Posts tagged ‘Bolivia’
So this post is a little late – over a year late to be precise – but that’s okay because we still remember every miniscule detail of the trip as if it was yesterday. We’re determined to get back on the blogging horse and we have a few great European posts up our sleeves for you, including (home sweet home) Dublin, so don’t go away yet. To get the ball rolling here is our long overdue Top 10 of South America, it took almost a year of arguing, biting and scratching to compile so you had better enjoy it…
10. Paraty, Brazil
Pretty little Paraty may not make it onto many Top 10 of South America lists but this picturesque gem of a town beat tough competition from Ilha Grande to appear on ours. The reason is its unusual charm, the product of pristine beaches married with a picturesque historical centre. In town you have uneven cobbled streets lined with white-washed cottages, windows and doorframes a flipbook catalogue of bright blues, reds, yellows and greens. Outside of town there are endless perfect beaches backed by rainforest that get quieter and quieter as you trek through the forest, away from parents sipping beers on plastic chairs and kids playing football. Walk far enough and you’re sure to find your own deserted patch of sand.
9. Colca Canyon, Peru
Hidden away from the world by towering canyon walls is a tiny gem of a place. Giant cacti bearing bright red fruit, birds with a three metre wing span, terraced fields, well tended orchards, winding paths sheltered by overhanging fruit trees and little girls chasing stray sheep. This is where the mighty Amazon begins as the gurgling stream we dipped our toes into after the long slide downhill. The only problem? What goes down must come up. It was a hike that for me at least, was more difficult than the three day Lares trek – but we did it in two hours.
8. Wineries in Mendoza, Argentina
Take six wine-loving backpackers, six dodgy bicycles, one hand-drawn map and dozens of world-class vineyards, chocolatiers, olive oil producers and absinthe brewers. Throw in a dash of sunshine, a sprinkling of local characters and you have yourself one hell of a day.
7. Trekking in Tupiza, Bolivia
Who would have thunk it? In the arse end of Bolivia, itself the (lovely) arse end of South America, we found the whirlwind adventure we had been chasing all this time. Our reluctant partners in crime, advertised as Argentinian stallions, turned out to be a bunch of fat, grumpy Bolivian mules. Together we cantered across arid scenes of red-sand cliffs and rocky terrain worthy of John Wayne, we crossed railway tracks, fast-flowing rivers and fields of waist-high grass. When we slept it was metres away from them. When we ate they were tied to the trees under which we sat. We wore cowboy hats, chewed coca leaves and spat a lot. It was breath-takingy beautiful and eventually, bum-numbingly painful and it was our biggest South American adventure.
6. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
You don’t walk in Rio de Janeiro, you dance. You tap your toes as you sit in a restaurant, wiggle your bum on the beach and shake yo’ thang at the Lapa street party. Here salsa is king but caparinhas shaken by large-bottomed women with infectious smiles are a close second. Rio lives up to the hype. We came expecting endless white sand beaches with beautiful people playing volleyball, City of God slum towns where kids wandered alleyways with guns slung over their shoulders, skyscrapers that winked in the sunlight and entire neighbourhoods that spent all night dancing in the streets. It was all of that and more, so why isn’t it better than Buenos Aires? Because we were expecting it.
5. World’s Most Dangerous Road, La Paz, Bolivia
At certain points, if you go over the edge of the World’s Most Dangerous Road you fall 600 metres before there’s anything to grab hold of. So obviously we had to try it. And obviously we were bricking it. The start was a fantastic warm-up – smooth tarmac road, a metal barrier and space enough for everyone – but eventually the road changed into a narrow, gravelly track that wound blindly around corners. Then came the trucks, hurdling towards us at video game speed. They took the inside lane while we spun out to the very edge, our toes teetering over a vast drop where birds circled above a rainforest canopy far below.
4. Iguazu Falls, Argentina
At Devil’s Throat it wouldn’t be hard to convince yourself that the waterfall is actually inside your head. With the way it thunders and pounds, sheet after sheet of white noise, it’s hard to think of anything else really – just the waterfall and those suicidal little sparrows that nose dive into huge clouds of spray. Foz Iguazu is actually 275 waterfalls spread over 2.7km in two countries. At it’s highest point it drops 83m, that’s 29m more than Niagara and at one viewpoint, visitors can enjoy 260 degrees of waterfall – a fact that prompted Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to sigh “Poor Niagara!” on her first visit. Poor Niagara indeed. Surrounded by national park, the Argentina side has a fantastic array of wildlife too, from rainbow coloured butterflies to (reportedly) tigers. And no visitor should miss a chance to take a speedboat into the waterfall either – all those screams you hear are happiness at it’s most hysterical. Just leave your clothes on dry land.
3. Buenos Aires, Argentina
Since we’ve been home people have asked us time and time again where did we like best. Now we don’t like to play favourites but if we were to pick just one place where we could stay suspended in time for ever and ever, it would be Buenos Aires. Maybe it was because we had a reunion with a long-missed friend or maybe it was just because Buenos Aires really is just that good. It has tango dancing in the streets, steak you can cut with a spoon, a nightlife that never seems to stop, real life cowboy markets, a cemetery you could easily build a home in and so much to do that you could never get bored here. Buenos Aires is all that and a bag of chips.
2. Lares Trek, Peru
Okay so there was a little bit of altitude sickness but there was also a team that sprinted ahead of us to cook four course meals three times a day in an oven made from stones, a guide that made us giggle, hours of singing The Sound of Music while we skipped down mountain sides, and eye-opening visit to a Quechun village, beautiful scenery, much coca leaf chewing, a night spent drinking macho tea under the stars and of course, the star of the show, Machu Picchu. I defy anyone not to include this beauty on their top ten of South America list.
1. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
For two days we saw nothing. The sandstorm was so bad it tore the roof off a hostel (the temperature was -20°c), so bad that it blasted all the paint off one side of our jeep, so bad that we couldn’t see to the end of our bonnet. Then we arrived at Salar de Uyuni and it stopped. At first it was just a mirage glimmering on the edge of the desert but as we got closer it sucked all the colour out of the world until all that was left was a bright blue sky and a ground so dazzlingly white, we needed sunglasses. This wonder of nature is one of the few places in the world where you can clearly see the curve of the earth.
