Friday, 27 May 2011

Bolivia to Peru: A Border-Crossing Odyssey

The 23rd and 24th May 2011 comprise of 48 hours that Ania and I would probably rather forget. It re-defines the phrase 'difficult border crossing', but I guess there's some comfort to be had in the knowledge that we are not alone in making this epic trip: hundreds and probably thousands of other tourists have had to deal with this in Bolivia and Peru in the past few weeks.

For those of you who don't know: there were major strikes and protests going on at the Bolivian border with Peru, up until last week. All the demonstrations were put on hold because of the election yesterday (5th June) and we're not quite sure what's going on now! At the time though, we knew even less - and anything we did know was hear-say. The biggest issue was anger over a Canadian mining company's plan for a new mine. So there were miners and students protesting, plus I'm sure the usual people without anything to do who like to join in protests (same as in the UK)! I'm all for peaceful protest but I'm sorry to say this wasn't peaceful. So our planned route from Copacabana to Puno - the two towns on either side of Lake Titicaca - was blocked when we wanted to take it. The usual three-hour bus journey was not an option. What follows is what we had to do instead...

We got up at 5:50am on 23rd in order to catch our boat - yes boat - to Peru. We were the first ones to arrive at the tiny shop where we bought our tickets and after some moments of 'Is anyone else coming?...' our group piled into two minibuses and set off for the border. More waiting around and then we got our Bolivian exit stamps pretty quickly once the office opened. The Peruvian side was shut! So now technically not in any country, we walked across boggy ground to our little boat. Our group, 'Grupo de Celia' (named after the woman who sold us the tickets) all got seats, after paying the crew a few Peruvian Soles each. Some others weren't so lucky. That boat was then our world for the next nine and a half hours! Not much to report there, I'm afraid. We read our books (I got through most of The Green Mile by Stephen King) and ate our packed lunch, which we had sensibly packed the previous day!

On arrival in Puno, we all jumped on a bus and were taken as near to the town centre as possible. Vehicles can't go near the blockades, you see. But people can - and go near them we did! We were led through the main square towards the immigration office. We all needed our Peru entry stamps. Our guide led us through the shouting crowd - most of whom just smirked at all the 'gringos' - although a few were intimidating, or at least tried to be. We got our stamps eventually from a very disorganised, ramshackle (and I suspect makeshift) office; and then found our way back to the bus.

Ania and I then bought a bus ticket to Arequipa (our next stop in Peru) for the next day, from the guys on the bus, based on the fact that they'd been so helpful getting us into Peru. This turned out to be a mistake...

We got to our hostel in Puno, 'Los Pinos', at around 7pm and after a quick turnaround, headed out for excellent pizza and a couple of well-earned beers! At one point the protestors rumbled past and the owner of the restaurant closed all the shutters and dimmed the lights. It was like being in a lock-in for ten minutes - except better, because there was also pizza from a proper wood-fire oven! We ate our meal safe in the knowledge that we'd done the hard part!

Or so we thought, but no such luck! The next day, the guy we'd bought our bus ticket from failed to turn up at our hostel for our prearranged pick-up. The woman at the desk in our hostel - who incidentally was super-sweet, very kind and helpful - said she'd heard there were no buses leaving the town. Our hearts sank and we left on foot, eventually catching a rickshaw to the bus station. The terminal was a ghost town and after talking to two policemen, we realised we'd paid well over the odds for our bus tickets: 40 Soles each instead of 15! We gave up trying to get our money back (40 Soles is just under 9 quid - annoying to lose it, but what can you do...) after finding the company's office closed and having no joy phoning the number on our ticket.

With no buses leaving, we instead hooked up with two other couples from Italy and Canada. The plan? To walk out of Puno on foot and catch a bus or taxi to Juliaca, a town just outside of the blockade, from where we hoped to be able to catch a bus to Arequipa.

So off we set, telling our new friends about the dodgy bus tickets. Not even two minutes had passed when who should Ania spot, drinking booze at 8:30 in the morning outside a shack?! The guy who'd sold us the tickets! He looked so busted and we demanded our money back. We got 70 of our 80 Soles back - and had a heated exchange with one of his mates, who stooped so low as to tell us that he hoped the protestors would hurt us. Money safely in hand, we told that arsehole to shut his mouth and walked away! I'm so proud of Ania! She did most of the arguing with her superior Spanish and showed those crooks who was boss!

