Monday, 28 July 2014

Tarija - un poco vino, por favor?

As usual with Bolivian overnight buses, they are expertly scheduled to arrive at your destination in the small dark hours of the morning. And so we're in a taxi at 3:30am, heading for Hostal Casa Blanca, who CP has alerted in advance that we will be arriving at stupid o'clock.

It's a small but well equipped place with 3 dorm rooms which sleep a total of 14 people, so luckily no one is occupying our beds when we arrive and tiptoe our way in for some much needed sleep.

Later on, at a more reasonable hour, one of the guys that works/owns the place sits down with us to run through what there is to do in little Tarija, a small but pretty town that is mostly used as a base for visiting the wineries in the nearby Valle de Concepcion. During this chat he mentions that a 2 day guided tour is available and I nearly pass out. Thankfully he recognises our discomfort and quickly adds "but I don't like doing those either" and goes on to explain the alternatives.

There are 1 day options or half day. Since the only addition extra on the full day is that lunch is organised for you and you visit one extra winery, the dreaded Kohlberg which is at the bottom of the Bolivian wine meritocracy, we agree that the half day should be about right, and we can relax again.

For now though, we borrow the hostels bikes and set off around the quiet streets of Tarija. Almost every street is one way, so getting anywhere invariably leads to riding a block past and looping round or taking 3 left turns instead of 1 right, but it works. The bikes are very shit, but we're not exactly going very far, and it seems to be safe enough to leave them loosely chained to a tree while we meander in the street markets. CP here, on the bikes issue, after about 5 minutes, Rich asks me if I'd like to switch bikes. I ask him why. He says "because mine is f**ked!". You can guess my response...

Tarija is a really pretty little town, we think it's potentially even a city, and has a lovely, relaxed and most import story, warm feeling to it. We spend the afternoon just cruising around, hit the local markets to buy some eggs and avocados for breakfast and the food hall to sample a typically local dish of saise (minced meat, rice and salad). We shared a dish, which is usual, not for price reasons but portion control, as travelling seems to equate to eating...way too much!

I've been pretty much starved of a good coffee since we got to Bolivia, but the guidebook recommends a place on the main square called Mokka Cafe. The main square really isn't that big, but after a fruitless 15 minute search we have to concede defeat... for now.

We stop off at EcoSol, a place that has been recommended by our hostel as a good trek (that's not a guided tour is it..?) of El Valle des Condores. They don't exactly cover themselves in glory with the sales pitch, one person insisting they know nothing about it, another fumbling around to find the brochure, and then eventually writing down the phone number of that same office for us to call. So if we go outside and phone you, will you be less of a mess? I'm not convinced, but CP is keen (she's read all about it on someone else's blog, so it must be great!?), and as I'm aware I've been a miserable bastard for the last week or so I figure that we may as well sign up, I'll either be grumpy sat around here, or trekking up to look at some condors.

In fairness, I have been in a progressively better mood since arriving in Potosi and this has continues in Tarija, as the weather has significantly improved and it feels like we are on holiday again, failed coffee shop search aside, and this will only get better tonight - there's a steakhouse here which is rumoured to be unbelievably good, and while it's more expensive than the average Bolivian meal, it's outrageously cheap by any other standards.

We both shower (!) and put on a fresh set of clothes for the occasion (this must be serious!), and set off on an evening stroll to El Fogon de Gringo - the name would normally be a red flag but this place is sooooo good! Assuming you're going for steak, you choose the cut of meat, choose the size (250g or 400g), and that's it - it will be cooked to your requirements while you avail of the epic salad bar. Oh - and then there's the wine list - all Bolivian of course, but we've had a few recommendations and go for the Campos de Solana, tri-varietal, 2011 Reserva. Yes, there are cheaper bottles on the menu, but in order to celebrate me smiling again, we're going for it - plus we're having Argentinian steaks in the Bolivian wine region, a decent bottle is almost compulsory!

There's probably only been a handful of times in the last 5 years when CP has tasted a wine in a restaurant and not made at least one derogatory comment about it - I now make her taste the wines only as a test to see is she's behaving. CP tastes the wine, and... it passes the test, in that she doesn't make a face. In truth, it's a genuinely good drop, and we're both happy that we've lucked into this one.

We opt for the 250g steaks, on the basis that we can try 2 different cuts. When they arrive, it's clear that these are not 10oz steaks... they're enormous. CP immediately declares that she'll be taking some home, but I see it as a challenge, one that I pass, but there will be no desserts. Incredible food, one of the best bottles of wine on the menu, and we still get out of there for less than £30 including tip. The equivalent meal back home would have set us back about 4 times that.

