Category Archives: Bolivia

4 hrs to go 100 metres…

Well wasn´t that fun! NOT…

We left Tupiza at approx 9am and got to the Bolivian border at approx 10:15am. Working out what to do and in what order was not easy. Some of the border police saw us walking around a little lost, so directed us to a queue, the going-into Argentina queue. It was soooo long. And it was sssoooo hot. We joined the end, and knew we were in for a bit of a wait…

Whilst doing so, we noticed a queue on the other side of the road, which looked like a going-into Bolivia queue. Upon further investigation however, it turned out to also be the leaving Bolivia queue too. Blimey!

So we left a couple of us with the bags in the first queue, while 2 of us went in search of getting a stamp finalising leaving Bolivia; which in effect meant we joined queue #2.

In the middle of this 100m strip of road, there is a sign with Bolivia on one side and Argentina on the other. Unfortunately for us, we were on the Argentinian side when we joined. The local Bolivians however did not want to be seen crossing over to the Argentinian side, and therefore created their own entry point to the queue at that sign, meaning they were pushing in front of us! ggggrrrr… We ended up getting pushed back to twice as far away from where we started. Well we were not happy I can assure y0u, but we had people in front of us allowing it to happen. So we started to make a fuss. My new best friend and I that is.

She was standing behind me and she spoke Spanish, which was most helpful, and she knew I was getting cross with the locals pushing in, as was she, so… she started to make noise in Spanish, and I in English. So much so that one of the police came to find out what was going on. Once explained, he relayed the message to the locals to go to the back of the queue, but only for the locals from now on; which meant we were no closer! ggggrrrr

With that, after a cold, thirst-quenching, life-saving coca-cola, we took issues into our own hands. Whilst I kept our spot in the queue, my partner in crime slowly but surely regained our original position. Then when the time was right, we all moved forward. We as in us, my new best friend, and her counterparts. And we got away with it, thank goodness.

Fortunately, when at the window inside the office, the Bolivian officials were more interested in talking amongst themselves when checking our passports, that even though they were stamping 5 passports with 2 people in possession of them, they didn´t seem to care.

Goal achieved; passports stamped. We had officially left Bolivia and were now in no mans land. With that, we regained our spot in the going-into Argentina queue, with our bags and the rest of us. Phew!

Ahhh, spoke to soon though. This queue was soooooo slow.
There were hundreds of people queueing and  1, sometimes 2, immigration police only manning the window. Excruiatingly slow. Every time one person got their passport stamped, the queue, per individual, inched their bags and their bodies along a little. And it was getting hotter…

Then we had more locals trying to push in ahead.
There was no way we were going to tolerate that a 2nd time, so this time we started the noise, and then the Spanish speakers, once they understood what was happening, joined in. Police arrived again, only to have this new lot moved to the back of the queue. Only they didn´t.

We spotted the same family sometime later not far behind us, but in front of our new best friend and her Argentinian buddies. So we took it upon ourselves to inform her. She then relayed it to the Argentinians and they went off!! Making more noise than we could ever have made. It worked though, and they were moved on again. We suspect though that they would have just tried again further down the line. But by this time it was not our problem as we were edging closer to THE window…

We finally got there, in front of the window, and then the young bloke serving me decided to tag-team with his comrade half way through and the process had to start again. In the meantime I had a local push in in front of me trying to do something quickly. Well that was the last straw, and he coped both barrels as did the immigration chap.

¨Go away and wait your turn; I´ve been here for 4 hours; don´t you dare¨ etc etc and then to the official ¨give me my passports now, stamped right now; don´t you dare either¨ etc etc. Suffice to say the local left, and passports were stamped, and we were finally done…

We were officially in Argentina. Now to the bus station as we had to get a bus to Salta. Fortunately we found one that was due in approx an hour, so we took that option. We had to changeover at Jutuy but that was OK. We figured we have a bit of a wait at that spot as it was only a 4 hour drive, we were departing at 4:45pm and changeover wasn´t until 11pm. Little did we know…

An hour into the journey and we were pulled over by passport control. Each and every one of us had to leave the bus, collect our bags and stand in the queue in front of their office; boys to the left, girls to the right. It was like something out of a movie, seriously.

