A Travellerspoint blog

The High Chaparral

Cordoba hills, Argentina

sunny 24 °C

Apologies for no pictures or hyperlinks, you should see what I´m writing on.

After crossing the Andes for the seventh or eighth time, Gus the British ex-cement mixer truck we were travelling overland on, meanders through north-west Argentina <http://www.dragoman.com/>. We passed through more deserts, canyons and river valleys on our way through Cafayate wine country to verdent lands of the Cordoba hills.

We are headed for Estancia Potreros <http://www.estancialospotreros.com/> whose marketing material says, "The estancia dates from 1574 when breeding mules for the silver mines in Peru was the principal activity. Today it is an idyllic retreat for horsemen and nature lovers. This organic working farm breeds Aberdeen Angus cattle and Paso Peruano horses. It has been in the same Anglo Argentine family for four generations.". It´s incredibly exciting after seeing nothing but desert and rocks for several weeks, beautiful although they are, to suddenly see green. Sometimes you could be in Cheshire specifically where the Man U boys have their homes and sometimes in the wilds of Scotland.

The main attraction of the Estancia is horse riding. On our first evening, Kevin (I know it´s an odd name for an Argentinian, see below) the owner, asks us about our horse riding experience so he can pair us up with a horse. I´m not entirely sure how I described my experience as the conversation took place over wine ´tasting´ which seemed to be a good excuse to drink rather tasty wines in civilised environment (again a bit of a shock after the camping and Refuges of the Bolivian Alto Plano).

I´ve taken a partial liking to Torrentes, the local white grape variety. I happened to have ´tasted´quite a lot by now and some of this unoaked young wine has a bitter aftertaste, tastes sweet but is actually dry and some is smooth and florid and goes down very nicely. Suffice to say we all got pissed...and the next morning I woke up to find myself with a big hulk of bloke who feigned indifference but when he got going he was magnificent. His name? Tractor!

Our two days riding the Estancia and learning to lassoo poor defenceless Aberdeen Argus felt very High Chaparral. I am Victoria Montoya Cannon, the only principal female character, and an aristocratic Mexican beauty (ahem)...After the first day of riding I didn´t feel so aristocratic, I have chafed bum cheeks and walk with a gait. A fellow traveller who has ridden in Colorado says the traditional cure is to rub the inside of banana skins on your arse. I pass.

Kevin, the owner entertains us again on the second night. He is dressed as an Argentina country gent with a boinas flat felt cap (like Spanish beret), chinos trousers that taper in at the ankle, knee-length leather boots and gaitors and a colourful woven belt across his middle. He IS Argentinian but he speaks and presents himself like an English toff. <Not this http://amilcarmoretti.wordpress.com/2010/05/09/argentinos-crispados/1-gaucho-argentino-de-marcos-zimmermann-3/).

His family is from Anglo descent and symbolic of that connection/affection he was sent off to boarding school in England. There he had his Argentinian accent knocked out of him, learned his clipped vowels and developed a love of Britian. He talks candidly about a range of personal and political subjects including: the Argentinian currency (tanking and you can´t change pesos to US dollars anymore); his education; the Falkland Islands/Malvinas; how how adopted his mother´s preferred name instead of his birth name approved by the church; and how he fell in love and married an English guest.

Day two is centred round a lunchtime break at a farm on the Estancia. Cattle are rounded up into a pen for us to practice our lassoing. I think this is all terribly cruel and decide not to participate. But everyone seems to be having so much fun and I am nothing less then competitive when my gander is up so I decide to have a go at lassoing -just the post...and then I decide to have a go at lassoing the cows...and then I manage to catch a cow round all four ankles and trip it up...and then it gets up and tries to run on...but I decide it´s woman against beast and even though it is a calf that I must win...I pull to try and trip it up again...and then a voice snaps me out of my reverie, "Let it go!", and I blush as the audience howl at the irony of the non-meater eater being the most vicious lasso-er of the lot.

Posted by AlisonLeahy 18:29 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Planet of the Apes

Bolovian southern Alto Plano

sunny 32 °C

Apologies for the lack of photos and hyperlinks but I´m working on rudimentary PCs...

