Flight to La Paz. This entire vacation is just go go go. La Paz is basically a city on a mountain, with red unfinished houses built in whatever space they could find, on hills rising up and up. I’d find it impossible to live in a city where you have to go on a steep uphill to get anywhere. Didn’t stay too long in the city, immediately took a 3 and a half hours bus trip to Oruro, a small city which used to have mines but now is just a connecting city with pretty much nothing to see.
We had lunch at Pollo Mimi’s, went to the Socavon, where there was a weekend carnival of sorts, with food, raffles, music, and lots of doll clothing for sale. 11:00 PM bus to Uyuni, about 8 hours. We took some sleeping pills hoping to arrive at least somewhat rested. Little did we know it would be 8 hours of dirt road and potholes.
Arrival at 6:30 in the morning in Uyuni, small touristy town where all the tours start. After a nap and breakfast, we were on the road in a big 4×4 with a German, French, Brazilian, an American name Bobby, and our tour guide Adelio. It was going to be a 3-day tour of the desert, with landscapes I’d never seen before.
On the first day we visited a train cemetery and then the Isla del Pescado, which is an old coral reef with huge cacti, the oldest being 900 years old. Great views of the desert and mountains.
Next, the Salar de Uyuni. 12,000 km of salt desert at 3700 meters high. You can’t help imagining that all of that blinding whiteness is just snow on the verge of melting. Its expanse is just incredible, reaching out on all sides and disappearing where the distant mountains begin. Everything is shades of gray, dazzling white, blue. You can see workers shoveling piles of salt to put on trucks. Talk about an endless abundance of natural salt. You almost think you’re near heaven with the pristine landscape.
Lunch, then hotel. We stayed the first night at a salt hotel, with the floors and walls all completely made of salt. The six of us shared a room, and the beds were actually quite excellent. Dinner and two games of pool.
Alarm call at the crack of dawn, a long drive through the desert to see the colored lagoons. The desert in Bolivia is endless, with colors and volcanic rock similar to that in Lanzarote. We crossed the train tracks, continued through the desert, and arrived at the first lagoon. An expanse of mineral and sulfuric water where hundreds of flamingos were bathing and eating. Squishy, smelly mud that sticks to your sneakers and flaming feathers everywhere.
Lunch, then onward to get a view of the volcano, then to the Laguna Colorada, whose red tint is due to its high magnesium content. Amazing colors sandwiched together from sky to lagoon, like some kind of giant brewing cauldron on the surface of the earth.
The hotel the 2nd night wasn’t so great as the first – lumpy beds, smelly rooms, and cold. We also had to cope with a feverish German who was “dying,” according to him. Poor guy seemed just about on the verge of death. The French guy, Simon, brought him (haha) wine and soup. He was one sweet guy, and I guess the best and most interesting people you meet are when traveling.
4:30 wake-up call, first visit to the geisers and fumarolas. Then the thermal hot springs. Only Simon and me went in – a piece of heaven, like a big steamy bath right outside in nature. Then on to the Laguna Verde, which unfortunately wasn’t so green when we saw it, because of the lack of wind. We drove right to the border of Chile to let off the 3 guys who were continuing on to Chile. So just Bobby and the two of us were left.
During our long drive back to Uyuni, our tour guide Adelio began to talk about the history of the Inca and the Aymara, about how Cuzco was founded because one of the Inca leaders was able to push a walking stick into the ground, as a prophecy had predicted that a great city would be founded in a place where the earth was soft enough for the stick to be buried. We all listened, spellbound, as his stories slowly unfolded, in a voice that was strong, steady, and amused by its own revelations. It reminded me of the way my father tells stories. Adelio had a number of mixed cassette tapes that contained various kinds of music, including American pop and rock from the 70’s and 80’s, death metal, Michael Jackson – good stuff. He said he has mixed them himself – he’d been driving since he was fifteen and now has rheumatism in his hands.
We stayed a night in Uyuni because there were no available train or bus tickets (we even considered getting a taxi for that 8 hour hellish ride). I slept like the dead for the first time in days.
Spent a day in Uyuni. Did the laundry, walked around, lunched, bought some souvenirs – all with Bobby. I really liked Bobby. He was from Utah but spoke almost perfect Spanish, was laid-back, adventurous, easy to talk to, and always ready to laugh. He had very alert, bright eyes that made you want to talk to him, as well as a very interesting life.
Back on the bus in the evening, headed for La Paz, 12 hours.
Arrival in La Paz. On to yet another bus to Copacabana, after saying goodbye to Bobby. Then a ferry across Lake Titicaca to get to the Isla del Sol. I think the lake is just as I would’ve imagined it – so vast and still that it’s a majestic, pensive ocean, a blue-grey color a shade darker than the sky, where the snowy Andes mountains loom behind white mist.
