juliamhammond

Independent travel

Just back from: a day in Ibiza

This, perhaps, wasn’t going to be one of my usual days out. A few days before I was due to fly – out of Stansted at 7am on a Tuesday – an email arrived from Ryanair announcing certain restrictions on the flight.

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Amongst other words of caution, it said:

• Customers will not be allowed to carry alcohol on board and all cabin baggage will be searched at the boarding gates.
• Boarding gates will be carefully monitored and customers showing any signs of anti-social behavior or attempting to conceal alcohol will be denied travel without refund or compensation.

For a moment I wondered what I had let myself in for. In the event, though we did have a stag party on board, they were very well behaved and remarkably quiet. The plane was too, empty seats an indication that some of our passengers had fallen victim to one of Stansted’s worst mornings for queues at security I’d ever seen. I’d made the flight in good time and jetted off on time to the hippy isle with a row of three seats to myself.

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Arriving slightly ahead of schedule, I picked up a hire car and set off on an itinerary I’d found on the Ibiza Spotlight website. As my main focus of the day was to be a trial of a Sunwise kaftan, I’d originally planned to hole up at one of Ibiza’s stylish beach clubs and chill out all day. In the event, my geographer’s curiosity got in the way and I just couldn’t resist the chance to go exploring, especially up in the north of the island where the agricultural landscape was more verdant and prettier than the south. That said, I needed to be in the sun, so there were going to be plenty of stops.

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The first was supposed to be in Santa Eulària des Riu, Ibiza’s third largest resort. Incidentally, road signs are in Catalan, though my map was in Spanish, with this particular resort being Santa Eulalia – mostly the names were similar enough for this not to be confusing. I’d read about an excellent ice cream parlour called Mirreti’s. Reaching the town, I decided it just wasn’t my kind of place: too busy and lacking charm. I drove straight through, headed for Sant Carles de Peralta.

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This small village, dominated by a delightful whitewashed church, was the perfect spot for a stroll in the sunshine. There wasn’t much to see, but I’d been tipped off about a cafe called Bar Anita across the road. I spent a pleasant half an hour sipping a cold drink in the warm sunshine, watching the world go by.

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Onwards and northwards, as the hire car wound its way around the back lanes following the Cala de Sant Vicenç coast road for a few kilometres before ducking inland across the Serra de la Mala Costa. Turning north at Sant Joan de Labritja, I snaked across country on a tiny lane which led to the resort of Portinatx on the island’s rugged north coast. Smaller than Santa Eulària des Riu but nevertheless a resort, it was more my scene and I had a wander to explore.

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Back in the car, I drove back to Sant Joan, this time via the main road and on to my next stop, another village dominated by a magnificent church, Sant Miquel de Balansat. Sited on top of the hill, this whitewashed church is impossible to miss. It’s the second oldest on the island, after the cathedral and like the one in Sant Carles, had three crosses on the front wall, something you’ll see on all the churches on the island, the symbol of Golgotha. The painted chapel walls are very special.  This bronze sculpture outside also caught my eye.

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But by now, I was getting hungry and so drove the few kilometres to Santa Gertrudis de Fruitera. This was my favourite of all the villages I stopped at, and I feasted on jamon serrano and queso manchego in the sunshine, choosing a spot opposite the church.

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Somehow the village managed to hang onto its character despite its popularity with day trippers. I had time to browse in a few boutiques before they closed for a siesta and I hit the road again.

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This part of Ibiza is greener than the scrubby south and I drove across the countryside towards Santa Agnès de Corona, known as Santa Ines in Spanish. I passed olive groves, almond trees and orange trees laden with fruit. Ruined windmills completed the agricultural scene.

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The road layout here forms a circle, so it as it was such a fine day, I decided to backtrack a bit and go for a short hike. My target was the hidden fishermen’s cove of Es Portitxol, said to be one of the prettiest spots on the island.

