Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Cordillera de los Frailes (June 14th - 16th, 2013)

We hadn't done any hiking since the Parque Nacional de la Campana more than a month earlier, and were very eager to explore the Cordillera de los Frailes. We made though prepararions for this trip: we bought a military map (from IGM) for a part of the area (they no longer had a map for the other part), we had maps downloaded to our mobile devices, both with GPS, a tent, camping equipment, etc. We asked for advice from Casa de Turismo in Sucre, and also from Condor Trekkers, a non-profit organization that regularly runs tours to the area. Perhaps the best tips we got were that we should be patient, that many things can go wrong, and if we plan a three-day trip, we should prepare to stay for four or five days. Indeed, at both places we got information that sounded clear at the time, but in practice turned out a bit more complicated, or even obsolete.

During the trip to see dinosaur footprints close in Sucre we met an American called Dan. He also had all the equipment and was interested in going to the area as well. Thus, we waited for a day for the weather to get better, bought some food, and the three of us started our trip early on Friday morning.

Full of enthusiasm, we took a taxi to Parada Ravelo. There we could to take a truck in the direction of Potolo, with scheduled departure at 10am. However, we had been advised to be there at 9am, as trucks sometimes leave earlier if they are too full. This was not our case and the truck left at around 10:30. The ride was cool, and really bumpy. The truck was half-empty and there was plenty of space for our big bags and for us as well. We quickly became the main tourist attraction for the locals, as the majority of people visiting Cordillera de los Frailes go on organized tours, and not with pubic transportation.

Our truck to Chataquila

At Chataquila we got off the truck and took a look at the local chapel. From there we started a descent down on an old Inca road. It was well maintained, easy to find and reminded me of paths in the High Tatras. The views from it were just great! Around noon we got to the soccer field of Chaunaca. Next to the soccer field was a small shop, where we bought some water. We were also asked to pay 25 bs per person for entering the area. When asking for the receipt, we realized that woman possibly cannot write in Spanish and we had to create a receipt ourselves. Fortunately, we were never asked to show it.

Chapel at Chataquila

Did Tatra National Park learn from Incas? 

At the soccer field we were supposed to turn left to take a footpath to the Maragua crater and village. Unfortunately for us, Bolivians had been working hard and we soon saw a brand-new bridge, which diverted us on to the road to Maragua, and we somehow missed the footpath. The way along the road was said to be faster, which was just as well, because the weather was getting somewhat suspicious. We arrived in Maragua at around 5pm, with just a small drizzle along the way.

It was Friday evening and the village seemed quite abandoned. We were told about sleeping possibilities in the local school. Some classrooms were open and even the light was turned on in one. Two teenage girls told us that a porter should come in an hour or two to give us official permission to sleep there. Thus, we cooked a good dinner, played the 20 questions game, watched the moon and the stars, and waited for him. Probably because it was Friday, the porter never showed up. Anyway we slept quite well in one of the classrooms.

Classroom during the day, shelter during the night!

The next day we tried to find a pre-Hispanic cemetery that was marked on the map. We found something, but were not sure what it was. We then continued from Maragua to Humaca, following advise from Condor Trekkers to go in the direction of a big tree at the top of the crater. Unfortunately, there were three places with a big tree at the top. Based on the map and compass we decided to aim for the left-most one. The way up to the edge of the crater was quite demanding and at many places there was no real path. On the other hand the views of the crater were magnificent. On the top we had lunch, and based on GPS verified that we had chosen the right tree. From there, we assumed that our path would be simple. According to the military map we were just supposed to follow a path towards Humaca. There was one path drawn on the map and also one path with the right coordinates, so we followed it. Later on the path just ended. We checked our position using GPS and found that we were not at all where we wanted to be. Using a compass and GPS we determined the direction we needed to go and just started making our own path. It was quite a steep way down, and without a path it not very pleasant. Fortunately, in the half of the descent we found another path going in the direction we wanted. We refilled our water bottles at the river and continued to  Humaca. In this small village, we asked for permission to camp (20 bs) and bought a barrel of water (10 bs).

Is Laura standing next to a pre-hispanic grave?
Laura and Dan filtering water

We build our tents and started cooking dinner. We were surrounded by local kids, who were talking to us, and often asking us for some sweets, fruits, ball-point pens, etc. After our relatively large dinner they also said that we can buy some eggs. We would have loved to do it, as it would have been a nice way to support the local community, but we refused the offer because we were no longer hungry.

