Bee Says: Non Geog-buffs might not realise that Sucre is actually the capital city of Bolivia, hiding slightly in the shadows behind the hugely popular La Paz. However, visitors to Sucre are never allowed to forget they are in the capital, as every opportunity is taken to remind re-inforce this fact! “Welcome to the Capital City” is written on buildings, cafes, walls and even a few peoples tee-shirts. Of all the places we have visited, Sucre stole my heart and instantly leapt to my top spot. I think this was mainly as it’s the first place I’ve been that I could imagine myself being happy living in. Sucre is nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains that form a protective ring around the city, and make for attractive views from any street. Like Santa Cruz and Samaipata, we were surprised how European the vibe was. Sucre was super safe, really easy to navigate and with treasures to be found around every corner. One such gem was a cafe called Metro where the staff treated us like long-lost family and I discovered a drink called El Submarino which is essentially a big glass of hot milk with a chocolate bar dropped in it. Heaven! In Sucre we visited our first museum and what a beaut if was. The Ethnographic and Folklore Museum was FREE and basically consisted of a room of masks made by various Bolivian cultures. You walk down a long, near pitch black corridor, with the masks illuminated on each side. The fact many of the masks resembled horror movie characters (Saw, Sackface a la The Orphanage… and some that just appeared to be whithered skulls) led to some pretty hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck moments the deeper into the mask collection you walked. We both agreed it was the perfect setting for a horror story. The masks were beautiful, intricate and so detailed that you could spend hours just examining one. Well worth a visit! We also visited the Mercado Central, a huge market selling everything you could imagine. We settled on some Brazil nuts (thanks Tim R for your previous detailed answer to the Brazil Nut query, we took your advice!) and some jazzy Bolivian knitwear to ready us for the cold of the Salt Flats. Unfortunately we bought each item of knitwear seperately, and once we put our jumpers, hats, gloves and scarves on all together we realised we had given NO thought to colour coordination. We both looked like a multicoloured multipatterned Alpaca had thrown up on us!
The highlight of Sucre definitely had to be El Parque Cretácico (Dinosaur Park!!!) although our journey there was just as memorable. In most of Bolivia one mode of transport is a “micro” – a small mini bus that drives a circuit of the town but that can drop passangers at other spots on route for a few extra Boliviano. The micro’s are varying in quality, we saw one with a hole in the floor through which you could watch the road zoom underfoot (!) but they are generally a cheap, safe and easy way to navigate the city. We knew the number 4 micro would take us to the Dinos, so hopped on and asked the driver, who nodded. Twenty minutes later, we pulled in to a millitary zone and it was clear this was the end of the line. The driver waved us off up a dirt path with no dinosaurs in sight. Eventually we stumbled across a beautiful palace like building, and as we entered we were told we were at The Castillo de la Glorieta. NO DINOSAURS HERE! I think maybe the driver had different ideas about the Bolivian culture we should be soaking up so had basically forced us to his favourite tourist spot? Either way we had a look around, meeting a group of school kids in there who ALL wanted their photos taken with the weird muy blanco foreigners! But, we really wanted dinosaurs, so we walked back to where our driver had dumped us and were told that yes, the parque was on the micro 4 route, but the opposite end of the line! We boarded a new 4 and 45 minutes later we had basically seen the whole of Sucre for about 60p and were finally at our desired destination.
El Parque Cretácico isn´t just a bunch of life-size dino models (although they are pretty nifty). The main draw here is the fact you can see geniune dinosaur tracks, a definite “bucket list” item for me and something that didn’t disappoint. Over 450 prints, from various sized dinos, are impressioned on a 70 degree wall of a cement quarry. Although it’s a wall now, the huge slab of earth used to be a lake floor but over millions of years had been pushed vertically.
A short guided tour taught us some fun facts, we watched an episode of Walking with Dinosaurs in a small theatre and then could scamper around taking in the incredible views of Sucre and… discover a, erm, dino-vagina (or just a hole for everything actually, as I have since been corrected!). Not something I expected to find in South America, but it made for some good photos.
The girl in the photo above is Kim, and we met her and her boyfriend Tom in Samaipata. Although they left a day before us, we caught them back up in Sucre. Having no phones and no email, we had to arrange an old-school style meeting, basically “Be at the bar called Amsterdam on Wednesday at 7pm”. This was especially fitting as Tom and Kim are Dutch. It worked, and we were reunited, spending the majority of our time in Sucre with them. We really hit it off and they were the dream travel buddies, really enhacing the fun factor of Sucre for us. We made the most of Happy Hour both nights, but in a terrible badly translated “joke” Tom ordered us 6 Caipirinha´s one night (after already drinking two jugs of local beer) which ended up in headache horror all round.
