Barcelona’s airport is ridiculously large. Once we were off the plane we walked and walked through the terminal, only to reach the baggage claim pretty much exactly where our plane had stopped, but one floor beneath our gate. When we eventually made it outside we jumped in a cab and sped toward the city. Our cabbie didn’t speak any English but with our broken Spanish prompting him he managed to point out various things of note along the way, such as the cruise ship port, the cemetery on the hill, the Christopher Columbus monument and his favourite restaurant (though we never did make it there).
After a couple of left turns in the thick of town we disappeared into a maze of 5-6 story buildings thinly sandwiched together and seemingly angled such that they seemed to be leering over us and the cobbled streets we were driving over. We pulled up opposite a graffiti’d roller shutter depicting the Looney Toons version of the three little pigs (which we later found was a butchery) and got out. We’d booked a small self-contained apartment via BCN2STAY, and as expected inside there wasn’t much room to move what with the bed, kitchenette, couch, TV and small table and chairs crammed in there with us and our bags.
We’d heard great things about Barcelona so were keen to get amongst it, and Nat was very excited about being there as it meant meeting up with her sister Steph again. It had been 10 months since they had last seen each other in Sydney, before Steph had headed off overseas to follow what is seemingly every young Australian’s right of passage – to live, work and party in London, plus travel Europe. In the time she had been away, Steph had also met and fallen in love with Nick who we were about to meet in Barcelona also. On Nat’s insistence Steph and Nick had booked a place nearby to us for a few nights so we could all hang out in Barcelona together for a few days. Hugs, kisses and handshakes out of the way, we headed for a nearby bar and ordered beers and tapas and caught up on things. It was great to see Steph again and to meet Nick in person, as I’d only briefly chatted with him on Skype a few months prior. Nick and Steph had managed to score a swanky rooftop apartment not far from us, so we headed that way, grabbed a few beers and some Don Simon sangria and climbed the 100 steps to their pad.
The place was really well designed, making use of foldaway storage to the utmost. The bed was in a drawer that rolled under an outside patio, the bathroom took me a little while to find as the door seemed to be part of the wall, and most of the cupboards and drawers were accessed by first pushing the panel they hid behind. Upstairs was the place to be though, with a rooftop with wooden flooring, a daybed and a slate tiled bath big enough for two people to get cosy while enjoying a soak and a beverage under the hot summer sun. All around were other rooftops at much the same height, and those fortunate enough to have access to one were also up here, doing not very much at all and completely enjoying it. It struck me that there are actually two Barcelonas – the hustle and bustling city at street level, and the more relaxed, siesta-oriented rooftops. From up here we could see for miles, so we chatted and laughed in the warm air while taking in the amazing view all around us until the sun set in the distance.
In an attempt to do as the locals do, we staved off our hunger until about 10:30pm as we figured that would be when the restaurants were pumping. Unfortunately it turned out we’d left our run for dinner a little too late, so we walked around for ages trying to find somewhere that would take us. In the end we settled on a place that was obviously touristy, and the food was correspondingly disappointing, especially compared to the fare we had enjoyed in Madrid. That night back at our place in bed we donned the earplugs as the lady who checked us in had warned us about the noise from the streets below, which echoes up the building walls. With plenty of tourists in town to party during this Sónar Festival week, there was drunken shouting and loud conversation going on at all hours until morning.
In the morning we met up with Nick and Steph again, walking around Barcelona and eventually heading in the direction of the beach. Unfortunately Nat’s arm cast meant she couldn’t enjoy a swim in the Mediterranean, so instead we dipped our toes then headed to a nearby Absinth bar to get the afternoon underway. We enjoyed a few beers and an absinth shot, which greased the wheels for more walking around town. Heading back to the famous Las Ramblas we did our best to avoid the onslaught of tourists and touts coming at us from every direction, though the place was packed to the brim. Having heard stories about pickpockets in Barcelona I spent most of my time walking with my hands in my pockets, guarding my wallet and phone. I really do hate touristy areas, mainly because the number of foreigners standing about or wondering aimlessly and getting in your way, taking bad photos, wearing bad fashion and eating bad food means that whatever unique feature or charm that had once attracted people in the first place has since lost its true meaning or soul to mass tourism. Along the way Nick guided us off to the left of Las Ramblas to the markets, which were unfortunately closed on Mondays, so we continued on through the throng of bodies toward Gaudi’s house, which itself was surrounded by people, then caught the Metro back home, tired from covering so much distance by foot.
That night we ate at a Chinese styled yum-cha place named Mosquito which was ok but not amazing, then headed on for more drinks, ending up at a bar near our place drinking cheap red wine until late. Unfortunately Nat spent most of the following night sick from some sort of food poisoning and not sleeping, which was odd as Nick, Steph and myself were ok. The next morning I left Nat to snooze while I headed out to the markets we’d missed the day before. The place was similarly packed to the San Miguel Markets in Madrid, though less modern looking. We shopped around, taking in the sights, sounds and smells, buying a range of delicacies for lunch later in the day. In the end we walked away with jamon, olives, cheese, bread, mini pies, tomato, fruit juices and chorizo.
Nat was feeling better, so I collected her on the way through, and we stopped at a farmacia on the way to Nick and Steph’s rooftop to buy her some probiotic. It seemed to do the job, though up on the rooftop Nat was strictly on bread and water and looking on longingly while the rest of us enjoyed the spoils of our market shopping along with a whole lot of sangria. In the evening Nat had her appetite back we headed back toward the beach for dinner, but unfortunately ended up at another somewhat touristy restaurant without much time to find something decent. The food was accordingly average, especially the seafood paella.