There are more pictures from South America available in the gallery
Lake Titicaca is the kind of place that you cannot help but enjoy despite sunstroke, stomach bugs, dehydration, borderline starvation and crippling altitude sickness. Nonetheless, we went out of our way to ruin it for ourselves. Plan A was to follow Lonely Planet’s advice to shun ferries leaving directly from the tourist mecca of Copacabana (a tacky town which is the unlikely home to one of my favourite churches ever) and walk 17km to 20km down the road to the next ferry point. We were in training for the Lares Trek so we reckoned that if we wanted to make it to Maccu Picchu we needed to stop eating so much and start hauling ass, and where better to start it than at one of the highest lakes in the world?
Maybe a few laps around Copacabana might have been a better idea. Or perhaps we could have run around our closet of a room for a few hours. It wasn’t all bad though. We did walk through a few quaint little villages where we marvelled at little girls dressed as mirror images of their mothers in ankle length skirts, woollen cardigans and wide-brimmed straw hats skipping home from school or walking their puppies on long lengths of rope. Perfect little ladies. There were a few nice views too, points where the long, dusty, hot road turned into a cliff path and offered vistas of the impossibly huge, impossibly blue Lake Titicaca and its floating islands. And we did get to see the Virgin in a Cave, surrounded as it was by prostrating women and llamas.
For the most part though it was an uphill climb along a main road, me threatening to vomit due to altitude sickness/lack of fitness/a vicious La Paz stomach bug and Gary complaining of crippling hunger as we passed closed restaurant after closed restaurant and later, as our water supplies ran low and we failed to find an open shop, extreme dehydration. So we walked and complained and walked and collapsed and then just for a change of pace we walked some more. Just as it seemed that we couldn’t possibly go any further without fatalities, we arrived in the promised land where we found more closed restaurants and a man with a boat. We paid eight times the going rate for a water taxi to Isla del Sol and finally, we were away.
Now came Plan B. In our ignorance we decided to head to Yumani village in the south of the island – this afterall, was where all the accomodation on our 2007 Lonely Planet map seemed to be clustered. The evil, and now very rich, ferryman told us that it would be easier for us (read ‘for us’ as ‘for him’) to get off the boat further south of the village and walk from there and so, he docked in the middle of nowhere and booted us out at, yipeeee, another ridiculously steep hill. Operating on bruised knees and hands we crawled up the terraces, breaking fingernails and sizzling under the harsh sun until we reached a little man demanding an entrance fee and an Incan ruin. Far too exhausted to be even slightly impressed by one of the ancient sites we had come to see, we persevered, spurred on by thoughts of a cold beer, a soft bed out of the sun and a warm meal. One hour later and, thanks to obscene amounts of overpriced chocolate, we had finally made it to our guesthouse and were devouring a three course meal in Gary’s case, and toying with some weak broth in mine.
The next morning we woke up in what we realised with a start, was an insanely beautiful location. Partially recovered from the day from hell before, we ate breakfast out on the patio listening to herds of donkeys and llamas clip clop their way up and down the hill to the port. How could we not have noticed the night before that we were in heaven, not hell afterall? Spread out before us was a landscape of ancient terraces, dark blue water and easily discernable in the distance, the snow-capped peaks of La Paz hundreds of kilometers away. The sun was shining and our ailments had eased. How could this not be a much better day?
As sweeping statements go, I think ‘life is better on Isla del Sol’ is a pretty acurate one. Following paths along the terraces through fields full of lambs, past brick houses, up cobbled hills, over sandy beaches and bobbing boats, it would be hard not to feel an almost unsettling level of calm. In this tiny time capsule near the top of the world, old women lead their llamas along dusty paths, young girls glide across fields with precious packages wrapped in blankets tied to their backs and everyone stops to say buenos dias to the tourists who have been admitted to their self-contained little world. Here there are no cars to break the contemplative silence and, even at the height of the on-season, very few outsiders following the three rudimentary paths that snake across the island.
According to the Incas, Isla del Sol is the birthplace of the sun and as such, was a significant religious site for the ancient civilisation. Even today the island holds pride of place in Bolivian and Peruvian mythology (Lake Titicaca is on the border of both countries) and no trip to either Andean nation would be complete without a visit to the immaculately preserved ruins and the interesting museum that is housed there. I guess then that our round-the-world trip is doomed to forever have a gaping, Inca ruin sized hole in it. Our second mistake – staying in the south of the island rather than the north – meant that we arrived in the northern port of Cha’lla just in time to catch the only boat sailing to Copacabana that day so we had no time for museums, no time for ruins, no time for viewpoints and no time for lunch. Had we gone the other way around we would have had until 4pm and not 1.30pm to see the sacred sites and marvel at what is apparently one of Bolivia’s highlights. Not being even slightly interested in archaeology Gary was not-so-secretly thrilled at getting away with just a late breakfast, a nice walk and roof-top boat ride. Oh well, karma being what it is bad timing meant that we also missed the floating islands on the Peruvian side of the border that Gary so desperately wanted to see and I so desperately wanted to avoid. Funny that…
Despite our self-destruction, only glimpsing one site, getting absolutely sizzled at that altitude and having one of the most miserable days of my life, Isla del Sol was absolutely breathtaking and worth every hardship. And that’s not even considering the gorgeous sunsets that the endless Lake Titicaca throws up every now and then.
There are more photos from Lake Titicaca available in the gallery
“If you go over the edge you have no hope of surviving. You fall for around 600m before you even reach anything you can grab onto.”
“At points the road only stretches across for 3m before ending in a sheer cliff face and a drop of around 1,000m.”
“Sometimes trucks and buses just come out of nowhere and you have to swerve towards the edge of the cliff to avoid them. And it’s really hard to stop that suddenly on gravel.”
“Two tourists die on Death Road every year!”
“Only a few weeks ago a woman died there. She pulled her front brakes instead of her back ones and just flipped herself over her handlebars and off the edge of the cliff. She never stood a chance.”
“I heard about two guys, best friends who were messing around. One gave the other a playful shove, not really thinking, and his friend stumbled and fell over the edge.”
