Sick in La Paz

We arrived in La Paz at 7am. I decided to stay where the other girls I had met were staying which meant another Loki. The only redeeming quality is that the Loki provided a free drink for it being my second Loki, but given I was sick, it ended up being a Powerade but more about that later.

As we had the whole day, we decided to take advantage of it. We wandered the streets in search of Alpaca. La Paz is known for its markets and in particular it’s witch markets. The witch markets are pretty touristy, as are a lot of the stores. If you want to make some Alpaca purchases, your best bet is the stalls.

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The streets of La Paz are filled with vendors.

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It is also easy to get lost in some of the markets as they don’t seem to end.

We headed back to the stalls after getting some pricing and after some difficult bargaining, I managed to get a sweater and some socks for 78 bolivianos, or about 11 dollars. I was pretty proud of myself.

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The view from the top of the funicular.

We had lunch next which was very good. Some tomato soup and a sandwich. After a productive day of shopping, we headed back for internet, rest and a shower before the evening.

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Overlooking La Paz, Bolivia at dusk.

That evening I got up and showered before we headed to the funicular. I didn’t feel quite myself but couldn’t tell what was wrong. I came home later that night and still didn’t feel great. While everyone headed out for dinner, I confirmed that I was sick and I would not be leaving.

I felt awful being the girl in the room who was sick. However, if there is one thing that happens when you do get sick, it is that no one is surprised. The girls in my room were like yea, it happens to everyone. I guess after going two months of traveling without being sick once, I couldn’t complain too much.

Given I could barely get out of bed, I stayed another night in La Paz and another day in bed, getting up only for laundry. Fortunately, I felt well enough that night to eat something, and was able to get out of La Paz the following day. Sorry La Paz, but i don’t think I could give you the time you deserved this time around.

A bit about Uyuni

It is a shame that Uyuni was my first introduction to Bolivia. Whenever you read guides about the Salt Flats, most say to get out of Uyuni as quick as possible. I soon discovered why.

The town is not the largest but it is very flat. It is a series of buildings and homes that appear to be a bit run down. I think this was the first city I did not feel very safe in South America. I was very aware of my surroundings. I decided then that I would be taking the overnight to La Paz.

Fortunately, there were quite a few other people from my tour who were taking the same path. For the cheap price of $12 dollars or around 80 bolivianos, I got an overnight bus with everyone to La Paz, leaving at 8:30pm.

We spent the rest of our time hanging out and trying to get wfi. Apparently, when all the toursits get back from the tour and try to get online, the wifi actually shuts down. People were unable to get money out of the atms because the atms work on wifi. That is how underdeveloped Uyuni is. It is actually pretty surprising given it is the entry to the Salt Flats. I expect in a few years, with all the tourism the salt flats bring, that things will slowly change.

Some of the girls we were with had a lonely planet. I am actually shocked by the amount of people who buy the lonely planet books and bring them around with them. I use online resources for everything, sometimes lonely planet, but more likely than not, trip advisor, as lonely planet seems to be out of date by the time it is published. Anyways, the girls had a recommendation for a restaurant around the corner and we went there to play monopoly and wait out our time.

Two hours plus should have been sufficient to get food, but there was one woman who ran the whole restaurant and there were two large groups. We did not get our food until 10 minutes until we were due at the bus station so after a quick scarfing of our meal, we ran to our bus in what was a mini sand storm.

You know that saying you get what you pay for? I’ve probably already used it. In the case of the bus, you get exactly what you pay for. Bolivian roads are rough. This was by far the roughest bus ride I had ever taken. I’m an avid car reader and I could not even read because the book was moving too much. After 13 hours which felt closer to 26, we finally arrived in La Paz. First impressions of Bolivia were rough, but La Paz stepped up to the plate.

The Salt Flats

We awoke excited at 5am. Of course, the driver was not even ready for us at the given time. We drove across the entrance to the flats at day break so that our first view of the flats was just before sunrise.

The salt flats are amazing, awesome, otherworldly, and breathtaking. I thought I would have been desensitized given all the pictures I had seen. The pictures do not do the salt flats justice. They are beautiful and massive. They are fun to be on. I took a ton of random pictures but they just make you happy.

Made it to the Salt Flats for the sun rise.

