The big move north

We found ourselves sitting in the restaurant at the Cafe Alamo in Tupiza listening to American country music - not totally inappropriate as this arid south west part of Bolivia is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their ends at the hands of the Bolivian police in 1906. It is a long way from the green forests of southern Chile, both in distance and in environment. We moved quickly to get here, travelling almost 3000 km by bus in 6 days. The bus is the king of long-distance transport in South America and can vary from the sublime to the ridiculous - we experienced the full range in our rush north.

An overnight trip in the comfort of a cama (sleeping) bus took us from Pucon to Santiago. A two hour break and then the six hour crossing of the impressive pass over the Andes in a semi-cama bus brought us back into Argentina and Mendoza. Already the landscape was much drier. Here we only had a four hour break, enough to wander into the city centre and find a few familiar spots from a work trip several years ago, before boarding another cama bus and travelling 17 hours through the night and day to the old Spanish colonial city of Salta, surrounded by fields of citrus and sugar cane. Forty hours and 2400km of travelling was enough in one hit, so we had two nights and a day in Salta to wander around and check out its colonial buildings and enjoy another mouthwatering Argentinian steak.

Iglesia Catedral viewed from the Plaza in Salta

The 18th century Cabildo in Salta

Colonnade of the Cabildo

The ornate 19th century Iglesia San Francisco

From Salta, a seven hour trip in a very ordinary bus took us up through a spectacular arid quebrada (wide valley cut by a river) to La Quiaca on the Bolivian border. We stayed in this quiet Argentian town - that night the headache hit and I realised that we had climbed from 1200m to over 3400m in a few hours - a splitting headache, a brief chunder, a good sleep and the rapid introduction to life at high altitude was over. Feeling much better the next morning, we walked across the border into Villazon in Bolivia. In contrast to La Quiaca, Villazon was a bustling town, where every street seems to be lined with markets selling anything from fruit to contraband CDs, watches and cameras - a classic border town. It was fascinating to wander around the markets amongst the traditionally dressed women buying and selling produce, or sit in the park watching the world go by as our red blood cell count slowly increased.

View through the window of a Bolivian bus

Finally, we boarded our bus for the three hour trip to Tupiza - it was the classic old Bolivian bus that you hear about in many a tourist story - rattling, rusting, and jam-packed with locals heading home after a day at the markets, plus a few gringo backpackers.

It was a lot of fun, bumping along the dusty corrugated dirt road across the high desert plain, stopping at small pueblos to let people on or off, the smell of burning brake pads drifting up through the floorboards on the occasional steep and winding descents. Still, everyone arrived safely and the scenery was superb, especially as we neared Tupiza, set in this magnificently arid and multi-coloured gorge country.


Tupiza spread out below the stark rampart of hills

Finally in the comfort of our room at Hotel Mitru, we relaxed - our big push northwards was over and it was time to explore another very different part of the Andes.

NB we met an English couple who were in a bus that crashed on the Villazon-Tupiza road two days later, killing one person. Sadly, the legend of Bolivian buses lives on.

El Cañon Walk

At just under 3000m, Tupiza is a bit lower than La Quiaca, but 3000m isn't a height to sneeze at when you are not yet acclimatized, so our first foray into the stark landscapes of this region was a relatively gentle 10km hike leading from town to the impressive gorge of El Cañon.

We set out from the central plaza, heading west up a broad boulevard past the Bolivian Army Base and soon were out of town on a dusty road leading across the dry, stony landscape, through scattered desert shrubs, prostrate cacti and dry grass tussocks. Behind us and Tupiza, the surrounding hills rose steeply in rich ochre shades of red, brown, tan and purple.

The road ascended gently, leading past several adobe houses and on to the broad gravelly river bed. From the scouring and erosion, it was clear that on occasions a lot of water rushed down here, but this was not the wet season and it was bone dry. Turning south, we headed towards the dark reddish-brown conglomerate walls of the hills, their sides eroded into dramatically thin and protruding fins of rock. The river bed was dotted with the odd pepper tree and lanky yellow-flowering, grey leaved wild tobacco that had colonised the mounds of gravel.


The richly coloured hills around Tupiza

Looking back down the track leading out of Tupiza toward El Cañon

View south down the dry gulch

A little bit of floral colour in the desert landscape

View back up the dry gulch from the gorge entrance

Rock fins in the conglomerate cliff neart the entrance to El Cañon

Closer view of the eroded rock fins

Reaching this conglomerate wall, we turned westward again to enter the mouth of El Cañon. The conglomerate walls narrowed dramatically and soon we were wandering along a flat and narrow sandy bed that twisted and turned its way between the steep and weirdly eroded gorge walls.

The brilliant green of pepper trees contrasted to the dark colour of the walls, onto which curious grey-leaved air-plants clung above our heads. In places the gorge narrowed down to only 3m across, in others it widened out and was less steep. Tall cacti grew on these slopes, their dense spines forming a bright aura when backlit by the sun.

The entry to El Cañon

In a very narrow section of the gorge

Cacti backlit by the afternoon sun

Air plants clinging to the cliff walls

A wider section of the lower gorge

After a while, we clambered up through a narrow rocky section to reach a second level of flat sandy river course. Here the gorge widened out as it left the area of conglomerates and meandered through more solid red rock. The pepper trees with their bright green weeping foliage were denser and cacti more abundant on the higher slopes as we headed south again to face another darkly eroded conglomerate cliff face.

The more open part higher up the gorge

Nearing the end of El Cañon

Cacti growing up the red rock slopes

A beautiful specimen of the pepper tree

The rich red-brown of the central section

Nello entering a narrow "gate" between rock fins

The high point of our walk

Another short scramble up a rocky part of the river bed, brought us to the junction of two side gorges that climbed steeply into surrounding hills; we had reached the end of the walk and stopped for a while in a shady spot to take in the stark beauty of this landscape before descending. It was a pleasant stroll back, mainly in the cool shade of the steep walls.

Looking back down the broader top section of the gorge

A cool walk home in the shade

Tupiza church tower

As we neared the plaza, we were greeted by the sounds of drums, trumpets and tubas - we had arrived in time to watch the parade of a local Festival Folklorico, with groups of little children from different schools, dressed in traditional outfits dancing by to the accompaniment of marching bands. What a great way to finish our first hike in Bolivia.

Folkloric parade in Tupiza Plaza

The best group strut their stuff

Not the Entre Rios Walk

There is a superb area 12km south of Tupiza where the river passes through a narrow gorge and then opens up to a broad valley in which two rivers converge, with sweeping views across to the mountains. We had planned a walk in this area, known as Entre Rios, on the next day, but, despite assurances to the contrary, no taxi could be found in Tupiza to take us out there. It was Sunday and it was siesta time - we learnt a lesson about time and expectation in this part of the world. Oh well, looks like there is nothing else to do than laze around the hotel pool in the warm afternoon sunshine.