The toughest girls in the world

There is something just a little bit awesome about watching a fully grown woman heft up a packing crate and crack it over the head of another fully grown woman. I don’t know why, there just is.

Not that I am condoning violence; this isn’t something I just happened to see while wandering the streets of La Paz. No it was a Cholitas match, complete with trash-talking, bitch-slapping, hair-pulling and and some genuinely fantastic wrestling moves.

The Cholitas are a group of Bolivian women, typically indigneous women, who decided they wanted in on some lucha libre action. Lucha libre, the freestyle form of wrestling characterised by aerial maneuvers, is big throughout Latin America and Bolivia is no exception. Traditionally it is men fighting in tight pants and hooded masks, but not too long ago some the Cholitas decided that anything the men could do…. And rather than the traditional wrestling costumes these gals take to the ring in style; sporting their traditional dress of multi-layered skirts, shawls, decorated braids and jaunty bowler hats.

The growing popularity of lucha libre wrestling – and the Cholitas – means they have become something of an institution in La Paz. Every Sunday at a small host of venues are the Cholitas take to the ring, putting on a show for both tourists and locals. We headed along to one in El Alto on the outskirts of La Paz, wondering just what the evening’s entertainment would involve.

We pulled up to the arena and found it to be little more than a large open space with a cement floor and aluminium roof. In the middle was the wrestling ring, ready and waiting. I should mention here that while this looked like any other wrestling ring, it certainly did not any of the luxuries that you might find in a professional ring. The floor was most certainly not sprung to help the wrestlers with their leaps and acrobatics, nor was there any padding that might give a wrester a bit of cushioning during a fall. When they fell, these wrestlers fell on to a hard surface.

We bought our popcorn and coca-cola and secured ourselves ringside seats for the evening’s entertainment. Local people wandered in, sitting a little further back on the concrete steps. The reason for this would become fairly obvious in time.

The annoucer began his introductions, and soon after Eye of the Tiger came blaring from the sound system. From behind a gold curtain the ref emerged, arms aloft, beckoning the crowd for a cheer. We obliged, of course. Two young men emerged next, one in a lucha libre mask, the other maskless. The crowd booed the man in the mask and cheered for the other, they already knew who the hero in this fight would be.

The fight began, and the two wrestlers circled each other before launching into a series of impressive maneuvers. There were holds, lifts, throws and rolls, all executed without any hesitation. Each time one of the wrestlers hit the floor of the ring, there would be an almighty bang – as I said there was no padding to soften the blows for any of these wrestlers. Eventually, through some trickery and some help from the ref, the masked villain won.

The next fight we saw our first Cholita. She was fighting against a man, and so this fight would be gentle by comparison. This fight wasn’t so much about technical ability, as about comedy. There was hair pulling, standing on toes, feigned screaming, and at one point our Cholita – fed up with the obvious bias of the ref – took off her shoe and started beating him about the head with it. Great stuff.

Another fight and this time it was a tag team match – four wrestlers, in teams of two, would take to the ring. It was in this match that the aerial abilities of these amateur wrestlers became very apparent. Again there were the flips, the holds and the throws, but they were much more acrobatic. Then there were the aerial moves. Throughout their battle each of the wrestlers would periodically climb atop one of the corner posts and then launch themselves into an opponent, flipping and twisting as they did so. It was impressive, and would have made any WWE wrestler take note.

Of course as any wrestling fan know, the fight never stays in the ring. The fight spilled out of the ring dramatically, with one wrestler thrown outside of it (onto a cold hard concrete floor I might add). He was then rammed into a concrete pillar, and then again into the ringside barricades, which promptly gave way and slammed into mine and A’s knees. It was suddenly very clear why the local were sitting a good five metres behind us. Once again the ref intervened to help out the bad guys, and eventually, to the jeers and protests of the crowd, they were declared the winners.

The main event was next. Two Cholitas, emerged in their resplendant skirts and proceeded to primp and pose for the crowd, whipping up cheers. Next they proved they could trash talk as well as the boys, and launched into what I can assume was a scathing attack on the other’s abilities. I couldn’t understand a word of it mind you…save for the odd phrase.

Then the fight began and these women proved they were every bit as tough and every bit as talented as the men. Their costumes only proved to enhance the show, their skirts and braids whirled in all directions as they rolled and flipped around the ring. They slapped each other, banged each others head on the ring posts, launched themselves from the high ropes, and then – to the delight of the crowd – one of them produced a pair of nun-chuks and began using them on her foe.

The next Cholita bout had all this and more. The two women taking to the ring were clearly determined to stage the match of the evening.Their acrobatic flips and throws and turns were intricate, fast-paced and once again as good as anything the men has produced. These girls didn’t hesitate to climb the ring posts and launch themselves – skirts and braids streaming out – across the ring and into their opponents.

