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Into Bolivia

Freezingly blinding - the Salar de Uyuni

Hello everyone. We´ve been on the move since our last post from Salta in Argentina. Since then we´ve travelled north to the border with Bolivia, spending a night in La Quica on the Argentine side of the border. The next day, after walking across the border to the Bolivian town of Villazon,  we took our first train in South America (our last was in Thailand) which arrived at around 2am in the morning into Uyuni. From here we booked onto a tour to see the vast salt flats, the Salar de Uyuni. With eight of us piled into a Toyota Land-cruiser we first went to see a train cemetery full of rusting old trains that used to carry minerals from this region – it made for some great photos. Then onto the main billing. The salt flats are dry at this time of year, and there was white as far as we could see. To walk on, it was a bit like snow, the salt crystals were crunchy little cubes, and in some parts of the salt flats they also have these giant hexagon patterns like paving slabs. In the middle of it all is a hotel made completely out of salt, and also an island covered with cactuses. We had a breathless walk around both, partly as we weren´t sure when our lunch was to be served, and partly the altitude of around 3500m taking its toll.  At other times of year the salt flats become covered by a thin layer of water and you get these amazing reflections of the clouds and surrounding volcanoes. It´d definitely be worth coming back to see.

Jon and the cactus island

Today we´ve been on a gruelling bus across the mountains to Sucre which is the second largest city in Bolivia. The roads were mostly untarmaced and surprisingly steep at times but the views across the bare hills and rocky canyons were great.  In some ways this southern part reminds us of Tibet. The high altitude brown plains without much vegetation; the people dressed in colourful woollens (the ladies also wear bowler hats perched on top of their heads much to Lou´s amusement); and even the coffee that tastes a bit like Tibetan tea (although it´s a lot more palatable). We like it a lot.

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Gee up horsey

Lou and our cowboy Eduardo

For the past few days we´ve been enjoying a little bit of luxury in a boutique B&B, La Casa Hernandez, (but amazingly at hostel prices) close to Salta in the north-west of Argentina. It´s been great to chill out and relax with some warmer days before we head to the salt flats in Bolivia which are a lot higher and colder. We had a warm welcome from the Dutch owners Alex and Rijkje, and we enjoyed spending our evenings chatting with our fellow guests: a pair of Aussie´s called Kerryn and Ben, and a Dutch couple, Ruud and Anna. We all went out for a cena, an argentine evening dinner with live folk music, and last night cooked an asado (barbecue). 

Staying out of town in the small village of San Lorenzo has really worked out for us. We´ve slept like babies every night due to the peace, quiet and comfortable beds. The fresh air might have helped too as we´ve been out and about, exploring the local canyon with great views over Salta, and we joined a gaucho for a few hours of horse riding. It was appropriately sedate for our experience level. We loved the beautiful views over the estate. They primarily raise cattle and have about six hundred cows dotted over their eleven thousand hectares which encompased all the mountains within view!

Thankfully today we´re not too saddle-sore and had a sightseeing and shopping day in Salta. The MAAM museum displayed one of the bodies of the three Inca children discovered at the top of one of the nearby volcanoes. Due to the altitude and sub-zero temperatures, they´re perfectly preserved along with clothing they were buried in. We´ve never seen anything quite like it.

All warm and cosy in my alpaca wrap

Our shopping focused on warm clothing with Lou picking up a woollen shawl, mitts and knee-high aztec socks complete with llama design. Jon picked up an alpaca wool jumper but having subjected it to the burn test we suspect it´s largely synthetic. Next time we´ll take our lighter along with us.

We haven´t been able to add photos from the B&B but will update the past few posts with photos when we can.

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The Iguazu falls, up close and personal

Us at the Iguazu falls

Today we’ve had an amazing jam-packed day at the Iguazu falls in Argentina, our best since being in South America. It didn’t begin particulary well as we missed our early bus as the ATM wouldn’t give us any money. Jon’s credit card has been stopped for some reason so we had to trek back to the hostel to get mine. Luckily that worked, once I’d remembered my pin, and we were solvent once again. After paying our way in to the park, we decided to start with a serene nature walk as early mornings are the best time for wildlife spotting. We did get slightly nervous when the guy at the information kiosk gave us a leaflet on what to do if we encountered a large cat. For the record, keep calm, don’t run and maintain eye contact while backing away slowly. If things take a turn for the worst and they attack, the advice was to keep calm and push it away forcefully. Right. We did hear one growl but after a nervous second and a quick look around, we decided it was probably Jon’s tummy. With both of us on slight tenderhooks, it was a lovely walk through forest to a small waterfall and pool at the end. We didn’t spot much wildlife but on the way back we nearly stepped on some! There was a very venomous snake curled up in the path. Our Spanish is still basic so whereas I understoood ‘it’s dead’, Jon understood ‘if it bites you, you’re dead’. Needless to say we gave it a wide berth (after taking a photo).

