Tuesday, June 30, 2009


One of the most important pre-Inca civilizations in South America is the empire of Tiwanaku. At its height, it included half of Bolivia, southern Peru, northern Chile and northwest Argentina. Tiwanaku dates back as early as 1500 B.C. while the current archaeological site, a small piece of this once great empire, includes ruins from the 8th to 10th centuries A.D. The early Andean peoples utilized many technologies that would become integral to the success of the Incas: copper smelting, bronze production, solar calendars and a raised field agricultural system. Tiwanaku still maintains its cultural importance to the modern descendants of the Aymara and Quechua people.

The religious significance of Tiwanaku is visible in its temples, monoliths, and other spiritual architecture. Through trade and religious influence, Tiwanaku grew to be the center of the Andean world. Archaeologists speculate that the fall of this empire was due to a devastating drought around 1000 AD. The Incas would incorporate what was left of the people, the land, and the religion of Tiwanaku into their own empire. Much of the remnants of Tiwanaku has been destroyed over the centuries mainly by the Spanish who came spreading Catholicism and destroying images of, what they believed to be, false idols.

The remaining structures of the Tiwanaku empire leaves a lot to the imagination. Alejandro, our very knowledgeable guide, showed us around the archaeological site explaining what is known and what is theorized about these fascinating relics.

Copa Aviary

In the Copacabana Quarantine Aviary, birds rescued from around Bolivia form the noisiest community of the Inti Wara Yassi animal reserve. The majority of the parrots cannot fly, their wings were clipped for captivity by previous owners. Now they are kept in large cages with their peers. Some birds who are especially handicapped go out on perches during the day and enjoy some special attention.

After two weeks working in the Copa Aviary, I learned a lot about the intelligence of these exotic and beautiful animals. With every "Hola!" and whistle I received as I tended to their cages, I felt a sense of friendship. The birds often helped me try to chase away monkeys coming to steal food, yelling "Fuera!" (Out!) in voices so human-like I often turned to see who was there. I will especially miss my little Loopy, whose loud regular squawks weren't enough to make me want to take him off my shoulder.

Tweeter and the Monkey Man

Monkey Clinic is the first stop on the road to rehabilitation at Inti Wara Yassi. New capuchin arrivals at the park receive medical tests and veterinarians observe how they interact with other monkeys. Most of the monkeys were abused or neglected as pets therefore they have some trust issues. For those who have lived in captivity, its important for them to work on their monkey skills, like climbing, balancing, and self-defense.

We, Nick from France and I, start each day by letting the monkeys out of their cages, where they sleep, and putting them on runners so they can play. Its great to watch their wide-eyed excitement as they grab for their breakfast banana. We spend the morning cleaning up after a night of monkey bathroom use. Once we are done with poop detail, we play with the monkeys which means letting them climb all over us, pull our hair, and lick the sweat pouring down our faces. In the afternoon we chop down bamboo and banana leaves for them to play with and snack on.

Hopefully all these monkeys will be released into the wild very soon.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Uyuni Salt Flats

After three days of driving, we reach the Salar de Uyuni, a huge expanse of salt which is so flat and large that it skews reality.

Llamas, Lagunas, and Land Cruisers

Our backpacks were thrown on top of a Land Cruiser that would be our home for the next 4 days as we embarked on a tour of the Bolivian altiplano. We were joined by a Swiss couple, Peter and Jeanette, our cook, Mariana, and our driver, a safety-conscious, comical Bolivian, Barnaby. From the first moment of the tour, climbing through dramatic mountains out of Tupiza, we were amazed by the expanses of hills, rock walls, leering cactus and frozen rivers. We fell in love with the llamas and then the small children who greeted us when we visited their small pueblos. At an average of 12,000 feet above sea level, the sky and the air and the landscapes feel and look different. At the loud gurgling geysers we felt like we're on Mars, never adjusting to the sulphuric smell. We enjoyed driving through the desert valleys, mountainous inclines, and beautiful lakes like Laguna Verde. Our nights were spent in small rooms with hard beds and several layers of clothing. We ate delicious meals and always felt safe in the hands of Barnaby, who never failed to check the tires at random. When we arrived on the third day at Laguna Colorado, we quietly watched flamingoes dance on water. Among red desert, large rocks sprout out of nowhere; the Arbol de Piedra, Tree of Rock, was fun to climb. The third night we slept in a hostel made of salt sitting at the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. We watched the beautiful moonrise and prepared ourselves for the climactic salt flats the next day.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Celebrating in Tupiza