Again the match spilled from the ring, they ran each other into concrete pillars, into the crowd and then for a brief moment they ran each other banging and screaming down a hallway where they disappeared from sight. Seconds later they re-emerged with blood – fake blood – running down their faces. I think it was then that the packing crate emerged and one of the Cholitas copped it on the head. Again I’d like to clarify that this was no specially designed light-weight break-on-impact crate. No, this was sturdy a packing crate as you would see. The Cholita who copped that blow soon retaliated in a similar manner, this time using a metal bucket.

Each time a blow was struck the crowd would whistle and roar and cheer, these Cholitas knew how to put on a show. Eventually a winner was declared, but it didn’t really matter who won; winning was hardly the point of this fight. It was one of the most entertaining nights we spent in La Paz.

Obviously all the fights were choreographed and well rehearsed, obviously no one sustained any real injuries. Still, I don’t care how well the punches were pulled, or how well reheared the throws were – it is going to hurt when you get tossed out of a ring fall down to a concrete floor, or when you get cracked on the head with a packing crate. Those lucha libre wrestlers – and the Cholitas – are some of the toughest and craziest people around.

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.


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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Twinkle Twinkle

I’ve seen stars. They’re those twinkly things in the night sky.

I can pick out Orion’s belt, maybe point you to the two Pointers, and on a lucky night I might even correctly guess where Jupiter is (okay and yes, for all those fastidious scientists dying to point it out, Jupiter is a planet and not a star).

I’ve seen stars, you’ve seen stars, we’ve all seen stars.

But making out constellations is entirely different to seeing stars. Or at least seeing stars more closely. That much I learned when I spent an evening at the Mamalluca Observatory, in the Elqui Valley just an hours drive from La Serena. Until that night, I hadn’t really given stars that much thought. Certainly I never realised just how beautiful they are.

The evening tour started late, after 9pm, when the night sky had sufficiently darkened. It was also cold, really cold. So cold our breath hung in the night air, and our hands remained firmly jammed in our coat pockets. But once our guide starting talking I forgot about the temperature.

She explained, firstly, how the magnification of telescopes work. I tried to understand but the part of my brain that deals with basic maths equations shut itself down a long time ago. I remember when it happened too – it was the second I answered the last question of my final highschool maths examination. I’ve never attempted to turn that part back on. And to be fair, I was actually kind of crap at maths anyway.

So there was no chance I was going to understand what she was on about. I looked sideways at A, who was nodding with interest. Smart arse. I did pick up that telescopes make things far away look big….that’s about the extent of it.

Thankfully the hard stuff finished and we were on to the stars. Our lovely guide whipped out a high-tech laser pointer and began to point out the constellations, her clear green beam stretching out across the night sky.

(I developed a case of “laser envy” during the tour. It was a really really cool laser, and now I want one. No, I have no immediate use for a laser but give me 10 minutes alone with it and I guarantee I would find a use. I could just see myself sitting on the lounge, and pointing at things. Saying things like; “A, could you make me a cup of tea (points at teabags, then kettle) and could I have some biscuits with that too (points at biscuits).” Actually, best not give me a laser, I’ll probably become really annoying.)

I digress. Our guide waved her beam at a particular constellation.

“Does anyone know what this is?” she asked

“Si si,” my hand shoots up. “El Cruz del Sur.

Yes, a gold star to the Australian for knowing what the Southern Cross looks like. It only adorns the national flag, and the arms of a few million bogans back home.

After that it was Orion, the Scorpius, then Sagittarius, then Libra. I had never realised how the stars linked to form those shapes, but let me tell you, that Star Trek-worthy laser was making things particularly clear. Next we were shown the constellations of the ancient cultures. Interestingly, these cultures didn’t link stars to form a shape, they use the stars as a border, as an outline. The shapes are found by looking at the black space. There in the darkness we found the llama and the serpent. Once you get used to looking at the negative space, you really do see the resemblance.

Then to the main attraction, the telescopes and the stars. First up the telescope was directed at Antares, the star which forms part of the constellation of Scorpius. Looking through the telescope I was surprised to find the star was not white – as it looked in the night sky – but was in fact a distinct reddish colour.

Next we looked at a star cluster called the Jewel Box. When I looked through the telescope the name instantly became clear. What looked to the naked eye like just one or two fuzzy stars in the distance was actually 100 or more stars that twinkled in hues of blue, gold and red. The nursery rhyme rang true; they really were like diamonds in the sky. Tiny diamonds, sparkling and blinking against a velvet black backdrop. They were so beautiful.