Anyway, they checked passports and went through every bag of every person. Not a pleasant experience at all, but by then we were so over it by that stage that we would do almost anything to just get where we needed to get too. Was this incident related to our noise making capability at the border? I don´think so, but the thought did cross my mind…

We eventually arrived in Salta Argentina at 1:30am.
What a day…

Uyuni to Tupiza; what spectacular & dramatic landscape…

What a surprise this turned out to be…
Given the $ still working in our favour, we decided to go with the ¨top-end¨ tour, as opposed to the backpacker option. Thought we´d treat ourselves!

We got from Potosí to Uyuni, which all went well. A real backpackers hub is Uyuni, but it is from there that you need to start any of the Salar de Uyuni – the Salt Plains tour. Our guide Archie, and our driver Rubin from Tupiza Tours met us at our hotel bright and early the next morning. We loaded our stuffs into the 4WD and off we went…

Day 1
Salar de Uyuni is rather amazing. Click on the link to find out all about it. But from our perspective though, it is the best place to take the most creative photos, which of course, we took full advantage of (samples to come).

Lunching at the Isla del Pescado was gorgeous too, but a little ridiculous in so far as we shared this remote part of the world with approx 40 of our closest 4WD vehicles x 5 persons each! The island is made up of cacti and coral, but honestly, there were so many people on and around this tiny island, it was busier than Bourke St! There was even a queue to use the salt-constructed picnic tables!!

And then, when we had enough of standing in the sun, additionally strong with the reflection from the salt, we headed to our hotel. Now I have to admit, we weren´t expecting too much by way of ¨luxury¨, but I have to say, we were most pleasantly surprised.

Hotel de Piedra stands on top of a little village in the ¨middle of nowhere¨, and provided a most unexpected respite from the harshness of the salt plains. Really very impressive. The water was solar-powered and therefore had to be used as soon as we arrived, and power went off at 10pm, but that was all part of its charm.

What´s also impressive is the way this hotel, and the following two Tayka Hoteles we were to stay at, have been set up with the community. Each of the hotels have been built with the full support of the locals, and with the view to have the locals fully owning and running their own hotel within a 10-year period. They too were running out of ways to create their own revenues, and the plans have been hatched and executed accordingly. Another good reason for us to spend our money here…

Day 2
Once leaving the Salar de Uyuni, we were pretty much on our own, except for the occasional 4WD drive-bys. Today, we spent lots of time looking at Lagunas and flamingos! How many photos can one person take, really! We did have lunch with local wildlife though, greeted by Viscacha´s and little teeny-weeny mice that looked like Miss Tittlemouse from Beatrix Potter. They were certainly happy to scoff any lunch we didn´t!

Hotel Desierto was the hotel of choice for sleepover. This time we couldn´t even see the village that was looking after this one, so as we went up the drive, after finding a solitary sign in the middle of the desert, we were presented with this large hotel all by itself, unbelievable. It literally stands alone at the base of a mountain, at the edge of the National Park. Quite the mirage!

Day 3
Today was more lagunas, and flamingos, and llamas. Lots more llamas.
Lunch was with the llamas, lieterally. We found the most amazing spot in the middle of desert surrounds, green, lush, with llamas feeding and drinking from a flowing stream. Again, lots of photos taken, what more can we say!

Prior to that though, we spent time at Stone Tree, and then at the geysers. Even had a little soak in the hot springs. Sol de Mañana, despite being very smelly,  certainly revealed how the earth handles some of its own waste! The hot spring however was clean and balmy 36 oC; rather warm given how cool it was considering it was a desert morning. Well worth visiting though…

Our last hotel on our ¨luxury¨ tour was the Hotel de los Volcanes. Again, this one was as impressive as the other two. Such a delight!

Day4
More of the same really. Then as we were heading towards Tupiza to conclude our round-the-desert tour, we were introduced to Quebrada de Palala, with spectacular red rock formations that resemble needles reaching 4200m high. El Sillar, or more commonly known as ¨moon valley¨, where, as a product of erosion, show the most amazing formations Mother Nature can produce. A scene to be seen, and truly appreciated. Wonderful.