Wednesday was to be Nick and Steph’s last day with us in Barcelona, as they had booked a couple of nights further along up the Spanish coast to get away from it all before heading back to the lovely weather in London. That morning Nat and I bought a breakfast of croissants, ham, baguettes, tomatoes and dulche de leche to enjoy on the rooftop before the guys had to check out at midday. After a quick goodbye and “see you soon in London”, Nat and I headed back toward our place, stopping in for a quick haircut for me, and a fringe cut for her. Sporting our new looks we were ready to take on the best festival action Barcelona has to offer – Sónar Festival. Sónar attracts thousands of music lovers every year from all over the world and is a massive event on the electronic music calendar. The festival is split into two main events – Sónar by Day and Sónar by Night. Not caring much for the artists on offer during the day event we had bought tickets to two of the three Sónar by Night events for both Friday and Saturday. There was also the promise of the famed Off Sónar parties which are unofficial club nights in and around Barcelona with big name DJs during the same week, though we decided that our hectic travel schedule meant would be more than enough to go dancing 2 nights in a row at the main event.
So with a day to kill until we got into the partying we did the touristy thing and headed for the Sagrada Familia, a uniquely Gaudi designed church which is an amazing bit of architecture. When we arrived the tourists were milling about outside as usual, and I wasn’t surprised to discover it partially obstructed by scaffolding. Being in a permanent state of repair seems to be the rule for all tourist attractions the world over. Later on in the museum below the church, I was surprised to discover that in this case the scaffolding was in fact warranted, as the timeline depicting the history of the church let me know that it in fact has not yet been completed! The timeline also detailed Gaudi’s unfortunate demise, thanks to a random accident involving a tram after which nobody was quite sure who he was for three days or so. Inside the church are high ceilings and stain-glassed windows, and a somewhat gaudy (excuse the pun) Jesus on the cross / goes to the circus arrangement suspended from the ceiling above the pulpit. Not being religious types we assumed this was representative of one of the many astounding things Jesus apparently got up to during his life, or death, or maybe perhaps during that magical Holy Ghost period. We left for our place back on the Metro, debating the worth of religion for society old and new.
Over the previous two days we had lunched at our apartment thanks to the produce available at the markets, especially enjoying the various cuts of jamon available. What with all the jamon we had eaten in Madrid, perhaps we were close to consuming the equivalent our own body weight when it finally felt like we’d had enough of the stuff for a while. Friday rolled around and for us it meant just one thing – resting up in the apartment most of the day in preparation for a big night out at Sónar later on. We had bought tickets for Sónar By Night for both Friday and Saturday nights, and the set list had most of the decent talent starting very late. Sónar By Night is a short way out of town and we had decided on catching the train there, which proved quite efficient. We even met a few people on the train there on the way that let us know who they were there to see and looked like they were up for a good time. The venue was huge, reminiscent of an aircraft hangar in size yet more of an exhibition space in reality, with plenty of room to move, and lots of bars and toilets. We had a huge night seeing Dizzee Rascal who was very much the geezer, Steve Aoki who played a very heavy set and added to it by screaming into his mic, a bit of Boys Noize’s set, and last of all Die Antwoord who were energetic and captivating in their own true style and the pick of the bunch for me. The night passed quickly and we headed outside to the waiting buses which took us back to Las Ramblas, and after a quick walk we were back n our apartment at 6am.
We slept a lot of the day, waking up at about 3pm and heading to a nearby noodle restaurant for some much needed sustenance, but spending most of our time indoors relaxing, reading, updating the blog and generally preparing for round two of Sónar that night. At 9pm we headed out to catch the train back to the same venue as the previous night for a slew of different artists this time, including Yelle who was really enjoying herself, Underworld who were phenomenal to behold and obviously pioneers of the dance music scene who knew exactly how it should go, the Motherfucking Gaslamp Killer who we had previously seen at Playground Weekender in Sydney and had loved, though this time seemed to be firing all sorts of random tracks around and was off his game.
By the previous night’s standards this one was tame and we were in bed at 4am, mainly because we had to be out of the apartment by 11am shortly afterward! At 10am we reluctantly got up, feeling tired but thankful we’d thought ahead enough to pack our bags the previous day. Our flight to London was scheduled for 4:40pm but we headed directly to the massive airport taking some much needed time to catch up on the blog – it’s hard to write about everything you’ve done when you’re busy enjoying something new every day!
All in all we were a little disappointed by Barcelona, perhaps due to the excessive number of tourists in town that week thanks to Sónar Festival, but also probably because our expectations had been built up before we arrived thanks to other people’s opinions. Or maybe it was because we’d had such a nice time in Madrid? Barcelona seemed to us to have an edgy vibe about it, but not in a good way, as though you might be mugged at any turn.
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The South American leg of our trip had come to an end and in all honesty, after the wrist incident we were both looking forward to arriving in Europe. That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy our time in South America – to the contrary, we loved it. In a way it was like discovering a whole new world, especially at the Salt Plains, but we weren’t to leave without one last bit of excitement.
Waiting at the airport to catch our flight from La Paz to Lima, my name was called over the loud speaker, after which I was taken by security outside into a holding area on the tarmac where both our checked bags were sitting alongside 3 dogs and their handlers. Needless to say I was a little nervous despite knowing there was nothing illegal in our bags. The security guys asked me to confirm they were our bags, then asked that I open them; as soon as I did one of the dogs jumped on my bag causing my heart to drop to my stomach…had somebody planted drugs in our bags? Thankfully nothing was amiss and the whole fiasco was just a random check, though they did completely rearrange our neatly packed bags before closing them again, shoving everything back in.
After landing in Lima from La Paz, we found our way through the airport and boarded our flight to Madrid with the Spanish airline Iberia. Ahead of us was an eleven-hour overnight flight. Surprisingly I slept most of the way, the food wasn’t bad and the coolest thing was the camera on the tail of the plane, which showed us everything going on outside. This was awesome to watch at take off and landing but uneventful otherwise as it was mostly night for the hours we were flying. We were sat in the middle row of 4 seats, next to a woman and her baby son. Thankfully she did a great job at ensuring he stayed quiet throughout the entire flight, to the point of giving up her seat and sitting on the floor while he sprawled sleeping across two seats, too young to appreciate how good he had it!
We landed in Madrid in the afternoon where it took a while to get through customs, which is always a bit frustrating after a long flight, but the moment was made a bit lighter when the officer at the passport control desk had a little giggle at Simo’s attempt to speak in Spanish after he asked how many days we’d be in Spain. It’s easy to confuse the word nine (nueve) with the word new (nuevo) though we could tell he appreciated our effort at trying.
