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Well we've crossed into Bolivia at last. And Back into Peru. And back into Bolivia again. My passport is going to fill up soon at this rate!
We fianlly left Puno on a bus bound for Copacabana in Bolivia. The Peru-Bolivia border doesn't go straight down the middle of Lake Titicaca but snags a peninsular on the Peruvian side into Bolivia. Copacabana is the main town on this peninsular, and the Isla Del Sol and the Isla De La Luna are Bolivian islands reached by boat from there.
The border formalities are straightforward and we arrived in Copacabana at lunch time. Copacabana has a famous shrine where bolivians come to have things blessed, like new cars and little model houses. They are quite serious about this: they honestly think that the Virgin of Whatever will intervene and stop them from crashing over a precipice if they have had their vehicle blessed in Copacabana. This makes the town quite a destination for Bolivian day trippers. In an effort to make it less appealing the authorities impose an entrance fee of one Boliviano (about 10p) for everyone entering the town - even bus passengers who are passing through on their way to La Paz! Since they obviously didn't want any more visitors we got straight on a boat over the the Isla Del Sol.
The Isla Del Sol has an important role in the Inca creation legend. I forget the details, but it is something like the birthplace of the four brothers who made their way to Cusco, "navel of the earth". Anyway there are a couple of bits of Inca ruin to look at. But mostly it is just a pleasant sunny island in Lake Titicaca where you can relax for a couple of days, and that's what we did.
Of course it also has something in common with Amantani and Taquile, the two islands in the Peruvian half of the lake that we visited a few days earlier. But Isla Del Sol is quite a bit more developed: they have electricity from the mainland, for example. But what they all share is not looking as if they belong on Lake Titicaca. In the afternoon sun, with donkeys climbing the steep steps up from the port (and ignoring the odd lama in amongsth them), you could be on a Greek island. (Christine and I have both just read books set on Greek islands.) When the clouds come down and the lake looks grey, according to an Irish guy we met it could be the view from his window in Donegal. But one difference from either of those places is the view of 6000m+ snow-capped mountains in the distance.
So after a couple of nights we returned to Copacabana. (And discovered that the cheeky buggers charge only 9 Bs to get out to the island, but getting back costs 15. Arrgghh!) Next stop was to be La Paz, and it should have been a simple bus trip of about three or four hours. But no! Remember that Copacabana is on a Bolivian peninsular on the Peruvian side of the lake? Well to get over to Bolivia proper you have to take a short ferry ride. (And I was quite looking forward to this ferry ride because you get to see the Bolivian Naval Base. Bolivian hasn't had any sea for its navy to patrol since the War of the Pacific.) Anyway it seems that the town where this ferry crossing is located feels that it isn't getting its share of the tourist business from Copacabana, so - believe it or not - they have barracaded the crossing. As if that is going to increase it! So we had to take the long route: back into Peru and right around the bottom of the lake.
The journey was quite an adventure. The first collectivo from Copacabana back to the frontier was relatively unadventurous. Then, rather than a series of three buses to get to the other border crossing, five of us decided to share a taxi. Unfortunately the taxi we chose had a dodgy gearbox and got slower and slower, until we were doing only about 20 kph. At this point the driver gave up and we transfered into another taxi for the last 30 km; this driver decided to do the whole trip at 100 to 130 kph! So we arrived in Desaguadera, did two more lots of border formalities (they were a bit overworked, due to the extra people, but still it was fairly painless), walked across the frontier bridge (it may be the place where the water flows out of Lake Titicaca towards Lake Poopo, from where it evaporates), and got on a bus to La Paz.
We've not seen much of La Paz yet, but as you come into the city you get to appreciate its spectacular location. From Titicaca the road crossed a large flat plain, probably former lake bed, at about 3900m. The new outskirts of La Paz, including the airport, are up on this plain. Then suddenly the bus reaches the edge of a cliff and starts to wind down it round a series of hairpin bends (a bit like the train ride into Cusco). The city is spread over the sides and floor of a steep canyon, and to make it even more impressive there is a huge snow-capped mountain as a backdrop.
