Saturday, August 13, 2011

Tupiza - Bolivia

I’m not sure if it was the altitude or something we ate but my stomach was causing me all sorts of agony on the bus.  Kate felt nauseous too and neither of us got any sleep and by the time we arrive in Quiaca (the argentine side of the Bolivian border) at about six in the morning, ice had formed on the inside windows in the bitter cold.  It was a ten minute walk to the immigration posts but these wouldn’t be open for another hour so we covered up as much as we could and sat in a freezing cold bus station full of Bolivians who too were waiting for the sun to rise and the border to open.  We were the best part of three thousand meters above sea level now and it certainly felt like it, along with the tiredness we were lightheaded and feeling faint. 

When it became light we teamed up with Tara, another Brit who had made the trip before to the border post.  We crossed into Bolivia without too many problems after that although securing our bus was a little more complex.  Tara covered us for Bolivianos as they wouldn’t take anything else and we still didn’t have any local currency, but we needed to pay the tax for our bus separately and show this receipt before getting on.  There was also a small baggage handling charge of next to nothing.  We were used to people asking for a tip when loading on the bags and usually gave a bit of shrapnel but this bus tax not being included in the ticket was a bit perplexing although it is apparently very common in Bolivia.  The journey from the border to Tupiza was stunning, with landscape that you would expect from a western film with lots of dusty earth strewn with cactuses and sandstone structures.

Cacti from the window of the bus

Some traditional houses along the roadside

Tupiza was a bit more welcoming than the bus station in Quiaca and there were restaurants and hostels geared for westerners dotted throughout the town.  We were a bit too tired to do a lot of wandering with our bags so we took the second hostel we came across which had a nice clean double room for about nine quid a night.  We had to change some money and we had lots of Chilean Pesos and a couple of hundred U.S. dollars on us.  Finding a little ‘cambio’ shop she was eager to take our money and we changed a hundred dollars at a reasonable rate.  I enquired about the Chilean pesos and she offered me a rate where I would be losing about thirty three percent along with some spiel that the exchange rate involves taking off a zero and that the pesos aren’t worth anything here.  I was in no rush to get rid of them so after realising the atrocious rate being offered we said no thanks and walked away.  She immediately offered a ten percent better rate to which we still said no and she fired right back with a rate twenty percent better than the original offer, what a hustler!  She was still far too keen to take the pesos so we left it, Kate was starving and my head really wasn’t in it at that point.  I later found out that if you change them at Uyuni, the place with the famous salt flats that we would be visiting, then you get a much better rate as it is closer to the Chilean border which makes perfect sense.      

It was a Sunday and therefore very little was open but our bellies were rumbling and needed to be filled!  Eventually, with Tara we found a strange little eatery down an alley which was all laid out like a restaurant but the girl serving said there were no menus and reeled off four or five options, one of them being a steak dish with a milk based soup to start for twenty bolivianos (just under two quid with 11.5 B to the pound).  Our stomachs were fragile so we asked to leave out the milky soup, but for some reason if we just wanted the main it would cost thirty five bolivianos and no amount of reasoning would change her mind to just give us the steak and not charge us more than if we got the entire set menu.  Perhaps this was for the best, because the soup was delicious and the steak wasn’t too bad either.  It was great to be back in a country where you don’t need to hunt out the best deals in town to stay under budget.  It’s funny how you can cross a little border and not only feel rich again but actually be rich, relatively speaking of course. 

Outside of where we ate there were people on the street playing table football and pool whilst letting their children ride small fairground attractions which wouldn’t even get through the garden gate of British safety standards.  They were sweet but basic; the operators would manually turn a handle to propel a Ferris wheel or roundabout for the delighted youngsters riding on their cardboard hobby horses.  The outdoor games looked like a great social way to spend a Sunday.  After this we went for a well needed afternoon siesta before getting out in the evening to eat at a nearby Italian restaurant where we ate a surprisingly well made pizza and salad along with a jar of homemade orange juice before returning to bed, still feeling woozy from the altitude and marathon bus journey. 

