The Salar de Uyuni – a four day tour in and around the world’s largest salt desert

The Salar de Uyuni – a four day tour in and around the world’s largest salt desert

A vast sea of hardened salt, blood red lakes, lava-spewing geysers, islands of cacti, freezing windy deserts, volcanoes, flamingos, alpaca, thermal waters, and fields of red and yellow Quinoa.

My 4-day tour leading to and finishing on the Salar de Uyuni remains the most geographically diverse experience I’ve had in my 15 months of travel, making it a perfect conclusion to the seven weeks I spent in Bolivia.

This blog post is my longest yet (29 pages double-spaced in MSWord) so you may need to break up the reading if you intend to read the whole thing.  If you just want to read about the the Salar de Uyuni itself you can scroll to the bottom of this page and click yourself to the last page but trust me, there is lots of equally good stuff before it.

Lagauna Colorada, one of the many bizarre stops on the way to the Salt Flats.  The flamingo feed on the lake’s micro algae living in the water, which gives the lake its red color.

Lagauna Colorada, one of the many bizarre stops on the way to the Salt Flats. The flamingo feed on the lake’s red micro algae living in the water, which gives the lake its color.

The Salar de Uyuni itself (the “Salar”, ie, the salt flats) is undeniably Bolivia’s most incredible geographical phenomenon.

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And that’s saying a lot, considering some of the incredible peaks (Illimani), lakes (Titicaca), and rainforest jungles (Amazon near Rurrenabaque) in Bolivia.

An island of cacti in the middle of the Salar

An island of cacti in the middle of the Salar

Bolivia has turned the Salar into an industry in and of itself.

Geysers bubbling lava at 90 degrees Celsius

Geysers bubbling lava at 90 degrees Celsius

Surprisingly they have done it without ruining the ecological areas people come to see, which is a sustainable plus.

The Polques Thermals with the Dali Desert in the background

The Polques Thermals with the Dalí Desert in the background

Tours can last between one and four days and launch from Tupiza or the small town of Uyuni.

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Huge caravans of jeeps load up with backpackers and cart them over the wilderness leading to the Salar.

Jeep caravan

John (California), Matan (Israel) and I were in Tupiza so we elected to do a four day tour with Valle Hermoso Tours, the same company we had done the Tupiza horse ride with.

The caravan driving through a thin later of water on the Salar

Our jeep caravan driving through a thin later of water on the Salar

We were joined by two other Israeli guys, Itamar Marle and Shaked Peretz, to round out our five-passenger jeep (plus the Bolivian driver) for our four day tour.

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Each day we would spend 6-8 hours in a cramped Jeep and see 7-9 fantastic geographical sites, while covering lots of sand, rivers, and salt in the process.

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The salt flats are typically visited on the last day, the proverbial cherry on top of an exceptional tour.

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The terrain leading to the Salar is the most diverse I’ve seen anywhere in the world.  Before we even arrived to the salt flats we had been through plains, mountains, lagoons, volcanos, marshes, geysers, and deserts.

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La Piedra de Arbol

Below, I will provide a chronological log of our many and varied stops, starting with Day 1….

Day 1 – Valle Sillar, Nazarenito, Awanapampa, Cerrillos, San Pablo de Lipez

At an elevation of 3,650 meters, our first stop of the first day was a valley called El Sillar, just 13 kilometers north of Tupiza.

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In El Sillar, natural erosion over the course of millions of years has led to the formation of colorful rock formations that resembled the “Moon Valley” I had seen near La Paz.

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Locals in the area harvest cacti to make handicrafts and furniture, such as ashtrays, photo frames, and wall paper.

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Shaked took an awesome panoramic shot with his iPhone.

The Sillar

In fact, credit for the all the panoramic shots in this blog post must go to him.  Those iPhones have an app that can make some pretty cool panoramic pictures.

Tupiza – Riding like vaqueros on the run, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Tupiza – Riding like vaqueros on the run, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

At some in every boy’s life, he has imagined himself living in the Wild West and being a cowboy.