Despite only eating half, it's still too much for CP, and she'll be seeing most of that meal again in the early hours... such a waste!

The next morning, after fashioning a breakfast from the remaining eggs and CPs leftover steak, we're picked up from our hostel by our (English speaking) guide for the morning, and after a quick stop to pick up 2 other tourists (Bolivians from La Paz, on a short holiday in Tarija) we're on our way to Valle de Concepcion and our first winery - which happens to be Campos de Solana, the producer of last nights finest.

After a quick tour of the winery and the processes that they use, it's time for the tasting... it's 10am. The bottle that is selected for our consumption is one of their tintos, or table wines. It's what most Bolivians will drink if they are having wine - generally speaking they don't have the palates for wine, so will drink mostly anything, and the tintos are very basic wines, not made to be kept or aged, as the average Bolivian has no interest in that. In short, it's a bottle of plonk. Which is fine, it's not (too) offensive, CP pulls a face, but it just doesn't really do anything - and so we move on.

Our guide explains that Bolivia doesn't export wine as the export taxes are prohibitively expensive. And compared with Chile or Argentina, they're now so far behind in terms of reputation around the world that it would be very difficult to break into any overseas market - even though their best bottles are available for 150 Bolivianos (£14) after restaurant markup, or 90 Bolivianos cellar door.

One of the highlights of this half day tour is a visit to this winery's sister establishment, Casa Real, where they produce vast quantities of Bolivias signature spirit, Singani. This is made from distilled grapes, and is made in varying levels of quality just like any other spirit.

They are quite proud of the fact that Singani is exported internationally. This is true, but not in the normal sense. When the film director Steven Soderberg was filming Che, he was introduced to Singani, and decided that he liked it so much he would import some to the US. By all accounts, this was not an easy task, and we're given the impression that this is not a profitable venture for him. But yes, technically, Singani is sold internationally.

After a demonstration of the production method, we're invited to the tasting. First, a shot, taken neat, like an Italian grappa, but with less burning and convulsions.

Then, the way Bolivians drink it, mixed with ginger all and a slice of lemon, to create a drink called a Chuflay. This is awesome, and we buy a bottle of their ultra special "Don Lucho" to take home with us. CP insists that some of this remains when she returns to Guernsey 2 months after me... I make no promises.

Theres one final stop on our tour, Casa Viejo (the old house), which looks exactly as you would expect, if someone had taken an old French farmhouse and placed it gently in the Bolivian countryside. All the wine here is made manually, with the grapes being trodden on for hours in order to extract what eventually becomes a rather quaffable and sweet table wine.

This is more of a tasting than a demonstration, and there's a quick fire round of about 6 different glasses that are passed around the group with everyone drinking from the same glass like one massive family. Pretty epic and something we've not done before!

With that done, our guide is keen to push on to one last place, which we think is just a visit to look at a waterfall. We have a better idea, and opt to stay at Casa Viejo for lunch (and a bottle of wine) in the beautiful sunshine before taking a taxi back to Tarija (25km for 5 Bolivianos, less than 50p).

We both loved our little trip into wine country and it felt good to be back amongst the vines again. It's not quiet the French countryside that we both love so much, but it was all pretty familiar as wine is made the same way everywhere in the world...with often the same grapes, or varieties thereof, just different terroir.  In Bolivia, the Tri-Varietal Reserva is the sought after blend of Conception - Cabernet, Merlot and a French grape we had never heard of, but apparently grows well in Bolivia, Tannat. Interestingly, Petit Verdot also grows well in Bolivia, with apparently perfect conditions for it to flourish, unlike in France where it is only be grown in very small quantities, making it a rare addition to French wines. After having our wine tastebuds whet, we even played with the idea of quick jaunt into Argentina, a mere 3 to 5 hour bus trip across the border to the most northern Argentinian wineries, but a $100 visa fee for CP as an Australian, together with limited time, made the option of a two day trip a little excessive, so we talked ourselves out of it.

When we get arrive back at our hostel, CP is feeling a little off colour, so I am sent into town to finally book and pay for this Valle des Condores trip. I'm still not convinced (it sounds suspiciously like a tour...) but I sign us up for a morning pickup, after yet another failed search for the elusive Cafe Mokka...

Potosi - a silver lining?

After returning from the salt flats to Uyuni, we collect our bags from the tour operator (Betto is conveniently absent so avoids any confrontation), and we set about finding a hostel/hotel for the night.