It seems all Tupizans flock to the central Plaza on June 4th to celebrate the anniversary of their secluded valley town. In front of government officials, impressive groups of soldiers, students and horsemen parade down the main square holding banners of Bolivian pride. Onlookers include indigenous women, children in school uniforms and large families all stretching to see the show. At its conclusion, the crowd moves a few blocks to a large food market where tamales, empanadas and sausage sandwiches are served to people standing at cooking stations ordering one after another.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Tupiza Expreso

After anticipating a difficult entry into Bolivia and going to embassies in our last three cities of Argentina to obtain a visa, we had a very easy crossing into the country that only required a fourth of the documentation we had brought. We walked across the border and immediately realized we were in Bolivia when we saw indigenous people selling coca leaves. We walked ten blocks to the train station and only knew we were close when we saw tracks and walked along a wall where we found a nice old lady selling candies who told us "No hay tren hoy." There is no train today. Around the corner, a man at a garage door confirmed, "no hay tren hoy, no manana, tal vez lunes." There is no train today or tomorrow, maybe Monday. It was Wednesday, we decided to take a bus. The bus station was a dark room filled with different company´s booths. All the vendors scream out names of desitinations in Bolivia: La Paz! Potosi! Uyuni! We followed the scream of Uyuni coming from the back of the room. The ticket lady couldn´t sell us tickets all the way to Uyuni but told us we have to go to Tupiza where there´s a bus that will take us on to Uyuni. We bought the tickets for the two thirty bus to Tupiza. We killed the next four hours eating delicious street empanadas from a mean lady, taking out a huge wad of bolivianos from an ATM that turned out to be very little money, walking through un mercado, and eating tasty pollo dorado. As two approached we returned to the bus station.

Most of the buses going to Bolivian destinations leave at the same time so the place was packed. But at 2:30 only one bus to Tupiza had arrived and it wasn´t ours. But hey, this is Bolivia, we were prepared to wait. Then we noticed that the ticket lady for our bus was running across the street to the telecabinas. When she returned we asked her how much longer, "un poco mas" she said. A few British kids who were on our bus the night before told us she said 30 minutes to them. After 30 minutes more had passed Temple asked again and again, her answer was still the vague 30 minutes.

In the meantime another bus called the Tupiza Expreso had pulled up. We asked the woman standing next to the door if there was space for two more people. She said yes and sold us two tickets for only 4 bolivianos, about 50 cents. We got on the bus surprised by the good deal we got and happy to be getting out of Villazón. We sat down in seats 11 and 12. Then we waited for the bus to fill up. We had read that in Bolivia buses wait until they are full to leave. After a few minutes, the bus began to fill up and we figured we´d be moving shortly. A woman got on and told a father and son sitting across from us that they were in her seats. How did she know? We checked our tickets for seat numbers but found none. Then two travelers from Israel told us we were in their seats, showing us a blue ticket stub we were never given. By now the bus was nearly full when we found oursleves seatless. We realized why we´d gotten such a cheap deal on the tickets and we thought we should get off and wait for our original bus. Just then, the bus moved in reverse. We were stuck.

We headed to the back where we found one free seat. Temple sat down with my backpack. I would be standing for this ride along with three Bolivians. Luckily, it was only 2 hours to Tupiza. When the man came back to check the tickets, we showed him what the lady had given us. He said it was not a ticket and we had to pay an additional 15 Bolivianos. We are still not sure what our worthless pieces of paper were or why we were allowed to get on a completely full bus but at least we were on our way.

