Posts tagged ‘Tupiza’

The backpack diaries – our top ten South American experiences

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


December 21, 2011 at 11:44 am 10 comments

This town ain’t big enough for the eight of us. Tupiza, Bolivia

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

August 6, 2010 at 4:48 pm 1 comment


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