Author Archives: Gio&Bert

Salar de Uyuni, a perfect valediction for Bolivia.

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Formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes, near the crest of the Andes at an elevation of 3656 meters, the world largest salt flat is by far the harshest and most inhospitable terrain we have set foot on so far.  The endless salt crust reflects the sunlight with such intense whiteness that it seems to be snow, at night it looks like the moon let its light absorb by the salt which glows bright under the with stars filled firmament.  Once saturated because of the seasonal rains (December till April), a thin layer of water at the surface turns the Salar into an infinite mirror that reflects the blue sky, the white cotton clouds and the surrounding highlands so perfectly that horizons fades away and that the mountains give the impression of being islands floating avatar-wise in the sky.

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By sunset the Salar de Uyuni’ (or Salar de Tunupa) plays with colours and masters optical illusions which words can’t describe.

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Both the 10.582 square kilometers salt dessert and the ‘Reserva de fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa’ form a natural frontier between Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. To visit this wonders we travel to Uyuni village, founded in 1889 at the junction of the railways that enter Bolivia from Chile and Argentina.  Uyuni has nothing more to offer than a 19th century clock tower, several rusty tributes to the golden age of steam and if it wasn’t for the salt it probably would have become a ghost town.  Bolivia offers the cheapest possibilities to contract a tour that guides tourists through this rough area.  It takes us a while but after gathering some information we find the right deal: a 3 day tour with lodgements, food, guide and transport included.   It starts with the railway graveyard just outside the village and from there to the village of Colchani just some kilometers away from the salt dessert.

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We are amazed by the stunning views of this over-white otherworld landscape that the Salar awardus and the three day trip just had started.  After a short sleep on beds made of salt in a house made of salt we feel a bit dehydrated but are ready for the second day, where we leave the salt flats behind us and enter in a world of singular, eccentric landscapes. We enter a land of freezing salt lakes whose icy waters tinged bright red, pink, grey, orange or emerald green by microorganisms or mineral deposits. At the ‘Desierto de Siloli’, rocks sculptured by the very elements of nature designing the wildest and the most impossible formations are appearing any direction we look.

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There is a wide range of rare Andean wildlife in and around all these lakes. Large herds of vicuñas grazing on the slight vegetation of the high, semi desert grassland, as well as viscachas and even the elusive Andean fox are sometimes spotted.  The salty lakes, apart from the 80 species of birds, support large colonies of all three South American species of flamingo (James, Andean and Chilean) giving a supreme touch to a travellers experience.  In the morning we have a sunrise with geysers at ‘Sol de Mañana’ and a bath in a natural hot springs at the shore of Laguna Challviri… it’s all just perfect.  Refreshing the mind and recharging our inner batteries we are ready for a last day of wondering and gaping with disbelieve at this corner of Bolivia.  All in this three day trip is just so spectacular, enormous, and breath-taking that while driving back to Uyuni we are aware of the difficulty to describe such a place…

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Our recommendations:

-       As there is not much to visit in Uyuni village the stay is just functional, one afternoon to check out prices a cheap and comfortable night rest and the next day we start the tour, so we did not expect any luxe or extras.  Hostal ‘El Chavito’, close to the train station we got for 70 Bolivianos for the two of us.

-       We paid 630 Bolivianos each, at the agency: ‘Expediciones Libez‘ for a three day tour with food, transport, guide and hotels/hostels included.  If you are with a group of 5 then try to get the car for just the five of you, some tour operators load up the car with 7 persons which is very uncomfortable for long days of driving off road. Plus a 150 Bolivianos a person as entrance at ‘Reserva de fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa’ which is never included at any operator in the tour price.  Ask explicit for a sunset at the Salar of Uyuni as not every tour includes this spectacle.

-       There is the possibility to cross the border with Chile at San Pedro de Atacama, instead of driving back till Uyuni.  You miss a last half day of excursion but win a day of traveling to Chile.  In order to take this option it is important to get all the necessary papers and stamp passports at the police office of Uyuni.

