Thursday, March 28, 2019

Uyuni Salt Flats

From La Rioja we took an overnight bus to Jujuy, then jumped on another bus directly to the border, 5 hours away. Along the way we picked up a few other travelers including Andrea, a solo Swiss traveler who we decided to pair up with to cross the border and head further into Bolivia. Bolivia immediately reminded us of, well, Bolivia. I liked it the first time and was happy to be back. It might be the poorest country in South America (Venezuela being a special case at the moment) but it has character and authenticity and the chaos and local costumes were somehow refreshing.
Our goal was to reach Tupiza, a small, dusty town with a bit of a wild west feel to it. The drive there was ruggedly beautiful, with views full of cacti and red rock mountains. We arrived in the afternoon, easily finding a place to stay as it is the "off season" in the area. At 2850m (9300ft) we were a little higher than we wanted to be to start adjusting to the altitude. The new plan was to relax for a couple of days before doing anything but with Andrea in the picture we were persuaded to think about a salt flats tour a little sooner than we'd anticipated and in the end decided to spend two nights in Tupiza before continuing on with Andrea. I liked Tupiza and found it mostly relaxing except for the fact that it was the end of Carnival (it happens in a lot more places than just Rio) and lots of places celebrate local festivals around the same time. There were marching bands, firecrackers and water fights going on up and down the streets. Water guns and balloons are all well and good when it is hot out but we were at high altitude with chilly evenings and if you weren't careful some local kid (or mischievous lady) would get you from behind. We tried not to spend too much time playing the unarmed target.
Most people think that tours of the Uyuni Salt Flats are just about the salt flats but this is very far from the truth. People that do the one day tours just to see the salt flats are missing out on some of the best Bolivia has to offer. The whole area of south western Bolivia is a high-altitude plateau full of beautiful mountain scenery, lagoons, geysers, ruins and wildlife. Tours into the region traditionally leave from the town of Uyuni but there are alternate tours to the area from Tupiza and even San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Tours are in 4WDs as it is a very remote area with only dirt roads (if any) and only the occasional small village. At times it reminded me of Mongolia or Tibet in its remoteness, though not in scenery. Tupiza seems to be the least busy starting point of the three and for this reason I'd prioritized a start from there. The standard route is 4 days/3 nights and ends in Uyuni.
Our tour mates were Andrea and Niels a young Belgian guy riding in the same 4WD with our married couple guides Panchito (driver) and Filomena (cook). We later learned that there was another group in a vehicle on the same route that would be sharing our cook but we rarely saw them other than in the evenings when we stopped for the night. On day 1 we counted a total of 7 vehicles on our route and we usually felt like the only ones. It was a long day of driving (~350 kms on dirt road) but the scenery more than made up for it. I didn't realize llamas came in so many colour combos.

Leaving Tupiza

Llama herd

Wild Vicunas
Ruins of a Spanish mining village

Empty roads
4855m above sea level

On day 2 we hit the main tourist circuit through the area hitting the more famous sites of the region. Every stop thereafter had at least 30 vehicles and in all honesty, the whole area started to feel crowded. It was still stunningly beautiful. The coloured lagoons were impressive, especially the red Laguna Colorada with its thousands of flamingos. The geysers were less exciting than I expected and were mostly just little bubbling mud pools but still interesting in that they are at such a high altitude.

Lost the vegetation on day 2

Licancabur volcano and Laguna Verde

Laguna Blanca at the Chile/Bolivia border

Little geysers at 4900m
Laguna Colorada

Our favourite lagoon
Still a remote area

Day 3 was more about rock formations and even climbing up some of them. At this point I'd started to feel a bit better and lose most of my altitude headache. We'd been between 4000 and 5000m since leaving Tupiza and it was taking its toll on all of us. In the late afternoon we started to reach civilization again in the form of slightly larger villages and better graded dirt roads. We passed through Uyuni and stayed that night in a salt hotel built right on the edge of the flats. The salt hotel was as it sounds, everything made of salt, the walls, base of the beds, tables and chairs. Even the floor was crushed salt.

A camel?

Climbing around in Italia Perdida 

Unlike the others, this is a fresh water lagoon

More canyon views

Waiting for lunch

Train cemetary outside Uyuni

Salt hotel

We'd made it in time to check in and then head out to the edge of the salt flats to watch the sunset. March is the end of the rainy season in the area so sections of the salt flats are flooded and less accessible. The water was anywhere from a cm to half a meter deep. Maybe that is why we were all clustered together for sunset, but our guide told us that it was always this busy at least. We stopped counting vehicles at 100 and estimated it at about 200. And this is the low season...  Needless to say, sunset wasn't as amazing as the sunrise we had the next morning as there were fewer vehicles more spread out. As the sun rose, reflecting the light over the water we got our first good look at the this little section of the largest salt flat in the world. This might be the best time of year to go as we had the opportunity to take the classic water reflection photos and then after breakfast head out to a drier patch to play with the forced perspective shots more commonly seen. It was a lot of fun and with more time, props and imagination we could have come up with a lot more fun stuff to do.