The first choice option is full, but we find another that meets most of our requirements. And something of a rarity in Bolivia it seems - they assure us that they have wifi. The password is a closely guarded secret though, that needs to be typed in by only one member of the hotel staff, presumably to stop us sharing this precious wifi with any undesirables. The look he gives me when I have to return to the front desk later to get the password for my iPad is quite special, and I have to explain myself for having the audacity to want his precious password for a second time.

We manage to find a laundrette that will get our quite filthy clothes washed and dried in time for the morning's 10:30am bus to Potosi, and even manage a (fairly) hot shower back at our hotel! Last shower was back in Coroico so it's much needed, although the fact that having hot water is a selling point worth advertising for a hotel says a lot about the country we're currently visiting. Who needs to shower anyways?

We meet up with Jirrian (Dutch guy - death road, salt flats) and trade stories of our respective tours, and arrange to meet in Potosi tomorrow - he's on the nighttime bus but our need to sleep + the prospect of arriving in a new town sometime after midnight mean that we defer to the morning bus. I have to confess to being slightly in awe of Jirrians all round attitude and zest for life. On death road, he explained that he was coming to the end of his trip and was feeling "ready to go home" - if I'd heard that 3 months ago I would have considered him to be crazy, but the organised nature of our time so far in Bolivia combined with my exploding sinuses have left me feeling the same.

Not ready to pack my bags and jump on the first flight home, but if we skipped ahead to our final week in South America (which will be Machu Picchu) followed by the 2 weeks in California, and then heading home, I'd be pretty content with what we've done on this trip. CP is not sharing the same view, but does admit that this is travelling and not holidaying, and for those that know the difference, it's big!

I finally find a pharmacy that can give me something worthwhile for my sinuses, which results in the first decent nights sleep in a long time, and we're both relieved about that. Breakfast is some chicken, beef, rice concoction cooked up at the side of the road, plus a couple of salteñas to set us up for the bus journey to Potosi, which could take anywhere between 3 and 6 hours depending on what you read.

Our bus (a little retro it has to be said), leaves right on time and we're on our way. 40 minutes later, the bus stops at the side of the road. CP thinks it's an impromptu toilet stop, but the driver digging around in the engine compartment suggests otherwise. 20 minutes later another bus comes past and stops, after some discussion we're told that we'll be getting in this 2nd bus so we all wait patiently at the side of the road.

Alas, negotiations between the 2 drivers flounder, and the other bus drives off. There's a lot of tinkering going on by the driver who spends most of the next hour under the bus, emerging only to make a couple of phone calls, and to test the results of his handiwork by revving the engine. At some stage he retrieves what looks like the remains of an old rubber inner tube for the trunk, and asks if anyone has a knife... he tries to MacGyver something special but that also fails. This sort of thing is probably to be expected when you're paying £3 for a bus that take you over 200km. See the rock under the front wheel? That's the handbrake. The leg sticking out behind the front wheel? That's our driver.

Finally, another much larger bus appears and pulls over. More negotiations, and yes! We will be getting on this one. There's just about enough seats for everyone, and we're on our way. CP wonders if this 1.5 hour delay is included in the 6 hour estimates, I'm guessing not, but either way we'll probably be missing some, if not all, of the World Cup final...

We make it to our hostel in time for extra time in the football, although when we check the sign-in book, there's no sign of Jirrian. We're in the right place though, so dump the bags in the room and sit down to watch the end of the game.

The receptionist delights in Germany beating Argentina (we thought it was only Chile that Bolivia wasn't friends with!) and now that we've spilt popcorn all over the sofa we head out to explore Potosi.

Potosi, also known as "Cerro Rico" (the rich hill) is a high altitude mining town famous for its silver although in contrast to what the guide book says, you could easily spend a few days here relaxing, as the city is quite picturesque, the locals are friendly, and there aren't that many tourists milling around - presumably all of them follow the LP recommendations of "get in, do the mines, get out".

We've picked our tour operator (not another tour!?) already and set off to find their offices that afternoon. Big Deal Tours is run by a group of ex and current miners, so we can be happy that our money is going in the right direction. When we find their office we're greeted by a guy that's so excitable I don't have time to say that we're here to reserve our places on tomorrow mornings tour before he launches in to a (slightly alternative) sales pitch.

Our guides name is something unpronounceable in Quechua, but is easily shortened to Efra. He explains the principles behind the company (part of the fee goes back to the miners cooperative), and the plan for the tour. To be clear, this isn't a museum, or a demonstration, we'll be visiting actual working silver mines, there will be people working there, and conditions may well be grim. The walls of the office are covered in positive comments from previous visitors, and Efra has an energy which is infectious, even for a tired and suffering couple of travellers like us - this is a no-brainer, and we sign up for the morning tour, before heading off to walk round the city at our leisure (yes!).