Altitude sickness played a part again in this leg of the trip, but this time I was ready. We started at 3300m and reached as high as 4950m! Fortunatley this time it was in the 4WD and not on foot. Thank goodness for Diamox!

Back to reality came with a thud. The Hotel Mitru in Tupiza was a bit of a let-down after the desert trio, but nevertheless functional. This is where we rested our weary heads, ready for the next part of our adventure, crossing the Bolivian/Argentian border…

Potosí – passing through…

A nice little town.

Walked around, checking out the lie of the land so to speak! Not much to it really.

  • A large square; check
  • A clock tower that does not work – check
  • A Para-Ti chocolate shop (so yummy!)- check
  • A street mall or two selling most things
  • not too much of interest, except…

…for the National Mint of Bolivia (SpanishCasa de la Moneda de Bolivia) or the Mint of Potosí. According to wikipedia, it is the mint located in the city of Potosí in Bolivia. It is from this mint that most of the silver shipped through the Spanish Main came. The tour was most interesting.

We tried for an English guided tour, but to no avail. Instead we followed a standard Spanish speaking one. But to all the followers credit, they made sure we understood what was going on, bless them. Sign language proved very useful!

Spent one night in Potosí on our way to Uyuni; to start our next 4-day 4WD adventure through the Bolivian salt plains,  deserts, lagunas, mineral deposits and ¨moon valley¨…

Sucre; as sweet as the name suggests…

Sucre, a sleepy hollow 50mins flight from La Paz, tucked away in its own little world.

A great place to unwind and recharge the batteries. Staying in a 5-star hotel, Bolivia style (the dollar working in our favour again), the Hotel Parador Santa Maria La Real offered a real oasis of luxury, off the consistent dusty road. A plesure really.

The one activity we did do, apart from what seems to be consistent eating, was go to the Dinosaur Park, Parque Cretacico. Sounds kitsch doesn´t it. But it was good, and that´s because they´ve kept the story as real as possible, even though there is a theme park tone happening around it. What you see is a hill, sliced in half, with the sheer wall facing you displaying its many tracks of different dinosaur footprints. Quite impressive really.

How can this be? The concrete factory that owns the site, was cutting into the limestone to make what they do. In doing so, they came across this amazing discovery. Why it´s standing to attention is because of tetonic plate movement many many years ago, which took the flat surface of the ground the dinosaurs walked on and raised it to feature upright in the present day.  We had almost expected another Puno Disney, fortunately this wasn´t the case.

Leaving today, heading to Potosi, and an underground silver mine…hhhmmmm

Chalalán Ecolodge, in the heart of the Madidi National Park, Amazon country…

We are talking real Amazon country…

Flying from altitude in La Paz, in our little 18 seater, to the Amazon rainforest was a shock to the system I can tell you. The La Paz locals walk around as if it´s winter, even though we think it´s mild, but the heat that hit you once you got out of that plane in Rurrenabaque was like walking straight into an oven, literally! All in 50 minutes.

Our guide Sergio met us at the airport; we were easy to recognise as we were the ones flapping just about anything we could get our hands on in order to create a breeze of some description, and we were very pink cheeked. We then got on the little local bus to the main part of town, and into the Chalalan Ecolodge head office. Rurrenabaque reminded me of what I remember Bali to be (I´m talking 1982 mind you!); dirt streets, open concrete gutters, a bar on most corners, and the recommended hotel in town, the Hotel Oriental, consisting of a bed, a shower with one tap and a ceiling fan. All one needs in the tropics really…

After finding Oscars Hotel, for a small fee, we sat there for the rest of the day trying to re-accilimatise, jumping in and out of the pool at will. Not only had we gone from  3500m to 300m, we´d gone from relatively mild weather to full on tropics… little wonder we were looking for respite. After managing to get through the day, and having the slowest evening meal ever, we finally got to lie our heads on our lone beds with the fan…

The next day we were up bright and early to get the boat upriver. 5½ hours upriver in fact, on the River Beni, a tributory of the Amazon; on our way to Chalalán Ecolodge,  located on the shores of the magnificent “Chalalán” Lake, in the Tuíchi valley at the heart of the Madidi National Park in the Bolivian Amazon.

