Saturday, July 23, 2011

Bolivia – Sleepless nights and wild west wine

♫ I'm a lonesome cowboy... ♫
We've been complaining about being cold for a while now. But what we experienced in the last week was beyond our wildest (or worst) imagination!
No words can do justice to the ice box contraptions in this country that parade around as buses. All the transport is cramped and we are not especially big people.
But let's begin at the beginning of this uncomfortable tale: It all started with our intention to visit the famous Uyuni salt plains.
A quite comfortable 3 hour bus ride brings us from La Paz to the town of Oruro. We plan to stay here for a night or move on to Tupiza depending on whether we can get a seat on the train which only runs four times a week. Our guidebook says that the "Expersso del Sur" train tickets sell out days in advance, but we manage to get two seats an hour before departure. So far so good, seems that we are on a lucky strike.

A herd of Llamas watching our
train as it goes by.

We must have gotten the last seats on the train. They are in the back of a 2nd class train wagon next to the door that connects to the next carriage. The seats here are narrower because of the door, plus always remain semi-reclined and don't have enough leg room to sit comfortably for a long journey. The seats are so narrow that Patrick's shoulder gets hit when the door opens – which is a lot! (The dining car and beer vending spot is in front of the train.) Maybe he should also go there and get drunk like the locals instead of getting bruised in his seat. This is going to be a very long 13 hour train ride!

This is going to be a very long
train ride.
Fortunately there is a somewhat functional heating on this bumpy train ride, at least we don't have to shiver. We had no idea that this would be the warmest we would be for the next week.

We arrive in Tupiza at 4am feeling like we spent an overnight in a rollercoaster. The smooth train ride that we had anticipated was a very shaky one; the tracks are definitely not maintained.

The palm trees on Tupiza's main
square are definitely misleading:
this place is freezing cold.
So, Welcome to Tupiza, Southern Bolivia. The temperature is probably around 5°C (41°F) and there is no shelter to stay warm. The station master does not allow us to stay in the waiting room until sunrise. We have no choice but to hit the streets and find a hotel room – it's now 4:30am. Nothing is open except a disco which seemed to cater to male teenagers. They don't rise early in this part of the world.

Stairway to heaven? or no more cash?
Thankfully, we find an acceptable place after ringing on a number of closed guesthouse doors and waking up grumpy night guards... it's almost 6am and we finally can get some sleep.

In the afternoon we find out that the Parque Nacional Sajama is closed due to unusual amounts of snow and ice caused by the recent cold front (this cold front has been messing up our travel plans for nearly 3 weeks now!) They think the park will open on a few days or so. We hesitantly decide to wait as this park is one of the highlights of Bolivia, although our 30 day visa is running out soon.
Tupiza is a major tourist trap and there isn't much to do other than a day trip on a horseback and using it as a starting point for the 4day jeep tour to the Salar de Uyuni

Warm up exercises in
Tupiza's "El Canyon"
We decide to wait for the opening of the national park in the nearby town of Tarija, which is much warmer and known as Bolivia's wine region... We like warmth and wine, let's go.

Yoga balancing act
Unfortunately the only transport option to Tarija is by night bus; four companies offer this route and all leave between 7:30pm and 8:30pm! "Why?" we ask:. Because the road is very narrow with dangerous steep cliffs so driving at night is safer as the headlights of oncoming traffic can easily be seen in the dark. Sounds like our bike trip on the. Worlds most dangerous road was just a "warm up". The locals also tell us that it's better to travel at night to Tarija as you you don't want to see the road because the drop-off is so steep that you will be petrified!

The narrow road from Tupiza to Tarija
Source: TravelPod/Ambermcd
Yes we can now confirm that this bus ride is pretty awful. It's all on dirt roads, very bumpy and no heating! We don't know whether we are shivering more because we are so cold or because we see the steep drop offs very clearly in the bright full moon light, not to mention that the road is lined with many crosses (Bolivian warning signs that this is indeed a dangerous road).
We arrive very well chilled in Tarija at 3am... we love taking night buses :-(

Plaza Sucre in Tarija, the perfect
place to relax and warm up
Who said that this place is warmer than Tupiza? After a couple hours of waiting and then searching for a hotel room, we are so glad when we finally have a place to crawl into with 3 layers of blankets.

In the daytime, this town is actually quite nice and reasonably warm, we enjoy our usual walking exploration, especially in the market – always a highlight in this part of the world.

A very patient dog in waiting.
Tarija is known for its wineries (at least in Bolivia). We are hoping that the proximity to Argentina has rubbed off in the wine making skills, so we book a bilingual afternoon winery tour. The tour is well advertised in the few Gringo spots in town and we figure that a tour with a bilingual guide is worth the 100B ($15) each.

When the tour van shows up, we immediately notice that we are the only customers and that our guide doesn't speak a single word of English. We are told to wait while they arrange for an English speaking tour guide.

A good hour later, we are greeted by Cesar, a young University graduate that seems a bit uncomfortable. It doesn't take long to find out why he's so hesitant: he has no idea about wine and has never been on this tour before!