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The road was in pretty poor shape, so I parked up and picked my way down the lane on foot. When I saw poor shape, it looked like a digger had gone rogue and there were great rifts gouged out of the stones. I wished at that point I’d had on walking boots rather than sandals, as it was hard going. The path did level out for a while and led through a shady forest; alongside were sweeping views over the ocean and towards the cove. Improperly clad, I decided to bail before I ripped my sandal straps, but had I continued, I’d have been rewarded with one of Ibiza’s hidden gems. Ah, next time.

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It was time to head into Eivissa, the island’s capital. I’d seen the cathedral and fortifications of its Dalt Vila or old town as I’d passed earlier, and now it was time to explore on foot. Luck was on my side when it came to finding a parking space; yellow spaces reserved for workers become free for anyone who finds them empty after 4pm.

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For anyone whose experience of Ibiza is solely the lively mass tourism resorts and club scene, Dalt Vila is the very antithesis: elegant, ancient and impressive. The thick wall and fortifications once protected Eivissa from marauding pirates; now they provide lofty vantage points from which you can admire the Mediterranean and watch the fishing boats bring their catch in, trailing clouds of seagulls in their wake. This defensive settlement dates from the 7th century BC when the Phoenicians founded the city, though the walls themselves are even older.

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Today, Dalt Vila is threaded with alleyways and tunnels which, unsigned, invite you to partake of a lucky dip; when you step through the doorway, you might have no idea where you’ll emerge. I popped up in the Plaça d’Espanya for a time. One of the tunnels here was a Civil War refuge; Ibiza was Republican for a time before Franco stepped up his campaign and occupied the island, forcing the Republicans to flee.

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In the Plaça d’Espanya traders were setting up a mediaeval fayre which should, according to the road signs, have opened three hours earlier but looked like it was still a while off. From there, I climbed a little further to the cathedral, its fussy architectural details contrasting with the simplicity of the whitewashed churches I’d seen in the villages.

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Overlooking the marina, it was a good place to perch on a wall and soak up both the sun and the view. Refreshed, I wandered the streets of the old town for a while before ducking randomly into a tunnel and emerging some considerable way beneath them. I took it as a sign and headed back to the airport.

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The details

Outbound: Ryanair STN to IBZ departing 0700 with a scheduled arrival time of 1040 (we were about 20 minutes early)
Inbound: Ryanair IBZ to STN departing 2140 and arriving at 2320 (also early)

Flights available from £19.99 each way.
Car hire with Alamo purchased through the Ryanair website was a little over £30 for the day; airport buses into Eivissa cost 3,50 euros each way.

Have you seen my other blogs on days out by plane? They’re perfect if you are desperate to travel but can’t get the time off you need for a longer trip. You’ll be surprised at how much you can do in a single day. For how to visit Amsterdam, Belfast, Bremen, Budapest, Lisbon, Regensburg and Copenhagen for the day from London, please follow this link:
http://juliahammond.co.uk/Travel/BLOG.html


Product test: Sunwise UVA clothing

It was August 2004.  I was in Bali and I’d heard about a celebration known as Kuningan.  This ceremony was held to mark the end of Galungan, a holiday similar to our New Year.  Devotees dress in white with red sashes and bring offerings for their ancestors who are returning to heaven after spending time on earth for the Galungan festivities.  They bring yellow rice, fish and fruit, placed in bowls made from leaves.  The rice symbolises their gratitude to God for the blessings he has bestowed and the bowls are adorned with little figures representing angels which bring happiness and prosperity.  It promised to be an incredible sight, so I made my way to the temple near Candidasa on Bali’s eastern coast.

Arriving, I wasn’t alone.  In front of me was a sea of white, a crowd of people thronging the space between me and the temple entrance.  Resigned to a long wait, I found a place in a queue of sorts and waited.  It was late morning.  The sun was already high in the sky and packing a powerful tropical punch.  I wasn’t unduly worried.  I’d put on some sun cream and had chosen what I thought to be a sensible outfit – a long sleeved cotton blouse.  Time passed slowly and my shoulders began to redden.  I applied more cream to the visible parts and thought no more of it.  Eventually, I entered the temple and observed the prayers and rituals.  It was a fascinating scene.

