A Travellerspoint blog

December 2009

Torres Del Paine

We returned to the more civilized environs of El Calafete, glad for the opportunity to get a decent meal, something that was not possible in El Chalten. After a day or so, we took the bus across the border to Chile and Puerto Natales. From here, we could book our trip to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, which has some of the most spectacular mountains anywhere on the planet. As a concession to comfort, and to age if I care to admit it, we decided to stay in the refugios spaced out along the trail. Ridiculously overpriced for both food and lodging, and mediocre at best, they are the only alternative if you want respite from the vagaries of Patagonian weather. We decided on a five day trek known at the W, and it is not named for George W. our ex, gracias a dios, president. To do the full 10 to 11 day circuit, would have required us to go around the far side of Campo Hielo Sur, the largest ice cap outside of Antarctica, where the weather is wetter and if possible, windier. Hence we opted for the relative comforts of the shorter trip.

On the first day, we hiked up to the base of the Torres, towers of rock, and then back down to Refugio Chileno.



There we met a nice mix of people, three of whom were from Tasmania, an island which is part of Australia. Since the W is a popular route we ran into them several times, and started to hike with a some of them, keeping an eye out for one another in the rapidly changing trail conditions. Each afternoon we ended up in the same refugio, so that was easy enough to do. The path was challenging, but the elevation was relatively low so that didn't add to the difficulty.


The biggest problem, as it was at Fitzroy, was the weather. It would change from sun and relative warmth,


to cloudy and cold, ice pellets being blown sideways at 40-50 miles an hour, all within the space of 10- 15 minutes.


In a single hour, and I was keeping track, I added or subtracted several layers of clothes more than 5 times. That was an effort unto itself, and slowed down the pace considerably at times. Once again, there were occasions when we were almost blown off the trail, and going back was not an option.

Staying in the refugios turned out to be the right decision. There was one night when the wind gusted with hurricane force, shaking the building where we were attempting to sleep. It was tied down with big cables over the roof, so this couldn't have been a rare event. The next day we heard that the tents of several nearby campers were shredded or blown away, and they had to hunker down amid the rocks just to make it through the night.

On the whole, I'd say we were lucky. There had been heavy downpours and flooding on the trail a few days before we arrived. That didn't happen when we were there, and while the weather was a mixed bag, the summits were often visible.




This was one of those touchstone experiences that you never forget, much like the Solar de Uyuni, though a very different environment. Razor sharp ridges and spires, and an ever changing vista of rock and ice that would make a geologist drool.




Upon our return to Puerto Natales, we stayed couple of days before heading back to Argentina. As The Handbook points out, it is a quiet town of brightly colored wood and tin houses that is a good place to relax. I would say soporific, might be a better description, and the place we stayed was not especially comfortable. On the other hand, we found a tiny, hole in the wall local place that had good salmon, and we went back a few times. This was a nice treat after the food in the refugios.

View From End of Town

Posted by jonshapiro 17:15 Archived in Chile Tagged backpacking Comments (4)

Southern Argentina: El Chalten and Fitzroy

We eventually caught a LADE flight, run by the Air Force and therefore cheaper, to El Calafate, some 1400k south. This is a tourist town whose primary reason for existence is Parque Nactional Los Glaciares, about an hour away. Plenty of Argentinians as well as foreign tourists make it down here, and it is relatively expensive. Our plan was to first to go north 200k, to the tiny outpost of [El Chalten, and spend a few days hiking around the Fitzroy Massif and Cerro Torre. El Chalten didn't exist until 1985, and now comprises just a few hundred souls, whose only business it seems, is to take care of the mountaineers and trekkers who show up in the summer and fall.

The bus ride over the plains with its stark terrain and clear air reminded me of the Altiplano, though it is not nearly as high.

Near El Calafate

Along the Road

Nevertheless, the mountains are quite serious, and were not climbed until the late 50's or early 70's, depending on who you believe.

Fitzroy From a Distance

A Little Closer

As soon as we got out of the bus, we were immediately buffeted by a cold wind that blew unrelentingly for the three days we were there. At times it was blowing so hard that it was difficult to walk. This was our first introduction to Patagonian weather, and it was a good thing we didn't get here later in the year. It was somewhat cold already, though as we later found out, it could literally change in an instant.