-        In Uyuni railway station the cheap train tickets, on a reclining seat is a treasure to look for so try to purchase your tickets in advance we recommend to get them before the three day trip.

Categories: Bolivia | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Potosí, the pearl of a Spanish empire

26-29/01/2014

On a deserted, windswept prairie amongst barren highlands at almost 4100MASL, Potosí is the highest city in the world, and once the most attractive and catastrophic place in Bolivia.  It owes its existence to mount Cerro Rico, which towers authoritatively above the city to the south. Cerro Rico was the richest source of silver the world had ever seen, its treasure turned Potosi into the sparkler of the Spanish emperors’ crown, and at the time into one of the world’s most prosperous and largest cities.  The mining city of San Luis Potosí in Mexico was named after Potosí in Bolivia and also in the United States, the name Potosí was optimistically given to mining towns in Wisconsin, Missouri and Nevada.  In Spanish language the expression ‘eso vale un Potosi’ still describes anything priceless.  The Potosí sign on the Spanish coins was so important and powerful that it became a worldwide symbol for money or value,… it’s what we know these days as the dollar sign.  On the other hand, this fortune was achieved at the cost of the lives of millions of indigenous forced labourers and African slaves.

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Today as we speak the body count goes on and while there is less silver to dig at, Cerro Rico goes along with modern times and vomits now, apart from other minerals as tin and boron, litio in the mine trolleys.  In Potosí, mining activity is an everyday thing, a way of living and a religion for those descending ‘the ravening beast that swallows men alive’ when offering coca leaves, cigarettes or pure alcohol to ‘El Tio, the Lord of the Underworld who rules the mineshafts.  The miner market can be found at the base of the mountain.  Apart from the usual mining tools, coca leaves and 96º alcohol are considered absolutely needed for the hard job.  Even more surprizing are the piles of dynamite sticks free for sale to anyone asking, waiting to be detonated in the mines… or not…, as nobody controls that the explosives indeed enter the mine!  Once inside, it is fascinating to see how a mine works, how deep inside the mountain men and youngsters are digging their way to their daily bread.  Than the guide shouts, everybody becomes one with the shaft wall as suddenly a heavy duty rusty mine cart appears out of the dark pushed by two of which we just can see their white eyes from under the helmet on a with dust covered face.

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Visiting the active mine is one of the highlights of Potosí but for those with fear of the dark, with claustrophobic issues, obsessed by security or health problems there is more to see in and around this city.  Potosí dresses the colonial look with well-maintained buildings, plazas, fountains and churches what makes it a beauty to walk through. It moves a balanced young nightlife on streets with lighted ancient facades and outstanding social graffiti.

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Potosí has highlands to discover all around with not a few possibilities to do some serious alpinism or better said andenism. Another of the possibilities that this city offers is ‘Ojo del Inca’, a 30 minute ride away with the microbus, where a natural pool with a stunning peak and valley view seduces the visitors with hot water and black mud containing mysterious healing power.

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Both, the city as an architectural wonder and its vibe that runs through the streets absorbed us for a few days.  A few amazing days…

 

Our recommendations:

-Hostal Koala is prepared for backpackers, offers a lot of information, organizes trips and excursions for the guests, an endless included breakfast at a long table makes it easy to get in contact with travellers to obtain info about trips and prices, a nice kitchen, TV-room, … for only 50Bs (5€)night/person.

-Ojo Del Inca just costs 8Bs for 30 minutes of bus and it is a nice relax day out there.

-To visit the mines at Cerro Rico the traveller will find an infinite offer and a range of prices.  We did a good tour with an ex miner for about 3 hours underground.  Pay attention that the time of the tour is during the morning. Visitors offer gifts to the miners, some of them give dynamite which they use between visits of the morning and the afternoon.  The consequence of the explosions is dust and other particles in the air in the mine shafts.  We paid 40Bs a person.