What have we let ourselves in for?

After all this excitement, it was on to the falls. We started with the lower path along the foot of some of the falls, giving a great panoramic view. We were amazed by how expansive the falls are. Even the smallest of the waterfalls here would be an attraction in its own right in any other place. The pounding, the rush of water with rainbows formed in the spray and the view to neighbouring falls make it all breathtaking. Watching the water wasn’t enough, we wanted to be in it and luckily there were boats to take us there! We strapped on our life jackets, bagged all our belongings into a dry sack and boarded a jet boat to get a closer view of one of the biggest falls, San Martin and a glimpse at the Devil’s Throat (the most famous fall). We got much more than we bargained for, rather than a polite viewing it really was up close and personal. Our boat disappeared in the churning spray and we all got a thorough soaking. Not content with one pass, our pilot dunked us again before zipping to a smaller waterfall, just to make sure we really were wet through.

Two toucans

Refreshed, we continued our tour with the upper falls walkway. There’s a cute little train to take you towards the pinnacle of Iguazu, the Devil’s Throat which forms the centre of the horseshoe-shape of the falls. The walkway in alive with beautiful butterflies and at the end you can stand in awe right at the edge. We spent a long time taking in the view, following the river as it cascaded over the edge and watching the spray. Rather than walk back, we had paid for a second boat ride, this time a safe and dry paddle boat, downriver to spot some more wildlife. Thanks to our guide, we saw a cayman and baby. We’d watched out for toucans all day since we’d seen them on the postcards at the giftshop. As we approached the exit turnstile, a man told us to look and we saw a pair! They were perched at the top of a tree, with their big orange beaks glowing in the sun. Our 20mm lens wasn’t going to cut it but as luck would have it, the nice man stood next to us also has a Lumix with a zoom lens which he lent us! What are the chances of that? It was the perfect end to a wonderful day. To cap it all, we were the last two people to squeeze on to the bus back to town. Luck definitely comes in threes although we owe an apology to the family of six we sneaked in front of. They wouldn’t have fit anyway.

Just one part of the falls

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Hot tubs and glaciers

The Franz Josef Glacier

We’ve continued our tour on the west coast, driving down to the Southern Alps from Greymouth and finding our favourite campsite so far. We stopped overnight at the Rainforest Retreat in Franz Josef Glacier for super-cheap camping courtesy of a Spaceship discount at $10 per person, including free hot tub and sauna. We booked our sessions and after grabbing a bite to eat, we were delighted to find out that we had a private outdoor hot tub for two! After sitting and bubbling away for a while, it was time to move onto the sauna, again just for the two of us. We loved having a little bit of luxury after a few nights of roughing it.

We braved the morning rain to continue down to the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, both nice strolls to the viewing points for the glacier face. It brought back happy memories of trekking in Nepal, where we could actually walk on the glaciers themselves. Here it is deemed to dangerous with lots of signs warning people to stay behind the ropes. Apparently, ice blocks the size of a campervan fall from the ice face daily and blocks of ice can form ice dams which suddenly give way to cause a rush of water flooding downstream rivers.

We’ve been eating convenient one-pot meals, including porridge for breakfast to warm us up and keep us going, and yesterday’s lunch was warmed tinned spaghetti with bread, eaten while performing the sandfly avoidance dance. We wild camped by a lovely river a few nights ago but got devoured by the sandfly neighbours so we’re itchy enough without any more bites. We drove back north up the coast to above Greymouth and wild camped again by the beach, quite a wild spot with heaps of driftwood and high waves. Due to the rain yesterday morning, some of our bedding got damp but luckily we had enough dry bedding to keep us warm and it was a dry night so everything else dried off too. We enjoy our quiet nights in. We have discovered a boil in the bag curry range so last night we dined on dhal makhani and rice, with a dollop of peach and mango chutney on the side and we settled down to watch one of our movies, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. We’d wanted to see it for a while and it beat most of the other DVDs on offer hands-down.

There she blows

This morning we had a walk on the beach just after breakfast and then drove on further north to the Pancake Rocks. They’re best viewed at high tide when the incoming waves shoot upwards through a blowhole so we’re updating you all via the blog while we wait 30 mins to walk out to the rocks. After that, our plan is to continue north, hopefully to the very north-west tip for the golden sands and clear blue sea.

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Guess where we are

Some clues (N.B. – people we’ve told aren’t eligible for this game):
– we’ve been there before
– there are photos of our location on the blog
– it was a perfect setting for Valentine’s Day
– it’s hot, but we can easily cool down

any guesses? Click the link below to find out.

Continue Reading…

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