Like most travellers visiting Bolivia we heard a lot about The World’s Most Dangerous Road before we got there. Probably the country’s most hyped attraction, Death Road (as it is also known) just outside of La Paz is a constant topic of conversation among backpackers who feel they have earned bragging rights. After hearing a few horror stories and talking to some people who had been to the front line and returned with broken ankles, ribs and egos, we had pretty much decided against the idea. It wasn’t that we were afraid for our own lives you see, it was more that we were worried about each other. What if Gary went off the edge? How would I ever forgive myself for letting him go in the first place or vice versa? No, if we were alone we would just leap at the chance to risk our lives needlessly but we had to be selfless, we had to consider the other person first….
It came as a bit of a surprise then to find ourselves kitted out in knee and elbowpads, protective trousers, high visibility vests and full face helmets waiting for our tour guide to lead us down Death Road. I thought there was no way we were going to do this? I thought we were too fond of each other to allow such a suicidal act? Obviously not. All of a sudden we were sailing down the side of a mountain in single file, leaning into hairpin turns and getting up to speeds of 65km/hr on the straights. Our guide had told us that we should only go as fast as we were comfortable with but with such a stretch of beautiful smooth road, with the wind whistling through our helmets and with such spectacular scenery all around us fear had somehow slipped pretty far down the ranks on our list of current emotions. In the van on the way up the mountain (one of the best things about Death Road is that the 60km cycle is all downhill) I had been toying with the idea of just walking the whole way yet for some reason I was now pedalling furiously, trying to overtake two cars and a bus on a corner. Adrenaline does strange things to a person.
All too soon the first section of our trip was over so we bid adieu to the lovely tarmac road, loaded our bikes back onto the roof of the van and tried not to think too much about what was to come. After a few minutes we rounded a corner and absolute silence broke out in the van. In front of us was a huge valley of emerald green mountains cut by a sandy ribbon of road. The narrow road passed under waterfalls and plummeted down mountainsides, always staying closer to the top of the mountains than the bottom. Were we really going to cycle that? The only alternative was staying in the van and considering the width of the van, the width of the road and the width of our top-of-the-range bikes, the bikes somehow looked like the safest option.
Lunch next and a bit of nervous banter over our stale bread and yogurts before we mounted the bikes and started down the hill. We moved slowly at first, getting used to the gravel roads, the constant twists and turns and the ever-present fear of death. The first fall happened within a few minutes – a girl somehow went over her handlebars but, wrapped in cotton wool as she was, she was up and back on the bike within seconds. So far so good. Actually, it wasn’t even that bad. The roads were pretty easy to handle once you remembered not to use the front brake and slowed before you got to a corner rather than during it and we were so busy concentrating on watching out for potholes and cars that we totally forgot that we were on a narrow road 600m above the canopy. By the time we took our first break (for most of the trip we stopped every 15 mins in case anyone had any issues) we were actually, God forbid, starting to enjoy ourselves. World’s Most Dangerous Road? Pah, this was easy. Give us a real challenge!
As the day went on we started to move faster and faster, becoming more comfortable with the bikes and taking the time to check out the awe-inspiring scenery around us. Everywhere we looked there were mountains covered in thick vegetation and shrouded in mist. Every now and then a condor swooped overhead, showing off no doubt and the silence was broken by a crashing waterfall. Dangerous or not, it wasn’t hard to see why people chose to drive this route to Coroico or La Paz.
Of course there were a few hairy moments too. A few corners where back wheels slid under the shock of brakes or where we met locals in cars (or in one case a truck), powering up the mountain. Death Road has been closed to traffic for four years, replaced by a better, lower, newer road, but many locals still use it to get from A to B for some reason – suicidal tendancies no doubt. It was always nerve-wracking having to siddle out to the edge of the cliff so they could pass, praying that a gust of wind wouldn’t take you away or that, as so often happens in life, you wouldn’t just randomly fall over while standing still.
The scariest but also most fun part of the trip was at the end when we opted to take the foot-wide single track down to the base of the mountain instead of the road. When we saw the track we regretted our decision. It was impossibly steep and narrows with huge sharp rocks jutting out here and there and ridiculously tight corners every metre or so. And just to make it interesting it nose-dived off the edge of the hill onto a road about 20m below. Our guide led the way, making it look simple with little bunny hops here and there, turning his bike on a sixpence piece with ease. Apprehensively we followed suit, two hands tightly clutching the brakes and, after a metre or so, faces flat in the dust. How did he stay on? Every time Gary or I tried to get on our bikes we fell off because we were holding the brakes too hard, because we hit a rock, because there is no way a bike could take that corner and because why bother even try anymore, we might as well just walk down. Eventually we got the hang of it though – the trick was to let go of the brakes and feign confidence – and before we knew it we were at the end, the bikes were back on the van, we were covered in beer and we were heading to a nearby hotel for a swim and some lunch. What a day.
There is no question that Death Road is dangerous. When it was the main road in the area there were 1,500 deaths a year on it alone – cars, trucks, buses and vans falling off the edge with families stuck inside. Since the road opened to tourists around 15 years ago, 31 people have died cycling down it – that’s an average of two per year. Yet those figures are far lower than the amount of tourists that die on the Salt Flats in car crashes and when we were cycling it, I rarely felt threatened. In truth, I was too focused on watching the patch of road in front of me to even notice the cliff’s edge right beside me and I know that Gary felt the same. Accidents do happen but, like muggings and bar fights, they tend to happen to some people more often than others.
I think that The World’s Most Dangerous Road is definitely bigged up by those that have done it and want to make it sound like more of an acomplishment than it is. Our advice would be that if you are considering taking a trip but have been freaked out by the boasts of other backpackers, go talk to one of the travel agents about all of their safety measures and see if you feel any differently afterwards. I would absolutely recommend Vertigo as a tour operator – the bikes, safety equipment, guides and souveniers they provided were really fantastic and, although they are half the price of Gravity, we couldn’t spot a single thing they had scrimped on. If you have the stomach for it, Death Road is absolutely one of the highlights of Bolivia.