From the airport we caught the metro (which is fantastic – very clean and efficient) into town to our hotel, Flat5Madrid. Our room was tiny but very cute and modern, with typically European Juliet balcony doors that opened to the busy street below. We only had 2 nights in Madrid so we quickly freshened up then made our way to el Viajero – a rooftop bar my friend James had suggested we visit, in the area of La Latina. There was a great atmosphere here with people drinking after work so we were lucky to get a table. After downing a few beers we decided to eat dinner in the restaurant downstairs, so went down to get a table and were told they didn’t open until 9pm. Despite being hungry and having to adjust to European hours (the Spanish generally don’t eat until ~10pm and the sun doesn’t set until 10:30pm during summer) we weren’t bothered in the slightest, happy to be in a cosmopolitan summer city! When we finally did eat we were treated to some wonderful food; a goats cheese salad with a huge slab of cheese on top and some amazing chorizo, as you would expect being in Spain. Feeling satisfied, full, thankful to be in Europe, and jetlagged to boot, we headed back to our hotel to get some sleep.
James had kindly written us an itinerary of must do things for the next day as he was out of town and unfortunately couldn’t be there to show us around. After breakfast in bed we wasted no time and got on the metro to our first stop Retiro Park, where the sun was shining – perfect weather for exploring. This park is huge and stunning, boasting beautifully manicured gardens, a lake, plenty of birds and statues while there are people everywhere jogging, cycling, rowing, walking or just sitting and enjoying nature. There’s a real family feel with kids and entertainers everywhere; one guy making massive bubbles was a real crowd pleaser. It was hard to drag ourselves away from the park but with much to see we made our way up to our next stop at Mayor Plaza.
On our way, whilst waiting to cross the street, we were treated to sight I won’t forget in a hurry – hundreds of people riding bikes in the nude. We weren’t sure what this was in aid of but it certainly made everyone looking on smile! Once they had passed we came to the Plaza de Sol; one of the town’s main squares, which was full of tents set up by protesters camping out in this public space. We later learned that protests have been going on in Madrid for quite some time in response to environmental policy and health reforms.
The next stop on our itinerary was the heavenly San Miguel markets. This place is in a wrought iron, art deco style glass building and is simply stunning. To my mind, the closest likeness to this building is probably the deli section of the Queen Vic markets in Melbourne, but smaller and more fabulous as people linger at the stalls to drink and eat. As soon as we walked in it literally took my breath away, as I recall gasping in amazement! There were lines of shop fronts selling all things wonderful; from Sangria to olives, cured meats to bread, fruit to seafood, though most impressive of all was the range of jamón (prosciutto). There were numerous stalls selling just jamón and each of them had many legs of pork (complete with trotter) lining their walls in order of quality, as you could tell from the prices displayed beneath each one. We selected one we wanted and asked for 100g, after which the jamón man retrieved it and placed it in a special carving shackle in front of us. He then carved enough slices by hand to bring the scales to the weight of exactly 100g. This guy definitely knew what he was doing! After stuffing ourselves silly we decided to walk a bit more, so headed to the Royal Palace. It’s a beautiful building not far from the markets, which used to be occupied by the Royal family of Spain. After a day filled with much walking and eating we finally headed back to the hotel for the most Spanish pastime of all – the siesta.
Later that night we headed back to La Latina area and tried another tapas bar. I liked the set up of this place as it was like any other bar with a few stools scattered round, but also with a display of tapas which you could choose the same time as ordering a beer. It struck me as a really social and informal way of having dinner or even just a snack. We ordered a couple of tapas and a glass of red then headed back to the restaurant where we ate the night before as we enjoyed it that much! Piggies!
Still feeling a bit jetlagged we headed back for the hotel to rest up before heading to Barcelona the next day. I was very excited about this, as I was going to see my sister Steph again after spending the previous 10 months apart. Actually, “excited” doesn’t begin to explain my feelings! We loved Madrid and didn’t have nearly enough time there; it will definitely be a place we go back to.
After checking out of the hospital in La Paz we had a few days spare for Nat to recuperate in the Sagarnaga Hotel, after which we were both itching to get on with our trip! I suppose we were fortunate to have set aside time after the Death Road bike tour for a stay elsewhere in Bolivia, as it instead came in handy for her to rest up before the next stage of our adventure – a tour of the Bolivian salt plains ‘Salar de Uyuni’ and the surrounding regions.
We had originally booked a 1-day tour of the Salar via Peru Online, a travel agency based in Australia specialising in custom tours in both Peru and Bolivia, though in the lead-up to our departure we began to reconsider our booking thinking a longer tour might be more worthwhile. Given there is a 10 hour overnight bus journey either side of the tour between La Paz and Uyuni, the town closest to the Salar, we figured a longer tour would make the long bus trip worth the journey. After a few phone calls, many emails and a couple of days we received word that it would be OK for us to upgrade our tour. Thanks to the number of agencies involved with our tour, it had taken this long for the Bolivian representative for our booking to contact the various transport and tour operators and confirm our changes. So despite booking with Peru Online in Australia, they had then gone through CATDMC in Bolivia, who in turn had booked with Bolivia Specialist who directly managed our bus booking, though the Salar de Uyuni tour booking itself was actually passed on again to another smaller operator local to Uyuni!
Having packed our daypacks with warm clothing (the Salar can be freezing!) and other essential gear, we left our larger bags at the Hotel Sagarnaga and caught a taxi toward the La Paz bus station. I had to triple-check our destination with the driver, as it seemed there were a number of bus stations in La Paz, but with the aid of a map we were sure of where we were heading. Once there we found the Todo Tourismo bus company office and checked in, then waited for all the other passengers to arrive – people from Germany, Australia and Japan. On board the bus we found our seats were at the very front where a wall and door separated us from the driver’s cab. The bus seemed quite modern and the seats reclined a fair way back, so we actually felt more comfortable here than on a flight. We were served a quick meal very much like what you’d get on a plane, and after the staff had started up a more than likely pirated movie for us to watch on the small plasma screens, we were on our way.
