juliamhammond

Travel advice and information

Dude ranch vs. working ranch – how do you know what’s best for you?

Yee-ha!  There’s still some kind of magic associated with the cowboy lifestyle, isn’t there?  I don’t know about you, but seeing a man in chaps astride a horse is enough to get me all of a tizzy.  Back home (and I’m not referring to my husband here) men can seem just a little too in touch with their feminine side.  Out on the ranch, though, as they gallop off leaving a trail of dust behind them, well, it’s work for real men…

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Yep, a ranch holiday is for me.  But whether to spend my holiday on a dude ranch or on a working ranch was too difficult a choice – so I booked both.  How did they compare?

The activities

Panagea Ranch, located an hour outside Tacuarembó in Uruguay, accepts visitors but expects them to get involved in ranch life.  Juan inherited the ranch that his grandfather bought and has an emotional commitment as well as financial to the place which is obvious almost as soon as you arrive.

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During my stay, getting involved meant riding out to check on the progress of a sick sheep (and finding it incredibly quickly considering there are 1800 of them!), rounding up some of the 1100 head of cattle to move them to new pasture and herding them into the dip so that they could be treated for ticks.  It was hard work for a novice rider (though they don’t require any prior riding ability, it helps to have spent at least a bit of time in the saddle) but there was also a huge sense of accomplishment.

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In contrast, the Dixie Dude Ranch, on the outskirts of the Cowboy Capital of the World (that’s Bandera, Texas if you didn’t know) offered more of a vacation experience.  It has been welcoming visitors since 1937 and offers sedate trail rides, hiking and a huge pool with hot tub.  There’s evening entertainment too.  On the first night, we were treated to a ride in a hay cart to feed the couple of dozen longhorn cattle that can be found on the ranch.

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The next, we were treated to a show by a trick roper who was in town for the Bandera rodeo before heading off to Morgan Freeman’s 80th birthday party.  Marshmallows were also provided to toast over the campfire.  I travelled as part of a group and so we enjoyed relaxing by the fire in the evening – it’s a great place to head with a group of friends, though you may wish to stop off at Walmart on the way in as no alcohol is provided.  They’re fine with BYOB.

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The staff

In Uruguay, Juan Manuel was a little gruff at first but has a heart of gold and a genuine desire to both learn more about his guests and teach them how his ranch works.  The sole female in a group of men on the first night, things were a bit macho at the start, but I did warm to Juan and have a huge respect for what he does.  Susana makes you feel like one of the family from the get-go.

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A warm Southern welcome was just what you’d expect from Texas and the staff made you feel like a VIP rather than any old guest.  On the rides, at both ranches I felt safe and well looked after.  The horses at both ranches were well looked after and their welfare a high priority.

The accommodation

Accommodation provided by Panagea is, by their own admission, fairly basic.  Rooms were comfortable but when the ranch is full, single travellers might need to share.  The beds were firm and everything spotlessly clean.  Hot water is usually available but electricity is only available for a couple of hours each evening. There’s no WiFi.  To be honest, I enjoyed that.  It made me focus on the outdoors and I slept more soundly as a result.  I also thought it was excellent value at US$65 per person per night full board including activities.

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Dixie Dude Ranch is more akin to holiday accommodation with a range of chalets for guests and WiFi near the main building (though guests are asked to limit data usage due to restrictions outside the control of the ranch).  I stayed in one of the oldest cabins, which was a little more basic than the newer ones.  The latter were spacious enough to contain armchairs and even a fireplace.  Water is sourced from the property’s well which was temporarily down one morning during our stay; service was resumed rapidly.  My only niggle was the noise from the air conditioner which interrupted my sleep!  As you’d expect, accommodation in the States is more expensive than in South America.  Dixie Dude Ranch charges $165pppn for single occupancy and $145pppn if you share.

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The food

Both ranches welcomed guests on a full board basis.  At Panagea, Juan’s wife Susana was an incredible cook and the food was in equal parts tasty and plentiful.  When Susana’s in town, Juan cooks, and he does a mean barbecue.  Dinner is when everyone’s back and the fire’s going; preparing, setting the table and eating is a communal affair with the family.  Juan loves to promote Uruguayan wine and will happily toast to that with his guests.  In the mornings, everyone helps themselves to what’s there; the wood-fired range was somewhat different to the induction hob at home but a fun challenge to master.  The food at Dixie Dude Ranch was good too (though not quite to Susana’s standards) and there was plenty for second helpings.  Service there was attentive and sincere.