The trails began just outside the village, and were below the tree line at the start. At first, there was actually less wind than in town.


The weather however, did not cooperate.


Most of the time it was overcast and the peaks were obscured, with intermittent rain and grappel for all three days.


On one particular day, as we went higher and around a bend on the trail, the wind blasted us with such force we couldn't stand up, and we elected to turn back under threatening skies. I pictured climbers being blown off the mountain or clinging to their belays on vertical rock, thankful that I was not THAT crazy.

I've done technical rock climbing about a dozen times in my life, and always had issues with the exposure, mostly on the way down. Even on non-technical terrain, I can get freaked in areas where there are sheer vertical drops. I have to talk myself through it, and have resorted to holding hands with a guide on narrow traverses or steep downs. In this vein, a story I have told many times is about an experience I had in the Indian Himalaya, some nine years prior to this trip. We had an Indian guide, Nagy, who was about 4 feet 10 inches tall, spoke poor English, and more importantly, walked with a limp. That should have told me something. At any rate, we had a long, extremely narrow traverse on the way down from a particular mountain village. I'm talking here about a trail that was a foot wide in some places, dropping off more than 1500 feet to a river. Somehow it had been carved or blasted out of the rock cliff, just enough so that an Indian man of Nagy's height could stand up straight. I had to bend over to avoid cracking my head for the duration, perhaps a mile or so. In places, the trail was so narrow that I had to face into the cliff and side-step. I was holding Nagy's hand for a good part of this. I should point out that Nagy probably weighed a good 20 pounds less than I do, and I'm a skinny guy, around 145 pounds. Somehow we managed to negotiate all of this, and the trail widened to about three feet, at which point I was able to continue on my own. I was chatting with my friend David while Nagy was 20 or 30 feet ahead. Suddenly, he stumbled and disappeared over the side. We were horrified, and ran up to where he fell and peered over. Luckily the drop was not quite as steep here, and Nagy had managed to grab onto a small stubby tree about 20 feet below. In a few minutes he climbed out, grinned at the two of us, and said he was fine. The absurdity of thinking that someone of Nagy's size, with a limp, who couldn't even keep himself on the trail, was somehow going to save me if I fell, still makes me smile. At the time it didn't seem so amusing.

There was a rather hard core crowd staying at the hostel with us. Two of them were a Swiss couple, around 40, who were biking their way across the entire length of South America. They were 18 months into their 2 year journey, and they weren't taking the easy route. At times they had to carry their bikes over mountain passes and had gotten lost, sometimes for several days at a time. They were close to the end now, a few hundred miles from Tierra del Fuego. Another fantasy of mine has been to bike around the world. Sadly, I guess that one will have to wait for another life time.

Posted by jonshapiro 08:07 Archived in Argentina Tagged postcards Comments (0)


Fall was starting in Patagonia, so we figured we'd better get down there before it got too cold. It was a long way in a big country, so flying seemed like the best option. We were lucky to get seats, as it seemed like a lot of Portenos, (people from Buenos Aires), were having their last fling before school started. Bariloche has both a summer and winter season, as other mountain towns do in the states. If we had any doubts that we were in a more "first world" place, they were dispelled with a vengeance upon our arrival . The main streets were packed with people, shopping and eating in upscale shops, foreigners and in country tourists alike. Situated on Lago Nahuel Huapi, Bariloche is like a cross between Lake Placid and Burlington Vermont, but with mountains more like the Alps.


It was a bit too hectic for my taste when we first arrived, but the crowds thinned out as the week went on. The architecture is a mix of relatively new, modern looking structures with glass and wood, Swiss chalet type municipal buildings, low rise concrete and wood houses on the side streets,


and the Hobbit-like "Trunco" wooden style, one of which was our favorite romantic restaurant.


Though not on the same scale as New Orleans, we happened to be there for Mardi Gras.