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Later on, returning to the hotel,  I realised the thin cotton blouse I’d worn was no match for the midday sun and my skin had not only reddened, it had blistered badly.  I spent the rest of the holiday in the shade, cursing how ill-prepared I’d been.  I’ve never been as casual about the sun since.  Several of my friends have had skin cancer, and that’s not something I wish to emulate.  According to statistics compiled for Cancer Research UK, there are over 15,000 new cases of melanoma skin cancer each year.  While many are treatable, some, sadly are not.  Realistically, with the amount of travelling I do and how fair my skin is, I need to be proactive about the precautions I take.  Sun cream alone isn’t enough of a solution.  Yet there are many tropical places in the world that I still want to visit.  I don’t want to find myself in a position where I’ve got to stay out of the sun completely and miss out on the chance of seeing them.

But here’s the rub.  I’ve never found much in the way of UVA resistant clothing that I thought I’d actually like to wear.  The thought of putting on one of those clingy long sleeved surfer shirts in soaring temperatures and high humidity just doesn’t appeal.  Nor do I find the functionality of the standard traveller clothing appealing; it just doesn’t feel like I’m on holiday if I’m wearing a collared shirt.  So up until now, I’ve slapped on the sun cream (ruining many a white blouse in the process with those impossible to remove stains) and hoped for the best.

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I’m not ready to give up my view of a tropical beach just yet.  So when a friend offered to let me trial a UVA resistant kaftan, I jumped at the chance.  Finally, something that would prevent a repeat of my Balinese burns.  Its first outing was to Ibiza.  In May, the temperatures are in the mid-twenties, perfect for a trial in conditions similar to a good British summer.  Here’s how I got on.

Style 8/10

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I just loved the colours in this.  Blue always feels so summery and the mix of the palette works well as a pattern and means that it goes with a wider range of bottom halves.  The longer length style, sitting flatteringly mid-thigh, meant this kaftan hid both generous hips and a tummy that likes to eat.  I’m not usually a fan of the tie waist, as I do sometimes think such styles make me feel like a trussed turkey, but actually it too was attractive.  I found that in a bow it did have a tendency to undo itself, but in a loose knot it looked just as good.  The batwing sleeves hung to my elbow, giving it a pretty waterfall silhouette.  The round neck, though high, was loose enough to be comfortable.  In my selfies, though, it looks a little too high, reminding me of a hairdresser’s gown.  In real life, this isn’t the case, as the length of the garment more than balances this out and obviously if you have someone else taking your holiday photos you’ll get a better image.

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Comfort 9/10

I trialled this in a number of situations.  As I was on the move, it’s yet to sit round a pool (watch out for an update later this month when it comes with me to hotter Texas).  When I first looked at the label, I was a little concerned to see that it was made of 100% polyester, usually favouring cotton and linen for high temperatures.  It was so lightweight though, that I never felt hot and sticky; it didn’t cling and hung beautifully.  The versatility of this style means that it’s as at home in a cafe as it is on the beach, sophisticated enough for the city yet casual enough to wear poolside.  I even went for a short hike in it.  The floatiness of the fabric meant it didn’t ride up or become too rucked up around the legs.  My only criticism is that with half-sleeves the lower parts of your arms are exposed.  I’d love to see that the range is widened to include a long sleeve tunic blouse in the same colourway and fabric.

I’m not alone in praising its versatility.  Fellow tester Kate had this to say when she packed it for a Med cruise:

“In Rome today and melting.  The kaftan is absolutely brilliant. I don’t need cream under it and there’s been no burning at all. I feel posh too! Ingenious.”

