Sunday, May 20, 2012

-- Salty dreams --

Today started a bit early, despite the fact we only got a few hours sleep in the dodgy hostel with the smallest bedrooms you could possible imagine.
Sun was shining outside and Uyuni was still waking up from its lethargic freezing night as a street market was being set on "the main street" and big empanadas, homemade bread and chocolate were bought for a nice breakfast on the go.

A woman had offered us a very cheap two-day tour of the region and as she seemed very convincing, we agreed in taking it. Our tourist operator name was "Huracan" and it was a trip filled with emotion and riddled with inconveniences (you'll know al about it later).

So after a little walk around the probably most horrible town I've seen in my life, we were presented to the rest of our group, a Peruvian guy who happened to be backpacking around Bolivia, a guy from Venezuela who lived in Buenos Aires and was making his way around to reach his hometown by land and two Argentine girls who were making their way to Cuzco/Machu Picchu overland, people that would become excellent friends during the next two days.
So we departed one hour behind schedule under the strong altiplanic sun, shining through the thin air and burning our skins and eyes forcing us to wear tons of sunblock and sunglasses.

It was a stunning day and our first stop was the Train Cemetery just a few kilometers south of town and a place resembling your best "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" fantasy.
Uyuni used to be a very important railway joint and a booming town when mining was a big source of income in the country (and you could definitely see town had seen better days) so a train depot in the outskirts of town became abandoned and a fair amount of British locomotives, dating from late 1980's and early 1900's rust under the strong sunshine and thin air creating a melancholic and surreal playground while little tornados make their way through the vast desertic land around us.
We took our time to catch a few snaps in between rusty steel and improvised swings while the place was crowding with different group of tourists , definitely a unique place.

 Then our Land Cruiser drove up north for a few minutes and a mirage appeared on our left hand side car windows. Uyuni Salt Flat was just around the corner and we could feel a bit of a rush when seeing it for the first time , even though our second stop was Colchani, a little village in the edge of the Salt Flat where locals process salt in an almost handcrafted way for the local consumption, souvenirs and even create salt blocks to build houses and a very cheeky Salt Museum featuring lots of statues made out of salt which were of course heavily photographed.

Finally time to see what the trip was all about as we drove slowly into this endless white mirror, effect created when a thin layer of water, typical of the rainy summer season, sets on the Salt Flat creating an impression of a fused horizon and reflecting the sky as a massive clear mirror.
Uyuni Salt Flat is the largest salt flat in the world with over 10,500 square kilometers, a place truly unique and surreal.

I felt the need of playing around some camera tricks when were given a  few minutes to take a few snaps and just feel the warm salty water on our feet as we walked around.

The Salt Hotel a few miles into the Salt Flat was our next stop, a place made entirely out of salt bricks, featuring salt furniture , decoration and where we had lunch amongst a crowd of tourists playing more camera tricks and delighting their eyes with the view. We even had our meal on a table made out of salt, so flavour was completely guaranteed.

As we drove back, we had the chance of sitting on top of the vehicle ( safety wise, it wasn't a good idea, but it was a great experience) getting an excellent last view of the landscape, the endless mirror and a rather interesting thunderstorm developing in the distance.

Back in Uyuni for a few minutes, that turned into a couple of hours, we were told accommodation in Villa Alota (our stop for the night) was fully booked and we were supposed to go there in the morning. This was not as agreed when we booked the tour so after a few minutes of arguing along with other upset tourists, we were given a good to go and we hit the road heading south to the border with Chile, while the sun was setting down the snowy peaks and the winds were getting strong, just reminding us we were in the desertic highlands where temperatures are extreme and so are landscapes.

Time for a rest in the extremely rustic accommodation, featuring steel beds, completely worn out matresses and rustic bathrooms, while we had our simple homemade dinner and some cheap wine. Card games closed the night with a good laugh and the memories of a truly unique and amazing place, hoping the "Luz Mala" (Bad light) wouldn't catch us overnight.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

-- Thin air, heavy trip --

Few days had passed by in between dinner parties, meetings and 'pre-recorded stories'. In the end , it had been two years since I saw most of this people and a heavy catching up was necessary. Could feel my soul slowly filling up with good vibes and a steady smile in my face drawn upon my face that would last for days and days.
But my mind as it is, couldn't stay quiet and it was time for another quick trip, so after booking last-minute tickets, I was traveling along with two other friends to the Uyuni Salt Flats, the biggest salt desert in the world.