A few minutes down the road a man approached us and in excellent English told us to make ourselves scarce! He said the protesters were coming and we should sit out of the way - and that he was going to do the same. As he walked away we saw them coming - this is a loud angry mob who haven't just been peacefully marching, they've been throwing stones at vehicles, blocking roads and disrupting tourists (and tourism) for weeks. The six of us sat by the side of the road. A woman then approached. 'You're not safe here,' she said. 'Follow me'. We obeyed and ended up hiding in a public bathroom with her and a couple of other Peruvians! We spent about ten minutes there, during which time the woman advised us to get to a hotel in Puno and wait for a few days! Grateful as we were for the shelter, we decided to leave. The situation hasn't changed in almost a month, why would things be different in a few days?!

With the coast apparently clear we left the bathroom, but then we saw the mob again, coming right for us! We walked quickly, not running, and just managed to avoid them. Thank God they took a different road to us!

We then had to walk for two hours, carrying our 12kg backpacks plus hand luggage, up a massive hill. The roads were covered in rubbish, huge blocks of brick and stone and bits of metal - all designed to stop traffic getting through:

In the middle of this photo you can see a poster for the election campaign of Keiko Fujimori (the election was on Sunday, it looks like she lost). The slogan reads, 'Seguridad y oportunidades por todo' (security and opportunities for all). I liked the irony of the juxtaposition of the poster with the crap all over the road!

It was really tough carrying so much up such a steep incline, but we did it eventually with several rests. Every time we thought we'd made it, there was another section of hilly road! I was not best pleased:

Where we came from. Puno town centre, at the bottom of the first huge hill:

Eventually we were rewarded with clear roads and an estate car. The driver agreed to take us to Juliaca for 25 Soles each. We squeezed in: luggage in the boot, our four new friends in the back and Ania and I sharing the front passenger seat. For two hours! We drove mainly on unsealed, winding roads, but it still beat walking! We made a quick stop at one point. Here we are in the middle of nowhere!
On arrival in Juliaca we caught a four-hour bus (for the correct price of 15 Soles this time!) to Arequipa and a short taxi ride to our hostel. Mission accomplished! A difficult 48 hours to say the least, but we did it! And hey, it makes a great story doesn't it?

Copa, Copacabana, in Lake Titicaca!

On our next leg of the journey, we got a bus from La Paz to Copacabana. The famous Copacabana (from the song) is in Brazil, but the one we were off to was on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca is on the border of Bolivia and Peru, and sits at 3,811m, making it one of the highest altitude lakes in the world. Copacabana is a pretty town in a valley on a peninsula that reaches out into the lake, and it is just on the Bolivian side of the border. To get there, we had to cross a small stretch of water, so at one point our bus stopped and we all got off to take a short ferry across the other side. Meanwhile, our bus took it's own ferry ride to meet us on the other side:

We had originally planned to stay in Copacabana for just a couple of nights, but when we arrived at our hotel, La Cupula, it was so nice that we booked a couple of nights more. We stayed on the hillside overlooking the bay, with lovely gardens and hammocks to sit and read in - bliss!

Down in the bay, there was a huge fleet of swan-shaped pedal boats, so we made the most of this glorious opportunity to pedal in style across the lake! There were also more traditional-looking boats moored there, made out of reeds with dragon heads at the helm:

A couple of hours boat ride away from Copacabana is the Isla del Sol ('Island of the Sun'), which is an Inca creation site and the largest island on Lake Titicaca. There are over 80 ruins on the island, most dating back to the Inca period in the 15th century, although archeologists have discovered evidence that people have lived on the island as far back as the third millennium BC! People still live on the island today in small villages, but it is mainly farmland with no paved roads or motor vehicles at all - really peaceful. It's very hilly, with great walking trails that take you up to amazing views across the lake.

