Archive for January, 2011

We Accidentally Loved It

To be honest, the only reason we stopped in Salta was to break up the long journey from the Bolivian border to our next stop in Mendoza. However, Salta and the surrounding area proved to be one of our favorite spots so far.

The downtown plaza area is just beautiful and extremely reminiscent of Europe – sidewalk cafes, museums, theaters, fountains – it has it all. Not only is the architecture of European influence, so is the gene pool. We were now in a country with other people with blond hair and fair skin where it was not immediately obvious who was a local and who was an international visitor. Definitely a difference from the Northern Andean countries that we had visited so far where our height and hair color gave us away.

Through Ted’s tourism connections, we met up with a lovely local Argentine woman who gave us a great overview of the country, from the current governmental and political situation, to the state of the nation’s tourism industry, as well as some great recommendations for what to do around the area. Not only did we learn that you say ‘Argentine’ (as opposed to Argentinian) when talking about people or things, we were told that we should rent a car to cruise a popular driving loop and over night in a nearby wine region.

So, that’s what we did. It was our first time driving on our trip and we had a blast getting to move at our own pace. We stopped when we wanted to – to take pictures, to have lunch, or just because. We had our first of many steaks, which Argentina is famous for, and we were blown away by the ever-changing scenery and historic villages out our window.

The nearby wine region, Cafayate, is the most famous in Argentina (after Menoza) and we drove ourselves to a couple of the recommended wineries in and just outside of town as well as to a creamery where they do goat cheese tastings. Mmm!

The drive back to the city was on a section called Quebrada de Cafayate. The red rocks, the rock formations and the vistas for the first 50km of the return are said to be some of Argentina’s most beautiful landscapes – which is saying quite a bit.

We are happy we gave this area the time it deserved and we got ourselves back to Salta in plenty of time for our overnight bus trip to Mendoza where the wine drinking and delicious eating would continue!

What a Difference a Border Makes

When the time came to move south from Bolivia into Argentina, we’d had a good run. We piled ourselves onto another crowded, slightly-ghetto bus and bounced down the 2-lane dirt roads to the border town. After a bit of a delay at the Bolivian side as we all waited for the border guard that keeps the exit stamp to arrive at work for the day, we walked across a bridge over a trash-filled stream to the Argentina side.

In Argentina, we were efficiently welcomed into the country by a couple of well-dressed, well-coifed mate-drinking border guards and then we walked to the bus station to continue the rest of our journey. This international transition is not too different from the US-Mexico border. The first bus we got on in Argentina (and all the ones since) have been double-decker, air-conditioned slices of heaven with large, plush seats that recline and have leg rests. The buses also show movies and there is an attendant on board that does everything from collecting your ticket to serving you food on the long-haul journeys! Needless to say, the contrast between the rickety old bus in Bolivia and the fanciest bus we had ever been on in Argentina was significant.

As we jetted down the paved, 4-lane divided highway and started to see billboards instead of trash on the side of the road, we reminded ourselves that this transportation upgrade was not without its costs. Literally! The fancy bus trip in Argentina was at least 10x more expensive than what we were paying in Bolivia and it was a foreshadowing of the money that would bleed from our wallets in this lovely, but relatively expensive country.

Industry Bloggin’

The latest from my contribution to World Nomad’s Responsible Tourism Blog can be found at the link below.   The post is my criticism of tourism to the Uros floating islands in Peru and Bolivia.  Check it out:

Floating Islands Would Be Better Off Sinking

Bolivia Overview

We loved our time in Bolivia – even more than we anticipated. Our total stay was about 3 weeks and there is certainly plenty to do there to keep you entertained for longer. Here is a snap-shot, in no particular order, of our favorite parts, the things we could have done without and of course, the food. Be sure to check out our Best-of-Bolivia Photos too.

