I think I last left you in Sucre, Bolivia where I felt great. We were about to head to Potosi and then after that the Salar de Uyuni. Potosi was once the largest (and one of the richest) city in the Americas when there was a silver boom, but then the price fell and the city became one of the poorest places in Bolivia and South America.
The bus ride from Sucre was interesting and a little bumpy but Potosi was quite a vibrant and happening place. We had a nice dinner in a cafe which was part of a museum and prior to eating we got to climb up onto the roof and catch a view of the city. Potosi is also over 4200 meters above sea level, so as usual at this altitude I was beginning to feel a little rough. The next morning I was feeling really bad, and my throat terrible, so I skipped the chance to visit a working silver mine, which was by all accounts quite interesting. The city has a fairly tragic history in relation to silver mining which still seems to be continuing today. The miners do not get paid for working in the mine, they only get paid for what they find. Conditions are pretty horrendous and a lot of men started working in the mines as young as 12, once their fathers had died because they took over their mining title. Most guys die fairly young and not really very well off.
Instead of the mine, I went for a wander around Potosi with Skye, Byron and Jackie, which was great too. We just sat in a square for a while and watched the world go by, which is the best thing to do in most countries here. You see some incredible sights, sounds and snippets of life. That afternoon we took a ´private´ bus to take us to Uyuni, a 6 hour trip. By this stage I was not in a great condition so the guys all piled me onto the bus, which was a normal bus so we had space to have a couple of seats to ourselves
. Unfortunately the bus engine was a piece of junk, which we found out at about the half way point. And it wasnt as though this was a normal road either...from Potosi the road surface just become dirt and rocks, and there isnt anything remotely like a service station. The bus engine didnt die altogether, but the basic fact was we couldnt drive faster than about 30 kms an hour if we intended to ever make it to Uyuni....so our 6 hour private bus drive took us nearly 10, and we didnt get to Uyuni until about midnight...with me completly out of it by this stage and starting to doubt I was going to be able to do the four wheel drive treck to Chile. Luckily, we have a doctor on the trip...poor Katherine who was hoping to be on holiday! Thankfully she took a look at me and my tonsils and worked out the tonsilitis thing...we got some medication and antibiotics....otherwise I think I could have been bad for days. Can you believe that in Bolivia and Peru you can just walk into the pharmacy (of which there is one on every corner) and ask for the drug you require....no prescription required...and you buy per tablet. So it was as easy as walking in and asking for amoxcillin! OK...so enough of the sick news...needless to say it was unpleasant but I am feeling way better now.
Uyuni is a real run down Western town, on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, or salt lake. It is 10,000 square kilometres
. We jumped into 4WD vehicles here to begin our crossing of the salt lake and the desert between Bolivia and Chile. The Salar is incredible and surreal. You find yourself standing on this bright white surface, but being cold, and it is really hard and crunchy under your feet...it looks like snow, but it is all salt, and salt for kilometres across. There are a couple of islands which just stick up our of the salt lake, and have these amazing cacti on them. There is also a hotel made entirely of salt that is more a tourist stop than an actual hotel now. The lake is mined (in some places it is 10 metres deep), for salt and other minerals, although in true Bolivian style, the only people making money from it are foreign companies. For some reason, Bolivia are not very good at making use of what is available. Another example are the dinosaur footprints that are just outside of Sucre. Many different dinosaur footprints are at this site, which is a limestone quarry, but instead of really making it a tourist attraction and preserving the site, it is being quarried and the footprints are being destroyed. It is also a foreigner running the tours to the site, and lots of things seem to be this way here.
We didnt spend the night on the Salar and again we were blessed by good weather. Sophia said that only a few weeks before hand there was deep snow on many parts of this trip and it was really really cold
. We were all prepared with wooly hats, gloves and jackets, but during the day it wasn´t really required. Once again, you have to go to the extreme places for good food...the food on this trip was just fantastic and lots of vegetarian dishes. Not bad considering we had a mobile kitchen, and just three 4WD vehicles for the whole group. This was pretty funny really, because each driver seemed to have their own musical taste. Lucky for me, the car I was in had myself, Sophia and Chris another GAP guide in training and we used an adapter to play our music from our MP3 players. The other guys didnt fare so well....one car played one tape only for three days which seemed to be called ´The most tragic and awful songs ever recorded´ and it seemed to be that each time we stopped to get out and look around somewhere you could here ´My Heart will go On´(and on and on and on) or ´Ijust called to say I love you´ blaring out. Poor Skye and Byron had anguished looks on their faces as they would drive by! The other car just seemed to have some fairly loud and garish Bolivian folk music.