We set out on the dusty, unpaved road which passed steep hills of freshly moved dirt. It only took me a few minutes to get an idea of how bumpy this ride was going to be. Being in the back of the bus, right over the wheels, we got the worst of every pothole/crater that we hit. Not only were the potholes huge, we were hitting them at about 50-60 mph. I only had 2 inches of clearance between by head and the ceiling so each time we hit a hole I had to duck. The guys in the last row all laughed with me each time we hit a really big one. Temple and other seated people would start to doze for a minute then were suddenly airborne with their head hitting the seat in front of them. Temple offered many times to stand but being a gentleman, I refused. Soon we saw bigger mounds of dirt but this time with some vegetation, mainly cactus. We started to pass small mud-thatched homes that looked abandoned but for one or two mules. We passed a lot of heavy machinery along the way, maybe there was a mine nearby or hopefully they were building on a new road.

As we got closer to Tupiza we began to climb in elevation, meaning we were getting higher on narrow roads with no guardrails. On the way up the mountain we flew through blasted out tunnels that were pitch black and barely wide enough for a bus to pass through. When we emerged, we saw a river valley 500 feet straight down from the edge of our curvy dirt road. It was unnerving to say the least. Temple had to look away but then looked back at the absolute worst moment and saw a rusting, overturned bus at the bottom of the gorge that looked a lot like ours.

Riding on the cliff´s edge didn´t last much longer thankfully. Soon we were passing through small villages and then pulling into Tupiza´s bus station. Stepping off the bus onto solid ground, my legs felt like jelly. We decided that that bus ride was enough travel for one day. More people were screaming city names. We walked towards "Uyuni!" We asked when the first bus left tomorrow. "Hay un problema" the ticket lady said. Turns out that all the bus and train workers in Uyuni were on strike demanding higher wages. No one was sure when it would end but it was already long by Bolivian standards. We were told that most strikes are resloved in one or two days and this one was entering its fourth.

We found a nice hostel and it turned out they also run salt flat tours like the one we wanted to do out of Uyuni. Its the same tour except you do it in reverse. So we´ll end with the Salar de Uyuni instead of starting with it, and it makes sense that it would be the grand finale. We booked it. Things were looking up. As luck would have it, we arrived in Tupiza on the eve of its anniversary. There would be a parade in 30 minutes and a full day of festivities tomorrow. Turns out, there is a method to Bolivia´s madness.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Dancing the Peña

On Monday night, Clay and I searched for a restaurante folklórico that would give us a taste of the Peña - the song and dance typical of Northern Argentina. We sat right in front of a charismatic and boisterous singer with a strong voice who played alongside a very talented violinist. Soon the dancing began in the typical ¨cueca¨ style: a gaucho wears a wide brimed hat, pleated pants tucked into tall boots, sheathed knife tucked in to his large leather belt, blanket over his shoulder, and handkerchief (pañuelo) around his neck dances with a maiden in a flowered dress and white handkerchief tucked into her full skirt. They dance with their pañuelos in the air and command the attention of the entire restaurant, the gaucho stomping his feet and the girl twirling her skirt. When it came time for audience participation the girl went right for Clay who kindly oblidged taking her hand to follow her to the dance floor. Luckily, this was not the first time we´d seen la cueca and Clay knew all the moves. With his gaucho hat and blanket over his shoulder, he danced in the rhythm of the music encouraged by the sweetly smiling girl. The crowd cheered as Clay stole the show twirling the girl and doing some fine spinning of his own. By the end of the song the other gaucho returned for his props, a worried look in his eye that he may lose his act to the impressive Gaucho Boltón.

Salta at Night

Salta glows at night in the lights of Plaza 9 de Julio. The garnet and gold of the Iglesia San Francisco shine as does the lavender of the Catedral Basilica and the orange of the Cabildo Historico. With so many colors filling the night, it is no wonder they call the town Salta Mas Linda, ¨Salta the Beautiful.¨