We have various mundane things to do over the next day or two, and we also have to decide what to do next. A trip to the jungle? To the mountains? To the salt lakes? Stay tuned for the next installment!
We've been in La Paz for a few days and not because we greatly like it here. There is a Lan Chile office and I have been camped out there for much of the time trying to sort out my plane tickets for the next few months.
I realised there was going to be a problem when we were in Cusco. I went into the Lan Chile office there to ask about a routine date change, and in the course of the conversation it became clear that there were going to be problems with my trans-pacific flight from Santiago to Auckland. This is the only direct flight across the South Pacific that I can use with my ticket and it is booked solid until the middle of March. Not that the official "one world explorer" web site admits this: it says that there are plenty of seats. Anyway, I had the choice of staying in South America for an extra couple of months, or trying my luck with a waiting list for a cancellation, or finding an alternative route.
I've gone for the final option. Apart from the Santiago to Auckland flight the other choices are to go via Los Angeles, or to fly from Buenes Aires to Sydney, neither of which is possible with my ticket, or to island-hop, which is mostly possible. So I now have tickets for flights from Santiago to Easter island, where I'll stay for four days, and from Easter Island to Tahiti, where I'll stay for a week. Then I´ve had to buy my own ticket from Tahiti to Auckland.
So now I need to know what to do on Easter Island and Tahiti, so any suggestions are welcome. Easter Island is actually included in my Chile guidebook (it belongs to Chile) and I think I can fill my time looking at the archaeology. But I have no idea what there is to do on Tahiti (though I do still have my Mexican hammock with me, and I think that it will come in useful...). Anyone out there been there?
So before all of that trans-pacific stuff starts I´ll be spending some time amongst the mountains in Chile, and with the current timetable I'll be in Patagonia for Christmas and New Year. I'll just say that again: "Hiker looking for fun stuff to do in Patagonia over Christmas and New Year!!!" So is there anyone reading this with any suggestions?
As I said at the start most of my time in La Paz has been spent inside the Lan Chile office, but we have seen a bit of the city and a few of the museums. The traffic here is totally ghastly and crossing the road is terrifying. They really do have traffic signals where the cars and the pedestrians have green lights at the same time (and I don't just mean the standard U.S. thing of cars that are allowed to go through a red light as long as they give way). There are two sorts of buses: reasonably clean far-eastern minibuses like they have in Peru, and huge old things from the U.S. with names like FORD, DODGE and CHEVROLET across the front at eye-level. I get the feeling that these things are about fifty years old, and they belch the most enormous plumes of black smoke out behind them - as much as a steam engine. Yuk.
They have a small museum of pre-conquest gold; there's not a lot of it, certainly less than they have in Costa Rica, but at least these few scraps excaped the Conquistador's crucible. In Peru they have nothing. Mostly it is thinly-beaten gold sheets turned into chest-plates and the like.
In an effort to escape from the streets of La Paz for a few hours we took ourselves to the cinema: we saw Amelie, the lovely French film. Luckily we had both seen it before, as I don't think either of us could follow either the French soundtrack or Spnish subtitles quickly enough. Anyway it was in a huge old cinema which had, at some point, been upgraded to "Dolby Digital" sound. I understand that the criteria for this are quite strict and it seems that this old place had a bit of a problem with echos. So they had covered the walls and ceiling with.... six thousand two hundred egg boxes! (That's our estimate anyway.) Quite a sight.
Today we ventured out of the city to the ruins at Tihuanaco. You probably haven't heard of Tihuanaco, but they were probably as important as the Incas (and to the Bolivians they are more important!). They started out as argriculturalists on the Altiplano (high plain) on the South side of Lake Titicaca a few centuries B.C. They were smart enough to work the most efficient way to grow stuff in this fairly inhospitable terrain (nearly 4000m up) and their agricultural surplasses gave them the resources to build a large city and to expand their teritory to form a huge empire. They collapsed mysteriously about 1000 A.D., and the Incas can be thought of as the "Pheonix from the ashes of the Tihuanacanos" in the way that, perhaps, the Byzantines came out of the collapse of the Roman empire.