Made it to the Salt Flats for the sun rise.

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Overlooking the scenery from the lone island in the middle of the salt flats.

It is a vision unlike I’ve seen before. Very unique and wonderful colors. We stopped in a few places across the salt flats. We stopped at an island in the middle of the salt flats that had cacti and a beautiful hill overlooking the flats. This cost 30 bolivianos to walk through but it was worth it. We also were able to enjoy a nice breakfast here (and more pictures of course).

On top of one of the salt pyramids as one of the last stops on the tour.

On top of one of the salt pyramids as one of the last stops on the tour.

One other cool thing about the salt flats is that you can actually pierce the hexagonal shapes and pull out crystals. Our tour guide showed us this and it was really neat to see the salt crystals in their natural form. Nature really is a beautiful thing that I do not know nearly enough about.

The hexagonal shapes on the salt flats.

The hexagonal shapes on the salt flats.

We headed to the center of the salt flats for some more pictures before heading to the museum del sal (which is really just another hostel and then a statue for the Dakar races). This was also our last stop before exiting the salt flats. We enjoyed a few more pictures of the salt flats before we took off. Most of the morning consisted of picture-taking.

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Having some fun on the flats.

Having some fun on the flats.

The last stop on the tour was the train cemetery. It is just outside the city of Uyuni and in my opinion, is sad. The trains are remnants of the last mining boom in the area and all the trains that used to come and go. It reminds me of Detroit and the pictures just remind me a bit of the much debated ruin porn that Detroit has come to be known for. In an ideal world, places like this wouldn’t exist and the trains would be properly recycled, not left to be graffiti{ed} and fits of tourists to trample over.That is just my personal opinion, and more likely than not because it hits a bit closer to home. Some food for thought I suppose.

The train cemetary in Uyuni.

The train cemetary in Uyuni.

Uyuni Day 1 & 2: The beginning of Bolivia

We started the next morning at 8am at the location of the tour office to be picked up. The first half hour was just driving to cross the border and going through border patrol in Chile and then in Bolivia. Both were pretty simple but it was already a bit chile and we hadn’t even reached altitude. We had a brief breakfast before our first stops, Laguna verde y laguna blanco.

The views out here are incredible and I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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Beautiful first stops at Laguna Verde and Blanco in Uyuni.

Beautiful first stops at Laguna Verde and Blanco in Uyuni.

The next stop was the thermals which was amazing! If there was any place I’d be quite content for hanging around for a few hours it would surely be this one. The view out of the baths was breathtaking and the water was a perfect temperature. The sun was shinging and you were surrounded by mountains. Not sure what more you could ask for. You do have to pay a nominal fee to enter but for 6 bolivianos or just less than a dollar, it is worth it.

View from my spot in the Thermals. How nice is that view while you are soaking in natural springs?

View from my spot in the Thermals. How nice is that view while you are soaking in natural springs?

We then headed off (somewhat reluctantly) to the Salvador dali desert where the landscapes resemble something out of his art. I think we stopped at a few other lagunas and some geisers along the way but they all seemed to pale in comparison to laguna Colorado. We had our lunch first and settled into our rooms for the night but then we took our own walk around the lake.

Laguna Colorado seems to appear out of the middle of no where. There are so many flamingos as well. You can hike up a relatively minor hill and then look out over the whole laguna. There is also a mini lookout point where you can learn some information about flamingos.

Laguna Colorado in Uyuni Bolivia. You can walk around about half of the Laguna on a nice pathway.

Laguna Colorado in Uyuni Bolivia. You can walk around about half of the Laguna on a nice pathway.

After some nature viewing, we headed back for tea and then dinner. During the tour, you are with the people in your car the entire time. You become pretty close. My car had a couple with one being from Michigan and another from New Zealand, and another couple from France. I had a great car and everyone was so friendly and easy to talk to. I even learned a new card game from Italy called scopa.

The next day we left around 8 and crossed more of the Uyani area. The Uyuni area of Boliva is huge and you just stare in awe a lot of the time at how much space and untouched nature there is. We stopped at a few more lagoons called the altiplanos lagunas. Who knew there were so many lagooons in the middle of the desert? As we decreased in altitude the weather got a bit better and not quite as cold. We were at almost 5000 meters the night before. That night we stayed at the hostel de sal. It is right outside the salt flats.