The bus climbed its way up and out of La Paz via El Alto where the airport is situated, then headed along the main road south. La Paz’s crazy traffic slowly faded away, the hours ticked by and the vibration of the bus lulled us into a snooze. The front wall of the bus was covered in a curtain, and although I could make out oncoming headlights, it really helped to dull the senses. The bus company had also provided us with travel blankets, and we’d thought ahead enough to bring eye masks and ear plugs also, so the combination of all these meant we could at least get some sleep despite the constant vibration and bumping from the road beneath us.
In the end we managed to get a somewhat decent sleep given the conditions, but I remember waking now and then when the bus stopped, or when we left the bitumen for the more bumpy final stretch to Uyuni. Just outside Uyuni we woke up for the final stretch of driving, though for some reason the driver found it necessary to stop just outside the town for 15 minutes for no apparent reason – probably to arrive right on schedule. Pulling back the curtains, out the window the landscape seemed very desolate with just sand and a few plants, and plenty of rubbish that had blown out of the town and was everywhere to be seen. It also looked to be very cold outside. So cold in fact that the condensation on the inside of the bus windows had frozen!
As we got our gear together to leave the bus a couple of Germans noticed Nat’s swollen fingers protruding from her cast and commented that it shouldn’t really be so tight. Their disposition seemed to tell us that they dealt with broken bones and casts as their profession back home, but they didn’t qualify their statements at all. Their comments got us both a little worried about Nat’s fingers, but I noticed her nail beds were a natural, normal pink colour, along with her assuring me that she had no loss of feeling or pins and needles, so we figured it was just the swelling and bruising from her surgery showing through.
It was early in the morning, and we walked briskly through the streets in the freezing air to the nearby Magia de Uyuni, the hotel we had been booked into for our tour. Upstairs our room was a little old but generally OK by Bolivian standards, though there were a few cracks in the walls and windows which ensured the room was nice and frosty no matter how much we turned the heater up. Thankfully our bathroom had a bath, so we both indulged in this little bit of luxury, soaking ourselves in lovely hot water in a 2-bit town in the middle of nowhere somewhere in the Bolivian desert. The plan was to take the rest of the day to explore Uyuni, but we were done doing that after about an hour so we returned to our room to use their dial-up internet to read up on the effects of broken bone surgery, then relax before dinner at the hotel (Italian again) and turning in for a nights sleep.
The next day we were up and ready for our 10:30am pickup. Soon enough a dusty red Toyota arrived, and I paid the 1500 Bolivianos I had stuffed in my shoe until now to the tour operator to make up the difference for our upgrade. We then drove around town picking up an array of travellers who were to join us for the journey – there was Mauro from Italy, who spoke a little Spanish and definitely no English; Daniel, a tour operator from a nearby place I now can’t recall, and Marina a linguist from Russia who now lived in California with Dario, originally from Argentina. Also aboard were our cook Margarita and of course our driver and tour guide Pedro. Pedro spoke no English but Marina and Dario were more than happy to give us the gist of any updates Pedro cared to share with the group.
Our first stop was the train graveyard just outside Uyuni, where we had the chance to snap a few pictures, climb the trains and play on the rails. The deep blue sky was the perfect backdrop for this strange place of rusted metal, which I later learned was also the set for a scene in the movie ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’. Driving on we headed toward another smaller town and stopped to grab some last minute snacks and check out the salt museum, before heading toward the Salar. Along the way we passed a few llamas and noted how the dust from other 4WD’s venturing off on similar tours ahead of us seemed to hang in the wind. All of a sudden we came across a tourist bus on its side with smashed windows, which Pedro explained had happened just a few hours prior the very same day, most likely thanks to the driver driving all night and losing concentration at a critical moment that morning. There was nobody to been seen, so we assumed everyone had escaped unharmed.
Eventually we came to the start of the Salar, where the white salt seemed to stretch on forever in front of us. Having read and heard about this place you naturally form an image in your mind of what it would be like, but being there is something else altogether. In places people were working hard shovelling the top layer of the salt into piles, which were to be collected by trucks and taken elsewhere for processing. There were piles of salt everywhere. Pedro stopped the 4WD and we excitedly stepped out onto the crunchy white and looked around. You might think a huge, flat expanse of salt doesn’t offer very much of interest to look at, but it really is fascinating, and I guess somewhat like being on another world. The salt was wet to the touch and of course salty to taste – we had to sample it! We tried out a few classic depth perception trick photos and found they were quite hard to master, though our trip mascot Pikachu proved his worth and we snapped a few in which he looked like a giant alongside us.
Driving on we arrived at a building made entirely of salt except for its roof, which housed a small museum and shop. Margarita whipped up an amazing lunch, which we devoured, during which Nat asked if I wouldn’t mind passing the salt – I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony. Once we had eaten we stepped back outside and found a couple of small children (niños) playing in the salt as though it was nothing our of the ordinary, so Nat took the opportunity to gift them a small clip-on koala in return for some cute photos. The clip-on koalas had proven very effective in bringing a smile to the faces of little ones all throughout South America.
We all piled back into the 4WD and set off across the salt, seemingly driving without direction as Pedro didn’t rely on a compass or GPS, though there were tire tracks in the salt in the same direction we were heading. We drove for some time though to be honest it didn’t seem like very long as we were all marvelling out the window at the strange white landscape and clear blue sky. In the distance we could see other 4WD’s going about their tours in various directions, as well as a few motorbikes speeding across the flat white expanse. A small dark shape slowly started took shape directly in front of us on the horizon, and Pedro confirmed it was Fish Island, or Isla del Pescador, so named for its shape. We pulled up at the edge of this “island” and stared in wonder at the numerous huge cacti growing out of the rock. A small set of buildings were set into its base and we paid a small amount to pass them and a few llamas then climb to the summit, which was a great vantage point for the Salar in all directions. On the way up we noticed some people setting up a tent on the Salar below us, which seemed very dangerous, as we’d heard the temperature plummets well below zero at night. They seemed to have bicycles with them and we later heard (and saw) that many people decide to ride from the Southern tip of South America all the way up through North America each year.