Laura cooking a delicious dinner

The last day we were offered that the kids (accompanied by two donkeys) take us to Potolo, where we were heading too. Dan had a funny negotiation with them about the price:
The kids asked how much we want to pay them for the service.
Dan: "10 bs".
Kids: "No, we want 20".
Dan: "OK".
Kids: "How about 30 bs?"
Dan: "We already agreed upon 20".
One hour later, the kids asked for 100 bs!
In any case, at one place the kids just told us that they are not continuing and we were left on our own. Dan still gave them 20 bs for the service, which I was strongly against, as it creates a bad impression that tourists can be easily cheated. Fortunately the path to Potolo was quite easy to follow. We aimed to be there at 1 pm (it was quite tough to make it on time). because we were told that a bus or truck should depart towards Sucre at that time. In Potolo, however, we discovered that a truck will leave between 3 and 4pm. Luckily, we saw a bus of a tourist agency at 2:30 and they gave us a free lift back to Sucre.

The path to Potolo

With all the troubles it was a great trip. The only unfortunate thing was that we missed the dinosaur footprints that are located in the area, but without GPS coordinates or a guide are nearly impossible to find.

In general, orientating oneself in the area is quite a challenge. The topographic military map was kind of ok, but a large majority of the footpaths were not on it. The paths were obviously not marked. In some places, you could walk for almost a day without seeing anybody, and besides, Spanish is primarily spoken by kids (who can sometimes give you really strange replies). The majority of the area had also been completely empty on openstreetmaps and I was very happy to add quite a few paths, which will hopefully make hiking in the area a bit easier.

More pictures are available here.

Sucre (June 6th - 18th, 2013)

Sucre is the birthplace of Bolivia and the constitutional capital of the country. It is beautiful, with many well-preserved, primarily white buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries, giving it the nickname "the White City". We´d read that many visitors end up spending more time there than originally planned, and this happened to us as well. Unfortunately, the reason for this were not the many things the town has to offer, but rather the rapid onset of travelers´ diarrhea. I stayed in our room for three days and lost so much liquid and energy that I was left feeling weaker than ever before. My appetite did not return for several more days, which was a pity, because Sucre has some really good places to eat. In addition, just as I started feeling a bit more human, Radek announced that it is his turn to stay in, but fortunately, his symptoms were never as severe as mine, and he was back on his feet two days later. In any case, we spent about five or six days doing little more than watching cable TV and visiting the restroom. The owner of the B&B we stayed at was very supportive: she even called her sister - a doctor - to ask for advice on how to help us.

On Sunday, when both of us were feeling more or less OK, we heard about a dance parade taking place in connection with nationwide university admissions. Students from more than 20 universities dressed up in traditional clothing and danced along a street in the city center. It was beautiful, and fascinatingly diverse.

We spent the rest of our days in Sucre walking around town, visiting a viewpoint, and climbing up a miniature version of the Eiffel Tower in the Parque Bolívar. We also went to the cinema to see "The Great Gatsby" (3D was totally unnecessary), and to the Parque Cretácico, where we had a rather distant view of more than 100 dinosaur tracks, and could walk around life-size dinosaur models. On this trip we had the great pleasure of meeting Dan, with whom we later went on hike in the nearby Cordillera de los Frailes.

Munch munch munch.

Nearly vertical dinosaur footprints

At the viewpoint of the White City

We received a proper dose of history in "the House of Freedom" (Casa de la Libertad), where the independence of Bolivia was proclamed in 1825, with Sucre as its capital. The first cries for independence in all of Latin America had also been voiced in Sucre, some 16 years earlier. In the end of the 19th century, after a civil war, which Sucre lost, the seat of government moved to La Paz. We also learned that Bolivians are to date upset about losing land to Chile in the Pacific War, and the two countries still lack diplomatic relationships.

Jesuit chapel within the Casa de la Libertad.
This is where Bolivia's independence was declared.

You can see more photos of Sucre here.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Potosí (June 2nd - 5th, 2013)

Soy el rico Potosí
Del mundo soy el tesoro
Soy el rey de los montes
Envidia soy de los reyes

I am rich Potosí
The treasure of the world
I am the king of mountains
The envy of kings

We spent a couple of days in Potosí - one of the highest cities in the world (4090 m), with a glorious, but sad history. The neighboring Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) provided silver for the Spanish crown for more than two centuries, allowing for example, the funding of the Counter-Reformation in Europe.

Cerro Rico, essential for Potosí

The working conditions in the mines were harsh back then, and they continue to be difficult. The tunnels are low (not a job for tall people) and the air is bad - some tunnels have toxic gases and mining produces a lot of dust. Most miners don´t wear a mask, so lung problems are common. We were down in the mines for about two and a half hours with a tour guided by a miner. Or guide Wilzon has been working in the mines for over twenty years since the tender age of 12. Many start even earlier and attend school in the evenings. Moreover, the profession often stays in the family. To avoid this, Wilzon hopes to move to Sucre and open a restaurant, and we wish him best of luck with this.