We had hot showers and electricity and after some time without these now accustomed to luxuries, they felt amazing. The next day was the main feature, the Salt Flats.

Choosing a Salt Flat Tour Company and preparing for Uyuni

There are so many companies that travel to Uyuni. It is overwhelming. All the prices for the 3 days 2 night tours (ending in Uyuni) are from 80.000 to 105.000 CP (130-155 USD). I decided to spend a bit more than the cheapest for hopefully a bit nicer accommodation, food, and jeeps. After spending a full half day wandering around I settled on Estrella del Sur.

Almost every street like this in San Pedro is lined with Tour Companies.

Almost every street like this in San Pedro is lined with Tour Companies.

It helped that I went to the tourist office which had a book of complaints/thank yous (Thanks for the tip Wikipedia!) and Estrella had a ton of compliments. The tour left the next morning and I was happy that a decision was made. Now time to prepare.

Well first, since I decided to stay an extra night, I had to find another place to stay and try to save some money from the tour I just booked. I booked a hostel for half the price I was paying (12 vs 24 USD) and as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. I then had to exchange CP for Bolvianos and CP to USD for the visa fee. I also had to buy water and some snacks as there are not many stores on this journey. Another important item was to charge all of my electronics as the accommodation is less than stellar throughout Uyuni. Word of advice: If you aren’t up for roughing it, or close to the equivalent of camping, the 3 day tour may not be for you.

So I think I’m all set ready to go, waiting for two Canadian girls I had met to meet up for a drink, when I realize I somehow lost one tennis shoe while changing hostels. To make matters worse, it was 8:45 pm and all the stores were closing. I retraced my 5 minute walk and went back to the other hostel to see if they found a shoe. No luck.

I am so lucky the one trekking store in the area was open just after nine. I literally asked for the shoe in my size and he closed the doors of the store. All I can say is, I would have been devastated if I didn’t have tennis shoes for this. Although this was more of an adventure than I hoped, the real adventure started the next day.

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile: Supposedly one of the driest places on earth

I was immediately nervous coming into San Pedro. It is literally in the middle of nowhere and when you arrive at the bus station all you see are little shacks on the side of the road. There are barely any street signs when you arrive so finding where I was staying was not the easiest task. I fortunately had 3G service still (kind of crazy in the middle of the desert, thanks T-mobile!) and was able to map my way to the hostel.

For those of you who are not familiar with San Pedro de Atacama, it is a desert town in the northeastern corner of Chile. It is surrounded by the Atacama desert and is very remote. The buses only go every other day from Argentina and that is mostly for tourists. It is one of the driest places on earth, although it seemed to rain at least a bit every day I was there. It also is one of the places on earth with the least light pollution making it a prime spot for those who enjoy star gazing.

San Pedro de Atacama is not much of a town. It is pricey compared to other parts of Chile and South America (as everything is brought in) and it consists of only a few blocks. Even more so, most of those few blocks are filled with tour companies. It is overwhelming. Especially for someone like myself who likes to do too much research and overthink options.

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One of the main streets in San Pedro de Atacama. The downtown consists of around 5 x 5 blocks.

I should have done a bit more research before I left. I ultimately planned on staying only two nights and heading to Arica, Chile before heading into Peru. This is one of the best things about solo travel. You can change your itinerary in the course of a few hours. That is exactly what I did.

The first day I arrived in San Pedro I basically decided on which tour I wanted to do. I didn’t want to do Geisers and I wanted to do something that took up most of the day. I ended up settling on Salar de Tara for 35.000 CP (~55 USD). We (other people on the tour) were picked up at our hostels just after 8am. We then headed to the only road out into the middle of the desert where luck would have it, was closed do to a bit of snow, which they aren’t really used to here.

The tour guide took us all back to our hostels and told us if he wasn’t back by 11, we wouldn’t be doing the tour. Well, I went back to bed after waking up at like 6am. An hour later, still asleep, a knock on the door and I was whisked off again for this tour. The road had opened.

Our first stop on the Salar de Tara tour. The landscape was unlike anything I've seen before.

Our first stop on the Salar de Tara tour. The landscape was unlike anything I’ve seen before.

