Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Costumbres Argentina

A couple of weeks ago, Juan, the guy I couchsurfed with in Mendoza, Argentina, made good on his promise to come to London, and I was finally able to pay him back for the wonderful time that I had at his place. His visit reminded me of why I love the couchsurfing system. It's not just a free place to stay (although saving money definitely did allow me to travel longer), it is through which you make a network of friends from all over the world. And, unlike a hostel where you check in and check out and forget about it all, with couchsurfing you are really invested in the people- they have shown you their life, their culture and unbounded generosity, and there is nothing you want more but to pay them back. And you know what? Being a tourist in your own city is fun! Whilst Juan was here, we went on a free walking tour of London (it was embarrassing how little I knew about my own city!) and pretty much every tourist attraction (I myself had done so few!) Settled back now in the UK with a place in London, I anticipate the next few years to be full of the wonderful people I met visiting me in return, and hopefully many more friends to be made. (That is until my flatmates get sick of all the visitors. We'll see how long it can go ;) )

Exploring London
But back to a bright autumn day in June, in Argentina. I was traveling by bus to Mendoza from Santiago, which involved a beautiful route across the Andes and down into the wine growing region of Argentina. Juan met me at the bus station and we walked to his house upon which I was almost immediately told that I had to try MATE! Mate is a traditional hot drink in Argentina, an infusion of herbs put into a special cup, upon which hot water is poured and you take turns drinking it up through a straw. It sounds mental, and it was, but the Argentinians are crazy for it. It's like the English obsession with tea (incidentally, I had my revenge on Juan by immediately making him a proper cup of tea when he arrived in London.) They drink mate all day, everywhere, even each having a special mate bag and thermos flask so they can take it to the park and drink in the sunshine. Juan explained that it's special as it is like the antidote to TV. TV closes people up, everybody slowly stops talking and stares dumbly at the screen. Mate opens people up. The process of pouring, and drinking, re-pouring and passing the cup to the next person invites an atmosphere of conversation and friendship. It really was nice, and reminded me again of an English tea time. I can't count the number of times in my house in Durham we'd be holed up in our rooms trying to revise and you'd hear someone put the kettle on.....  And within 5 minutes we were all sitting round the kitchen table drinking a cup of tea and taking 10 minutes to talk and relax.

Drinking mate in the park
Mate bag and set
Another thing I was to learn very quickly about Argentina was the crazy schedule that they seem to be able to function on. By about 8pm my tummy was beginning to growl and I suggested we go in search of some food. Juan looks at my strangely and says yeah, we're going out soon. 'Soon' turned out to be a couple of hours later, and we settled into a heaving restaurant at 11pm to order dinner, apparently a perfectly normal and acceptable time to eat. (Most restaurants don't even open until 9.30pm) So we eat, and head out to a bar, staying until about 2am at which time I assumed we'd head home. "Home? Why would we go home? The night has just begun!" Thus followed another bar before going to a club at 3am "It should be just about getting going now...." and partying until 6 or 7 in the morning. Then falling asleep until 2 in the afternoon and repeating the process over and over. My body was thoroughly confused by all of this, but I loved every minute, partying with a gang of crazy Argentinean students excited to show me their city and their way of life.

A final, very important thing that I learnt about Argentina was how much they loved their meat. Our first day in Mendoza, Juan burbled on excitedly about a huge barbecue his friend is going have at the weekend and the amazing steak and ribs they were going to cook. Abashed, I confess to vegetarianism which by his reaction and appalled "WHAAAAT??" might as well have been a confession to baby-eating. Determined to prove to him that vegetarian food can actually be tasty, and that I'm not some kind of masochist by not eating meat, I cook for him and his friends my famous Veggie Lasagna that has now been cooked all over the world. Imagine the scene, 8 hungry meat- loving Argentinian guys, just back from playing in a football match..... loving my lasagna! Win! Test passed.

The lasagna test
Following Mendoza I headed south and south some more. Bariloche, my first glimpse of the awe-inspiring Patagonia region of southern Argentina and Chile, and a place that I have now made it my mission to go back and explore. Running out of time, and running out of season (winter was rapidly approaching and Patagonia is best explored in the summer) I was able to only spend a few days in Bariloche, but it was definitely enough to convince me to come back- bright blue lakes and endless mountains. I met a lovely Dutch girl on the bus down from Mendoza and we found a hostel for the first night, before I couchsurfed for the other couple of nights with a really great couple, a Buenos Aires girl and her American husband. My days there were spent hiking and exploring the city with my friends from the hostel, and cooking, chatting and drinking mate in the evening with my hosts. A perfect combination.