Not only did we see

  • spider monkeys,
  • cappuccino monkeys,
  • yellow-face monkeys,
  • red howler monkeys,
  • poisonous snakes,
  • tarantulas,
  • caimons (little crocs)
  • frogs,
  • macaws,
  • vultures
  • the jaguar however alluded us, unfortunately..l.

…the main story for us is as follows. Whilst you can read all about what´s listed and more on the website www.chalalan.com, it´s the story of how it started that captured our attention…

At the beginning of the 1990s the indigenous community of San José de Uchupiamonas came to terms with its lack of development, poverty and the government’s lack of interest in the health, education, basic services and access to our region. In the 1980s 40 families from our community migrated in search of a better standard of living, something which made us realize that we would likely never receive help from the government nor any credit facilities and were forced to face the future on our own. We decided to create our own project whose main aim would be to improve the living conditions of our community, but were well aware of the difficulty there would be in realizing this dream while we had no concrete guarantee to offer the banks.

In the 1990s we started to ask ourselves: How can we make sure that our community does not disappear? How can we find employment opportunities and improve the living conditions of our people? By looking at the legacy that our ancestors had left us – the forests, animals, rivers and lakes – we decided on ECOLOGICAL TOURISM. Our sights were set and the task of saving our culture and land passed into the hands of a generation destined to a long struggle. Our idea was to construct rustic, traditional, Tacana-style cabins by the shores of the magical Chalalán Lagoon.

The CHALALÁN Project began on 28 February 1992, with no money but an incredible amount of faith and hope in our ability to work towards a better future for our children. Along the way we made many Bolivian, Dutch, Norwegian and American friends who joined our cause. Joseph (Yossi) Ginsberg, an Israeli, thanked our community after being rescued in the Tuíchi valley, and, on the 23rd of December, 1992, said “I will never forget or stop thanking you. I was born in Israel but I believe I was reborn on the beaches of Progreso near San José. I feel Bolivian and it would be an honor for me now to be a Josesano “. He began to seek financing to promote the community project and managed to contact the representatives of Conservation International and through them contact the Interamerican Development Bank.

The Project was now up and running along with the search for financing. However we still needed more support. This came from Mr James D. Nations, Conservation International’s Latin America Vice President, who wrote the following about his visit to San José de Uchupiamonas: “In all of my working days I have never seen such a desire to protect the environment. I will never forget seeing such respect and love for life and meeting wonderful people”.

His visit had a very positive effect for our community and his desire to help our cause led to the support of Conservation International Washington for our project and negotiate with the IDB, which ended up with the award of a Non-Refundable Technical Cooperation agreement (ATN/ME-4757-BO) for the “Sustainable Development and Ecotourism in San José de Uchupiamonas Programme”. It was signed in 1995 along with the creation of the Madidi National Park using funding from the Multilateral Investment Fund.

Had we not taken these quick and decisive actions, our community, both its culture and land, would have disappeared forever.

Now, doesn´t that just warm the cockles of your heart? What a good story. How entrepreneurial is all I can say…
Some 15-18 years later, the project is thriving and we have just spent the most amazing 3 days there. We knew the ecolodge was community based, which is why we chose to spend our money there as opposed to picking some place else (I love how you can spend your money according to what´s important to you and your family). But we did not fully understand the full extent of  how it came to be until after speaking with the community people who looked after us. An honour indeed…

They did also teach us, including Daughter, how to chew coca leaves their way (with bicarbonate of soda and lime juice) and introduced ¨baby puma milk¨ which was some milky strong alcoholic substance. This we had to share with PachaMama (mother earth) and partake as well. The faces Daughter was pulling was priceless, and could not get the stuff out of her mouth quick enough!

Hopefully our little bit helped, and where possible, the word will be spread.
One can only trust that the story continues…

Next on the itinerary, Sucre.