Bolivia, country of whites: Salar de Uyuni

No matter how little you know (or think you know) about Bolivia, you’ve heard about at least one spot: el Salar de Uyuni. You might not even have known it was in Bolivia when you got shown photos of it by that random traveller, but you’ll no doubt remember the endless whites and perspective-twisting photos involving dinosaurs. It’s one of the top destinations in South America for backpackers both for its very unique landscape, and its convenient location: a three- or four-day tour around the Salar is also one of the easiest way to cross from Chile into Bolivia, or vice-versa.

So naturally, I didn’t do that. Having said a definitive goodbye to Chile the month before (until I come back one day to drink its wineries dry, of course), I chose to keep to a packed-full single-day tour of the Salar. That also meant limiting my time in Uyuni to a minimum, which was good because Uyuni is… pretty much a dead town. For real. Don’t go there.

There are dozens and dozens of tour operators organising tours through the Salar, and every single one does the exact same route. The first stop is always the train cemetery.

Back in the day, Bolivia had big plans to build up its transport system, mostly on the back of the mineral trade. Then between indigenous people taking a dislike to the system, and the collapse of the mining industry, trains fell into disrepair. Uyuni, which used to be a railway hub, became the resting place of many of the old wagons.

Next stop is the old salt hotel, now the lunch spot for all the visitors. It’s a completely uninteresting place in itself, aside for this:

This spot that feels in the middle of nowhere, alone against the blue-and-white horizon, filled with brightly coloured flags from pretty much everywhere around the world… including my home region’s Gwenn ha Du!

And then… the salt flats themselves.

Do not wear black jeans to the salt flats. They will end up white.

I loved visiting Isla Incahuasi, a small island completely covered in cacti in the middle of the flats. From there you’ve got the most incredible view of the Salar, and you also get to feel Indiana Jones-like as you climb up bouldery hills without hearing a sound.

I spent my day in the Salar on a tour with four other people, all Spanish speakers. Two of them, filmmakers both, were really keen on finding water. I was blissfully unaware of that aspect of the area, thanks to my complete absence of research into Bolivia ahead of this trip, but the Salar attracts many in the wet season because of its mirror effect. It took us over an hour of what seemed like pointless driving… but it proved out to be well worth it.

This is one of those cases were the pictures actually tell a better story than the actual event. My day in the Salar was one of the most tiring and stressful I’ve had travelling. I only accidentally ended up in a Spanish-speaking group and it took a lot of effort for me to follow the day’s conversations, and the decision to look for water was one done through debate and arguing between passengers and with the driver, with the promise to pay him an extra fee. And yet looking through the photos now, and writing about the day, it comes back to me as a precious day of sorts – one of those that proves that travelling is worth it, in spite of the obstacles on the way. It’s all a matter of perspective…

And speaking of perspective…

Bolivia, country of whites: Sucré

I arrived in Bolivia feeling empty. I’d just spent over a month in Patagonia, and I had a head full of memories of some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes discovered with some incredible friends. I got off the plane, got into a cab, rolled down the window and… really felt like I didn’t want to be there.

Then I got to walking around Santa Cruz and really did not want to be there. And this is all I have to say about Santa Cruz.

I dragged my sorry ass to Sucré, hoping it would lift my spirits a bit and that I could get some peace and quiet. Spoiler alert: it worked.

Sucré is quaint in a south-american kind of way. It’s got ancient churches at every street corner, excruciatingly steep hills that lead through narrow alleyways to splendid viewpoints (and the most beautiful cemetery I’ve ever seen, save the Père Lachaise in Paris), wonderful micros packed full with people of all classes trying to get across town, and a bustling market full of exceptional characters. You’ve got the tiny old ladys at behind huge piles of vegetables giving you a little extra coriander because you can speak Spanish; the teen coming up to her mum’s butcher’s stall to charge her smartphone; the stage-like fruit juice stalls where women peer from over their tall counters to pass you wobbly glasses of fresh mango and passion fruit juice…

One other quirk: Sucré has this mini Eiffel Tower thing… that was actually built by Gustave Eiffel! It is covered in graffiti and tape, though, and seemed to mostly be a hangout spot for youth to date/smoke pot.

Above, a giant statue of Simón Bolívar’s head in Sucré’s Casa de la Libertad museum. For the record, Bolivar was a Venezuelian who contributed to getting a lot of South America their independence from Spanish rule. Bolivia was named after him (although he said it should’ve been named after Juana Azurduy de Padilla, a guerilla leader). He also managed to find some free time to be president of Gran Colombia, Peru and Venezuela – twice.

At one point, I was waiting for a friend in the main square when two teenagers came up to me. They were doing a school project and asked me question after question regarding who I was, my experiences travelling and my impression of Bolivia. Lastly, they asked me to describe Sucré in one word.

‘Relaxing,’ I said.

I saw them half smile, half sigh. I guess that’s what everyone says about Sucré – but there’s a good reason for that. In between the hectic jeep days in the Salar de Uyuni, the altitude sickness of La Paz and the more adventure-filled Amazonia (or so I hear; I passed on that), Sucré is a little oasis of slow living in Bolivia.

Hiking in Torres del Paine

Most people go to Patagonia for one thing: Torres del Paine. The chilean national park, named after its three most famous peaks, is often recognised as one of the most beautiful natural places in the world… And rightly so, too.

It was created as a national park in 1959, but originally only around the area of Lake Grey. It was renamed Torres del Paine National Park two years later, but was then much smaller than its current almost 230,000 sq km – overtime, more and more land was added into the national park to protect it from the damage that livestock farming (what it was used to until then) was doing to its ecosystem.