Waiting for sunset

Walking on water or clouds?

Time to goof around!

Sasha's new love....

With the morning salt flats fun finished our tour was basically over, with just enough time left for lunch before dropping us off in Uyuni. We said goodbye to our tour mates and by the next morning everyone was scattered all over Bolivia with us free to continue on our own again.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Cordoba, Mendoza and Talampaya

Flying from El Calafate to Cordoba was like flying to a whole new world. It was suddenly hot again, flat, and prices reasonable. Most of the travelers we met looked at us a little confused when we said we were on our way to Cordoba but it isn't without its attractions.
As a major university town and the second largest city in Argentina there is a very lively feel about it and the parks and plazas were full of activity, especially in the evenings when the temperatures cooled and wandering around became more bearable. We enjoyed our evenings at a nearby musical fountain with a couple hundred others lounging around. Cordoba is one of the oldest cities in Argentina so there is a lot of historic architecture around the centre. Originally built in a grid pattern, each block was given over to a different group within the city. The most famous block is the Unesco-listed Jesuit block (the Jesuits were everywhere down here) with the remains of one of the oldest churches in the country and a number of buildings that are now part of the University of Cordoba but in all honesty it wasn't as interesting as I'd hoped. 

Our favourite Cordoba church (Los Capuchinos)

Pedestrianized streets in the centre

Plaza San Martin
There's always an oversized statue.
Part of the Jesuit block

In order for the Jesuits to support their efforts in the area, they ran 6 nearby estancias (ranch/estates) in the surrounding countryside. These estancias were to later form the centres of small towns that eventually grew up around them. We made a quick trip to visit Alta Gracia, the closest of the former estancias. There is a small town there now and the old church and residence have been turned into a museum, restored to a time post-Jesuit when the estancia had come into the hands of the local viceroy. Alta Gracia was to become of historical note again in the 20th century as a place Che Guevara lived for 12 years in his youth. His former home is also now a museum though we didn't bother to visit this.

Alto Gracia church and entrance to the estancia

The estancia museum restored to the early 1800's

Clock tower and Jesuit-made irrigation lake in Alta Gracia

Mendoza turned into our longest stay in one place so far on the trip, but not by choice. We'd taken an overnight bus from Cordoba and were hanging out in the main plaza (below average in my opinion) waiting for our check-in time to our airbnb when I started to feel weird and unwell. We struggled to our airbnb where I crawled into bed for the next several days. 
Mendoza is known for its wines and there are over 1000 different wineries in the region to visit. With multiple valleys and so many choices, most visitors simply have to choose between taking a tour or renting a bike, grabbing a map and doing it on their own. In the end we had to scrap any ambitious plans we might've had and simply went to Maipu (the closest area) and visited a single winery, Bodega Lopez, made more interesting by the fact that it is harvest season and we could watch the grapes coming in on the trucks to get processed. 

I've had better days....
Bodega Lopez in Maipu just outside Mendoza

Bringing in the harvest (Chardonnay)

After a week of R+R I finally felt well enough to keep going so we caught a bus to the very small and dusty town of Patquia so that the following morning we could jump on a very crowded and dilapidated bus to visit Talampaya National Park. Talampaya is a remote and relatively unknown park, contiguous with Ischigualasto State Park (separated by a state border) that sees few visitors. While Ischigualasto is famous for its dinosaur fossils, Talampaya is known more for its natural beauty consisting of canyons, petroglyphs and wind-eroded rock formations. It would feel right at home amongst the parks of the American southwest. 
Talampaya is the only one of the two accessible by public transport so we jumped off the bus and found ourselves with the choice of joining a driving or walking tour through the park. It was pushing 40C so the driving tour was really the only option for us. The drive took us up dry riverbeds and through canyons, stopping at multiple points to show us interesting geological features. The coolest part was probably when we were walking up a narrow canyon hearing the echoing screeches of a flock of parrots flying in formation overhead. 

Even the smallest towns have signs these days

Touring Talampaya

Not the easiest petroglyphs to see

Along the dry riverbed and into the canyon

150m high canyon

We were there on a busy weekend and only saw a few dozen visitors, most of which were local. The trip took a couple of hours and afterwards we jumped on a bus to La Rioja, the capital of the state, where we got stuck for the night before we could move onward.