Friday, April 28, 2006

A continent awakes

A few interesting articles have started appearing on BBC News (and probably many other places) on how US influence in Latin America has been waning as Washington's post 9-11 foreign policy has had to focus on the "war on terror" which has shifted attention and resources away from meddling in the affairs of its southern neighbours. The American clichés of freedom, democracy and choice have lead many countries to freely and democratically elect left-wing governments now they really do have choice. Apart from Cuba, which has been a thorn in the US' side for a long time, Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil have voted left (plus Argentina, Uruguay and even US Golden Boy Chile have been leftist for some time now). While not exactly Cuba (except maybe Chavez in Venezuela) these new governments now press for less foreign meddling and pursue social equality agendas. Now Peru looks like it will vote for an Anti-US leftist populist (though maybe not before falling into a free trade agreement), and Washington's once Public Enemy number 1, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega (head of the Contra's) is a strong contender for the November '06 elections.

Analysis: How the US 'lost' Latin America
Viewpoints: US-Latin America relations
Chinese influence in Brazil worries US
Latin America's year of elections
Inside Latin America

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Uyuni (21-26/Apr/06)

Potosi, Bolivia

Hopped on the bus to Oruro, and from there on the train to Uyuni. The big thing in Uyuni is the salt flats, the biggest in the world. We arrived late, dived into a hostel recommended by our guidebook and got up the next day to check out the various agencies doing 3-day tours of the salt flat and surrounding areas. We also wanted to climb a volcano in the area, so we wanted a flexible agency which would let us combine this into a 4-day tour. After a few agencies we bumped into a French girl (Delphine) we’d met in La Paz and another French guy (Gunther). We got on well, so we decided to all go together on the same tour. Before booking we went to the tourist information office to find it was the best we’d ever seen and they had a ranking of all the agencies (from tourist feedback) and the top few were completely different to the ones we’d seen. So much for the guidebook.

Anyways, finally booked and the next day we were off with our guide/driver Hector and cook (his wife) Rosemary (dressed in traditional garb) and their two-year-old kid. Another 2 ozzy tourists joined us which turned out to be a pretty horrendous couple (she was alright, if a bit low on self-esteem, but the boyfriend was a bossy - to her - negative condescending twat). No matter, us 4 got on so well we managed to ignore him OK.

Uyuni salt flats are amazing. Pure white as far as the eye can see. First we saw some locals at work gathering salt. Then we saw a hotel made of salt which supposedly is just a museum but is really still used as a hotel even though this is illegal (due to environmental damage as it has no sewage system). Couldn’t go in as the caretaker was drunk. Then we had lunch on a small "island" in the middle of the salt flat, followed by the usual "optical illusion" photographs. We’d told the agency we wanted to spend the night at a small village by the flats rather than further South as nearly everybody else. We then got up before daybreak and saw the most spectacular sunrise I have ever seen (and that includes Mount Sinai a few years ago). Got some cracking photos which should soon be online. We even had some American professionals nearby, who were shooting a video on photography. This really ought to be the standard, rather than the bespoke, tour.

After a quick breakfast we continued South, visiting salty lakes full of flamingos, beautiful desert scenery, and finally a bright red lake where we stayed the night. Next day was also an early start to see some geysers (more steam at dawn as the temperature difference is greater), which we liked more than the much more famous ones at El Tatio, just across the border in Chile. After that we had a dip in some thermal pools (also warmer than the ones at El Tatio) and had breakfast. By ten we were at the last of the lakes (one supposedly green, but it looked pretty normal to us, apparently it turns bright green when the wind blows) and at the foot of out volcano. Sadly we had underestimated the cost of going up by guide (illegal without a guide) and we couldn’t do it. So we ended up going back straight to Uyuni.

So at last we’d managed to go on a decent tour in Bolivia and not been disappointed. We’d finally managed to say "wow" in this country, everything under control. We’d finally got to know how to deal with Bolivia.