The drive out was pretty long. We stopped at the first lagoon to have breakfast which consisted of Avocado and cheese on bread. We then proceeded to drive through the desert. This was the first time I had done something like this. The views were amazing and it was very cool to see the driver just follow other paths in the rocky sand or make his own path based on previous knowledge. We eventually arrived at the stone cathedrals, where we took some pictures and just stood in awe of the power of water and wind.

The Salar de Tara and myself. It was pretty incredible to see this oasis in the middle of the desert after driving for over an hour.

The Salar de Tara and myself. It was pretty incredible to see this oasis in the middle of the desert after driving for over an hour.

The next stop was the Salar de Tara which is not the typical Salt flat you imagine. It was a bit more of a lagoon like oasis. There were flamingos and what stood out the most were the colors. The Salar de Tara is amazing. It is a gorgeous site and we stopped and had our next meal there.

The stone monks in the middle of the desert outside of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

The stone monks in the middle of the desert outside of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

Our last stop was the entrance to the national reserve which had the stone monks, or tall stones standing alone once again carved by wind and water. It is beautiful out in the desert and amazing to see so much untouched land after so much time in cities. This last stop I was once again told I should go to Uyuni in Bolivia and I couldn’t miss it.

That pretty much sealed the deal. I couldn’t avoid Uyuni. Everyone was telling me to go. I felt like I was missing out if I didn’t, and the original Visa fee I didn’t want to pay, was less than half what I anticipated. Given the facts, I arrived back in town around 7 that night and began my research. To be continued.

The one thing you should do in Salta, Argentina

They call Salta la linda because it is so picturesque and lovely. When I arrived it was raining a bit. So I can’t say I had the best first impression. I also used couch surfing for the first time. It ended up being in a hostel called Loki Salta, or a famous party hostel in South America.

Almost missed the Loki stop. I literally laughed when I got off the bus, in the middle of nowhere!

Almost missed the Loki stop. I literally laughed when I got off the bus, in the middle of nowhere!

That was the mistake of Salta. I should have stayed closer to the city and at a hostel that didn’t try to nickel and dime you for everything (food, drink, etc.). I mean it was free so how much can I complain?

If you know me, quite a bit so I’ll just focus on the city. I am not a good tourist. I get really tired of the touristy things. I enjoy eating and walking in a city more than anything else. Salta is a great place to walk and explore. The food was a bit harder and I ended up eating quite a bit just at the hostel. Convenience won in this case.

The only thing I really did, partially due to less than great weather, is hike up the hill that had a great view of the city. It was about an hour walk up and another hour walk down. You can take the funicular but that takes most of the fun out of it. This is the one thing I recommend doing above all in Salta. 

The wonderful view from the top of the hill in Salta. If you are going to do anything, it should be this.

The wonderful view from the top of the hill in Salta. If you are going to do anything, it should be this.

I think pictures can say more about Salta than I can. I heard the areas around Salta are nicer but I didn’t get to do an excursion. Maybe I did not give it enough chance, but I think I prefer Cordoba.

Me all sweaty after the climb to the top. So worth it!

Me all sweaty after the climb to the top. So worth it!

Salta, La Linda

Salta, La Linda

Sierras de Cordoba – Alta Gracia y Villa Carlos Paz

Cordoba is surrounded by mountains called the Sierras de Cordoba which makes Cordoba a great base for those who like nature. I did not venture too far from Cordoba but I did have a chance to visit two nearby cities. It is quite cheap to venture out, around 20 pesos each way, or just under $2 dollars which makes it an affordable day trip.

Alta Gracia is known for being the childhood home of Che Guevara. Che is known as  a revolutionary. He was born in Rosario, Argentina. (Can you guess what other famous figure calls this town home?) He then moved to Alta Gracia with his family where he grew up which helped with his asthma due to the cities many green spaces and clean air.

A statue of 'Che' as a child sits outside the museum that used to be his former home in Alta Gracia.

A statue of ‘Che’ as a child sits outside the museum that used to be his former home in Alta Gracia.

