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Salar de Uyuni Guide

by Elena on February 25, 2010

Nothing like a huge, salt desert high up in the mountains of Bolivia to remind you just how cold it can get.  The expanse of white looks like a huge field of snow, and in the middle of the night it might as well be.  It is cold.  You have been warned.Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

We booked our tour of the Salar de Uyuni in La Paz, and were assured by a stealthy travel agent that we wouldn’t come across any problems.  We hopped on an overnight bus to Uyuni, expecting to arrive the following morning.  The kiosk in the bus terminal printed clearly: Uyuni?  Apparently the bus company thought it was questionable as to whether or not we would arrive, an omen perhaps of what was to come.

UyuniThe bus had no heating and all night long, freezing air leaked in to where we were seated.  Ice began to form on the inside of the glass and we tried to snuggle together, under every bit of clothing that we had in our backpacks.  We arrived in Uyuni hours earlier than expected, in the middle of the night, and without a helpful guide to greet us.  We made our way to the nearest hostel and slept in our jackets and shoes until we were able to feel our toes again.  Just a couple hours later the sun came out and the memories of the cold, white night seemed almost fake.  They say that a mirage in the desert can trick the eye and it made me wonder about deserts made of salt and perhaps a mystical force that can inflict pain.  As it turns out, the most difficult part of our trip was actually getting to Uyuni.  Now we were armed with lots of warm clothing and jackets (no longer tucked away at the bottom of a bus).

We joined our tour group, one Canadian, one Australian and two Argentinians, who would be our companions for the next couple of days.  Like all other groups touring the Salt Flats, we would be traveling around in SUV’s capable of maneuvering the tricky terrain.  It really made my cynical mind wonder about the possibility of Jeep endorsements, with all the Jeeps cruising around like a real life Jeep commercial, but I digress.

Our first stop was a train cemetery, created after the mining industry collapsed and industrialists left abandoned trains on the outskirts of the Uyuni Salt Flat.  Turns out the abandoned railroad is part of the tourist attraction, a somewhat eerie reminder of the past and how quickly something that used to be so powerful can end up rusting under the Bolivian sun.Salar de Uyuni - Abandoned Railroad

The Salar of Uyuni is 10,500 square kilometers, large enough to be viewed from space, and to impress even the most jaded eyes.  During the dry season, you can stand on packed salt, formed on top of a mixture of brine.  The salt flat used to be a large lake that slowly filled up with sediment because of the lack of any drainage outlets.  Legend tells a slightly more interesting story that the salt flat was formed because of the giant people living in the mountains, more specifically the tears and breast milk of a woman grieving over her fleeing and unfaithful husband.Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

The feeling of standing in the middle of such a huge, natural wonder can you make you feel insignificant in comparison, but that feeling of inadequacy doesn’t last long.  Not when there are funny pictures to take!  Just like the obligatory picture of pushing up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, tourists must take advantage of photographic tricks like this one:Salar de Uyuni Bolivia 13

The next stop on our tour was a place called Fish Island, an island of rock and cacti, where we stopped to explore and eat our lunch.  Some of the cacti on this island are well over 1,200 years old and gigantic, almost triple the size of my 5’2 height.  The highlight of this stop was the chance to see the salt flat from higher ground, seeing as you can’t really tell the shape of the fish while you are standing on it.Salar de Uyuni - Fish Island

After Fish Island, we drove through the salt flat for hours, stopping ever so often to take pictures and to admire the ripples in the salt.Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Day one included the train graveyard, the salt flat, and Fish Island.  We stayed at a hostel (not the salt hotel) in the salt flat, made friends with other land cruising tour groups, had a few beers and watched the sun set and rise.  One of the members of our group, from a country that shall remain nameless *cough* Argentina *cough* experienced one of the side effects of high altitude, a pretty nasty hangover.  The next day we explored the Altiplano.

For the full photo album of the Salar de Uyuni, check out the photography page.

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Weekly Photo: The Stone Tree In Bolivia

by Elena on February 24, 2010

Stone Tree In BoliviaSouth of the Salar de Uyuni, en route to San Pedro de Altacama Chile, sits El Arbol de Piedra or the Stone Tree.  Wind and sand formed the stone structure in the middle of the Bolivian Altiplano.  Most tours of Salar de Uyuni pass through the Altiplano, one of the highest plateaus in the world.

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Coca Museum In La Paz Bolivia

by Elena on December 30, 2009

Coca Museum in La Paz BoliviaWhile in La Paz, Bolivia I was looking forward to seeing this small unusual museum, especially after a bout of altitude sickness in Peru that had me chewing on coca leaves for days.  The museum is on calle Linares, and lucky for us it was down the block from our hostel.  Like many shops and restaurants in La Paz, the museum is located inside an alcove hidden in between buildings and back alleys.  It is on the second floor of what looks like a residential home.  Upon arrival, we were greeted by a man who looked confused to see visitors who were so uncharacteristically on time for the opening of the museum.  He turned on the lights and opened its doors for us.  After his brief statement about the museum, he offered us some coca leaves which visitors are free to chew on during their visit.  The museum consists of one large room with many displays covered in pictures and text, as well as a  few small artifacts.  There may not be much in comparison to other more elaborate museums, but they certainly are not as provocative.  The information dedicated to this small leaf, is hard to find anywhere else.