We adjourned to the proper observatory which housed a more powerful telescope. We were told that it was the most powerful telescope available to the public in the Southern Hemisphere. It had a magnification of x200 which means…?? Well it means it makes things extra faraway look big. (My next vocation; science teacher surely.)

Things like Saturn. Yep, we got to look at Saturn. And guess what? It really does have rings. Now I understand that everyone knows Saturn has rings, because it’s in all the science books. But I’ve now seen the rings of Saturn. Looking through the telescope I could clearly make out the gold planet, with a band circling it. It wasn’t beautiful – not like the stars – but it was still a little bit wonderful to see it, and just confirm with my own eyes that the scientists did get it right. Well done them.

The tour ended shortly after that; we had a quick lecture on how the nightsky moves and turns but soon enough we were on our way back to La Serena. As we drove back I stared out the window, up at the stars. They looked the same as they always did, but then a little bit different as well.

How did I not know they were up there all this time? How did I not know they were so beautiful?

And how do I get my hands on a laser like that?

Hunting penguins

We signed up to the boat trip on the promise of penguins. Humbolt penguins to be exact. Who doesn’t love penguins? They are a ridiculously cute breed of bird. So a boat trip around the Reserva Nacional Pinguino de Humbolt – a marine reserve just off the coast of Chile – sounded like a fantastic day.

We started out early, picked up from our hostel in La Serena, and spent the best part of the morning driving to Los Choros, a tiny fishing village where brightly coloured boats lined the shore. After negotiating our way from the jetty to the boat – which was being pushed every which wave by the rising tide – we were off. I was very excited at the idea that I would soon be seeing penguins.

As we approached the first island – Isla de Chanaral – our guide was cheerily giving us a basic lesson in biology, listing the animals and birds that could be found here. I was scanning the waters for the playful birds, but found none. Where were they?

We drew closer to the island, into a small cove, where we had our first animal sighting of the day – sea lions. They weren’t hard to spot, there were hundreds of these beasts lying prostrate on the rocks in the sunshine. A few of them eyed us suspiciously as we cruised by, and one or two roused themselves enough to bark a warning at us.

The next cove contained birdlife – cormorants and boobies (feel free to snigger childishly at that name, I do every time). Again they were interesting, but again they they were not penguins. I was starting to get quite anxious.

“Look there, a penguin!”

I turned my head in the direction our guide was excitedly pointing, and there on the distant shoreline, standing on a rock was a fuzzy grey blob.

“Donde?” I ask. Where?

“There, there,” said our guide. “You can make him out because his stomach is white.”

They steered the boat closer to the island, closer to the grey blob.

I looked again, staring hard and then yes, I saw the white spot, and then I saw him! He was small and greyish and even though I couldn’t make out his face, I am sure it was cute. And then just when I was getting really excited about seeing a penguin in the wild, the little bastard turned his back on me.

I doubt it was personal. But it may as well have been because the instant, he reverted to fuzzy grey blob. Without seeing the white spot on his stomach, I couldn’t distinguish his grey back from the grey rocks around him.

“That’s how they camouflage themselves,” our guide explained helpfully.

My short-sghted eyes stood no chance of against this highly-evolved back-turning camouflage technique; he was gone. My Humbolt penguin had humbly bolted, and I was left feeling just a little let down. Where were the hundreds of boisterous penguins tap-dancing on the shore? Why weren’t they waving and beckoning us over? I wanted Happy Feet and all I got was a shy fella who didn’t want a bar of us.

Ten minutes later, however, we did see two curious sea otters who made up for the lack of penguins. They were cute, really cute, and they swam around the boat once or twice before clamouring behind a rock and them playing peek-a-boo with us.

Shortly after we pulled up to the second island, Isla de Damas, the one island within the marine reserve that we were actually allowed to walk on. The waters were every shade of blue, and the beaches were marvellously untouched. We wandered all over the island, following sandy paths to vantage points where we could sit and watch the waves crash on rocks. A – ever the surfer – was giving me an appraisal of the waves. I was still looking for penguins. Unfortunately none came out of the water to wave at me.

On the way back to the boat I told A of my minor disappointment.

“What were you expecting?” he asked.

Oh I don’t know. Hundreds and hundreds of smiling penguins tumbling and diving all around us? And maybe a penguin shooting itself out of the water, landing it the boat and giving me a high-five with it’s flipper? (Okay, no, I didn’t expect that. But how unreal would that have been!)

“Well, when you think about it, penguins are wild animals. Wild animals that don’t like humans and that can swim away as soon as they hear a boat. It kind of makes sense we didn’t see many.”

Damn you logic. Damn you Happy Feet.

Guess I should just be grateful for the fuzzy blob who was either brave enough, deaf enough or stupid enough to stay put.

Still, he could have waved.