Fish Island struck me as the most unique place I have even been. The many cacti are amazing to behold and very, very old. We came across one signposted as the oldest on the island at an estimated 900 years, and a staggering 8m tall. The signposts themselves were dotted all over the island, while their design was strangely reminiscent of a Loony Tunes cartoon! Below us the surface of the Salar betrayed a number of 4WD tracks heading off into the nothingness, with the sun beating down far beyond. The place had a somewhat surreal air to it, and though it was mainly rock and cacti it kept us captivated the whole time we were there climbing all over it.
Unbeknownst to us, this was set to be our final stop on the Salar. Had we known this, we would most likely have consumed the small tequila and limes we brought with us at this point, along with a lick of salt from the ground. I say “most likely” as drinking alcohol at altitude is never a good idea, and given the trials we’d been through at altitude when doing the Machu Picchu trek a few weeks prior we knew very well not to take things lightly, though we were later disappointed to find we wouldn’t be heading back here. If you’re planning a tour of this part of the world, we’d recommend you do at least 2 days on the Salar itself as it really is that amazing to behold, just be sure to pack your sunscreen as the white salt reflects UV from the sun in all directions!
Driving on we headed south for the edge of the Salar. This section was obviously a little lower than the rest, as rainwater had collected here to form a huge shallow lake. The further we ventured into the lake though, the higher the water rose against the wheels of the 4WD, to the point where it seemed to be coming into the engine bay. Out the window the view was simply amazing, with the sun hanging low in the sky just before dusk, and all the clouds and mountains in the distance perfectly reflected in the water to the point where it was difficult to determine where the horizon was. The sky seemed to permeate the ground and it felt like you might be able fall all the way into the heavens below you. I took lots of pictures, knowing full well they wouldn’t ever do the experience justice, but kept on snapping, as it seemed the perfect outlet for my amazement at the time.
Just as the water rose to the point where Pedro had slowed to a crawl and the front of the 4WD was creating a little bow wave off both sides, we came across a small pickup truck, which seemed to be broken down or bogged. Walking around it outside with his trousers hiked up, shin deep in the cold salty water was a Bolivian man, while inside the truck his wife and kids watched on, seemingly oblivious of the rapidly falling temperature and the possibility of a freezing night ahead stuck in the middle of nowhere. Pedro beeped a few times to ask if they needed help, but the man didn’t seem to acknowledge him at all. All the same we changed course (a more appropriate term as the 4WD had become more like a boat by then) and headed toward them, where Pedro offered to tow them out of the water to a nearby road. With the 2 vehicles tied together with a strip of rubber from an old truck tire, we towed the family out of the water. Along the way the Bolivian man was able to clutch-start his truck and get the engine ticking over once more. At this point the last bit of sun was disappearing behind the mountains and the dropping temperature was very noticeable, especially as we took the opportunity to get out of the 4WD and watch the sunset while Pedro untied the two vehicles.
Waving goodbye to the family in the old pickup truck we continued along the road, leaving the Salar behind. Heading south it wasn’t long before we came to a ramshackle building in the middle of nowhere. This small part of nowhere was apparently known as San Juan, and once we ventured inside the building we noticed it contained a sort of mess hall and a number of rooms with single beds. We each claimed a room, with Marina and Dario’s extending off ours, then went back to the mess hall to enjoy a hot beverage. In the meantime I took the opportunity to plug in our camera charger as we’d shot a number of photos throughout the course of the day, and working power points are a scarce commodity in this region. The power came from a generator, which stayed on until about 10pm, after which you’d have to use a torch if you wanted to find your way around in the dark. After dinner Marina, Dario, Nat and myself headed outside briefly to take in the Milky Way (Via Láctea) without city lights interfering, and spent a while marvelling at the heavens but freezing in the cold air.
Pedro had put the option to us at dinner earlier in the evening that we could “sleep in” until 8am and follow the normal tour route, or get up at 4am so as to make a good start on the day and pack as much sightseeing in as possible. Everyone was ok with the super early start, so at 4am we rolled out of bed and into the 4WD, and head off into the cold darkness of morning in the desert. As we drove on I snoozed a little and the light gradually grew around us to reveal a somewhat Martian landscape of red rock and sand, with red mountains surrounding us. We ventured through this terrain for a while, stopping only with a view of a huge mountain in the distance, which Pedro said was quite close to the Chilean border. Continuing on we eventually rolled up at a sulphur lake, where the cold was still bitter and the smell not so nice, but the landscape eerily quiet and strange. Nearby was a small building, which to our disappointment did not have any of the 2 fires it housed burning and providing warmth. We shivered outside as Margarita prepared a light breakfast, and Nat paid the few Bolivianos asked of the proprietor while she went to the bathroom.
Moving on we then came across a lake, frozen at the edges but still home to birds swimming in the middle. The sun was up now and we snapped a few photos of our long shadows with our backs to the morning sun. The place was desolate, windy and cold, but also otherworldly and eerily interesting. Shortly afterward we randomly passed a couple of French cyclists who were slowly making their way from the southern tip of South America to the top of the world. Dario knew of a friend who was undertaking the same journey at or around this time, but the cyclists didn’t seem to know of him. We left them to it, secretly thankful for the minimal luxury the 4WD provided when compared with a freezing bike saddle.
Pedro guided the 4WD through a thin rocky ravine, on the look out for vizcacha, a type of Bolivian rabbit with large whiskers. We eventually found a few of them, and Pedro threw some bread from the window to encourage them to stick around while we snapped some photos. They seemed larger than normal rabbits to me, but I suppose their size was thanks to their extra fur, needed to stave off the cold. Most of all we noticed the length of their whiskers, which served to give them a wizened, intelligent disposition.
Our next stop was Arbol de Piedra, or stone tree, which is a famed rock that has eroded over the ages to form a sort of inverted shape such that its top is wider than its base. It seemed to have been somehow placed there directly from a Salvador Dali painting, and despite the harsh, bitterly cold wind we stepped out to get some quick happy-snaps next to it.