Coca Museum in La Paz Bolivia 4The coca leaf is a very important part of Andean culture, and the plant was seen as sacred by the Incas.  It is believed that people in the Andes have used coca leaves since 2500BC after traces of the leaf were found in mummified bodies in the ruins of Northern Peru.  The oil of the plant was used to remove tumors and prevent the body from physical discomfort.  Today many people continue to use the plant, in particular those who live in the highlands.  While traveling around the Andes we saw many people chewing on these leaves which are said to relieve altitude sickness.  The coca leaf stimulates the respiratory centers, allowing more oxygen to absorb in your body, especially helpful for those of us who aren’t born with the larger lung capacity of people who live in high altitudes.  It is also believed that the leaf regulates metabolism of glucose and contains nutritious qualities similar to quinoa and wheat.Coca Leaves

During colonization, the Catholic Church first banned the use of this leaf but later recognized its medicinal purposes.  This sudden change of heart most likely had more to do with the increase productivity of the native workforce that chewed the leaf rather than concern for people’s health.   The curator of the museum explained how the colonists abused workers by relying on the plants increased productivity, as well as lowered appetite.

Fast forward hundreds of years and you get to 1863, the beginning of the legal cocaine boom.  The coca leaf is made up of various alkaloids, one of which we know as cocaine.  Cocaine is made when you extract the alkaloid from the coca leaf.  The trade of cocaine first started after chemists visited the region and saw the popularity of the coca leaf among people that live in high altitudes.  The first purpose of cocaine was of course medicinal, but it soon became used for other forms of entertainment.

A French chemist name Angelo Mariani used coca leaves from Peru to make his wine vin Mariani.  It was essentially cocawine and contained about 6mg of cocaine per ounce of wine.  The ethanol in the wine helped extract the cocaine from the coca leaves.  Another pharmacist by the name of John Pemberton also included coca leaves in the drink he created, which later helped create one of the most successful companies in history.  Coca-Cola’s original purpose was not as a soft drink, but rather medicine that relieved exhaustion and headaches.  The original recipe of Coca-Cola did have traces of cocaine (9mg per ounce), but they changed its recipe around 1903 when people began to worry about the effect of the drug.  Some say the drink didn’t become completely cocaine free until 1929.  Coca-Cola became wildly popular around the time of prohibition, when Americans were forbidden to drink alcohol.  Today Coca-Cola continues to use coca leaves that have been “spent,” meaning they no longer have traces of cocaine.  Their manufacturing plant imports the coca leaf to the US, but don’t try doing the same.  Don’t even think about bringing back coca leaf tea, if you live in the US, unless you want to spend some time with airport security.  The Stephen Company manufacturing plant, is only company allowed to import coca leaves of any kind, so drink up all your coca tea in Bolivia.

Coca Cola and Mariani WineThe Coca Museum was created by doctors, sociologists, anthropologists, and various institutions in order to create awareness about the coca leaf and its derivative cocaine.  Drug use in Bolivia has only increased in high numbers since preventative drug laws were enacted, however the coca leaf is not considered a drug, in essence it isn’t much different than the popular stimulant in the US, a cup of jo.  The curator of the Coca Museum made it very clear that the coca leaf is not cocaine (which needs to be created in a lab), but rather a natural remedy and tradition that has lasted for many years.

Coca Museum in La Paz Bolivia 2This guy doesn’t look so good.  Reminds me of the Bolivian version of the D.A.R.E. program.  Just say no to drugs or you’ll end up looking like this guy.

Image of Coca-Cola and Mariani Wine via: Coca Museum and Wiki.

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Salar De Uyuni Photo Journal

by Elena on December 15, 2009

Salar de Uyuni 1Salar de Uyuni JeepSalar de Uyuni and WaterholeSalar de Uyuni and SunraysSalar de Uyuni and Inca Kola
Read more…

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Weekly Photo: Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

by Elena on December 2, 2009

Salar de Uyuni Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni during the dry season (© Elena Vazquez)

The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat.  It is very impressive to drive through what looks like a large white desert.  Legend tells that the salt flat was formed because of the giant people living in the mountains, more specifically the tears and breast milk of a woman grieving over her fleeing husband.  Science tells that the flat used to be a giant lake that formed into the salt flat because of the excess sediment.  There is liquid still under the salt covering, and out guide warned us that many adventurers who don’t know the salt flat and decided to go off on their own had sunk into the softer parts of the flat.

And for those of you wondering it really is salt.  We tried it.

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