There are more photos of The World’s Most Dangerous Road available in the gallery
Although La Paz is more likely to wake you up with a hangover and a chestful of fumes than pancakes with a side of bacon, it is an abolutely intoxicating city. Actually I think insane is the only word to decribe a place that is so simultaneously inviting and intimidating that it has to be seen to be believed. The first shock is of course, its size, only a fraction of which can be seen at a time. We, like all visitors to La Paz, caught our first sight of the city as we rounded the last mountain and started to descend into an entire sea of clay-coloured houses. Clinging to every rise and fall of the surrounding mountains below were houses, businesses, apartment blocks and government buildings somehow filling the impossibly large space, offering up one of South America’s most memorable sights.
But it’s not just on first sight that La Paz shocks, it surprises time and time again. Every time you walk down the street and an alleyway opens up to offer a glimpse of the crammed hill opposite or every time your taxi rounds a mountain to reveal more of city you thought just could not get any bigger, you involuntarily stop dead in your tracks and stare, dizzied by the magnitude of humanity. And with Bolivia, it’s never just run-of-the-mill humanity. Scattered among the shotgun-yeilding security guards and suit-clad office workers are the indigenous women with their tiny bowler hats balanced on their heads, their long pigtail plaits weighed down by huge black beads and their loads strapped to their backs with striped pink, blue and yellow blankets. More than size and more than the shock factor, La Paz has character.
Even in its buildings La Paz is packing an unexpected punch. Hidden within the folds of the city’s many red clay suburbs is its thriving centre. Here skyscrapers sit amiably alongside beautifully restored old colonial buildings which serve as the seat of government, the national gallery and the museum of contemporary art. The real key to the city however, is in the buildings you aren’t looking at. The facades that, although neglected and flaking, watch over La Paz like colourful old dames.
But Bolivia’s capital is a lot more than a strangely beautiful, weathered old face. La Paz is a hive of activity, an endless list of things to do – few of which you will read about in your Lonely Planet. For most travellers it will be remembered as a party zone. A place where you are woken up at 11am by dorm-mates clambouring into the top bunk, where you jump up on a table and sing your National Anthem, where you do something under the influence of alcohol that you swore you would never do. At the epicentre of backpacker’s La Paz are the two party hostels – Loki and Wild Rover – both, unsurprisingly, Irish-run operations that promise to show guests a time they will never remember. We had the good fortune to be put up by Osgar – a fantastic character and a friend of a friend – in a lovely double room (with hot water!) in Loki. After not really meeting any Irish people in 9½ months of travelling Loki came as a bit of a shock – every accent, every tone, every shouted insult was suddenly Irish. On our first night in the hostel we lay in bed listening to Fairytale of New York by the Pogues playing upstairs and as the saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Two days later we had been swallowed whole by a group of 10 hilarious Irish people and 2 fantastic Brits – goodbye peace and quiet, hello Ruta 36.
With enough time and money you can do anything you want in La Paz. Unfortunately we had neither of the above so a day trip to the famed San Pedro Prison, a prison run by the prisoners that welcomes tours of intrepid gringos for a few hours or even a cocaine-filled night, was out of the question. What we did do though, I am slightly ashamed to say, was sign up for a spot of hangover midget wrestling – hilariously non-PC except for that there were no midgets, just women in bowler hats pretending to take a beating from various masked men and referees. Was this what a Bolivian domestic looked like? The whole thing was so badly faked that it was funny for the first half an hour. The second was a little boring. The third was just plain awkward. As we came into our second hour in the arena/cattle shed we decided to stop exploiting the locals and get a taxi home. A disappointing day in all but at least we got some kick-ass wrestling masks out of it!
By night Loki and Irish Rover may reign supreme in La Paz but by day, backpackers flock in their hoardes to the city’s two huge markets – the Black Market and the Witches Market – an absolute haven of hard-core bargaining where for a couple of pennnies you can pick up some household goods, a North Face jacket, runners, an alpaca wool jumper, beautiful handcrafted jewellery, a magic potion or a dead llama foetus to bury under the porch of your new house.
When we arrived in La Paz, tired, sweaty and completely overwhelmed, we didn’t take to it immediately. It was dirty, hectic and in many places extremely smelly. Yet six days later with heads full of cotton wool, prickly hangover tongues, light wallets and heavy backpacks we were devastated to leave. While it may seem a little grubby at first, a little worn around the edges, if you give La Paz the time and attention it deserves it can show you the time of your life.
There are more photos from La Paz available in the gallery
A little mountain town outside of the sprawling, characterless Bolivian/Brazilian metropolis of Santa Cruz was the last place in the world we had expected to find ourselves feeling at home. Yet our two day stay in Samaipata had somehow turned into five days of guiltfree pleasure. Mornings consumed by difficult decisions such as whether to have bacon and eggs for breakfast or a short stack of chocolate pancakes. Afternoons spent lazing in the family sitting room watching our favourite Will Ferrell comedies. Absorbing the last of the evening sun on the porch playing cards over a few beers and mostly, laughing ourselves sick with two new friends we were comfortable enough to discuss bowel movements with.
The end was even more promising because our trip to Santa Cruz hadn’t started out all that well. Knowing only that it was more Brazilian than Bolivian and that it was around 30 degrees in Santa Cruz, we had come in search of a swimming pool, two sunloungers and a top-up on our tans (we could hardly go home as pasty as this after a year long holiday now, could we?) What we got was a city centre plaza we were not permitted to stand still in, a bland hostel and some subpar food – all at Brazilian prices but Bolivian quality. Still there were some nice sheltered hammocks in the hostel and the funniest pet toucan so we were pacified, if not impressed.
More importantly however, we managed to fill a few vacancies we were casting for. Having parted ways with Sarah, Matt, Sophie, Paul and Swati for now, we were facing a daunting future alone together – a situation that, for the sake of maintaining a healthy relationship, had to be rectified immediately. Cue Sam, a scruffy Scott with a wicked sense of humour and some interesting stories about climbing a mountain with a loose boweled German. Then there was Sam’s child bride Mo, a failing vegan with a chocolate/egg addiction and serious guilt issues. And we had just shaken that troublesome vegetarian…
Having been promised temperatures upwards of 30 degrees we were a little disappointed to find Samaipata cold and decidedly wet. Had we not already booked into in Posada del Sol on the recommendations of several travellers and Lonely Planet reviewers, we would probably have headed straight for La Paz but we had so instead we bedded down and got to know our new family. There was Trent, the gregarious Texan, his charming and impeccably mannered daughter Sierra and our new adopted Bolivian Mum, Lydia – an incredibly welcoming woman with an impressive collection of berets and the best hugs this side of the equator.