Kate’s a skin cancer survivor and adds:

“It gave me so much confidence, took away the worry I have when I see the sun is shining! I could sit on a beach and look like everyone else in a glamorous floaty cover up, yet I knew my skin was being protected.”

Value for money 10/10

This item is new for 2017 and the retail price has yet to be finalised.  I’m assured that it should be in the region of £25 to £30.  At this price bracket, that’s excellent value for money in my opinion.  The kaftan is well made and you’re getting a quality product.  With little competition in the UK market, it’s hard to find a comparison, but similar clothing from high-end retailers can go for up to £100, making this a bargain.

Function 10/10

Let’s get real for a minute: the main reason you’re going to be looking at the Sunwise UVA product range is to buy clothing that is going to protect you from the sun.  So did it do its job?  I spent the day in and out of the sun, and even when my lower arms were reddening at my sunny cafe table over lunch, the parts covered by the kaftan were well protected.  I’ve covered the lack of wrist-length sleeves in the style score, so for me this garment’s ability to protect me from sunburn in temperatures of around 25°C was first rate.  If that changes when I up the temperatures a bit, I’ll edit this section to reflect its capabilities.

The verdict

Would I buy it?  Yes, absolutely, and another one too if further colourways were to become available.  It’s not something I’d have considered before, but I’m a convert.

Where to find it:

Sunwise UVA is a recent start up and would value your custom as well as your comments.  Their current range can be viewed online at:

http://www.sunwiseuva.co.uk/

They’re also on Facebook: look for Sunwise. UVA clothing


Flight news: Honduras

While parts of Central America have been blessed with direct flights from Europe for some time, others have been a bit more disconnected.  Honduras is one of those places.  But now, with the launch of a weekly flight from Spain, it’s possible to get there a little quicker.  When I visited Honduras a few years ago, getting there involved an overnight layover in Houston, adding both considerable time and expense to the journey.  Air Europa’s flight from Madrid at first might appear to be less than ideal, arriving shortly before 5am in what was once the world’s worst hotspot for murders.  (San Pedro Sula has now passed the Murder Capital of the World crown to the Venezuelan capital Caracas.)  But this late departure means that a connecting ticket from the UK is possible and you no longer have to lose a day of your holiday just to get there.

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Honduras might not be the first place that springs to mind if you’re looking to holiday in that region, especially in terms of safety.  But it’s easy to get straight out of San Pedro Sula and the early arrival means you’ll have plenty of time to reach somewhere both safer and more beautiful well before nightfall.  Copan Ruinas is one such place.  I spent a pleasant time there in 2014, riding horses out to the Guatemalan border, drinking the excellent locally-grown coffee and exploring some of the least crowded Mayan ruins in the region.  Visitors were outnumbered by scarlet macaws by some considerable margin.

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While I’d still be loathe to recommend spending any more of your time in San Pedro Sula than is absolutely necessary, the country’s Caribbean coast is as laid back as they come.  It’s well worth risking the journey back to San Pedro Sula’s airport after your Copan Ruinas sojourn to make the short hop to Roatan Island.  It’s the perfect place to unwind in the sunshine, sink your toes in the sand and sip a cocktail or two.

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When are we going?

 


What’s your most unusual travel experience?

While travelling in South America recently, I was asked what my most unusual travel experience had been.  Put on the spot, I was momentarily thrown.  At the time, we were posing for pictures pretending to run away from a plastic T-Rex that our guide had placed on the world’s largest salt flat.  I couldn’t help but think that what one person might define as unusual might be entirely normal behaviour to someone else.  Our guide certainly thought that there was nothing weird about what he was asking us to do and judging by the number of pictures on the internet, he’s not alone.

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I’m at the stage in my travelling life when visiting off the beaten track destinations has become a way of life and as such, the kinds of things I do on my holidays are very different from your average traveller.  For me, to fly and flop would be a change from my typical holiday style.  Since I’ve been back, I’ve been giving a bit of thought to some of my more unusual adventures.  Taking the definition as something I wouldn’t expect to do on a regular basis, here are my favourite five.  What are yours?

