Category Archives: Central and South America

Leaving La Paz

My flight out of La Paz, Bolivia, finally arrived not a moment too soon, and within an hour I was in the beautiful capital city of Sucre. With no plan other than to enjoy a Bolivian city that wasn’t La Paz, I soon bumped into a tour group made up of English, Canadian, Australian and Swiss people. We spent two days together wandering around the beautiful city, watching a parade and drinking a lot of hot chocolate in Chocolate Para Ti, an awesome chocolate café. I also spent the time enjoying Bolivian prices before my upcoming trip to Chile and Argentina.

Just two nights in Sucre and I was off to Uyuni, a small, dusty town where the salt flat tours kick off. My first morning there I met a German brother and sister Julia and Paul, an English guy Jeff and an Australian couple, Sarah and Patrick. None of us was booked on a tour, and the Jeeps seat six, so we were happy to all go together knowing who we were going to be spending the next three days with, squished up very close and personal for many hours in a car. Squished is definitely the word for our in-car situation, especially in the back seat – we were all practically married by the time we said goodbye.

The salt flats tour was amazing, and had the best scenery I’ve seen in all my life. First we went to the salt flats and took the obligatory perspective-skewing photos, which I’ve always wondered about – it turns out you don’t need to be very far from the camera at all to get an awesome photo of the group being stamped on or eaten or held in someone’s hand. Also, looking at others’ photos before, it appeared that they had the salt flats all to themselves, which was very far from the case!

After playing with perspective and licking the ground we went to the train cemetery where you can see cool rusty old trains, then on to a red lagoon full of flamingos, several other beautiful lagoons, a natural hot spring (aka Gringo Soup), a big rock that looks like a tree and that was made famous by Salvador Dali, and past hours of endlessly jaw-dropping landscapes. In just one view you can see snow-topped mountains, multicoloured rolling hills of red, pink, brown and orange, volcanoes, desert, lagoons, salt flats, sand dunes and arid land dotted with tiny scrubs, all at once.

On the first night we stayed in a salt hotel, where everything but the toilet was made of salt – the beds, the tables and chairs, the floor and the walls. The second night we stayed in a smelly, cold concrete block hostel in the middle of the desert and slept with sleeping bags, blankets, hats and gloves (we were at almost 5,000m altitude). The whole trip cost only £85 and was absolutely spectacular.

Then it was straight on to Chile!

La Paz, Bolivia – no me gusta…

The days following Death Road I spent wandering around La Paz. I’m not taken by the city. It’s busy, fumey from the buses, smells of wee and the altitude is so high I can’t breathe. Plus it’s all uphill, which doesn’t help with the inability to breathe. I have a flight to Sucre, Bolivia’s capital, on Sunday, so until then I’m just killing time.

It is here that my observation that all travellers do drugs has been confirmed. There’s not a single person here who doesn’t do cocaine. Call me naïve, but to me cocaine has always been a big deal and something I would never even consider doing, so seeing how much it’s used is quite a culture shock for me. Comments like “I’ve spent all my money this week on coke” kinda shock me a bit. Considering what it has done to people – put them in jail, and worse, got them killed, I’m just surprised it’s used with such a blasé attitude here.

It’s also a very strange place. This made it interesting though, if a little creepy. One of the first things I did was check out the witches’ market. A street lined with stalls all selling the same things: good luck trinkets, stuffed toads covered in glitter with gold balls in their eye sockets, and llama fetuses.

After being convinced to buy a necklace with good fortune, good health and love ornaments hanging from it, I checked out the coca museum with a couple of girls I’d met in Peru, who happened to be in La Paz at the same time. It was thoroughly boring, so I sat upstairs eating a coca cookie and drinking coca tea while Catherine, Malin, Hannah and Maurizio wandered around the tiny museum so slowly you’d think they were actually interested in all the boring reams of text that were printed on the cardboard panels.

I soon gave up waiting and went off to a tourist café to write some postcards. Anything to avoid going back to my hostel, which had no internet, bedroom windows that didn’t lock looking in on the communal areas and a clientele that thought staying in all day watching TV and staying in all night getting hammered was fun.

Everything I eat in La Paz is giving me the trots. I am spending too much of my time running back to the hostel.