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Categories: Bolivia | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Sucre: Colonial Architecture, Dinosaurs & Inca Heritage

23-25/01/2014

Conosciuta anticamente dai conquistatori spagnoli con il nome di Charcas per gli abitanti che la popolavano (i Charca appunto) e ritenuta la più bella città boliviana, Sucre è la capitale della Bolivia e capoluogo del dipartimento di Chuquisaca, proclamata nel 1991 patrimonio dell’umanità dall’UNESCO. Meta turistica di migliaia di visitatori l’anno, la città ti accoglie con i suoi bianchi edifici coloniali ancora in perfetto stato in cui risalta l’antica piazza centrale 25 de mayo con la cattedrale e la Casa de la Libertad dove, nel 1825, fu siglata l’indipendenza della Bolivia.

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Situata in una valle circondata da bassi rilievi, Sucre gode di fama mondiale grazie al meraviglioso microclima che la caratterizza e soprattutto al suo “Parque Cretàcico”, un complesso turistico cui attrazione principale è il Cal Orck’o, un sito paleontologico con il giacimento di impronte di dinosauro più esteso del mondo (circa 5055 impronte), motivo d’orgoglio per i locali e fascino per studiosi e appassionati provenienti da ogni angolo del globo. È piuttosto frequente infatti imbattersi in sculture di dinosauro o panchine dalle forme preistoriche passeggiando per le deliziose stradine del centro storico.

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Per gli amanti delle attività off-road e per un tuffo nella natura estrema e spettacolare di questa regione, vi è la possibilità di percorrere un antico cammino inca di circa 5 chilometri che da Chataquila conduce a Chaunaca e che ha come punto di partenza la chiesa di Chataquila terminando nello spettrale e quasi disabitato villaggio di Chaunaca.

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Per i trekkers più estremi vi è poi quello da Chataquila fino a Maragua, circa 45 chilometri, che permettere di percorrere una parte del cammino inca, visitare il cratere di Maragua ed entrare in contatto con la cultura Jalca, il suo artigianato tessile e la lingua peculiare. A dieci chilometri dal punto di partenza si possono poi visitare le pitture rupestri, dipinti di carattere antropomorfo zoomorfo su pietra che si pensano possano datare circa 2000 anni. Luoghi affascinanti, carichi di spiritualità e avvolti dalla natura.

 

Suggerimenti:

-  Per ciò che riguarda il Parco Cretaceo le tariffe sono: 10 Bs per i locali, 30 Bs per gli stranieri e 5 Bs per i bambini. Per raggiungerlo si può prendere la linea 4 delle Micros (autobus urbani) o dalla Plaza 25 de Mayo, all’angolo con la cattedrale, si può salire a bordo del Sauromovil che passa circa tre volte nell’arco della mattinata.

- Gli alloggi a Sucre non sono particolarmente economici rispetto al resto del Paese però vi sono in centro degli ostelli molto carini ricavati in enormi casone coloniali con ampie cucine e patii ombreggiati. Noi abbiamo optato per l’ Hostal San Marcos (40 Bs al giorno, circa 4 euro) con WIFI, bagno condiviso e cucina.

- Raggiungere l’inizio dell’ incatrail verso Chaunaca non è semplicissimo in quanto i turisti generalmente lo fanno attraverso tour organizzati e agenzie di viaggi. Chi, come noi, ha voglia di intraprenderlo per conto suo deve rimboccarsi le maniche e chiedere in giro alla gente del luogo come arrivarci. Una soluzione è prendere la micro (bus locali) numero 1/F per 3 Bs a persona direzione Ravelo, da lì saltar sul camion rosso normalmente destinato ai lavoratori della zona, masticatori instancabili di foglie di coca, e scendere nei pressi della chiesetta di Chataquila. Quest’ ultima segna il principio del sentiero che porta a Chaunaca, in cui, una volta giunti, si può prendere il bus di ritorno. Due consigli: 1) chiedere sempre e comunque alle comunità locali per orari e fermate, 2) partire presto la mattina in modo da coincidere con gli orari di lavoro e dei bus urbani.