At the "Kohlberg" winery
OK, at least we still have the official guide with us. Cesar will just have to translate when we don't understand something. Instead of taking the official tour bus, we drive off in a Taxi. OK, since it's only the two of us (plus the two guides) we take a smaller vehicle... We are still in good spirits.

The first stop is the "Kohlberg" winery, actually their fermentation and bottling plant. Guide #1 shows us around a bit and we understand most of the Spanish explanations. We actually seem to understand more than Cesar since we do know a bit of wine jargon and have read many labels on Rioja bottles in the past. The "Kohlberg" tour is very underwhelming and doesn't even include a tasting.

As we are driving off to the next stop, guide #1 hands us a bottle of Kohlberg table wine and jumps out of the cab and mumbles something that he's going home now. What! Did we hear right? Our primary wine guide is leaving? Guess we won't be learning too much more now, eh?
Time to drink with Cesar instead, who is a nice chap. so why not help him practice his English for future jobs with foreign guests.

Angostura gorge stopover
After a brief stop at a mirador that overlooks some rather dry and dead looking vineyards, we continue to the small Angostura gorge. We arrive at the Las Duelas wine shop, which is like a co-op selling the wines of the regional small vineyards. The shop's setup is actually quite nice; resembling the inside of a gigantic wooden fermentation barrel as they were used in old Europe. The wines though don't look that appealing. Most are cloudy or brownish. We are offered a sample of a red wine that tastes more like grape juice enriched with a cheap spirit of the moonshine category. The wine is a bit like a cross between a rich red wine vinegar and sweet grape juice. The color is so dark we can't see through – even when holding the glass against the sunlight.

Las Duelas wine shop:
looks are sometimes better than taste.
picture source: trekSA
Second, we got to try a sickening sweet grape juice (non alcoholic). It is no wonder that the wine here is not appealing to our taste buds. With this kind juice as base for wine and the insane amount of sugar that are probably added before fermentation this can't lead to anything good.
On the positive note: the cheese that we get with the wine is pretty good, not of Swiss grade, but much better than the wine.

Las Duelas also sells "Licor de Uva" and "Coñac", which we assume is something like a Cognac, the famous French brandy. But we have no idea what "Licor de Uva" (Grape Liquor) is. So we ask the lady at the shop: she doesn't even know! "I just started working here," she says. Great! We are on a wine tour with a guide that doesn't know much about wine and visit a shop where their own staff doesn't even know what they are selling – and there are only a max of 20 different kinds of bottles for sale! And of course we are not even offered to taste this mysterious Licor.

Third stop: Casa Vieja
We move on to the third and last wine shop and hopefully a wine tasting! This one is called Casa Vieja and is according to Cesar the most famous in the area: he's been here before with his college friends – to party. The house is indeed looking very old and rustic. It has seen a few generations and hopefully perfected the art of wine-making. The wine tasting is in a dark and damp side room. It reminds us of a medieval iron smith workshop, but it feels authentic.

Six gigantic glass bottles are lined up on a table with a few glasses on a tray beside. We are given a taster of the first wine, a white. It is described as Aspero, we think it might be the name of the grape but learn from Cesar that it literally means sour. It is an appropriate description. It tastes like a grape juice that has not been pasteurized and let to ferment in the bottle. It's not as bad as the wine at Las Duelas but tastes more like a sour cider than white wine. We work our way from left to right of the six bottles: the taste ranges from dry and sour (cider like) to sweet, very sweet, extremely sweet. Who would have thought that the first (cider like) wine would be the best of the six? Julane considers blending her own wine by mixing a bit of sour with semi-sweet.

All during this tasting we don't get any useful explanations by the Casa Vieja staff or Cesar. At this point our wine tour has turned into nothing more than a pre-arranged transport. But we don't want to blame Cesar, he's so surprised by this sudden job and he even explains he was taking his siesta when the phone rang.

Finally, we ask if they have Singani (in Peru, it is called Pisco) for tasting too. The young employee pulls a small bottle from the rear and gives us a gene rous pour of the clear distilled grape brandy. We are surprised; this actually does taste pretty good – similar to an Italian Grappa. It's actually good enough for us to buy a bottle before we leave.

Leaving is not going to be easy though: our taxi decides to have an evening siesta and won't start. Push-starting it is not an option... it's an automatic!
Ten minutes into the driver's clueless attempts to start the car (the starter didn't even turn), we go back inside Casa Vieja, while the driver calls a mechanic.
Honestly, what would you do: having the choice between freezing outside and drinking some more wine?

"I'll have another one"
The tasting room has in the meantime turned into a big party room. There are some high ranking government officials from La Paz tasting wine by the glass full. They had arrived just as we were departing and in this brief time, they seem to have taken over the bodega's tasting room. They are now pouring the wine themselves while the young worker turns a blind eye. These guys clearly have clout and we decide to join in on the fiesta. Soon, we are tipping the 25 liter bottles in a balancing act of testing our sobriety. Over the course of the next half hour, no one topples over any bottles or glasses. At the end, when our taxi is repaired, we bid these strangers turned friends good-bye and Julane even gets a farewell kiss from most of them. They all have bought a couple of 5 liter plastic jugs to carry home on their flight to La Paz. This ends up being the highlight of the tour!

