Cheating Death…sort of

Death Road. Not the most comforting name is it. Especially when it is paired with the sub-title “World’s Most Dangerous Road”. Doesn’t exactly sound like a road you would really want to be on.

The 61km North Yungas road runs from La Paz to Coroico and it is legendary because up until recently between 200 and 300 travellers died on that route each year. The unpaved winding road cuts precariously into the sides of the in Cordillera Real mountain range and is fairly basic. Most of the time it is nothing more than a narrow bumpy track – in some places it is just three metres wide. Overtaking or just passing other cars would have been an absolute nightmare, only made worse by the the sheer drop of 800 metres on one side.

The road itself is now closed to traffic, there’s a new asphalt highway in place. But Death Road itself is still there and is now one of the biggest tour attractions in La Paz. Cyclists are the only ones tearing down that road, and while they are much more suited to the road, accidents still happen. At last count, 18 cyclists had died on the road.

Understandably I was a little nervous at the prospect of riding a mountain bike down this path. Even A was a bit concerned at the idea of me doing this, he’s seen some of my brilliant trips and stumbles, and I suspect he didn’t enjoy the thought of seeing his girlfriend lose control of her bike and go sailing off the edge of a cliff. He asked me several times if I was really sure I wanted to do the ride.

I was determined. It couldn’t be that hard. And though some may have their doubts, I didn’t think I was so retarded that I would end up riding off a cliff. So I signed up on with Madness Tours, partly because I liked the name, and mostly because they had really cool looking bikes.

The next morning we spent a half hour getting ourselves kitted out with our bikes and our safety riding gear. Pants, knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards and a full face helmet; I could have ridden my bike into a brick wall and come away unscathed (though off a cliff, probably not so much).

The first part of the journey started at around 4600m above sea level. At our starting point, we could see altiplano lakes and snow-capped mountains in the distance. The ride started on a stretch of the new highway. Before we were allowed near it, our guide Hector gave us a safety talk. No overtaking the lead guide, single file, and stay to the right. Simple enough. We whizzed single file down asphalt highway, sticking to the far right to avoid the traffic. We barely pedalled, it was all downhill, and I hadn’t expected to be going so fast. I found myself using the brakes heavily because I genuinely felt like I was flying down the hill. Not even the fact that everyone was overtaking me would convince me to release my vice-like grip on those brakes.

After this section, we had to load the bikes back on to the support van, and then drive a short way to the next part, where the real Death Road began. Another serious safety talk from Hector and we were back in the saddle.

The road was bumpy, rough and littered with rocks and stones. To my right a the steep rocky hill rose, decorated with all manner of ferns, vines and flowers. To my left, the road fell away into a sheer drop. If you went over that edge, nothing would save you. Needless to say I rode on the extreme far right, practically running my shoulder into the cliff as I went. It took me a little while, but eventually I did relax. The road was plenty wide enough for a bike, wide enough to navigate around the potholes and larger rocks, and I learned to trust the bike’s ability to handle the smaller bumps. The riding was easy – virtually no pedalling – and the view was stunning.

As we descended down past clouds, and a vast green countryside opened up in front of us. Down and down we descended, navigating the corners and switchbacks, passing overhanging rocks, riding through cascading waterfalls that splashed over us and all the time taking in the view. Along the way we stopped for rest breaks, for lunch, for photo stops. I steadily grew in confidence, and began to release that grip on the brakes. I giggled to myself as I raced and bounced down the track.

There was never really any danger of an accident. The worst that happened was a 10-year-old kid lost control of his bike and steered it into a ditch. Which I found hilarious and somewhat satisfying, given this was one of the kids who had overtaken me in the first 15 minutes.

The whole ride took around five hours, and took us to the outskirts of the Amazon region. Down in Coroico we feasted on a hot lunch at a local hotel, and then swam in the pool. It was perfect weather for it – we had descended more than 3000m, and were now at 1200m. Where the altiplano is perpetually cool, down here it was hot and a swim was the perfect way to finish the day.

Back at the Madness office we were already handed a CD with professional pictures of the tour and a t-shirt declaring that we were now all a “Death Road Survivor”. It was a nice souvenir, but I did feel it overstated the event somewhat. It was a wonderful, glorious ride, but hardly anything that needed to be survived. I might as well start wearing t-shirts saying “I survived crossing a busy road”… that’s really the difficulty level we’re talking about here. Perhaps that’s a tad churlish of me.

Let’s just say it was brilliant fun to race down gravel Death Road, and wouldn’t really think twice before recommending it to anyone.

