18-12-10

077 / Unboliviable blacks & whites

077 / Unboliviable blacks & whites

Granted, because of the extremely short, speed date character of my stay in Bolivia, it’s pretty hard to give a complete account of this country, but we all remember, from dating, that we have only one shot to make a first impression… To me, this wicked country made me think of a GEN code (Streepjescode, for the Flemish crew). The place is full of contrasts, with lots black and white, but not so many shades in between.

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When I arrived in La Paz, it was raining, superlatively high (3700m), cold and I had already spent more than 12hrs on a “bus”… Imagine arriving at a date in this condition… It doesn’t need a drawing to explainv that our meeting was mediocre. I decided to skip this inhospitable place and booked a bus for Uyuni (another 12 hours), with immediate departure. I arrived there in a shape worse than a Christmas tree late March. Everything changed for the better when left for a 3 day trip to Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. Black turned white… very white.

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First stop was a visit to an old train cemetery, that was so nostalgic that it gives you a feeling that combines the blues and fantasies about Western train robberies and dusty gold seekers. After some more hours of driving (honestly, going around the world involves a lot of moving) we arrived on the unreal salt flats. The scenery could have been icy Antarctica, a minimalistic Stark kitchen or the very gates where Saint Peter quite arrogantly decides who enters heaven and who goes down (to Potosi, cfr Infra). One third the size of Belgium of pure, untouched white. It’s one of the most impressive things I’ve ever laid my eyes on. All conventional rules melt in this vast desert:  perspective, distance, humidity, light,… The salt flats have their own Constitution, and it’s one that merits respect.

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After a while in Latin America, I’m also quickly becoming an expert in 2 to 4 days tours & expeditions. One vital element for the success of a tour, much more than the size of the pillows, the suspension of the jeep of the temperature of the cerveza, is the composition of the group you happen to land in. It’s a bit like trying jeans in a Levi’s store. You know right away if it fits. The difference however is that you only get one pair, and you’re stuck in it for a couple of days.

Before, I’ve been in uptight, skinny groups of couples with very little perseverance, that leave no space for jokes or improvisation. I’ve been in very loose, beggy groups where nobody’s really interested what’s going on. I’ve been in too small groups, that feel like wearing tiny shorts at a cocktail party, and in groups that where so big and heavy they wore like an 80’s jeans salopet (some words you really can’t translate…).

But the crew I visited Salar de Uyuni with was like that perfect, slightly stained and used 501 where you want to go to the end of the world with. It looked like a random bunch of 5 Aussies, but their friendship was so complete, their acceptance of “temporary members” so unconditional and their creativity in drinking alcohol at any moment of the day so endless that it was the best group you can imagine.

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I realize that it sounds a bit like the last 5 minutes of a Sunday afternoon family movie, but these guys reminded how cool your best friends are! Mine all get a bear hug and an extra beer as soon as I’m back!

After the salt flats, we visited some thermal fields and hot springs. Because the outside temperature was so low in the early morning, the hot springs had their full effect. There were also a couple of lagoons with different colors (red, green,…) and some flamingo’s. However, the lagoons looked all quite the same and the flamingo’s weren’t even that pink… which proves the point that black&white are Bolivia’s ruling colors… 

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I took off North the next day, to Potosi. Once the biggest city in the Americas (and still the biggest city above 4000m in the world), Potosi was in its colonial days a bottomless source of silver and thin. Now, a couple of thousands miners exploit whatever’s left in cooperations without any government intervention or mechanical tools. A visit inside the Cerra Ricca (rich mountain) mines hits you in the face like a titanium baseball bat. These miners work from the age of 14 in conditions which include 45°C, no oxygen nor light, toxic gases mixed with eternal dust…  With their back curled to fit the low corridors, They push carriages rocks up to 2000 kg, 12 hours a day, 6 days a week with only coca leaves for breakfast, lunch, drug and drink.

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Traditionally, the miners honor the Tio, the devil, the owner of the underground, with gifts for good fortune. In a rather similar way, the uneasy tourists offer the workers dynamite, alcohol and coca leaves, in a desperate attempt either to support the activities or to buy off their luck on seeing other people’s faith… It’s probably a mixture of both. The tour lasted only two hours, enough to exhaust and humble even the most ambitious career kid.

