From Baja to the Land of Fire #15: Lima, Part IV

14: Lima, Part IV

Puno-Isla Amantani-Puno-La Paz-Uyuni-Villa Mar-San Juan-Potosi-La Paz-Arequipa-Lima

14 April 2002
At sunset we arrived at San Juan, a small village in a large flat valley, all grey-brown from the clay buildings and lack of any trees or other green-growing things. Here also the llamas were herder together for the night. And early the next morning I took the opportunity to stand in the middle of the path of the oncoming herd as they were taken to the pastures (desert?) to roam and eat from the scrubby little bushes which grew there. After some hesitation they moved on and passed me by so I could take some nice pictures up close. Especially the cute little baby llamas were very nice from nearby.

We were all rested after a long night and started our third and last day after 9 o’clock. This day we would see the Salar de Uyuni, a large salt lake or desert and highlight of our trip. Within an hour we were at the edge of the salar and before us was a vast, white plain which stretched to the distant, barely visible, grey mountain peaks. It actually was like a huge lake frozen over with ice and snow. And this is partially true because it is a lake, the salt lies about 30 centimeters thick on the water, as we would see at several ‘water’ holes in the ‘ice’.

We drove unto the salt and in the beginning there was about 10 centimeters of water, which made for a strange sight as water was all around us in the whiteness. After a while the water was gone and we drove for another hour until we reached Isla Pescado, an ‘island’ in the salt lake, where we stopped for lunch and walked through a cactus-filled landscape to the top, from where there was a wonderful 360-degree view of the lake. After the island we drove two hours more before reaching ‘land’ again and within the hour we were back in Uyuni.

Three hours later my father, brother and me were already sitting in a small bus for the 8 hour, ‘off the road’, night trip to Potosi, where we arrived early the next morning.

Because of our tight travel schedule (wanting to see so much in so little time), we were only going to stay here for the day and visit the famous Museo de Moneda, walk around what was for two centuries the richest city of whole Latin America (silver mines) and take the 14-hour night bus back to La Paz.

The city was nice and colonial, lying quietly and white (many large white buildings) in a red and dry landscape at +4000 meters! Too bad it was Semana Santa, the week before Easter, and thus the famous musea and cathedrals were closed. A little disappointed, we stepped on the bus and we tried to sleep as the first part of the trip was again on a bumpy dirt road.

In La Paz we checked in the same hotel as before, but had to wait in the hallway while an incredible dirty room was being cleaned (sanitized), being left this way by fellow Israeli travelers. I mention this specifically because I have seen this several times before during my trip, and I don’t understand what motivates them to leave the rooms so filthy, really messy, as if done on purpose. Ask any hotel manager or personnel for verification!

It was Friday and Sunday, and my father and brother would be flying back. We had two more things to do, some souvenir shopping and one more tour on Saturday. We went to a nearby travel agency and I bought a bus ticket to Arequipa, Peru for Sunday; my father booked a day tour to see some Inca ruins Saturday. But Paul and I wanted to go down the Zongo Valley trail with a mountain bike. They didn’t have enough people at that time in the morning, and when we came back later in the afternoon, they told us it wasn’t going to happen. We quickly went in search of another agency, since we really wanted to go and had only one day left. We were lucky, the guy at the next travel agency knew some people of the mountain bike trip personally. He called them and brought us to their office where we booked.

At 8 the next morning, Paul and me joined the local driver, two guides, an American, an Australian, and the 9 other daredevils in a small tourist bus. The start of the downhill trip was only an hour away, in a pass at 4700 meters near La Paz. We would start there and go for 35 km and drop +3500 meters in altitude, until we would be in a lush green jungle. One guide first, one guide last but before the trailing bus, and everyone in between, according to ability and (a little) stupidity. Each time we went for about 20 minutes and then regrouped. Down, down, down. It looks simple, but I discovered it was pretty dangerous with deep cliffs just a meter next to me. One mistake and… I am certain that there are deaths and serious accidents each year around La Paz. Our guides didn’t talk much about that though, but told us to be extra careful that day because it was the day before Easter and first-aid services would be even more difficult than usual.

We started in the clouds and in the snow! And slowly the grey rocky mountain sides regained color and the air became warmer. At midday we lunched in a small valley already green and warm. After this it became more green and lush as we passed villages and power-generating facilities using the river we were following down, supplying La Paz.

And then it happened, on my third run since lunch. I lost control and flew over my bike onto the dirt road. I landed heavily on my left shoulder and knee. I had not been going that fast and the road was not steep, just lost control for a split second. I sat down to let the adrenaline rush out of my body and not let me pass out. I waved the other riders to go on since I was still alive and didn’t feel like anything was broken.

After several minutes I stepped on my bike again. Although I couldn’t use my left arm, I could ride slowly, being pulled along by the gravity. I knew my brother was waiting with the camera, and I wanted a picture of myself on the bike. I barely made it to the next stop, but Paul took my picture and I finally got off the bike and into the bus as everything really started hurting.

One of the guides gave me a sling for my arm and two heavy painkillers. It was less than an hour to the end of the trail, then a long 4 hours back to La Paz. I am glad the painkillers really worked! So I only had to worry about how I would be traveling with one lame arm with my backpacks. My father was happy to see us still alive, and we went to eat our last meal together since we would all be leaving the next day. My brother and father would fly back the next afternoon, and I would leave in the morning.

At 8 o’clock the next morning we said our sad good-byes as our special trip together was at an end and everyone would be going back to their lives as before. Except for me.

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