Or not. Getting back to out hostel Esther’s rucksack was missing! The owner was AWOL (drunk for a week as the wife had left to a nearby town). Went to bed, but no miraculous reappearance the next day, so Esther went to the tourist office and set up an official report. Had to spend the whole day to sort things out (police are a bit crap in Bolivia, and without the help of the girl from the tourist office we’d have got nowhere) and got some money off the hotel (one day’s expenses plus $75, which is the excess for our insurance policy). So now we are down by one backpack, but luckily there was nothing crucial or expensive in it as we’d taken a lot of stuff on the tour expecting to climb the volcano. Mostly Esther’s clothes, plus half the medicines (including out anti-malaria tablets) and our first aid kit and Esther’s sleeping mat, plus a few other odds and sods. Oh well, shit happens.

A few days in La Paz (18-20/Apr/06)

Potosi, Bolivia

Decided to go to Uyuni by train, so had a few days to kill as the train doesn’t leave every day. The next day we hit a new part of town, much calmer, and visited 5 museums (they ain’t very big). Third day we were supposed to visit the ruins at Tihuanaco, but I had another attack of enterotoxigenic escherichia coli which this time caused me to answer collect calls down the big white telephone. So I was basically bed-bound for the entire day.

But I made a miraculous recovery and next day we went by bus to Tihuanaco. This was the ancient capital of the Tihuanaco culture, which semi-desintegrated after a flood or a drought (depending on which museum you go to or which guide book you read) and was later absorbed by the Incas. A bit of a disappointment, not many ruins left. Still, not bad for a day trip from La Paz.

More photos

Potosi, Bolivia

CD2 is now online! From now on, all photos will be linked from the right hand column. Also updated approximate route and added some more definite dates of our movements.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Salida de Chile y entrada a Bolivia

Antes de ir a Bolivia fuimos a Arica y al Parque Nacional Lauca al norte de Chile a ver unos cuantos volcanes y lagos más. Arica es territorio fronterizo con Perú (de hecho es territorio ganado a Perú en la Guerra del Pacífico en 1880) y no hay mucho que ver o hacer por allí aparte de subir al Morro de Arica, donde tuvo lugar una de las batallas más sangrientas de dicha guerra. Tras visitar ese lindo lugar y decidir que no queríamos ir al Parque Nacional Lauca porque el tour era un timo y era "exactamente" el mismo recorrido que íbamos a hacer en bus de línea para llegar a La Paz nos fuimos a Putre, un pueblito muy tranquilo en la montaña donde hicimos un poco de trekking de altura (a 3,500 m) y devoramos nuestros libros en la plaza esperando el autobús de vuelta a la gran ciudad.

Saliendo de Chile cruzamos los esperados lagos y volcanes. Era un día tormentoso y a 4,000 de altura los truenos rebotaban en el suelo del autobús. Ya entrando en Bolivia salió el sol y pudimos disfrutar de un nuevo paisaje. Con la Cordillera Real en la lejanía cruzamos campos de cultivo, casas de adobe y mujeres con ropajes muy coloridos y enormes faldas (tipo mesa camilla). En la estación de autobuses de La Paz nos estaba esperando la policía turística para meternos en un taxi, negociar el precio hasta el hotel y apuntar nuestros nombres y la matrícula del coche por razones de seguridad. Después de un viaje tan largo y del caos de la estación agradecimos el detalle.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

San Pedro de Atacama (30 mar-1 abr/06)

El viaje en bus desde Purmamarca, Jujuy (Argentina) hasta San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) fue uno de los más bonitos que hemos hecho hasta ahora. Empezamos a 2,200 m de altura y subimos hasta 4,700m para cruzar los Andes. Mucha gente masca coca para el mal de altura y en el bus teníamos dos flipados del norte de Europa a los que nadie les había explicado las cantidades que tenían que tomar. Casi se quedan en la frontera por empanetis! También Josh tuvo un momento de hiperventilación en la frontera (sin coca ni nada). Se acababa de leer los síntomas del mal de altura y se puso un poco hipocondríaco pero se le pasó rápido.

Despues de subir y subir llegamos al altiplano, una llanura inmensa donde vuelve a haber flora, fauna, lagos, salares y volcanes! Y desde allí fuímos descendiendo hasta San Pedro de Atacama a 2,500m.