Anyway, I don’t love La Paz. I’m looking forward to Sucre, where it’s clean, quiet and pretty – the opposite of La Paz. I only have just under five weeks left of my trip now, so I’ve planned out what I’m gonna do and where I’m gonna go – something I didn’t do before, but it’s quite exciting looking forward to things. I’m also ready to go home. I’ve heard the same thing from people who have been travelling for four months. I’m ready to sleep in my own bed, drink out of the tap, not live out of a backpack and have friendships that last longer than three hours. I’m sick of asking and being asked “how long have you been travelling for?” and hearing hundreds of travel itineraries that I’ll forget five minutes later. I’m also tired – not the kind of tired that a good night’s sleep cures, I’m exhausted and lacking enthusiasm for things in a way that wasn’t even on my radar at the beginning of the trip. Of course I’m looking forward to seeing the Bolivian salt flats, Chile’s northern desert, northwest Argentina’s red rocks, Iguazu Falls and all the rest, but will be glad to be home I think. Bring on the flappy blanket.

The World’s Most Dangerous Road by bike? Piece of cake

Having ummed and ahhed for months about cycling Bolivia’s Death Road I was so excited to be actually doing it that all my reservations had completely disappeared. I was just looking forward to getting back on the bike and getting some good adrenaline going. The group was just us lot (me, Sam, Dave, who wore Batman and Spiderman costumes of course, Kim, Henrik and Catherine, who I’d met in Iquitos). When we got in the van to get to the start of the Death Road the driver put on some Backstreet Boys and we all got pumped up with a little sing-song (well, Kim and I did, badly. Shamefully, there‘s a video of this, including the bit where I got the words wrong…). We jumped out of the van at the start of the ride (at just under 5,000m altitude), got our kit on, rode in circles to test the bikes and had a little dance by the side of the road.

The ride started off on Tarmac and was all downhill and easy. ‘What is all the fuss about?’ we asked. The guide then stopped us and said, “Ok, now here begins the Death Road.” Suddenly we lost our nerve. Seeing the drop off the side of the mountain and knowing all too well the tragedies that had occurred there we were pooing ourselves just a tiny bit. But it turned out to be far from dangerous (don‘t worry mum and dad). There are no cars on the road anymore as they’ve built a new road so no one has to use this one anymore (the Death Road is one car-width wide and just drops off over the edge of the mountain with no barriers, just crumbly rocks). Lorries used to travel this 40km road, overtaking each other with half a wheel hovering over the edge of a very long drop. Jeremy Clarkson once attempted this road but sadly he made it out ok. I don’t mean that.

It was a lot of fun though, and great to be back on a bike. We got some decent speeds up and the views (once the fog cleared) were incredible. I wanna do it again!

A bus, a boat and a bribe and I’m finally in Bolivia

My journey to Bolivia started in Cusco, where I got on a bus at 10pm only to find my Polish friends from Machu Picchu also on the bus! The first thing we discussed was the ways in which people steal your things on buses. We got no sleep. We arrived in Puno, on Lake Titicaca, at around 5am, only to be told there were miner strikes and they were blocking the road to Copacabana, the lake town to where we all had onwards tickets. As the hours passed a crowd of travellers gathered and we tried to come up with a plan to get to Copacabana – usually just a three-hour bus ride. Bribing the miners; walking past them; taking a different route – all ideas were quickly shot down by various officials. So we went for a walk to ask around. There was no way it was gonna happen, and the strike was apparently going to last for two or more days. Puno is not a town you want to get stranded in. Not because it’s dangerous, but because it’s so damned boring. The Poles had flights to catch and I simply wanted to get to Bolivia, so we decided to walk down to the port and ask a kindly fisherman to take us to Copacabana. “Of course I’ll take you! That’ll be $700.” And the longer we waited the higher the price went. Also, the journey was going to be about 10 hours long, and we didn’t want to sail in the dark, so we had to get moving. To lower costs we ran back to the bus station (not close) and gathered a few more stranded tourists. In all there were 16 and a half of us, from all over the world: England, America, Germany, Poland, Argentina, Brazil, New Zealand and Sweden, plus a little boy with no front teeth and the longest eyelashes I’ve ever seen.

So we all boarded the boat and settled in for the long ride across Lake Titicaca. It was a gorgeous journey, on sparkling blue water under the hot sun (which I fell asleep under and burnt my hips – not good for carrying a heavy backpack). We drank beer, ate bread, napped, chatted and generally laid about. Then it got dark and we realised the drivers had no idea where they were going. After about an hour of turning round in circles and hitting reefs, a little fisherboat finally came out to rescue us (at a price of course) four at a time and deposited us on a farm in the middle of the night. A trek through long grass and past curious cows, we eventually got to a road and cheered for streetlights (we’d gone a bit stir crazy). We made our way straight to the border, where the police told us we could go through but Bolivia wouldn’t stamp us in until the morning so we‘d have to come back. They then suggested they would only let us go through if we gave them money. Which they took. And still didn’t let us through. By this time we were crammed into the boss’s office drinking sweet tea and being offered vodka, in the most random of situations. Eventually I had a brainwave, which really should have been the first thing everyone thought of. I looked in my guidebook for hostels in the Peruvian border town. A short phone call later and we all had a bed for the night, two minutes down the road. We arrived at the hostel to be greeted by a baffled family as we ordered two rounds each of fried egg sandwiches and tea, then had much-needed showers and hit the hay.