When it comes time to get some food, I'm really just thinking about getting to bed, so explain that "I'm not hungry so you choose where you want to go and I'll follow". We head for a particular stall and CP says "do you want [random food type]?". I repeat that "I'm not hungry so you choose where you want to go and I'll follow". CP spots a Chinese takeaway across the street, "do you want Chinese?" - seriously, I'm not hungry, just pick what you want... there's a man with an oven on the corner of the street cooking up pizzas to order, do you want...? SERIOUSLY, I'M NOT FU... actually, pizza?! Yeah!

The next day we pack up our bags and leave them in reception before heading out for an early breakfast. Efra has recommended the local markets as a good place to get some food before the tour, and for about £1 we get a couple of egg baps, a sweet pastry thing, coffee, and coca tea. How are you making a profit on this??

We arrive at the start of the tour and jump on the minibus. As well as Efra, there's a kid aged about 12 who will be the "arse man" for the group to ensure that no one gets left behind, quite important in the mines. CP quickly disgraces us by deciding that we should get a picture of George with the kid, my query of "is that a good idea?" is shot down. It's clearly not a good idea, as the kid thinks it's a present for him, so with the photo op complete, this huge smile gives way to a very sad face (although we manage to make up for this by giving him a set of toy cars at the end of the tour).

First stop is the miners markets - part of the deal is that we can buy gifts, snacks, and coca leaves for the miners that we will meet. This is "optional" but I can't imagine that anyone refuses. For 20 bolivianos (£2), you get the standard "gift pack" of a big bottle of juice, an enormous bag of coca leaves, and some books or colouring pencils for the miners children.

Next we get suited up...

...and head into the ore refinery where the material that has been mined is washed, and the junk removed. Back in the day this process was barely necessary - they were pulling silver bricks out of the mines, and exporting them as found. The glory days are long gone though, and 85% of what they pull out of the mines is nothing - just mud and dirt. The rest may be silver, zinc, or lead, but they can't export kilos of nothing so it all comes here first to be separated.

With the workings of the factory safely navigated, we head for the mines.

A special mention for this stuff that's splashed on the wall outside the entrance - as one tourist rubs it with a finger and takes a good sniff, Efra informs us that it's llama blood, spread on the wall as an offering.

LP has some stern warnings to those contemplating the tours: between that and the other things we've read we're prepared for the worst. There are suggestions that the "shelf life" of a miner is just 10 years, before they succumb to any number of debilitating illnesses as a result of the hard labour, or accidents in the mines.

"Working conditions are terrible: the dust contains silicon that leads to silicosis among the miners, most of whom will die in their forties. Water dropping from the walls and ceiling is said to contain arsenic and cyanide. You can see asbestos fibers in the rock walls."

Efra confirms the asbestos, cyanide, and arsenic bits, but is quick to rebuff the silicosis and early mortality, and points out various examples of miners that will work for 40 years, and we meet a few who are in their fifties.

There's definitely something a little uneasy about seeing 15 year old boys sat outside the mines chewing coca leaves with their dad or uncle. Efra explains that it's school holidays so they come down to help their families, just like he had done when he was younger. Even so, when we're deep in the mines, and we stop a couple of workers for a chat, they explain that they are 22, and have been working in the mines for 9 years. The maths is not difficult, and does nothing to ease the uncomfortable realisation that there is something inherently voyeuristic about taking a tour to see the "awful conditions" that these guys will work in 6 days a week for probably the rest of their working lives.

The work is hard - each of the younger guys that we see is running at speed with a wheelbarrow full of rubble, weighing anything up to 100kilos. They are rewarded for taking time out to speak with our group, by a donation of a big bottle of juice, which is very gratefully received - it's hot, the work is hard manual labour, and there's not exactly an office canteen they can go and kick back in when they need a break.

In the heydays of silver mining here the mines were state run. When the good stuff ran out, they were closed down, only to be re-opended by cooperatives of miners. These will likely be family groups, who will have access rights to a particular tunnel or section in the mine. Everyday they bag up what they mine and wheel it out towards the entrance. This leads to a few complicated questions from our group like "how do the miners know whose bag is whose?" and "what if they family has an argument?".

Apparently these are very western questions to ask - Efra is surprised by the notion that a group of miners might take another groups product, as if dishonesty or deception don't exist here. And what do you mean the family has an argument - "these are my brothers, my cousins, my family - why would we argue?" - not entirely how it works back home!