Categories: Bolivia | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

La Paz, hidden metropolis in the Bolivian Andes

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17-22/01/2014

Some places in the world have a natural attractive; there is something to them that makes them irresistible.  Although at first sight it’s not a top ten location, not many cities in the world have as spectacular a setting as La Paz, which offers you a first glimpse as the bus crawls over the lip of the narrow canyon in which the city sits hunched.  It’s a sight that will leave your lungs gasping for oxygen they can’t have.  A city which lies between 3250 and 4100MASL, amid a hollow gouged into the ‘altiplano’, is a scene of stunning contrasts: a central cluster of church towers and office blocks minimized by the magnificent icebound peaks of Montaña Illimani rising superiorly to the southeast.  On either side, the steep valley slopes are covered by the ramshackle homes of the city’s poorer population, tight-fitting precariously to even the harshest gradients.  It’s an area we pass through the day we decide to improve our height record of 4800MASL.  After a long ever climbing trip, passing rivers that take ice water straight from the mountains to the capital and defy the verticality of the mud tracks, we get out of the van and start a walk through the eternal snow.  Heartbeat starts to rise, respiration gets faster and deeper but step by step we wade our way through the mist and just at the moment we are about to suffer a whiteout we reach our goal: Chacaltaya at 5300MASL! A defiance worthy your considerations.

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Less difficult but nevertheless beautiful is the at 10km from downtown, Valle de la Luna (moon valley) as a feature of half day walk out of the hectic metropolis and astonishing demographic site.  It comprises an area where erosion has worn away the majority of a mountain, composed primarily of clay rather than rock, leaving tall spires.  It is similar to another zone of La Paz that is known as El Valle de las Animas (The valley of the souls).  Because the mineral content of the mountains varies greatly between individual mountains the sides of the mountains are different colours, creating striking illusions.  A majority of them are a clear beige or light brown colour, but some are almost red, with sections of dark violet.

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With a population of around 1,7million, La Paz as capital is the political and commercial hub of Bolivia.  Protected to some extent from the tides of globalization by its isolation and singular cultural make-up, La Paz feels better than it looks and is in some way surprisingly modern.  Hi-tech international banks and government offices rub shoulders with vibrant street markets , occupying each one of them several blocks, as the ‘Mercado de Brujas’ selling herbs, different remedies and  all manner of ritual paraphernalia, for pacifying the spirits and the mountain gods that still play a central role in the lives of the indigenous Aymara.

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The Aymara, in fact, make up not only the majority of the city’s population, but also that of ‘El Alto’ , La Paz’s militant, red brick alter ego, which continues to outstrip it in terms of rural migrant-boosted population.  For them, working life in La Paz is conducted largely on the streets, and at times the whole place can feel like one massive, sprawling market.

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Here everything can be found several times if you take the time.  And much more interesting even is the world’s unique Cholitas Wrestling where indigenous woman dressed in their folkloric outfit take their revenge on each other, other male wrestlers and even the arbitrator.  Different epic highly entertaining fights are served during the night and a healthy way to take pressure out of daily live as locals are shouting and empathize with one of the athletes.  We got extra lucky as surprisingly two Israelis, friends we met earlier on the journey in Guatemala, step into the ring and play along with one of the Cholitas.  We had the laugh of our lives!

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Our recommendations:

-          There are lots of hostels in a city as La Paz: as we arrived we checked El Solar (55B)for one night, a nice hostal, situated in the center close to the Mercado de Bujas, low prized but with the hallway as common area and a lock on the door from 11 o’clock  there is a lot of noise and music playing going on till the early morning.  The second day we changed to Hospedaje Milenio (70B) which is just the right place to be.  An oasis in between the grey city jungle with great service, nice breakfast , very clean rooms and a tourist office for all kind of information.