A hell of a job

I will never complain about my job again.

Okay, so currently I don’t have a job, but when I do get one, I will never complain about it. Stressful deadlines, unpaid overtime, annoying colleagues, weekend work – it’s all just peachy with me. And why this sudden rose coloured attitude to work?

Because after crawling through the dank tunnels of  the Potosi silver mine I realised that no matter how unpleasant my job ever becomes it will still be heaven compared to the absolute hell that these silver miners work in.

Potosi is a small colonial town in the south of Bolivia which grew up around a silver mine. The Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) that looms behind the town was once full of silver, legends tell of explorers finding lumps of pure silver scattered about the hillside. The mines opened in earnest in 1545 and for a time the city became fabulously wealthy, rivalling European cities such as Paris for beauty and decadence. But after more than 450 years of mining, the ore deposits are close to being tapped out. The silver has dropped in quality and the wealth has mostly disappeared.

The miners, however, are still there. Still heading to the Cerro Rico every day and – literally – risking their lives for the chance to earn their days wage. An average wage is between 70 to 100 Bolivianos.  That’s between US$10 and US$14.

A and I debated whether or not to go down this mine. From all reports this was not something to sign up to lightly. It is a working mine, and a primitive one at that, and we would have to contend with everything within it, from extreme temperatures to constant dust to navigating narrow mine shafts. But once our tour guide assured us that we could turn back and be safely escorted out at any point, we decided to go for it. How often do you get to head down a working silver mine?

By 10am the next morning we were kitted out in protective clothes, boots and hardhats, and our group had already been assigned the name Sexy Llama Fuckers by our guide Antonio. Our first stop was the Miners Market where we bought gifts for the miners; water, pure alcohol and coca leaves. Antonio explained how each of these was crucial to the miners – especially the coca.

Given it takes about 40 minutes to get to a mine site, the miners don’t particularly want to trudge up and back to a bathroom. Many of the miners work for themselves or as part of a cooperative, so wasted time is wasted money. So they don’t eat while they are down there. Chewing coca leaves helps them to suppress appetite, gives them a little bit extra energy and helps with altitude (the mine shafts start at around 4000m above sea level).

Gifts purchased we headed into the mine. We pulled up outside the gaping entrance and were given one last safety talk before we began. A few metres in to the first tunnel and a sense of unease came over me. Puddles covered the floor, cracked and sagging wooden beams held up the roof, worn electrical cables criss-crossed each other up and down the walls and all the while there was an ominous hiss from the air pipes that stretch down the tunnels.Then there was the smell; damp, sweat and sulfur all mixed into one.

We tramped along the muddy earth single file, with Antonio calling every so often “Watch your heads” or “Hole in the floor”. A few times we had to push ourselves up against the tunnel wall as a mine cart – pushed by two miners – rattled past us down a decrepit track.

We walked through the first level easily enough, though I admit to that I struggled a bit with the dust and the sulfur, and the steadily increasing temperature. As Antonio waited for me to catch me breath, he explained the next level would be a bit trickier and asked – again – if everyone was okay, and if anyone was claustrophobic.

The answers were all respectively “yes” and “no”, which was just as well because two minutes later we were crawling commando style through a narrow shaft. We inched along on our hands and knees – sometimes our stomachs – for a good 100m or more. It was quite an experience, fumbling and crawling among the rocks in darkness.

At the end we had a much-needed break where Antonio filled us in on his own personal story of the Cerro Rico. He was originally a miner, he started working when he was 14. When he was 19 he had his accident. An explosion in the area he was working had left a gaping hole in the floor of a tunnel, but neither he nor any of the his crew had been told about it. He was pushing a cart loaded with silver ore back through the poorly lit tunnel when he and the cart fell through the hole. He fell six metres to the next level, and the cart and the silver ore landed on top of him. He was unconscious for six hours before he was found. He spent six months in hospital recovering from multiple broken bones internal injuries. Unsurprisingly the accident affected his stregth and movement, meaning he was unable to return to work as a miner. He ended up as a tour guide – for which he is incredibly grateful.

Soon we went to meet some miners, some of Antonio’s friends were working in a nearby section. Before we went to meet them, we got a run down of the working conditions – or at least the working hours. The mine functions as a cooperative, meaning all miners are entitled to a stake in the mine and its profits. The more they put in, the more they get out of it. In theory. But it means the miners are down there for 12 hours a day – minimum – with double shifts of 20 hours quite common. They buy their own sticks of explosives, which they use liberally, to blow the rock and they work other parts of the mine with pick axes and shovels. Everything down here is down manually, save for the odd pneumatic jackhammer.