All of these questions were asked while we sat around "El Tio", the underworld god that the miners will make offerings to in order to ask for their safety in the mines, and of course a successful days production. Offerings come in the form of cigarettes, lit and then placed in his mouth, cans of beer, and the 96% alcohol that they seem to love splashing around on Pacha Mama in Bolivia. Yes, Tidi is wearing wellington boots, he's in the mines. And yes, that is a massive erect penis that he's holding, it apparently suggests life and virility. Katrina, you'll be pleased to know that I told CP a George pic here would be inappropriate.

More juice, coca, and other gifts are handed out as we make our way through the tunnels - at times I feel like an old man, still unable to breathe properly and now hunched over as we hurry through the smaller tunnels.

We are lucky enough to find someone who is about to set off some dynamite, awesome! We crowd round as he packs it in - sadly not the Hollywood style bundle of red sticks, but something that looks like a large French banger, which is wedged down a pre-drilled hole (not really "drilled", more "dug with a metal poking stick", then packed in with some granules which will increase the force of the explosion and stop it from just coming straight back out the hole. He connects the fuse, and we all retreat to a safe distance and wait... our group contains an idiot who spends the next 30 seconds talking, trying to establish how long the fuse will take to burn, as she wants to record the sound of the explosion, and she doesn't want to miss it, so how much time does she have to set up her recor... and then there's the most muffled of pops, the miner appears with a big grin, and it's over. He will now head out of the mine to chew coca leaves for a while until the smoke and fumes have cleared, and we're on our way. No huge blast of rubble, the earth didn't shake, the mine didn't collapse - it's almost a let down, but more of a relief.

That pretty much concludes our tour, and at last we're heading for daylight. It's not exactly a comfortable experience but it's been far from the terrifying ordeal that the guide books will have you believe, although that's at least partly due to the very responsible way that Efra and his crew operate these tours - "we haven't lost a tourist, yet!" he says with a smile as we head back into town.

The plan for Bolivia that we'd thrashed out back in La Paz had us going from Potosi to Sucre, but having read up on the wine region in the south, we've decided that a trip to Tarija is most definitely a good idea. It's a little bit off the tourist trail, but that's a (very) good thing after our recent overdose on guided tours (note - I'm not including Death Road or the mines in that!) and it probably means that we will skip Santa Cruz, but after a bit more reading and chatting with others, we're pretty comfortable with that.

So our afternoon is spent strolling around Potosi, before we head back to our hostel to collect our bags and on to the bus station for another overnight bus...

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Uyuni - Salt Flats

So much is said about the journey from La Paz to Uyuni - the buses are terrible, it takes forever, it will be sooo uncomfortable, etc etc. We'd been recommended that the "best" way was to bus to Oruro and then take a train, but since that only goes twice a week and will likely involve an overnight stay in Oruro... that doesn't sound like the best way to do anything! There's 3 companies that do direct overnight buses, scheduled to connect with the tours that start each morning, so why mess about?

We've picked Todo Turismo (which happened to be the most expensive but also the most recommended on LP), mainly because it leaves La Paz later than the others, and weren't sure when we would be arriving back in La Paz after our death road efforts. Its a semi-cama bus (seats that recline to almost flat) which were is comfortable enough, although the choice of film is something awful by Adam Sandler which is arguably worse than the Spanish dubbed stuff we've become accustomed to. There's a hot meal served on board, a chocolate bar is handed out for desert, and blankets and pillows are included. But really despite all the up and down reviews online, all the buses will get you there. Sure, it's a bumpy road, but this is Bolivia!

There's a stop just after midnight while the FELCN (Bolivian drug squad) check out the luggage area, and one officer tooled up for a war walks the aisle of the bus. The FELCN decide against a full cavity search and we're on our way, although we later find out there were ID checks on the other Todo bus. CP slept through the whole thing and was none the wiser.

After arriving a little after 7:30am, we figure that we have plenty of time to identify and negotiate a tour and the game starts as soon as we set foot off the bus! There are dozens and dozens of tour operators all offering pretty much exactly the same same tour, so armed with our list of questions acquired from other peoples blogs (will you include a sleeping bag and hot water bottle? Is wine included? Is your jeep heated? How many people do you have booked already? Have you had any problems with drunk drivers recently?). We were soon to become acquainted with at least a dozen of these operators and all gave us much the same responses to our questions. Eventually, we ran out of steam and patience, and went with Betto tours, not least because they agreed to 700 bolivianos each ($100 which for a three day tour, is just nuts) and, more relevantly, there were. already a couple of Brits signed up - the opportunity to be able to communicate effectively in English was attractive because we are going to be sharing the same confined space for 3 days.