The plan was to visit Amboro National Park which, according to a Dutch tourguide with no discernable inside voice, was “absolutely ruined by snow recently. If you want to see animals don’t go to Amboro. If you want to see plants, don’t go to Amboro.” Then we thought we would go to the waterfalls but according to Dennis, our famer friend from Limerick who was over in Bolivia to maybe marry a local girl or maybe flee before it was too late, “the waterfalls are shite. Don’t go, it’s shite. I’m going on this Chay Gevara thing tomorrow but will probably be shite too.” So Amboro was out, the waterfalls were out and because of time limitaions, the very promising Ché Guevara tour was also out.
That left two sites – El Fuerte and the zoo/animal refuge. Efficient as we were we decided to tackle both in one day so as to leave the most free time possible open for sleeping, eating and exploring the local nightlife and all the bellydancing, Shakira-wannabe boys and Bolivian karaoke it had to offer. Yep, Samaipata was an experience all right…
So back to El Fuerte, apparently an ancient Incan religious site although, according to some claims it may also be a launch pad for spaceships. The site was… interesting I guess. A lot of the original features, such as carvings and statues, have been destroyed by wind and the Spanish *shakes fist* so it is really only a fraction of its former self. Still, it is easy to make out the importance of the site from its scale alone and from the remaining carvings. When combined with a trip to the museum in town El Fuerte makes a nice day trip and lays the foundations for a much more in-depth discovery of Incan culture throughout the rest of Bolivia and Peru. Be warned though, the “handy” map and signposts at the site don’t match up at all and the “bottomless” hole that “goes to the centre of the earth” can be reached with a 20m stick. Maybe the Temples of Angkor have just made me difficult to please though.
Our second stop of the day was every inch as rewarding as it had promised to be. For less than €1 we got the full run of the zoo, all its inhabitants and a German Woofer (if you haven’t heard of Woofing and you call yourself a traveller, shame on you!). Not normally as enthusiastic about all things small, fluffy and cuddleable as I am, Gary was surprisingly taken with the place. The key, I believe was in the winning charms of a certain little lady. Having sniffed him out only a few minutes after our arrival, the chica in question was quick to seduce him, clutching at his arm, stroking his neck and running her fingers through his hair. With all the excitement of a young child with a new friend she grabbed at his hand dragging him around her garden showing him this and that – her favourite tree, the bouciest branches, the greenest leaves… Gary played along as best he could, mindful of my feelings of course, but when she peed on her hand and then licked her fingers, the romance was off.
Another monkey took a particular liking to me (this one a howler, Gary’s thing on the side was a Spider Monkey), wrapping herself around my neck like a thick hairy scarf and falling asleep for the next half hour while her mate, a sulky looking hulk of a monkey, tailed Mo like a shadow. Sensing his fear of all things furry, the animals steered clear of Sam although he did manage to grit his teeth and pet one of the 16 puppies for a few minutes.
With so many dogs, cats, monkeys, ducklings, pigs, birds, noise bears, ducks and goats there was enough cooing and petting to fill an entire day although the absolute highlight came from an unexpected source. After prying myself away from the impossibly cute puppies who had just peed on my handbag I followed the others down to the farmyard animals – snore! Well we have all seen the goat that shouts like a man on YouTube right? Well this was better – a big ugly sheep that opened up its mouth and let out the most guttural, satisfying burp I have ever heard. We laughed until we cried and then we sat and watched it burp over and over again. Comedy gold – hopefully Gary can get the video uploaded.
It was with swollen bellies and heavy hearts that we eventually bid adieu to our big Texan family, left Samaipata and headed to the big smoke. I wonder if La Paz can cook pancakes like Trent can.
There are more pictures from Samaipata available in the gallery
Dubbed the White City because property in the central area must by law be painted white, Sucre dazzles on first sight. Leafy plazas, pristine colonial giants and more churches and cathedrals than you can shake a stick at go almost unnoticed by well-heeled business people and indigenous women in colourful shawls as they bustle about chatting on phones, scolding children or confiding in friends. In every open space benches creak under the weight of old men who doff their sombreroes at each other and carefree university students, a frantic tangle of limbs and giggles.
Only two blocks from the main plaza is the beating heart of the city, or any Bolivian city for that matter – the Central Market. It was here that we first fell in love with Sucre, among what seemed to be Bolivia’s entire supply of fresh fruit and veg (because we certainly hadn’t seen any of it anywhere else.) Our two day, then three day, then five day trip to Sucre was occupied mostly by the market. Dropping in to pick up a mountain of fruit salad and some freshly-squeezed for breakfast (for only €0.60), climbing the stairs to the food court at lunchtime where we were accosted by chefs in aprons and later in the evening, chatting with a smiling old lady in broken spanish as she bagged up our home-made dounuts.
Our whole trip to Sucre was in fact defined by food. After only a week in Bolivia we had already tired of the local cuisine – greasy deep fried chicken and chips, dried out steak, chips and rice and mountains of chopped hotdogs on, yes you guessed it, more chips. Devouring at least (healthy) three meals a day, we hopped between market stalls and restaurants, breaking up our routine with the occasional pub meal. While the food in Sucre was all fantastic, our best find was La Taverne, a super-posh french restaurant where we ate the best steak that we had ever eaten, scrumptious fresh-water trout in four cheese sauce and the world’s greatest mojitos (the secret, it seems, is to use Sprite instead of soda water.) And when the bill came for all our mojitos and steaks and baked fish, we were more than happy to pay the €8 a head. Of course it didn’t hurt that Sucre was warm too. After all that time in chilly Chile, cloudy Argentina and subzero Uyuni we were badly in need of a proper thawing out.
Of course there was some time between meals to be filled too. The best thing that we did was a bit of late afternoon church-hopping. It has to be said that the opening hours of Sucre’s churches move from sporadic to down-right ridiculous so it can be difficult to get in in the first place. Luckily we persevered with Covento de San Felipe Neri, returning on three different days at different times until we found a small woman with a big voice sitting at a rickety table by the door. After we coughed up the €1.00 entrance fee, the wee woman produced a massive key and opened up the creaky wooden door to the church. We had barely made it through before she slammed it shut behind us, leaving us alone in the dark, pleasantly dishelved chapel. After snooping around the gold alter, admiring the few paintings and picking our way under the scaffolding, we climbed the narrow stone steps up three storeys to the roof where we found the most incredible view of the city’s whitewashed walls and terracotta roofs. Blissfully alone we spent an hour or two sprawled out on the baking tiles, listening to the sounds of Sucre – a horribly off-key brass band rehearsing in a nearby school, taxis beeping and women squalking.
