Thursday, September 29, 2005

More rock formations

I'm spending a few days chilling out in the beautiful little old colonial town of Cafayate. This is wine country, with vineyards cradled in a dry, hot valley surrounded by spectacular canyons and mountains. In the afternoon the wind picks up and the town becomes a big dust bowl. I went on a little tour organised by my hostel.

The desert is full of these funny green trees that have no leaves (to prevent water loss) but photosynthesize through their green bark.

The iron in the earth creates some astonishing red mountains.

Our bus is in the lower left foreground below for scale.

And what excursion would be complete without a few llamas.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Day-trip to Cachi

After twiddling my thumbs a little I decided to go to the little town of Cachi for the day. Rushing to the bus station, I jumped on the 7am bus just before it left only to discover that there was no return bus in the afternoon the same day.

I mulled over my options for staying overnight on my cash supply ($3) that was tight to begin with when I was only expecting to buy a light lunch. I contemplated getting off and making my way back to Salta, but in the end I decided to just enjoy the stunning scenery and see what happened.

We winded our way up a steep valley of red earth and emerald green terraces and then crossed a broad high plateau with snow-capped peaks in the distance. After 157km, we pulled into Cachi in the foothills of those 6000m peaks.

A lady on the bus offered me some little booklets on Christianity. I politely indicated that I prefered to read in English, at which point she pulled out another bunch in English too. I thanked her and said no thanks, and asked her if she knew of any other way back to Salta in the afternoon. Fortunately she did; it turns out a taxi service runs on the days that the bus doesnt so I was able to book myself on that for a little bit more than the cost of a bus seat. That left me with 6 hours to roam around and about $2 left for something to eat and drink.

It was the school's back to school day (something like that) and they were holding all sorts of crazy races around the town square. I found a restaurant and awkwardly worked out what I could afford to buy for my pennies and was rewarded with a huge hamburger and fries (80 cents).

Then I headed out of town to the mirador and the town cemetery where I found a shady spot and read for a couple of hours, enjoying the rare moment of peace and quiet.

The trip back I was pinned in the back seat for 4 hours along with 2 others with a taxi driver munching on coca leaves and chain smoking, and eating his dinner while driving like a madman and throwing all the rubbish including his empty coke bottle out the window into the pristine countryside.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Argentina at last

Trees! Trees planted in avenues and alongside fields for no other purpose than their aesthetic appeal. Paved roads. Steak. Roadside picnic tables (albeit made out of crumbling concrete). A noticable lack of garbage. Bus stations with bathrooms instead of going behind the nearest building. Loads of Renault and Peugot cars. Supermarkets!! Toilets with toilet paper (you still can't flush it though).

Ahh, the pleasures of civilization. I am in Salta, Argentina, and very happy to have the edginess of Bolivia behind me.

I have about a week to kill while I wait for a new bank card to arrive and I noticed that they are offering glider rides at the local airport for about US$30.

I took the bus down to the aeroclub where I was immediately handed the keys to the instructor's car and told to drive down to the other end of the runway to wait while he went up for his first flight with another passenger. I had a good chat waiting for my turn with the tow-plane pilot after he came back down.

Taking off behind a tow-plane seems like a very dangerous activity and the instructor had the controls the whole way up. After we released the tow cable (at about 500m) we searched around for some lift without much luck and we were back at the airfield in about 5 minutes at 200m (I was very disappointed). But then right over the runway we caught a thermal that we circled tightly up in and made it back to about 700m.

At this point the instructor gave me the controls and I got to wobble around on my own (I wasnt used to the inertia in those long wings). We slid on over to the hills over Salta and then caught another good thermal and got way up again.

Finally we headed back to the airport, and with a little help from the instructor on the speed brakes, I landed (tail first, a bit hard and fast). It was great fun.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Silver and dynamite in Potosi

I left Uyuni in the morning with about 10cm of snow on the ground. The bus climbed up into the mountains towards Potosi and we were briefly stuck behind a line of vehicles while the road ahead was shoveled out to give them enough traction to get over the pass.

My pack got soaked on top of the bus so half my clothes were wet inside. It was cold and rainy in Potosi so by the end of the day of exploring I was thoroughly wet as well. Fortunately, my hostel had fantastic hot showers and good warm beds, so by the morning I was ready to visit the famous silver mines that made this city the richest in Latin America at one time.

The first stop was the miner's market where we bought coca leaves, drinks, and dynamite (and nitroglycerine pellets) to give to the miners.

Then we got kitted out in boots, overclothes, helmets and lamps and headed into the mine. The first 100m of the entrance tunnel had a carefully built arched roof, a legacy from the first spanish explorations here in the 16th century.

The rest of the mine was a rats-nest of tunnels and shafts, supported in parts by ancient (partially collapsed) beams and girders. At times we were walking fully doubled over under low ceilings, through muddy puddles following submerged rails that 1-ton wagons of ore would come rushing along at random intervals forcing us to leap to the side to keep clear.

We saw one electic winch in the mine. Everything else was manual labor. Holes for dynamite are chiseled into the rock and then ore is shoveled into wagons that are pushed and pulled by four miners to the mine entrance for processing. Sometimes the ore must first be lifted up vertical shafts using huge leather bags and a winch. The mine is a co-operative but the days are long and the work is relentless. Kids start working in the mines around age 14.