Maren, Wilzon and I ready to hit the mines

We were asked to bring small presents to the miners - a non-alcohol peach-flavored soft drink, some coca leaves, and perhaps cigarettes. Since the miners´ lungs already have enough to deal with, we did not buy any cigarettes, but were looking forward to giving the other presents to the hard-working men. Two days prior to our tour, however, the miners had sacrificed a llama and had been drinking since then. They drink primarily a 96% distillate of sugar cane. As a result, we did not see very many workers, and ended up giving most of the presents to a man who seemed to be in need of a hang-over cure. We did, however, see many colorful minerals, mines created during different eras, and a couple of sculptures of the mining deities. One of them - el Tío, the miners´ god of minerals - resembles the devil. The miners bring cigarettes, coca leaves, and alcohol to these Tíos, and ask or thank them for rich mineral veins.

Praying to el Tío

Back in fresh air and sunlight

We also visited the National Mint of Bolivia, where silver coins were produced for Spain and later Bolivia. Currently, it is not in use as a mint, but rather a museum.

Model of silver production in colonial times at National Mint

The Santa Teresa Convent, which still houses a community of five Carmelite nuns, was absolutely fascinating. It used to be a great privilege of the second daughters of wealthy families, at the age of 15, to join the convent. They never again saw anyone from outside the convent, and were even buried there. Brr... Chilling.

An inner courtyard of the Santa Teresa Convent, where nuns spent an eternity in prayer

Afterwards, we wanted to go someplace warmer, and thus headed towards Sucre, the constitutional capital of Bolivia.

Check out more pictures of Potosí here.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Trip to Uyuni (May 30th - June 1st, 2013)

From San Pedro we wanted to continue to Bolivia to see Salar de Uyuni. The most straightforward option for us was to book a trip with a local travel agency, which provided transportation, accommodation,  food and generally everything we needed.

We, along with three other people, were picked by a large bus at around 08:00. First, we were driven inside San Pedro to the immigration office. There we officially left Chile and got our passports stamped. The next stop was, surprisingly, still in San Pedro. We got a nice breakfast in a building next to our hostel. From there we finally drove to the mountains, where we officially entered Bolivia.

We changed from a big bus to an old Toyota, which we shared with two girls from Switzerland and one from Japan. Together with our driver Sebastian we began our explorations of Bolivia.

Laura in front of our car

We started at Lagunas Blanca and Verde. The most interesting fact about these lakes is that Laguna Blanca has fresh water, but Laguna Verde salty water. Our driver used to drive members of NASA when they were researching the lakes and surrounding volcanoes. He claimed that Laguna Verde is connected with the ocean and is effected by tides.

Laguna Blanca

Laguna Verde was not green as it was partially frozen

After seeing the lakes we were a bit cold, so a half an hour in thermal water made us feel really good. Unfortunately, the water made me so relaxed that I forgot my swimming pants somewhere next to the pool.

The water was very enjoyable

The next stop were the geysers Sol de Mañana. I actually found these geysers much more impressive than geysers El Tatio, but I still found Yellowstone cooler. Probably because we were driven to Sol de Mañana, we did not feel particularly strange, even though we were higher than Mt. Blanc.

Geyser Sol de Mañana

From the geysers we drove down to Laguna Colorado. Here we first enjoyed a late lunch and then did a small hike from our hostel to a viewpoint. This was a small building with big windows and that nicely protected us from the wind.

Laguna Colorado

I was not feeling very good, so I went to sleep early. The next day after breakfast we started with Árbol de Piedra. Those who understand Spanish could think that this was a tree which became stone. Actually it was exactly the opposite. Árbol de Piedra was always a stone and wind just formed it into the shape of tree.

Our group in front of Árbol de Piedra

Our next stop was Laguna Kollpa. This lake did not have almost any water, but it contained a lot of natural detergent. It was surrounded by small pools where people used to wash theirs clothes.

Laguna Kollpa

After that we had a long drive. During the drive we managed to stop for a lunch and drove through one valley full of llamas. We made couple of stops to take pictures of these beautiful animals.
The ribbons are used to identifying whom the llama belongs to.

Two llamas

Our next stop was the abandoned town of Julaca. I found this place fascinating; I felt like in an old western.

This railroad is actually actively used

Abandoned train in Julaca
In the evening we arrived to the edge of Salar de Uyuni, where we stayed in a hotel made out of salt.

Early breakfast at a table made from salt

We woke up early to be able to see the sunrise at Salar de Uyuni (Uyuni salt flat), and it was completely worth it.