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The verdict

Which ranch stay would I recommend?  I enjoyed both of them immensely, but in terms of the experience, it will be Panagea which I’ll more fondly remember.  I think it’s probably because I felt a real sense of achievement there.  As a novice rider who’s just about mastered a trot, I didn’t have the confidence to think I could help to herd cattle until Juan showed me I could.  He is a great fan of making people step outside their comfort zone!  Juan claims he can teach even a beginner in just a few days but I was glad I’d had a few lessons back home to learn the basics.

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But I think if I’d never been on a horse before, Panagea might have been a bit too ambitious.  Being able to mix riding with other activities (such as lazing by the pool or watching the hummingbirds come and go on the front porch) made Dixie Dude Ranch a great choice for a relaxing holiday.  But get those riding lessons booked so like me, you can make it to Uruguay one day!


Is Austin weird?

The Texan city of Austin would like to think so. Proud of its alternative culture and buzzing music scene, the city’s slogan is “Keep Austin weird”. The dictionary definition of weird has the word’s meaning as “suggesting something supernatural; unearthly” or more informally “very strange; bizarre”.Compared to America’s many identikit cities, some parts of Austin have an indy feel, but is this enough to warrant the label?

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Google “weird Austin” and there’s no end of blogs and e-zine articles trying to justify the term. From watching bats leave their roost under South Congress bridge to playing Chicken Shit Bingo at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, there are no end of suggestions.

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But read a little more carefully and you’ll perhaps find such writers are a little economical with the facts. There are suggestions that drinking a particular cocktail or watching a band play live in a bar is weird. Given that you can do that in any major city, I don’t see how that qualifies as weird.

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There’s a whole load of street murals which are a common sight in many a city these days and a cathedral of junk – but isn’t that just someone’s interpretation of art? Someone even went so far as to suggest the local propensity for eating tacos qualified the place as weird. Seriously?

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I didn’t take to Austin. In its defence, I was there for the weekend – and Memorial Day weekend at that. Entertainment venues were heaving, the restaurants were packed and added to the mix was a bunch of thunderstorms that brought unusually high humidity for the time of year.

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The music was pumping, the bass was thumping. If you’re 21, you’d have loved it, but for this middle-aged traveller, it wasn’t ideal. Ginny’s had a classic car show on its forecourt and was even more rammed than the regulars said it should be. The bats left it so late to come out from their hiding place it was too dark to see them when they did. Disappointing it was, weird it was not.

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And I’m not alone. Google “Austin is overrated” and you’ll also find plenty of results. For those of us that like to sightsee as well as socialise, there’s a relatively limited number of sights to see. OK it has the State Capitol, which as you’d expect from Texas is bigger than everyone else’s and impressive inside. There’s a couple of good museums, including the LBJ Library and Museum dedicated to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The riverfront is pleasant, but nothing to write home about. There’s a certain charm to SoCo, with its quirky shops and the excellent Jo’s for coffee, but it’s bisected by the busy road which gives the district its name.

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Amidst the noise, the many panhandlers that were just a stone’s throw from 6th Street and the Saturday night vomit on the pavement, one place stood out. The Broken Spoke had an excellent band, Two Tons of Steel, and a comfortable family vibe.

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Sure, people were drinking, but there were also granddads dancing with their granddaughters and young couples deep in conversation in between masterful circuits of the dance floor. (Yes, the music wasn’t so loud as to drown out their voices.) My brief Texas Two Step lesson wasn’t sufficient to give me the confidence to join them but it was fun to watch. From the moment we stepped through the door to be greeted by an elderly cowboy in a rhinestone studded shirt, we were welcomed. By the time the charming Ben Rogers doffed his Stetson and took a break from propping up the bar to call us a cab home, we were made to feel like we came every weekend.

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You see, what made Austin special was its residents. It’s that Southern hospitality thing kicking in again. In every venue and on every street corner, locals were keen to share their city. You don’t need a guidebook in Austin, you just need to hang around and chat. There’ll be no end of people to talk to.

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We were given recommendations for places to eat, drink and shop without soliciting for information. What’s more, they turned out to be good. I’d have not known about the Iced Turbo coffee at Jo’s in SoCo if the friendly gent at the lights hadn’t passed the time of day, nor would I have found Easy Tiger, its yummy bratwurst a welcome change from the ubiquitous (but tasty) Mexican fare.

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So, no, Austin’s not weird, no matter how much it would like to be, and as a tourist destination it’s a little dull, but its welcome is possibly the best you’ll get in the Lone Star state.


What you need to know about the US laptop ban

Much has been written in the press over the past week on the subject of a ban on larger electronics items entering the United States with airline passengers.  Following on from the March policy shift in which inbound flights from certain Middle Eastern and North African destinations, there’s speculation that such a policy could be extended to European destinations.