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For me, Tupiza was the closest I will ever come to living that dream.

The mountain range surrounding Tupiza, the Cordillera de Chicas, is a smaller but no-less pretty wild west.

La Puerta Del Diablo

La Puerta Del Diablo

My two fellow vaqueros, John Leonard from California and Matan Vax from Israel, and I spent a good five hours riding through the canyons and along the dusty trails that surround Tupiza’s small (22,000) town.

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Besides the obvious wild-west cowboy imagery, Tupiza also boasts legitimate six-shooter history.

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In 1908 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid robbed an Aramayo payroll at Huaca Huanusca (40 km north of Tupiza) and were pursued by authorities through the landscape that my fellow cowboys and I were riding through.

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Canyon del Duende (Elf Canyon). Lots of little elves, a long ways from the north pole.

The chase that started in the United States and was led by the Pinkerton Detective Agency (which later helped establish the model for the FBI) continued all the way into southern Bolivia, through trails similar to the ones you see in the pictures here.

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The pursuit ended in San Vicente, a small mining village, where the cops finally got the robbers.

Butch Cassidy probably saw some very similar landscape right before they slapped the cuffs on him

Butch Cassidy probably saw some very similar landscape right before they slapped the cuffs on him

The legendary chase went on to inspire a popular movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

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Matan and I had arrived in Tupiza very tired after a night of little sleep on our overnight bus from Potosi. We had overslept the Tupiza stop and ended up in Villazon, forcing us to go two hours back north to Tupiza, meaning we added a total of four hours to an already exhausting ride.

Potosi – A trip into Bolivia’s most dangerous mine in the world’s highest city

Potosi – A trip into Bolivia’s most dangerous mine in the world’s highest city

“Po-to-si-po-to-si! Po-to-si-po-to-si!”  This singsong phrase, with its steady, six-beat cadence to advertise a trip to the highest city in the world (4,070 meters), is the sound bite I will remember most vividly from my journey in South America.

With five companies offering bus service to Potosi, before you have even set foot in Sucre’s bus station you have at least three of the operators yelling, or rather singing, that phrase at you.  When I later visited Matan in Israel and greeted him with a hearty “Po-to-si-po-to-si!” he laughed knowingly.

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The four hour bus ride to Potosi, compared with the 14-hour haul to Sucre from Samaipata, was relatively easy.   On arrival we were greeted by a double rainbow but we weren’t quite as excited about it as this guy.

Before we had even unpacked at Koala Den Hostel Matan was doing what he loved to do most.  Blessing us with a few sweet strums of the guitar he bought and took with him all throughout South America.

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During our four day trek in Sucre I had developed a serious problem in both of my eyes so on my first day in Potosi I went on a mission to find an optometrist.  I was able to find one after about 30 minutes of searching and was blown away at how easy and cheap the experience ended up being.

Within two minutes of arriving at a Bolivian eye doctor’s private practice her secretary had registered me as a patient and waiting for an appointment with the doc.  Fifteen minutes later I was in her office having my eyes dilated and receiving her diagnosis.

The verdict?  Pink eye.  In both eyes.  I was bummed at the diagnosis but amazed at how easy the entire experience had been.  Getting registered as a patient, getting my exam, getting my diagnosis, and filling my prescription to kill the bacterial infection in my eyes had taken a total of 30 minutes and cost me a grand total of $20.  I know there are walk-in clinics in the United States but I don’t think even they could do it that fast and that cheap.

The doctor had told me no contacts for ten days and since I only had an old pair of glasses I decided to buy a new pair in Potosi.  I went back to the hostel and had my dad email me my prescription that same day.  Two hours later I had a pair ordered in Potosi, which they told me would be ready in three days.

With a few days to kill while my glasses were getting made, Matan, Shai and I made the most of our time in Potosi.

For better or worse one of the main “highlights” of Potosi is the silver mine in “Cerro Rico”, the mountain that looms above the town.