Antonio’s friends were posted at a station where they were filling carts with silver ore. If you guessed their ages, you might guess close to 30. In truth they were only a few years over 20, and one young guy was just 17. Most of them had been down the mines for five years or more. Their faces were open and smiling, but worn. Stripped to their waist, you could see that their bodies were hard and solid. Solid, not fat. Their muscles would have drawn appreciative stares from any gym junkie, but these were the kind of muscles you can only get from years of physical labor. No amount of pump classes will give you these muscles.

They welcomed us to the mine and jokingly asked if we could help them out with shovelling the next load. We jokingly obliged. When the next cart arrived I picked up a shovel and pitched in. I managed about five or six shovel loads before my girly arms told me to stop being silly. I handed my shovel off to another keen tourist. We chatted with the miners for a while, shared a sip of alcohol with them (pure alcohol – my god how that burned!) and then moved on to another section of the mine, ducking beams and dodging puddles as we went.

All the while Antonio continued his history of the mine, punctuated with personal anecdotes of mining accidents and mining miracles. By this time, we were all suffering from the temperature, which was both extreme and erratic. Working with the miners, we were shovelling in at least 40 degree (Celcius) heat, sweat streaming off us. Fifteen minutes later, down a shaft and around a corner, we were avoiding low-hanging icicles. It was surreal, and it took its toll on all of us.

The last stop was Tio, both the Devil and the Deity of the mine. Each day the superstitious miners bring offerings of cigarettes, alcohol and coca leaves to this idol, asking him to keep them safe, asking him for a profitable day. I don’t know why but seeing this garish clay idol adorned with all manner of gifts, I felt sad. It’s a clay idol, and it does nothing to protect them from the reality of collapsing tunnels, explosive accidents and from the poverty that comes when there is no silver to be found. It certainly doesn’t protect them from the inevitable silicosis they develop after inhaling silica dust for 20 years. It certainly doesn’t help them out in their life expectancy – the average Potosi silver miner lives to around 50. If Tio doesn’t “take” you inside the mine, the silicosis gets you on outside.

I was relieved when I saw sunlight. Genuinely relieved. That mine, with its soaring temperatures, dank tunnels and ludicrously unsafe working conditions is hell. Absolute hell. And I was only down their for two hours.

A was possibly even more relieved than I. He has been into some Australian mines and to him the conditions were all the more horrific in comparison. He couldn’t believe just how primitive the mining technology was, nor how unstable the shafts and tunnels were. A mine like that would simply not exist in Australia, nor any other Western country.

So at my next job I will smile through the deadlines, shrug off the unpaid overtime and hug that annoying colleague. I’ll even volunteer for weekend work. Because a desk job – any desk job – in an Australian office is heaven my friends. Absolute heaven.

Ride ’em cowboy

After crossing the Salar de Uyuni, I honestly thought I had seen everything that the Bolivian altiplano had to offer. Turns out, there’s more. Down in Tupiza I spent a day seeing more of the altiplano, but this time in style. This time I threw my leg over the back of black horse and trotted out into the countryside, John Wayne style. Okay, so I looked nothing like John Wayne or any other cowboy, but I did have a battered cowboy hat. That counts right?

 A had decided to pass on the five hour horseback tour, having never been on the back of a horse he didn’t want to start by trotting through some of the most remote parts of Bolivia. Fair enough. I signed up with three others, including an inspiring South African couple who were riding motorbikes through South America.

After spending the requisite time faffing about with equipment, I surprised myself by managing to get on to my horse with minimal fuss, and indulged myself in thinking that perhaps I was better at horse riding than I remembered. It would soon become abundantly clear that I wasn’t. My horse was imaginatively called Negro, which is the Spanish word for black. After getting acquainted with a trot around the yard, Negro and I were ready to go.

We trotted out into the Valley, and soon the altiplano did it’s usual trick of morphing into yet another spectacular scene. Where the immediate surrounds of Tupiza had been non-descript hills covered with scrub, within half an hour the landscape shifted and we found ourselves gazing upon looming rock formations that blazed red against the blue sky. The first of these was Puerta del Diablo (Devil’s Gate), a giant sheet of rock with a narrow gap that we had to pass through.