Bright and early the next morning we headed back to the border, sailed through in minutes and were soon on a bus to La Paz. The Poles had to race off to another town to catch their flight and the others also had other places to be, so soon it was just me, Sam the American (Batman in my photos) and a German guy Henrik we’d picked up in our brief moment in Copacabana.

We went out for a much-craved Mexican, then the boys went to a British pub to watch the football while I ran back to the hostel with a bad Mexican belly. Later, we picked up Sam’s friends Dave and Kim from England (they‘re from there, we didn’t pick them up from there, just to clarify…), and went out to a steakhouse (it was really crappy, just like all eateries in Bolivia). We then bedded down for the night, as the next morning we had to get up bright and early to conquer the World’s Most Dangerous Road!

A quick trip to Disneyland, Machu Picchu

Leaving Huaraz, I was sent off at the bus station by Hannes, Katherine, Jim, his wife and Lucas, then settled in or a six-hour bus ride (with the amazing Cruz Del Sur) to Lima then got straight into a cab for the airport. In the cab I thought I was going to be robbed as it was 5am and the driver ask how much money I had on me. But I made it to Cusco in one piece (although my flight was delayed so I spent about eight boring hours at the airport – I did eat a Papa John’s pizza at 6am though). But my first night in Cusco I came down with something, and instead of exploring the beautiful, exciting city, I spent a solid 14 hours asleep in a freezing cold dorm. The whole next day was spent lying down on the uncomfortable wicker bench in the smelly courtyard moving around with the sun as I was so cold.

The next day was my trip to Machu Picchu. From Cusco you can get the tourist train all the way; get the bus halfway and the tourist train the second half; or do what I discovered to my dismay too late – get three buses then hike three hours through the jungle. That would have been much more fun, cheaper and I wouldn’t have had to endure a fashion show, yes a fashion show, on the train while it just sat still on the tracks. Also, every tourist was being ripped off, which no one knew until it was too late – Peru Rail, the supposed only way to get to Machu Picchu, is a scam merchant. They tell you the train you want (the relatively cheap one) is full for the next week and you have to get the expensive one. We all fell for it, plus the scam of “oh the last seat on the cheap train JUST went”. When I got the train, half the seats were empty.

Anyway I made it to Aguas Calientes, the tourist town next to the ruins, and was met at the train station by a girl from my hostel, Supertramp. The hostel was so lovely, it had feather duvets (a dealmaker for me), breakfast and hot showers. It’s only been open for two months, so the owner, Sebastian, an awesome Colombian guy, is really eager to please his guests. I also met loads of great people there, including Jon from London, who I went to the hot springs with (highly overrated and more packed than the Richmond lido on a sunny Sunday afternoon).

That evening we we splashed out on a posh dinner at the Treehouse restaurant and had an early night. The next morning Jon left and was replaced by a group of awesome Polish students. I made my way up to Machu Picchu that morning on the granny bus full of farting Japanese tourists.

It was entirely underwhelming. Disneyland is the best way I can find to describe Machu Picchu. Packed to the brim with American tourists clutching walking sticks and sporting brightly coloured clothes, prodding the llamas and causing a bottleneck up all the Inca steps. I bumped into a Colombian girl (she asked me to take her picture on two separate occassions and we soon became friends) who didn’t speak a word of English, so it was great to practise my Spanish by making jokes about the Americans. That evening we went out for dinner of street food and when she went to bed at 8.30pm I stayed out with the hostel owner and his friends.

When I got back to Cusco I had previously checked out of my hostel and into a really nice one in a feverish state ($30 a night, what was I thinking..?), so when I arrived I realised what I’d done and hotfooted it out of there. Only to discover there was not single bed available in Cusco. A young tout eventually found me a room in the worst hostel ever, which I did a runner from as soon as I was informed of a free bed in a normal hostel, which had lots of nice, normal things, such as other people, loo roll and electricity.

The next couple of days I just hung out in Cusco, went out with Jon and his hostel mates one night, and watched the Easter parades while eating 2 peso (less than a dollar) street food (I felt only a little bit ill).

Stay tuned for the next post in which we go on a crazy ride from Peru to Bolivia, including 10-hour boat rides and failed police bribes…