San Pedro es un pequeno pueblo de calles sin asfaltar que fue la cuna de la cultura prehispanica Atacamena. Y al igual que en Salta y Jujuy las formaciones rocosas del lugar son alucinantes. El concepto transporte público no se conoce y hay que hacer todo a través de una agencia o en bicicleta. No sabemos muy bien porque pero el alojamiento y la comida en San Pedro son carísimos así que decidimos ponernos las pilas y ver la zona lo más rápidamente posible. El primer día alquilamos una bici y nos fuimos a ver el Valle de la Muerte, paisaje lunar y dunas enormes. Por la tarde fuimos (esta vez con agencia por las distancias) a ver atardecer al Valle de La Luna. Más paisaje lunar, dunas y salares. Y a la manana siguiente (también con agencia) fuimos a ver amancer a los Geisers del Tatio donde nos banamos en aguas termales y desayunamos huevos duros hervidos en los geisers. Cómo os podreís imaginar yo me ahorré el huevo y me tomé un sandwich en su lugar.

Como nota final diré que dadas las circunstancias geográficas:

"San Pedro se encuentra el en Desierto de Atacama, el desierto más seco del mundo donde sólo llueve el equivalente a una hora al ano"

fuimos muy "afortunados" (siempre veo el vaso medio lleno) de disfrutar de unos minutos de esa lluvia dos veces en tres días!

Salta & Jujuy (23-29/mar/06)

Salta y Jujuy son dos provincias del noroeste de Argentina muy diferentes al resto del páis. La poca población indigena que todavía vive en Argentina se encuentra en su mayoría en esta zona. En todos los pueblos se palpa el pasado colonial y hay muchísima riqueza histórica.

El paisaje es también alucinante. La erosión del agua y el viento han creado unas formaciones rocosas alucinantes. A veces parece que estás en la luna! Y los colores de las rocas son impresionantes. Hay una montana de 7 colores y tengo fotos para probrarlo!

En Salta hicimos un recorrido turístico de 2 días por los Valles Calchaquíes para conocer todos estos lugares. Fue precioso aunque escogimos muy mal el guía. Era un taxista que estaba liado con la de la oficina de turismo y había encontrado un chollo llevando a turistas por la zona. La profesionalidad y el trato al cliente brillaban por su ausencia. Aunque gracias a él aprendimos que las geología de la zona se había originado en la época del Arca de Noe!!!!!

En Jujuy no nos hizo falta guía gracias a Dios y nos fuimos en transporte público a visitar la zona por nuestra cuenta.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Disaster of a trek (14-17/Apr/06)

La Paz, Bolivia

So we had not done the proper Sorata trek (Illampu) in Sorata. And we got a Sorata guide to do a trek in Pelechuco (Apolobamba). We'd arranged to pick up the guide halfway, saving us paying his trip and hotel in La Paz, but he said he wanted to go to the capital and would stay with friends there and pay for his fare. But then the agency changed guide. Anybody could guess a cockup awaited.

First the new guide turned up penniless, as he thought we were footing all expenses. Then, he'd failed to foresee the ticket office in La Paz for busses to Pelechuco would be closed as it was Good Friday. He also was unsure of the actual day or time the bus left so we said we weren't moving until we got tickets. The next morning the office was open, so we at least got tickets, but with the guide and porter spending 2 pointless days in La Paz. We'd also turned up with our bags as the guide said the bus would be loading that morning, which turned out to be completely false. At least they did the food purchase, though I wish they hadn't - we could have done it for cheaper and lighter (no matter, that's what the porter was for).

The stop is miles away, and we had to be there at 6am. No busses there (as initially promised) so early so we had to taxi it for a small fortune. We got on the bus with no lunch as the guide said we'd be stopping, only to find this was another figment of his imagination. Luckily we got some empanadas when the bus stopped for breakfast. We were beginning to wonder if he'd actually done this trek before at all.