We arrived on the south side of the island, the less touristy and exploited part. Whole families of pigs and chickens ran around on the loose, taking mud baths and wandering the shore. We coincidentally ran into Katie, an Australian girl who had done the Inca Trail with us – one of those crazy things that happen when you travel. We took a dip in the lake together – not as cold as the legend goes, really. It was more refreshing, bathing in a freshwater ocean with a view of the Andes, and perfect with the sun shining. We stayed on the island two nights. The first night our supposed nap turned into the endless sleep that your body pleads for when you haven’t slept well for days. The tomb. Our hostel was right on the shore, which made it convenient for swimming. I think Katie was right in saying that we were the only English speakers on the entire island – everyone else was Argentinian. Drunken, hippie, guitar-wielding, loud Argentinians.
On to new adventures, on the ferry back to Copacabana. Did some souvenir shopping until another deathly long bus ride to Arequipa – back into Peru and the end of our trip to Bolivia. Upon arrival to Arequipa, onto yet another bus to Camaná, a city on the Pacific coast. A tuc-tuc took us right on the shore, where we stayed at what might’ve been the worst hostel ever (esp. for what we were paying). What hostel has holes in the roof? And a boarded up door? Anyway, the beach was nice but the water freezing. Not a tourist in sight, just Peruvian families vacationing. Relaxed with my beach chair, my novel, and my ice cream sandwiches. Although the trip up til then was just so high voltage and stressful that I felt that I couldn’t relax properly. I’d been with the same person 24 hours a day, every day for about a month straight, and by that time my mind was slowly growing crazy, increasingly cranky, and screaming for not only time and space alone, but also a familiar face apart from Javi’s, and my family. My home. Toilets of the developed world. Food that won’t make me have diarrhea. Anything but an unfamiliar place in the middle of South America.
In the early morning we caught a collective van to Quilca, smushed in with other Peruvians while we traveled on dirt roads winding around beach cliffs with an intimate view of the sea. When we arrived at Quilca, we were surprised to see a tiny fishing port with not one tourist in sight. The captain was the mayor of the port, who we talked to about sailing out to the islands in which the sea lions inhabited. The porch of his humble wooden headquarters gave us shade on a hot morning. His tiny kitten made itself comfortable under my legs. We didn’t have the money on us to be able to make the trip, but one of the fisherman decided to take us on his boat for the cash that we had. 2 hours of rollicking and sea wind, lying on the deck of a small wooden boat – I could never be a seafarer.
When we finally arrived, there were hundreds of fat grey sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks, splashing in the waves, giving human-like shouts, napping. Heaven for sea lions. I had never seen so many creatures like that together in my life. There were even two penguins, a couple waddling on the rocks, peering at us with their cute beady eyes like those video game penguins.
After that we decided to go swimming by one of the beaches. We dropped anchor, and I jumped in first. Never swam in colder water in my life – there’s a reason the penguins are here. When we got to shore and settled down on the sand, we couldn’t imagine getting back in that water. But somehow we managed. Another 2 hours to get back to Quilca, some tuna fish in a can for a snack, a long nap. That concluded our day as pirates.
Back in Camaná, another day sitting by the beach. Sick in the morning, probably from the long boat ride. Bus back to Arequipa in the evening, did a bit of walking around until we found a place for dinner.
I was surprised at what a pleasant city Arequipa was, with its colonial arquitecture, and a more modern feel compared to Cuzco. Much more quiet, much less touristy. Picturesque. We walked around the main square, went to get some fresh juice from the market, then had our first salteñas. Delicious and soupy sweet, but burning. Then on to visit the Monastery of Santa Catalina, which is like no monastery I´ve seen before. An entire city of stone with rooms and kitchens and churches and patios. Its size is absolutely impressive. You can really imagine the amount of money the Catholic Church put into its religious building projects, after sacking its to’be colonies. Not just a church, but an entire city. Kind of like a pathetic answer to Macchu Picchu, but no less picturesque.
When we arrived at the airport to catch our flight to Cuzco, we discovered that the airline no long carried that flight, that they had canceled it starting January and had sent notice by e’mail. We were screwed because our flight to Madrid was leaving from Cuzco the next day, connecting in Lima. Back into the city to the airline headquarters. The solution was to fly directly into Lima and catch our flight there, and they would pick up our luggage in the Cuzco hostel and send it to Lima. Everything worked out as planned, except Javi got sick with fever and diarrhea, so we relaxed for the rest of the day.
The hotel where we stayed in Lima was not in a pretty part of town. Everything was commercialized, modern like any other big city. In our last hours of vacation we scrambled around the artisan markets buying souvenirs and keepsakes. I was ready, completely ready, to go home. I was ready a long time before that.