The other thing we did in Sucre was a trip out to the city’s famous dinosaur footprints which was a little less impressive than Covento de San Felipe Neri. In truth the prints, which are on a steep wall in a quarry, really resemble tracks left by a cow in wet concrete more than signs of prehistoric life and the big plastic statues of dinosaurs do little to add to their authenticity. It was worth going out though, if only because the public bus took us through the humungous Farmer’s Market. There are more things to do in Sucre too – adventure sports and waterfalls in the countryside nearby for example – but after spending a few days there, our take on the White City is that it is really just the perfect place to hang out with good friends, eat great food and get a feel for Bolivian life.
There are more photos from Sucre available in the gallery
Potosi was quite a pleasant surprise. We had heard from travellers who had already been there that it was just your average industrial town with not a lot more to offer than the huge silver mine at its core. So when we came over the last of many mountains on our smokey, bone-jarring ride from Tupiza we were expecting the sprawl. Thousands of stone and tin shacks were stacked one on top of the other all the way across the valley – an endless sea of rusty brown without the slightest trace of colour. It was definitely industrial. Working our way down to the valley floor on the bus and later through narrow hillside streets in a taxi, we saw another side of Potosi though – a side we hadn’t been expecting.
Young people crowded the pathways, battling for space with speeding cars that, more often than not, seemed to be going the wrong way down narrow one-way streets. Restaurants were crammed with the Saturday night crowd and spewed forth the most incredible smells of barbequed chicken and beef and occasionally some off-key karaoke. And in the pedestrianised centre it suddenly became clear where Potosi was keeping all of its colour. Brightly painted colonial buildings lined paved streets where women in traditional Andes dress perched on empty fountains. Here and there the skyline was punctured by the razor-sharp steeples of ornate churches and cathedrals. Maybe Potosi wasn’t ‘just your average industrial town’ afterall.
Our second pleasant surprise came when we went in search of accomodation. After realising that the backpacker mecca La Casona was fully booked, that it was Saturday night and that it was getting dark, we weren’t all that hopeful about our chances of finding somewhere decent (and decently priced) to stay. Cue Hostal Carlos V, a beautiful refurbished colonial building which was, despite its modest name, nothing short of a cushy hotel. A rooftop terrace, widescreen tv, comfy beds and endless hot water – and all at a bargain price of 100 bolivianas per night rather than the quoted 150B – ensured that our stay in Potosi was going to be a little longer than we had originally planned.
While we did spend some time sampling the restaurants and attempting to barter in the local markets, it has to be said that the focus of our visit was much the same as everyone else’s – the Silver Mine. Operational since 1546, the mineral-rich mine provided Potosi with the title of South America’s richest city in the 18th century and as payment, has taken over 8 million lives since its inception. Today Bolivians still work in the mine although since the silver dried out, they have been digging for zinc. We learned all this and more in the fantastic documentary The Devil’s Miner, which won international prizes in 2005. The documentary follows a 14 year-old boy who, since his father’s death, has worked in the mine to support his family. Tragically, the average lifespan of a miner is only 10 years from the day he sets foot in the mine (women are not allowed to work inside) and the $2 a day wages did little to compensate for this harsh truth.
When we booked in with Lonely Planet recommended Andes Salt Expeditions, we were expecting big, scary, heart-breaking things from the tour. Friends had told us stories about being almost run over by carts, climbing up and down rickety ladders and ropes and having eye-opening conversations with workers in the mine. Our first mistake was booking with Andes where we were given a guide who was tired after a long day at work and so, brought us to only one of the three levels we were promised – no rickety ladders, tight crawls or rope-climbs for us. Our second mistake was going on the Saturday of a festival weekend. While we ran into around 30 other tourists, we saw no more than 10 miners.
It wasn’t all bad though and Gary, Sophie, Swatti and Paul certainly enjoyed it a lot more than I did. It was fun to crawl into a deep dark hole, watching every limb in case we touched off the walls and freed asbestos into the air. When we did encounter the miners the clanging of their picks and far-off rumble of explosives was heart-stopping, as was the mad dash we made for cover every time a two tonne cart flew past us pushed by only 4 scrawny-looking Bolivians. While our guide told us that wages had improved for workers since 2005 – making miners rich enough to afford fancy cars and many women – it was still hard not to feel immense pity for the small, sweating men who were caked in black soot and were unlikely to watch their granchildren grow up. Thankfully, to cheer us up after our crawl through hell and back, we were allowed to make some fertiliser bombs and blow chunks out of the pitted terrain around the mine.
In all, despite all our mistakes, the Potosi tour was definitely worth doing although if I was to go back and do it again, I would book my tour through the highly-recommended hostel, La Casona. And even if the prospect of climbing into a small, dark, asbestos-filled hole doesn’t appeal to you Potosi is worth a visit.
There are more pictures from Potosi available in the gallery
It was supposed to be just Gary and I travelling south from Uyuni to Tupiza. We had planned to hang out for a few days, shoot the breeze over a few beers, scrape the salt off the inside of our eyelids and eventually book a two-day horse riding tour of the area. According to Lonely Planet, Tupiza is a little slice of the Wild West in Bolivia, just the place to sling up your saddle. Well once word spread about our plans it wasn’t just us anymore. Paul and Sophie were in because Sophie had been dying to do a horse tour for seven months. Kiwis Matt and Sarah were in because they had a lot of time to kill in Bolivia and, although Sarah was allergic to horses and neither of them had ever ridden one, they were game for anything. And Swatti… well Swatti didn’t really have the time or as it transpired the inclination, but everyone else was going so why not? Thirty minutes after arriving in Tupiza we had met Michael, a hilarious and chatty Brit who had already done all the research and was just looking to make up numbers on a horse safari leaving the next day. And so we were eight.