Day 1 of our tour begins with us looking for somewhere that has both wifi and breakfast, so that we can reassure our parentals that even though there will be radio silence for a number of days, we are just fine. This combo doesn't exist, although many places advertise it, so we concede defeat and settle for just breakfast (coffee and bread). Not really that fuelled up, but it's time to begin our tour!

We head back to the Betto office to meet our driver and guide - a portly gent named Franco, who apparently hasn't showered for the occasion... or this month. Personal hygiene doesn't seem to be high on Francos list of priorities, as CP notes that aside from being generally filthy, his fly is undone. We follow him out the door and down the street to his wagon which will be our transport for the next 3 days. On the way we spot some salteñas for sale (CP's new favourite food), and decide they are a necessary supplement to our earlier breakfast - we're still feeling good about the tour so ask Franco if he wants one - and he excitedly responds yes. 

In to the car we go, and roll down the street to pick up the other passengers - 2 Brits and a girl from Chile, as per the list we signed up to. When they appear, there is some confusion. There are 4 of them, none of them British, all of them speaking Portuguese, as they are Brazilian. Maybe we're just picking everyone up on our way to a central meeting point where we will be divided accordingly. Is there un otro tour Franco? No...

Ok... so we have nothing against the 4 people who we are now share a car with, but it would be nice if we would be able to converse with our new companions during what will be 3 long days of driving, living, and eating together.

When we stop at a checkpoint Franco jumps out with the passenger list to get it approved by the tourist police - and asks one of the Brazilians if they have the coinage required for this task. It's not much, but everyone has paid $100 each for this and you don't have the couple of bolivianos needed to get us started? Hmmm...

With the list stamped and approved, I ask if I can see it (as I managed to secure the front seat as CP had read to avoid the back seats if possible and we had directed one of the Brazilian couples there accordingly...) and yes it's the same list we signed up to, there's 5 people on it, none of whom are Brazilian... what is going on?

Moving on... first stop is the train graveyard, an obvious name when you see the pictures.

Train #66 was the one held up by Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid - we can't find it, but apparently it's here somewhere.

We take the chance to give a call back to the office, still blindly thinking that maybe there's a 2nd Betto Tours car out there that we can rendezvous with shortly. Oh so naive... "yes, they called in sick, just before you left..." - really? All 3 of them? And luckily you had this other Brazilian crew just waiting on standby? We've been duped!

As we leave this photo stop, Franco passes his hitherto untouched salteña (as gifted by us) out the window to someone he informs me is his little brother. Then he spots, a non-dead train rolling past: "A train.. choo-choo". Get fked, Franco. We are not in a good mood at this point, being lied to does not set a good precedent and we are concerned about what is now to come as we are wondering if we've managed to sign up to one of the dodgy operators that we've been warned against so much.

At the next stop (best described as shitty market stalls selling trinkets made of salt), we bump into an Aussie couple we'd met on Death Road. As we recount our tale of woe to them, and hear their own story and a few others, it begins to dawn on us that whole tour operator game in Uyuni is just a giant tourist trap. It doesn't matter which company you book with as they're all in cahoots with each other, the tours are all going to the same places along the way so you won't miss out on anything unless you're really unlucky. They'll promise you everything and tell you everyone else is lying, even people in the same car will have paid wildly different amounts (including ours, although happily we had paid the least!), and you're all staying in pretty much the same places, and eating pretty much the same food anyway.

The only difference is that some might pay B650, some will pay B1,000. The tours that are more than that (some go for B1,400+, like Red Planet who we had thought about signing up with), might have a slightly less shit car (ours is far from the best but equally far from the worst we'll see in the next 3 days), but ultimately it's still the same tour. No drivers / guides are expected to speak any English, unless you're really paying top dollar - and even then it's hit and miss. Although some drivers might have at least seen a shower in recent times, but there's no guarantee.

What we should have done was grab a few friendly randoms from the bus to form a group, but the tour operators employ a divide and conquer strategy to fill the remaining seats in their cars. Whatevs, we're on the tour, the Brazilians are a friendly bunch, and speak Spanish as they've been living in Bolivia for 5 years, so we have a common language of sorts.

There's an unscheduled stop, but we're not getting out - it's just for Franco to pick up a giant bag of coca leaves to chew on. He tells me that he hasn't slept for 2 days, which is just what I want to hear as we barrel off into the desert for three days. The coca leaves don't have quite the desired effect though, and Franco is caught snoozing on various occasions whilst driving before lunch. The saving grace is that we're on the salt flats now which stretch far and wide that it would be almost impossible to crash into anything, plus he wakes himself up when he snores anyway...

