Our last few days in Argentina were spent in the lovely city of Salta, by far the most attractive city we had visited to date and it didn’t take us long to settle into the culture of pavement café’s and people watching, always a favourite pastime.
Salta has many traditional buildings around its main plaza which is dominated by the pink and white cathedral. This is the only cathedral we have so far encountered where its chimes sound more like an amplified doorbell; quite odd. Our few days there saw Bertie have a service and a clean-up which should see him running well for a few more thousand kilometres and us with bags of clean clothes. Bertie’s performance so far has been outstanding and he has been an admirable companion on our trip, putting up with whatever was thrown at him and that includes the many local dogs who come barking at our heels and relieving themselves on his wheels. We were sad to leave Argentina for the last time as it had become familiar and comfortable with the people always welcoming, but Bolivia beckoned.
We had read and heard conflicting accounts of Bolivia so we weren’t really sure what to expect. Our first day to the town of Tupiza was an easy 90km ride from the border on a paved road and the scenery was a continuation of Argentina but once we arrived in Tupiza that was where the similarity ended. A small town comprising shops and workshops with just a dark doorway hiding what was on offer. Two lively markets meant that you could buy just about anything you could think of if you took the time to look and ask (that would be the plastic tea strainer and the unknown herbs guaranteed to help with altitude sickness!!). A wander into the local train station revealed backpackers with packs the size of a small bungalow sitting on the platform amongst local people with their wares wrapped in colourful throws all waiting for the train due that day at 7.05pm, the time being a general time of day the train may arrive. Our first impression of the people is that they are more reserved than Argentinians and whilst polite are not going to be your bosom buddy. Many of the older generation of women prefer the traditional dress of gathered skirts and bowler hats with long plaited hair showing little signs of grey – lucky ladies.
We had been looking forward to sampling local food but this was limited in the main to Chicken and rice or the usual tourist fare of pizza, pasta and burger. How many Italians can one small town have?
Our reason for visiting Tupiza was to take a 4 day tour to the Altiplano, lagoons and Salt Lake which had been recommended to us. Our initial desire was to ride Bertie across the Salar de Uyuni (Salt Lake) but as this is the rainy season decided to let someone else take the strain. The region below the Salar is not an easy place to travel independently as there are no fuel stations, some basic accommodation where you need to take your own stove and a network of tracks that only an experienced guide could navigate. So with our companion couple, Alvaro our driver/guide and our cook, Dona Porfidia , 140litres of extra fuel and 4 days supplies we ventured forth. Our hope was that we were acclimatised having spent a couple of days at just under 3000 meters but rising to almost 5000 meters saw Jim succumb to altitude sickness the first day. Our option was to turn back with another vehicle for the 11 hour drive back to Tupiza or to continue hoping that the lower 3,500 meters the following days would see things settle down. So dosed up with altitude pills and herbal tea we decided to continue. Luckily over the next 3 days things settled down and we were treated to an array of sights and scenes we could only have imagined. The Bolivian Altiplano (high plain) is stunning with endless vistas of colourful rocks, sweeping deserts and colourful lagoons, interspersed with grasslands sporting llamas by the dozen and flocks of flamingos. All that could be heard coming from our vehicle was ‘WOW’.
The highlight was to get up at 4am on the final day and gaze at the endless stars in the sky before setting off in the dark across the Salar to the small island in the middle to catch the sunrise. How Alvaro knew where to turn onto the salar in the dark we have no idea but we tentatively drove on through the water laying on the salt, the 80 km to the island. We knew other tour vehicles would be doing the same but we were first there and the 4 of us shared the beauty of the sunrise in peace before descending to find Dona Porfidia had set up breakfast of homemade cake (made that morning before we left) and coffee for breakfast, all laid out on a salt table with salt benches. Awesome.
What a beautiful world.