“Rich Mountain”

“Rich Mountain”

In the early days of the mine, 400 years ago when silver deposits were still plentiful, Potosi was the largest and richest city in all of South America.  The mining operations in Potosi helped support the Bolivian economy and indeed, the entire South American economy for almost 200 years.

It is worth noting that mining labor was cheap back then because the Spanish used millions of indigenous Bolivians and imported African slave laborers as their work force.  There was no incentive to keep this work force safe so working conditions in the mine were horrible and most of these laborers died while working in the mine.  Historians estimate at least eight million deaths.

In those days the visible ore deposits could be seen from outside of the mountain, leading the Spanish to discover more silver deposits in the mountain itself.

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As this poster in Potosi illustrates, a tour of Potosi’s mine is not a feel good experience but rather a glimpse into a nightmarish workplace that makes you glad you don’t need to be a miner to make a living.

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Different companies in the town offer tours into the mine. Matan, Shai, and I did our tour with Koala Tours because we were staying at Koala Den Hostel.

After waiving all our legal rights away we were picked up and taken to a building where we could suit up in proper mining attire.

Doron, Matan, me and Shai

Doron, Matan, me and Shai

One guy helping run the tour seemed to disregard the dress code that had been suggested to us.

Never enter a mine without proper protection, ie, a gun

Never enter a mine without proper protection, ie, a gun

After suiting up we headed to the “miner’s market” where we were encouraged to purchase “helpful” supplies to give to the miners working in the mine.  “Helpful” does not necessarily mean healthy.

I guess one of these three things is healthy

I guess one of these three things is healthy

With the miners spending an average of ten hours of day in the mine, the cigarettes and cocoa leaves help the day go by faster by suppressing the miners’ appetites (and their fear).  The miners do not eat any food in the mine for fear that it will make them less alert.

After we bought some gifts for the miners our guide gave us a demonstration on how to use one of the miners’ tools, some good old fashioned dynamite.

The TNT was available for purchase for the price of 10 Bolivianos (about $3).

The TNT was available for purchase for the price of 10 Bolivianos (about $3).

You have the option of detonating your TNT when entering the mine. Bolivia doesn’t have quite the same safety regulations as the United States.

Matan, a combat engineer in Israel’s army, was quite familiar with how to set up a fuse for a stick of dynamite but for me this was something brand new.

Our guide also offered us a shot of “puro”, rubbing alcohol, the miners’ manly drink of choice when off duty.  I passed but all of my teammates took the manliness test and took a shot.  Ugh…

After loading up on as much dynamite as we could carry we headed to the mine.

Shai’s smile belies the general mood we felt as we toured the inside of the mine.  It was not a comfortable tour, physically or mentally

Shai’s smile belies the general mood we felt as we toured the inside of the mine. It was not a comfortable tour, physically or mentally

Cerro Rico is mined by small groups of cooperatives, typically groups of around six Bolivian men, who decide that they would like to take a chance at striking it big in the mine.

The Israeli Army art of Toilet Paper Burnt Tuna, the massive Maragua Crater, and 4 days of trekking in the Cordillera de las Frailes

The Israeli Army art of Toilet Paper Burnt Tuna, the massive Maragua Crater, and 4 days of trekking in the Cordillera de las Frailes

After spending a few days in Sucre, Shai, Matan, and I decided to do a four day trek in the mountains surrounding Sucre, the Cordillera de Las Frailes.

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There are several remote villages in the mountains that we were able to use as campsites on the trek, all spaced roughly 15-20 km away from each other.

Shai and Matan in the lower left

Shai and Matan (lower left) walking in Chaunaca, the first village we stayed in

The adventure started with a 4:30 am bus ride up into the mountains. The previous night, Matan and I had played poker in a Sucre home game until 1:30 a.m. so we were not feeling very good when we arrived, but the views of the trek soon changed that.

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We started the trek in a village called Chataquilla.  First order of business was some delicious chocolate chip banana bread and coffee, followed by packing up the food for the remainder of the trek.