Initially we arranged to stay at a small Spanish school, run by a couple just outside of town. When we got there, it was either a tiny room in the small house, or a more private and larger space in the garage. We opted for the latter, but after a few days it got quite cold at night and there was no heat. When we were awakened in the night by rain dripping through the leaking roof, we decided to move. The teaching itself was not bad, but the couple running the place seemed preoccupied and not especially friendly. After considerable leg work, we found a room right in town, at the reasonably priced B and B, Hostel Guemes. This was a much more acceptable arrangement as we could walk everywhere and had our pick of restaurants, bakeries, and chocolate shops. Our hosts were an interesting couple, older than us by at least 15 years. Jorge was an ex-fishing guide and described a number of different places to explore around town and further afield as well. I understood about half of what he said, but no matter, they were both, muy amable. Luckily we were able to continue our Spanish studies because one of the teachers lived nearby, and was more than happy to meet us in a cafe to continue our lessons. It would take me time to get used to the Argentine, Italian sounding accent.

We spent more than two weeks here and returned to Guemes on two other occasions. Typically, We had lessons for a few hours in the morning, and then took off for a hike, or if we felt less ambitious, a long walk around town or along the lake. The surrounding countryside was magnificent, most of it part of the oldest national park in Argentina, and full of hiking, climbing, and during their winter, skiing possibilities.

On one of our hikes we took the teleferico to the summit of Cerro Otto, on the outskirts of town. From there we walked on cross-country skiing trails through the magical woods full of wild flowers.



The views of the lake and the distant mountains were outstanding.



We returned here more than once, and stopped by the small winter lodge to have a cup of tea, the only customers at this time of year. It should have been mate, what amounts to the national beverage, but it was camomile. The owner, a cross country ski instructor from the Ukraine, seemed glad for the company.


Somewhat further afield, 25K or so, we took the bus to Llao Llao, Argentina's most famous hotel. Home to Bill Clinton, The Rolling Stones, and other celebrities, it seems to deserve its reputation. I can't say for sure since they didn't let us in, but once we did manage to sneak onto the grounds.


I didn't get a good picture of the hotel, but if you google it, after you finish reading the blog of course, there are some good file shots. We returned a 2nd time and couldn't get near the place. Security was extremely tight and we wondered why. We were told by a nearby middle age Israeli couple, that the owner was having a Passover Seder for 2500 people, which was free to the under 25 set. They were pissed because they couldn't get in without forking out a few hundred bucks a piece. Bariloche has a significant Israeli population, including their own hostels and internet cafes with Hebrew letters on the keyboards. Hence it is a magnet for young Israeli backpackers.

Not far from LLao LLao, on the Circuito Chico, are other nice walks and views of the lakes.


Cerro Catedral, the major downhill ski area about 15K out of town, also makes for some very good hiking. We didn't quite get to the top, but I guess at my age I don't need to make excuses.



Samantha, or Sam as we called her, in her early 20's, was an excellent teacher. Not only did we learn Spanish, but we had discussions about her life, friends, and politics. She was an admirer of Evita Peron, as so many people are down here. Evita is a complex figure. While speaking up for the poor and working class, she was anything but democratic in how she doled out money. and ruthless if anyone challenged her decisions.

A text book that Sam used with us, intermediate level, had some short stories and dialogues about life in Argentina. One of them was about a ladrone, or thief, who stole some money from an old lady while she was out walking. He was eventually apprehended and brought before a judge, who at first, demanded to know how he could have done such a thing. The thief, ignoring this comment, and apparently recognizing the judge, said something to him about the fact that they knew each other. The judge responded by saying, "Yes, now that you mention it, that's right. I thought you looked familiar. Did you go to X school in Cordoba?" The thief nodded. "Why didn't you say so right away. Of course, you were in a class with...." There was more dialogue about the school and possible mutual acquaintances. The story ended when the judge said that because they knew each other, he was going to release him, and he then did so without so much as a warning.

I was somewhat aghast about this ending and I questioned Sam about it, wondering if I had missed something. No I had not. "In Argentina," she said, "people help their friends all the time, and if you know someone it makes all the difference."

"But, this was a bad guy who had robbed an old lady. Surely he didn't deserve to be released just because they had been in the same school?" Sam didn't seem to think this was anything out of the ordinary, and was not surprised by it.