Plenty of outdoor activity in the sunshine

Locals enjoying a game of pool

The climate in Tupiza is extremely weird weather to dress for as if you are outside in the sun it can get extremely hot to the point where you need to seek shade, yet it really doesn’t take long for you to get very cold in the shade to the point needing thermal socks and lots of layers.  The town was a lot more active today.  We had breakfast close to the hostel then walked towards the plaza to see what was going on.  To my surprise, there were masses of places with computers that were full of kids playing games together on a LAN without access to the internet.  I soon realised that computer gaming is everywhere in this town, I’m not surprised on their popularity as there isn’t much else here for kids to do but still there must have been a computer for every kid in Tupiza.  I imagine that the first gaming room was so successful that others simply mimicked the idea as it was an easy money spinner.
We had a walk around the pretty plaza where we got to meet Lucio, one of the gardeners who saw me writing away and came over for a chat.  My Spanish was no way near good enough to keep up with what he was saying, especially considering the horticultural subject matter in hand as he provided us with flower after flower and gave an in depth description of its name, season, seed or bulb and lots of other information I could make out.  It was so lovely and bizarre that I had to film it as the lap top was right in front of me.  I’ve uploaded the video which can be viewed at the bottom of this post.  A child then hovered around the laptop until I decided I would show him a game and let him have a little play whist his mum breastfed his younger sibling.  After they went a homeless man then came up and took great pleasure in telling me how nice I was and giving my cheek a good squeeze after I gave him some change.  We decided that this wasn’t the place to get work done as many people simply aren’t as habituated to foreigners as they are in a lot of Argentina.  It’s a positive thing and I love that people retain a brilliant old world mentality where speaking to a stranger is perfectly fine unlike the stranger danger mentality practiced in most modern towns today.  It was great but we wanted to find a quiet corner to do some work (if you really can call it that) so we had some tea and doughnuts in a nearby café.
Kate with her bunch of flowers curtosy of...

...Lucio the gardener

We recorded a congratulatory wedding day video from the top of a 'mirador' or viewpoint overlooking the town for Kate’s brother Andrew and Maruska.  Climbing to get there was quite heavy going with the altitude but it made for some excellent views and we encountered a cute cat in a Canadian jacket on the way which made it all worthwhile.  It was nice to get away from the touristy part of town and get a glimpse of how most of the inhabitants live in these quiet dusty streets.  Having briefly met a French man and his Serbian girlfriend and after some shopping around we all decided to book up a day’s horse-riding for the following day.  Horseback was recommended as a great way to see the local area in various guides and we didn’t need to be told twice having really wanted to ride on horseback to date, this certainly seemed like the most appropriate place to do it on a really dusty and rugged Wild West landscape.  

We went with a company called ‘El Grano de Oro’ who had some good reviews and we agreed to meet up for our experience at nine thirty the next morning.  I convinced Kate to join me in having a little game in one of the LAN gaming joints which we did for an hour and was a good laugh.  That evening we had a meal at a restaurant called ‘Alamos’ which only had one option on the menu that was over two pounds but the portions were all massive.  We started with a sharer of meat, fries and vegetables before getting our main of more meat and vegetables along with lots of chips and rice.  It was great value even if the steak did taste a little bit like shoes.  The staff were cool and one of them took our photograph after the meal so I think we might be going up on their wall amongst other happy diners.

The view over Tupiza

The cat in the jacket

Horse riding began by meeting up in the office, handing over the equivalent of about fifteen pound each and walking with our guide to the bus station to make the short ride to the stables.  Here we waited around for a few minutes before each being given a cowboy hat and chaps (the leather leg protectors) and being assigned a horse.  I was very fond of my horse, a two year old who I named ‘Lil Blackie’ even though it was brown having watched ‘True Grit’ the night before.  We hopped on and without anything in the way of instruction (the guide didn’t speak any English other than ‘left’ and ‘right’) we trotted off down the railway line.  It soon became apparent that if you yanked the reigns either left or right the horse would sometimes oblige if it felt like it.  To go forward you needed to make a kissing noise and to stop you needed to make a ‘shhh’ noise but this would usually only work if accompanied by a sharp yank on the reigns and a tight leg squeeze on the belly to get your point across.
Posing for a photo at the ranch

Initial impressions were that it actually felt quite comfortable and it was a hell of a lot of fun.  The horses were all behaving themselves in the most part but as time went on their personalities and the group dynamics came to the surface.  My horse was a bit of a teenager and as such didn’t have much respect from the others but at the same time it wanted to be the leader.  It usually trotted at the back behind Yasmina’s horse which simply had absolutely no time for him.  Every time my horse tried to make a break forward the one in front would be onto it and simply cut him up every time.  Didier the big French man naturally had the biggest horse, and between his horse and Kate’s (which she named ‘Pig’) they were the cool characters who didn’t have to assert their authority and seemed to get on with everyone.  At one point my horse caught the full whack Yasmina’s kicking out with a whack which would have easily been enough to kill a man, but Lil’ Blackie took it in his stride and kept going.  He kept asking for it though and throughout the day he would be nipped and kicked at a few times not to mention a few whips in the face with Yasmina’s horse’s tail.      