On the boat to the Isla del Sol, with the Bolivian flag behind us:

Views from the Isla del Sol:

The boat dropped us off at the north end of the island, and we trekked up to the Chicana ruins. These are a maze of rocky passageways and interlinking rooms on a steep hillside overlooking a bay:

After visiting the ruins, we decided to take the trail south down the backbone of the island to meet the boat at the southern port of Yumani. The walk was really hilly (which is tiring in the thin, high altitude air), and took us about 3 hours - we just made it in time for the boat home. We took a ridiculous number of photos on the walk because it was so beautiful - rocky ruins, traditional houses and steep terraced farmland with the blue of Lake Titicaca behind it and snow-capped mountains beyond in the distance. Here are just a couple more pictures of the views:

When we reached Yumani, we walked down a zig-zag flight of 200 Inca steps reach our boat, and then headed home to Copacabana.

In Copacabana's main plaza is a huge white 16th-century Basilica which dominates the town. People bring their cars and trucks to the front of it to be blessed and decorated with flowers (the car in the bottom right corner of the picture below is decorated if you look closely).

The Cerro Calvario (a steep hill) rose up behind our hotel, and we took a walk up there one evening to watch the sunset. At the top of the hill are monuments representing the 14 stations of the cross, and pilgrims climb up to visit the stations and pray:

From the top the views of the sun setting across the lake were breathtaking. Here is the view of Copacabana from the top of the hill:

During our stay at Copacabana we had had our ear to the ground regarding news on crossing the border into Peru. Our plan was to cross the border and go to Puno, on the other side of the lake, but there were protests going on over there and the normal border crossing wasn't looking so simple. As a result, stayed one further night in Copacabana in the hope that things would blow over. They didn't. But I'll leave that story for the next post...

One final mention must go to the cat that lived at our hotel in Copacabana. She was only a little cat, but she was pregnant and always very hungry. So she sort of adopted us, asking to share our meals (i.e. miaowing loudly until we gave her some), and watching movies with us in the evenings while we stroked her belly. We called her Rolo because of her dark brown and caramel coloured fur. Probably the friendliest cat I've ever met in my life, and we miss her! Here she is, having a stretch and a tummy rub:

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

I'm the Capital of Bolivia! No I Am! No I Am! You Liar! I Am!

I should probably start by explaining that title. Bolivia is a country with a rare situation when it comes to its capital: it has two! Sucre is the constitutional capital, while La Paz is the administrative capital. I get the feeling there's something of a rivalry over their claims to the title, but it seems to be pretty good-natured. Ania and I thought we'd group these two together in a post, especially as we visited them in quick succession.

We spent five days in Sucre at a strange hostel where we at least had a very nice private room. We took some time to relax after the high altitude and sometimes tough conditions we experienced in the Salar de Uyuni and Potosí. Sucre is a beautiful city. It's small and completely walkable, with very Mediterranean-style buildings: white-washed structures with terracotta roofs. It definitely reminded us of Malta in places!

Any regular readers of this blog will know that Ania and I class ourselves as reasonably foody people and are in some ways 'eating our way around the world'! Sucre was one of those wonderful havens for us where we could rest, read our books, walk around the town and... eat! We found several good restaurants within the first couple of days and then revisited our favourites in the second half of our visit. The ones worth mentioning are Locot's, where the menu includes burritos and Indian curry, with veggie versions of both. Very impressive! There was Cafe Monterosso, a hidden gem of a restaurant run from a family's converted living room, where we ate great pasta, baked aubergine and panna cotta. Florin was great too, where on our last morning I got the Bolivian/French influenced version of a Full English breakfast, complete with baked beans (they were also showing Tottenham Hotspur beating Liverpool in the penultimate game of the Premier League, which always helps the food go down!). Finally, there is a little cafe/restaurant (the name of which I don't recall) in the Recoleta area. We ate here twice. It's chief features are excellent fresh fruit juices, tasty pastas and salads, an annoying food-scavenging cat which scratched Ania (!) and fantastic views of the city:

Sucre has a thing for dinosaurs and we didn't really understand why at the time. As I've said, we were busy taking a well-earned breather! A quick Google search tells me that the town is home to the world's largest collection of dinosaur footprints! They're about 60 million years old and were discovered by workers from a cement factory in 1994. Interesting, huh?! During our time in Sucre, we did see that some tour companies offered dino-themed trips, but we didn't know any of the history. Shame on us! Bearing our ignorance in mind, you can imagine our bafflement and amusement when we happened upon statues and other figures, including this delightfully tasteful public telephone outside Sucre's beautiful cemetery:

An interior shot of the aforementioned cemetery. Much like the one we visited in Buenos Aires, its like a beautiful town with the graves and memorials above ground. Below you can see small memorials with glass doors in gold frames. Relatives put flowers and tokens inside. We even saw one with a miniature bottle of beer!

Our next stop was La Paz, which we reached by overnight bus. I certainly won't miss these long journeys, and this wasn't a particularly good one! Ten hours, admittedly helped by the inclusion of our first fully 'cama' (bed) seats, that reclined to a proper horizontal position! The ride was not improved however by the very noisy, very crap movie playing. Although in retrospect I do appreciate the comedy value of The Gods Must Be Crazy II! We arrived in La Paz at about 6am and stayed at the beautiful Cruz de Los Andes hostel. They were even nice enough to let us into our room at such an early hour to have a quick nap! The entire hostel is painted floor to ceiling with beautiful murals of La Paz. Here's one from our room:

Our two nights in La Paz were spent with more relaxation, food and wandering. One of the best sights in the city - which incidentally is bigger, noisier, more crowded and far less picturesque than Sucre - is the Witches' Market. We enjoyed browsing the stalls selling llama-wool products, jewellery, the usual tourist crap and bizzarely, dried llama fetuses! Mmmm! Needless to say we did not buy one. We read in one guidebook or leaflet that they are considered good luck and Bolivians buy them to bury under the porch of a new house to bring good fortune to the residents. If you look closely at the picture below, you can see one:

A shot of a mini bread market in La Paz:

La Paz's restaurants are also worth a mention. On the first day we found a British-owned curry house called 'The Star of India'. It even has a British-style name! We were pleased to find they did their own version of the Bolivian and Peruvian-style almuerzo (the word literally means lunch, but in this context is a set meal usually consisting of soup, a main and dessert for a fixed price). Frustratingly, the veggie options weren't amazing and Ania was left disappointed. I really enjoyed mine though! And they did great lassis! We also enjoyed Marrakesh, a Moroccan place with a very friendly husband and wife team who served us fantastic couscous and refreshing mint tea!

Another highlight from our limited time in La Paz was our visit to the 'Museo de Instrumentos Musicales de Bolivia'. That's the Museum of Bolivian Musical Instruments, in case you couldn't work it out! This was really interesting, with pipes, piano-style instruments, guitars and charangos, drums, glockenspeils, xylophones and lots more! Some of the pieces were pre-Incan and there was even a mummy-type figure in a glass case in the early section, which had been found with different musical instruments by the look of it. Many of the pieces were made from animals, for example, these two guitars made with tortoise shell and armadillo:

There was also opportunity to play several of the instruments. Here's Ania playing a kind of pump-powered organ. It was really good fun!

So that was my Tale of Two Capitals. We both really enjoyed Bolivia; and Sucre and La Paz both embodied different elements of the things we so loved about this country, in their own unique ways! The people, the food, the landscape, the buildings and the culture: we highly recommend it all! I sit writing this in Peru (we're playing catch-up a bit on our blog); but as far as chronology, and you, dear reader, are concerned, we still have one more stop in Bolivia to go before we move into neighbouring Peru. Oh, and what a stop it was!

Dynamite and Coca in a Bolivian Mine

Potosí is the highest city in the world, at 4090m (13,420ft), and you can certainly feel the altitude there, such as walking up a hill for a minute and getting really out of breath! Just to give you an idea of the sort of altitude we're talking about, when we were at the highest point on the Salt Flats trip we were at about 5000m, which is 16,404ft; in New Zealand, we did the highest sky dive you can do there, which was from 16,500ft! But we had started to acclimatise a bit by this point, so we didn't get sick in Potosí.