So things were not exactly as they appeared to be in this complicated country. And yes, there is corruption everywhere including the USA, but I don't think we would put it in a text book of American English. We wouldn't openly condone it and define it as the norm. Are the Argentinian's simply less hypocritical? Perhaps, but.....

Posted by jonshapiro 10:22 Archived in Argentina Tagged living_abroad Comments (1)

Argentina, The Promised Land?

Leaving around Midnight, we took the only train to Villazon, on the border with Argentina. The dark sagebrush and rock formations were occasionally visible in the moonlight, but the rest of the supposedly incredible scenery was hard to see. I slept little as is usually the case with all night journeys. In the early morning we made the uneventful border crossing, but not before witnessing the hundreds, perhaps thousands of indigenous "mule men" carrying huge sacks of goods from Bolivia to Argentina. They appeared like an endless stream of worker ants, who would drop their loads on the Argentinian side and then return to Bolivia empty handed, only to do it over and over again. Too tired to take pictures, and somewhat embarrassed as well, I refer you to the following site to get an idea of what it was like:http://www.lightstalkers.org/im/show/494566. We walked across the bridge to the bus station of La Quica,in Argentina, and although a rather scruffy border town, it was already possible to discern some differences between the two countries. It was clearly more prosperous than the Bolivian side. We caught the next through bus to Tilcara, and spent the night there before going on to Salta, the next morning.

Salta remains one of my favorite cities in Argentina. Situated in a valley surrounding by the Andes, and founded in the 1500's, it has many old colonial buildings and wonderful parks.




Plaza 9 de Julio, not far from our hotel, is charming with it's wide cobblestone streets and outdoor cafes.



The food is fabulous, in some ways the best in Argentina, because in addition to the usual succulent steaks, there are local specialties such as Locro, a hearty soup, more like a stew with vegetables and meat. There are empanadas of all types, baked and therefore not greasy as they often are in many other places. There are also ice-cream shops with exotic flavors and huge cones. Most important of all, YOU CAN EAT ANYWHERE AND NOT GET SICK. This was a very welcome change after the rigors of the Solar.

In Salta, the differences between Argentina and the Andean countries of Ecuador, Peru and Bolvia, were emphatic and obvious. There were hardly any indigenous people, the Argentinians having killed most of them off in the mid 19th century. Everyone looked European, and we no longer stood out. The buildings were well kept, and the city was generally clean and and easy to explore. We felt we had made the transition to a first world country, but because of the economic crisis, some 6 years earlier it was still very cheap by US and European standards. At this time of year, the afternoons were hot, and as in Spain, a late lunch and siesta were common place. Stores would often close for several hours. Afternoons I would lunch on a dozen assorted empanadas, and a bottle of the local brew, Quilnes, about $2US, and spend a few hours people watching and reading. It all felt very civilized compared to what we were used to.


Unfortunately I got rather sick not long after our arrival, perhaps brought on by lack of sleep and the poor diet of the proceeding weeks. It was more of a respiratory thing than a stomach bug. I spent a few days either in bed or lying about in the shade of some nearby parks. It felt like a reminder that if I pushed my body it would push back, but who knows? Maybe it was something I caught from the woman across from me in the train who was sneezing and coughing. It did prevent a few of those leisurely lunches, as I was prone for most of that time. After I felt somewhat better, we walked the city streets and took a few side trips. There was a small mountain on the edge of town, Cerro Bernardo[i], with a teleferico, and we rode up to see the view and explore the gardens and fountains at the top.



Another day we took the bus to San Lorenzo, a wealthy suburb at the foot of the mountains. There were some easy hiking trails through the hills and along a stream.


Mostly we just took it easy, luxuriating in the comfortable surroundings and safe food. All part of my recovery, of course.

Posted by jonshapiro 11:37 Archived in Argentina Tagged food Comments (1)

And The Solar de Uyuni

When we left on this trip, neither of us had heard about the Solar, the largest and highest salt flats in the world. En route, several travelers had told us not to miss it, and they were right. To get there we took a bus to Oruro, and then a train to the town of Uyuni, at the edge of the flats. The train was delayed and we didn't get in until close to midnight. We lugged our bags to one end of town to the Hotel Tonito, close to the army base. It looked closed, but we banged on the door for a few minutes and someone finally came to let us in. We had made a reservation for this place in LaPaz, and it was nothing to rave about. In the morning we had breakfast at Minute Man Pizza, adjoining the hotel. This turned out to be quite a hospitable eatery, run by an American from Amhearst Massachusetts, and his Bolivian wife. They had various organic treats, and seemed to be the one place in Uyuni where you didn't have to worry about the food making you sick.