The Good

  1. Sunrise at the Uyuni Salt Flats – The perfect finale to an incredible couple of days.
  2. The hike across Isla del Sol – Lake Titicaca’s island gem on the Bolivian side did not disappoint.
  3. Arizona deja vu – Horseback riding through the desert outside of Tupiza
  4. Charango purchase – Ted was pretty excited about getting his hands on a stringed instrument and teaching himself how to play it.
  5. Devil’s Thumb – Our new friend Alejandra (a Colorado friend’s cousin) took us up to a sweet spot near her home with an amazing view of all of La Paz.
  6. Playing euchre and drinking wine with our friends from South Africa on our Salt Flats tour.
  7. Beautiful weather everyday – Literally. It might have been a little cold or a little windy, but the weather was dry and sunny the whole time and that was a treat.
  8. Road trip – Bouncing around in the back of a Land Cruiser, listening to our Bolivian guide’s entertaining musical selections, learning to chew coca (to combat elevation sickness) and sucking on lollipops while watching the wild landscape go by.
  9. Making dynamite – Ted learned how dynamite is made and used in the mines (to this day) on the Potosi mine tour.
  10. Flamingos –Seeing them in the wild was quite a treat. I’m still not quite sure why they are pink, but I know I like it.

The Bad

  1. Protesting coca farmers – Unfortunately some political decisions and the resulting aftermath interrupted our plans for mountain biking and hiking outside of La Paz while we were there.
  2. The negative buildup – We’d heard several scary warning stories about the crime against travelers in Bolivia that we entered on a bit of a defensive. We never felt any less safe there than anywhere else on our travels and I wish we had never been warned.
  3. Paying to use the public rest room – To be fair, this also happened in Ecuador and Peru. I understand that it is someone’s job and I’m willing to go along with that, however, when I pay I expect a certainly level of cleanliness and some toilet paper to be provided. Oh, and a toilet seat would be nice too…
  4. Bolivia’s uncertain future. Right now there is huge political conflict between the wealthy and powerful upper class and the country’s first indigenous President, Evo Morales. Though the President’s support of indigenous rights is commendable in theory, he is alienating a huge segment of his population and the future is uncertain.
  5. Expensive visa fee – As Americans, we were required to purchase a US$135 visa per person to enter Bolivia. That is a LOT – especially in Bolivia where your lunch costs less than $2 and your hostel less than $10.

The Delicious

  1. Saltenas, saltenas, saltenas – Think empanadas but then think again. These little pockets of baked goodness are filled with a thick stew-like concoction of meat and some combination of potatoes, olives and eggs. The shell is nearly sweet, which sounds weird, but they are oh-so good. They are served for breakfast so if you don’t get one before early afternoon, you will be saltena-less for the day. Not only are they delicious, they are cheap. We had one (or more!) nearly everyday.
  2. Almuerzos – Similar to the inexpensive set-menu lunches that we had in Ecuador and Peru, Bolivia did the same, but even cheaper. We could not get over how much food we were served for the equivalent of US$1.50. Needless to say, lunch was often the big meal of the day.
  3. Indian food – In Bolivia? Yes. In fact, it is the best (though only) Indian food that we’ve had on our trip so far. We were craving it, a restaurant in the tourist area of La Paz was serving it, and we were not disappointed.
  4. Family brunch – well, not our family. Through an introduction from a Colorado friend, we found ourselves invited to a Sunday brunch to celebrate a family member’s first communion. There Ted and I were in our fanciest travel clothes (clean jeans and a t-shirt) as we dined on delicious roast beef, drank sangria and dipped repeatedly in the chocolate fountain for dessert. Yum.
  5. Fresh caught Lake Titicaca trout – Yep. That was good.

Coca Isn’t All Bad

The coca plant is a highly utilized and hotly debated substance in Peru and Bolivia (and I’m sure Colombia as well). Of course, it is the raw product that is the basis for cocaine production, a problem that plagues these countries nationally and internationally. However, the coca plant in raw form has many legitimate and legal uses for the indigenous Andean cultures. In addition to being used in religious and cultural ceremonies, it is chewed by many workers as a way to sustain energy and keep awake. It is also known to help curb the effects of altitude sickness. We were often offered coca tea for breakfast which is essentially a couple leaves and some hot water.

The effects of chewing raw coca are nothing like those of taking the highly processed drug. Chewing coca leaves is like drinking coffee or coca-cola, only the effects are sustained for a much longer period of time. It also helps to curb hunger. Miners, for instance, are known to rely on coca leaves to endure the 24+ hour shifts they often work.