I have joined a merry band of travellers, overlanding in a truck named Gus, from La Paz in Bolivia to Santiago in Chile <http://www.dragoman.com/>. The main attraction of the trip is traversing the southern Bolivian Alto Plano which would otherwise be difficult to do on my own. The high desert plateau that stretches from south of Potosi to the borders with both Chile and Argentina <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altiplano>.

Potosi (one of the highest city in the world at 4,067m), marks our entry to a world of: sand in your little bits; searing sun in the day; brittle, neigh, freezing nights/mornings; and the most stunning landscapes. Potosi itself is all faded grandeur and hard work - the main industry is still centred on the hill, Cerro Rico, that overshadows the town <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potos%C3%AD>. A hill that hosts 5,000 silver mines and has seen the death of 8 million people since the colonialists first started working it in the 16thC. The ore is manually dug out of the mine and the women-folk crack the rocks open to pick out the best bits to sell on.

We visited the mine. I´m not a fan of the heath and safety profession generally but there was a harrowing lack of it and some wouldn´t have gone amiss. We purchased dynamite sticks and ignitors along with and coca leaves for chewing as presents for the miners. We pulled scarves over our faces to ´protect´ from the noxious gases and had a hard hat against the myriad of head butting hazards on our way. The two mines we visit are dark, hot, cold, wet, narrow and low and I am so blessed not to be working there.

The miners work in co-ops since the government washed its hands of the mines in the 80s, and in turn the government had nationalised them in the 50s from the hands of foreign-owned private companies that were leaching the wealth out of Bolivia. Our guide tells us that they are likely to be closed, good news for the 2-3 people who still die each month but bad news for the community that rely on the now slim pickings.

Next is Uyuni at the edge of the Alto Plano. It is notable for its salt flats (the remnants of a massive sea across which the dinosaurs roamed), and being close to the place where Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid eventually met their maker. Three salt flats facts: they are the largest in the world and apart from being visually spectacular conceal 50-70% of the world´s lithium and are so flat they are used to calibrate satellites. Lithium is key in the manufacture of batteries especially those for hybrid cars. If the cars take off who knows how long the salt flats will survive the pressure to process them... <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salar_de_Uyuni>.

The flats are an endless expanse of white out. It is difficult to get a sense of distance and it is this characteristic that lends itself to a creative photo oppotunity. We spend an entertaining half hour taking perspective-bending photos. I am being eaten by a carniverous toy dinosaur and popping out of the neck of a beer bottle.

The highlight, apart from the hotel made of salt blocks, is Fish Island. It is a fish-shaped rock island in a sea of salt: an island that is covered in cactii up to 6,000 years old and is visually breath taking. I take too many photos of the cactii against the salt sea and the altar to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) at the top.

Then it is onto the Plano Alto for real. We are off road and make slow but romantic progress. Gus wends his way through the snow-capped volcano cones and the muli-coloured lakes. At one point we can see volcano cones in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina at the same time. The lakes are hues that reflect their chemical composition. We see lakes of calcium carbonate (white); arsenic (green) <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laguna_Verde_(Bolivia)>; and algae (red) <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colorada_Lake>. But the bounty of flamingoes aren´t fussy about the colour - they are happy to graze on any putrid sulphur-smelling lake.

My over-riding sense, as we progressed towards the Chilean border was of the first Planet of the Apes movie <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planet_of_the_Apes_(1968_film) - the part where Charlton Heston crash lands with his fellow astronauts in a lake. After escaping the sinking spacecraft they walk optimistically through a parched desert landscape they unaware of the fate that is in store for them, dun dun duhhh....

Posted by AlisonLeahy 17:57 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

People power

Cochobamba - Sucre - La Paz

semi-overcast 18 °C

Bolivia has been choc full of protests and demos - it seems that the people here like a good march to effectively communicate their views. I´ve seen: union protests outside an airport, through La Paz and two tent cities outside a government building in Sucre; school children marching about the importance of water in Sucre and the anniversary of the school in Nazca and Cuzco; and most spectacularly of all 1,000 campesinos and indigenious lowland people marching for over 2 months to La Paz from the Amazon Basin to protest at a Brazilian-funded road proposed through their jungle.

