Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Salar de Uyuni Pt. 1 - Salt Flats Fun

We joined a gal that we met on the Potosi mine tour on the bus ride south to the Salar de Uyuni (salt flats of Uyuni) and grabbed a few more people we met in town to join us on a 3-day tour.

The tour started with a craft market that also featured salt statues, like this salt llama (constructed to size)!

Tyrone and I were fascinated with the snow-like look of the salt and attempted a salt-fight, but failed when we tried to form salt-balls.

We hopped in a vehicle and took a ride to the middle of the flats. We didn't know until we arrived that stuffed animals, especially dinosaurs, magically grow to 1000x their size upon entering the salt flats...

As do Tyrones... one of which almost stepped on the rest of our group!

He realized he almost squished me, so he picked me up for safe-keeping and gave me a kiss :)

Our booze stash also grew... and here we stand proudly next to 40,000 litres of hardbar and wine!

Family shot :)

We played a game of leap-frog...

...and then decided to build a human pyramid!

We then drove further out to the wet flats and gave ourselves a natural, freezing-cold salt foot scrub.

The salt flats change in appearance with every angle... they go from looking like a snow and ice-laden desert to looking like a luxurious beach at low-tide.

After some lunch at a shack-like hotel in the middle of the flats, we headed to a train graveyard nearby. We didn't know what to expect from a lot with retired trains, but we found ourselves upon a photographer's paradise! The skies and lighting were perfect to highlight the rusting locomotives.

We had fun exploring the trains, much like kids at a jungle-gym!

Tyrone posing and pointing at something off in the distance...

...and later climbing that something off in the distance and posing some more!

Later that afternoon, we drove to a small encampment consisting of a few bungalows to house the groups of tourists. They were basic and dusty and so cold that the shower was a frozen stream of water hanging from a tap! We didn't mind much, though, as we were all awestruck from the vast and majestic day at the salt flats... and we had our giant bottles of booze to crack open that night! We were definitely excited to see what the next two days of the tour had in store for us, and most certainly were not disappointed...

Monday, November 7, 2011


After the jungle, we arrived back in La Paz to pick up my wedding dress (which turned out lovely, if you weren't at our ceremony or haven't checked out photos)! As soon as we mailed it back home to Canada, we high-tailed it out of La Paz and made our way to the city of Potosi, which is apparently the highest city in the world at an elevation of 4090 meters above sea level.

Once we arrived in Potosi and found a decent hostel with hot water showers to wash away our chills, we decided to book a tour of the city's main attraction: the Cerro Rico mine. This mine is famous for its silver production and infamous for its extremely poor working conditions and child labour. The movie "The Devil's Miner" is about a young boy and his little brother who work in this very mine and worship the devil for their safety. This rendition isn't far from the truth, as many diablo-like characters were set up in the mine as good-luck symbols, such as the pirate below.

Our tour guide had worked in the mine for three years before he realized he didn't want to get sick and die at a young age, like his father, and his father before him. He used what little money he had (the average miner makes around $200 a month) to educate himself in languages and went into tourism to bring awareness to the mines.

We started off the tour by gearing up in dusty cloth suits, boots and helmets with head-lamps. Next, our guide brought us to a mine supplies shop where we were encouraged to buy dynamite, fuses, juice, coca leaves, and cigarettes for the miners. A stick of dynamite cost less than 50 cents and there was no restriction on their sale - any child could buy them if they wanted!

We were then driven up the hill to the processing area where the mined material is crushed and the raw silver is extracted.

A worker turned on one of the machines that basically frothed the water to bring the tiny silver particles to the top.

He then proceeded to pan the silver...

...and then gave us sparkly real-silver war paint!

Then it was time to enter the mine. We drove further up the mountain and proceeded down a dark hole, ducking constantly along the narrow path and crawling the rest of the time. It was extremely difficult to breathe - the air was hot and moist, low in oxygen, and thick with dust. There was a distinctly unpleasant smell, too, which we later were told was cyanide. After only 10 minutes in the mine, we couldn't believe that people could work there for their entire lives... which isn't very long, seeing as the life expectancy for those working in the mines is lowered dramatically.

We crawled down muddy tunnels and some questionable wooden stairs until we were three stories down and soaked in sweat.

This is where we found some workers manually breaking and shovelling the ore into carts. They were pretty happy to receive our juice and coca leaves.