Receiving a vodou blessing, Haiti

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Watching a volcanic eruption from the crater rim, Vanuatu

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Taking a lion for a walk, Zambia

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Presenting the prizes at the Running with the Llamas festival, USA

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Eating rotted shark, Iceland

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Bolivia’s bowler hats

Even on the briefest of visits to the Bolivian capital, La Paz, you can’t fail to notice the plethora of hats, specifically the good old-fashioned bowler.  But unlike the black attire once worn by London’s city gents, these are brown – and worn by women.  

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It’s a cultural thing: the cholas who wear them do so to emphasise their heritage and reinforce how proud they are of it.  Once, the cholas weren’t welcome downtown.  They were refused entry to restaurants, banned from walking in Plaza Murillo in front of the Presidential Palace and harassed if they ventured into the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods.

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Cholas, or cholitas to give them the diminutive form, dress in voluminous skirts, multiple layers of petticoats and crocheted shawls.  The hat is an easy way of determining the wearer’s marital status: if she wears it straight, she’s married, but if it sits at an angle, she’s available.  So that hat plays a critical role in the La Paz social scene.

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The practice of wearing a bowler is a comparatively recent phenomenon.  Most sources agree that, in the 1920s, a consignment of bowler hats was shipped to Bolivia, intended for railway workers.  But someone had made a mistake with the colour or size – versions of the story disagree – and faced with a huge loss, an entrepreneur named Domingo Soligno marketed them to the indigenous Aymara women as being the height of fashion in Europe.

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Some sources wrongly name the type of hat as a borsalino.  In fact, Borsalino is the name of an Italian hat manufacturer that for many years supplied the cholas. It’s correctly known, therefore, as a sombrero de la chola paceña.

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To wear a Borsalino comes at a price and these expensive hats are beyond the means of many.  The target of thieves wishing to make an easy buck, the Borsalino brand is now largely a thing of the past in Bolivia.  For more than forty years, bowlers have been made locally by the likes of Sombreros Illimani and also imported from Colombia.  But even these cheap imitations have a charm about them.

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Essex Belongs to Us

Earlier in the year I was lucky enough to be selected for the Essex Belongs to Us project.  A book has just been released featuring a selection of Essex-based authors writing about their county.  Whether you’re local and want to reminisce, or live further afield and know little about one of the UK’s most misunderstood areas, the book will prove to be a good read.  Here’s a brief taster of what I had to say about Salcott – but to read the rest, you’ll need to buy the book.  Details of how to do so follow at the end of this blog post.

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Fish out of water

I swear out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw a unicorn.

I’d dozed off in front of the telly and awoken to the sound of agitated voices.  A few months ago, I’d have slept right through the commotion, part and parcel of living on a main road in a big town.  But my husband valued silence over convenience and home was now Salcott-cum-Virley, a small village on the Essex marshes.  Ensconced at the deadest part of a dead end road, tucked away behind five huge oak trees, it was about as quiet as Essex got.

Instead of the scream of motorbikes and the rumble of lorries, I now awoke to birdsong – and an infernal wind that sometimes blew so hard it drowned it out.  With the gales of spring, fence panels popped like champagne corks.  After retrieving the dog from the neighbours’ garden for the third time in as many weeks, we hired a man to build us some wind proof fencing.

But we were in the habit of leaving the gates open, and things had a habit of wandering in, causing great excitement.  At first, we would run to the window each time, interrupting whatever we were doing to marvel at pheasants strolling across the front lawn or ducks making their raucous way across the sky out the back.  All this wildlife was a novelty.  We’d once had a squirrel visit our small back garden in Rayleigh but the dog had soon seen him off.  Whether we liked it or not, we were going to have to share our garden with the local residents: the pair of wood pigeons that roosted in the dead apricot tree in front of the kitchen window and the quarrel of sparrows that nested in the blackberry bush that had long since conquered our garage wall.  You didn’t live in the country, you shared it.  Boundaries were arbitrary, there for the purposes of officialdom only.

