90 km! In the end, the ride took 9 hours and I was extremely happy to finally arrive.

Potosí­ has changed a lot in the past 400-500 years. For one thing, the mines were basically tapped out, and the remaining ones were privatized in the 1980s and are run as cooperatives. They now produce much humbler amounts of silver, as well as iron, tin and all kinds of other metals. However, the work conditions for miners have changed very little over the centuries, which results in occasional strikes and protests by miners´ unions. We took a tour of the Casa Nacional de Moneda, where all coins for Bolivia as well as Spain were made for hundreds of years. Now, Bolivian coins are made in Spain and Canada, and their bills are produced in France. However, despite not being quite as powerful a city as it was in its heyday, Potosí is still a really nice city, bustling with activity, people all over the place, streets full of buses with young boys employed to stand in the doorways shouting out the buses´ destination. The city is surrounded by mountains, and it seems every time I turned a corner I was looking down a street at the mountains in the distance...a really surprising and beautiful sight.

Let me just expand a little on the effects of altitude. Although we had been at or around 3,500-4,000 meters of altitude for at least a week, for some reason in Potosí­ the thin air seemed to hit everyone like a ton of bricks. While people who suffer from real altitude sickness (nausea, vomiting, killer headaches, dizzyness) tend to get it right away, or at least within a day or so, the fact is that when you´re at 4,000 meters there just isn´t enough air to fill your lungs the way you´re accustomed to. I´m a pretty fast walker, and I really had to slow myself down, or else I would get winded. Talking to other gringos, it seems lots of people had the same experience--we sometimes find ourselves short of breath after the smallest exertion, like crossing the room or even just lifting a heavy backpack. The other thing to remember about being up in the Andes is that it´s cold up here, and most hotels (in my budget, anyway) don´t have heating! At midday, in the sun, it´s lovely and warm, but outside of these conditions it gets chilly, and once the sun goes down it is downright freezing! It took several alpaca-wool blankets on the bed to defrost my bones. So much for being officially in the tropics! (Having crossed the Tropic of Capricorn in northern Argentina and Chile, you´d think it would be warm here. You´d be wrong.)

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Having been in Bolivia almost a week, I´m beginning to get used to the rhythm of this country, which is completely different from Argentina and Chile. First of all, it´s much poorer, which is evident just about everywhere. It will take a while to catch up on all the things I´ve been seeing, so let´s start a week ago with the Salar de Uyuni...

The tour went well overall; we had a great group: me, Thibaut, Rio (from Scotland), Karla (from Ireland), Walter (from Austria) and Mathias (from France). We had a blast together and really got along well, which is important when you spend three days together. The countryside of Southwestern Bolivia is so beautiful that you almost don´t mind being bounced around in the back of a Land Rover eight hours a day for three days. We saw gorgeous lakes tinted several colors by mineral deposits, with pink flamingoes wading around and fishing for algae. We all felt breathless and slightly dizzy at the highest point, 4,800 meters above sea level, where we stopped to see some geysers. We chewed coco leaves to ward off the effects of altitude (and cold and hunger) as the Bolivians of the Altiplano do. The geysers were disgusting and fascinating pools of gray or red mud bubbling and letting off a horrible sulphur stench. We also saw weird rock formations, which seem to have fallen from nowhere in huge volcanic explosions millions of years ago. In between stops, we crossed vast stretches of desert, completely barren all the way to the surrounding mountains.

On the second night we slept in a hotel made entirely of salt! Tables, chairs, walls, beds, floors, etc. (Well, except for the bathroom, I suppose it wouldn´t be that great if the shower walls dissolved while you were in the middle of your shower or the toilet dissolved into the ground when you flushed it). Finally on our last day we crossed the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the large that when you´re in the middle of it, all you can see is salt all around you, besides some distant mountains. It´s pretty amazing that all this salt exists out here, at around 3,500 meters of altitude. When some of it is removed for processing, the hole fills in with water from below, which eventually evaporates and fills in with what seems to be an endless supply of salt! We stopped at an "island" covered in cactuses to take some pictures and play in the salt.

The problem we had with the tour was our "guide-driver-cook", Ernesto. Really, "driver" is the only word for him, considering he hardly spoke at all (only told us his name when we asked, and never even asked ours, preferring the universal "amigo/amiga" to the effort of trying to get to know his clients). His idea of guiding was to stop the car at a lake and say "Laguna Colorada, amigos. 20 minutos!" At first we thought this was because his first language is Quechua, not Spanish. But that didn´t seem to stop most of the other groups´ guides from being friendly and outgoing. Then there was the small problem that he seemed to be stealing some of our food: at each meal there were a few things missing, things that the other groups had. We had heard that occasionally guides will take food meant for the group to sell it to supplement their income. After our tour, it seems Ernesto would be able to sell an avocado or two, some bread, soft drinks, butter, canned meat, and dulce de leche (and that´s only the things we noticed). Obviously, guides are paid next-to-nothing by the agency, and we felt bad about that, but still felt rather annoyed that we did not get all that we paid for. This left us with a rather uncomfortable dilemma: do we complain and risk costing him his job, knowing he has a wife and three kids to support on an extremely meager salary as is, or do we accept this as part of the uncomfortable truths of "rich" foreigners visiting Bolivia? I´m still on the fence about that one, but in the end it might come down to a much simpler question: whether or not I have the energy and motivation to write an e-mail to the agency. And in the long-term, the positive aspects of the tour, the friends I made and the beautiful things I saw far outweigh the negatives.