After we left the mine, our guide showed us how to blow up a stick of dynamite. First you put the fuse in the dynamite and then the stick of dynamite in the nitroglycerin pellets.

Then you bury the whole lot in some mud (after removing any obvious stones), light the fuse and run like hell up the hill where you crouch trying to catch your breath (we're still at 4000m here) while you wonder if 30m is really far enough away.

Then there is an almighty bang that scares the crap out of you and the tension release makes you laugh like a little kid. I have a video of it, but it doesn't come close to doing it justice.

Now I am waiting to go to Argentina. The road is being blockaded for reasons that are not terribly clear to me right now, but hopefully I'll be on my way soon.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Salar de Uyuni

I took the bus from La Paz to Oruro where I was able to take a train to Uyuni which would have been a very civilized way to travel had it not been for the back to back children's movies in Spanish with no subtitles.

In Uyuni, I signed up for a tour the next day and found a nice restaurant with a raging fire to warm up next to.

The tour lasted 3 days and I was lucky to be traveling with a good bunch of people. All the tour companies use Toyota Land Cruisers, and they take quite a bruising (the guide said they only lasted about 2 years doing the tour).

The first day we drove across the Salar, a vast salt lake (about 2m thick with water below) about the size of Lake Titicaca. The salt is processed commercially by local communities who also build houses and chairs out of bricks of salt in the middle of this desolate wilderness.

We stopped at the Isla de Pescado which offered a surreal panoramic view.

After the Salar, we drove for miles across barren high desert, sometimes following established dirt roads, at other times just weaving across open terrain (often with parallel plumes of dust from other trucks off in the distance).

The earth is very rich with minerals here and the mountains and lakes had amazing colors as a result.

The wind was fierce in places (100kph) and has carved out strange formations in the rocks jutting out of the desert.

The accommodation and food was pretty basic on the trip but our cook did a remarkably good job all things considered.

Returning to Uyuni we stopped to fill up at a petrol station with no electricity where the petrol was pumped by hand.

We were rushing back to Uyuni so some of the group could catch a bus, so we barely had more than a minute to poke around the train cemetery outside of town where abandoned steam engines are slowly rusting into the desert. The sun was setting as we drove away.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Mugged in La Paz

I have only just posted my entries for Bolivia (post-dated) and they are rather brief at present as I have been preoccupied this last week.

On Sunday morning, the day after returing from the Huayna Potosi climb, I left my hostal early in the morning (6am) when it was still dark, to walk the two blocks to the tour company where I was going to do a bike-ride down the "world's most dangerous road". I followed one young guy down a side street that was otherwise deserted and after about 10 yards I heard running steps coming from behind and then an arm wrapped around my throat. The guy in front of me turned around and grabbed me along with another 2 or maybe 3 guys that appeared from behind who together lifted me off my feet and carried me to the side of the road while I was being choked.

I passed out at some point and woke up face down on the cobblestones, minus my watch, my wallet, and my daypack with camera (and two weeks of photos) and a few other things. Fortunately, apart from a bruised neck and a grazed chin I was otherwise ok physically.

At that point I sprinted down to the office where I had some time to calm down, and decided to go ahead with the bike ride anyway (which was great by the way - 63km downhill along a precipice, but obviously I have no pictures).

To add insult to injury, the next morning while taking money out of my money-belt that had been in the hostal (El Solario) strong-box (along with my passport) I noticed that about $160 was missing, and soon discovered that at least 4 people had had money taken from their money-belts too. I think they suspect one guy who works there on Sunday nights but there is no proof. That night I talked to the owner about it and he offered me half of my money back (based just on my account of how much had been taken) and they moved the strong-box into a different office with more restricted access so hopefully that will prevent further problems. So I feel like I have had more than my share of bad luck this week.

Since then I have been dealing with getting a new bankcard, buying a new digital camera and memory card, a new daypack, hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, gloves, rainjacket and everything else I lost before I move on to Uyuni.

So I'm afraid there are no pictures from the islands in Lake Titicaca or my climb of Huayna Potosi, but I am still in pretty good spirits and looking forward to moving south.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Climbing Huayna Potosi

I just got back from a 2-day climb to the summit of Huayna Potosi (6088m, 19975') which lies in the Cordillera Real, North of La Paz.

My own pictures of the climb were lost when I got mugged in La Paz the day after the trip, but I have posted some shots from a fellow climber who was kind enough to let me use his photos. The camp site was a bit rocky as you can see.

We were up at midnight for the climb to the summit which we reached just before sunrise.

I was told it was a non-technical climb and I was expecting a long slog up to the top at high altitude (challege enough) but it turned out to involve quite a bit of scrambling up ice-gullies, walking over very narrow ice-bridges over 30m deep crevaces and one hairy spot where we should have been on belay but weren't.

I was happy not to have any altitude problems other than being scarcely able to breathe. The last 200m is a punishing scramble up a steep ice-field full of man-sized fins of ice formed by the sun and wind. When one of the guides told us we only had 10m to go, I groaned. Doing anything to break the rhythm of my breathing (like wiping my nose) resulted in a sudden burst of heaving gasps.

The climb was beautiful however, and very rewarding to reach the summit.