The city lies in the shadow of the 'Cerro Rico' ('rich mountain') which is a silver mine and has been mined since the Spanish Empire in the 16th century. Back then the silver made Potosí one of the richest cities in the world, but now it is running out and the economy is in slow decline. Tin is now the main product, among other minerals. Indigenous labourers work in the mines in very harsh conditions and they have short life expectancies (many only live to about 40) because they often develop silicosis in their lungs. Also, there is always the risk of a collapse in the mine, so it is a dangerous job.

The city itself is very pretty, but the main reason many people come to Potosí is to see the mines for themselves. Some unscrupulous tour companies include an example of a dynamite blast in their tour of the mines, which is of course dangerous and the miners don't like this because it could potentially cause a collapse and it damages the mountain (due to the centuries of mining, the Cerro Rico is not as high as it once was). We went with an eco company that doesn't do this, but in any case we ended up seeing a genuine dynamite blast in the mine itself! More on that later...

The mines are run by co-operatives, with each miner buying his own dynamite to use underground. It is customary when visiting the miners in their workplace to get their permission and to bring them gifts, such as bottles of fizzy drinks, bags of coca leaves, and of course, dynamite sticks. We started our trip at the miners market buying these bits and pieces:

We also had a taste of the alcohol that miners bring to the mines to offer to their 'Tio', or god of the mines:

Then it was off to get into our mining gear: boiler suits, helmets, headlamps and boots. Bob Marley was also there:

Here is the road to the mine, with the 'Cerro Rico' rising up in the background:

The entrance to the mine. You can see the rails running out of it, which heavy carts full of rubble are pushed along:

When we arrived, there was a group of miners sitting outside the entrance to the mine having a break and chewing coca. We stopped for a chat with them and gave them the bag of leaves we'd bought at the market. The idea is to chew the leaves along with an alkaline substance (this is a grey block made of vegetable ashes or something similar and you nibble a bit of it), and then you leave the ball of chewed up leaves in your cheek for a couple of hours or until you've had enough. You often see people in Potosí with a big ball of leaves in their cheeks. (Centuries-old pre-Columbian figurines also often have a distended cheek on one side, showing that the figure is chewing coca!) The miners work extremely long hours, often 13-hour days without breaking for food, so they chew leaves to give them energy and suppress their hunger.

The mine itself was like a series of connecting tunnels and levels, really mazelike. The ceilings of the tunnels are really low, so even I was walking bent over most of the time. The miners spend every day hunched over like this. The tunnels are also really narrow, so you have to watch out for carts coming down the tracks so you can get out of the way (you can hear the rumble of a cart coming from a way off though). The equipment and setup was extremely basic. As you go deeper underground, it gets hotter and hotter, and it's so quiet down there it feels like a world away from the cold sunshine outside. We met several miners at work down there, and gave them the gifts we had bought at the market. At one point we came across a blaster who was in the process of setting up a dynamite blast to open up a section of the tunnel, and we stayed to watch this. He was an expert and had been doing this safely for years, but it was still quite nerve-racking to be under there in that tiny tunnel with a load of dynamite, knowing it was going to be lit! Here he is adding fuses to the dynamite sticks he's putting together. You can see the sticks of dynamite on the floor, and also the coca leaves in his cheek.

He had drilled several holes at intervals along the ceiling, and then he stuffed them with the dynamite. He lit them and then we all ran back down the tunnel and round the corner to wait for them to go off.

You have to listen and count the explosions to make sure that all of them go off before you venture back down the tunnel. Never return to a lit dynamite - like with fireworks, but more serious! The video below shows us listening to the blast. The sound wasn't a big hollywood-style explosion, but more of a deep boom that you felt in your chest and which shook the walls. The sound is so low that the microphone on our camera couldn't pick it up, it just goes silent. Imagine a really low boom during these gaps in the sound. Scary stuff!:

Before we left the mines, we went to visit 'El Tio', the god/devil of the mines. Our guide explained that the miners believe in a duality of religion: above ground, they are Christian, but deep underground is the domain of the Tio. Each mine has a statue of the Tio, and the miners bring coca leaves and alcohol to leave by the statue as gifts. In return, the Tio will protect them from harm in the mines. Every year they hold a sacrifice to El Tio and slaughter a llama, smearing its blood on the entrance to the mine.