The trip back to Tarija goes very fast.

Our wine tour conclusion:
Save the 100 Bolivianos (each), go to a wine store in Tarija and buy some bottles there (the 200B would have bought us at least 4 high grade local wines plus a bottle of Singani.)
Then go to the market and buy some cheese and crackers and head to the sunny central park or a mirador and enjoy!
Doing it this way, you get better quality wine and a lot more of it.

There is a good reason why Chile and Argentina are more renown for their wines than Bolivia... Tarija has a long way to go.

By the way, a few days later we came across this Blog... The two of them apparently were also not too terribly excited by the wine tour. We wish we would have had an internet connection in our hotel in Tarija.
WiFi Internet access in Bolivia is as rare as good local wine!

One positive side of our trip to Tarija is that we got our Bolivian visa extended by an additional 30 days. The process was very easy: just walk into the immigration office in the municipal building, ask nicely for an extension, hand the passport to the official, and that's it: no fees, no request for "tips" just a friendly chat about where we've been so far and were we want to go next.
So now we are allowed to stay in the country until end of August, although we are not sure if we want to stay much longer. Bolivia has been a mixed bag of experiences so far. We will only use our visa extension if the Sajama national park is not open in the next few days, then we may have to hang out and wait a bit longer... although we can't wait to get back to Peru and head up north to Ecuador and Columbia.

Back in Tupiza, time for some
Wild West scenery
A few days have passed and we head back to Tupiza. Same procedure: 8pm night bus, no heating, bad road, arriving in the middle of the night. The only difference is that we took another bus company on the way back: bad idea! This bus was even less comfortable than on the way here – hard to imagine, but sad fact.
Tip for fellow travelers: Choose "Diamante" (60B) and stay away from "Juarez" (70B). Sometimes more expensive does not mean better!

The landscape is reminds us
of  Sedona
When we arrive we also have to put up with an unpleasant experience at the "La Torre" guesthouse where we planed to stay the night and use as our agency for the Uyuni tour. Long story short: we walked out of "La Torre". Taking our money to a company that is more appreciative of tourists. At 10am after a sleepless night in a crappy bus and an unpleasant "La Torre" experience we finally sink into a bed and sleep!
Later in the day, we learn that the Parque Nacional Sajama is still closed. Our planned trip to the Salar de Uyuni would still not come to fruition.

Looking like a pro?
Trust me, I don't do
this very often
Time to change plans yet again: we keep waiting (and hoping) that the Sajama park will open soon, but we will wait in Sucre, the constitutional capital of Bolivia. We have heard rave revies about Sucre from every traveler that has been there. It should be a very pleasant place to relax. And pleasant is what we are in desperate need of. We buy our bus ticket to Sucre (again, the only option is a night bus).

Now she know what she's doing.
But before we gallop into the sunset, we decide to literally go for a gallop...after all this is the wild west! So we book a 3 hour horseback tour into Tupiza's outback...

The landscape around Tupiza is incredible. Rich mineral deposits have left a vast array of color painting the landscape. Some of the canyons are a deep red, similar to the red rocks in Sedona.

The rock formations remind us of canyons in the Southwest of the United States and the scenery looks just like the set of a John Wayne movie... riding on the back of a horse adds even more dimension to this incredible scenery. It is said that Butch Cassidy & Sundance Kid have met their final ride here in this area.

Patrick was initially skeptical about taking this tour; he's not a big fan of horseback riding but even he is now highly recommending this 3 hour trip to anyone that is in or near Tupiza!

Puerta del Diablo (Devil's gate)
What an adequate name for our last week in south Bolivia
Our night bus to Sucre leaves the same day at 8pm. We are promised that it will have heating and be a "bus semi cama" (half reclining sleeper seats). Would we finally be able to get some sleep on a bus?
No Señor! If there was any heating on this bus, it was either very poor or useless with all the leaky windows. The window next to us was kept closed with a rubber band and had a 2cm (¾ inch) gap between the frame and the bus chassis. Stuffing plastic bags into it helped a little in keeping the wind out – temperatures were (again) near the freezing point.
The seats recline a bit but are almost as narrow as the ones in the train from Oruro to Tupiza in other words: we again had a sleepless night on a cold, crappy bus.

In the last 7 days, we've been on one uncomfortable night train and three dismal night buses...
Why not take a more comfortable/luxurious transport option you may ask? Trust us, if there was any more comfortable option available we would be on it! This is Bolivia, the poorest nation on the continent. We will vouch for that!

The only thing that we really don't understand is why the buses don't have heating: Heating doesn't cost them a dime extra,..funneling the heat from the engine to the cabin is plenty sufficient to keep passengers warm. It's not like air conditioning that needs extra hardware and uses more gas!

Anyway, we arrived in Sucre and will take it real easy for the next few days: stay warm, sleep comfortably, eat well, and stay far away from buses!