The small town has broad streets with low buildings and reminded me of the American west. It used to be a major railroad crossing, and is still a small commercial hub for southern Bolivia. The major business seems to be tourism, with many agencies and guide shops. While Nanette chatted with George, the owner of Minuteman, I went around to various guide services to check out jeep trips. This particular year the flats were flooded with up to two feet of water, and we heard that the tours just went out for a few hours, and then came back to town on the same day before driving around to see other sites. I talked to a few other visitors on the streets who said that there was one company that was still taking people all the way across. This appealed to my more risk taking, age denying side, and I booked a 3 days trip for the two of us at $60 a piece. I was not about to be deterred by a little water. The agent said they were leaving in an hour, and would not be running another trip for a few days. We had not planned to leave so soon, but this seemed too good to pass up. I practically ran back to the retaurant to get Nanette, and we checked out of the hotel in record time.

When we returned to the tiny tour office, there were young people from Switzerland and Sweden and a couple of Brazilians, but we were the only Americans. Naturally, the guides were not ready to leave for more than an hour. Hurry up and wait. A women from the office finally showed us where the jeeps were parked, not one but two, and there were already several people packed into one of them. Clearly, I wasn't the only risk taker here, though we were the two oldest by far. Both of the vehicles looked as if they had seen better days. Each was at least 20 years old and extremely discolored, presumably from the salt. Another hour was spent trying to jump start one of the jeeps. Not an auspicious beginning. I wondered what would happen if we got stuck in the middle of the Solar. Eventually they got the engine started, and our first stop was the railroad graveyard outside of town. There were several engines and rusty cars that looked to be 50 to 100 years old, remnants of Uyuni's more prosperous years as a shipping and railroad center.


The tracks appeared to go nowhere.


Next stop was a little further out of town where our driver stopped to pack the engine. What is that, you ask? I didn't know either, but the driver pulled up various weeds and plants from the arid soil and placed them around the engine to protect it from the salt.


At last, we were ready to begin. In front of us the salt flats stretched on for miles, as far as we could see. The sky was a deep blue, and the water acted as a mirror which reflected it. At first, the water was about a foot deep and did not present any major problems. We drove across, creating a small wake as the salt quickly crusted over the windshield. After a few minutes it became impossible to see out, and I wondered how the driver knew which direction to go in since everything looked the same, and there appeared to be few landmarks. Every 5 or 10 minutes he would toss the contents of a bottle of water onto the windshield, so that he could get a quick look before the salt built up again. Perhaps this was enough to find the way. I hoped so anyway. We had to roll down our windows to see anything from the back seats, but as soon as we did the salt coated our faces. The landscape was like nothing I had ever seen before. The bottom was pure white and flat, except for small ridges that had been formed by the water sloshing on the top.


The air was very clear as were about 3800 meters high, or 13,000 feet. There were several snow capped mountains visible off to one side, but other than that, it seemed like a vast emptiness of white and blue, a giant reflecting pool disorienting in its intensity. We saw only a few other vehicles, but in an hour or two, we came to a small island where there were several other jeeps, a hotel, and a restaurant, all constructed of salt.


The water was shallower here, about 6 inches, and the mounds of salt looked like snow. It was a fantastical scene. The hotel was surrounded by multicolored flags, people from various parts of the world, and located in what appeared to be an endless white plain in the middle of nowhere. I was giddy as I ran from one pile of salt to the next, trying to take it all in, and posing for the camera as Nanette snapped pictures.


During lunch we met people from other tours, all of which, save ours, were turning back at this point. Maybe they knew something we didn't. It was close to three before we started off again on our journey to nowhere. Our driver and guide sat in the front seat talking in Spanish and chewing on coca leaves. After a while, we seemed to loose track of the other jeep, but our guides didn't seem concerned. As the afternoon wore on, clouds built up and we began to hear thunder and see lightening in the distance. This was also reflected in the water, creating a double image of jagged flashes in a sea that was dark on one side and orange-pink on the other.