For the next five hours our horses picked their way along narrow trails that ran past bizarre rock formations, down ravines and along canyons. It was exactly the kind of landscape that you see featured in all the old “Wild West” movies. Red, rocky, dry, unforgiving but full of so much raw beauty. I really could imagine Clint Eastwood poised to leap out from behind one of the rock formations, or John Wayne sitting by a campfire in one of the canyons.

At lunch we did end up scrambling through Canon del Duende. As we passed through we noticed hundreds and hundreds of small towers of rocks. Each tower had six or seven rocks carefully stacked one on top of the other. We asked our guide about it, and he informed us that these were a type of prayer, the builder would construct the rocks as an offering and then ask for what they wished at the end. “It used to be a wish for rain, now it’s a wish for a flatscreen TV,” he joked.

Negro had been a dream for most of the ride, and this was in spite of the reins being strapped on a bit too tight. But he was a somewhat impatient horse too. At one point, as we were walking up a steep hill, Negro became fed up with the slow horse in front of us and decided he could find a better route. He jumped – yes, jumped – off the path and started charging up the hill, totally ignoring my shrill yelps of “No Negro, NO NEGRO!” and my futile tugs on the reins. It was pointless, I was going wherever he was going. To my terror, as we neared the top of the hill I realised the other side of the hill was not so much a hill, as much as a freaking cliff. I was contemplating whether or not to make like the Man from Snowy River or whether to just fling myself from the saddle, when Negro decided he didn’t really fancy suicide either. He stopped abruptly, snorted a bit, then wandered back to the path. Bloody horse.

It was a perfect lesson in who was really in charge. While at times I might fancy myself a natural horse-rider, it was a timely reminder that I am no such thing. I was not so much riding, as being taken by a ride. I remembered that and kept a tight grip on the reins and saddle, and spoke super politely to Negro for the rest of the afternoon. Thankfully he didn’t decide to assert his authority again and we spent a lovely time with him carrying me about.

After five hours, I was entirely ready to dismount. I think Negro was ready for it to, the second we removed the saddle he bolted over to some hay and rolled in it for a good 5 minutes, legs kicking in the air. I hadn’t actually seen a horse roll in hay before, it is really quite comical.

Exploring the Bolivian countryside on horseback was just brilliant, though it did mean I limited in the number of photos I could take. Negro didn’t really understand “Photo stop!” or “Stand still you stupid horse”. No matter, the reds and golds of that Tupiza landscape is not something I will easily forget.

Salar de Uyuni; An otherworldly experience

If you look up any organised tour of South America, Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail is inevitably there. It seems no trip to the continent is complete without a walk through this mythical city. All well and good, but I now would argue that a trip to South America is not complete without a trip to the Bolivian altiplano and the Salar de Uyuni. It is amazing.

A and I signed up for a three day 4WD trip across the high plains, which would take us from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and drop us in Uyuni, Bolivia. On the way, we were promised spectacular views of the Andean altiplano landscape; mountains, lakes, rock forests and even flamingos. The rave reviews we had heard from other travellers only cemented our determination to see this place.

We left our hostel early, sometime around 7am, and found ourselves waiting outside the tour offices in freezing temperatures. It may have been the desert but until the sun rises, you may as well be in the Arctic. It was slow-going that morning; delays at the tour office and then again at the Chilean immigration post meant we didn’t really get going until after 10am. The first part of the journey was uneventful, most of the time was spent staring out the window at the ever-changing landscape. As we climbed through the highlands, I again felt the effects of the altitude and prayed it was not going to ruin my trip.

After half an hour or more we came to the Bolivian immigration post. Set amid rock and snow on an icy Andean slope, the post was little more than two basic rooms, all cement and no heating. I did not envy the officers assigned to this location, but then the view from their office window was spectacular. In a nearby hut, breakfast was served. I made a beeline for the hot chocolate, more for the opportunity to hold something warm in my hands than for any true desire to drink. After breakfast our Chilean driver introduced us to Martin, our Bolivian driver, and then bade us farewell. Passports stamped, visas in place, Martin ushered us on to the waiting 4WD. The morning delays at the Chilean immigration post had put us decidedly behind schedule and Martin was eager to get going.

The day proved something of a whirlwind tour of the altiplano as Martin tried to make up time. Our first stop was the entrance of the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa  where we paid our entry fee and took a short walk to the Laguna Verde (Green Lake). Sitting at the foot of volcanoes Juriques and Licancabu, the lake was a shimmery pale green color. It was mostly frozen – but I am told that in summer, when there is less ice, the water turns a bright emerald color.