Nick Says: Waking up the next day with a slightly sore head, it was time to take the bus to Uyuni. We huffed and puffed up a very steep hill for 15 minutes, where the friendly man who had sold us our tickets a few days before quickly ushered us to where we needed to be. For the first time on the trip, there were other backpackers boarding a bus with us. The Gringo Trail was calling us, and it wouldn´t disappoint… After our last ‘bus of terror’, we were a little bit leery about this journey, but Tom & Kim had nothing but good things to say about their night bus journey on the same Samaipata to Sucre route, so we just chalked it up to a bad driver and settled in to our seats. The 8 hour journey down was spectacular, and gave us a glimpse of what to expect. We were entering the Bolivian Andes. However, rather than enjoy the mountainous terrain, I found myself at the beck and call of a tiny Bolivian toddler. He was bored and crying through most of the journey, so I decided to make a few faces at him. The gringo being silly was a big hit, and in no time I was the difference between a screaming child and a laughing one. I think his Mum was appreciative, until I taught him to stick his tongue out. Which he bloody loved – especially constantly at his Mum. Oops.
We arrived in Uyuni ready for adventure. The mythical salar de Uynuni beckoned. However, the town itself defintely doesn’t inspire much. Built by tourism for tourism, it’s piled high with tour operators and dime a dozen pizzerias. As ever, Bee insisted on seeing the positive, and in this case Uyuni had ‘amazing light’. The only good thing for me was the excellent Minute-Man pizza joint we went to. Tasty pizzas (including llama topping) made Uyuni just fine, although the first night I drank a beer and pretty much turned green. Thanks altitude. This wasn’t to be our last brush with the high elevation – our tour would take us to over 5000m above sea-level, with some dangerous consequences.
We booked our salt flat tour with Cordillera Traveller, a recommended operator who were good to organise a little extra we had decided to throw in after the tour (more on that later). We paid 850 bolivianos each (including sleeping bag and the extra at the end) but one guy on the tour only paid 650, so there’s definitely room to bargain. Setting off at 10.30am on a Sunday morning, we met our fellow salt tourers (the Lonely Planet tries to call them ‘Salterians’, which I think is a truly terrible name). There was Beau, a big hairy Canadian guy from Vancouver who turned out to be the guy we got along with best and travelled onwards wit afterwards (a very funny guy who dispelled the nice Canadian myth though), Paula & Richard, a Swiss couple who like to take exotic fortnight long holidays all over the world, and Frans, another Dutch traveller who is backpacking from Colombia to Argentina. Full of excitement, we set off crammed together in our Toyota Land Cruiser, together with our guide Silvio.
Now, the basic Salt Flat tour takes in 3 days and 2 nights. The first stop is the antique train cemetery, the place where rusted locamotives last used in 1940 have gone to die. Rail travel was the brainchild of the then Bolivian President Acre who was desperate for Bolivia to install a good transport system, however it was met with anger by the indigenous people who even took to sabtaging the builld, as they felt the trains would intrude on their traditional way of life. After posing in a few olde junkyard trains, we whizzed on to the Salar de Uyuni itself, the world’s largest salt flat. The second and third days take you even further away in the spectacular scenery of south-west Bolivia, including lakes, flamingoes, volcanoes, hot springs, and geysers. It truly was like nothing we had ever seen before. Even trying to recall it in my head makes me think I dreamt the whole thing. Parts of it were like an alien landscape, as if we’d taken an accidental detour to Mars, while other parts made you realise the grandeur of Nature. It seemed impossible to take a bad photo, and we were presented with an endless conveyer belt of oppotunities to snap away. There was the island of giant cacti standing almost dead centre of the flats, the blinding whiteness which allowed to mess with persepctive in pictures, the soaring peaks and deep canyons which flowed by our car. Words can’t do it justice, but hopefully the pictures can allude to some of the majesty.