The whole 12h bus drive was grey and foggy. We were accompanied by the melodious music of the same one tape over and over again. And had a sweet child vomit next to us. When we got to Pelechuco that evening we'd decided to pull the plug, no way were we going to risk even the slightest fog with these clowns, even though later that evening we could see a couple of stars. That meant returning for 12h that night (after we'd said no night busses!) as that's the only time busses return. So be it. We were glad to see the same bus driver (who we'd named Manu Chao for various reasons) still at the wheel. And the same tape was playing! 12h straight drive, 4h rest, 12h night drive. Great. Luckily he was munching coca leaves, so we fancied our chances he wouldn't fall asleep at the wheel. Left a bit late as they had to convince a stupendously drunk local he had to board NOW (expected more vomiting, or at least pissing in his pants, but all he did was fall off his seat a few times). Well, we didn't crash which is a bonus (though a car in front of us did). And we saw a bit of the scenery lit up by the full moon in a cloudless sky.

In summary, our 5 day trek through the best scenery in Bolivia (according to both Footprint and Lonely Planet) turned into an expensive 24h bus ride. We await a refund...

Monday, April 17, 2006

Villarrica volcano pictures

Here you will find some pictures of the Villarrica volcano. We woke up very early that day and forgot to bring our camara but the German guys on the pictures took a few of us. They did not take a single one of the volcano itself though...useless!

Fotos del volcán Villarrica

Aquí van unas fotos de la subida al volcán Villarrica en Chile. Como tuvimos que madrugar mucho se nos olvidó la cámara y le tuvimos que pedir a unos alemanes (que veréis en las fotos) que nos hicieran algunas para el recuerdo. Lo malo es que en todo el día no le hicieron ni una foto decente al volcán desde lejos...qué inútiles!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Northern Chile & entry into Bolivia (3-13/Apr/06)

La Paz, Bolivia

Arica is extremely ugly coastal town, but we were only going to use it as a base to see a village called Putre and the Lauca national park. After touching down we went to the tourist office to see about trekking in Lauca. Zilch, only bus tours. When we found out the bus to Bolivia does exactly the same route as the tour, albeit without the stops, so we decided that was all we'd see of the park, and got a bus to Putre. Putre is a lovely little town close to the park, and the trip there is through arid mountains, culminating in a green(ish) valley with a stunning volcano in the background. We met a guy on the bus and stayed at his house for the night we were there. Did a short trek towards the volcano through green alfalfa fields on the first day – saw a scary recent footprint in the mud on the way back that looked suspiciously like puma (they live nearby and sometimes attach the local cattle). Should have taken a picture of it to make sure it wasn't a dog footprint (we're not quite up to scratch on animal tracking yet), but we were to busy fleeing down the hill. Next day we also did a short hike while we waited for the bus, but not quite as nice as we took a wrong turning and ended up in a pretty dry and ugly area, next to a military base.

After waiting the rest of the day in Arica we got the bus to La Paz. It was a bit cloudy, so the tour would have been a wash out anyway. Even so, Lauca is a very hansom looking park, pity no proper trek trails – lots of nice altiplano scenery, surrounded by lakes and volcanos. Then crossed the border into Bolivia and into the 3rd world.

Arriving in La Paz we saw that Bolivia is completely different to Argentina and Chile. We'd had a taste in the north of these two westernized countries, but only a taste. Coming into La Paz you see the whole city below you in a huge mountain basin (actually a river canyon apparently), the Spanish liked it as it is a few hundred metres lower than the surrounding altiplano, and therefore warmer. It is the highest capital in the world (3600m, airport on the altiplano at 4000m), and - note for Keith – is home to the highest golf course in the world. It is full of fat women in bowler and a billion layers of skirts and petticoats carrying babies and foodstuff in colourful sheets. It just doesn't feel like a capital city. The houses are generally low, grimy, unpainted, in many cases unplastered, and with corrugated iron roofs. It's great. There is an area down south with modern houses, shopping malls and tower blocks but we'll leave that for last, if we visit it at all.

Couldn't soak much of the atmosphere (and there's loads of it) as we rushed of to Copacabana (not the beach in Rio) by lake Titikaka for Palm Sunday (they are quite religious there). After a death-defying ride we arrived there to find a nice little town, but not much happening. I guess we should have gone a few days later to see Easter proper. We actually thought we would stay long enough, but after seeing the Sun Island on Titikaka (where apparently, according to one of the two main legends, the first Inka Manco Kapak was born - or dropped from the sky - even though it is miles away from Cusco) there isn't much else to do. We did have an amusing time observing how the cars were being blessed outside the cathedral though. I prayed our bus back had been blessed. Less amusing was Montezuma's Revenge, luckily it was only a quick one day of Aztec Two-Step due to stupidly eating the side salad.