Back in the car, we sped across the Dali Desert (so named because the rock pillars there resemble those depicted in the paintings of Salvador Dali), skirted the Laguna Salada and came to a stop at the thermal baths of Polques. Here Martin invited us to take a dip in the baths.While some brave souls did just that, I just didn’t fancy stripping down to my bikini and trotting across the frozen ground to have a soak.

Back in the car, one more photo stop at the Sol de Mañana Geysers, and then we pulled up to our accommodation for the night. It was again very basic; all cement and no heating. In the late afternoon as the shadows grew long, I began to wonder just how cold the night would be. We were now 4800m above sea level – the highest I had ever been – and I was genuinely struggling with the altitude. My head was pounding – despite taking painkillers – and I couldn’t think straight. A and I did break out the cards and attempt a game of memory, but even that was too hard for my slightly addled brain.  

I went to bed right after dinner, but not before thoroughly preparing myself for the cold. Dressed in thermals, a fleece, tights, socks, gloves a scarf and a hat, I slid into a sleeping bag and then piled six blankets on top of me. Though it doesn’t seem possible, I was still cold that night. I lay drifting in and out of sleep for hours, every so often rearranging my blankets in the hope they would somehow magically become warmer. They didn’t. I asked Martin in the morning how cold it had become the previous night. Around -15 degrees, he told me. Figures.

The second day was less hectic. Our first stop was Laguna Colorada, so named because it is red. Yes, red. An impossible but unmistakeable shade of brick red. We spent some time walking around the lake and the frozen tundra, and gazing out at the water and wondering just what was behind this natural phenomenon. Light-sensitive phytoplancton, if you’re wondering.

Another hour in the car and we came to the Arbol de Piedra (Stone Tree), a pyramid shaped rock that seems to have literally grown from the earth. Around the “tree” a variety of equally surreal rock formations.

Back to the car and then on to the “Route of the Jewels”, a set of three lakes strung out across the altiplano. The lakes themselves are stunning, often reflecting mirror images of the Andean peaks which rose behind them. Aside from their obvious beauty, there was a second attraction to these lakes; flamingos!

Stalking gracefully through the lakes were hundreds of these pale pink birds. We watched from the shore as they waded through the shallows, their heads bobbing above and below the surface as they fished for food. We followed the flamingos for quite some time, waiting, cameras poised for that perfect shot. Most of the flamingos seemed to prefer keeping their heads underwater, but one or two obliged us.

I had been told there would be flamingos, but then I was still surprised and just a little bit delighted to see them. Curious too. What the hell was this tropical bird doing in these freezing conditions?

We drove on. It occurred to me that despite spending the best part of two days in a car, looking out the window, I was never bored. Not once. The landscape was continually evolving. At one point the pale rocks and dunes convinced me we were driving on the moon, at another point the rough red craters and rock pillars suggested we were on Mars. The altiplano was often otherworldly, but it was always beautiful.

That night we slept in a hotel made entirely from salt. The walls were made of bricks cut from salt, the furniture was carved from salt, the floor was covered with ground salt. The window of our room looked out on the white stretch of the Salar de Chiguana, a smaller salt flat that hinted at what was to come. It was something of a novelty, and one which I mos definitely enjoyed.

The second night I was again worried about the cold. A, bless him, found some extra blankets and literally wrapped me in them before throwing more blankets on top. That night was much better, I did in fact sleep.

The morning was clear and blue, a perfect day for visiting the salt flats. Our first stop was a small rocky outcrop, Isla del Pesdadores. Sitting by itself in the salt flat, the island is home to nothing but giant cacti and a few llamas. Scrambling up and around the island, we found some great viewpoints from which to look out on to the flats.

The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, spanning 10,500 square kilometres. But the figures don’t tend to make much sense, until you are actually out there. In the salar proper, the brilliant white flats stretch out to the horizon and beyond and you simply can not see the edge. Against the blue altiplano sky the flats are stark, immense, overwhelming almost.

I paced around the flats, marvelling at the flat cracked surfaces. And yes, I did actually pick up some of the white crystals and lick them. I couldn’t help myself, I just had to. They tasted like salt. And then of course, the flats made for some really fun photos.

The Salar de Uyuni was just astounding, and the clear highlight of the trip. I should say it was the highlight among a string of natural treasures hiding in the rugged altiplano. This landscape, though rugged and unforgivingly cold, is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and exotic places I have ever encoutered. After seeing it, I don’t know why the guide books don’t rave more about it, why the salar isn’t the number one tourist attraction in South America. All I know is that no itinerary to South America is complete without it.