After an hour and a half in the mines, we were all pretty darn happy to see blue sky again and breathe in fresh, although thin, air again!!!

The next day, we set out for some lunch and found ourselves in the middle of a big festival! I don't remember exactly which festival it was, but it had something to do with good fortune. There are just too many festivals to remember the meanings of them all...

The whole town participated, young and old.

I was going to get these dresses duplicated for my bridesmaids... but I thought I would be nice and let them pick their own instead ;)

People not only decorated themselves and paraded and danced down the street, but also decorated their cars. Our favourite was this fluffy teddy vehicle with the sheep dogs all over the hood!

We really enjoyed our time in Potosi, other than the fact that Tyrone picked up "the black lung" during our trip to the mines. No joke - he had a respiratory cold for the next two weeks! Our mining experience was extremely humbling and taught us to appreciate our own jobs and lifestyles so much more. If you don't realize how good you've got it, you will once you're standing in mud and dark 60 feet down a hole and have a mine cart coming down a narrow path straight for you!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Rurrenabaque Jungle - Pampas y Selva

After a week in La Paz, and missing our first flight over, we were finally able to kick the food-poisoning and make it to the jungle! Luckily, the airline we went with issued us a 70% refund on our missed flight, no questions asked - like that would be feasable with any North American airline!
When our tiny little 20 passenger plane finished its rickety climb over the Andes, it descended down into the lush, green, muggyness of the Bolivian jungle. The humidity in the air was near 100% when we exited the plane and we immediately peeled off our sweaters and shoes. After a bus ride into semi-civilization, we quickly found ourselves a decent hotel with a comfy bed and beautiful view of the little town of Rurrenabaque (Ruri) and the Beni River (which is part of the Amazon River).
We spent our first afternoon in the little town checking out all the local tour companies to see which would give us the best tour for the best price. We discovered that there are eco-friendly, somewhat expensive tours where you stay in nice lodges, mid-range still eco-friendly tours where you stay in decent shared rooms, and super cheap tours where they have you pitch a tent in the middle of the jungle and do your business behind a tree (yikes)! We opted for the middle ground and set off on a 3-day pampas, 2-day selva tour!
Day 1, we drove for a couple of hours on a dusty, rickety road with our guide and a young British couple who would be joining us. We arrived at a little lodge on the river and awaited lunch in the sweltering hot sun. We noticed some splashes in the water and were told that a group of pink river dolphins lived in the general vacinity! We were super stoked to head out and see some of the wildlife. We even bought some wicked hats to prepare ourselves for our adventure ahead!
We arrived in the pampas during the wet season, so we were surrounded by water and did our sight-seeing by boat. One definitely requires an experienced guide in this neck of the woods, as the pampas is basically a series of river and bush mazes. We winded around for hours and hours and didn't know how on earth our guide knew how to get home!
On our first day out, we were so lucky to see a capybara wading around on the riverbank.
And not even five minutes after our first exciting encounter, we stumbled upon a whole family of capybaras!!
The giant trees growing in the middle of the river were unlike anything we'd ever seen before.
Our guide, Ishmael, had an amazing eye, and pointed out every bird and reptile that we otherwise would have missed.
An abandoned river house.

The view from the front of our boat.
We were taken to a little cove where we could safely swim with the river dolphins. The guides also have to know the areas in which crocs and cayman live, as they aren't quite as friendly as the dolphins. Tyrone, being strong and manly and brave, was the first out of the boat and into the water! It was creepy looking - because the water is so thick with mud, you become surrounded by black and can't see more than a few inches depth into the water.
The British couple and I were a little slower to get into the black, murky water. However, it was a very welcome dip after melting in the boat all day.
Although Tyrone was the first to swim with the dolphins and accidentally kick one, I was the first to get bit by one of the playful, pepto-bismol pink creatures! He or she left me a few nice little needle-like teeth marks, but only managed to draw a few droplets of blood!
After our swim, we experienced an amazing pampas sunset. The quick and cheeky little dolphins managed to elude our photos for the most part, but we were determined to get at least one good photo of the pink guys before we left.

That night, our guide came and grabbed us from our rooms before dinner to show us a snake that someone spotted outside. This guy was tiny, but apparently highly poisonous... So flashlights are a very hot commodity when walking around in the jungle at night!
On the second morning, we woke up super early to paddle down the river by moonlight and listen to the buzzing and singing of the nocturnal creatures and crawlers. After an hour, we were greeted by an amazing sunrise.
As our morning bath, we again jumped into the little cove in search of the dolphins. Ty, of course, was the first to get in.
This is probably the best shot we got of the elusive guys after draining our camera battery a couple times!