From Copacabana we went to another small town called Sorata, which is the "trekking capital of Bolivia". The setting is awesome, with massive mountain Illampu on one side, and a beautiful valley on the other. We did a short trek to a nearby cave (not exactly Nerja, but at leas I discovered I'm not afraid of bats, as long as they don't land on me). Discovered the long trek we wanted to do was actually in a completely different place, and the only busses left from La Paz, but at least the guides there knew it and were a lot cheaper than in the capital, so we ended up contracting a guide and a porter (not feeling lazy, but we don't know how good we are at 5000m) for 6 days. Nearly cancelled (actually did cancel a 1-day trek) due to the reappearance of the Gringo Gallop, probably from the fresh vegetables in the chilli dip - added antibiotics to my diet for the next few days. Saw the site of the previous' days accident, a broken fence (3 in a coma) on the way back, as well as the day's accident, a taxi in a river (no major injuries). We are definitely travelling only by day to increase our chances of survival.

Mendoza y alrededores (19-22/mar/06)

Aparte de ver a Manu Chao también hicimos otras cosas en Mendoza.

Durante el camino desde Chile nos ibamos fijando a ver si veíamos el Aconcagua desde el bus y creo que lo vimos, aunque nos ayudó a identifcarlo un cartel que ponía "Bienvenido al Parque Nacional Aconcagua". El viaje en bus es muy bonito. Empiezas cruzando unos cuantos pasos de montaña maciza y desembocas en los famosos viñedos de Mendoza (de los que os hablaré más tarde).

Mendoza es una ciudad sin ningún atractivo especial per se. Y además hay mucho carterista. Nosotros íbamos avisados y tuvimos mucho cuidado pero hasta en el hostal robaron mp3s y cámaras. La gran mayoría del turismo que recibe Mendoza está interesado en las varias activides al aire libre que se pueden realizar en sus alrededores y/o en las catas de vinos (Mendoza es la región de los vinos por excelencia de Argentina). Nosotros optamos por hacer escalada en roca y una cata de vinos. La escalada estuvo muy bien, despertamos un poco los músculos y aprendimos técnicas de nudos. El monitor tenía 22 años y sólo 3 meses de experiencia escalando en roca! (claro que de esto no nos enteramos hasta el final de día). Pero llevaba toda su vida trepando (sin protección) y talando árboles así que, a su estilo, subia lo que se le pusiera por delante. La cata de vinos (que es gratuita) es más bien un rapi-tour por las bodegas y los viñedos y catar catar catas poco. Pero ya nos encargamos nosotros de probar los vinos por otros medios. Y aunque son muy buenos como el Rioja no hay nada!

También indagamos sobre los precios y programas para subir el Aconcagua en diciembre o enero. No nos queremos ir sin intentar subir la montaña más alta de América!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Manu Chao (19/mar/06)

Cuando nos enteramos que Manu Chao estaba de gira por Sudamérica y concidiríamos con él en Mendoza no nos lo podíamos creer. Nos pusimos como locos a buscar entradas pero fue imposible comprar nada con antelación así que nada más llegar a Mendoza nos fuimos al polideportivo donde tocaba con la esperanza de pillarlas en taquilla o de reventa. Por regla, y por suerte para nosotros, Manu Chao no hace mucha publicidad de sus giras y todavía quedaban entradas en taquilla! El concierto estuvo genial, aunque se echaban de menos los instrumentos de viento (Manu Chao decidió que habían muchos miembros en Radio Bemba y se cargó los vientos). La mayoría de las canciones no son lo mismo sin la trompeta...

La reacción del público (=abucheo general) ante cualquier mención a Bush o EEUU era de esperar. Pero me sorprendió que Inglaterra tuviera el mismo recibimiento.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Valparaiso y Santiago, Chile (11-18/mar/06)

¡Y por fin playa! Después de tanto trekking ya era hora de pasar unos días a la bartola, tomando el sol y bañándose en las aguas del pacífico. Y eso es lo que hicimos en Valparaíso.