Trotting off along the trail with Kate at the front

Kate galloping off 'John Wayne' style

Our guide

Aside from the horse antics we witnessed the amazing landscape that we had come to see which was as gorgeous as it was dusty.  There were various rock formations that stood out amongst the arid but in its own right graciously beautiful landscape.  The rusty hills were dominated by cacti resting upon flits of warmly coloured layers of soil and where the land was flat the desert seemed to stretch on indefinitely.  We explored canyons where the spikes of rock rose so high into the sky and reached such a fine point that they looked as though they were pointing accusingly at the heavens for providing such an inhospitable landscape.  That is not to say that there weren’t people living here.  The electricity cables stretched to small farming towns usually consisting of no more than three hundred people who would make a living selling their vegetable produce to residents of Tupiza and further afield.  We alighted for the first time at a series of these pointed rocks until we reached a part whereupon it was necessary to progress into the expanse rock on foot.  The natural path had stone obstacles that had been weathered as such so that they often looked like works of art.  This corridor surrounded by surreal stone walls eventually lead us into a cul-de-sac, resembling a kind of elaborate stone prison from a fairytale that we gawped at until we headed back to our guide and horses all of whom were fortunately waiting patiently where we had left them. 

When we stopped for lunch in a large open space next to a river our guide pulled out some boxes full of traditional tucker.  The crux of the meal consisted of balled up rice containing shredded llama meat and was absolutely delicious.  In case we needed any more food in our bellies we also had some different types of chocolate from Chile and some fruit which we shared with the horses.  After lunch we boarded our horses once again and got our feet wet as we crossed a river to continue the trail.  In the most part we followed the train line, our guide reassuringly informing us that there wouldn’t be any trains until later.  We passed an impressive stack of rock and were feeling somewhat in control until we came to a rather open area of land and the horses took it upon themselves to up the pace and have a little gallop.  This was a lot of fun (especially for the horses) if not a little scary but Yasmina unfortunately lost a gold earring which was never recovered in the midst of it.  Even so our confidence was getting higher and after going through a train tunnel it was a long straight track back to the ranch and if we didn’t know we were on the home straight at the time the horses certainly did.  We didn’t do much to restrain them as one by one they urged each other on to a full gallop and we were all smiles and laughter as we overtook each other, my Lil’ Blackie was exceptionally eager to show what he could do and I had to hang on for dear life.  
Me and Lil' Blackie

Local gathering wood

The beautiful landscape where we stopped for lunch

Our traditional lunch of llama meat and rice within these parcels

They love football

Some more amazing scenery

A photo taken after lunch before we set off again

For a while it was still possible to calm the horses down and bring them to a halt until we caught up with another group whereupon all mayhem broke loose.  It was as though the horses had something to prove as at least fifteen tourists were hurtled along by their beasts, I lost my hat in the process and although with a lot of tugging and leg squeezing I got Lil’ Blackie to stop he wasn’t happy and starting bucking.  Not having a helmet and not wanting to annoy this teenage rebel I pointed out the hat to my guide and continued along the trek galloping away, the mud flicking in my face from another horse in front of me.  The thrill of the run was wearing off and it was starting to become scary for a lot of people, Kate had lost a stirrup and later mentioned somewhat unsurprisingly that it was hard to hold on when Pig the horse was going full pelt.  It was eventually possible to separate the groups and the horses calmed down with not long to go before we got back to the ranch.  Kate was immediately unwell having stepped off the horse and needed to throw up, probably a combination of the altitude and bouncing up and down on Pig.  The horses looked exceptionally happy to have a roll in the dirt and we were all quite glad to have our feet back on the dry dirt.

Some donkeys along the trail

Lil' Blackie and Pig having a snack together

A stack

The train tunnel

Going for a gallop and not totally out of choice

Lil' Blackie enjoying the dust afterwards

We had decided that we would do a tour of the famous salt flats of Uyuni from the town of Uyuni rather than from Tupiza as this would offer the chance to see the additional beautiful landscapes closer to the Chilean border.  However, it would be a bit of a gamble as the weather had been hit and miss to date and there were plenty of disappointed travellers telling us that they hadn’t been able to see much.  Ever the optimists we hopped on a bus to try our own luck.   

 Lucio talks flowers in the plaza

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