Saturday, July 18, 2009

Desert Adventures and a Trek to Bolivia

This first part sort of repeats a bit from my last post, although I am more detailed here. Why did I do that? I don't know and I'm not editing it. Stick with it though, there's lots of new material!

Sunday morning arrived, time for my last jaunt through northern Chile, with a pitstop in Bolivia.

I thought it was genius of me to get a place ticket from Santiago to Calama, thereby avoiding a 23 hour bus ride. Really though, I had to take a micro to the bus station in Valpo, a bus from Valpo to Santiago, the subway from Las Rejas to Pajaritos to catch a shuttle to the airport, my flight to Calama, a taxi from the airport to the bus station and after a three hour wait, a bus to San Pedro de Atacama. Still, I left my house in Valpo just before noon and arrived in San Pedro at 10:30 that night, not too bad. However, I had set up a place to stay which, in typical Chilean fashion, fell through so I was left wandering around SP looking for a place to stay after traveling all day. I should note that I went out dancing Chilean cumbia the night before and got home veeeerrrrry late and on the way home, there was one of those fantastic downpours so my damp jacket and wet clothes in tow didn't make things easier. Anyway, I found a place to stay and put myself right to bed!

Lucky for me, the next day, June 29th, happened to be the festival of San Pedro and I happened to be in the town of San Pedro. I went to an outdoor mass in the central plaza, where there were people all dressed up, some in indigenous costumes, others as various animals and still others in their marching band best. Mass was followed by a parade down Caracoles, the main street. Two men dressed as chickens lassoed me and pulled me into the parade. I have no idea what this means and I didn't see anyone else get lassoed. Unfortunately, my camera had just decided to make its final exit from the world so I didn't get any photos from this exciting event. I spent the rest of the day wandering around the little town, checking out the many shops selling overpriced shit you can buy in every country in South America, shopping around the many storefronts offering tours to all the wonders of the desert. I signed up for the Geyers del Tatio tour the following morning, meaning I had to get up at 3:30 to be ready for pickup at 4am. Apparently the geysers are best appreciated as the sun rises, the reflection of light on steam and sediment creating an incredible array of colors. Well, let me tell you something about the desert. It's cold as hell at night and blazing hot during the day. So when I got up at 3:30, it was FREEZING!!!!! I am going to apologize in advance, because I am going to abuse the word “freezing” like nobody's business in this post. I should have kept a count of how many times I heard the word congelado during the week. Another thing, Chileans seem incredulous that we tourists are cold. They say “But you're from New York, it gets cold there.” Umm, yeah, but we have HEAT. I realize indoor heating is expensive but to not have it in cars? That is bullshit. Hence, the two hour bus ride without heat before the sun came up was uncomfortable to say the least. Oh yeah, and the road was RELENTLESSLY bumpy so even if you wanted to catch a little shut-eye, no luck.

Let me interrupt by saying that you must think my experiences in Chile have all been horrible, based on these blog entries. Not in the least, quite the contrary. It's just so much easier for me to write in a self-deprecating style and that just doesn't lend itself well to writing about some of the magic I've experienced. So instead I will poke fun at all my random, uncomfortable and, I like to think, totally hilarious adventures. Anyway...

OK, we got to the geysers and I have to say, I was underwhelmed. There was some steam rising out of the ground, whoop-de-doo. No gorgeous colors to speak of. What WAS impressive was watching the sun come up over the mountains. I don't know what it is about these landscapes that inspires such awe in us, maybe it's the feeling of our smallness in the face of such grandeur, maybe it's the revelation of the spectacular forces of nature that created such beauty. Whatever the reason, it was truly amazing. On the drive back, we stopped several times to get out and take pictures, or in my camera-less case, gawk at the scenery. A couple times I thought to myself there was no need to get out, I don't have a camera and I can see this very well from inside the bus. But then I'd get out and my sense of scale was completely altered. Still though, I don't need to stop and get out every time we see a damn llama, which is one of my main beefs with these organized tours. Another beef is stopping in these “quaint” villages to soak up some indigenous culture. We stopped at a little place that consisted of about 6 huts, all selling more overpriced crap. I could really skip this orchestrated, tourist marketing scheme, thanks anyway.

Christ, it was already my third night in SP! I got back from the tour and busied myself preparing for my three-day excursion to Bolivia, filling every bottle I could find with water, changing pesos for bolivianos and so on. Once again, I put myself to bed early to be ready for our 8am departure.

I arrived at Colque tours office and boarded a bus with a bunch of other confused-looking people, this would set the tone for the entire trip. After an hour of driving, we reached the Bolivian border, where we were all herded off and into the customs office to pony up our money for Bolivian travel visas. Everyone else had to pay 2100 pesos, less than $4, but those of us lucky enough to have an American passport had to pay $130. I think this is ridiculous but people comforted me by telling me Bolivians have to pay the same when they go to the US. I am not appeased by this, I don't want them to pay either but nonetheless, that's the way it is. Actually, I slid in by paying the bargain price of $50 since I'd only be in the country 3 days. They didn't stamp my passport though, likely because this is somewhat illegal but we all know I'm no stickler for rules, especially if it saves me $85 dollars..

After the border shenanigans, we split up into smaller groups to fit into the jeeps we'd be traveling in for the next few days. My tour included two jeeps; in mine was me, obviopo, Laima from Holland and Nicolo from Italy. The other jeep had two girls from Manchester (Bex and Katy), Rafa from Spain and Moses from Brazil. We stopped at a hot springs and several lagunas the first day; Laguna Verde, Laguna Blanca and Laguna Colorada. I'm sorry I don't have my own photos to share with you but my travel buddies have promised to send some my way (the ones I have here are from Rafa) but you should really do a Google image search. Actually, it was pictures of Laguna Verde that convinced me too do the Bolivia trip.