Colors were just magical and shadows super long

Radek and Laura stopping the sun from rising

The salt flat, like a sea, has islands. We made a stop at one of them and climbed to the top. This island had  many coral formations and ancient cacti.


Laura on the top

The next two stops were a hotel in the middle of the Uyuni salt flat, and a place where salt is harvested, but I did not find these places very interesting. What was actually more interesting was that we saw some cars speeding past us, choosing the route for the Dakar Rally. The race will take place in South America, including Bolivia in January 2014.

Our trip ended at the train cemetery in Uyuni, which has become quite a nice tourists attraction.

On top of an old engine

Old engine transformed into a swing
We spent one night in Uyuni and the next day took a bus to Potosí. Pictures are, as usually, available here.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

San Pedro de Atacama and its surroundings (May 24th - 29th, 2013)

How can I describe San Pedro de Atacama? Lonely Planet calls it a kind of Disneyland. It wasn't really my first impression after the 18 hour bus ride from La Serena, when we arrived in a dusty village with tiny adobe houses and non-paved roads. After walking around for a while, though, I realized that it may just as well be the most touristic place I've ever been. There are tour agencies at just about every corner, and at any given time point, tourists seem to outnumber the locals (less than 2000 according to the last census). There is, however, so much to see and do there that we were happy to extend our stay to nearly a week.

Adobe houses in San Pedro ...

... and lots of tourists

Did I mention that it´s surrounded by volcanoes?

San Pedro and the surroundings are famous for their archaeological findings that have been remarkably well preserved due to the arid nature of the region. Thus, we visited the Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological museum (excellent), and biked to two nearby archaeological sites. We really liked the Pukará de Quitor fortification, which dates back to the 12th century, and which even allowed the Atacameño people to resist the Spanish invasion for 20 years. The aldea de Tulor - remains of the Tulor settlement, from 800 BC - was interesting, but we found the entrance fee a tad overpriced.

Pukara de Quitor

Sunny day at aldea de Tulor

All these houses were used by a single extended family

We also biked to Valle de la Muerte - Death Valley - a place so dry that it is claimed to support no life whatsoever. Luckily, we managed to survive the trip.

First time mountain biking - ever!

We also went on a couple of tours. On the trip to Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), we saw some amazing things that wind, water and other forces can do with the landscape.

It looked like the back of a stegosaurus

Afraid of heights?

Tres Marias - this rock formation is thought to look like three praying Marys. It is surrounded by salt.

The Licancabur volcano (5950 m) at sunset

The trip to El Tatio geyser field began at about 4 a.m. We were told to be ready and waiting in front of our hostel between 4 and 4:30, and were picked up after we'd waited for 25 minutes in the freezing cold. We assumed that we'd be among the last people to be picked up, but in fact, some people waited outside even until about 5. El Tatio is among the world's highest (at 4200 m above sea level) and largest (over 80 active geysers) geyser fields. We arrived there before sunrise, and were still quite cold. Fortunately, we soon had a chance to warm up in a hot spring. All in all, I was quite impressed by the geysers, but Radek had been to Yellowstone and found this place somewhat uninspiring.

A couple of geysers at El Tatio

Sunrise at El Tatio

On the way back to San Pedro, we saw some beautiful animals, visited the Machuca village, with about six inhabitants, and ate grilled llama meat (absolutely delicious!).

Lycalopex culpaeus andinus - the locals call it zorro culpeo altiplánico 

Church in Machuca

Most houses in Machuca are abandoned


Another early morning trip took us to the second largest salt flat in the world - the salar de Atacama, with a size of approx. 3000 square km. It is an important habitat for several species of flamingos, and the world's largest source of lithium.

Salt at salar de Atacama

I think I´m seeing quadruple

Landscape at the salar

We also decided to visit the Chuquicamata mine and ghost town. It is the world's largest open-pit copper mine, and copper mined here and in other places in Chile account for one third of the country's exports. Bolivia still hasn't recovered from losing the region and access to the sea in the Pacific war.

Inhabitants of the Chuquicamata town needed to relocate in 2007 (the last family left in 2008) to Calama due to enforced international pollution regulations. It was indeed very dusty, but apparently, people liked  to live there because they didn't need to pay for rent nor for electricity, water, etc. The town now has everything - schools, a hospital, shops, hair salons, a church, theater, etc - except its residents.

Pinocchio in abandoned Chuquicamata

Church in Chuquicamata

The tires of this truck are approx. 2.5 m in diameter

Dusty copper mine

By the way, the truck above uses three liters of diesel per minute, and thus, in one day, about as much as a normal car in two years. The mining company is currently making preparations to change from the open pit system to a tunnel-based system. This is thought to reduce dust pollution by 90%, and will make these trucks obsolete.

More photos can be seen here.