Llegamos allí sobre las 7.00 de la mañana después de casi 12 horas de bus. Nuestro plan era ir a la oficina de información en la terminal de autobuses para organizar nuestra semana. Pero dió la casualidad de que ese mismo día y en ese mismo lugar, Valparaíso, se celebraba la toma de gobierno de la nueva presidenta de Chile y la terminal de autobuses estaba cerrada y la mitad de las calles cerradas al trafico así que el bus nos dejó en una gasolinera en mitad de la nada. Gracias a unos gendarmes muy majos y a la cabina de teléfonos que había en la gasolinera no tardamos mucho en llegar a un hostal. Lo primero que hice fue ponerme las chanclas y el bikini :-)

Valparaíso está en una bahía rodeada por el mar y la montaña. A menos de 500 metros de la orilla empieza la montaña así que estás todo el día subiendo y bajando cuestas (nota: nos recordó mucho a Lisboa). Para los más vagos también hay unos ascensores/teleférico que he de reconocer vienen muy bien cuando el sol aprieta. Valparaíso es la ciudad de los graffities y los murales y todas las casas y hoteles son muy coloridas. La ciudad tiene un aire bohemio-decadente que engancha. Nosotros sólo nos quedamos 5 días tomando el sol y visitando playas pero conocimos a unos cuantos gringos enamorados de Valparaíso que no podían salir de allí (a mi tampoco me pareció para tanto).

Cuando conseguimos igualar nuestro moreno de camionero nos fuimos a la gran ciudad de Santiago de Chile. Allí pasamos un fin de semana genial en casa de Juan Pablo y Verónica, unos amigos de Barcelona, tomando pisco sour, visitando la ciudad y comiendo parrillada.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Chiloé y la Región de los Lagos, Chile (2-10/mar/06)

Después de sobrevivir el temporal en Bariloche y disfrutar del paisaje cruzamos de nuevo la frontera y fuimos a visitar Chiloé, una isla medio selvática en el pacífico de la que todas las guías hablan maravillas. Por alguna razón no teníamos grandes expectativas de ella e incluso estuvimos a punto de borrarla del itinerario. ¡Y qué acertados estábamos! Después de pasar una noche y un día buscando los atractivos de los que hablaban las guías sin tener ningún éxito decidimos no perder el tiempo y volver a tierra firme.

La siguiente parada fue la Región de los Lagos también en Chile. Esta vez dimos en el clavo y pasamos unos cuantos días visitando lagos y cascadas y escalando el volcán Villarrica de casi 3.000 metros de altura. El volcán está activo y si tienes suerte puedes ver lava en el interior del cráter. Nosotros no tuvimos esa suerte pero aún así fue muy chulo. Las vistas desde el cráter son impresionantes. Se tardan unas 3-4 horas en subir, casi todo el rato por nieve y hielo. Nuestro guía nos llevaba a paso militar y en 3 horas estábamos en la cima. La bajada fue espectacular. Nos deslizamos por unos toboganes naturales en la nieve y en una hora estábamos abajo!

Atacama desert (30/Mar-2/Apr/06)

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

To the South of San Pedro de Atacama is the Atacama Desert, driest desert in the world. To the North is a village called Quillagua, officially the driest spot in the world. Guess what happened yesterday and today in San Pedro? Yup, rain! Well, a small patter for about 5 minutes, but still, what a con.

We headed over from Argentina by bus, probably the most amazing journey I've been on. If you are going to suddenly jump from 2400m to 4800m don't read chapter 15 of a book called "Medicina para montañeros" (medicine for mountaineers). I got every single symptom for acute mountain sickness. In the end I came to the conclusion it was due to hyperventilation rather than lack of oxygen. The route crosses over a serious part of the Andes, with a steep climb, a long plain bordering salt flats and high peaks, and finishing with a long downhill through volcanoes down to San Pedro.

San Pedro is, for some reason, backpacker capital of South America. Don't know why as it's bloody expensive, much more than Chilean Patagonia. Ridiculously expensive in fact, and we still don't see the justification for this - at least in Patagonia you can say lack of local produce and bad transport links push up the prices. We found the cheapest hostel in the place (camping prices were over the top) and, after working out the girl at the tourist information was useless, went to a travel agency to see what the fuss was all about.