Beautiful Bariloche
I then headed back onto another crazy 24 hour bus ride where we were presented with unappetising meals, but happily, also, BINGO! (a fantastic distraction from the ride and a great way to practice spanish numbers! ;) Unfortunately even when the number of people on the bus dropped to 4, I still did not win the bottle of wine.....)
and we landed into BUENOS AIRES!
The city of tango, the Pope, Evita and very crazy nightlife. Thus follows couchsurfing with a guy who did not seem to care that I kept repeating that I had a boyfriend (I left the next day), a night in a terrible hostel (nobody really wants to hang out with a group of Chinese people who talk only in chinese to each other) before finally making it to Buenos Aires's 'party hostel'! (I swallowed all my reservations of avoiding the party hostels for fear of too many preppy 'gap yah-ers', and was so pleased I did!) This hostel was just the best way to meet people and I made some really great friends there. We had some crazy nights out in  Buenos Aires, and went to an incredible tango show where as well as the show we got a tango lesson, and a 3 course meal with unlimited beer or wine. I liked the vibe of Buenos Aires, it was was somehow different to the other cities in South America, and the many different zones and neghbourhoods gave it alot of character. Not to mention the crazy cemetery in Recoleta- a literal stone city for the dead.

Free wine!
Tango Show

Recoleta Cemetery

I felt smug in quickly becoming the spanish translator of the group, and had alot of fun negotiating money on the black market for everyone. Because yes, if you want to survive for long in Argentina, you need to come with a fistfull of dollars and go to the streets on Buenos Aires to change for a much better rate than the banks or ATMs would give up. I felt like some kind of mob star....

With a very fun Irish couple in tow, I set out for my final bus ride in South America to the Iguazu Falls. This began like most of the other bus trips, except with a thunderstorm in the night and I woke up to rain dripping onto my face and my bag soaked on the sopping wet floor. Classic.

The Iguazu Falls were spectacular, although the whole site wasn't open due to very heavy rain in the last few days (oh rain? I hadn't noticed...) Luckily the day we went was beautiful sunshine and me and my Irish friends spent a day looking around the Argentinan side, before saying goodbye and I made my way over the border into Brazil in preparation for my fight to Rio the next day.
The end of the Argentinian chapter, and the start of the final chapter.

Iguazu Falls

Monday, 19 August 2013

Cool to be Chile

What started out as an innocent 'drop-in' to Chile to check out the desert, the stars and get an extra stamp on our passports, in fact turned into a much longer stay than anticipated. The same snow that had prevented us from crossing over to Chile at the end of our Salt flats tour, later prevented me from crossing into Argentina in the north. The snow had reached so far down the Andes that the the next open crossing point was 1000 miles to the south- in Santiago! Which was just as well in the end, as what with deserts, mountains, skiing and european-esque cities, Chile turned out to be one of my favourite countries.

A proper mountain!
After our unfortunate 30 hour or something de-tour we eventually made it into Chile with only one night and one day before PK had to get his bus to take him back up to Peru to meet his brother. We promptly treated ourselves with a beautiful hotel and booked onto a star-gazing tour for the evening. This little town, San Pedro de Atacama, is right in the middle of the driest desert in the world- and the combination of very little precipitation (clouds) and no light pollution makes it one of the best observatories in the world- with renowned astronomers from all over the world flocking here because of the perfect clear night skies. This was a big part of our reason to make the huge effort to go there, and whilst annoyed at the time our detour had wasted, we were so pleased we were there for a night and had managed to book on to a star gazing tour. And so, in true style, that night, the one night we were there together, it rained like it had never rained before. Huge drops fell from thick black clouds, causing a powercut in several areas of the town.
God was not happy with us. (And we were not happy with God)

Not to be deterred, we booked an alternative tour the next day and had a great time exploring the desert and the 'valley of the moon', and watching a beautiful sunset over the Andes.

The desert!

The valley of the moon!
Sunset over the Andes
We then, shamelessly, went back to the same restaurant we'd been in the night before and enjoyed a similarly excellent pizza, by a beautiful big fire in the middle of a courtyard. And then came the horrible moment where we had to say goodbye. I was pushed towards the same star tour that had been canceled the previous night, as PK really wanted me to do it even if he couldn't. And he went off to catch the first of many long long buses up to Peru.
And all of a sudden, after 2 and a half months, I was traveling by myself again.

Feeling very sad and very lonely, albeit very determined not to let that spoil anything, I went to the star tour. This started disappointingly, with a professor speaking very fast Chilean Spanish (which is probably the most incomprehensible form of spanish there is!) Luckily after about 5 minutes another guy turned up who asked if anybody needed an English translation- for which I gratefully accepted. It was a really interesting talk- he pointed out loads of constellations, including all the signs of the zodiac, and pointing out the 13th sign of the snake which was abandoned by the Church. He complained that Scorpio should have scrapped instead as it spent less time in the sky, so being a scorpio I should really be a snake! Anyway he then pointed out the southern cross and explained its four elements, and told the story of why Orion and the Scorpion never appear in the sky at the same time. Orion was the best hunter the world had ever seen, and Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, fell in love with him. Artemis's twin brother Apollo was jealous of her love, so sent the Scorpion to kill Orion. Artemis, finding her favourite hunter dead, honoured him by placing him in the sky. To keep peace in the sky, Zeus decreed that the Scorpion and Orion must never share the sky; they are instead in an endless cosmic chase. Just as the scorpion rises above the horizon in the winter months, Orion descends below the horizon.
Anyway it was really beautiful as the pictures below show!

The next day I had a bit of a lazy day and booked my bus ticket onwards, trying to figure out some plans now that the border to Argentina was closed where I was. It did seem slightly ironic to be stuck in the driest desert in the world because of snow, but hey it was Chile, I should have expected it to be chilly..... (hahaha......)

So I hopped on a bus to La Serena, a little place by the coast, where I met another english pair, classic 'gap yah' types but nice enough. It was a long long bus journey, but some of the most beautiful comfortable seats! There were even curtains you could draw around your seat for more privacy!

Luxurious Chilean buses!
I had a great night's sleep, and when I got there I followed the pair to a lovely little hostel that they'd recommended, and then got contacted but a couchsurfing guy who lived in the city who offered to show me around. He was such a sweetie! He picked me up in his car and drove me into the valley to see the landscape, and then to the beach to watch the sunset. It was so nice to be able to practice my spanish a bit more, and for him to practice his english.

I then pressed on to Santiago where I struck lucky with another great host. Beny lived in a cool part of Santiago in a beautiful apartment where I had my own room, and took me out for drinks and dinner when I arrived. Unfortunately he worked during the week but recommended some good places for me to go, and once he found out I was interested in skiing, offered me one of his early bird passes to a ski resort near Santiago so I could ski for half price! My task now was just to find some people to go with, as skiing by yourself isn't that fun.....
The next morning I wandered into the centre to have a little mooch around, starting to feel a little bit lonely again. Passing through the main square I noticed a group gathering for a free city walking tour. I wandered back through and started to hover as it looked like there were some nice people there, and these walks are usually so great for getting to know the city and meeting other people. So I tagged on to the end feeling quite pleased with myself as the guide gave a great first impression by being able to not only talk loudly, but being able to talk loudly about interesting things. Great qualities in a guide! It was also there that I started chatting to another English couple, Clare and Tom. Finding out that we spell our names the same way naturally meant we could become immediate friends, but what really sealed it was finding out that not only were they booked on the same fight as me back to England from Rio (somewhat spooky!) but that they were really hoping to go skiing but weren't sure if it was possible. BINGO! I had found my skiing buddies! Straight after the tour we went straight to a hire shop and booked in for a session for the next day.

Santiago as a city was one that I initially really liked. Perhaps it was the combination of being on an interesting tour and having met some nice people, but it had a very European feel and many interesting different areas, including a very cool student district. One of the most bizarre things about the place was the 'Coffee with Legs', or 'Cafe con piernas' phenomenon. At some point in the past, the only coffee that Chile was able to import was pretty terrible. So, in order to distract the men that drank it from the terrible taste, a coffee franchise was started up that hired beautiful young girls, dressed them in miniskirts and high heels, and let them serve the coffee. This was such a success, that different 'Coffee with Legs' popped up all over the city, and even now that the coffee is good, remains very popular. They are now apparently trying to entice more women in, to compete with the giants such as Starbucks, by offering women a free biscuit! My host warned me however that there was 3 distinct levels of the Coffee with Legs, and to now wander into the wrong one. Most are the innocent ones where the girls merely walk around with their legs on show, usually with a raised platform behind the bar for a better view. But there is then another type, with blacked out windows and advertisements covering the front, where the girls might walk around in alot less clothes, and a 'happy minute' every hour where the girls all dance and take their clothes off. And then there is another level where they'll over coffee-go-ers more than just a cup of coffee... A bizarre insight below the conservative facade that shrouds Chilean culture!

A more traditional 'Coffee with Leg's establishment
The next day and we had a great day skiing! I mean sure, it was a little too early in the season for great snow, and only about half of the runs were open, but hey we were skiing in South America in JUNE! Whilst it couldn't really compete with the European resorts for size and number of pistes, it certainly tried to with prices of lunch, but it was still a great day, and we all went out for dinner in the evening before exchanging facebooks so we could meet again Rio before our flight home!

Skiing in South America!

The next day I got up early to make my way to Argentina, first stop Mendoza!

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Sucre, Potosi, Tupiza and the Salt flats of Bolivia

The bus ride to Sucre was possibly the worst I ever had in South America, and that's saying something. Whilst PK slept blissfully next to me, I was kept awake nearly the whole way by nauseating bends, and the lady in the seat across the aisle from me peeing into a bottle. This was a 15 hour overnight bus ride. There was no toilet on board. And our driver had a bladder of steel, stopping only once to let people out to line along the roadside or squat behind bushes to relieve themselves. A very stern reminder there to NEVER book the cheapest bus company. It is just not worth it.....

Luckily making it to Sucre was definitely worth it, and we spent a lovely couple of days not doing particularly much other than wandering round the beautiful city enjoying the sunshine, and darting into the market several times a day to enjoy an amazing juice! This was probably one of the most wonderful things on the entire trip- there are stalls full of strange and amazing fresh fruit and a local lady will make you up an incredibly tasty fruit salad (which will quite literally last all day!) or you can choose a fruit that you have never seen before and she'll make it up in a juice for you for about 40p, giving you a free refill! Wonderful!!

Wonderful fruit stall!
We also went to a dinosaur park where we saw some 'dinosaur footprints' that had been discovered in 1985 by local miners. The huge slab of rock contains more than 5000 footsteps 462 separate trails, making it the largest and most diverse collection of dinosaur tracks in the planet! It is at a vertical angle due to the movement of the tectonic plates, causing that particular slab to be forced upwards, but back in the prehistoric times it was a watering hole for many different types of dinosaur. It was a cool park with lots of models of dinosaurs, and we were lucky to get an English tour with an informative guide. We then took the 'dino- express' back to the city and climbed up a beautiful hill to watch the sunset over the city.

Dinosaur footprints
Sunset over Sucre
Early the next day we pressed on to Potosi, a mining city. We met a girl on the bus who was recommended a hostel, so we shared a taxi with her and PK booked onto a mining tour. I opted to check out the city centre and find a coffee shop as, being slightly claustrophobic, I could think of nothing worse than scrambling through small dark tunnels hundreds of meters below the surface!! It did sound like an incredibly interesting tour though. Potosi is home to thousands of mines, where the local men still dig for silver and minerals in appalling conditions. Almost everybody who works there knows somebody who has died from a cave-in, or from carbon monoxide poisoning. The gulf between their lives and our own is stark, PK told me how he watched men shoveling huge mounds of earth and rocks for hours and hours at a time, all in terribly dark and dusty conditions. They earn about $80 a month. Before entering you had to offer gifts to the shrine of a devil, to make an offering for entering his territory. I heard a terrible story from someone who'd been the week before on one of the miner's holy days where they sacrificed a llama to the devil. The poor animal was forced 95% alcohol down its throat, followed by coca leaves and finally had its throat cut, the blood spattering onto the statue. Whilst sounding like an interesting albeit harrowing experience, I was glad to have stayed behind!

Devil- worship!
Another early bus journey took us to Tupiza, home of the wild wild west and where Butch Cassidy and Billy the Kid met their ends! Needless to say I immediately booked onto a day of horse riding, and was pleased when PK decided to give it a go as well! It was so much fun galloping around cowboy country, red mountains, giant cacti, canyons, ravines and some of the weirdest rock formations. The horses were good and everybody in our group were happy enough to go fast which is always much more interesting!

Tupiza was nice enough city, and not as touristy as we expected. Most of the streets had shops and stalls aimed at locals.
Except one.
In the street leading up to the pretty main square was a street that could be dubbed gringo- alley. On it, there are 6 identical Italian restaurants. Not similar, identical- from the same Italian menu to the same bamboo decor. They even had the very same dried cactus model pirate ship (to celebrate the land- locked Bolivia's rich maritime history we can assume?)

Somewhere, someone is making a fortune selling Tupiza women Italian Restaurant Kits. 

We had hoped to do our salt flats tour from Tupiza as we'd heard it was better, but it also turned out to be at least 500Bs (£50) more expensive than if we went to Uyuni and did it from there. Not only that, but as we wanted to end the tour at San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, it was a further expense and we'd end up doubling back on our route. As a result we hopped on a bus to Uyuni which took 3 hours longer than we expected and fell short of even our poor expectations of Bolivian buses. The window was closed when it was sweltering, and open when it was freezing, with the last 3 hours spent huddling inside our alpaca jumpers. Thank god for Game of Thrones which kept us sane!

We were exhausted when we got to Uyuni and decided to spend the next day relaxing on the city before finding a salt flats tour. This turned out to be a good idea as a big market and fete type thing was going on so we spent a nice sunny day drinking more juices and buying lots of cheap things on the market- making the most of our last day in cheap cheap Bolivia by sticking up on everything from socks to toothpaste!

Finding a tour was very easy with lots of people approaching us and all of them pretty much identical. We set off the next morning with all our luggage, but a little worried as we'd been told the snow had closed the border crossing into Chile. We were really hoping they'd be able to clear it as PK had a bus to catch in Chile in a few days and we didn't want to spend our final day together on a rickety bus retracing the same route we'd already been down!

The first part of our tour was visiting a train cemetery, which had been made into a playground of sorts. It was quite cool, in the middle of the desert with the mountains in the background! Then we moved into the start of the salt flats, where it is commercialised and mined. It was exciting to catch our first glimpse of the largest salt flat in the world! We then drove right out into the centre until you could see nothing but white on all sides, a little reminder of the insignificance of our tiny little lives. We passed a little island with flags from around the world, and a bigger island with strange cacti. And then we took lots and lots of perspective defying photos, not as easy as they might look....

Enjoying the train cemetery!

Salt mining

Looking out on endless white!

Crazy photos!


That night we stayed in a salt hotel which unfortunately was not as wonderful as I expected, but still nice enough.
The rest of the tour we saw some absolutely amazing things! Beautiful lagoons full of flamingos......

Hot geysers.....


Crazy rocks.....

And more amazing lagoons!!

The last day we woke up to hear that the border to Chile was open!! Hurray! We were so pleased and relieved and piled into the 4x4 for the journey to the border, where we were the first one. Gradually other groups arrived and we waited for the border office to open. And waited. And waited.... Eventually one of border control guys got a phone call. Whilst the Bolivian side was open, the road from Chile was impassable due to the ice and snow. Our guide told us they needed salt and sand to treat it. Now, I wonder where salt could be gotten hold of in the largest salt flat in the world? Or indeed sand, in a place bordering the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world?! I can't express how angry I was at this point!!!! As with the border closed we had to spend the whole of that day in the jeep driving 7 hours back to Uyuni, before catching the bus to Chike which left at 3am. Which is the most annoying time for a bus to leave, surely, as what do you do?! Get a room only to leave at 2.30, what a waste!! In the end we stayed in a restaurant/ bar playing checkers, but we were exhausted!! Not the best end to our time tin Bolivia, or the start of Chile...... But after the whole of the next day on the bus.... we got there in the end!

The Chilean border, closed!

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Welcome to the jungle (aka: A-mazing Amazon)

Chilling in a hammock in a semi- stilted hut on a steamy jungle morning I am jolted from my kindle by the rustling of trees, and look outside to see a family of tiny squirrel monkeys swinging through the trees just outside our hut. Amidst the unearthly sounds of the howler monkeys, I can hear them squabbling, and look out to the river beside them, hoping to catch a glimpse of another river dolphin. I love the Amazon!

Squirrel Monkeys outside our hut!
One thing that I was very excited about before coming to South America was to visit the Amazon rainforest. There's a children's book by Iva Ibbotson called 'Journey to the River Sea' which I always loved, and I always said to myself that I would go there one day. I also have an obsession with dolphins and as a little girl always wanted to see the pink river dolphins, one of the rarest dolphins in the world and certainly the strangest! Whilst most people think of Brazil for the Amazon, the Amazon basin extends to many other South American countries, and due to Brazil's expense and the continued deforestation, Bolivia is an excellent alternative! And tours abound from La Paz, where you can book to go to Rurrenbaque, in the middle of the Bolivian Amazon, and take a boat through the Amazon delta seeing loads of wildlife, and even swim with the river dolphins!

We shopped round alot of different operators trying to find one that was friendly to our budgets, but also friendly to the environment. We read a few horror stories on the internet about terrible guides and operators that chased and handled the animals and were pretty destructive, but luckily everything is alot better regulated now and most of the agencies follow the proper guidelines. To get to Rurrenbaque we had the choice of a 21 hour local bus (complete with rigid seats and infrequent toilet stops) or a 45 minute flight.... needless to say we chose the latter despite being a bit more expensive! Taking off in a rickety little plane (where you could see out the front window) and landing in a tiny little airport in the middle of the rainforest was pretty mental, but very cool! :D


We then set off on a nauseatingly bumpy trip in a 4x4 to reach the river, where we were transferred into small motorised canoes. Almost immediately we began to see wildlife, with crocodiles and alligators lining the river banks, families of capybaras (giant semi- aquatic rodents), squirrel monkeys scrambling around the trees, and so many birds (egrets, herons, parrots, eagles, kingfishers, and lots of other ones I can't remember the name of!) Also along the way we saw a few river dolphins which was SO COOL!

Family of Capybaras
One of many crocodiles!
Incredible birds

After 3 hours of going down the river we arrived to our lodge which was a really cute set of wooden structures on stilts. We expected to be in a dorm room with the other 4 guys in our group, but luckily me and PK ended up with a room to ourselves, complete with an en-suite! So we were very happy. For some reason, for our meals we had to go to another lodge, which actually turned out to be quite cool as we traveled by night down the river we could see the alligator eyes shining back at us from the torchlight, very creepy!

Our lodge
The food was really nice as well actually, with special vegetarian for me! And in the evenings our guide, who was really funny and spoke excellent english, helped us build a campfire and we stayed up around it chatting until late about all the animals in the area and what it was like to grow up in the Amazon.

The next morning we went searching for annacondas, which turned out to be just a long trek through grasslands with not a snake in sight! That's the luck of nature watching I guess. Luckily the afternoon was alot better when we set off to go swimming with the pink river dolphins! After about 20 minutes I spotted some (after years of practice, my dolphin spotting abilities are well-honed by now...) and we stripped into our swimwear. Lots of people eyed the brown river water with suspicion but my thoughts were firmly on swimming with the dolphins so I ended up in the water about 10 minutes before everyone else. Which was excellent! As when it was just me in the water a couple of the dolphins swam really close and seemed quite curious, but when the other people from the boat started to splash in and move towards us they got a bit scared and began to disappear. It was a little unsettling to be swimming in the water with a huge crocodile about 2m away from us on the bank, but they luckily didn't seem too interested in us!

Swimming the pink river dolphins!
That evening we went to watch the sunset from a beautiful place, and joined up with a few of the other tour groups for some games of football and vollyball. Unluckily, the mosquitoes also decided they wanted to play, but some bug spray managed to see most of them off!

Our final morning was spent piranha fishing, which I decided just to watch (and occasionally laugh as the clever fish had seemed to perfect the art of nibbling off the bait without being caught!) But a few did get caught, along with a couple of catfish! It was a little disconcerting seeing how many piranhas were around seeing as we'd been swimming around in the very same spot the afternoon before.....

Piranhas have SHARP teeth!
After that, we piled back into the boats to head back to Rurrenaque (and then the terrible 4x4!) where we managed to find a cheap hotel to have a well deserved shower. The next afternoon we got our flight back to La Paz, witnessing on the way the most incredible rain storm, which whilst cool to watch managed to majorly delay our flight. Which, as we had a bus to catch, was not ideal! Luckily we got to the bus station on time and were on our bus to Sucre, which was a whole other adventure in itself.......

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Flying High in the Heights of Bolivia

Whilst doing the Lost City Trek in Colombia, I met an absolutely incredible Bolivian girl. It was therefore with some confusion that I heard that the people of Bolivia are said to be the rudest in the world. Whilst surely a stereotype, in which exceptions abound, for us it was true that our first taste of Bolivians was a rather strange affair.

After crossing the border from Peru, we skirted the edge of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world to land in Copacabana, a rather ugly little town but the gateway to the Isla del Sol, a stunning island in the middle of the lake. We spent two wonderful nights there, paying a pittance for a room in a house overlooking the water, and marvelling at the fact that it looked like we were on the coast, but were in fact over 3800m above sea level, with mountains in the distance. The confusing thing about the Isla del Sol is the multitude of tickets you have to buy. There's a ticket to get there. And then there's a ticket to access the north side of island, which allows you to walk by a few Inca ruins. Then, if you want to get the boat roand to the south side of the island, that's another ticket. At which, upon arrival, you are required to buy a ticket to be able to step foot and walk around the south. Finally, if those tickets were not enough, if you wish to walk back to the north side rather than take the boat, halfway along the path some local people will start to shout out at you to buy another ticket. A walking ticket. This all grew incredibly tiresome, and whilst we were always polite, we met many other travellers in heated arguments with the local ticket collectors. The constant complaints is perhaps why these local people were immediately so rude to us, understandable but slightly offputting! Whilst all this was a little annoying, the real nail in the coffin in 'good first impressions of Bolivians' was when as we were walking along (after buying one of our tickets) we came across some llamas grazing, which we (of course) began to coo over, and took some pictures. After another 5 minutes of walking a local lady was walking along the path the opposite way herding a small group of llamas. As the path was narrow, I stepped off onto the side and smiled, wishing her a good afternoon. She didn't reply but stared back at us with narrowed eyes, before exclaiming "Propinas! Las llamas, propinas!!" She was demanding tips off us, because we had taken photos of the llamas. In some disbelief, we decided to play the ignorant 'ICan'tUnderstandSpanish' tourist card and shook our heads with a "No entiendo" after which she eventually let us pass her. We were a little saddened at how this was how the locals viewed and interacted with tourists, which was deepened a little further along the path (after we had bought our walking ticket) when a small girl who couldn't have been more than about 8 years old, aggressively stepped across our path holding a llama and exclaiming that we had to pay to pass. That we should take a picture of her llama, and then pay to walk on down the path. I suppose it isn't so surprising that children will act like that when they see their adults doing so, but it was a strange and disappointing introduction to Bolivian hospitality..... but luckily did not ruin the beauty of the island.

After the Isla del Sol we headed on to La Paz, stopping half way so the bus could be boarded onto a ferry across a canal. Why isn't there a bridge across this tiny patch of water?? More south american madness:

Anyway, we reached La Paz, which is probably the most ridiculous place to build a city in the world. Located at 3600m above sea level and boasting the highest airport in the world (which seems to be expressibly designed to just make people ill who fly there from sea level) there is also a 400m elevation difference between the top and the bottom, which just means that every single street is at a ridiculously street slope. Of course, we decided to choose a hotel at the top of such a ridiculous slope and with a cough and chest infection that had suddenly crept up on me I felt like I was going to die every time we went for a little shopping trip (but this probably also had something to do with PK's ridiculous fitness and fast walking pace!) In any case, to add to the madness, La Paz is really just one huge market. Whatever you want, you will find on the streets somewhere in La Paz. Be it socks, batteries, pens, chocolate, coca leaves or llama foetuses, someone will be selling it. And yes, that is llama foetuses there- they're good luck apparently. We were staying near the infamous 'Witches Market' which is where rather witch- like looking ladies in bowler hats and big skirts sell all manner of strange potions and mixtures. We spent rather more days than we'd planned walking around the markets and buying all manner of alpaca and llama wool related items- here is warning, all birthday and Christmas presents from me for the next five years will be llama wool related! Everything was so unbelievably cheap and I can't help myself when it comes to bargains so left La Paz with one extra huge bag in addition to my rucksack! (Which was all fine when PK was being the chivalrous gentleman and carrying it, but when we had to part ways in Chile I did begin to regret my present stock- up.....)

Anyway, the main reason for our delay in La Paz was not entirely due to wanting to buy the entire market, but because I was suffering from this horrible chest infection/ cough/ sore throat thing and I wanted to get better before we went on our next hike- to climb the awe- inspiring Huyani Potosi, a 6088m mountain looming over La Paz! After delaying as much as we reasonably could, we set off on a 3 day tour to attempt to reach the summit. We had heard about it from the American girl we met in the Galapagos, and whilst she warned it was the toughest thing she had done in her entire life, she said it was as awesome as it was horrendous, and we thought well, what a rock star you'd sound to go home and say you'd climbed a 6000m mountain!!! Whilst it is one of 'easiest' 6000m mountains to climb, because La Paz itself is so high, we were told that less than half the people who attempted it made it to the top as the altitude completely wore them down.....

Huyani Potosi Mountain!
It was thus with some apprehension that we donned our ice axes, crampons, snowboots and snowsuits and prepared for the mountain! Things would have perhaps have been more reassuring if the people at the agency had remembered our booking- we were waiting outside the shop with two american guys who were in our group for nearly an hour until we found the telephone number and called, to the response of "but you guys are tomorrow!" Erm, no. No we're not....

Anyway they eventually came to pick is up and we set off for our first day, where we got driven to the 'low' base camp (low being about 4200m) which turned out to be a beautiful little cabin type thing next to a bright turquoise lake, with the mountain we hoped to climb looming above us! In the afternoon we donned our snow gear and hiked up to the nearby glacier to practice using our iceaxes, snow shoes and crampons. I'm not the most co-ordinated of people and so was quite worried about walking along on snow with 10 huge spikes on my feet, so it was good to get a bit of practice, and quite exhilarating to be able to walk up near vertical slopes of ice and snow without slipping backwards!! It was then time for a spot of ice climbing- another thing I dreaded as everytime I have attempted a climbing wall I have embarrassed myself profoundly. Luckily ice climbing was alot easier for me, and it was alot of fun to climb up, digging the front spikes of your boots into the ice and then the ice axe above and making your way up. It was definitely something I never would have done if I had been travelling by myself, but was very glad I did!
Our low base camp cabin
One part of the glacier we practiced ice climbing on!

That night was ever so cold, and we spent the evening huddling round a fire in the living room, after eventually getting some wet wood to catch! We then huddled into our beds dressed in about 5 layers with thick sleeping bags and blankets covering us. The second day was earmarked as an 'easy hike' up to the second higher base camp. Easy hike???? PAH. It was probably one of the toughest things I had ever done in my entire life! I was in pretty good shape fitness wise, after having done about 4 long hikes in as many weeks, but the combination of the altitude and my chest infection (which I had antibiotics for) really wore me down. Also, hiking through snow is freaking hard! The first part of the hike was done in our normal walking boots, and then we switched to the snow shoes and crampons and were trekking up ice and snow.... all with our huge backpacks on which must have weighed about 15kg. Anyway, somehow, SOMEHOW I managed to make it up to second base camp which was at 5500m, with the last part a vicious slope upwards. My head was swimming and I felt quite sick. But hey, enough excuses! After chatting to the guide he explained that he took a maximum of two people up with him to the summit, but if one of the people couldn't go on, they all had to turn around and come back down to the high camp for safety reasons. PK had found the hike to the high base camp fine and was feeling really well acclimatised, and so I made the difficult decision to stay at the camp while he attempted the summit. I never would have forgiven myself if I had attempted it, failed, and caused him not to make it to the top as well! Looking back it was definitely the right decision, but I still felt so useless and annoyed at myself at the time for not being able to make it. But I consoled myself by meeting some other very fit and strong looking people who had also succumbed to the altitude and failed to reach the summit!

On the way to the base camp- a rather strained smile!

Hiking up with all our gear...

I was very proud that PK managed to reach the summit though, as well as the two American guys who were in our group. The pictures looked absolutely incredible, and such an achievement! But I was also quite pleased in a small way not to be attempting the summit when all the others were woken up at 1am to get dressed and start hiking! The idea is that you hike for 6 hours in the night, and reach the summit just as the sun rises. I woke myself up at sunrise back at the camp and also enjoyed a stunning sunrise over the mountains at 5500m, so didn't feel like I'd quite missed out on everything!

PK at the summit!
Some wonderful pictures PK took at the summit!

All the guys who'd reached the summit looked absolutely dead when they came back down, and that was only the beginning! That day we hiked all the way back down to the low base camp where we had lunch and then were transferred back to La Paz. At lunch we met the next group set to go up- all looking so fresh and optimistic. We probably crushed a few spirits by telling them how horrendous it was and that lots of people didn't make it, but hey that's the privilege of the people who go before!

Anyway, what other shennanigans did we get up to in and around La Paz? One day we did the infamous 'Death Road', which was cycling down the world's most dangerous road. We had some plans to do this in advance but I thought it wise not to advertise them too much so as to not give rise to unnecessary parental anxiety! It was a really fun day, as the route comprises of 3400m of decent from nearby La Paz into the Yungus valley. It was christened the world's most dangerous road in 1995 when it was the only route down into the Yungus valley, and was no more than a stony track wide enough for a single vehicle, with a sheer 600m drop to the side, with no less than 200 to 300 vehicles hurtling over the edge every year. Luckily a new road opened up in 2006, so the 'Death Road' is now used almost exclusively for cyclists, with the odd vehicle passing you every now and again. Since it's opened to cyclists however, 18 people have died on the road, but the guide said the vast majority of them were idiots who thought it was a clever idea to take a picture of themselves whilst they rode along.....and over the edge. It is still pretty dangerous though- I don't watch top gear but apparently there's an episode where Jeremy Clarkson is forced to the edge of the road by an oncoming vehicle and the road starts to crumble under him. Luckily this didn't happen to me, but I did have a rather scary experience where I was heading round a bend and came face to face with an oncoming car! The car should have beeped before it came round the bend apparently, and been on the inside of the track (cyclists going downhill are given priority for the wider left hand side) so it was completely his fault, but there were a couple of heart stopping moments where I felt my wheels skidding!

It was my first real experience of actual mountain biking and by the end of the day my hands and arms were aching from the death grip on the handlebars as we hurtled at about 30mph over the rough and stony track! We went through waterfalls, splashed through fords, and the guides took loads of pictures of us which we got on a CD at the end. We also got a free t-shirt, a really cool free t-shirt! Whilst probably not the best reason to choose a company, it is 100% true that we chose our company based on the t-shirt.......

Ready for the death road!

La Paz also had a huge parade whilst we were there, which we granted a first row view from outside our hotel window! Which was nice for a while, but after starting at 6am did the parade really have to continue until 3am?! Who needs that many twirling dancers and costumed dragons!? It was fun for a while but I couldn't believe the enduance of the men walking along for hours in huge heavy costumes, or the women walking along in high heels! I can't even walk for 5 minutes in heels without my feet and back hurting, the thought of dancing for 8 hours in them with a huge costume to boot fills me with horror! Perhaps they're all just drunk and this chap below has the right idea:

Bolivians do love a good parade!
We also spent a day or two with my Swedish coushsurfing friend who happened to be in La Paz at the time, a wonderful coincidence and great to catch up!

We also went for a 3 day trip to the Amazon rainforest from La Paz, but more on all that in the next post, I think this one is long enough for now!