Our volunteer guides on the trek - Josh (Australia), a young british girl, and a Bolivian student studying at the University of Sucre – make the final checks on our 4-day supply of rations

Our volunteer guides on the trek – Josh (Australia), a young british girl, and a Bolivian student studying at the University of Sucre – make the final checks on our 4-day supply of rations

The guides work for Condor Trekkers, the company we had booked our trek with.  Condor Trekkers advertises itself as providing “non-profit tours in and around Sucre.”

If you’re wondering how a trekking company can be “non-profit”, according to the brochure, the company works to “break the cycle of poverty in one of the world’s poorest countries.”  The company’s proceeds “support development projects in the countryside where [we] hike[d] as well as within Sucre, including Centro Educativo Nanta and Fundacion Gula.  These projects provide food and accommodation as well as recreation, education, employment and health services to local children and communities in need.”

I didn’t have a chance to ask our Bolivian guide about this, but I’m sure they are legit.  If you want to find out more, check out their website here.

Within thirty minutes of beginning the trek we were already enjoying some great views along a green mountain ridge that forms part of the long “Inca Trail”, which reaches all the way back up into Peru.

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At some point along the ridge there is a cave called Patatoylo with some ancient Inca wall scribblings allegedly thousands of years old, along with a rusty gate to protect the paintings.

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After leaving the cave, the hike continued for another 4 km along the mountain ridge.

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There were several stops for photos that would later go on motivational posters.

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After clicking a few more photos we stopped at another cave called Pumamachay.

Samaipata – Simon the Spider Monkey and Israeli backpacking superiority in South America

Samaipata – Simon the Spider Monkey and Israeli backpacking superiority in South America

Samaipata is a Quechua word that means “The Height to Rest.”

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The small, slow-moving town meets this description perfectly.

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Samaipata is a great place to come and relax and do some hiking, whether you are coming from Sucre in the South, Santa Cruz in the East, or La Paz in the Northwest.

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The central plaza has a little platform where if you stand directly in the middle, you can talk and instantaneously hear your own echo. It is an interesting phenomenon that I haven’t experienced anywhere else.

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At the time I visited Samaipata there were lots of Israeli backpackers heading north into Samaipata after spending several months in Chile and Southern Argentina. Lots more were heading west in Bolivia after finishing weeks of partying in Rio, Brazil during Carnival.

Some of my Israeli traveling buddies enjoying some water pipe in Samaipata’s only bar

Some of my Israeli traveling buddies enjoying some water pipe in Samaipata’s only bar

Like Eyal, who had just finished his service in the military and who I had just spent time with in Parque Toro Toro, there are tons of other Israelis backpacking all over South America.  Just like Aussies tend to dominate backpacking in Europe and Southeast Asia, Israelis dominate backpacking in South America.  To illustrate this point, in a place called El Chalten, Argentina, at a certain time of the year are more Israeli backpackers in that part of southern Patagonia than Argentinian residents.

It was in Samaipata that I first witnessed Israelis’ backpacking prominence in South America. I stayed in a hostel dorm with two other Israeli guys and no exaggeration, the other 30 guests at the hostel were all Israeli.  One of the guys I stayed with, Matan Vax, ended up traveling with me in Bolivia for three weeks.

Matan pets Samaipata’s only dalmation

Matan pets Samaipata’s only dalmation

The high number of Israelis is no coincidence.  After each of them finish their compulsory military service (guys must serve three years, girls two) most of them grab a backpack and go see the world for 6-12 months. This is culturally similar to the Australian “Gap Year”, only difference being that for Israelis it occurs after military service (when 21-22 years old) instead of after the end of high school (when 18 years old), as it is in Australia.

So while the Israelis in South America (and the ones I met in Southeast Asia) were enjoying their backpacking “gap” after military service, they are generally older and more mature than the Australian Gap-Year backpackers you meet in Europe and Southeast Asia.

But both the Israeli and Australian Gap Years offer the same invaluable life lesson. Before the Israelis have even attended university, like the Aussies, they go out and broaden their horizons through world travel and learn more life lessons than a university could ever teach them.  As I mentioned in the hyperlinked blog post above, which I wrote a year ago, I think this has big-time value for a variety of reasons.