Silvio proved a brilliant guide. We had heard horror stories about this tour, some the night before we set off. Guides who were drink-driving, others who crashed the car, some backpackers who had to walk for hours as their car broke down. Luckily for us, everything went super smoothly. Silvio took his work incredibly seriously, often petting his car (which he named Colonial Cowboy, and not Colonial Boy Cow as per our first misguided translation!). If we got dust inside, it would put him in a bad mood and he would glower until we gave him chocolate, which brightened him right up. He also kept us away from the “convoy” of other tour agencies and jeeps, making us really appreciate the remoteness of our environment and not feel like we were just on a package holiday. This is a common criticism of the tour in general; that you end up surrounded by so many other people at every stop point. We barely saw anyone else and even had the hostel to ourselves both nights! Although not an English speaker, thanks to Bee, Franz, and Paula we were able to understand Silvio’s very clear descriptions of just what we were seeing, and enjoy the brilliant lunches he claimed to prepare (he just chopped the fruit, the tasty food was cooked elsewhere). Our first night we stayed in a hotel made of salt (including the beds, and the floors were just piles of salt – handy for seasoning during our evening meal!) which caused us to wake dehydrated, but ready for more. However, the elevation was getting higher and more difficult to deal with…
Bee Says: We have both got off very lightly in terms of altitude sickness. Almost everyone else we meet has suffered with crushing headaches, nosebleeds, vomiting, dizziness etc. We were patting ourselves on the back and feeling seriously relieved that so far altitude had left us alone. On day 2 however, the Salt Flat tour goes turbo-high. Driving out to see lagoons in every colour (red, green, blue and purple) our jeep shifted into 4WD mode and we creaked up verticle rockfaces, getting higher and higher until we topped out at near 5000m above sea level (over half the height of Everest). As we walked up to some volcanic rock formations, even the boys in the group were panting with laboured breathing. It was at this point I realised well.. I wasnt really breathing at all. I have asthma, which I mostly try to ignore, but 7 years in London has left it in the chronic category. We would later learn that at 5000m up, you are breathing 50% LESS oxygen than at sea level, so hardly a shocker that for my withered lungs, it would feel pretty scary. My inhalers worked to a point, but mostly I sat paralyzed with fear as my lungs burned and wheezed. I was very aware we were in the middle of nowhere and that panicking only makes asthma worse, so I tried to zen out and we stuck my ipod on the car speakers creating a perfect alien-landscape soundtrack of Mogwai, M83, London Grammar and Adem. Luckily as soon as we left mas-mas (super high) altitude, I felt better and could get back on with having the time of my life! So the fear didn’t dent my adoration of all things salt flat, but I have learnt that altitude is not something to sniff at… it basically feels like a hipo sitting on your chest. We’re having to examine our future plans, such as trekking to Machu Picchu (waaaah) because currently breathing is tough just lazing around, let alone hiking 50k. I´m hopìng another week or so at altitude as we travel La Paz and Isla de Sol will miraculously toughen me up into some iron lunged hulk-bee but I have to at least consider the chance that this won’t happen, and anything over 4000m will continue to leave me a bit like a gasping fish. Anyway back to the tour…
Nick already summed up the magical world of the 3 days Salt Tour perfectly, and all I can add is that it feels like you are seeing an absolutely secret world, hidden high in the sky and almost inccessable. Everything looks like a dream. The perspective, the light, the beating sun, the odd volcanic rock and higgeldy cacti… It feels like one long mirage, where you imagine you are seeing one thing and as you drive closer, it merges and molds into a thousand other things before you realise it’s just a piece of rock. Every second of taking in my surroundings felt like I was seeing the world for the first time. Its hardly surprising that the desert here apparently inspired Salvador Dali and is thus named after him. One unexpected treat was stumbling across a lagoon packed with flamingoes. One of my favourite animals for most of my life, I’ve never seen them in the wild before. They chirrup, they fight, they fly about. I could have watched them all day long! They certainly fitted in perfectly with the all-round surrealness.
On Day 3 I was feeling fine again, despite a night in a hostel with no heating where the temperature dipped below freezing, therefore the six of us had to sleep in one room for warmth! We wore ourselves out pre-bed with hours of boisterous games of cards, where we were playing with two decks of cards: one Dutch, one British, leading to mass laughter and confusion as Jacks became Backs and Kings became Hings. Day 3 was the 22nd October, and a special day for me as it was the anniversary of having a beastly operation last year. We woke at 5am and raced up the mountain, in order to watch the sunrise over earth that was bubbling and boiling furiously and creating huge geysers. I’ve never seen one before, and I imagine this is the perfect way to see your first. It wasnt the altitude taking my breath away this time!