And so it was that when the neighbour’s small white pony escaped, I awoke to find it at the patio door and in my somnolent state, confused it with a unicorn.  It was soon joined by another and, then, several men trying to round them up, startling me out of my slumber.  It wasn’t long before they were all heading back out of the gate.  They seemed almost practised and I had a strong suspicion this had happened before.

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The rest you’ll find in the book.  You can order a paperback here:

STOP PRESS: You can buy Essex Belongs To Us – the book and e-book based on Essex’s biggest ever creative writing project – here

It costs £8.99 plus a pound for postage and packaging.  Alternatively, the e-Book is much cheaper.  You can download it to your Kindle via Amazon for just £1 here:

 

And if you do, I’d love to hear what you thought of the book.  Was Essex what you expected it to be?


Salt flat tours: Argentina vs Bolivia

One of South America’s iconic bucket list activities is to visit the vast Salar de Uyuni.  It’s been on my wish list for a while:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/after-104-countries-can-i-still-have-a-bucket-list/

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Salar de Uyuni

This March I finally made it to Uyuni, 22 years after my first trip to Bolivia.  On the way, I travelled from Salta along the Quebrada de Humahuaca, one of Argentina’s most attractive areas.  A side trip from Tilcara took me to Salinas Grandes, Argentina’s largest salt flat.  The two tours were as different as they come, so which was best?  Here is my review.

The salt flats

The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat.  It covers an area over 4000 square miles and sits at an altitude of over 3600 metres above sea level.  The crust of what were once prehistoric lakes dries to a thick layer of salt, and the brine which lies underneath it is rich in lithium with something like 50-70% of the world’s known reserves.  Even on a day trip, it’s not long before you’ve driven far enough out onto the salt flat to be totally surrounded by a sea of white.  Losing your bearings is entirely possible though the position on the horizon of distinctive volcanoes such as Tunupa makes things a little easier.

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Argentina’s Salinas Grandes

In contrast, Argentina’s biggest offering is paltry by comparison, though still the second largest in the world.  Measuring a little over half the area of its Bolivian neighbour at 2300 square miles, it’s still enormous of course.  Like the Salar de Uyuni, it’s a high altitude location, coming in a few hundred metres lower.  Salt mining is also a feature of the landscape here and as in Bolivia, you’ll see piles of salt, blocks of dust-striped salt for construction and other industrial activity.

Choosing the tour

Salar de Uyuni tours are big business.  It’s firmly on the backpacker trail and the scruffy, dusty town of Uyuni is rammed with operators selling one-day and three-day tours to the flats.  I opted for a one-day tour.  Having been just across the border in Chile and seen some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, I didn’t feel the need to spend hours in a cramped 4X4 to do the same in Bolivia.  Three-day tours offer basic accommodation and rudimentary facilities; the days of cold showers and BYO sleeping bags are long behind me.  I opted for a mid-range tour with a respectable outfit called Red Planet Expeditions, booking online via Kanoo Tours at a cost of $83.  (It is cheaper to book when you arrive but I didn’t want to have to hang around so was prepared to pay the extra few dollars to arrange my tour in advance.)  Even this, one of the better companies, had mixed reviews, so I figured if I had a poor experience for a day I’d be happier than if I’d opted for the longer tour.

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Wet season reflections, Bolivia

The nearest tourist base to the Salinas Grandes is at Tilcara, the other side of a mountain from the salt flats.  I found a highly regarded tour operator called Caravana de Llamas which offer a range of llama trekking tours, opting for a tour that spent a few hours walking out to the salt flats.  The tour itself was excellent value at $65 per person, minimum two people.  However, this doesn’t include transport.  You’ll either need a rental car to cross the mountain pass (it’s a good road) or a car with driver.  Caravana de Llamas can arrange this for you for 1500 Argentinian pesos per car (rates correct as at March 2017) which is reasonable for a car load but expensive for a solo traveller.