Friday we rented some bikes to check out the "Death Valley". Pretty hard going in the midday sun. Got a pretty good idea of why it got that name. Rode through a rock canyon, not a plant in sight, until we got to a massive dune we just had to climb up. And down again. Then cycled back, deciding to get a tour to the Moon Valley and ditch the idea of cycling there. As it turned out the tour included the Death Valley as well, so we got a view of the bit after the dune we hadn't seen before. And then went to the Moon Valley, covered in salt (not cheese), to see the sunset.

Saturday we went to a nearby town, which has a canyon with a stream, which is used to feed a massive orchard. Quite bizarre walking beneath figs, grapes, pomegranates and quince in the middle of a dessert. Then we had a vegetarian non-alcoholic dinner and an early night (as advised by the agency, to deal with the height) for the visit to the Tatio Geysers, starting at 4am.

Arrived today at el Tatio just before dawn (best then, as the temperature difference is at a maximum and you see more steam), and it was spectacular. We even had a quick dip in a thermal pool. But the best part was the journey back, which we hadn't seen on the way there as it was pitch black. The scenery was probably even more amazing than the crossing from Argentina.

Got back just before noon, and we are spending the day chilling at the hostel while we wait for our bus up North to Arica...

Far Northwest Argentina (22-29/Mar/06)

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

In Mendoza we recovered Esther's thermal shirts, sent by the Bariloche hostel by bus. We also bought a handle for the kitchen pots, so our luggage was more or less complete again by the time we got to Salta. Here we checked in to a hostel near the centre and headed off to the tourist office to work out what we were supposed to be doing.

Apparently one of the main things is a 2-day tour South of Salta, visiting small villages set in some amazing rock formations. The tour was quite expensive, but for a little extra we found you can hire a taxi driver all to yourself and go in style, stopping when and where you want, and basically giving you much greater flexibility. The woman at the tourist office even recommended a guy, which we phoned and arranged to leave the next day. Sadly this idiot was only recommended to us because he was the woman's boyfriend.

The route was amazing - the first day you start amongst greenery, and slowly this gives way to more rocky and cactusy scenery. Here our taxi driver admitted to us he wasn't sure if the valley formations were from before or after Noah's Ark. My money is on before. We had lunch at a small picturesque village called Cachi and headed off to the unpaved part of the route. Here you see some really amazing formations. We also stopped by a huge carpet of peppers being set out the sun to dry (and later turned into paprika). After so many stops we reached the next village (Cafayate) at nightfall, after some pretty hairy rally driving by a crap driver.

Instead of letting us explore and walk around the village on our own the driver, who must have been feeling bored or lonely or something, decided to stick with us throughout the whole evening and even join us for dinner. But his best trick was to loose the car keys the next morning. He claimed he had gone out for a walk as he couldn't sleep, but later on we found out he had been on the piss. We were quite happy, as we could now bugger off to Salta by bus and redo this on a cheap day tour and be rid of Mr Macho but sadly he found them while we were having an early lunch. The best bit of the route was from here to Salta, but the weather wasn't with us, and we also had to concentrate on the driver and stop him falling asleep at the wheel.

Back in Salta still in one piece we spent an extra day seeing the town, and then headed north to see a few more villages. In Tilcara we did a small hike (which should help to get used to the altitude for Bolivia), and saw the local ruins and museum (free Monday's, result!). The next day the plan was to get to a very picturesque village called Iruya, which also has a very good 7h hike, but just missed the bus connection (chased it in a taxi, but no luck as the taxi was probably slower than the bus) at Humahuaca (saw a monument to the tropic of Cancer, or is it Capricorn, on the way) so we admitted defeat (next bus was to late, and we didn't have any extra days as we had already bought the bus to Chile). We had a walk around Humahuaca and then headed back south to Purmamarca.

We had 2 nights instead of one at Purmamarca until Chile so we chilled out a bit, saw the "mountain of 7 colours" (amazing), walked round the village and nearby rocks, and did some home improvement (washed tent, fixed mattress puncture). Next stop Chile via the Jama pass (4200m) where we'll reach up to 4800m above sea level. And we forgot to buy coke leaves.