Next up, my first bath of the trip! And what better place than in a hot springs, 4500m up a mountain? This was a first for both of us, and it is as wonderful as you imagine – stepping from 5 degree chill into bathlike water and lazing around until you are prunelike. It was in the hot spring that something very special happened to me too… I met another person from Bradford! I heard the dulcet tones of my beloved hometown accent and swizzled my head Exorcist-quick and yelled I KNOW THAT ACCENT! She was an ex head mistress who is now enjoying travelling the world and seeing everything there is to offer outside of our glorious BD. It was lovely to have such an unexpected encounter in somewhere so unexpected.
In other proud Yorkshire lass-ing, in the exact middle of the salt flats there is a collection of world flags, dazzling against the white and blue backdrop. There was no Union Jack, or Swiss or Dutch or Canadian flag to pose with but by the time our group had started sighing with disappointment, I was RUNNING towards the flags and snatching the most majestic of sights. A Yorkshire Rose! In the middle, flapping in the wind happily. I have no idea how it came to be there, but it gave me a clutch of homesickness in the wilderness.
I can’t imagine that anything will match Uyuni for being the best experience of my life, but at least we have 5 months to hunt for something. I would do it all again (even the muy asmatico) in a heartbeat, and would have been on a real glum downer if we hadnt added a little extra into the itinerary. We were meant to end the tour back in Uyuni… but during our Amazon boat tour, Nick made the mistake of napping and leaving me with our Lonely Planet and a can of beer. By the time he woke up I had come up with a cunning plan…. How about we go to CHILE?! And the plan grew and grew, ending on the salt flat tour where rather than go back to Uyuni, our tour guide dropped us at the Frontiera, where we could stamp out of Bolivia (and talk our way out of a bogus tourist tax to boot!) and hop into a shared bus to San Pedro De Atacama. CHILE!!!! As if we weren’t seeing enough countries already…? But we couldnt resist a peek, and obviously a sample of the wine whilst we are at it.
Nick Says: Yep, why not just pop over to Chile? It’s one of the true joys of travel, the freedom and ability to go where you want, and when you want. The homeland of my friend Francisco (who’s rather inconveniently trekking in Nepal at the moment), Chile is a country 4000km long but only 180km wide at most. Bordered by the Andes in the East, the Pacific Ocean on the West, and the Atacama Desert in the North, Chile prospered in almost isoation from the rest of South America, and is now the most developed country in the region, and one where you can definitely feel the influence of Western countries. It honestly feels like you’re in a Mediterreanean country here, with simple joys such as the buses running on time.
We arrived in the town of San Pedro de Atacama after descending 2000m. A really pretty town made of adobe single storey buidlings, San Pedro is 100% designed for tourists though. In fact we outnumbered the locals! It was also incredibly expensive, with our costs here even outstripping living in London. Waaah! While Chile as a whole is pretty pricey, it’s nowhere near as much as San Pedro. However, that didn’t stop us hunting out some local bargains for lunch, which meant eating in a cage for one meal. One thing I won’t regret spending money on though was on one of the best sweet pies I have ever eaten. In a cafe on the main plaza we tried to order panckaes, but were told they had run out. The waitress then told us mango something was very good, so we ordered one, without knowing what we would eat. A glorious mango meringue pie arrived, and every bite was heaven. I would go so far as to say a trip to San Pedro (and Chile) is worth it just for this pie. More often than not though, we could be found in the lovely garden of Hostal Sonchek, where we stayed. Drinking Chilean wine with Beau from the Uyuni tour while relaxing in hammocks was a pretty good life.
San Pedro is also one of the best places in the world to stargaze. Due to it’s location at altitude and in the worlds driest desert, it offers almost guaranteed clear skies. Excited to have this unexpected opportunity, Bee & I wasted no time in booking ourselves on a tour. However, waiting for the bus Bee felt her lungs burn. Maybe standing in the cold for several hours wasn’t the best idea. Reluctantly, she turned back to go home. I wanted to go with her, but she insisted I went otherwise we would have wasted quite a lot of money. Driving out to the desert I wanted to be anywhere but on this tour, but it was still an amazing experience. A canopy of stars surrounded us, and our clever Canadian guide talked us through how to spot the different constellations before letting us loose on powerful telescopes which showed us dying stars, nebulas, planets, and even other galaxies. It was truly inspirational. However, the best was yet to come – the next night we left San Pedro on a night bus to the border city of Arica, and the stars from the bus were even better! This time Bee was given a full panoramic view of them, and I was able to point out the things I had been shown, including the constellation of Scorpio (the best) and Alpha Centurai, the closest star to our own, at a mere 4.6 light-years away… Arriving in Arica early the next morning, we breathed in the sea-level air and gazed upon the Pacific Ocean. We had crossed a continent to be here, from East Coast to West. It felt good.