'El Tio':

It was a very memorable experience to see the mines first hand. It was incredibly eerie down there, and I can't imagine spending every day down there for long long hours, not knowing if it is light or dark outside. You feel so far away from the outside world, that it's easy to understand why the miners believe that Jesus can't reach them down there, and they must keep El Tio happy if they are going to survive. And it was impossible to forget, every time we met a miner, that their life would almost certainly be cut short by the job they were doing.

Bolivia... Mmmm... Salty!

The Salar de Uyuni or Bolivian Salt Flats was one of those big things that Ania and I were looking forward to on this entire trip. We had our ups and downs on the four-day tour, but ultimately it was fantastic! For me, it really is up there with the Great Barrier Reef, or our sky dive or the glacier trek in New Zealand, for just being so beautiful and so memorable.

We set off on a bright, sunny morning with our tour company, Tupiza Tours and after some messing around filling out paperwork with the authorities in Tupiza, we set off! We had two jeeps in our convoy: Ania and myself in one with our Spanish-speaking guide Miguel; Natalia, the cook for both cars; and a lovely Swedish couple called Johan and Natalie. In the other car were the Aussies, Rob and Kathleen; and a Polish couple; plus their English-speaking guide, Milton.

The thing that struck us quite quickly is that you spend SO much time in the jeep on this kind of trip, simply because of the sheer distances involved! On the first day we saw some fantastic scenery out of the windows. The group in our car was great, with everyone getting on brilliantly, despite the slight language barrier with Miguel and Natalia! We stopped for lunch in a huge field full of llamas and felt the first affects of altitude as we climbed an incredibly windy and steep hill called the Devil's Pass.

That night we made it to San Antonio de Lipez, where we made our camp for the night. The brochure promised 'basic accommodation' and it wasn't lying! We shared a basic room with Johan and Natalie on that first night. It was at this point that a problem started to emerge that would dominate the entire Salar de Uyuni experience: altitude sickness! Natalie was the first to feel ill, closely followed by Ania. I felt fine and was nursing Ania, then I got it too! Johan was the only one of us not to feel ill on the entire trip, the lucky git! Haha! I've never been at altitude before, but I can tell you it's no picnic if you start to feel bad. A third car of English and Irish guys were with our group through most of the tour, and one of them, Kate, saved our bacon with some altitude sickness pills on that first night. She was infinitely more helpful than the dopey guide, Milton, who told me that 'It's mainly psychological'! Exactly what you want to hear when you're throwing your guts up and your head feels like it's going to crack open along the middle! Ania, Natalie and I all went to sleep that night with no dinner and banging heads, hoping to feel better before the 4:30am start!

On a more positive note, another theme of the trip was llamas! We got very close to some of them, including this fella, who was hanging around near our jeeps on the first night. I managed to get a few snaps before I succumbed to the altitude. Nice ear-decorations, no?!

We got up before sunrise on the second day and headed to the ruins of a town called San Antonio. Local legend says the place is haunted. Twice now, different groups have tried to settle it as a mining town, but the harsh conditions and isolation have made that very difficult. It was pretty spooky! Much later we stopped for a break with more fields full of llamas. This cheeky one turned towards Ania at one point and she got this great photo!

Much of the landscape was so barren! Throughout our four days, the journey was freezing too, because of the high altitude!! We wore so many layers and invested in a wooly hat and a pair of gloves each. I wore all my clothes, gloves and hat included, in bed too! Here I am on one of our stops with nothing to be seen for miles, except a beautiful red-tipped mountain looming in the background.

That afternoon we all stripped down to our swim-things and leapt into these hot springs! It really was beautiful. The warm water and the freezing, dry air made quite a contrast! And of course, the views were spectacular! It wasn't fun getting out though! As one of the guides commented, 'Gringo soup!':

Next it was on to our highest point: 5000 metres above sea level, where we went to see some geysers. Ania says five hundred on the video, but she means five thousand. You´ll have to forgive us, at this point the altitude sickness was arguably at its worst! The geysers were impressive though, I'll let you see for yourself!