So having collapsed a thouasand years ago there is not as much to see of the Tihuanacan remains as there is of the Incas from only half as long ago. And, thankfully, the Bolivians have not been as obsessed with "reconstructing" the ruins as their Peruvian counterparts. So what you can see are the remains of two step pyramids, not entirely unlike the Mexican ones that I saw a few months ago, collapsed into big earth mounds. Then there are a few "temple" buildings with nicely made stone walls, in some cases with stonework of Inca or better quality. One of them has stone bosses in the walls carved in the shapes of heads; the suggestion is that this superceeded the practice of displaying real trophy heads from battles.
The nicest artifacts are some carved columns - a bit like stone totem poles - some of which are in situ in the temples and some of which have been moved to a site museum. The site museum is excellent, at least compared to what we have been seeing recently. There are actually two buildings; one contains smaller things like pots and arrowheads, and actually has labels in practically all of the cases! It even had a fairly intellectual display about the technology of bronze manufacture in the Andees! The other building has the larger bits of carved stone, and although they are very well displayed they are somewhat lacking in information, such as where in they site they were found. But generally it was a much more satisfactory experience than the Inca ruins around Cusco (though on a smaller scale). Thumbs up to the Bolivians!
So tomorrow we're heading on to Cochabamba, with is a seven hour bus trip South from here. More news soon.
In most respects Cochabamba has been a pleasant change from La Paz. It's a bit warmer here - we're a bit lower down, though still well above the level of the jungle - and the place is a bit more peaceful. You can cross the road without thinking that you're taking your life in your hands every time. Architecturally it's colonial, with a couple of nice plazas with big shady trees and arcades, not unlike some of the places I visited in Mexico. And it's clearly a relatively afluent place (and I hope the wealth isn't all from Coca production and Nazi Gold).
On the down side, I got poisoned by something. Probably a plate of goulash from an expensive tourist restraunt. (Christine says, "If there was one thing I could say to the Bolivian People it would be 'Now Wash Your Hands'".) So Christine has seen the tourist attractions while I have been recovering. The main one is a palace built in the 1920s by a "tin barron" in the style of Versailles with a replica of the Sistene Chapel in the attic!
So now I'm mostly better and we're heading to Sucre. It is Bolivia's capital-in-name-only (everything apart from the supreme court moved to La Paz yonks ago). And it's famous for its weaving...
Sadly we arrived in Cochabamba a day too late to witness history in the making. A few weeks ago MacDonalds announced that they were going to close down in three Latin American and Middle Eastern countries (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/2424825.stm). At the time I didn't know which countries, but it turns out that Bolivia is one of them, and Cochabamba had one of their three outlets here! I read about this in a newspaper and then walked a few blocks down the road to where it used to be: it had closed the night before, but already there was impenetrable corrugated iron all around it. But the top of a "Big M" was visible over the top. So that's one blow against globablisation - but it's probably one fewer food outlet in Cochabamba where they wash their hands.
We're now in Sucre, a pleasant enough place about 2700m up. The flight here from Cochabamba was excellent - only 35 minutes, but the alternative was a ten-hour bus ride, and looking down from the windows it was clear why. Like Cochabamba, Sucre is part way down the slope from the Altiplano to the Amazon basin. From the air you can see how the rivers have incised their way down into what was once a high plateaux. Higher up the ground is quite barren, then in the river valleys almost jungle.
We flew with LAB - Lloyd Aero Boliviano - who claim to be the world's third oldest airline and are celebrating their seventy-seventh birthday! Although their first jet aircraft, a 727-100, is still in service, we were on a slightly newer plane. Their in-flight magazine claims that when they started in the 1920s "Bolivia had no roads" - a rather bizzare statement that also ignores the fact that it did have quite a respectable rail network until quite recently. Now most towns are joined by good quality roads and coaches have won, as in most of the rest of the hemisphere.