We were up early the next morning to meet our 16 year-old tour guides and our horses. The travel agent, Tupiza Tours, had promised us that they used only Argentinian horses so we were expecting beautiful, shiny, black stallions – the type that are always gently backlit and surrounded by a light white mist. What we got was more ‘Into the West’ than ‘Black Beauty’. Dusty brown, speckled white, patchy black and with big chunks of fur missing they were little more than a couple of donkey crosses that had one foot in the knacker’s yard. Hardly ribbon-winners.
Either way though, they were ours for the next two days so we decided to accept them for the tired old work horses that they were and get the show on the road. It was going to take more than a few half-dead horses to lower our spirits today. Today we were cowboys – fully fledged coca-leaf-chewing, checked-shirt-wearing, whiskey-swigging, straw-hat-toting gauchos – so we threw our legs over our horses, took a minute to laugh hysterically at Gary who was able to put his feet on the ground while sittting on his tiny circus pony, made a few switches (Gary traded up to the most beautiful, affectionate, placid brown horse) and set off down the unpaved, dusty road at a slow plod.
The first few hours were a bit touch and go. The horses weren’t paying a whole lot of attention to instruction; Sarah’s horse kept kicking Gary’s in the face; Gary’s horse kept headbutting Sarah’s leg; Sophie’s horse was afraid of dogs, plastic bags and loud noises; and Laguna, my trusty steed, was dead set on sticking to the front of the pack come hell or high water (both of which were coincidentally soon to follow). Eventually though our attention switched to admiring the immense beauty of the surrounding countryside. We had seen our fair share of desert over the last week but this one really took the biscuit. Bright red, weather-beaten cliffs sat amiably among mounds of loose blue-grey shingle and tufts of parched yellow grass. At every twist on the mountain road the plains became more and more beautiful throwing up deep sandy gorges, menacing cacti, portholes cut in rocky walls and at our lunchtime spot a towering altar of Wild West scenery. Vultures and condors swooped and glided overhead, stretching out to their full 3 metre wingspan and wiggling their long fingers in the breeze.
The ride became more challenging too. It was difficult at first getting used to the Argentine horses/Bolivian donkeys and the unusual way in which they had been trained. They listened to voice commands rather than kicks and tugs at the reigns – quieting immediately to the gentle “shhhhh” of our guides or, as I was quickly finding out with a little help from the ever-vocal Michael, taking flight at a simple “VAMOS!” We also had to contend with deep, fast-flowing rivers that needed to be crossed, steep hills to be navigated and tiny clay villages full of stray donkeys, goats, dogs to be peacefully passed.
By the time we arrived at the ranch that evening we were thoroughly exhausted and our bums felt more than a little violated. After a few painful attempts at sitting down we decided to drink our beers standing up. Three hours and a lot of Paceňa later the Bolivian music videos were blaring, Paul was taking one of our hostesses for a spin around the dancefloor/attic and Michael was showing her mother how to shake her thang.
The next morning we awoke to all those authentic ranch sounds that seem so appealing in films – the donkeys were hee-hawing, the horses were gently braying, a cock was crowing on a neighbour’s rooftop and some wild animal was screeching out its death-cry. Oh no, that last one was just Michael lying in his camp bed, clutching his head and groaning loudly every few seconds. Well we were all awake now so it was time for some stale bread, black tea and another round on the horses. Surprisingly our bums seemed to be in a lot better shape today. Possibly our pain in that region was merely overshadowed by our thumping hangovers.
Within two minutes of mounting our horses we realised that we were wrong – very very wrong. Our bums were in no fit state to be dealing with stubbourn horse-donkeys who were determined to slow trot the whole way home. In desperation we tried to stand up off the saddle to protect ourselves. No luck. We tried making the horses slow to a walk. No luck. We tried speeding it up to a canter. No luck. It seemed we were destined to return to Tupiza infertile and unable to walk or sit – we knew now why cowboys strut about with their legs spread so far apart and their knees slightly bent. Oblivious to our plight the landscape was as beautiful as ever, the villages as quiet, the animals as newly born, the birds as graceful and the sun as bright.
Thankfully our guide finally agreed to lead the horses in a gallop and we took off across a huge field, trampling over waist-high spurts of yellow grass and scaring wild donkey’s out of our way. As always Laguna was keen to stay at the head of the pack so he shot off ahead of the group with me clinging with one hand to his saddle and gripping his reigns in tight with the other – a hysterical mix of crippling fear and childish excitement. YEEEEEE-HAW. We cantered through most of that day, our confidence growing by the minute as we passed fields and crossed railway tracks and rivers. The fun was soon to come to an end though as the horses hit another open plain and took off at a gallop. For some reason Laguna seemed to be running twice as fast as everyone else. He leaned to one side, turning sharply towards a part of the river that was too deep and fast to cross. As he moved he tilted further and further to one side until in one quick swoop he shook his mane and threw me, head over heels off his back. Luckly there were some sharp rocks to break my fall. Before I had even gathered my wits the guides had picked me up by the elbows and were leading me back to my wayward horse – there really was no option but to get back on the horse.
With my fall that day and Sophie’s collision with the ground the day before (a loud noise startled her horse), the lightheartedness was sucked out of the day and for the next two hours we walked in mostly silence, shifting every few seconds from one cheek to the other in an attempt to save our bums from permanent damage. Our Tupiza trip was incredible fun and, even considering my fall, it was a high point of our trip so far but as we arrived back into town and finally bid a tearful adieu to our steeds, we couldn’t have been any happier not to have to get back in the saddle the next day. What we really needed was a few icepacks, rubber rings and a stiff drink.
There are more pictures from Tupiza available in the gallery
For a while it seemed as if it would never happen. It felt like we were doomed to spend eternity bumping and crawling across a barren wasteland, forced by protruding rocks and roaming livestock to take the longest route across the desert plain. Then just as we started to give up hope there it was, glimmering on the horizon. For a moment we admired it from a safe distance – the way it played with the senses, creating reflections where none existed and the way it seemed to stretch forever. An instant later it had absorbed us completely, sucking all the colour out of the world and leaving just the vibrant blue of the sky and the dazzling white of the earth’s crust. Everywhere we looked was white – just miles and miles of smooth, flat, sparkling white land joining the distant mountains that surrounded us. We had finally arrived in Salar de Uyuni – the world’s most famous salt flats.