Turtles, on the other hand, are patient posers. This little guy was just waiting for his chance to ham it up in front of the camera!

Here's a funky jungle bird.
Our guide had a crazy ear for different animals. He would stop the boat and shush us (well, he would shush the British couple who never stopped talking and arguing about separate food cupboards when they moved in together at the end of the trip), so he could listen and then tell us what he heard. On this occasion, he heard Amarillo monkies and pulled the boat up so they could greet us! We also saw red and black Howler monkies and Cappuccino monkeys! Shortly after this photo, this curious little guy (about the size of a small cat) jumped into our boat for a ride.
We later made our way to a guest-house in the middle of the watery maze for some lunch. I, of course, made friends with another kitten. This little guy was brand new and nameless, so the owners let me call him Oreo! He enjoys hammock rides, chasing bugs, avoiding crocs, meowing and cat food.
This guy was floating nonchalantly outside of the guest house... waiting for his lunch.
Who would have thought you could get a beer in the middle of nowhere?! It was welcoming, cold, and cheap to boot!

We saw a lot of diving birds, including this one, which I belive is a type of fisher.
Ty chillin' on the boat on our final afternoon out in the pampas. We would stick our feet out to get a little breeze and the occasional splash - again, it was boiling hot out!!
On Day 4, we headed to the selva (the jungley part of the jungle). Our first stop along the river was at a sugar cane farm. Here we are running a log around in circles to manually press the sugar cane into juice.
Mixed with lime, the can juice was extremely refreshing!
Ty managed to track down one of the most vibrantly coloured butterflies either of us has ever seen!
Here a local boy paddles his boat across the river.
We had a lovely little private cabin for our jungle sleep.
We set off on a hike later that afternoon in search of parrots. We found some of the craziest looking plants along the way!
And some of the hugest, most poisonous ants! This photo doesn't quite emphasize how big they are - about the size of my pinky finger. Well, maybe not quite as fat - but definitely about 2.5 inches or more long! Their bite is supposed to feel like a gunshot!
We hiked for about an hour to the top of a bluff over-looking the jungle. This is our first encounter with the parrots (macaws). They live in the cliff-side that we were standing above and would fly back and forth atop the tree canopy.
Ty and I posing on the bluff... I hung onto that tree for dear life! There was a little memorial up there for a young Israely kid that wandered too close to the edge and fell off...
After our long hike, we took a quick boat ride to a little beach and were told to change into our swim suits. By the time we finished changing, our guide had finished fashioning a large raft out of beach logs and bark rope! We hopped on the raft and floated back home down the Amazon river to our campground as we watched the sun set.
When we returned to our little hut, we were greeted by Sally, our giant new salamander friend... Who later turned out to be a highly poisonous lizard of sorts that you should avoid touching at all costs. She was cool, though.
Too pooped from our early-morning wake-ups and all the hiking and rafting, I decided to go to bed after dinner that night. Ty and our guide set out for a night walk in the jungle rain to see what creepy-crawlies they could spot with their flashlights. They saw this lovely ghost-like spider...
...and this fuzzy-wuzzy tarantula...
...and satan.... who came in the form of a plate-sized spider with a giant, gaping pie-hole that probably sucks in souls...
I was glad I decided to sleep in our safe little hut with my mosquito-netting shield.
The next morning we woke up to buckets and buckets of rain! There aren't rain drops in the jungle - as you can see below, it is more like a continuous stream, like a billion faucets being left on low all at once.
We couldn't go for a hike that day, so we stayed under-cover and made necklaces instead.
Tyrone tied little knots for about 2 hours until he had blisters to create this pretty neclace for his mom.
We had a wet boat ride home to Rurrenabaque that afternoon. Blanca the dog decided to take a little shower on the bow of the boat, as she had been running around in mud puddles that day!
The next day we were off to the airport and on our way back to La Paz. We flew in with one airline and flew out with another... This particular one didn't have an airport... or benches. So we stood kinda confused on the side of the tarmac waiting for our plane to arrive!
We had an amazing time in the Amazon jungle! It was so different from anything we had experienced before and we were lucky to get a great local guide who was very knowledgable about the terrain and wildlife. We will definitely go back one day!!