By now, the water was about two feet deep, and reached almost to the top of the exhaust. Not good, I thought, as the jeep could easily stall out. Our driver and guide began to talk a bit more heatedly, and seemed unsure of where to go. For all we knew, they had driven around in one big circle. As we drove on, the storm seemed to move closer, and the wind picked up forming small whitecaps.

It also started to get colder. Were we lost?


At a certain point our jeep did indeed did stall out, and I wondered if this had been such a good idea after all. Perhaps as the other tour guides had told me, it was too dangerous to make it across under these conditions. After about 15 minutes it was obvious that the engine was not going to start, despite valiant attempts, and our guide began to make preparations to leave the jeep.

We had been told before we left that at some point, we would have to walk across in the water, but somehow this did not seem part of the plan. There was no shoreline in sight and the water came up almost to the doors. And where was the other jeep? I was in no hurry to get out, and start wading in salt water in the middle of an electrical storm . It seemed too dangerous. It was more prudent to sit tight until the storm passed. In back of us, the two young Swedish doctors in their mid 20' began to cry when it became obvious that the jeep was not going to move again. They thought we were done for. I was a little more sanguine, having been through other close calls, and tried to console them. Our guide took out a small raft and loaded several jerry cans of gasoline on top. He told us that there was a third jeep on the opposite shoreline, not yet visible, which was going to meet us, but that we needed to get there before dark. By now it was close to 6 and the daylight was fading quickly. He explained that normally we could get closer to the shoreline before we had to walk, but now the water was too deep, and the walk would be longer than planned. As these preparations were under way, our companions arrived in jeep number two. We all let out a big cheer. It seemed then that we were not lost, or at least we were all lost together.

By the time the driver of the 2nd jeep had made his preparations, the storm had moved off and was no longer directly overhead. This was a good thing. At least we would be less likely to be struck by lightening. I had forgotten to get my shorts out of my pack, and decided to just strip down to my underwear, to avoid getting my only pair of long pants wet while walking to shore. We all got out, and everyone got a kick out seeing me, altacocker (old fart) that I am, standing in the water in my underwear and rain jacket, along with my red pack

P2120740.jpg P2120746.jpg

Vagabonding at 60 indeed, well at this point 57. What was I thinking? Everyone took scandalous pictures of my semi-naked bod, and we all laughed hysterically. It provided a bit of comic relief in what was a rather tense situation. With our trustworthy (we hoped) guide in the the lead, we started to trekking towards shore. I looked back and wondered how they would ever get the jeep started, but by then, that was the least of my concerns. Most of us were barefoot or were wearing sandals, and the bottom was slippery. It was not easy walking in several feet of water, and we got chilled quickly as the sun went down. After a while, and it felt like a long while, we could make out the shoreline in the distance The storm had more or less blown itself out, but the cloud formations were hallucinogenic in the pink light. We must have walked for an hour or more, and could see a small spit of land jutting out into the salt flats. Sure enough, there was another jeep at the end of it, flashing its lights so that we could see the way across the darkening water. Eventually we all made it, shivering as we got back into the jeep. This one seemed in much better condition than the last one. I guess this wasn't going to be a suicidal mission after all. For a time, I wasn't sure. Our destination was another salt hotel about ½ hour drive up the shoreline. We arrived just as the last light of day was extinguished. The tables and chairs were also made of salt and so were the beds.


Luckily, not the pillows and the mattresses. There was no electricity, but in the dining room they had gas lanterns that put out a friendly glow. In our room, we used candles. Nanette was feeling pretty sick and took a nap before dinner, hoping the Cipro she had taken earlier would work. Cipro is a broad spectrum antibiotic which is good for stomach issues in third world countries. We never leave home without it. Dinner was served about an hour later, and consisted of some kind of greasy meat of unknown origin, and a vegetable soup made with Andean rice, or quinoa, which is a staple in these parts because of its hardiness. I was feeling queasy myself, and just had a little soup. Nanette ate almost nothing. We all went to bed early, tired after the adventures of the day.