The sounds of sand and silence

Silence is something of a rarity. Even in the quietest moments you will hear the distant traffic, a neighbour’s television, people talking, the hum of the fridge, dogs barking, birds, insects… Absolute silence is a myth.

Or so I thought.

A and I had stopped at San Pedro de Atacama for a few days.It’s a tiny town in the middle of the Atacama Desert, a tiny town where everything is the colour of sand. From the streets forged from pale clay, to the low buildings, to the shadeless plaza; everything was sandy and sun-baked. 

A and I hired bikes to explore the Valle de La Luna, national park which has become a tourist attraction for it’s otherworldly sand and rock formations. We set off in the mid-morning sun; the desert sky was cloudless and the day was already warm. After a quick trip to an ancient fort, we headed to the valley. It was 16km out of town and not particularly easy in that heat.

We left the town, found the main highway, and pedalled for several kilometres. In all directions the desert landscape stretched into eternity; vast, flat and barren. Puffing, panting and sweating profusely (or at least I was) we arrived at the park entrance where we were handed a map of the park circuit and where – to my horror – we learned that the first rock formations were another 5kms away.

Soon enough, we arrived at the first point on the map. The previously unimpressive landscape was now much more interesting. Here the dirty brown sand had been replaced by pale, misshapen rock formations. The canyon – of sorts – had been carved by an ancient river and the path it left was narrow and winding. There were tunnels, bridges, caves and dead-ends, all forged from the same pale, pock-marked rocks. It wasn’t a stretch to see why they named this place Valley of the Moon.

We pedalled on past vast sand dunes, canyons and more rock formations and eventually we stopped for our desert picnic lunch. I was a long way behind A, and as I approached he told me that he had heard my bike tyres on the road – clearly – from more than 100m away.

“It was the only sound for miles around. I can’t believe how clear it was,” he said. “Sit still, and listen.”

I did. I heard nothing by my own breathing. So I held my breath. And there it was.

Silence.

No distant cars, no televisions, no humming appliances, no chirping birds, no barking dogs, no buzzing insects, no wind rustling the trees. There was nothing, not a single sound.  If I didn’t know better, I could have sworn I was wearing ear plugs. It was strange looking at such a vast landscape in front of me, and hearing nothing. It just didn’t seem possible.

I shut my eyes, held my breath again and listened more. The silence became oppressive – claustrophobic almost. It weighed down on me, demanding to be broken. Eventually it was my own heartbeat that broke the silence for me; when I concentrated it was the only thing I could hear out there. The absolute silence was eerie. A landscape without noise just doesn’t seem right. But then it was also a strange kind of wonderful to sit and contemplate the sound of silence.

After our picnic lunch we turned our bikes around and rode back to the town. On the way we rode past sand dunes, their massive slopes pristine and unmarked. The child in me longed to hurl myself from the top of dune and roll all the way down, flinging sand in every direction. The adult in me just paused at the dunes, looked forlornly at them, and rode home.

However my chance to fling myself from the top of dune came soon enough. The next day in fact. We signed ourselves up for an afternoon of sandboarding in Valle de le Muerte. I prayed that the name – Valley of Death – wasn’t actually an ominous sign. (Actually we later found out that the locals had named it Valle de la Marte – Valley of Mars – but the name had been misunderstood by the Spanish. Valley of Mars makes far more sense, the rocks and dunes here are a reddish colour.)

Out in the desert, at the foot of the dunes, we were assigned our boards. They were just snowboards, minus the boots, but heavily waxed on the underside. The basics of sandboarding were also fairly similar to snowboarding, though turning was tricky. We trudged to the top of the dune – which was actually hard work – and strapped ourselves in.

“Who can snowboard?” asked our instructor.

“He can!” I volunteered for A.

“Okay, you can go first.”

After a false start, A glided down the dune easily, expertly balanced. He may as well have been teaching the class. I watched a few more people go before me, taking note of how you had to be careful not to dig the edge of the board into the sand.

My turn. I shuffled to the edge, stood, balanced and pushed off. I began slowly, then picked up speed, adjusting my weight to keep my board from digging into the sand. Faster, faster, faster. I was nailing it!

And then, well who knows exactly what happened, but I absolutely stacked it. I ended up flipping myself over, cartwheeling – arms, legs, board – down the dune. When you do this snowboarding, you get snow everywhere. The same applies to sandboarding but unlike snow, sand does not melt away.