We spent our first night at a basic hostal just on the edge of the Salar. All us girls were in one room, it was like being on school camp. The boys of course had a perverted fantasy of us pillow fighting in our underwear...which just wasnt going to happen when the temperature plummets and we all go to bed in at least two layers of clothing
! We had a couple of magic moments here though...Just before dinner we grabbed our bottles of wine and headed out from the town to watch the sunset. We were soon joined by lots of local kids who wanted to talk to us and show us they could count in English. They were lovely little things, really dirty faces, scruffy clothes, but happy and friendly. A couple of the boys were just besotted with the girls in the group who were blonde (the boys were only about 9). One young boy took a shine to Kenny´s soccerball which he had bought that morning at a market. He was playing with it and then pretended to ruh off with it. He lived at the hostal we were in and we said he could have it, but we think his mother made him come and give it back. Anyway, Kenny found out what to say in Spanish to tell him it was a gift, and this kids face just lit up, and he gave Kenny such a sweet hug´. You could see it was greatly appreciated and it was really nice. After dinner we all went back outside and even though it was freezing cold, the view of the stars was well worth it. The air was so clear, the stars were everywhere...honestly, go out somewhere away from the lights and take another look at the night´s sky....it is truly magical, and beautiful and big...we saw many falling stars...lots of wishes made.
One hilarious moment for us at this hostal was had though when we came back from our sunset walk...we thought we were at the hostal alone, but another group of people had arrived....more mature travellers I guess we would say
. Of course, we have just barged in through the door, which goes straight to a shower/bathroom area...and standing there was this guy in just his underwear and we are not talking the Diet Coke guy here either...We all walked in, went ´Oh´and then ran into our bedroom where we had to shut the door so we could laugh our heads off...it was just a bit unexpected, and the fact he just stood there as 13 people walked in one after the other with the same look of surprise just made it a bit ridiculous. Silly moment really, but you tend to remember the absurd things.
The next day we did a lot of travelling, and stopped by many lovely lagoons, beautiful colours, bright blue, red, green and Flamingoes which I was not expecting. Strange birds, and all I could think of was Alice in Wonderland when I looked at them. We were at really high altitude too, and the mountains were beautiful all around, with snow on them and ice around us. We again stayed in a fairly basic hostal, where the electricity went out by 9:30pm and so we all cosied up in our dorm rooms again and ended up having a bit of a giggling fit. Our third day was more driving, but we went to an active volcanic area, lots of geysers, boiling mud and sulfer...in was fantastic because you could walk right in amongst it all, and it felt dangerous and alive...no safey barriers in Bolivia. From there we went to a thermal bath, had a bath (our first in a few days) and then our last lunch on the journey
. We then crossed into Chile and went to San Pedro de Atacama, which is a strange little hippee town just inside Chile. You go through customs there and for the first time we had our bags thoroughly searched (luckily I remembered to leave my Coca leaves behind in Bolivia!) Despite not having anything bad in my bag, I suddenly felt very guilty...but not dramas.
San Pedro is a dry desert town, with dusty streets and the biggest dogs I have ever seen in my life. They are the size of small horses. And everywhere. Dogs are everywhere in South America full stop. We always have one following us where ever we walk in nearly every town, and they are all quite friendly. I have given up trying to give them different names, so now all dogs I meet I call Fred, regardless of sex. We had two Freds at the hostal we were staying at, which was great and had a kitchen. San Pedro is expensive and one night we went to a really terrible restaurant where I had the worse meal so far which I paid a lot for (not really, but compared to Bolivia, it was a lot). The second night we went to the Valley of the Moon, and climbed a massive sand dune to a vantage point to watch the sunset. there were a lot of people there, but we were of course the only group to be drinking wine, and very classily too, from the bottle! After the sun set, we started down the dune, but if you ran down you could get this bouncy step going and it almost felt like you were walking along without a lot of gravity...lots of fun (and maybe a tad too much wine!)
The next day was just fantastic and strange...the weather was warm and we were desperate to find a swimming pool. We were told there was one, about 3km out for town so off we went walking for what seemed like a lot more than 3km down this straight dusty road into the desert...heading for what looked like a small grove of trees. Yes, it turned out it was an oasis, a natural cold spring but which had been turned into a pool construction. We were all very much relieved to find water there. The day got better as we went home, and made ourselves a BBQ dinner with great salads and icecream for desert.
Wow, this is going for a while isn´t it? Well, so much happens in 10 days I almost can´t believe I have done all this either!
i should try and summarise a little from here! OK, from San Pedro we took a night bus to a town called La Serena...the night bus was very comfortable and I managed to sleep about half an hour on a 16 hour journey! La Serena is a beach town in Chile, but we were there in the offseason, although it was nice. We went a little crazy when we discovered a department store in the downtown area and a supermarket and you would have though we hadnt seen either in like 55 days
! So, the last night we were there Byron and I offered to make dinner for everyone. For about $8 AUS we managed to make two dishes, a meat dish by Byron with rice and a Vege Pasta dish by me, have salsa and chips prior, five bottles of wine and then icecream for desert. And it was yummy, and I was very happy because it was the first time I had cooked since leaving home. What is more, the tv was playing video clips from the 80´s so I was dancing like a maniac. We set the dining room up nicely and the owners of the hostal were pretty impressed about what we did. I must say, I wish we had stayed in a few more places with kitchens, it really makes a difference being able to not go out for a meal.