Laguna Verde

Laguna Colorada

I should say a few words about Bolivia. If I thought the Chilean desert was cold, I was blown away by the Bolivian altiplano. The elevation is much higher so it's way colder. The country is also much poorer and less modern than Chile, plus we were in really remote areas, meaning that there was no electricity or running water at the places we were staying. Also I will now state my disclaimer that I am about to talk some major smack about Bolivia but that shouldn't taint any ideas you may have about the country because I was only there three days and barely saw anything. That said, Bolivia ain't my cup of tea. It probably would have been much less painful during the summer than the winter but I still only have so much tolerance for barren towns made of mud and peopled by women in skirts and bowler hats. I fear that I am about to sound very ignorant and small-minded but I'm just going to embrace it. If you've seen one woman in a bowler hat, you've seen 'em all. I do not want to pay anyone for a picture of me and a wrinkled lady in llama leggings and that goddamn bowler hat. Why do they all wear the same things? And how did this fashion trend spread all over Bolivia and Peru and who knows what other countries​? It SHO' ain't cute and more importantly, it doesn't seem all that warm either.

Case in point...

Anyway, we stopped at Laguna Colorada for lunch and also to spend the night. We were at an altitude of more than 4,000 meters, which is pretty damn high and super-cold. But we were all still in pretty good spirits and had a mediocre but filling lunch. Then we realized that there was not a whole lot to do here, we had only a few hours of daylight left and already it was unbelievably cold. Fortunately, there was one lookout, which I thought was very meanly named Aguas Calientes ( I mean, just don't mention hot water if there isn't any, okay?). We walked through the wide open altiplano, clutching each other and screaming to be heard, until we reached the lookout and saw a small exhibit about the laguna and why it changes colors, micro-organisms etc. With nothing left to do, we headed back to our room to layer up, push our beds together and wait for dinner.

I believe this is where it started too sink in for me that we would be sleeping in this godforsaken place. The bathroom, if I may call it that, had toilets that did not flush and no running water in the sinks. The smell, well, I don't need to tell you, but the bathrooms so far in Bolivia were impressive in their stench and squalor. Then it hit me, “Are you kidding me? Are we FUCKING CAMPING?” I could feel a hysterical note rising in my voice and this is where it is great that someone like Laima was along on the trip. She is one of those delightful people with twinkly eyes who immediately links her arm through yours and unabashedly asks to borrow your mascara and if you'd like to split a piece of chocolate. I love these kind of people, they're almost caricatures of real people and just crack me up to no end. So although I was tricked into a miserable camping trip in Bolivia, at least I was in good company.

Our "hotel" on the first night, I'm depressed all over again just looking at that picture.

After dinner, we all brushed our teeth together, sharing water bottles to clean off, haha, God, isn't camping fun? Then we went to bed and they turned off the generator at 8:30 and I spent one of the worst nights of sleep I've ever had. Not only was it ungodly cold, but that altitude really does something to you. Actually, we made jokes about it over the next few days, blaming everything on the altitude, especially things that had no relation to altitude whatsoever. Yet, the altitude absolutely makes you feel tired and dizzy and slightly sick. After waking up for the 17th time, I blissfully saw the sun rising, which meant it was time to get up. I sat up and felt like I drank 2 bottles of whiskey and smoked 14 cartons of cigarettes the night before. And perhaps someone had also hit me over the head with said whiskey bottles. Of course, nothing of the sort happened but the altitude gave me a clanging headache and the dryness of the air sucked the moisture out of my skin and throat.

Day Two was pretty great, I think you haven't really lived until you've sped through the altiplano with a crazy Bolivian driver while blasting reggaeton. Marcos and Chino, our drivers, seemed to delight in racing each other and scaring us shitless by driving through rivers and riding alongside huge ridges at impossible angles. I loved seeing how the scenery changed. The day before, it had been huge mountains, composed of all shades of red, brown, terracotta, bronze. Which was stunning, of course, but then we cruised into different terrain, lower slopes, looking misty blue in the distance, with golden-green shrubbery creating a beautiful contrast. It looked like a cover of one of those paperbacks about the Wild West by Elmore Leonard or whatever his name is. I only know that from shelving his books those years of working at the library in high school. Again, we eased into yet another striking scene, with huge rock formations created by wind erosion. It looked like a set from Beetlegeuse or something totally otherworldly.

Desert racing...

Arbol de Piedra

We stopped for lunch in another incredibly depressing town called Villa Alota. There appeared to be no sign of life, it looked completely devoid of people and activity. After lunch, Chino told us that there was a problem with frozen water at the place we were supposed to stay at that night so we were going to go straight to Uyuni and sleep there. This sounded great to us because Uyuni meant civilization! Internet! Running water! Along the way, we stopped in another horrible town, although this one had a market that we wandered around in for a minute before we spotted a bathroom. Now, how it works in many places here is that you have to pay to use the bathroom, with a nice little sign indicating such. Well, there was no sign and no attendant and so I bravely went in first, holding my nose, clutching my toilet paper. Without getting too explicit, I was using the bathroom when this lady kicked in the door and demanded 1 boliviano. I could care less about the boliviano but umm, can you shut the door and I'll pay you on my way out? Nope, she stormed out and left the door wide open. I kinda felt like smacking the bowler hat right off her head. Enough of these little towns, please get me to Uyuni!!!!

So, this post is already way too long, I will get to Part Two of my Bolivian adventure soon, stay tuned!