When we got to the airport we were greted by gleeful-looking taxi drivers who told us that there were no buses to the centre. Latin American taxi drivers are, as a group, probably the least honest people I have met and I didn't believe a word of it (and other people in the airport said that collectivos go past the airport gates for only 1 Bol). But it turned out that they were right! It seems that the local authority wants to pedestrianise - or at least to prohibit buses from - the city centre, and the bus drivers don't like the idea. They want to be able to continue to queue their smoke-belching monsters, engines revving, outside our hotel all evening while a small boy shouts something incomprehensible at the top of his voice to enticle potential passengers onboard. So to get their point across they decided to.... blockade the town! Sounds slightly familiar? Yes, this is the third place we've got to in the middle of a strike. But luckily this time it only lasted for the day and the place seems to be back to normal now.
The main attraction here is the weaving. It seems that the traditional weaving almost died out in the sixties when most of the old textiles were bought up by merchants for sale to collectors; the weavers then didn't have any examples on which to base their new work. But a group of anthropologists saved the day by giving them photos of their old stuff and setting up a fair trade network and textiles museum in the town. The museum is excellent: Christine says it is the best museum in Latin America! There are three main styles that they focus on from three distinct areas. One shows fantastic creatures, normally in red, on a black background: they are supposed to be things from the night or your dreams. Another has a light background and shows scenes of everyday life. The final style is multi-coloured and, unusually, is done by men. It uses a combination of motifs including fantasy creatures, based on pre-conquest textiles. Of course you want to buy one of each but they take a long time to weave and have "fair" prices to match. But it seems that the prices still aren't enough to satisfy the weavers: they augment their income by selling canabis to the museum visitors!
The other main attraction here is the dinosaur footprint site. You take a ghastly old truck (one redeeming feature: it is powered by local natural gas) a few miles out to the local cement factory where they have exposed what was once the muddy edge of a lake, now tilted up at an angle of 73 degrees. We had an excellent guide who was obviously a real geologist and used a mirror to reflect a spot of sunlight onto the face to point out the tracks. Some of them are vast round elephant-like tracks (I forget how big they said they must have been, but certainly much bigger than an elephant), and others are smaller, faster carnivores with three or four toes or claws. And as they quarry deeper, more of it will be revealved! Excellent.
We're still in Sucre but will be leaving tommorrow morning to go to Potosí, the famous city that was once the fourth largest in Christendom when its mines were producing more silver than the rest of the world put together.
Yesterday we went to see La Glorietta, another "Versailles of the Americas" built in the 1890s by a Tin Baron. It is somewhat run down, but not totally neglected, and it could even be that some of it is being restored. It has some lovely guilded ceilings with carved bat motifs on them, parquet floors that would look great with just a bit of pollish, three quaint-looking towers and some pleasure gardens. I reckon it needs a gang of people who know how to plaster and fix roofs to come and spend a week's "working holiday" on it.
Today, for a change, we went a bit further afield to Tarabuco. Guess what. It has a famous market on Sundays, full of weaving....
The journey there was quite interesting. We were supposed to go on a tourist bus organised by the place where we were staying, but by ten the previous night it hadn't got back from that day's excursion, so it was cancelled. So we ended up sharing a taxi with six Bolivians. It took me some time to work out exactly what was peculiar about the vehicle: although the driver was sat behind the steering wheel on the left hand side, the dashboard (speedo etc) was in front of the passenger on the right hand side!!!! Yes, this was an imported second-hand Japanese car that had been "converted" for left-hand-drive operation, moving only the most important bits!
Anyway the drive - about and hour and a half - progressed uneventfully, and the driver was actually quite good by recent standards, until we heard the distinctive hiss of a flat tyre. Oh no we thought, now we're going to have to wait at the side of the road for hours until they can fix it or some overloaded lorry turns up that we can clamber on board to finish the journey. I was even more pessemistic when we realised that there was a spare wheel but no jack. But no! These Bolivians aren't the sort of wimps who need a mechanical advantage to lift a car. A suitable large rock was selected from the side of the road and three people, two of them random passers-by, lifted the car up while the driver put the rock underneath. The wheel was changed in no time and we finished the journey without further incident.