There is vocal support for and against the road and it has divided the country so much so that the low turnout and spoiled ballots for the national judicial elections is explained as a protest vote against the road. I was priviledged to see the people arrive in La Paz yesterday hot and tired to a ticker tape welcome in La Paz and they are rumoured to have persuaded to President to delay the road building. Viva gentes Bolivian!

Posted by AlisonLeahy 09:28 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Prohibition and a car free country - Bolivian elections


sunny 26 °C

I´m ´trapped´under curfew in beautiful Cochabamba. Today Bolivia is leading the world by having national elections to elect the Judiciary (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bolivian_judicial_election,_2011). But in truly Bolivian fashion there are some catches that are applied nationally...

  • it is illegal to sell alcohol 48 hours before the polls open so that voting is not impaired (this says most about the Bolivian attitude to alcohol)
  • it is forbidden to drive while the polls are open unless you have special dispensation - so the whole country is car free for the day. This is to stop people voting in more than one place.
  • you have to vote or you cannot access services for three months such as banks, hospitals and the council.
  • There is no domestic transport - planes or buses.

I´ve spent a sunny day wandering through the parks of Cochabamba, watching the families play and the bikes and pedestrians take over the streets. It´s been wonderful. I expect a party tonight when the polls close and the alcohol starts rolling.

Posted by AlisonLeahy 16:49 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Dino tracks, pictographs and rocks

Cochabamba - Toro Toro - Cochabamba

sunny 26 °C

Back to altitude (2600-3600m). I arrive in Cochambamba which has a Med climate and is the fourth largest city despite having a small town feel. Famous for its chicha (fermented corn drink) and in 2000 chasing out US giant Bechtel who had bought the local water company and put up prices. It has a massive market and campachinos head in from the surrounding bread basket counryside every Wednesday and Saturday to sell their produce.

But I have my eye on things paleontology and geology at Toro Toro National Park. It is reportedly the most remote settlement in Bolivia at the end of a 142km road and is a geologist´s wet dream (or the as the guide book puts it a bit more poetically "a practical demonstration of geology on an awe-inpiring scale").

I am the only Gringo In The Village which is a novelty for me. My guide is the famous Mario Jaldin who has been exploring the park, finding caves (54 at last count) and mapping them, and guiding scientific teams since the 60s. He´s a mountain goat of a man and a bit dried out from the chicha but his knowledge is second to none. The valley is full of beds of sedimentary mudstone, sandstone and limestone, overflowing with marine fossils and dinosaur footprints. The beds have been twisted into sharp, inhospitable hillscapes that reveal their secrets.

Mario takes me and the interpreter to Umajalanta Cave. There was no warning that the penetration to the lagoon would entail wriggling and crawling through tiny vertical and horitontal gaps dodging stalagmites, water and bat droppings. But I took this and the rope descents with good humour! The lake has small blind catfish swimming round, washed down into the permanent darkness. Climbing the exit route out proves to be more straight forward, if a little wetter. We mostly rely on Mario´s head lamp which has a naked flame burning the gas from a local rock-water mixture.

The two highlights for me were the dino tracks and pictographs. We found bi- and quadra-ped tracks - brontysaurus, anklysaurus(?) and veloceraptor were the most impressive. The pictographs were on the river canyon and at the top of a nearby mountain. Mostly unprotected and estimated to be 800BC the red ochre paint still glistens bright in the sunlight. There are serpents, hills and river representing the valley, spider, condor, and other animals. I wondered if they were painted yesterday but the paintings in the top of the mountain required an hour drive and a 45 minute walk to a ricky outcrop and down the otherside. Who´d put a tourist scam in such an inaccessible place...

We had to rush back to Cochabamba as it was the national elections and curfew at midnight (see later). My driver and interpreter Javier relied on chewing the coca leaf to keep him awake as we made the four hour drive back across the mountains in the dead of night. Great stars.

Posted by AlisonLeahy 15:59 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

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