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My last days in Bolivia led me to Sucre, which honors it’s name with a easy-going pace, a nice climate and a beautiful, white town center. It rivals with Arequipa for the title of “Ciudad Blanca”. The white city… What else? 

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 When I left for Santa Cruz, I was a last time amazed by this country, when I saw the original “tuning” of my taxi. My driver had simple moved his steering wheel to the left to be in accordance with regulations and was happily driving along. Something I intend to do as well, though with all my parts in the original place… direction Sensational Brasil!Dia14.JPG 

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13:19 Gepost door Wouter* | Permalink | Commentaren (0) | Tags: voer sleutelwoorden in |  Facebook |

13-12-10

076 / Peru's Arecuspuno

076 / Peru's Arecuspuno
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When my plane arrived in Arequipa the majestic El Misti volcano didn’t leave too much space for doubt, Peru sees things B.I.G. It’s one of the highest countries in the world, and considers the Alps more as Europe’s beer belly, than as worthy mountain range. It’s the urge for extreme height that had driven me in Peru’s arm in the first place, so I shouldn’t complain when I sometimes feel like a 83 years old, chain smoking fish on land because of the low oxygen levels.

To acclimatize, I spend a bit (too little) time in Arequipa, where I decided to visit the world famous Colca Canyon, which is said to be one of the deepest in the world (twice as deep as the Grand Canyon). I thought it’s more a very deep valley (space in between two mountains) than a canyon (made by river erosion over the years). After a discussion of 20 minutes with my guide, I think I’m now blacklisted in the region for attempt to undermine tourist revenues with an inconvenient truth ;-). Another great feature of this valley (…) is that it’s one on the best places in the world to spot condors, the biggest wing span bird in the world. I kindly attempted to convince my suspicious guide that the king’s albatross has larger wings, but deaf man’s ears were my part… Sometimes, I miss the confrontational spirit of Paris, I guess. Unfortunately, the condors we saw were so far away that they could have been painted pigeons with wing extensions, although I didn’t bring up this subject.

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On the way back from this two day trip, we passed by a cute, colonial church where a statue inside struck my attention. It’s cool to have a black saint (Yes, they can, too) but guys really, does he has to hold the broom in his hand? A bit too colonial, maybe?

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After this first date with 3000m altitude, I spend another day in Arequipa, where I found a German, professional mountain biker who was crazy enough to attempt to climb the 6075m high Chachani volcano with me. After a moderate climb the first day, we set camp at 5200m high for the night. The beautiful sunset made us believe that this place wasn’t so violent after all… That was until we tried to get some sleep around 6.30PM. Impossible! I was almost happy to stop trying at 2.30AM, when we started our stretch for the summit. 6 hours of walking up, fighting for oxygen on a mountain that was covered with volcanic stones, so small, that for every two steps we did, he claimed one step back. It seemed endless, until it wasn’t. At 9AM, we were standing on top of the world.

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After being on its head, it was time to go to Peru's belly button: charming Cusco.

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 This town has grown big thanks to its exclusive access to Machu Picchu. I decided to participate in an “alternative” Inca Trial, called “Inca Jungle Trial” (Long live marketing), where you spend 4 days reaching Machu Picchu, using various ways of moving along (hiking, mountain bike, rappel lines,…).

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 A cool trip. Day 4 was the day where the people who wake up the earliest and do the walk uphill the swiftest get rewarded with an unspoiled picture of the hidden Inca city while the first rays of sunlight find their way through the densely forested mountains. Thanks to my EPO-less 99+ hematocrite level (following my 6000m altitude training), I virtually ran up that mountain, and arrived first. By the time the doors were opened (6AM), I got acquainted with a Canadian photographer who has been to Machu Picchu already for several days and finally discovered the vey best little spot to take “THE picture”. It needs no further explanation, when I tell you that I followed this guy like a baby chicken follows his mammy, straight to picture heaven.

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When the sun brushes this deep green mountainous site, this place can simply not disappoint. After the mandatory “aaaaws” and “wooows”, it was time to put the leg machine again to the test, with the invigorating hike up Wayna Picchu.

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I left Cusco for Puno, where I was to spend a day at the border of Lake Titicaca, that other superlative greedy highlight of Peru (and Bolivia…). After a short trip to the floating islands, that have the tourist factor of a Disney theme park, I decided to wave Peru goodbye and head off to Bolivia.

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22:54 Gepost door Wouter* | Permalink | Commentaren (0) |  Facebook |