The market was interesting. Most of the stuff that was for sale was old: ponchos, mantas and the like that presumably people have got down from the attic now they know that tourists like them. There is quite a range of designs, and it is likely that quite a lot of them specific to particular small villages or areas where weaving has since died out. The three or so styles that you can buy newly-made are probably only the tip of the iceberg of what existed fifty or a hundred years ago. Anyway, we made a few purchases....
I am writing this in what claims to be the Highest Cybercafe In The World - 4000m up in the Andees. We're spending a day in the historical city of Potosí, whose fame depends on the enormous silver deposits that have been mined in its mountain since shortly after the conquest. The Spaniards, in their insatiable desire for precious metals, enslaved the enitre male population of "greater Peru" to work in Potosí's mines for some proportion of the time. The city grew to be the largest in Chirstendom after London, Paris and Seville - if you can really call it part of Christendom since the miners still very actively worship pre-conquest deities, and even the Devil, to whom the say that everything under the ground belongs. Here is a photo of the hill, Cerro Rico, that the mines are underneath.
The mines are still actively worked, though other metals are now more important than silver. The conditions are utterly attrocious and the life expectency of a miner is 42 years, mainly due to silicosis. Of course they are not slaves any more, so why do they do it? Although Bolivia is a poor country there are clearly better options open to them. I can only imagine that it is the lottery player's skewed perception of chance: every miner imagines that they will be the one to find some rich vein that will make their fortune.
Anyway, all these old riches have given the city some nice old architecture (big old doorways are the main things you see from the street) and plenty of churches. This afternoon we went on a tour of the Museo Santa Teressa, a former convent of a closed order. At its largest it was built around eighteen courtyards, but as the city's riches declined it contracted to only three. Finally, within the last few decades, the nuns moved into a corner of the site and the majority was turned into a museum - and a very good one.
Of course it is full of religious art, of which we have seen lots recently. But here much of it had been recently restored, the frames repaired and re-guilded and the pictures cleaned, making them much more striking. Apparently when a girl, normally from a noble family, was sent to the convent she took a "dowry". This could be cash or the equivalent value in religious art, and this is where it all came from. We saw one set of vestments that had been made by a novice from the clothes that she arrived in: of course she wore only a habit as a nun. Another thing (what is the word for a religious apron?) was made with silver and gold thread and weighs five kilograms!
The building itself is interesting, as are the courtyards which are all full of plants and a three hundred year old apple tree that still fruits. But probably most interesting of all was to see the way of life that the nuns lived until very recently. They have a lovely old kitchen, and you can see a reconstructed cell. But most interesting was to see how they communicated with the outside world - or rather how they failed to communicate with it. They had a revolving thing where goods could be put on one side by a tradesman and spun around to enter the convent, with money going back in return. Then there were the arrangements for nuns to communicate with their parents, who were allowed to come for an hour a month. They were separated by a five-foot-thick wall with a large hole cut in it. On the outside this hole had a grid of wrought iron bars with spikes pointing out from them. On the inside there was a thick black curtain. So the families could talk to, but not see, their daughters. This carried on until, can you believe it, 1965. After "Vatican II" in 1965 they replaced the black curtain with a piece of glass so they can see each other. I do wonder what we would think if this was going on in Afghanistan or somewhere else where human rights are in the West's spotlight, rather than in a "Christian" country.
Anyway, it was an excellent visit; interestingly one of the best museums in Cusco was also a former convent so maybe it's something worth looking out for.
I am pleased to report that the "Wonder Miracle Drug" Ciprofloxacin has cured all my recent digestive ills. This stuff is great: it will cure everything from Anthrax to Diarrhea. Visitors to Bolivia, take it from day one and you'll be fine!