At our camp that evening, the four couples from our two cars were to share seven single beds in the same room (Natalie and Johan shared). I dosed up on altitude pills and painkillers and had a nap, waking up in time for an interesting dinner and a fun card game with the rest of the group! The meal was a delicious veggie soup and bread, followed by a Bolivian speciality for us meat-eaters: Pique de Macho. Basically, a pile of chips covered in beef, bacon, hot dog sausages, boiled eggs, onions, chillies and cheese! I think I would have loved it far more than I did if I hadn't felt so crap!

The next morning my sickness peaked and I started the day in the traditionally healthy and dignified way: by vomiting into a waste-paper basket in our shared bedroom! Thank God no one else was in the room! It was at this point I realised I wasn't just suffering from altitude sickness, but also had a stomach virus. Neat!

Our first stop that day was amazing, though (didn't I tell you this trip was full of ups and downs?!). We stopped at the Laguna Colorada (Lake Colorada), home to masses of beautiful flamingoes! I'm sure this video doesn't do them justice, but it really was a magical way to start the day!

We then crossed the Desert of Siloli to get to a group of unusual rock formations. The most famous of these is the 'Arbol de Piedra', the Stone Tree:

Our guide Miguel really was a legend, and he came through for me big-time when he took me to a hospital in a tiny village called San Juan. I really wasn't expecting much, but the doctor or pharmacist (or whatever he was!) was great and gave me some antibiotics, which worked almost instantly! Hurrah! Thanks, Miguel. If you, dear reader, ever go to Bolivia and do this tour, ask for him to be your guide, he´s fab!

After the hospital we were back on the road again, but not for long! Just outside of San Juan we got a puncture. We had the spare wheel and some tools but no jack. For some reason the jeeps share one jack and despite us being a convoy, Milton had driven off with his group (told you he was dopey). We had to wait for about twenty minutes in the middle of no-where until another random jeep came along and rescued us!

For our third and final night we stayed in the best place yet. Ania and I even got a private room! It was a salt hotel on the outskirts of the salt flats. The entire floor was covered in salt and we all splashed out ten Bolivianos (just over a pound) for a hot(ish) shower. We had another good meal and then Wayne, one of the guys from a separate group, taught us all a cool card game called 'Werewolf', which I can honestly say is unlike any other I've ever played! We loved it!

The 'living room' in our salty 'hotel':

Our fourth and final day was the best of the lot. We set off before sunrise again and almost immediately drove onto the salt. Miles and miles and miles of it, at 3650 metres above sea level! And yes, you can eat it! There was quite a bit of water on the surface and we drove through about a foot of it for ages. We took some great photos courtesy of the reflections:

Sunrise over the water-covered salt:

We saw a few of these incredible salt whirls:

Our first stop that morning was the 'Isla del Pescado', Fish Island! It's home to loads of huge cacti and gives you simply breathtaking views of the Salar de Uyuni. Here´s me looking out on the island. Look at all that white, as far as the eye can see!

Currently Fish Island's biggest cactus, at nine metres. They grow at about a centimetre a year, making this one roughly 900 years old! The previous biggest cactus on the island was just a few metres away from this one. At twelve metres and about 1200 years old, it looked pretty sorry for itself collapsed on the floor!

Our cook, Natalia, in traditional Bolivian national dress (complete with cool bowler hat!), serves us breakfast just outside Fish Island. That's Natalie and Johan on the left.

Having fun on the salt after breakfast:

After leaving Fish Island we stopped at the famous Salt Hotel on the Salar itself, saw more great scenery and had a quick lunch in Colchani, a town where they process the salt for our tables!

The tour finished with the bizarre train graveyard just outside of Uyuni. These were Bolivia´s first trains. They've been left to rust and rot on the old tracks, where people graffiti political slogans all over them. Strange, but I do like this photo:

We spent one night in Uyuni in a horrible, yet thankfully cheap hotel, before moving on. Frankly, Uyuni itself is a dump! But what about those Salt Flats, eh?! It really was beautiful!