Matan and I throw a Frisbee in Samaipata’s futbol field

Matan and I throw a Frisbee in Samaipata’s futbol field

The most popular Israeli backpacking destinations are the cheapest ones. 1. South America, 2. Southeast Asia, and 3. India.  There is even a website for Israeli backpackers in South America, http://www.gringo.co.il/, where they can post advice about places to stay, recommendations for tour companies, and logistics of how to get from point A to point B.  Suffice it to say, Israelis got backpacking in South America figured out.  Most of them are traveling in the continent for at least 6-9 months and many more will continue on up into Central America.

There are are tons of things to do in and around Samaipata.  The hikes are so plentiful that the owner of Hostal Andoriña, a Dutchman named Andrés, has devoted an entire book to them.  I did four big hikes in Samaipata but those will be the subjects of my next blog posts.  In this post I just focus on what is going on in the small town of Samaipata.

Undoubtedly Samaipata’s greatest and simultaneously most underrated attraction is its Animal Refuge.

free monkeys for your well being

The entrance sign is actually being very literal.  When they say “free monkeys for your well being”, they mean it…

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Though it is never nice to play favorites my favorite monkey at the refuge was undoubtedly Simon (pronounced See-mone), a spider monkey the refuge was taking care of.

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The guide at the refuge showed us how keen Simon was to give you hugs, or just to use you as a tree.

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Simon is anything but shy.  In one of my favorite videos of my South American trip I wander over to Simon’s play area and when he take notices of me he, he moves right in for a quick climb and hug maneuver.

The other monkeys at the refuge have a bit more freedom than Simon, who is movably chained to a chain link wire.

It is always sad to see an animal chained or caged but Simon gets lots of attention and love throughout each day

It is always sad to see an animal chained or caged but Simon gets lots of attention and care each day

For instance, the refuge’s howler monkey wanders wherever he pleases.

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But mostly he just liked to take naps.  On my lap.

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There were several smaller chimps running willy-nilly around the compound – in this video they almost interrupted the howler monkey’s nap.

Only the most aggressive monkeys had to be in cages.

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The rest of the monkeys were free to do what they wanted, which included a variety of playful activities.

Sacaba – a small town off the beaten path in Bolivia

Sacaba – a small town off the beaten path in Bolivia

After our time in Parque Torotoro, Eyal, Jelena and I spent a day in a town called Sacaba, a short cambio ride outside of Cochabamba.

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Like any small town in Bolivia, Sacaba has a colorful market, a quiet central plaza, and a small church.

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A woman selling jello cups in Sacaba’s central plaza

A woman selling jello cups in Sacaba’s central plaza

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There is nothing particularly special about Sacaba.  It is not a town high up on the Lonely Planet’s list of top Bolivian places to visit.

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For these exact reasons Sacaba was a great place to spend a day.  We were the only non-locals walking around the town that day.

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I had decided to spend a day in Sacaba based on a recommendation from “Mateo” Hayek, a friend from Iowa City who was stationed at Sacaba’s Hospital Mexico during his Peace Corps service in Bolivia.

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When Matt volunteered at the hospital 20 years ago there were only 10 rooms set in a couple small buildings.

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I spoke with a doctor at the hospital who had been there for 17 years but she could not remember Matt because he had finished his service a year or two before she had started working there.

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The doctor told me that the hospital expanded in the last 20 years, along with Sacaba’s population.  The hospital now has five buildings and over 40 rooms.  She did point out a few remaining aspects of the “original” hospital building, which is now used for administrative purposes.

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One of the old entrances to the hospital

One of the old entrances to the hospital

Matt used to live on Calle Padilla in a one story yellow house with red-tile roof. I took a few pics of houses that fit the description but there were so many with that style, I couldn’t be sure if I snapped his actual residence.

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If I had followed Calle Padilla to the end I would have had a chance to do a quick hike into the hills, where Matt used to make trips to nearby villages to provide medical service.