Nowadays, it’s a very popular destination for hikers from the world over.

The main trekking route in Torres is called the W Walk, for the trail’s shape that hits all the main spots: Lake Grey, the French Valley, Los Cuernos, and the park’s jewels… the three towers.

It’s a five-day trek, but I chose to only walk two of them – we started from the Las Torres campsite, and after having seen the towers on the first day, I couldn’t imagine anything would top them. The hike itself was not too difficult. After the volcano climb and the hike to Fitz Roy, everything felt easy and possible. It’s well indicated, with quite a lot of covered forest areas that allow for rest from the elements (get ready for some rain), and a lot of sources to stock up on drinking water on the way. And it’s frankly never too steep; the main difficulty is getting over some bigger boulders at the end as they’re sneaky on the ankle.

For the rest, it’s all typically Patagonian. Blues, greens and whites; strong winds and gushing water rumbling down mountains. I’ve got to the point with writing about Patagonia where I’m lost for words that feel exact and at the same time new – reading through my previous posts, I’ve said all there is to say about the colours, elements and beauty of Patagonia. But unlike the repetition in my words, the landscapes of Patagonia never seem less than wild and exciting and novel. There is no getting tired of your thighs aching as you struggle up a narrow trail to get to the viewpoint at the top of a hill. There is no getting over the sound of streams through the forest on a muddy national-park walk. There is no stopping that giggly yet worried feeling as you lie in your tent at night, wondering if the deafening wind is going to blow it off. It’s a constantly overwhelming land, in both the best and worst ways.

But mostly the best.

I hope you enjoyed these small accounts of my time in Patagonia as much as I enjoyed discovering the region. In the next post… we’re headed north!

Travelling to the end of the world: Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia

I’m not going to lie: the Tierra del Fuego is far from everything.

This piece of land, situated at the very southern end of the south American continent, and whose land belongs to Argentina, is named for its geological activity. Tierra del Fuego means ‘land of fire’, and is made up of lots of relatively small islands created by the volcanoes of the region.

Let me explain: Tierra del Fuego is situated right at the intersection of three tectonic plates: the South-American plate, the Scotia plate and the Antarctic plate. And what happens where plates meet? Volcanoes, earthquakes, mountains, the whole shebang, basically. And while it makes for a rugged, slightly unpracticable landscape, it’s rather lovely on the eye.

We spent three days in the land of fire. After the uneventful crossing of the Magellan strait (where every ‘dolphin’ we spotted turned out to be a graceful penguin), we spent our most memorable night of the trip, wild camping in the fields surrounding an abandoned house we made ours. Only its walls can tell the story of our terrible, terrible dance moves…

The next two days in Ushuaia were filled with penguins, pan de queso, sea lions, walks, penguins, meat, penguins, the most wonderful lighthouse at the end of the word, and penguins.

To be rather honest, I didn’t enjoy Ushuaia much. I had imagined a small wind-battered town where only lovers of nature came to spot icebergs and walk arduous trails that led to Cape Horn. As it turns out, Ushuaia is a large, urban and very touristic city, filled with fashion shops, restaurants and casinos. There are three different Irish pubs. The magic was lacking.

But one thing slightly made up for it: I got to stamp my own passport! I’m not sure it’s an entirely okay thing to do, but that made it even better…

Hiking to Mount Fitz Roy in El Chaltén

El Chaltén gives off a feeling of a completely artificially created village. Small and lost on the outskirts of Los Glaciares National Park, it was in fact created in 1985 to provide a base for those coming to hike the many trails that surround it – and offer views of the spectacular Mount Fitz Roy. It’s a bit of a mess of a town. The one ATM never works, the supermarkets are tiny, busy and empty of anything but packet pasta sauces and browned fruit, the roads are often barely more than trails, and a lot of the houses seemed to be only half finished. But it’s got a few good places to eat, a wonderful ice cream shop, and obviously, terrific surroundings.

El Chaltén takes its name from the mountain that looms over it; in the local indigenous Tehuelche language, meaning ‘smoking mountain’. But the peak’s official name is Cerro Fitz Roy, after the captain of the Beagle, the ship of Darwin’s 1834 expedition.

I walked two of the main trails in the area – first a short one to the Cerro Torre viewpoint, an easy and mostly flat walk that leads to a very windy albeit beautiful view of Laguna Torre and the mountain of the same name. I’ve sadly got no photos of Laguna Torre, because the wind blew so much water into my camera that all my shots are decorated with water droplets…

But it was nothing like the next day’s hike: longer, at 10k each way, with a tricky uphill last kilometre that took a lot out of us (especially on a moderate hangover). But then we got this view.

I’ve always been more of a city person than a lover of nature. I’ve got a huge thing for the ocean, and will happily sit for hours starting at waves, but mountains don’t have a special place in my heart. But Patagonia showed me the emotions that come with a long, exhausting hike to a monumental bit of nature. And the icy blues and pure whites did right by the sucker for colours that I am. I think only the landscapes of Iceland and the beaches of Brittany top this view for me.

Our first peek at Fitz Roy during the hike

The view from the first viewpoint

Starting a trend that would last throughout our time in Patagonia, the clouds surrounding the top of Fitz Roy cleared just as we arrived, and the weather turned right as we stared walking away, gracing our hike back to town with an apocalyptic ‘winter is coming’ background.

But the whole way down I was feeling this exact level of happiness: