Uyuni Panoramas

There’s something about the panorama style that suits the Uyuni three day tour so well. The way the vistas are distorted seems to mimic the strange giddy feeling of being at high altitude in a landscape so different from anywhere else on Earth.

Click a picture to see it bigger.

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Islands of Lake Titicaca: Uros, Amantaní & Taquile

During our trip to Puno, Peru to visit the Bolivian consul we had a few days spare to explore. From our hostel we took a 2 day, 1 night tour of the islands on the Peruvian side of the lake. Following a short stop at the Uros floating islands, we cruised to Amantaní where we stayed the night with a host family. After hiking to one of the island’s peaks, we attended a party thrown by the villagers. The next morning we left for Taquile. Another hike and lunch, then we took the boat back to Puno.

The tour seemed to be standard as we were grouped with people from different hostels and hotels and we kept bumping into the other groups everywhere we went. And there were a lot of groups! Yes, it was very touristy; the local islanders dressed up in traditional costume, we were given the hard sell everywhere and children sang ‘twinkle twinkle lechuga’ in an attempt to get our small change!

But, despite concerns about the commodification of culture, it was more educating and gave more chances to interact with locals than if we had just stayed in a hotel (of which there aren’t any on the islands). It did feel rather ‘false’ that there was a party for guests every night (or at least the two or three nights a week our host has tourists stay). But staying in a real house, watching Maria Fernanda cook over a fire, wandering around in the electricity-less night, it was an experience that I think was beneficial, and certainly very enjoyable, to us tourists. The next day on Taquile our guide explained how all the restaurants take turns to serve groups so the proceeds of tourism are spread evenly throughout the community (and judging from the amount of solar panels I saw, the proceeds must be quite sizable).

It’s certainly not a perfect model for ethnic tourism, but I have seen worse.

Bothy Hostel, Puno
Tour cost: 100 soles

High Altitude Geysers

Geyser El Tatio, Chile 4,320m

Below your feet, the earth bubbles. Vapor seeps and liquids spew out of shafts and cracks, while the freezing air bites at every bit of exposed skin. It bit at my skin, at least, as I was unprepared for the chill at 4,320 meters before the sun rises. I was so focused on waking up at 3:30 a.m. for the ride that I hadn’t even thought of bringing a hat. I did bring my swimsuit, however, for a dip in the high altitude geothermal spring once the sun rose and the plumes of vapor began to slowly dissipate.

Geyser El Tatio, we were told, is the highest active geyser field on earth. This came into doubt when we toured an even higher geothermal field in Bolivia two days later.

Nonetheless, the ghostly mist is quite a sight before it gets warmer and the steam becomes invisible.

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Sol de Mañana, Bolivia 4800m

Unlike El Tatio, where little circles of stones delineate where it’s safe to walk, Sol de Mañana is a collection of festering, boiling and bubbling mud pits and gas vents. It’s easy to get close to the action here and wander between deadly pits of hot grey sludge, as the melting earth clings to your shoes. One could fall in, if so inclined, or so delirious from the altitude. It’s a spectacular and odd experience to meander among solid, melted and melting minerals, high from the lack of oxygen to the brain, taking pictures with other tourists and wondering if anyone’s going to fall in.

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Curanto!

I could see Hoy Curanto, written in chalk, outside ramshackle restaurants all over southern Chile. I didn’t know much about it, other than that it was a local speciality involving seafood. In the fish market in Ancud, Chiloé, I finally decided to give it a try. When it came to the table, I realized that its inflated price in comparison with the other dishes wasn’t due to superior ingredients, but to its sheer size. This was a meal for at least two people, but could probably be shared by 3 or 4. Here’s a list of what it contained:

1 whole fist-sized boiled potato
a large handful of mussels
a large handful of clams
1 sausage
1 piece of pork
1 milcao (a kind of potato bread)
1 chapalele (a potato dumpling)
a mug of soup (the broth it was cooked in)

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Needless to say, I couldn’t finish it.

Feria Fluvial de Valdivia

We’d already become acquainted with the sea lions of Valdivia on our first night in town. But even that experience could not prepare us for what we would see at the fish market.

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From a distance you hardly notice its inconspicuous structure on the riverbank. But as you get closer, you hear it.

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The din of pelicans, cormorants, vultures, seagulls, hawks, sea lions, not to mention the shouting of vendors as they hauled, gutted and cut their produce was quite something.

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Wings flapped through the air whilst webbed and clawed feet grappled for balance in the spot most likely to allow a quick swoop down to catch the innards being thrown into the water.

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Huge, blubbery bodies lumbered up on to the docking areas, or skimmed gracefully through the water, back and forth, in anticipation of a chunky fish head or other unwanted scrap.

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Knifes filleted, descaled and cleaned; huge shellfish were piled high, weighed and thrown into shopping bags; colorful home-made liqueurs and oils sat in reused bottles; cheeses, fruit and bundles of seaweed towered in piles.

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A misty rain drizzled down and all the while people kept coming; to buy, to chat, to photograph…to eat.

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Wine tours in Argentina and Chile

We visited three wineries in Argentina (two in Mendoza, one in Cafayate) and one in Chile (near Santiago). The experience at each one was quite similar; a tour of the processing area and/or wine cellars and vineyards, then a tasting of a few wines followed, of course, by a trip to the gift shop (compare them to the bodegas we visited in Bolivia).

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Some varieties of grapes had already been harvested when we visited Mendoza at the end of March.

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Our tour left at 2pm and included transport and a guide, with visits to two different wineries and an olive oil factory (as well as English-speaking guides at each location).

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Bodega Dante Robino is fairly big, producing reds and whites for national and international consumption. As we were shown around, we were told how they make use of various technological processes to speed up production and increase yield. We got to try two reds and a sparkling white (which was too champagne-like for my tastes). There wasn’t that much explanation about the wines themselves and the whole tour was a little impersonal.

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When we reached Bodega Cavas de Don Arturo, it was a totally different story. The guide here was well-trained and knew just how to draw us in with anecdotes about Don Arturo and his family. Processing and production are done as naturally as possible, without the use of chemicals. It may have been my imagination, but the wines we tasted here really did seem better for it (and apparently it’s the chemicals that cause a hangover, not the alcohol…hmm…). We were given four different kinds, with a full explanation of each, as well as a ‘how to’ of wine tasting. This was easily my favourite winery.

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Whilst on a tour of Quebrada de las Conchas, we didn’t realise that we were going to stop in at a winery in Cafayate.

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Like Mendoza, the region is very dry and needs complex irrigation systems for the vines. This area is especially well-known for Torrontés (a white grape variety). As whites go, it wasn’t bad but I still preferred the reds.

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The bodega we visited is similar in size to Don Arturo’s, although it was more of just a tasting experience than a full-blown tour (they have a nice looking lunch menu, although we had to eat elsewhere).

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In Santiago we decided to skip the tour group and go ourselves to the Concha y Toro winery (but we still, understandably, had to join a tour once we arrived). The grounds of the Concha y Toro estate are really beautiful…and big! Depending on how you count – acres of vines or gallons produced – it’s the second or third biggest in the world (the other two are E&J Gallo and Fosters).

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Concha y Toro produces the Casillero del Diablo line of wines (which happens to be the only decent wine we could find in 7-11 in Taiwan). We were taken into the ‘Devil’s cellar’ and left in the dark while a dramatic voice explained the legend behind the name. I won’t spoil it by telling you.

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Mendoza: half-day tour booked through our hostel, ARS$100 per person.
Cafayate: day tour booked through tourist agency in Salta, ARS$150 pp.
Santiago: our transport was kindly paid by David Bronson, winery tour CLP$8,000 pp.

Learning Spanish in Montevideo

Plaza Matriz near the academy


It had been years since I graduated university, the last time I had spoken Spanish with any consistency. I was rusty. On top of that, I still had Brazilian Portuguese rattling around in my head, mixing with and supplanting some of my Spanish vocabulary. Rosie was at a beginner level, and wanted a firm grasp of the basics.

We looked on-line and found Academia Uruguay, located by Plaza Matriz, near the edge of Ciudad Vieja in Montevideo.

Courses

There are various options for group or individual courses. If you sign up for a four hour a day intensive group course, but they can’t find a class to put you in, they’ll give you a three hour a day individual course for the same price. When we signed up they had an offer that if you join with another person, the second person gets a 50 percent discount.

We decided on a two week course, twenty hours a week. In that time, I had three different teachers. As a teacher myself, I could tell that the standard of teaching was quite high. They know their stuff and they keep the classes varied and interesting, using Uruguayan advertisements, rock songs, games and of course, a textbook.

Extras

One of the best things about the Academy is the free additional activities offered in the afternoon. These include pronunciation and listening workshops, visits to parks and museums and other excursions.

Every week, they also offer an hour a day course with a teacher from another Spanish-speaking country. These optional classes aren’t free, but can be interesting and offer another way to supplement your learning. In the second week, I took the class with a Venezuelan teacher, who each day presented a different aspect of his country; the landscape, the language, the food, the music and the controversial Hugo Chavez (our teacher definitely wasn’t a chavista).

Accommodation

Students can pay to stay at the school’s hostel, at a homestay or arrange their own accommodation. We chose the homestay for the extra Spanish practice. The family was great, but it wasn’t exactly the immersive experience I thought it would be. They had their own things to do, and didn’t spend all their time indulging our attempts at mastering their language. Still, they were very accommodating and a five minute walk from the beautiful Malvin beach.

Cost

We paid $782, which included 40 hours each plus accommodation at a homestay. The homestay included breakfast and dinner (except on weekends).

Location and Contact Info

Juan Carlos Gomez 1408, Montevideo, CP 11000, Uruguay

info@academiauruguay.com

Tel: +598 2 9152496 / Fax: +598 2 9152496

http://www.academiauruguay.com

A postcard from Tiwanaku

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Having once been an archaeology student, it was inevitable I would go to Tiwanaku, the most important archaeological site in Bolivia. Home to a Pre-Columbian civilization, the remains of Tiwanaku today don’t quite live up to what one might expect of the administrative and ceremonial centre of these Incan-precursors. This is largely due to centuries of looting which has reduced the stone structures in both size and grandeur.

The lack of signs or interpretation boards means it’s easy to wander around the site, exposed to the harsh altiplano weather, without really getting a sense of place or what the structures were used for. For this reason, I was happy I’d opted for a guided tour. From my guide, I was able to learn that: the round holes in giant stone blocks at the entrance acted as megaphones; the recesses in the walls of one temple were used to house mummies of the elite class; the dual colours of one of the statues were due to weathering which occurred when it had been half-buried for years; and the Sun Gate, carved with hard-to-discern jaguar and condor warriors, has been moved from its original location.

Our guide also told us some facts (as dubious as some of the restoration work that has been done to the site) about the Tiwanaku culture. Since ‘kawazaki’ means hello in Aymara, he explained the connection with Japanese, complete with a mime of revving a motorcycle. He also pointed out some carved masks in the sunken temple that look like ‘aliens’ and the huge blocks of stone used to build the site, which are not native to the altiplano and therefore must have been brought here by some very powerful force.

As well as the remains of the ceremonial buildings and a few statues, you can see other artifacts in the two museums on site. The lithic museum seemed only half-finished and contained only one megalithic monument. There are plans to move the statues from the outdoor site into the museum for preservation purposes and display replicas in their original places. The little ceramic museum is more interesting. Display cases of pottery, bones, metal implements, jewelry and foodstuffs show how the material culture of Tiwanaku changed through its two millennia of existence.

Apart from the site and museums, there isn’t much else to do in Tiwanaku. You can buy handicrafts (the same as you see sold anywhere that there are tourists in Bolivia) and eat lunch in one of the small restaurants in the village. There’s even a hotel, although I can’t imagine needing to spend more than a day in Tiwanaku.

Despite poor management through the years, there is still plenty at Tiwanaku for archaeologists to explore. It’s now up to the Bolivian government, UNESCO (Tiwanaku is listed as a World Heritage site), the local residents and both Bolivian and foreign archaeologists to come to an arrangement.

A guided tour (from most of the agencies around Sagarnaga), including transport from La Paz and entrance ticket, costs Bs120. Spanish and English spoken. Lunch was optional but there is nothing else to do while you wait for the whole group to finish before heading back to La Paz so I recommend joining everyone for the yummy set lunch for Bs20. You can make your own way to Tiwanaku by public transport. Entry is Bs80.

See more pictures in our photo essay.

La fiesta del Gran Poder

We were advised to get there early. La fiesta del Gran Poder (party of the All Powerful) is the biggest street party in La Paz. We found front row seats for a hefty 80 Bolivianos each (about 10 bucks) and watched every kind of association in La Paz–grocers, bankers, electricians, plumbers and shoemakers –parade by us in deep vibrant purples, tinselly silvers, electric greens and charcoal blacks. Cholitas spun in sync, horns blared from marching old men in matching oversized gray suits. Children sold cans of beer from duffel bags and onlookers stopped in front of our seats to be shooed away by the vigilant keeper of the cheap folding chairs. Only the vice president wasn’t chased off, as he walked by shaking hands before taking his place on a nearby platform where he danced among the crowd.

See a slideshow of photos here.