This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Tour in Photos to Salar Uyuni


Salar Uyuni
 I think that these past few blog posts I have complained enough about our terrible choice for a tour company to bring us into Salar Uyuni - the salt flats in Bolivia. However, I should not let their incredible suckiness get in the way of focusing on the positive. The positive being the incredible landscapes and the gifts given to us by mother nature. There are changing scenes of lakes surrounded by mountains, harsh deserts with no vegetation, hot springs, smoking volcanoes and the wide expanse that is the world's largest salt flats. The land is vast and the scenery never gets tiring. So for this post I am going to leave out most of the sordid details of the tour and focus on the images from start to finish.

Day 1
If you remember we started our tour in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. It is also possible (and maybe better and cheaper) to start a tour to the salt flats in Uyuni or Tupiza, Bolivia. Our tour starts with a bus trip to the Chilean passport control and then a half hour drive to a mud brick shack in the desert that serves as the Bolivian passport control. Here we are given hot drinks and sandwiches while we wait for our jeep to arrive.
A cheeky fox begging for some breakfast.
-These small canines should not be taken lightly
our driver tells us that one can take down a full-grown llama
photo courtesy of Hiro and Rena
 
Taking turns squeezing into
the back of the jeep
Our group consists of a woman from Wales, a German guy, a Japanese couple, us and our Bolivian driver. We hop in the jeep and are driven to the entrance of the national park where we sign in and pay our entrance fee - 150 Bolivianos (US $21.65). Back in the jeep to Laguna Blanca (White Lake). Here we see a large fox who quickly runs away and a small group of vicuña. Even though it is illegal to kill vicuña, they do not know that and scurry off as the humans approach. The white color of the lake is caused by borax - sodium borate.



Back in the jeep for a short drive and we get to the Laguna Verde (Green Lake). The green is caused by copper in the water. We are told that we are unlucky today because there is no wind. Wind blows causing the water to stir the minerals and create a shiny, bright green color. Today we only see one small spot of this effect. 
Unfortunately, not a green lake today
Back into the jeep to go to the hot springs. But we first stop to see Dali's Rocks - a cluster of large stones which are seemingly sprouting out of the sand. The rocks name is inspired by the artist's surreal paintings. The jeep actually does not bring us anywhere near close enough to get a good view of this sight.
That tiny spot in the bottom left third of the photo is
Mika trying to get a better view of Dali's rocks 
Next spot is the hot springs. They are not very hot, but comfortable. The mix of warm mineral water and altitude can induce light-headness. We stay in the pool for about a half hour. Today is not very cold so drying off and changing clothes outside is not so miserable.

After everyone dries off it is back in the jeep to stop at what appears to be inside the crater of an active volcano. Everywhere are natural small and large cauldrons of bubbling volcanic clay and steaming gas spewing from the ground. There is a slight smell of sulphur in the air. Walking around carefully not to step on any soft spots lest my shoes coated in hot volcanic mud I wish that I had a bottle to collect the mud which I am sure makes a great souvenir mud mask. This just might be my favorite place on the tour.




 Check out this "hot" video!
video

The last stop for the day is at our hotel. Lunch is very late, not very good and the drivers do not want to bring us anywhere else so we are stuck for the rest of the day. We were correctly warned that it will be very cold here at night. After dinner with the temperature approaching freezing we go out to look at stars and I see the Southern Cross for the first time. To sleep Mika and I decide to maximize warmth and share one small single bed. This ends up being a mistake because our six wool blankets actually make me too hot. Six wool blankets are also very heavy. It feels like a llama is laying on top of me all night. Plus me and many others wake up all through the night with headaches. This will happen when you try sleeping at around 4500 m (14.764 ft). 
Group dinner
photo courtesy of Hiro and Rena
Day 2
The next morning after breakfast we go to the Laguna Colorada (Red Lake) to see flamingos. The water's reddish color is caused by plankton that the flamingos like to chow on. There are very few birds here now because it is the wrong season. Most have flown to Argentina for the winter. The ones we see are too old to fly so far away and have to stick it out. I guess even for skinny, pink birds getting old sucks. In the summer months (Nov-Jan) this lake is teeming with flamingos (and tourists) and probably a great time to visit.
A flamingo retirement community
"Ugh! I should have stayed in Florida"
As we move along we pass more desert and more mountains stopping a couple times to take more photos. The next main point of interest is a group of stones that have been slowly eroded by water into odd shapes over time. The star of the place is the Tree Rock.
Tree Rock and Tourists
I never quite figure out why, but jumping photos
seems to be the thing to do
Good someone put this sign here to make sure
we are not peeing behind the wrong rock
Back into the jeep for more driving and more lakes. But first we go through a narrow, rocky pass to look for the vizcacha - which is something like a woolly rabbit with long whiskers closely related to the chinchilla. The driver honks his horn and two come out hoping for some treats. We do not oblige.
A vizcacha waiting for a treat
The next set of sites are the Highland lakes along with a stop for lunch. Here is also beautiful everyone is starting to get their fill of lakes (I am sure this includes you too just looking at the photos).

More lake and mountains
After lunch it is time to see an active volcano puffing away in the distance. This is the last stop of the day and we then still have to go a long way to get near the salt flats. As we drive and drive there are soon railroad tracks, our first sign of civilization. Our road passes along the edge of the salt flats and leads to our hotel made of salt blocks. We have a group dinner and everyone goes to bed early.
A smoking volcano
Salt block walls, table and stools 
Day 3
So far all of the stuff that we have been seeing for the past two days is nice, but really it is just to keep us busy. Today, our visit to Salar Uyuni - the salt flats is really why we are here and why we made such an effort to get to Bolivia. We leave the hotel after breakfast and take a short drive to the entrance of the salar.
First view of the salt flats covered in water
Now we have a bit of luck. During the rainy season the flats will be covered in water creating a giant reflective pool. Usually at this time of year the salt flats are completely dry and barren, but a few days ago it rained. So at the entrance to the flats we get to see the water effect which we thought we were going to miss. It is gorgeous so we stop to take some photos.

We continue on and the salty ground slowly goes from being covered in four inches (10cm) of water to being wet to finally completely dry. And this is where our tour ends because of the accident. So, instead of seeing some other sites, such as where they process the salt, we head straight to town driving for about an hour through the vast salt land that is Salar Uyuni.

To read about the Uyuni accident and its aftermath click here.

I did manage to squeeze in a few more photos. Salar Uyuni really is stunning and I have run out of superlatives to describe it, so I will just finish off with my last few photos of the tour.




All the ground is edible salt which we are now using for cooking

The International Rambler Interesting Tidbit:

Salar Uyuni holds 50% of the world's lithium deposits. Bolivia, Argentina and Chile have 85% of the world's supply. Insteaqd of just exporting the raw material Bolivia has recently broken ground on a factory that will so soon be manufacturing. So digital camera batteries Made in Bolivia might soon be at an electronics store near you.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Chile Briefly

This blog makes me sleepy
A Chile Introduction
Going to Chile was never in the master plan, but due to circumstances beyond our control we are forced to reroute which in itself is not a bad thing. I actually become quite interested in this unexpected detour because there is always something fun about seeing a new country. Plus everyone likes some extra stamps in their passport, don't they? We end up staying only about a week in Chile and for a country with 6,435 km (3998.5 miles) of coastline that short time hardly does it justice.

To get to Chile we take an early morning bus from Arequipa, Peru to Tacna - Peru’s southernmost town. In Tacna we hop in a shared taxi, pass both border controls and drive along the incredibly bleak, sand-filled landscape of northern Chile. The taxi takes us to the bus station in Arica where catch another cab to a hotel.

Arica is definitely not a must-visit locale in South America, but it is not the end of the world if you happen to find yourself here for a day or so. The town sits on the Pacific ocean and has a slight beach town feel that you might find in other cold weather countries. We are here in the southern hemisphere’s winter and are told that in the summer it gets very busy with local tourists.
The Rock of Arica
The city is not big at all and in the center of town is a pedestrian street that gives us a good introduction to Chile. And what we soon learn is that Chile is not cheap at all. Our hotel, local restaurant lunch and some groceries are almost double of what we paid thus far in other South American countries. Mika quickly decides that we have to leave this country soon before our monthly budget completely implodes.

Two more things we soon learn is that the Chilean accent is really difficult to understand. They speak much faster than Peruvians and Ecuadorians and swallow the ends of their words. We find ourselves saying, “what?” a lot. The second thing is that Chile loves 80’s music in English. Examples: taxi from bus station to hotel - ‘Come on Eileen’; cranked car radio on the street- ’Rock Me Amadeus’; supermarket loudspeaker- ’Get into the Groove’; restaurant - ‘Borderline.’ Now I am not sure if they are 25 years behind the US or if they are just frozen in time. Either way Arica rocks the 80’s.

In town there are also few things to see. There are two buildings, a former customs house and steel church, designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel. You may have heard of this French architect. He is most famous for his giant steel structure in Paris --- of which the name has just slipped my mind. There is also a museum housing some of the oldest mummies in the world which I forget to visit before leaving.

The Eiffel Cathedral
Buses can take people to some nice beaches out of town, but we decide to just take a walk along the beach which is empty apart from a few diehard surfers and a gang of vultures lunching on a sea lion carcass. After witnessing this National Geographic moment we decide to turn around and find some live sea lions.
Sea Lion for lunch

To See the Sea Lion
We are directed to the fisherman’s pier which sits near the center of Arica. The pier is a grungy place home to unhygienic sea food restaurants, a gaggle of pelicans, mangy dogs and cats, sketchy looking locals, and tourists coming to see some sea lions (“sea wolf” in Spanish). At the pier is an observation deck right next to a clearing that has enough space for three sea lions to pull themselves up on the rocks and relax in the sun. The animals are very close, maybe less than a meter (3 ft.) away. Us land mammals and these sea mammals are only separated by a flimsy metal fence.
Pelicans
Seeing chubby, wild animals this close is actually really exciting. They are pretty much just laying there not moving, so everyone perks up when every now and then one will sneeze, sit up to yawn, or lazily scratch his back with a flipper. We also can spot some other sea lion heads popping out of the water.
Yawn
From this spot we find out that there is a short boat tour that will take us to see even more sea lions. Now
in my imagination I think that we will be passing some natural rocky island where a whole colony of sea lions come to bask in the sunbathe and do whatever else it is that sea lions do. But as we go further away from land there is no island in site and I cannot quite figure out where we are going to find these sea lions.
Sea lions observation point
Eventually we are directed to look in the direction of three large buoys approaching on our left. On top of these buoys are groups of lounging sea lions. The captain cuts the engine. We quickly float past briefly observing the creatures and snapping photos. This is it, and ’it’ is pretty lame. The only thing that I have time to think about is how in the heck do these large marine mammals with flippers for arms pull themselves up onto these clunky metal floating sun beds. A question that I am still asking myself today.
Really, how do they get up there?

Last Stop in Chile
Leaving Arica we decide to skip some other towns and head straight to San Pedro de Atacama on a long night bus. This is a small, cold, dusty desert town with adobe walled buildings and nothing else going for it except for tourism. Produce does not grow here and it is far from everything so food is expensive. Actually nothing here is reasonably priced. Dorm beds in unheated rooms are $10 per person.

There are several day excursions done from San Pedro de Atacama all of which are expensive. A trip to see geysers costs US $36 pp, snowboarding on sand dunes costs US $28, and transportation to hot springs costs US $20 and then you have to pay more than $11 for the entrance. Except for the sand snowboarding (we don't snowboard) none of these tours get rave reviews from other travelers, so we end up not doing anything. The only thing I regret skipping is renting bicycles and riding (w/o a guide) to the Valley of the Moon for sunset. I am not really sure why people come here -- it cannot just be for the sand snowboarding-- unless, like us, this is the most practical way to get to the salt desert.
The main cathedral
San Pedro de Atacama is overloaded with hotels, restaurants geared for tourists, tour agencies and some handicraft shops. It is another one of those places that makes you wonder if people were doing anything before tourism. One other noticeable thing about this town is that it is full of marijuana toking locals. Smelling wafts of pot smoke in the town’s small plaza, coming from people hanging out in front of a store, or emanating from the backroom of a tourist office is not uncommon. In our first hostel there is even a long-term resident/drug dealer who hooks up tourists and staff. I do not want to sound like a prude because recreational marijuana does not bother me and I think it should be legalized worldwide. However, if I am paying US $36 for a day tour the last thing I want is some stoner for my guide who is better suited as an extra in a Cheech & Chong movie.

To do the tour to Salar Uyuni, the salt flats, there are about six offices in town to choose from that take people on the three day/two night tour ending in Uyuni, Bolivia. Depending on the company and bargaining skills these tours cost between CP 52,000 to 75,000 (US $110-160) per person. All the tours pass the same sights, but vary in service. We pay on the higher end, but unluckily choose the wrong company - Atacama Mistica. Our tour with Atacama Mistica started with our jeep never coming to pick us up at the Bolivian border and us having to spend another night in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and ended with a guy flying off the roof of our jeep due to driver negligence. In between they did not give us everything promised to us by the smooth talking tour sellers.
The Bolivian passport control outpost
Stay tuned: My next post will be about the actual tour to the salt desert.
To read about the dynamic post-tour battle with our lame tour agency click here.


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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Arequipa the Off-White City


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Welcome to the “Off-White” City

We did not really plan to come to Arequipa right now, but because of problems in Puno we are forced to detour through the city in southern Peru in order to get to Bolivia via Chile. This ends up not being so bad at all. Arequipa happens to be the launching point for nice trips to the beautiful Colca Canyon and condor viewing.
The cathedral
Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city, but it does not feel that large at all. This is probably because, as usual, we hardly leave the center which has the concentration of historic buildings and tourist facilities. Though rolling into town we can definitely see how the urban sprawl pushes all the way up to the edge of the massive active volcano, El Misti, that looms large in the background.
View of El Misti as we roll into town
Arequipa is called the “White City” because the old colonial buildings were constructed using light volcanic rock. For me saying ‘white’ is a bit of an exaggeration. To me everything looks grayish. In Popayan, Colombia, another colonial town also called “white city,” the buildings are painted a blistering bright white. But I guess calling Arequipa the “off-white” or “light gray” city does not sound as cool.
A library
Arequipa’s center has a nice blend of old and new. Colonial era churches and mansions dot the streets. The main plaza always full of people, palm trees and pigeons is highlighted by the gigantic cathedral while near by is a pedestrian street with many modern clothing shops. The very clean central market has ladies selling tasty saltenas (pastry filled with meat, chicken or potato), fresh fruit juice stands and people lining up to get healthy concoctions of noni and maca (Peruvian ginseng). Overall, Arequipa is really quite pleasant and a nice place to kick back for a couple days to get an urban fix.

Pigeons at the main plaza

Healthy drink stand
A Convent-ional Visit

The Santa Catalina Convent is considered the most important colonial structure in Arequipa. It was founded in 1579 and the nuns were selected from the wealthiest families. The ladies pretty much went about their business until 1970 when the mayor of Arequipa forced the nuns to open their doors to the viewing public. I actually find this part quite amusing because I am really not sure how you get a bunch of nuns to open their doors after 391 years. The only thing that I can come up with is that the mayor threatened them with a bill for four centuries of back property taxes.
Inside the walls four centuries later
It costs quite a bit to enter the convent 35 Soles (US $12) and more if you want a guide which is not entirely necessary because there is a lot of written information provided for those who prefer self-guided tours. It takes a few hours to get through the whole thing because the complex takes up a whopping entire city block. I spend over two hours wandering through the various cloisters and around the maze-like arrangement of cells where the nuns used to slumber giving an almost too-intimate look into their lives.
Prisoner of choice: A nun's cell
Some highlights include the cell of Sister Ana (still with a cult following) who died in 1686 and beatified in 1985, the giant kitchen with smoke charred walls where the sisters baked bread to make some dough and a large gallery housing an impressive collection of religious art.
An old painting
It’s An Alpaca World After All

Arequipa seems to have a lot of shops selling goods made from the fine wool of baby alpaca. So it makes sense that the city is also home to Mundo Alpaca - Alpaca World. With a stroke of luck our hotel happens to be just three blocks from Mundo Alpaca, a family friendly place (though I think kids will be bored senseless) that teaches us about the entire wool collecting process from the animal’s back to yours -- in the shape of a sweater.

Alpacas on display
After passing through the shops and browsing high quality alpaca wool products, the real fun starts. We follow a route that leads us through the entire wool gathering process. We pass a small pen housing seven llamas and alpacas. Then we are led to a sorting room where a woman is separating the dusty wool chunks by quality and then outside where two young ladies are weaving textiles.

The museum has some good written info about wool, all types of machines on display for processing wool, old photos of alpaca wool processing, and an art gallery with paintings that have nothing to do with llama or alpaca wool. Mundo Alpaca is free for all Andean camelid connoisseurs and the just mildly curious.
Sorting alpaca and llama wool
Our Last Supper

Since it is our last night in Peru we decide that we will pass on our usual less than US $2 meals and splash out for once. We choose a restaurant, ChiCha, that is owned by celebrity chef Gaston Acurio. He has fancy restaurants all over South America, but this is like his more casual place. The restaurant is located in a beautiful 18th century mansion, but I can never shake the feeling that I am in a Las Vegas locale. Maybe it is the modern decor and color scheme.

The menu is mostly Peruvian fare with many comfort food options making it kind of like the numerous restaurants opened across the USA the past decade selling fancier renditions of home-cooked favorites like mac & cheese or meatloaf. The meal presentation is beautiful which is fun. The food is good but not great. Even though there seems to be a wow factor missing this is still a nice way to end our first visit to Peru and tomorrow we’ll take our full bellies to Chile.
For those North Americans in need of their own comfort food
McDonalds is "now in Arequipa"

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tour War: The Battle of Atacama Mistica in Uyuni, Bolivia

"Hell hath no fury like a [tourist] scorned"

First Things First
This is my 90th blog post and I have always gone in order of our travel. No matter how far behind on writing, I never jump ahead. This will be the first time that I skip some places and will have to write about them later. But having just left big drama in Uyuni, Bolivia I want to get it all down now with everything still fresh in my head.

During our almost thirteen months of travel, sure we have had our fair share of terrible tours, horrible hostels, broken down buses and rancid restaurants, but it has been my policy to never call out any business by name. That is until now. The flaws of our tour company to the salt dessert in Bolivia were so egregious from our false start all the way to our photo finish in the police station that I feel morally obligated to publicly call them out in the hopes that maybe at least one reader will be saved from giving them money. So for the official record if you find yourself in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile or Uyuni, Bolivia do not use the tour agency Atacama Mistica!!!

Editor's Note: If you happen to be holding a grager (or any noise making device) feel free to shake it every time the name Atacama Mistica is mentioned.

Now if I really wanted I could go on about how on our first day our jeep never showed up and we had to return to Chile for the night, or how there was not enough food for eighteen people on the tour, or how our lazy drivers made us skip seeing the sunrise over the salt desert, but for this post let's just focus on the car accident and its aftermath.

Tour Interrupted!
The tour through the Bolivian national park to the salt desert is really quite beautiful. For three days in a jeep the endless scenery is stunning. I will definitely write about it and post photos one day - hopefully soon. But for this post I am only writing about our calamity. We all know accidents happen. That’s why they are called ’accidents,’ yet what happened on our tour was entirely avoidable and what happened after the accident was also entirely avoidable had our tour company, Atacama Mistica, just accepted their responsibility.

So it is early Tuesday morning, June 14, our third day on tour and we are have stopped to take some photos of the salt desert. Before getting back in the jeep the driver asks if anyone wants to go on the roof. There are six of us, but only Mika and a Japanese guy accept the offer. As we are chugging along our driver suddenly leaves the slow moving vehicle and joins the people on the roof. The car is now moving without a driver. Of course we are in the middle of a salt desert so there is no fear of hitting a tree or lamp post, but still we have no driver! Now I am not exactly sure why, but the tourist in the front seat moves to the driver’s seat and soon our driver climbs around to the passenger seat. Again I am not sure why, but the tourist accidentally hits the brake. The Japanese guy flies off of the roof hitting his head on the way down. Mika, very luckily, is holding onto something and just ends up on the windshield with only a few minor bruises.

Broken Windshield
We clean his wounds as best we can and decide that because he hit his head we should get to a doctor as quickly as possible. It is a very long drive across the salt flats to get us to town and his girlfriend is doing her best to treat his injuries. Mika and I stay with them at the hospital because they need help translating from Spanish to English to Japanese. He ends up needing nine stitches in his mouth, pain medication and cannot travel for several day for observations to make sure his condition does not get worse.

The Blame Game
Just yesterday I heard a story about something that happened about month ago to a friend of a traveller we meet while waiting for the bus to leave Uyuni. The morning of the last day of his friend’s tour, their jeep was found smashed up and their driver was drunk in bed with a prostitute. The discovered driver then ran away and they had to wait all day to get back to town. This friend, understandably, demanded that their company compensate them for the lost third day of the tour. The company did not want to pay. The driver couldn’t or wouldn’t pay either. This company then brings the driver’s parents to try to get them to pay the tourists. The friend tells the owners that they do not want the driver’s parents’ money. It is the company that has to reimburse them. ..and this is exactly what we are dealing with now.

So after this jeep fiasco on the salt, we go to the Atacama Mistica office. At this time I actually feel a bit bad for our driver and have no intention of mentioning to his bosses that he invited people to go on the roof (which we learn is prohibited) and that he left a moving vehicle and then let a tourist behind the wheel. The problem is that the company of whom we gave a lot of money to take us on a safe tour feels absolved from all responsibility whatsoever. We, however, strongly feel that our contract is with them, not our driver. They keep pushing blame every which way which gets everyone very angry and soon we must reveal exactly what happened. They make our poor driver pay for the Japanese guy’s medical bills and their hotel in Uyuni.
Day 3: In the clinic waiting room
After lunch we have another meeting at our hotel. The bosses tell us what great guys they are for even being here discussing compensation with us and that if they wanted they could just throw their driver under the bus and let him deal with this by himself. After this speech we say that this is not acceptable. I lecture them on employer responsibility. I really do not believe it is cultural, these guys are idiots. Now of course the Japanese couple have much greater demands than we do and at first they are offered 50% compensation. The thing is that they have future medical expenses and will quite possibly lose their train tickets and hotel in Cuzco, Peru while getting further treatment in La Paz.

Mika and my demands, however, are very simple. Like the friend in the story above, we just want one-third of our fee returned (US $45 per person) for the lost day on the tour. In our opinion a very normal and fair request. The agency offers us a redo of a one-day tour on the Salar or US $20 cash. I definitely do not want another tour and Mika does not want another tour with them. Our lines in the sand have been drawn and the difference is only US $25 per person.

 The Battle of Atacama Mistica
Now do these people at Atacama Mistica really believe that we are putting up such a big stink for just $25 dollars or that the Japanese couple is trying to nickel-and-dime them for every cent? In the USA, I cannot buy a pair of jeans or fill a gas tank for US $25. In Tokyo a single movie ticket costs US $22. We are dealing strictly on principle and getting the company, Atacama Mistica, to accept responsibility for the actions of their employees and reckless culture of their drivers and agency. I believe that this is something that, even today, the clowns in Bolivia just quite don't understand and in the end it is their downfall. This is where The Battle of Atacama Mistica is ultimately decided.
Tourists on top of moving vehicles is "strictly prohibited'
History will show that apart from believing money to be our only motive, the bosses of Atacama Mistica made one other grave error: to underestimate the resources of their enemy. When these matters arise, which they inevitably will, most tourists do not have the time nor desire to fight with unscrupulous companies. This is where we are different. First of all, we have very good Spanish language skills - how can you argue with an agency you do not understand? Secondly, we have the time (87 days left on a Bolivian tourist visa with absolutely no type of travel plan), the war chest (Uyuni is dirt cheap less than $20/day for our hotel and food) and the resolve (Mika at least) to stay in Uyuni for an extended campaign.

On these types of issues when Mika feels like she has been wronged she will fight like a pitbull for her just compensation. Once on the jugular she does not want to let go until the opponent’s complete submission. In Denver, I have seen her duke it out with carpenters, handymen, our health insurance carrier and a hospital. Traveling it has been with a hotel, a bus company and now this one really dumb tour agency in Bolivia. I, on the other hand, am like a very lazy viper. You really have to poke me with a stick many times to arouse my anger enough for me to be bothered to strike. For the record: these guys were really annoying.

Since we are not getting anywhere with the office in Bolivia, we decide on Wednesday to contact the office in Chile. They easily offered to refund our money before (which I will talk about in another post) and US $25 is actually not a lot in Chilean Pesos. Maybe they can talk sense into their Bolivian counterparts. I write a very nice, concise email laying out the reasons for our demands but never hear back. The Japanese woman also tells our driver that she does not want him to pay for their hotel. The company has to do it. He does not quite seem to get it, and we feel sorry for him. He is caught in the crossfire between his clueless bosses and scorned foreigners.

Blood and salt do not mix
We call Chile again on Thursday to try to get them to talk sense into the Bolivia office. The Chileans seem to have a better sense of where their clients are coming from. When almost 100% of your business is foreigners from Europe, North America, Israel, Japan and Korea you should have an idea of how they do business and their expectations.

Meanwhile, the Japanese couple has decided to go to La Paz. The doctor in Uyuni recommends not traveling, but he is feeling a bit better and it is imperative to get a CT scan to check for internal head damage. They do not have the machine in Uyuni. That evening the bosses return to our hotel to tell us that apart from already covering medical bills and hotel in Uyuni (the driver actually, not them) they will only compensate everyone US $20. The Japanese couple are understandably irate and leave Uyuni very stressed from the whole situation. Mika and I stay in Uyuni to battle it out. Really, I swear, we have nothing better to do.

On Friday afternoon, I make one last phone call to the office in Chile to see if they have accepted our offer. I tell them bluntly that I really do not understand. One negative blog post or many bad reviews on the backpacker internet forums could easily cause much more damage to the business than the compensation we are asking for. The woman tells me that this is up to the Bolivian office and that they are not budging from their position. We can go to their office if we’d like and get our $20. Lines in the sand.
The tourist police office is inside the clock tower
Upon hearing this not completely unexpected news Mika and I decide that it is time to launch Operation Go To Tourist Police And File A Report Against Atacama Mistica. Mika's wish now is that hopefully they will lose their license. Pitbull. Interestingly, we discover that someone has filed an accident report but left out details about how it actually occurred and any vehicle damage or personal injury. We are now eye witnesses to the accident and the photos we give to the police are material evidence. We also stress that our beef is with the company and that we think the driver has suffered enough.

MySpace Codes
"I'll be the judge of that"
The tourist police call over a Licensur (sp?). I am not even sure what the English equivalent of this guy's title would be but he is something like detective, lawyer, arbitrator, jury and judge wrapped up in one intelligent person. The closest thing I can think of is Judge Dredd from comic book and Hollywood fame. We tell him our story. Meanwhile they have summoned the owners of Atacama Mistica to tell their side of the story. And this is where our Spanish skills become very helpful. We easily refute all of the bullshit told by the bosses and explain again to the Licensur that for us (and the Japanese couple) that this is not about money, but about responsibility.


Dredd Picture & Judge Dredd Images

And just like that after hearing both sides, the Licensur, siding with good over evil, lays down the law and tells Atacama Mistica that they need to reimburse us one-third of our tour. Vindication. He also says that our Japanese friends should go to the tourist police in La Paz to file their own accident report and show all their receipts. Everything will then be forwarded to him in Uyuni where Atacama Mistica’s auto insurance will cover all the future medical and lost travel expenses. As of this post he is feeling much better. I really, really hope it works out for them to get there money back. A positive of all this is that we have made new friends and will definitely see them again one day in Japan.

So if up until now you still do not believe me how dumb these bosses are this final bit will hopefully seal the deal. At the police station the night before we agreed that we will meet at their office at 8:00 AM to get our compensation. We will then show our receipt to the police and have plenty of time to make our 9:00 AM bus out of town. We go to the office at 7:55 AM. All other tour companies on the block are open except Atacama Mistica. They are very late and we do not make it to the police station -- where Mika is strategically waiting for me -- until 8:55 AM. We miss our bus because of Atacama Mistica’s further incompetence so as a final insult the police make them drive us to the bus station and buy our new tickets on a ten o’clock bus out of town thus concluding The Battle of Atacama Mistica.

Of course our internet campaign has just begun...
8:15AM -Waiting for the office to open
The International Rambler Travel Tip: If a problem ever arises with a local company do not be afraid to go to the tourist police. The worst they can do is tell you is that they cannot do anything.

Also, in case I forgot to mention it above: Do not use the company Atacama Mistica  a.k.a. Tierra Mistica. Our unique incident aside, the fact is that most other agencies are cheaper and all tourists we've spoken with received the similar or much better service than us. If you have friends going to do a tour to Salar Uyuni please forward them this blog post.

To read about our quick jaunt into Chile, click here
To read about and see photos of the actual tour to Salar Uyuni click here