As momentous as our first sighting of Salar de Uyuni was, every ounce of wonder and happiness had been hard earned. The first indication that this was a less-than-wise decision came when we arrived at the Bolivian border crossing and were ordered out of our minibus. Barely had we pressed a toe against the ground before gale force winds hit us hard in the chest sending us staggering, clutching our hats with both hands, towards a tiny shed in the middle of the desert. Surely that couldn’t be immigration? It was of course the immigration office and 30 minutes later we had defrosted, had our passports stamped and were once again trying desperately to bridge the 20m gap between the shed and our jeeps without being blown away.
Back at the jeep we met our driver Felix who laughed and joked as he climbed on top of our jeep (in those winds?!) and strapped on our backpacks. After hearing countless stories about the drunken cowboys who often drove 4×4 tours through the desert, we were pleased to find out that our driver for the next three days had a solid head on his shoulders – especially since there were no seatbelts in the backseat. Things were definitely starting to look up and our first stop to the beautiful frozen Laguna Verde left us feeling a little more hopeful.
It’s a good thing that we were feeling so positive because our next stop was a little more trying – a quick dip in the local hotspring. Our affinity for hotsprings and hot water in general is no secret but it has to be taken into account that at this particular point in time we were in the middle of a desert, the air temperature was hovering way below 0°c and windspeed was around 40 km/hr. Still, we were hardened backpackers used to cold showers and a bit of dust (argh!) so we stripped off and sprinted as fast as we could towards the pool. Inside the hotspring it was absolutely divine just as long as we kept as much of ourselves as we could under the water, turned our backs to the ever-changing wind and ignored the sand that was quickly coating our scalps. Heaven.
The only problem with the hotpools was that we had to get out eventually and this we did with as little grace and as much speed as possible. Chasing towels as they blew across the desert and shoes as they caught in the wind we struggled to get dry and clothed as quickly as possible. In all it couldn’t have taken us more than 3 minutes and 35 seconds to get dressed yet as we reached for our swimming togs we realised that in that time they had frozen solid – some even had small icicles hanging from the strings and ties.
Unfortunately the hotspring turned out to be our last stop of the day. Since morning the wind had become more and more violent and Felix had decided that it was unsafe for us to get close to boiling water in unpredictable winds. Never mind, we had packed 6 litres of wine between us and we were looking forward to getting to know the rest of the people on our tour – especially Kiwis Matt and Sarah. Even if they didn’t say “Sweet as, bro!” as much as we would have liked them too.
Little did we know that that night was to prove a turning point in our trip. After drinking more of our wine than we should have we climbed into our sleeping bags and under our six blankets and settled in for a long sleep. A few hours later those of us who had been sleeping were woken by a huge bang that shook the hotel. And that was just the beginning of it. For the next five hours a vicious desert storm raged outside, beating our roof until it groaned and screeched in pain, threatening to cave at any moment.
Up at 7am for breakfast and to assess the damage. As it turns out, while the winds were a little quieter they were no less fierce and a cursory look outside the hotel windows revealed a thick haze of dust covering the entire world. The hotel was out of food though so we had no choice but to make tracks. Not such a great idea. Within minutes all three jeeps were lost in the storm, engulfed by thick clouds of dust and sand that sometimes broke to offer glimpses of the road we had veered off or the lake we had narrowly avoided but which mostly muffled out every single sound and sight.
This went on for almost the whole day. Once or twice we did see a real attraction – visiting a valley of stones carved into faces and shapes by the sand or spotting a live flamingo struggling against the winds. Mostly though we were lost in an endless abyss, unable to move more than a few inches at a time in case we drove off a cliff. Lunch was a worst-case-scenario affair, put together at the last moment in somebody’s mother’s kitchen while we sat and shivered in what could have been a classroom or a bedroom. For the next four hours the enterprising hostess charged us 1 boliviano every time we needed the toilet as we tried to wait out the storm. If it didn’t stop we would have to spend the night here and there probably wouldn’t be any dinner – plus we were going to run out of bolivianos soon. So we sat and waited.
Fortunately the sandstorm finished just before dusk so we piled back into the jeeps and started to make our way across the desert towards the salt flats as the dust-laden sky revealed the most beautiful and unlikely sunset.
And so it was with dust lacing every inch of our weary bodies that we leaped out of the jeep at the salt flats on day three of our epic journey into Bolivia. Our first salt flats stop was to an island in the middle of the white desert where cacti grew up to a startling 20m tall. The island is made mostly from coral, reminding visitors that the salt flats were once underwater and housed an entire eco system.
Of course we made the obligatory in-the-middle-of-nowhere stop so that we could take a hundred photographs that played with perspective – Gary standing in my hand, Swati balancing on a bottle, Paul and Sophie balancing on Paul’s shades… It’s not as easy as you would imagine though.
Before we headed to a nearby village for lunch we stopped at one of the old salt hotels for a gander and also at the edge of the flats where they extract salt from the earth for processing nearby. I could talk forever about the wonders of Salar de Uyuni and the immense fun that is to be had on any visit but Gary’s pictures would always do it far more justice so I’ll leave it to him.
More pictures from our salt flats tour are available in the gallery
Note to anyone considering the San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni tour:
Lonely Planet warns that tour operators working this route are notoriously dodgy and that has definitely been our experience of it. We booked through the only company they recommended – Cordillera – and paid a little extra so that we would be more comfortable. Our list of complaints is endless and starts with bad organisation (eg. the bus driver forgot to collect Swati and we had to argue for ages to get them to drive to her hostel), not nearly enough food, almost none of the food we were promised, no hot showers although we were guaranteed at least one, not enough sleeping bags on the second night for all the people who had already paid for them, the staff refused to light us fires although they had firewood crackling away in their lodgings, the guides refused to bring us to see sunrise although it too was promised etc.
All in all it was hardly worth the extra cost apart from the fact that our guide was very good (although other guides in the same group weren’t). That said, this seems to be a reoccuring theme with all Bolivian tours and San Pedro is actually a really good starting point if you are going that way anyway. In other words, I would still recommend the trip to a friend but I would warn them to bring extra food with them and if possible, a sleeping bag.