From La Serena we headed here to Santiago, which was a funny trip because the ´conductor´was a really big flirt with the girls and even told me I had eyes like the sky! One thing you notice in Chile, is that the guys are not in the slightest bit shy in telling you what they think. Just today, Katherine and I have been walking around the city and we have lost count of the comments being yelled out from cars, from old guys walking past and nearly every guy with a pulse it would seem. Nothing rude, lots of ´hey baby´, and ´wow beautiful´...which feels strange, and in the end you just have to laugh at the attention. Every guy says hello to you it seems.
So Santiago is bittersweet because we leave today and leave most of the group behind. Sad to say goodbye to Skye, Byron, Charlie, Kenny and Pia. I think the next few days will feel very strange without them. At least we all got to see a soccer game on Sunday...ok, this is a story!
Sophia got some tickets for us to a Colo Colo game, the leading team in the Chilean premier league. Also the working class team in Santiago, with a big following. In a gesture which just proves how friendly people are here, Sophia met a guy at the ticket office who offered to come to the hotel and pick us up and take us to the game. His name was José and he was a young, very handsome guy...us chicas were most impressed. He and his friend (whose name I have forgotten which is bad) were just the loveliest guys and really looked after us. Let me describe the experience as best I can.
We got on the Metro to go to the game, and there were lots of fans on the train too. Colo Colo wear white and black, and we had found this out before hand and decided to get into the spirit...most of us had black and white on, and we had black and white paint on too (I had stripes on my arms, but several had faces painted). This made us popular
. there was lots of singing and chanting and banging and the whole underground station was just alive with this party atmosphere. The whole walk to the ground was like this, but the closer you get to the standium, the more you notice the police on horseback, riot police and the armoured cars with water pistols on them...Hmmmm. The police here are terrible flirts too...To get into the ground we had to get frisked twice, and show ID, which I didnt have....I almost didnt get in (because you know, I look like a football hooligan). We were sitting right behine the goals, in the real fan area....I sat down and thought...this could be bad if something goes wrong. Riot police on both sides of our caged on area....razor wire on the top of the cages....it looks like a prison soccer pitch. and our arrival caught the attention on the fans, but in a good way. We were the centre of attention to say the least, both before and while the game was on (which is saying something here too). Everyone was so friendly...and the whole security thing on the way in really had to make me laugh. There were fireworks, flare guns, alcohol, and more weed than I have ever seen smoked in one place, not to mention a fair amount of cocaine too! It was insane! One guy came up and had bought a wrist band which says Colo Colo ´Eterno Campeon´ which means Eternal Champions and tied it around my wrist...while the marital status of all us girls was enquired apon...I had one guy apparently quite keen to come and give me a kiss, which apparently Kenny was agreeing to on my behalf
! Colo Colo drew the game one all, the goal was just mental, the crowd sing and dance non stop and the experience was definitely a highlight. What is really crazy is that apparently it gets crazier in Argentina and Brasil which is almost impossible to imagine. What was also wonderful was how well José and his friend looked after us, making sure we got in, weren´t hassled and were kept safe. We took them out for dinner afterwards, and despite the fact they didnt speak english and only a couple do out of our group we had a really good time together.
I find myself thinking that everyday something wonderful happens, you meet awesome people everyday and everyday is different. Chile is more western than other countries, but also has its own South American flavour. The 18th is Independence day, and a big party is expected which I am looking forward too. Singing and dancing is everywhere at the moment and you can feel a big party builing up. If you have thought about coming to South America (and you should) but you want a first taste that isnt such a culture shock, then come to Chile...but really, so far I would have to say, you should do Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia too, you will never forget these places, I guarantee it!
OK, I have a night bus (yippee!) to catch...Pucon tomorrow and the chance for hiking and horseriding, can´t wait. I will write when I can, I hope everyone is happy and healthy.
I know, I know, it has been a little while since I have updated my diary and suddenly here I am in Chile. The good news is I am alive and well now...although I have had a bit of a disasterous run of luck with my health. I think part of it has been the lack of good vego food, but also the fact that high altitude and I don´t agree. Can you believe I came down with a bad case of tonsilitis in Potosi (Bolivia)...I have never had it before but apparently Bolivia is as good a place as any. Anyway, I will explain more further on.