I had sand in my eyes, up my nose, in my ears. I am fairly sure I ate some sand too. It was through my hair, down my shorts, in my bra and…lets just say I got sand in places.

The stunt must have been impressive, because before I had even sat up I heard the shouts of “Are you okay??” from more than one direction. Even A looked a little concerned, which is saying something because he is very used to seeing me fall over.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I called, while somewhat sheepishly shuffling myself and the board to the bottom of the dune. “That was good stack,” A said. Just as well the sand is also soft. We went down the dune a few more times, and eventually I did get the hang of it. It really was fantastic fun.

Late in the day our instructor took us out to a viewpoint in the desert, a place to watch the sunset. As the sun sank, the previously unremarkable dunes turned all shades of pink and gold.

As the sun set even lower he decided to show us some of his photographic abilities. This one is still my favourite.

You can’t see our faces, but let me assure you there is a smile plastered across mine. The Atacama Desert may not look like much, but there is plenty of joy – and beauty – to be found among the quietness of it’s dunes.

A ghost of a town

For me, the word “ghost town” conjures up images of empty, dusty streets, abandoned homes, favourite toys left behind and machinery left to rust. There is always a hint of sadness that comes with the images.

Humberstone in northern Chile is – to me – the epitome of a ghost town. Once a thriving mining town it is now an empty place, an empty monument to happier times. The town’s sole industry was based on the mining and refining of nitrates, however when synthetic nitrates were developed these two industries quickly became redundant. By 1960 the industrial plants had shut down, there were no jobs, the families left and by 1970 the abandonment was total and complete.

There isn’t much more I can say about this town, other than it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’ll defer again to pictures, in the hope that they will capture the feeling of the town.

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The Streets of Valparaiso

The best part of this intensely colourful city can not really be adequately described in words. So here I will defer to the adage; I’ll give you the pictures and spare you the thousand words.

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This was some of the grafitti that was found on the walls – colourful, quirky, original. And clever – I think the piano stairs were among my favourites.

 

But then just even the town itself was beautiful….

 

Definitely a place I’d like to visit again. Even if it’s just to see more grafitti.

Iguaza Falls; A justified World Wonder

I had heard the reviews. I had heard all the relevant adjectives. I had a general idea of what to expect when standing before one of the new Seven Natural Wonders of the World. But then nothing quite prepared me for the magic and overpowering grandeur of Iguazu Falls.

We had flown into the nearest town – Puerto Iguazu – the day before. A 20 hour bus ride from BA was just not happening; I drawn the line at 16 hours. So after one day of wandering around the fairly non-descript town, the next morning we were up and at the park gates early.

The falls themselves are not actually one continuous curtain of water, but are in fact 275 waterfalls of varying sizes strung out along 2.7kms. We decided to explore the smaller waterfalls first, walking along pathways that took us along the top and bottom of the falls. I began to get excited at the sound of the waterfalls, and then even more so at the first glimpses of the actual falls.

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They were beautiful, and to me looked like they belonged in a fairytale. A fairy kingdom would not have looked out of place sitting atop these waterfalls. While some of the falls were powerful torrents of white water charging downwards, others were almost delicate in the way they tripped and splashed over moss covered rocks. At the bottom of one part of the falls, a perfectly formed rainbow bounced from rock to rock and only added to magic of this place.

I also had in my mind that the jet boat ride beneath the falls would be a brilliant way of getting closer to the falls. So we signed up for the 12 minute trip – which cost something like $30 – and didn’t think too much of it when our ticket seller told us we were going to get wet. I thought he meant  we would catch the spray of the waterfalls, so I expected to get a little damp.

We were warned again by some other travellers, but again I didn’t think too much of it. I didn’t even click when we stepped on to the boat and saw a bunch of Brasilian men and women wearing boardshorts and bikinis. I looked on in slight disdain. “Posers,” I thought. “It’s not that hot.”

About five minutes later, I understood their motives. The boat sped up to one side of the falls and idled as well all took photographs, then swung around and sped to another point and idled again. Then it swung around and made a pass under one smaller waterfall, and we all got a little bit wet. That’s not so bad, I thought. Then the boat swung around one more time and headed back to the first waterfall and proceeded to drive into it. Not near it, not around it, straight into the waterfall. We were thoroughly soaked, I looked like I had gone swimming in my clothes. I may as well have. So while everyone else was cleverly wearing swimming attire, A and I were wearing cargo pants and t-shirts, which were now dripping wet. And given the lack of sunshine, they stayed that way for some time. Wandering along the pathways – wringing wet – we got a more than a few stares and some knowing smiles from other tourists.