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On the salt flats with Oso, Paco and their handler Santiago

The tour: Bolivia

Choosing to visit in wet season, the Bolivian tours cannot reach Incahuasi Island which is a fair distance across the salt flats (and home to giant cacti).  I’d been sent information requesting that I check in to the Red Planet office at 9am for a departure by 10am.  On arrival, I was told we’d actually be leaving at 11am.  On departure we were a convoy of three vehicles with one guide between us.  The car was in good condition; judging from the reviews this isn’t always the case.  The driver was pleasant enough, though he spoke no English which may be a problem for some.  There were five travellers per car, but this can be six or seven which would have been cramped.  Two at least have to sit on the back seat and there, the windows do not open.  My fellow travellers were a pleasant bunch, though much younger than me.  I wasn’t as keen as the others on having the music turned right up, making it very hard to talk, but everyone else seemed happy.  The guide, Carlos, split his time between the three vehicles.  I didn’t take to him, finding him obnoxious and arrogant, so I was pleased we didn’t have to have him in the car very much.  I had several concerns about his attitude and behaviour (some shared with other members of the group).  I contacted Red Planet for their comment but have yet to receive a reply two weeks later.  It’s not appropriate to go into details here but I would hesitate to book with this company again if they couldn’t guarantee the guide would be different.

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Tunupa Volcano 

The tour allocated a great deal of time to the train cemetery – which had the potential to be a fantastic place to visit if you don’t time it to coincide with the 30+ 4X4s which stop there on the way to the salt flats each morning.  Having woken to clear skies, the clouds had rolled in by the time we arrived which was frustrating given how close the site was to the town.  There was also a lengthy stop in the village of Colchani where we visited a salt factory (just a room where not much was going on except for attempts to flog us bags of salt) and where we were given lunch of lukewarm chicken, stone-cold rice or cold potatoes plus a delicious apple pie.  Eventually we reached the salt flat itself and the scenery at that point took over.  In wet season the reflections in the water are a crowd-pleaser and it wasn’t a disappointment.  What was a pity was the lack of thought given to pre-departure information.  As requested I’d come prepared with sun cream, but no one had thought to tell us we’d need flip-flops for the salt flats.  It wasn’t just a case of getting our feet wet, more that the crust is sharp and uncomfortable to walk on.  I ended up in socks which was better than going barefoot but still unpleasant.

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Ouch! Bring flip flops!

Later, we drove to a drier part of the salt flats for the famous perspective photos.  These were cheesy, clearly well rehearsed (we did the same poses as every group I’m sure) but a fun souvenir.  The guide did take the photos, which was kind of him, so those on their own could participate.  Afterwards we had an enforced and quite lengthy stop near a monument.  I think it was included to enable us to arrive at the edge of the salt flats in time for sunset, though it felt like time-wasting.  Six out of the fifteen travellers in our cars had overnight buses to catch and were very worried they’d miss them.  Given we were all filthy dirty and covered in salt, they’d have needed time to clean themselves up before boarding.  The rest of us had what turned out to be quite a rushed sunset photo stop.  However, we were dropped off at the Colchani salt hotels on the edge of the salt flat.  This was a bonus; if we’d have had to return to Uyuni and then take a taxi, this would have added an hour at least as well as the additional cost of transport.

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Sunset on the Salar de Uyuni, a beautiful thing to behold

Conclusion: Bolivia

All in all I felt that the wow-factor of the salt flats themselves redeemed the day.  The guide was a big negative, but I was told it wasn’t possible to go deep into the salt flat without one.  Walking from the salt hotels to the edge of the salt flats wouldn’t have given me the same experience, so although this was one of the worst tours I’ve taken in years, I’m still glad I did it.  But even more relieved I didn’t opt for the three-day tour.