Morning time and my mom took me to Santa Cruz El Trompillo domestic airport to catch my military flight (cheapest ticket you could get) to the country's capital Sucre.
Flight was a bit delayed due to very poor weather conditions but soon our plane, a white 80-seater BAE-146 was landing in between the heavy rain and, after a quick turnaround, we were boarding and the flight left in a matter of minutes.

Very bumpy forty-five minutes flight on this classic silent jetliner and Sucre made its appearance floating in the low humid clouds. We flew in circles for a few minutes and our plane made its way dodging a few cliffs and hills ( I am not lying , it's actually one of the most difficult approaches in the world) until we finally landed into Juana Azurduy Airport.

Weather was picking up and the fresh, tempered air of a lovely valley welcomed us as we left the airport and took a local bus into town.
Sucre has been declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO and I could see why in its spotless colonial style City Centre. It's also called "The White City" as many of the colonial buildings were coated with a white layer of lime which , combined with the Spanish-style balconies and the wooden signs, create an atmosphere of a charming city frozen in time.

First stop was to get some proper lunch and we picked a place managed by some Northern Argentines. Food was good and very cheap, just what we needed to hang around town for a bit and take one of the longest bus journeys ever to the bus station in between narrow steep streets and markets that gave way to crowded avenues in the surroundings of the long-distance bus station.

We also decided to take a taxi from Sucre to Potosi as it was more comfortable and fast than a regular bus (this taxi journey is particularly cheap and popular in Bolivia) costing no more than 3 euros per person for a 180 kilometers rollercoaster-like trip.

There is also the fact that we had to climb from 2700 meters above mean sea level to over 4100 in Potosi! Bit tricky on the body and quite hidden while sitting on the taxi taking some snaps of the dramatic change in the landscape from a very steep valley to a constant climb and finally into the "altiplano" or high plain.

Air was getting thinner as we reached Potosi with its messy surroundings and historical City Centre. Another "UNESCO town", as soon as I got off the taxi, my head went crazy and felt a bit dizzy. Had been over three years since my last contact with high altitude when I went for the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru.

Tried my best to walk slowly through the steep streets while contemplating crowds of people walking around (faster than me of course) until we got to "Casa de la Moneda", a place with an amazing historical legacy within its wall as Potosi was, in colonial times, a very rich city with a population bigger than London back then. All of this due to the massive silver and tin mines on neighboring Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) which now sits as a silent witness of the town's history rising to over 5000 meters above sea level.
Town was beautiful and we decided to climb up the stairs of the Main Cathedral's bell tower to find an endless sea of deep orange roof tiles extending just below us and as far as the edge of town while the massive Cerro Rico provided a stunning backdrop for some amazing pictures.

Two hours later and it was time to rush to the bus station to catch our bus to our next and final stop: Uyuni. We had been told there were late night buses (and it was a lie) so as we ran to the bus station, we found ourselves with fully-booked early buses and no late buses departing as told before.
We had to appeal to the driver's discretion who ,in the end,  let us take this six-hour journey in the driving cabin, sitting on the steps!

The first part of the trip was a brand-new paved road which was very nice and efficient. Four hours into the trip and we reached the dangerous slippery dirt road in a typical summer rain. Bus had to slow down and drive extremely carefully as the road defied deep cliffs and the bus threatened in skidding off it and down the dark abyss until we finally made our way into Uyuni , two hours behind schedule and in between comments about the road, politics, bad jokes, a heavy-smoker driver and some coca leaves chewing.

Arrived at 1:30am and Uyuni looked like a ghost town in the middle of nowhere as the bus parked in the middle of a (yes, crowded at that time) street for setting down passengers along with many other buses and cargo.

We was absolutely wrecked, so we were easily dragged into one of the many budget hostels by some "guests hunters". Time for bed, almost 15 hours after we left Santa Cruz. Tomorrow will be an exciting day!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

-- The family life --

After last night's display of affection and tear of happiness, I went home for some rest after spending the whole day in airports and planes. Souvenirs were unpacked just to realize that about 3/4 of my backpack's capacity were actually little mementos and pieces of clothing brought to my dear ones.

Next morning I woke up to the noisy air conditioner, the bright sun and a public holiday. Reason why most people were free and a nice lunch full of my favorite seafood dishes was prepared (or bought) by my mom while a talk about the trip and a heavy two-year catching up starting to take place in the table and would be prolonged for the next three weeks.