Next on the itinerary was Laguna Colorada, a lake that contained a strange form of red algae that thrived in whatever pH and other chemical conditions this region provided. Unfortunately it wasn’t the right time of year when we visited, but flocks of flamingos are known for inhabiting the lake, eating the red algae which Pedro informed us was actually responsible for their pink appearance. There were just a few flamingos in attendance this time around, so we had to be happy with seeing them at least.
Driving on once again we arrived at what was to be our accommodation for the evening. It was still relatively early in the day, and most definitely lunchtime, so we all gathered around the table in the building’s mess hall and waited to consume whatever delicacy Margarita had concocted for us. Her fried chicken went down well and it occurred to me that I must finally be acclimatised fully to the altitude, as we were somewhere close to 3700m and I still had my appetite!
Outside the building a number of llamas were doing their thing, chilling out in the dust and grazing on kitchen scraps left out for them by the owners of this ramshackle building. The llamas were done up in a sort of traditional decoration, with pink cotton ribbon tied to both their ears and necks, making them seem more regal. All through Peru and Bolivia I was happy to see the odd llama here and there, as they seem quite noble animals, though a little smelly. Thankfully I wasn’t ever on the receiving end of their famed spit!
After lunch we all piled back in the 4WD and continued on for hours, passing a nearby mountain which had plumes of ice crystals dancing in the wind all around it, and further we travelled over the rocky, dusty, frozen terrain until we came to the Laguna Verde, where the wind was whipping down from the surrounding mountains at a rate of knots – almost fast and furious enough to hold my weight when I leant into it. The Laguna is a sort of emerald green colour, though a lot of its strange eerie beauty was lost as the surface was being steadily churned into small frothy waves by the bitterly cold wind. I could only stand being outside for a few minutes in that temperature, and thankfully jumped back in the 4WD before we drove on.
This time heading back toward our accommodation, Pedro steered us toward the hot springs which are basically a thermal pool and a couple of nearby buildings – not really much to behold at all, though I seemed to be the only one keen to go in. To be fair, the air temperature was still very cold so I didn’t press the others too hard to join me, but I was keen on the experience so gladly got myself ready for a swim. The trick was to keep all 5 layers I was wearing over my upper body in place until just before I got into the water while downstairs it was the good old combination of a pair of board shorts and the trusty Havaianas on my feet. At the water’s edge I quickly stripped down and got in fast, relaxing and enjoying the lovely warm water, dunking my head and leaving it out until my hair felt a little too icy, then dunking it again to warm up.
Pedro suddenly appeared and joined me in the pool, as apparently it’s his tradition to enjoy it no matter what the weather conditions. Unfortunately the wind picked up at one point and managed to blow my clothes off the rock I’d left them on, so I ended up with a bit of wet volcanic mud on them in places, though this quickly dried later on. I then noticed that Pedro had left his clothes out of the wind behind the wall of a nearby building, his experience showing through. We eventually got out and towelled off, and I went inside one of the buildings to put my layers back on ASAP, feeling refreshed and still warm.
Our final stop on this epically long day of driving was at some volcanic geysers near to where we’d be sleeping for the night. Pedro pulled in and we looked out the window at the steam emanating from the earth with such pressure that it shot quite high before being blown across much of the landscape. Up until now whenever we arrived somewhere of note, Pedro had a habit of pulling up and giving a drawn-out Spanish introduction to what were about to do in his tour guide style. This time the sun was near to disappearing and I was keen to snap some shots while the seemingly Martian landscape was still visible with the sun’s red glow behind it. I let Marina know that I’d prefer to skip the briefing this time, and she rapidly informed Pedro to hurry up in Spanish as the light was waning! We all jumped out into the cold once more and were immediately struck by the acrid stench of sulphur, which was coming out of the earth along with the steam. Everyone seemed to venture off into the mist and from my vantage point they disappeared a few times, though I grabbed some great shots while they enjoyed the strange sensation of the mist all around them – it was almost like some sort of alien landing and first meeting, the way they appeared in the light and steam.
Finally we made it back to the ramshackle building where Margarita was hard at work in the kitchen, preparing our dinner. I managed to plug the camera’s battery in courtesy of a family living in a room at the very end of the building, though this place was also subject to the grace of a generator that only ran for a few hours each evening. Gathering around the table once more we enjoyed a meal of goulash, and Margarita produced a bottle of red to go along with it, which unfortunately wasn’t to the taste of Nat, Marina and Dario, who likened it to vinegar.
After dinner we sat around the pot-bellied stove in the common room and talked with fellow travellers, an older couple that had booked their tour with Gap Adventures and had unwittingly been lumped with a tour group of 16 to 18 year olds. They told us they didn’t mind the age gap, though I think they were just telling themselves that to cope as earlier on over dinner the banter around the table was rather banal, and the kids somewhat tuned out when their tour guide gave them an update as to the next day’s activities. Feeling thankful for being on a tour with more mature people Nat and I retired for the evening, which proved to be quite the ordeal.
Once again there were a few cracks in the windows and walls, and the wind was raging outside, coming steadily at the side of the building our room was on. Pedro had told us earlier that the forecast was an estimated -18°C thanks to the wind-chill, so Nat and I got to work to ensure our warmth during the night. We put a couple of pairs of socks on, then tracksuit pants, 2 t-shirts and a hoodie, then got into our sleeping bags with liners, all of which we covered with a couple of blankets and a sheet. I even drew the sleeping bag up around my head and ears with its drawstring so that just my face was exposed to the frigid air. Even with all this it was still cold and it took a while for us to warm up and feel comfortable enough to drift off to sleep, as any movement seemed to let the precious warmth out and replace it with frosty air.
Thankful for a “sleep-in” after a couple of long days in the 4WD preceded by early starts, we were up at 8am ready for day 3. Up until now we’d pretty much driven south of Uyuni, so it wasn’t difficult to realise today would be a long day of driving back north. We started the day with a sort of fried bread and dulche de leche, which I’ll admit isn’t exactly a breakfast of champions, so feeling slightly queasy from a sudden intake of sugar and fat so early in the morning we piled back into the 4WD and got the driving underway.