There's a few cool photo ops along the way...

... before we stop for lunch at a giant rock called Isla de Pescado (fish island?), and we have a chance to meander around taking the obligatory pics, and walking over the rock which we thought resembled what the moon would look like but then later discover is actually coral. There's a claim that this was once part of Lake Titikaka, but as that's 500m higher than us and about 16 hours away we're not sure how that's possible...

I like this shot as you can see a glimpse of the many p, many cars that are on the tour trail, but also the vastness stretching out into the distance...:

Franco has done well with the lunch although we all try to ignore his hygiene issues - we're probably due another bout of sickness anyway, although the Brazilians err on the side of caution by declining the salad that has been cut (and washed? Probably not!) by Franco's fair hands.

We see some epic countryside, but most of the first day feels like we are tourists ticking off boxes, so whilst beautiful, and not to miss, it lacks a certain something that came afterwards. We do bump into another friend from Death Road, a very likeable Dutch guy called Jirrian, who has lucked into one of the well recommended tour companies despite paying the lowest price of all... He's having his own issues though - the back seat of his car is occupied by a couple, who spend the first 3 hours of the tour chewing face, loudly, right beside his ear. Having put up with the slurping noises for longer than any reasonable person could, he finally says something... and they respond by telling him that he probably needs to see someone, professionally. Hahahahaha! (Sorry Jirrian, but just thinking about this still brings a smile to my face!)

Anyway, more salty pics from the afternoon!

The only thing that our tour is missing is the cool photos that mess with distance and perspective. We've seen some where the entire tour group appears to be walking out of a wine bottle, or a coke can, and despite the initial assurances from Betto, Franco is not an expert photographer, and has no interest in setting up these pics. We try a few, but we're not very good - there won't be any of me as the ones that CP took were so very very bad...

As we roll up to our lodgings for the night, a salt hostel (which are strongly recommended against by wiki travel for sustainability and ethical reasons, but seems to be the only type of hotel on offer) and from the outside, it does not look good. Thankfully once inside it clearly is a salt hotel, and somehow Franco has even bagged us the "matrimonial suite" that had been promised but not expected (that's fancy talk for a double room).

We bond with our Brazilian comrades by teaching them how to play shithead, taking the piss out of their 7-1 thrashing by Germany, then step outside to take some epic sunset pics. Every time we take one, look away, and look back it seems to have got even better. We've climbed up a massive rock to get a better view and we're later joined by the Aussie couple - who of course are staying right next door. The sunset is truly spectacular:

More bonding over dinner, helped by some wine, then early to bed as Franco has scheduled breakfast for 6am....

Day 2 begins ominously with a stop after 100m to bash one of the battery cables back on, something we repeat several times before lunch.

There's more cool stuff along the way, train tracks, mountains, a view into Chile, flamingos, (partly frozen) lakes, it's all good stuff:

Lodgings tonight are basic but perfectly adequate dorms, and there's more bonding over cards with our Brazilian crew before dinner, although I excuse myself soon after as my sinuses now feel like my whole face is bursting open and the drugs do nothing... CP manages a couple more games before leaving them out there to finish off their magnum of wine... which they do with admirable gusto!

Day 3 - I'm awake from about 3am, so Franco being 10 minutes earlier than his planned alarm call of 530am is no concern to me. I bag up our kit and wake CP up and then we head to out to inspect the breakfast offerings, and they've excelled themselves - granola with yogurt, and fresh pancakes. Except that the bag emblazoned with the words "HEALTHY GRANOLA" actually contains sugar puffs. Either way it's gratefully received, although we're not quite in tune with the eating habits here yet, as when we ask about plates or bowls Franco demonstrates that the yogurt and sugar puffs are to be eaten from what we had assumed to be the water glass, and the pancakes can be rested on the table while we spoon (as no knifes are available) marmalade and/or caramel on to them. Until South America, this type of caramel has only ever made our acquaintance as a key ingredient in banoffee pie but as it is now served up with breakfast instead of Nutella, we jump on board...when in Rome and all that...

I've helpfully rolled and packed our sleeping bags, but Franco tells me that isn't necessary - we'll be needing those in the car as it is mucho frio! We think back to all those pointless questions we'd asked while shopping around for tour operators a couple of days ago - is there heating in the car? "Si, si, of course!". Of course... not? 

As we drive up (and up), the sun is starting to rise and makes for another spectacular view. We stop off at some geysers, and another set which come complete with boiling mud.