What’s the current situation?

At present, passengers travelling to the US from ten airports are affected: Queen Alia International Airport (AMM), Cairo International Airport (CAI), Ataturk International Airport (IST), King Abdul-Aziz International Airport (JED), King Khalid International Airport (RUH), Kuwait International Airport (KWI), Mohammed V Airport (CMN), Hamad International Airport (DOH), Dubai International Airport (DXB) and Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH).

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Large electronics items, including laptops but also larger cameras like DSLRs and tablets such as the iPad, must be carried in the hold and cannot be taken on board the flight.  How airlines are implementing this varies, but some are offering gate check in and secure packaging in the form of bubble wrap and cardboard boxes.  This policy doesn’t extend to the return leg; flights departing the US for these ten airports are not subject to the same restrictions.

So why are people getting upset?  Surely they can do without their gadgets for a few hours?

As talk grows about an extension to the ban, so too do certain worrying facts emerge.  Many of these larger items are powered by lithium ion batteries, which up to now have been banned from the hold for safety reasons.  They carry a risk of catching fire, something that could have disastrous consequences if unnoticed.  The FAA itself stated its concerns in 2016:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/lithium-batteries-spark-catastrophic-plane-fires-faa-warns/story?id=36816040

There’s more here, from The Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-uk-flights-usa-america-donald-trump-british-airline-pilots-association-heathrow-a7736076.html

There’s also the issue of sensitive data on company laptops and directives from some businesses to their employees requiring them to keep such equipment on their person whilst travelling.  For the regular tourist, it’s more a case of a lack of insurance.  I might just about be able to cope without my iPad on a long flight if I went back to those old fashioned paperback things I used to lug around, but if the airline then loses my suitcase, my travel insurance policy won’t pay out.  I really can’t afford to replace my DSLR if the lens gets smashed in transit.  So, with a flight to Houston looming on Friday, I’ve been watching the TSA website and Twitter like a stalker.

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So have they made a decision yet?

There were some misleading headlines last week, like this one in NYMag following a piece in The Daily Beast:

http://nymag.com/selectall/2017/05/laptops-banned-in-plane-cabin-on-flights-from-europe-to-u-s.html

Retweeted and quoted to within an inch of its life, The Daily Beast’s article, claiming an announcement would be made Thursday 11 May, sparked an angry reaction.  In part, there was a touch of indignation along the lines of European nations being way too civilised to be lumped together with the Middle East.

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But amidst all the fuss, some serious issues for the Americans began to be raised, not least the impact that it would have to the US economy and its tourism sector.  This article from The Independent explains:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-on-flights-electronic-devices-travel-industry-airlines-travelport-a7737671.html

Yes, you read that right: 1 in 3 potential foreign tourists would think twice about going if this policy becomes a reality.  I’m among them.  I’d be seriously concerned about that fire risk, especially on such a long flight.

Here’s a follow up article, also from The Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-europe-economic-tsunami-travel-industry-electronic-devices-flights-plane-hold-uk-usa-a7740396.html

I’m hoping, as we get closer to my departure date, that even if the electronics ban is widened, the changes won’t take effect until after I’m there.  Getting my valuables back to Blighty in one piece will be, as it has always been, down to me.  But after that, much as it pains me to say given my love of the USA, I’d have to give it a miss, at least until the TSA came to its senses once more.  It was reported that the TSA met with representatives of the US’ major airlines last Friday to see how a ban could be implemented; sources indicate that further meetings were to be held with EU personnel today.  At the time of writing, there’s been no announcement.

Watch this space.

Update 18.5.17

Well as it turned out we didn’t have to wait too long for an update.  Common sense has prevailed and the EU have persuaded the US authorities that widening the ban on larger electronics would be foolish:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-39956968

The ban still exists for the ten Middle Eastern and North African airports, so think about your safety before you opt to fly.  Happy travels!


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


Should tourist numbers be capped?

The authorities in Venice have recently announced that they will be introducing a series of measures to limit visitor numbers.  Amongst other things, Venice’s city council plan to issue tickets for St Mark’s Square and leaflet tourists to encourage them to head to less-visited parts of the city.  Supporters of the plan claim it’s necessary to protect a city that’s already on UNESCO’s endangered list; critics respond vehemently that a city should be open to all.  Where do I stand?  Somewhere in the middle, if I’m honest.

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A storm is brewing over tourists’ right to roam

The more mobile the world’s population gets, the busier tourist honeypots are getting, and our visitor experience is suffering as a result.  Travelling to many European cities in the middle of August can be more of a chore than a pleasure.  I had to visit the Swiss city of Interlaken in August a couple of years ago and the sheer number of people competing for space was dangerously close to what the infrastructure could cope with.  Added to that was a liberal scattering of selfie sticks, overflowing rubbish bins and a bunch of people whose disdain for queuing manifested itself in elbowing and shoving. It was about as far from tranquil as you could get, and certainly not what you’d imagine if you pictured a trip to the Swiss Alps in your head.