But the main attraction was still to come. After drying out a little we hopped on to the park train which took us up to the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat). We had only caught a distant glimpse of these falls from the boat, and even then they were difficult to see through all the mist and spray.

A half-hour walk from the train station took us through the wetlands and across a lake, and it wasn’t too long before I could hear the rush of the water. We made our way to the viewing platform, and it was at this point that I became slightly dumbstruck. Big is an understatement, huge is an understatement, massive is better but still doesn’t quite capture the size of these magnificent falls. I’ve never seen anything in nature so awesome in size and power. The intensity of these falls and the sheer amount of water rushing over the edge is such that you do start to feel rather small and insignificant standing before them. Not that statistics mean anything until you’ve see the falls but to give you an idea, on average there is 1,700 cubic metres or 1.7 million litres of water tumbling down those falls every second. To give more perspective, that is equivalent to five Olympic sized swimming pools every 10 seconds.

Watching the falls is quite a hypnotic experience. At the top of the falls is something of a placid blue-green lake – not a raging river – and then the water simply slips off a sheer drop and transforms into an 80m high downpour. So we just stood there watching the falls, watching the water. Sometimes taking photos, mostly just standing back and contemplating the immensity of what was before us. It took quite a while to leave, and personally I didn’t want to.

So what was Iguazu like? Majectic, magnificent, beautiful, powerful, awe-inspiring…yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. Pick one adjective, pick five, pick ten. It still won’t come close to capturing Iguazu Falls.

Back to BA

So after our “quick” trip home – our holiday from the holiday – we stepped back on a plane to finish the South American leg of the journey. Our first stop was Buenos Aires, a city which has achieved somewhat legendary status in my mind thanks to the many stories I have been told by several friends.

Walking around this city I felt at home right away, possibly because it has quite a Western/European feel to it. The city itself is enchanting. Wide avenues, tree-lined streets, bustling plazas, blooming parklands, not to mention some of the most gorgeous 19th century architecture you’ll ever see. Avenida de Mayo is lined with beautiful pastel-painted buildings decorated with curving wrought-iron balconies and window frames. They look positively Parisien, but then I think that was the general idea. At one end of this central avenue is the delightfully pink presidential palace Casa Rosada – famous also because that is where Evita delivered her speeches – while at the other end is the Palacio del Congreso, a hulking behemoth of a building that dominates everything in the vicinity.

We paid a visit to the famous Cementario de la Recoleta, the cemetary where the illustrious are buried. I don’t know if it is proper to describe a cemetary in this way, but was just fabulous. The tombs and crypts were so beautiful and so ornate they will hold you attention for hours. Everywhere you turned was another tomb crafted from fine marble, fixed with wrought-iron gates and inscribed with large golden letters. Then there were the statues that adorned the tombs. They peeked out from all angles; here a cherub weeping, there a guardian angel watching over a loved one, over there a saint giving an eternal blessing. The tombs were by turns stately, exquisite and at times just downright ostentatious but the whole place was just fabulous. They certainly know how to bury their dead here.

Then there is the BA nightlife. People in this city don’t go out until 2am – and that is early. I haven’t decided yet if that is super cool, or just super lazy. A few nights we fought our shocking jetlag and headed out, making it to a couple of bars and a couple of shows. The highlight was undoubtedly La Bomba Del Tiempo (Timebomb). This drumming group is something of an institution in BA, every Monday night the 17 member group gathers in a warehouse in Abasto and beat out an amazing hour of music – all percussion instruments, all completely improvised. The energy they create during their time on the stage is fantastic – I know I’ll be going again when I hit BA for the second time.

And of course what would a visit to BA be without watching a tango show. Argentina is renowned for this dance – they did invent it after all – and it is not uncommon to see people of all ages dancing a tango on a street corner or in a market square. Down at the Palermo Viejo milonga (dance hall) we watched as the some tango instructors strutted and glided across the floor in perfect tango step. They were elegant, they were sexy, they were wonderful and then they opened the floor up to our group of petrified Westerners. Thankfully the invitation came with a beginners tango class, and we all took to mastering the basic seven-step tango routine. It took a little while but I can now emulate something that, in a darkened room, might be mistaken for a tango.

We spent a week in BA, wandering its streets, exploring its flea markets, visiting its galleries and just generally soaking up the atmosphere of this amazing city. I could have easily spent months doing this, so I’m really glad that my return flight home is from BA, which “forces” me back to this city for a few weeks.