We passed by a distant sandy plane dotted with rock formations in the most surreal pattern, that we again thought Salvador Dali had been in charge of their placement. The wind was still whipping by, and the dust and cold got in wherever it could. We also passed a couple of towns that were bathed in a constant dust storm, and left us wondering how people could put up with living out here.
The road drew ever onward and we eventually veered left off the “path” into a sort of volcanic rock formation that had been eroded into thousands of tiny ravines. Once again Pedro knew exactly where he was, and the ravine opened out to a sort of frosty, grassy glade complete with a stream running through it. We lunched in the sun, trying to stay out of the wind and cold as best we could, after which we all explored the area a little. It was great to break up the journey this way, but soon afterwards we were back on the road to Uyuni again.
The previous evening, Dario had tried his best to convince Pedro to head back to the Salar on the return journey, though Pedro was having none of it, mainly because it was ~150km out of his way. The tour was supposed to finish around 5pm, but we somehow returned to Uyuni by 3pm, making us think Pedro had simply done what it said on the tin by providing the tour we’d all booked, albeit a little faster than was advertised. I think we were all glad to be out of the 4WD at this stage though, especially those in the back who had to endure cramped conditions at their feet!
Our return bus from Uyuni to La Paz was scheduled for 8pm, so Nat and I joined Marina and Dario at a nearby pub for a snack to kill some time, before heading to a nearby Internet café. Eventually 8pm rolled around and we boarded the bus, managing to change our seats to the more spacious front ones, this time directly behind the driver. The journey back was much the same affair as the one we endured on the first night, though unfortunately we didn’t seem to sleep as well this time around.
Back in La Paz in the wee hours of the morning, we said goodbye to Marina and Dario who had decided to immediately head on to Lake Titicaca and its surrounds, though for us it was back to the good old Hotel Sagarnaga for some much needed rest and also time to get some laundry done! We heeded the advice of the bus driver who recommended we only catch a cab with the phone number on its roof and doors, as other operators might not be who they seemed.
We spent the next couple of days relaxing in and around the hotel, not venturing too far but not feeling ashamed for it as we’d already spent a lot of time here and to be honest were no longer interested. We sent our laundry out courtesy of the hotel, only to receive it back with a small strand of pink cotton sewn into the hem or collar of each piece of clothing, socks included! I spent about 30 minutes unpicking all the cotton that I presented to the front desk to let them know they should probably recommend to whoever they subcontracted our laundry to learn to unpick this themselves in future, though I could tell they really didn’t care.
The nearby steak house provided some much needed quality Argentinian steak which tasted fantastic enough for us to visit a couple of times, the last of which was for lunch just before we left for the airport, where we waited to board our plane. Suddenly Nat’s name was called over the PA, and she was ushered out of the waiting room to somewhere beyond that I couldn’t see. She took her time returning, and came back with an almost scared look on her face, after which she told me she had been taken out onto the tarmac and asked to unlock both our bags. Upon doing so the 2 guard dogs under the control of the security guards jumped on our bags but were immediately restrained. No explanation was given for the search which makes us think they were just bored and passing the time, but there’s always a part of you which thinks the worst and makes you feel slightly guilty no matter how innocent you are!
Our flight was to take us back to Lima where we changed planes to board a Spanish Iberia flight overnight to Madrid. Despite the number of flights we had taken up until this point, this flight proved extra special thanks to the camera in the tail of the plane which gave a birds-eye view of the wings and fuselage during take-off and landing. We were fascinated to see the plane taxi out and power up, then become airborne and head up into the night sky, losing almost all vision from the camera in the clouds, then bursting through into the black of night. After our Sydney – San Francisco flight, this was to be the second long-haul flight of our trip, so we settled in to cope as best as possible.
Simo and I left Cusco for the even higher grounds of La Paz in Bolivia, which has the highest commercial airport in the world at an altitude of 4200m above sea level. Because of this and the air being much thinner, the runway is a lengthy 6 kilometres long as the plane has to land at a much faster speed than at a regular airport, which I might add is just as exhilarating as it is terrifying. The flight was also noticeably different to regular flights; we left Cusco and began to climb above the mountains and before too long it was time to land, but instead of descending we plateaued and touched down – very weird.
La Paz is basically a massive bowl shape with the airport at the top of the hill (in the town of El Alto) and unusually, the lower you venture into the bowl, the more affluent the area. The surrounding hills of La Paz are essentially shanti towns while the main city and wealthier areas at the bottom in the middle. I am not 100% sure why this is, but I would say it has something to do with altitude. We jumped in a cab and made our way downtown to our hotel in Sagarnaga St, which is in the main tourist area covering a few blocks including the famous Witches Markets. La Paz is a very large, busy city and to be honest it’s pretty hectic – maybe a little too much for me, as I didn’t get a great vibe from this place. We’d had a lot of warnings about pickpockets and crime here, which lead us to be overly cautious with our belongings. Being wary paid off, as in the end we spent our time here without having anything stolen.
We checked into the Hotel Sagarnaga and after making sure our shower wouldn’t electrify us (as it was covered in wires which used to be used to heat the cold water with an element right as it exited the shower head – so dangerous!) we went outside to check out our surroundings. I had heard many things about the Witches Markets and how weird and wonderfully kooky they were, so we headed there first. Unfortunately we were surprised to find they were not that large, with most of the stalls selling the exact same thing: a mix of jewellery, t-shirts, special potions and aphrodisiacs, and strangest of all llama foetuses which are apparently used as a good luck charm which one should bury in the backyard when moving into a new home.
The next day we went and found ProDownhill, the company we chose to go with for the famous (and as I was to discover, dangerous) Death Road mountain biking tour. Death Road is a very narrow road, very high above the Bolivian jungle which at one time was the only road used to travel back and forth between towns. There are no barriers on the road and the drivers of many cars, buses and trucks used to go over the side to their death I would imagine, as the drop is 250-300m in places. There is now a much more safe, modern road inland and except for the occasional truck, Death Rd is now mainly used for extreme biking.