The next morning, practically everyone was sick. Good thing I didn't eat much. Nanette was a little better than the previous evening, but still not feeling well. We had a long day of travel over very rough tracks to get to our next destination, which was a national park further into a remote and higher section of the Altiplano. This was some of the wildest country I had ever seen. Snow covered volcanoes amidst the dry soil, it was a very sparsely populated high desert.



Again I was reminded of the American west, but on an even bigger scale.


There were weird rock formations, multicolored, and worn away by wind and water into strange shapes and sizes.


A Bit of Snow

It was windy most of the time and chilly in the thin air. Periodically the jeep would get stuck and we'd all have to get out and push. At one point we had to cross a muddy stream that looked several feet deep with soft sand all around. I wasn't sure the jeep would make it, but after scouting around for a while our driver found the best place to cross, while we hopped from boulder to boulder to get to the other side. We stopped for lunch at some rock formations that provided a little shelter from the wind, and waited while the guide fired up a kerosene stove in the back of the jeep to heat up our food. By this time I was hungry and gobbled up the basic grilled cheese sandwiches, hoping for the best. We continued all afternoon without seeing another vehicle, and climbed higher as we approached the park. We passed lakes of different colors, red and green. The guide told us it was because of the minerals. The red one had a number of flamingos who looked strangely out of place in this non-tropical moonscape. Nothing lived in the green lake because it contained too much arsenic.


We arrived at the park huts as it was getting dark. It was really cold now, close to freezing, and we didn't carry sleeping bags with us, unlike several of the other travelers. Luckily, Manuel, our guide, took pity on us old folks and gave us several warm blankets. Although we didn't pass any vehicles on the way, it was crowded inside, and for a little while it wasn't even clear whether there would be enough room. Eventually though, they crammed us all into one big room and we each got a bed. Dinner was served by lantern light, and there was more quinoa soup and some kind of chicken. Oh well, we weren't here for the food. I awoke the next morning, after a fitful night, to about two inches of snow that dusted everything with white, and made it look even more surreal. We left before dawn, and our first stop just as the sun was coming up, was the site of several large steam vents blowing through the rocks.


A couple of the largest were colored by minerals, and must of have been 20 or 30 feet high. We stomped around in the cold air, listening to the whooshing of the earth as our breath made steam vents in the cold air. With all the condensation, snow on the ground, and the sun filtering through the mist, it was an other worldly inferno.


An hour later we stopped at some shallow hot springs. Most of the group refused to go in because of the freezing temperatures, but maybe because of years of getting naked in a a hot-tub in the northeast winters in upstate New York, we had no hesitation. And it was worth every minute. The water was warm enough to be comfortable, and the view before us was of high mountains and a small lake. The enormous sense of space, and the warmth of the bath were enough to make me forget the difficulty of getting here. It was good to give my bones a rest in this spiritual place.

From here we drove on to another bright green laguna, empty of all life because of the toxic minerals, but captivating to look at.


It was surrounded by mountains devoid of vegetation. From there we continued on to the Chilean border, where about half of our group got out and waited for the bus to meet them at the guard house and bring them back to civilization. The rest of us had another long bumpy jeep ride back to Uyuni, but there were many more interesting sights along the way, including one area, known as the Dali rocks.


Slowly we started to come to signs of civilization, and eventually got to a small Indian village where we got out for a break. There was an escarpment past the village giving it some cover from the harshness of the land, and for some unknown reason a ten foot tall wooden chicken sat in the center of town.


We stopped for candy bars in the tienda, and sat next to the chicken while children unused to seeing gringos stared at us.

Deciding Whether to Eat the Candy we Gave Him

We still had another two hours, but the ride went quickly as we talked politics to our Brazilian friends, 19 and 20, who were incredibly well informed for their age, and spoke English, Spanish, and, Italian fluently, as well as their native Portuguese. When we arrived back in Uyuni we took a shower and headed straight for Minuteman. Pizza never tasted so good.

The next day we rested up for the overnight train ride to the Argentine border, and contemplated the experience of the preceding few days. Despite being sick, they were without a doubt, one of the highlights of our trip

Posted by jonshapiro 10:24 Archived in Bolivia Tagged postcards Comments (5)

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