The problem surrounding coca is that it’s hard for the government to distinguish what coca is produced for legal purposes, and what coca is produced for illegal purposes. The Bolivian government is currently run by Evo Morales, a former coca farmer himself, and his policies for regulating coca production are much leaner than, say, the US Drug Enforcement Agency would prefer. But, even under his lenient policies, there are conflicts within the country about the right to produce the plant. During our time in La Paz, we were unable to reach a few of our desired activities because the local coca farmers were protesting and blocking major roadways in response to Morales’ recent ban of low-quality coca production (coca that would have gone to produce cocaine).

There is no doubt that Bolivia (and Peru to a lesser extent) needs to improve their fight against the cocaine production and exportation problem. But somehow, they need to do so without eliminating access to the legal and legitimate forms of the coca plant. When we’re on overnight buses going too fast along unmaintained roads that border steep cliffs, I want that bus driver chewing coca.


This is a hotel, made almost entirely of salt.  Aside from tourist tours of the Uyuni Salt Flats, the region is also a major producer of…SALT!  From the bricks, to the chairs, to the flooring, to the beds – it’s all pure NaCl.

And here is a photos of Sarah ensuring that the bricks really are salty.  This is what happens when you lose a game of euchre in Bolivia…

Crazy Salt Flat Pictures

We took so many ridiculous, fun pictures at the Uyuni Salar that they just didn’t fit into the previous post. The Atacama desert in Bolivia and neighboring Chile and Argentina is gigantic and the salt flats are the remains of an ancient ocean that was once there. They are the largest salt flats in the world and due to the immense size and expanse of nothingness, the photographer and subjects can play around with the viewer’s perspective, resulting in some surreal-looking shots. Archie, our guide, has plenty of experience with the funky picture taking and did a great job directing most of these. Some of our favorites are below:

Bolivia’s Southwest Circuit

Nearly all international travelers to Bolivia have a visit to the Uyuni Salar (salt flats) in their plans. Though there are day trips to the area, we chose to pile into an 8-person 4×4 Land Cruiser and bounce around the “Southwest Circuit” for a 4 day/3 night outing. Beyond Ted and me, our car included our South African friends (Jeff and Romy) as well as our driver, Hugo, and our English-speaking guide, Archie. We were a great group and we were all thankful that there weren’t actually 2 more passengers in our car, as we saw many other groups cramped and it didn’t look comfortable.

We didn’t quite know what we were getting ourselves into at the outset, but the southwest circuit of Bolivia is some of the highest, driest, windiest, most barren and unique landscape that we have ever visited. Beyond the salt flats, the area is a hotbed of geothermal activity and rich in a variety of minerals that have a crazy effect on the colors of the lakes. Highlights include:

  • The highest we’ve ever been! We were so proud of ourselves when we hiked the 15,000 foot pass on our trek to Machu Picchu and sure enough, we were just sitting in the jeep as we drove over a road with an even greater elevation.
  • Lakes with the craziest colors. Emerald green, tropical blue – even red!
  • Flamingos! There are three different species in the area and for some reason they love the harsh climate.
  • Huge volcanoes all around – topping 6000m in altitude (near 20,000ft)!
  • Having South Africans help us plan our trip to South Africa. We already had our guidebook for our upcoming visit and they went through it and told us what to do while we’re there.
  • Having a drama-free trip. We passed other groups of travelers that were in cars that broke down multiple times, had crap food, or were with an unfriendly, unhelpful guide which is no fun at all.
  • Hot springs in the middle of nowhere.
  • Staying in a hotel made entirely of salt!
  • Photo shoot at the Uyuni Salar (pictures coming up soon).

The trip was a complete blast and we wouldn’t change a thing. A huge thanks to Tupiza Tours for taking care of us and to Jeff and Romy for making it an unforgettable experience.


Have you noticed that there have been a lot of WTFs in Bolivia? Here is the latest.  This sign translates as “Tourist Zone, don’t pee or litter”.  You wouldn’t think that in the middle of a central public tourist zone, you’d need a sign that says don’t pee here, but in Bolivia, you do.  Locals are known to relieve themselves on any corner or wall they choose, at any time of day.  Not sure how effective this sign is, but hey, at least they’re trying to keep the city clean…er.

Industry Bloggin’

The latest installment of my World Nomads posts can be found at the link below.  The article is about our time on the Lake Titicaca islands and the community tourism project we visited.  Happy reading, if you’re interested.

When Community Tourism Gets Too Popular

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