‘Che’ as he was called (also a slang term of endearment in argentina, kind of like saying guy) went on to tour Latin America where he connected with locals and the indigenous. He studied medicine so he spent much time in leppar colonies. Later in life, he met Fidel Castro and fought beside him to overthrow the leadership in Cuba. He was honored with a Cuban passport and a position in the government. Later he fled to Bolivia where he also focused on gathering troops as part of the guerrilla war. Later, he was found and killed by the local Bolivian government, supposedly under orders from the U.S..

Che's Motorcycle from his famous memoirs, the Motorcycle diaries.

Che’s Motorcycle from his famous memoirs, the Motorcycle diaries.

Given that I am from the U.S., and Che’s given disdain of all things American and our influence around the world, I am torn on the topic. It is clear that Argentineans love Che and I believe many of his ideas are good, if not idealistic. However, I still love and appreciate my country and the opportunities it has offered me. It would have been very interesting to see what Che thought of Cuba in the present day, Argentina during the dictatorship, and various other occurrences after his death.

I’ve gone completely off topic now. The museum of Che’s childhood home is a must though. Although, they do charge differently based on where you are from. Basically, don’t say you are from the U.S. I think any other country would be better, and if you speak Spanish, say you are from Argentina.

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It is a nice city to just walk around as well. There is a small river and a few other museums if you care to check out.

Villa Carlos Paz was the other town I visited. This town has a larger lake, a casino, and a kukuclock which is much smaller than I expected. Carlos Paz is a nice place to escape the crowds in the city and just chill out. There isn’t a ton to it so if you skip it, you aren’t missing out.

There are some other towns around Cordoba such as Villa Belgrano and La Cumbrecita that are supposed to be lovely but I ran out of time to check out. I recommend exploring a bit outside the city of Cordoba in order to get a real taste of the area and the beauty that surrounds it.

Merienda

I learned a new word in Argentina (okay a few, but this one stood out). Merienda. It is now one of my favorite words. For a simple comparison, it is like tea time. It consists of usually sitting around, drinking Mate, snacking on facturas, and sharing with friends.

A few definitions:

Mate – A traditional drink of Argentina that consists of drinking out of a metal or wood like gourd filled with Yerba. Hot water is then poured over the leaves and drank through a  bombilla, or a special straw that filters the herbs. This is repeated until the flavor is removed from the leaves and all are thoroughly wet. Each person drinks until the water is finished.

Mate. Yum.

Mate. Yum.

Facturas– Small sweet croissants or criollias (small bread like biscuits). Sold at local bakeries for very cheap, 12 pesos (around $1 USD) for ½ dozen or 2 pesos each.

So, if you find yourself in Argentina, talk to some Argentineans. They will more likely than not invite you to share in Mate or Merienda. It is a great opportunity to just enjoy some company, take some time to relax, and of course, practice a bit of Spanish

Ego Check: The struggle of learning another language

I took a communication class in college. I needed extra credits to become a CPA so I took a class I expected to be a bit easier. It was easier, but I learned that communication is not as easy as it appears, even when you are speaking the same language.

Flashback to my first day on the job (in Cordoba) and I realized just how difficult it can be to communicate. I had not spoke Spanish in years, let alone studied. I was thrown into a situation where people just expected you to understand what they were saying. In reality, I understood about 40% and had to use context, ask for it to be repeated, or even write it at one point.

Google translate became my best friend. I wanted to cry the first day. It is very humbling to be trying your absolute hardest only to completely misinterpret what was said and have to have someone save you or respond for you. I felt like a child. I still feel a bit like a child.

But it has gotten easier, and I think a bit more of my Spanish is coming back. I am still awful at conjugating verbs and many times will just say multiple versions hoping the person will correct me. I also tend to use the masculine for feminine words or vice versa. It is hard for me to comprehend how wrong that is when there isn’t an equivalent in English.

Even though learning Spanish is one of the hardest things I’ve done (yes, for me harder than the CPA exam), there is an immense sense of satisfaction when you complete a conversation. Or when you effectively get your point across. Especially when you are sitting with a group of people, who all seem to speak more languages than you, and they switch between English and Spanish and you can follow, it is one of the most enjoyable experiences I know.

I think everyone should be required to live or work where their mother tongue is not the language. In the U.S., I have heard people become frustrated when a foreigner cannot communicate in English. I think these same people would have different opinions if they had ever been in a situation like that. The journey to becoming bilingual may not be easy or comfortable, but it is rewarding.