The tour: Argentina

I was sent a reconfirmation email the day before my tour to ensure I knew that the driver would be on time; in fact he was early when he arrived at my hotel in Tilcara.  The car was almost brand new and spotlessly clean.  Another traveller had cancelled so I had a private tour.  Jose Luis the driver was friendly, courteous and knowledgeable, as well as being safe over the mountain pass.  I was offered several stops at viewpoints to enable me to take some great scenery shots as we climbed above the clouds.  Arriving at the tiny village of Pozo Colorado, llama handler and guide Santiago was ready, welcoming and cheerful.  Jose Luis joined us for the first part of the trek to ensure I was comfortable leading a llama and then joined us later at the salt flats.

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Santiago getting Paco ready

Walking with the llamas was fun.  Oso and Paco were well behaved and to my relief didn’t spit.  From time to time Santiago told me a bit about the llamas, the scenery and the way of life up there on the Argentine Puna, but he also knew when to let me enjoy the silence and serenity of the place.  The trek was easy, over flat terrain, and when we arrived at the edge of the salt flats, there was time for me to wander off and take photos while lunch was prepared.  A picnic table had been set up loaded with delicious food: local goats’ cheese, llama meat, ham sandwiches, salad and more.  There was plenty to go around.  Jose Luis joined us for lunch and the inclusion of a third person made chatting easier as he was bilingual.

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Oso carrying the lunch table

After lunch, the llamas had rested and we walked onto the salt flats for some souvenir photos.  Afterwards, Jose Luis drove me to some of the industrial workings a short distance away.  There wasn’t a lot of activity going on, though as with Bolivia, I did see the piles of salt “bricks” and also heaps of mined salt.  By the time we’d driven back over the mountain the tour was a similar length to that taken in Bolivia, arriving in Tilcara late afternoon.

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Paco having a siesta on the lakeshore

Conclusion: Argentina

If I’d have visited Bolivia before Argentina, I’d have probably been disappointed with this tour.  The scenery just didn’t have that sense of scale that gave it the bucket list wow.  However, as an activity, walking with llamas was a lot of fun and I felt that Santiago had gone to a lot of trouble to make me feel comfortable and, despite his basic English, to put the scenery in context.  I was left wanting more and would definitely book with Caravana de Llamas again if I returned to the area.

Overall conclusion

Both tours were worth doing but very different.  The Argentinian tour was very civilised and the llamas incredibly cute.  Regular readers of this blog will know how much I adore these fluffy creatures.  The people involved worked hard to ensure I was well-looked after.  In contrast, the Bolivian tour encompassed my worst nightmares with a bossy, inflexible guide and yet – the scenery was so incredible that I’d still do it again.

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Expectations are key.  In Uyuni, there doesn’t seem to be a single operator winning consistently excellent reviews.  In this respect, having a horrible guide but a good driver and a vehicle that didn’t break down was the best option – if there’s a weak link, at least your safety isn’t compromised.  It’s been a long time since I’ve had to take a backpacker-style tour, so perhaps I’m out of the habit of being herded around – and it’s no surprise to those readers who know me to hear that I don’t like being told what to do.

Perhaps taking a budget option in Bolivia would have been the way to go: there were day trips for under $40, half the price I paid, and given how poor the guiding and the lunch were, maybe it would make the tour seem better value.  However, I certainly wouldn’t recommend taking a basic tour for the three-day option as the mileage covered is considerable and the area remote.  I heard good reports about the scenery from a private Dutch group, but having seen similar (better?) in the more accessible Chile a couple of years ago, I don’t regret my choice to cut out the mountain lakes and volcanoes.

So – which tour?  Tough decision: I’ll call it a draw!  Have you taken either tour?  What were your impressions?

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Footnote: I paid for both tours myself; all opinions expressed are my own.