The last major stop is at the thermal springs. Here you have the opportunity to swim (or at least sit) in a natural hot water bath - the hardest part is getting undressed in the first place to then run in, but it's soooo worth it. It's the closest we've come to getting clean in 3 days - but then you remember that the same applies to pretty much everyone else that's ever been in it, so best not to think about that too much, just enjoy the warmth and the view.

We continue driving until we stop in what is clearly a small village, but looks to be completely deserted. We're given "free time" to wonder around for 20 minutes and it takes us until 30 minutes has passed that we realise that Franco is inside preparing lunch. By this point, we've pretty much run out of things to talk about with the Brazilians, and the effort required to translate small talk into Spanish, combined with my tiredness and general feeling of malaise means that we've all but stopped conversing within the group.

This is exasperated after lunch, when Franco (presumably realising that he has got to do something to encourage a tip) decides that now is a good time for a 20 minute rambling legend about an old man, the devil, and... that's about all I got. Bolivia is considered to be a good place to learn Spanish because of the clear accent, but the propensity of some to talk with a bundle of coca leaves in their cheek, plus Francos continuing need to cough up a lung, means that translating this goes in the "too hard basket".

There's a couple more stops along the way back to Uyuni, mostly different shaped rocks. All pretty epic to be honest, but it is a long day on the road.  The best is the Copa del Mundo (World Cup) rock, which bears some resemblance to the Jules Rimet trophy. 

CP is still loving the exploring and is clambering up and over the rocks, putting her rock climbing skills to the test and generally delaying the group by her antics, but my care factor hit rock bottom when I accidentally deleted the amazing panoramic sunrise photo I'd taken at the geysers.

A special mention for the average public toilet in Bolivia. Payment is usually always required (1-3 bolivianos) but the amount paid isn't necessarily related to the quality. After handing over your money you are given what they deem to be an appropriate amount of toilet roll, and only then do you get to see the facilities. More often than not I've paid, walked in, and walked straight back out again. At least you get to stockpile the toilet paper until your need to use the baño overrides your basic hygiene instincts.

If the toilets are plumbed in, the flush won't be - that comes in the form of a jumbo water container in the corner with a broken plastic bottle floating in it, and the intention is that each person, having done what they needed to do, will make use of this manual flush... it doesn't always happen. There might be a sink, but it definitely won't have running water - it's purely decoration.

Sometimes as you walk in you catch the eye of another tourist leaving. This look conveys an apology, and a sympathetic acceptance. We're all in the same boat here, everyone's been hanging on for the last 3 days until they can wait no more and are forced into depravity.

By the time we arrive back in Uyuni, I'm over it. There's a few more photo stops on the way, the scenery is truly stunning everywhere you look, so you can't come to Bolivia and not do the salt flats, and you can't sensibly do it all in less than 3 days. But I doubt there's a chiropractor in this country than can straighten my back out after too long a shift in the cramped backseats of this truck, although I accept that the copious amounts of driving is a necessary evil. Franco's parting gift when he drops us off is a soaking wet handshake... what is that? Actually, we don't even want to know...

[CP intervening here. Duchemin has been a massive trooper despite feeling like shite with his sinuses playing havoc and really making him feel less than human at times. It did put a bit of a dampener on things for him, but I just have to say that the trip was an adventure that I loved, with the most amazing and varied scenery that we have seen so far describing a country that is yet to be discovered in its full beauty. It really could take your breathe away and despite moments of the trip feeling like a tick box exercise (not least because of the various other 4wd's loaded with tourists doing exactly the same thing), it was a must do trip and that sunset will stay etched in my memory for a long time to come.]

So, now that we are back from our little adventure, we realise that 8 out of 10 days in Bolivia so far have been spent with "guided tours" of sorts, and we need to get out and do something "different" otherwise I'm already counting down the days until we can get out of this country and crack on with Peru. Note, CP is loving Bolivia and is in no rush to leave and tells me I need to be more positive in my blogs, instead, she decided to just add this bit instead... I'm more than aware of this, as it's just about the only reason that I'm not on my way to Peru right now!

Luckily we have a plan... :0)

Final Uyuni comment - in amongst the initial "we've been duped" feeling at the start of the tour, CP went to take a photo with her proper camera... nothing happened. The conclusion was made that it must have switched itself on in the bag and drained the battery. It wasn't until we were in a hotel back in Uyuni at the end of the trip that I looked at it, blew on the battery, and turned it on. Make that 3 trips now that CP has carried a large camera shaped paperweight around with her... smile CP!