Tommorrow we're off to Uyuni, next to the world's largest salt lake. All being well in a few days we'll be across the other side in Chile's Atacama desert. More news then.
Well we finally got out of Potosí. It took longer than it should have done: the bus company signs all claim to have buses to Uyuni at 1130 and 1830, but when you ask it seems that only the evening buses exist. So we spent another day trying to find anything open to visit in Potosí: the only bit of industrial archaeology, an old water-powered ore crushing works, has been turned into a restraunt; the Calcha textiles exhibition is closed until further notice; the museum of regional costumes (we were getting desperate by this point) was closed for cleaning, and the University Museum seemed to have a lecture going on in it! We did get to look around the Casa de Moneda ("coin house"), where the silver was cast into ingots and turned into coins. It is an impressively large old building, apparently the largest in the New World at the time, with some interesting old machinery; they had huge mule-powered mills for flattening the cold silver ingots into strips from which the coins were cut.
Anyway we eventually boarded a bus for the six hour trip on an unsurfaced road to Uyuni. We survived, but it was not very pleasant - lots of vibrations. And it would have been nice to see the view. (We found out after we got to Potosí that there is actually still a train to Uyuni - probably much more comfortable than the bus ride, but sadly only once a week, and not on a convenient day for us.)
Uyuni is a small place with a bit of a wild west feel to it. It is in the middle of a big flat plain with a few hills in the distance that seem to float above the ground due to the heat. Having booked our jeep trip for tommorrow there was not much to do this afternoon, so taking the advice of our guidebook we went to visit the train graveyard. You might think that a poor place like Bolivia would melt down its old bits of train and turn them into concrete reinforcing rods (used here as a universal construction material), but it seems that they are happy to park them in the desert and let them rust. It is a two kilometer walk from the town center through the almost-desert landscape. It should be full of drought-resistant plants like cactuses and other small spikey things, but these all have the characteristic that stray plastic bags stick to them, and since the Uyunians dispose of their rubbish by chucking it in the street, the desert now blooms with millions of plastic bag bushes. Anyway we got to the graveyard, and some locals with a sense of humour have turned some of it into bits of art. One of the old locomotives is annotated with the slogan "Necesito un mecanisto con experencia" (Experienced mechanic required).
So we're off tommorrow to see the salt lake, and will be in Chile in three days.
We've just arrived in Antofagasta, on the Chilean coast. This is the first time we've been at sea level for weeks and weeks - there is a lot more atmosphere here and it is hot too.
We spent three days in a Toyota Landcruiser getting from Uyuni in Bolivia's Altiplano to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. The trip passes through some extraordinary landscapes and was well worth doing, though it is a shame that the company we went with were so dodgy.
This part of the Andees is very dry and much of the land drains into inland evaporation basins rather than the oceans. For example, the outflow from Lake Titicaca flows into Lago Poopo from where it evaporates. Some of these lakes have water in all year - albeit very salty water. Others are dry salt lakes during the dry season that get a bit soggy when the rains come. The Salar de Uyuni, which we crossed on the first day, is in the latter category. It is an enormous expanse of white salt for as far as the eye can see (and quite a bit further). The locals dig it up and sell it, and have probably been doing so for hundreds of years. The heat makes odd things happen at the horizon, and from a distance it looks as if their piles of sand are hovering in mid air!
In the middle of the salt is the Isla Del Pescado, so named because its profile from a distance looks a bit like a fish (hmmm). This was our lunch stop and it is a fascinating place because it is covered in the most enormous cactuses, the tallest about 12m tall and said to be 1200 years old.
It took a few more hours driving over the smooth salt to leave the Salar, and the subsequent tracks were much rougher. We spent the night in a tiny place called San Juan which seems to exist mainly because it has a water hole where their llamas can drink.
Then on the second day we started off with a rough drive through the desert, our discomfort briefly eased by a stop where we saw these very odd plants that look like they should be soft as moss but are actually rock hard.