-          Valle de la Luna just costs 15B a person and is a nice and easy escape from the bustling urb.

-          Cholitas wrestling is a must-do!  It’s cultural heritage in any way you look at it.  At ticket costs 50B, including: transport  from and to the centre, a drink, popcorn and a gadget as memory. Fighting only on Sundays.

-          Buying bus tickets is the best the same day at the bus station, go 2/3hours before and get a discount depending on your skills.

-          Transport to Chacaltaya has cost us 65B each as there is no other way to do it in one day with public transport.

Categories: Bolivia | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Copacabana, on the Bolivian Side of Titicaca Lake

15-16/01/2014

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Facendo un salto sul versante boliviano del lago navigabile più “alto” del mondo ci si ritrova a Copacabana, un ridente villaggio di pescatori situato nella provincia di Manco Kapac che vivono della pesca giornaliera e del turismo portando a spasso i visitatori per le isole che la circondano. Dopo aver contrattato un trasporto economico con una delle mille imbarcazioni ormeggiate al porto, raggiungiamo la famosa Isla del Sol, una splendida isola abitata da aymara e quechua (le etnie predominante in Bolivia) nata sulle acque del lago Titicaca, soleggiata e verde, con esotiche calette bagnate da acque trasparenti e bruciate dal caldo tropicale.

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L’isola è divisa in tre comunità, Yamani al sud, Ch’alli nel centro e Chillipampa nel nord, ognuna dei quali riscuote il suo pedaggio dai passanti che decidono di attraversare l’isola a piedi. 

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La bussola punta al Nord, tocchiamo terra e ci dirigiamo verso le rovine inca dell’isola, in cui risaltano quelle del tempio dedicato a Inti, il Dio sole, e i resto dell’antico sentiero inca. Scattiamo delle suggestive foto allo spettacolare paesaggio incorniciato dai muri grezzi e dai sacri altari del sito archeologico.

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Da lì intraprendiamo un trekking di 11 chilometri seguendo il cammino inca che percorre tutta l’isola fino ad arrivare alla punta Sud da dove, dopo aver preso un po’ di sole aspettando la barca, facciamo ritorno a Copacabana.

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Una rilassante passeggiata per la spiaggia durante il tramonto con l’odore di pesce fresco appena arrostito e le onde a scandire il tempo dimenticato. Siamo pronti per una nuova destinazione.

Suggerimenti:

  • I prezzi in questa zona della Bolivia non sono bassissimi rispetto al resto del Paese però se siete in cerca semplicemente di un tetto sotto cui ripararvi e un letto su cui riposare dopo una lunga giornata sotto il sole cocente noi consigliamo l’ Hostal Las Balzas (20-30 Bolivianos a persona, ossia 2-3 euro), a pochi passi dalla fermata dell’ autobus. Vi sono ovviamente altri ostelli/hotel con più comfort, prezzi più alti e connessione WiFi.
  • I prezzi del trasporto per l’ Isla del Sol si aggirano sui 30-40 BS a persona (3-4 euro), andata/ritorno in giornata. Il pedaggio da versare alle comunità indigene se si vuole camminare lungo il cammino inca sono di 60 BS (6 euro) in totale a persona. Vi è anche la possibilità di includere una visita alla Isla de la Luna o aggiungervi una delle isole fluttuanti presenti anche su questo lato del lago.
  • Per provare la cucina locale e non sfondare i portafogli si può considerare l’opzione del mercato locale con tante leccornie a basso costo e alto tasso di colesterolo. :-) Vi sono poi una serie di locali e ristorantini con buona musica e un ambiente accogliente per chi cercasse qualcosa di più raffinato o una connessione WiFi.
Categories: Bolivia | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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