After signing many forms and being fitted for the right size gear, we were both pumped about our ride the next day despite the fact that for months before as anyone who knows me well will tell you, I was not very confident about this activity and that is putting it lightly. Simo is an experienced and avid cyclist and he was really excited about this adventure, but I have always been hesitant as I am not very good at cycling – it’s never been my thing. Simo suggested of course that I shouldn’t do it if I didn’t want to, but for me waiting back in La Paz for the whole day worrying about him was an even more frightening scenario. I decided to “cowboy up” and do it convincing myself I would feel so proud once I had done it!
That afternoon we had lunch at the Sol y Luna bar in La Paz, which had been recommended in TripAdvisor, before taking a long walk downtown to book and pay for 2 nights at an eco lodge in Coroico, coincidentally also named Sol y Luna. The plan was to end up here after the Death Road bike ride. The eco lodge had been recommended to us by a friend and online it looked gorgeous and relaxing, just what we would deserve after an exhilarating day riding down Death Rd.
We got up early the next day and met the others in our group in a tiny cafe where we ate breakfast and got to know each other before the ride. In our crew we had a German couple, 2 Austrian guys, a girl from Brazil and us. We met our guides, hopped in the minivan with a quick roll call and then we were off driving up to an altitude of 4600m, which at the time I blamed for my queasiness. After about 40 minutes we got to our destination high on top of a mountain and were given our gear consisting of an extra layer of clothing, helmets, elbow, shin/ kneepads and bikes, which we all hopped on tested out to see if we were comfortable. I was not – at all. It didn’t feel right, the seat was too high and I had a very slight panic attack which the guide must have seen as he told me to be ‘tranquillo’. There was no introduction or instructions and before I knew it we were on our way, Simo by my side making sure I was OK.
The first part of the ride is about 20 minutes downhill on bitumen, which would lead us to the beginning of Camino De Muerte – Death Rd. I had decided to give myself a mental pep talk to calm myself with deep breaths and reminders that I could indeed do this and how we would laugh at the end at my self-doubt. We headed down the road overtaking the very occasional truck and by the time we had reached the first checkpoint I was gaining confidence, despite the fact that the speed the bike was going was faster than I had ever experienced. I hopped back on after a photo or two and we were on our way again.
From here on in, I am very hazy about what happened but I will do my best to portray it from both our recollections. I remember slowing down and following Simo who was overtaking a truck, and at that stage I lost control. The last thing I remember is my handlebars wobbling furiously and thinking to myself “oh shit”!
The next thing I was aware of, other than lying in the middle of the road, was that I found it very hard to breathe and my wrist was causing me excruciating pain – I could not move it and it looked disfigured. Simo says that when he got to me, I was lying on the road on my back with my head down the hill. My recollection of the time before the ambulance came is all very hazy as I was in shock, but luckily Charlotte (the German girl in our group) was a doctor and knew what to do. I took some paracetamol and she strapped my forearm using kneepads to stabilise my wrist, then we drove in the minivan to the next checkpoint. Within 20 minutes the ambulance had arrived as had my tears, which had set in once I realised what had happened. I cannot imagine how Simo must have felt at this point!
As we were leaving in the ambulance I noticed Simo wasn’t there with me, so in my best broken-Spanish (between sobs) I asked them “Donde es mi Amigo?” Realising he wasn’t in the back with them, they stopped and went back to pick him up. In all the commotion Simo had to look after me as wel as make sure our bags were packed into the ambulance, but he had left our camera in the minivan and had gone back to collect it. As we continued to drive back to La Paz, I suddenly realised Diana (the Brazilian girl in our group) was there with us, as she had fallen off her bike too, breaking both her front teeth. She told us that she was behind me and saw me fall, then lost control herself. What a pair! The others continued on while Diana, Simo and I carried on in the ambulance to a much less glamorous destination – hospital.
At the hospital Diana and I were both treated for shock, while I also tried to deal with numerous mental injuries, such as the guilt of ruining Simo’s ride, a bruised ego and anger at myself for not trusting my instinct. Diana was ok, though she had a couple of stitches under her chin and had lost her front teeth. She told us she was lucky to have a dentist in her family and we now know she has a brand new set of pearlers.
My wrist and chest were both x-rayed and the doctors found no evidence of fractures to my ribs, though the pain I have felt there weeks later suggests otherwise. My wrist had sustained 2 fractures, the larger of which would require surgery as I had shattered the bone. When the doctors told me this I initially had a mini freak out, as surgery in Bolivia was not part of the plan, but my options were simple – go home and wait 24 hours for anything to be done (and ruin our trip), or get on with it and trust the doctors. The hospital was modern and the doctors capable; they spoke English and assured me that they dealt with similar injuries from Death Rd every week.
After talking it over with Simo, we opted to have the surgery there, and that afternoon I went under general anaesthetic, had 2 pins inserted into the bones in my wrist, a fibreglass cast set, and was sent on my way the following day. During my stay I had a private room and was well looked after by the nurses attending to me whenever I was in pain (which in Spanish is ‘dolore’ by the way). Simo also spent a lot of the time on his iPhone using Google Translate to communicate my basic needs with the nurses whose English was minimal. I dare say that without this we would have felt a lot more in the dark at times, not knowing what was going on around us. While I was there I felt the service was probably better than what I would receive in Australia, and I would hope so too after being billed a staggering $6000 USD for my stay. Thank goodness for travel insurance!
We left the hospital and headed back to the Sagarnaga Hotel, giving me a few days to recuperate and get used to my cast before our Salar de Uyuni tour. As I am right-handed my injury affected Simo just as much as me, as it is my right wrist I broke so he had to literally become my ‘right hand man’. He has been amazing throughout this ‘hiccup’ and such a great physical and mental support and I would like to take this opportunity to publically thank him for being the wonderful boyfriend and travel companion that he is.
With the benefit of hindsight I feel I was extremely lucky to come away from this experience with only a broken wrist, as we later heard that on the same day we did the ride, a Japanese girl in a different tour group lost control of her bike, went over the edge and lost her life.
If you are thinking of going on the Death Road bike ride, we would recommend you be confident and somewhat experienced at cycling. It’s certainly not for beginners, though the various tour companies seem more than happy to take your money no matter what your ability.