Then we visited a sucession of salt water lagoons full of flamingoes. Apparently there are three different sorts of flamingoes but they aren't easy to tell apart. Apart from the birds the other wildlife to see are the vicuñas, the wild camelids from which the early humans bred llamas. Vicuñas are much less stocky than llamas which are clearly much more suitable as beasts of burden.
Finally we crossed some more high-vibration desert, including a stop to see this "stone tree", carved by the wind. (And you can believe that as it was quite windy when we were there!)
Many of the lagunas are brightly coloured - red, green or yellow, depending on how much salt is in them and what colourful bacteria can put up with the conditions. This is Laguna Colorado.
We spent the final night in the middle of nowhere before making an early start to see the geothermal attractions of the final day.
Apparently this looks best early in the morning, so we set off at five AM! There are a few steam vents (which they call geysirs, but aren't) and some boiling mud pots, very much like the ones I saw in Iceland. Then we had breakfast at a hot spring before driving almost the last leg to Laguna Verde. This salt water lake is green for some reason and reflects Volcan Licancabur, a 5900m peak on the Chilean border.
Generally we stopped only for a few minutes at each of these points of interest. We spent much more time looking out of the windows of our Landcruiser at the passing desert. It would have been very interesting to know something about the geology, but we had only a driver, not a guide. I think that the desert is mostly volcanic material, probably from erruptions eons ago. It could be the sort of place where you can find meteorites! Quite a few of the hills had bright yellow sulphurous patches on them, but only one showed any signs of current activity: a spurt of steam from the side.
The Bolivians actually have a frontier post where you get your passport stamped. The Chileans are happy for you to wait until you get a couple of thousand meters lower down before they process you. The frontier pass is at 4480m, making it higher than the high point of the Cusco-Puno railway and so the highest point on the trip so far.
On the Bolivian side the nearly-6000m peaks rise from a 4000m plain. On the Chilean side they rise from a 2500m plain, making them much more impressive! We drove down from the pass to the town of San Pedro de Atacama following old lava flows from Volcan Licancabur, which sticks up with a classic volcano shape. Finally we got to the border control. As well as conveying tourists like us the road also leads to a pass into Argentina, and we had seen trucks taking new cars to Paraguay. The frontier was not a good introduction to the country. They made us wait for three quarters of and hour, and then did a thorough job of looking through everyones' rucksacks. They made me unseal and open up my first aid kit which has been carefully packed up for years. But if anyone really wanted to smuggle in some coca leaves, or fresh fruit and veg, or whatever it is they're looking for, they need only put it at the bottom of their bag.
Our guidebook has a comment like "generally tour operators in Uyuni are terrible" and gives an address to complain to before going on to mention some less-bad companies. But this book has proved incredibly unreliable recently and we got the firm impression that things had improved recently. This turned out not to be the case.
Since their customers leave the country at the end of the trip the tour operators know that there is little chance that they will be able to complain effectively. So they promise all sorts of things when you sign up and then fail to deliver them.
In our case, I have a document signed by Tourismo Desierto where they say that the price we paid includes entrance to the two national parks, free drinking water, and various other things. But when we actually got to the Isla Del Sol our driver (Octavia) refused to pay up and we had to pay again ourselves. The same thing happened at the national park office for the Lagunas, and we had to buy our own drinking water (a rare commodity in the middle of a desert). As well as the money that we lost it really made the trip feel unpleasant: we had to sit for hours in a vehicle with a man who had robbed us and who we knew was going to get away with it. (The is a small police presence in the area but they all seem to be old friends of his, so going to them didn't seen like a promising idea.)
Anyway I will be writing to the complains address that our guidebook gives. I'm also hoping that maybe this mention of Tourismo Desierto of Uyuni (and their partners-in-crime Pamela Tours with whom the vehicle was shared) will alert others to these particular crooks.
Dad has been busy with his scanner and has stitched together this panoramic view of Laguna Colorado, from the end of our Bolivian desert trip.
You can see a bigger version by clicking here: http://chezphil.org/rtw/images/Panarama.jpeg
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