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Getting close to views like this can test your sanity

Over time, however, tourist numbers can increase so rapidly that not taking action can jeopardise not only the visitor experience but the site itself.  When I first visited Machu Picchu in 1995, I remember wandering with a friend amongst the ruins with hardly another soul there.  Memories can be a little rose-tinted; statistics put the annual figure in those days at about 250,000, averaging out at a little under 700 a day. By the time I returned in 2006, the site felt busy and the prices hiked in what proved to be an ineffectual attempt to limit the number of people.  Statistics estimate visitor numbers to have reached about 700,000 per annum by that point.

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Once the only thing photobombing your shot would have been a llama

By 2014, an estimated 1.2 million tourists came, around 300,000 in excess of limits agreed between UNESCO and the Peruvian authorities. Erosion of paths and stones, waste disposal issues and the risk of landslides are, still, very real threats.  The diesel-spewing fleet of buses might have been replaced by newer models and the threat to build a cable car that could well have sent the whole ruins tumbling down the mountain seen off, but Machu Picchu isn’t out of danger yet.

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Visiting Machu Picchu is now a very different experience

There are plans to introduce compulsory guides, expect tourists to follow set routes through the ruins and limit time at the site to prevent Machu Picchu collapsing under the strain.  I can’t face returning a third time under such conditions, but if I’d never been, I guess it would be better to accept these strategies than to miss out completely.  I feel lucky that I got to visit many of the world’s iconic sights ahead of the crowd yet at the same time saddened that the way I experienced them is, by necessity, a thing of the past.

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Even off season, Iceland’s wild views are coming under pressure

A whole raft of amazing places have implemented, or are planning to, measures to limit the impact of tourism.  Whether following the Bhutanese model of insisting on a minimum spend of $200-$250 via a compulsory daily package, limiting numbers arriving by cruise ship à la Santorini and Antarctica or regulating hotel beds and the likes of Airbnb as is being considered by Iceland, the goal is the same: to find a limit which works for the environment and people.  If your next bucket list destination is nearing breaking point, you’d better get organised (or rich) so you don’t miss out.


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.


Trip preparations: Bolivia

It’s almost time for me to fly off to South America.  My itinerary is pretty much fleshed out now and most of the bookings are made.  One thing that’s easy to overlook, though, is specific vaccination requirements.  For Bolivia, the regulations concerning yellow fever have just changed.

yellow-fever-americas

http://www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk/advice/disease-prevention-advice/yellow-fever/yellow-fever-risk-areas.aspx

As you’ll see from the map above, parts of Bolivia are affected, like much of South America, by yellow fever.  Travelling to Uyuni and then La Paz, however, I’m not going to be venturing into yellow fever territory, so it’s tempting to think I wouldn’t need the vaccine. But early last month, a Danish traveller was found to have the disease.  The National Health Director was quoted as saying: “This person came from another place and was not vaccinated.” There’d been an outbreak of yellow fever across the border in Brazil, but whether the Danish traveller had been there is unclear from the news reports. You can read Reuters’ report here:

http://uk.reuters.com/article/us-bolivia-health-yellow-fever-idUKKBN15P2QW

Biting Sucking Female Mosquito Parasite Disease

What this means in practice is that from yesterday, 2nd March, all travellers entering Bolivia from a country which has a current outbreak of the disease or remains a risk area for it, must hold a valid yellow fever certificate.  I’m travelling across the border from Argentina so that means me – even though I won’t have passed through yellow fever areas within Argentina.  I’ll still need a certificate. That certificate would need to be issued at least 10 days before I’d be due to enter Bolivia.  Potentially, without one, I could be refused entry at the border.

Even some transit passengers are likely to be affected.  If you hub through an airport in a neighbouring country on your way to Bolivia, you could still be refused entry into Bolivia if you have cleared immigration and gone landside.  That’s even if you never left the airport.  Basically,  the Bolivians are playing it safe and you can’t blame them for being cautious.

I’ll update this post in a couple of weeks to tell you if the certificate was requested by border officials or not.  Fortunately, my jabs are up to date and the yellow fever certificate I needed to get into Panama a few years ago is still valid. But make sure you’re not caught out by this change in immigration requirements by seeking health from a medical professional before you embark on your trip.

Update March

At the land border between La Quiaca and Villazon, I was not asked for a yellow fever certificate.