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During Matt’s service in Sacaba, Cantinflas was his favorite family-run restaurant. He got to know the family running the restaurant very well.

Cantiflas I

Matt’s preference for Cantinflas must have been shared by many because 20 years later, there are now two Cantinflas restaurants.  The first one we had visited (Cantinflas I, seen in the photo above) was closed so we ate at Cantinflas II about 5 blocks away.

Cantiflas II

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The restaurants are named after Fortino Mario Alfonso Moreno Reyes, aka “Cantinflas”, a Mexican actor, producer, and writer famous for his depiction of the campesino (peasant).

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Though Cantiflas was Mexican, his portrayal of life as a peasant is one that resonates with Bolivians, whose population has a big percentage of indigenous farmers.  His acting influence was strong enough that he even got recognition in the United States, with his own star on the walk of fame.

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History and character aside, the Cantinflas restaurants are also popular because they serve some damn good food.

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Jelena, Eyal, and I split two large plates of food.

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My favorite of the two was the colorful Bolivian Pique, aka Pique a lo Macho.

Pique

Pique is an enhanced version of Salchipapas, a simpler dish described in my previous blog post.  In addition to Salchipapas’ french fries, hot dogs, onions, tomatoes, and ketchup/mayonnaise drizzle, Pique adds slices of steak, hard boiled eggs, ham, and peppers.  After our late lunch we headed back to Cochabamba.  I enjoyed Sacaba because it was a Bolivian town very much off the tourist track.

Parque Nacional Torotoro – dino hunting, canyon hiking, and caving in Bolivia’s Jurassic Park

Parque Nacional Torotoro is a national park set in the eastern mountain ranges of the Andes cordilleras. The Park has small village that serves as the base for the influx of backpackers and tourists that come to see the park’s dinosaur footprints, canyon, waterfalls, and massive cave.

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The village’s economy is reliant on tourism and the statue in its main plaza reflects this fact.

Johanna impersonates the king of the dinosaurs

Johanna with an A+ imitation of the king of the dinosaurs

Despite the T-rex statute I don’t think there were any Tyrannosaurus Rex footprints in Parque Torotoro.

Cochamba is the only city from which you can access Torotoro. A bus with an amusing paint job awaits you in the south part of Cochabamba if you want to make the ride to Torotoro.

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The road to Torotoro is treacherous. The brightly colored bus must cross rivers and streams at several points as it rumbles along the road leading to the Park.

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Johanna, Jelena, Eyal, and I were riding with a mix of Torotoro locals heading back to the village after they had finished a supplies trip to Cochabamba.

One of the passengers was so small she was able to ride in the overhead storage ledge. She must not have been very comfortable because she kept clucking.

Eyal eyes the chicken riding above him.

Eyal eyes the chicken riding above him.

We arrived late in the night and checked into the first hostel we found, which may have been a mistake.  The shower looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in years and the urinal was even worse than the “troughs” at Historic Kinnick Stadium.

I’m not sure if I was cleaner before or after taking a shower here...

I’m not sure if I was cleaner before or after taking a shower here…

But for 20 Bolivianos ($2.50) a night you get what you pay for.

Even worse than the "trough" at Kinnick.

Is that a piece of glass?

The next morning we woke to find the bus we rode to town parked right outside our hostel.

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The market across from our hostel used a blunt marketing technique that was effective at capturing my attention, particularly because I lived in Wisconsin for three years.

“There is cheese.”

“There is cheese.”

After a filling cheese breakfast, Johanna, Jelena, Eyal and I hired a young guide to take us to Torotoro Canyon and show us some dinosaur footprints along the way.

Eyal snaps a photo of the intrepid dinosaur expedition

Eyal snaps a photo of the intrepid dinosaur expedition

Less than 500 meters from town is the first major set of dinosaur footprints.

Big shoes to fill

Big shoes to fill

According to our guide these large oval-shaped footprints were left by a big herbivore.  I’m no paleontologist but I’ve watched Jurassic Park at least three times so I was fairly certain that the footprints were left by a brontosaurus.