In the afternoon, I got to meet my father with the same emotional baggage as last night. Tears of happiness streamed through my sunburned flushed cheeks and a feeling of complete relief invaded my head after chatting with him for a few minutes while enjoying a lovely strawberry ice cream and planning a family trip in the upcoming weeks.

For the next days, a constant line up of meetings, dinner, tea & coffee meetings, barbecues and lunches would take place as a heavy catching up was necessary with many of my friends and family members in general while taking advantage of Latin America's favorite hobby: cooking and eating.

A trip to the Uyuni Salt Flats near the border with Chile was offered by my stepfather and a trip to the woodlands in the border with Brazil by my father and brother. Will tell you about them on my next posts.

Now a few pictures of the landscapes around Bolivia taken by me while touring with my family.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

-- Honey, I'm home! --

Butterflies were not just flying but creating massive turbulence inside my stomach as today, after two years, would be the first time I'd see my family again.

Memories of the last time I saw my mom's beautiful face saying good-bye to me with a rather resigned expression, teary eyes and the most warm and sad hug I'd have for ages when a shy "I'll see you around" was told before departing were in my mind while I was packing up my backpack and getting ready for my lift to the airport.

It was another sunny and warm day in San Jose de Costa Rica when, after a short drive, I said good-bye to me great hostesses promising to come back one day and stay for longer and quickly checked-in my bag, cleared immigration and customs, sent a postcard to Ireland and boarded my flight to Lima in Peru where I'd be spending a few hours to catch my connecting flight.

While my flight was a bit delayed, I entertained myself with some good quality free wi-fi until we boarded the plane in between a rather packed airport as many flights had been delayed due to stormy and bumpy weather.
My flight was full and a few minutes later we soared up the Central American sky in between black cumulonimbus formations and a few bumps.
A light lunch was served and a terribly bad movie was shown on all screens. I spent most of the flight writing on my Moleskine about the trip you've just read through the past weeks and sunny skies were welcoming our descent into the dry climate of the Peruvian coast some three hours later.


Even though I had a long transit time in here, over six hours, I decided not to leave the Transit Area as I had been to Lima many times before and knew about the times between the city, the beautiful region of Miraflores and the International airport laid in the municipality of Callao. It was just not worth paying the 28 USD tax to leave the airport just for a few hours.
Took possession of some nicely laid "waiting room" seats facing the runway so I could see the take-off and landing action, used the extremely handy and fast free wi-fi to Skype to some friends in Ireland and had the worst overpriced turkey sandwich in my life.

Tension aside, the hours flew by and soon the sun set over the Pacific just behind us. Intercontinental flights were departing in a rather interesting combination of tourists and immigrants ready to go across the Atlantic, and my flight was finally called. Destination: Viru Viru Santa Cruz de la Sierra International Airport.
Massive knot in my stomach as the lights of Lima faded away in the darkness and a rather bumpy flight took place for over two hours with a light meal to entertain my appetite while some "The Big Bang Theory" was played on the screen.

Descent was announced by the captain and as soon as I could gaze lights of familiar landmarks, anxiety invaded my body in a rush comparable to a dam breaking and releasing a massive amount of water over green fields.
The "City of the Rings" was clearly visible as approach procedures were performed by the pilot. My family was just a few meters away!
Oh the feeling of deplaning a passenger plane by the stairs (for some reason we didn't use the airbridge) and being hit by a wall of warm and humid air in the face. You were missed!
No time to think about it as I rushed to the main terminal to clear immigration and customs as soon as possible and get my backpack in order to get through the last door separating me from my family.

Sounding cliche, the moment described now can only be defined as true happiness and utmost perfection as the doors to the public area were opened and my brother's face was clearly visible amongst a sea of tired and sleepy faces (local time was 2:00am) waiting for they beloved ones or friends to clear the passengers restricted area.
Heart beating at a thousand miles per hour and a stiff, sincere, ear-to-ear smile stamped on my face,  I rushed to hug him as my other brother approached me and was tightly hugged as well.
Then my mom just behind them appeared shy and happy and my eyes filled with up with tears. Rushed to hug her as tight as I could trying to feel, grasp and memorize every single second of it, every image, and every smell. My dad would follow the series of emotional meetings the next morning.
The waiting was over, the long years in Europe had finally paid off and I was again complete. Most importantly, I was finally home!.