Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Bolivia ptII: Sucre > Uyuni > Tupiza 22-29/11/10

by tim

Fearing being both covered in vomit and being robbed* during our journey to Sucre, it was with great relief that we disembarked in Sucre bus station and began the, by now, usual ritual of
- finding a taxi
- being charged an extortinate price
- being shouted at for offering only half of what was asked
- walking away from said taxi driver
- being chased by taxi driver who realised we wouldn't budge and was now happy to take our offer

So, twenty minutes later, we were deposited in the main square of Sucre and were once again pleasantly surprised by what we saw. Busy, vibrant and well developed. but enough of me, lets talk about the city. by coincidence, it was all of those things too... and wet. with all our bags, we couldn't realistically huddle in doorways without seriously annoying many Bolivians so we headed for what was the most european cafe we'd visited since... europe. unfortunately, the european-ness stretched to the price-list, but when you're cold, wet and tired hot-chocolate is pretty much the only cure. Though, for me, recovery was greatly assisted by coffee, orange juice, bacon and eggs. While the girls went off into the rain to find us accomodation (someone had to look after the bags, you see?).

There was nothing obvious about Sucre to find enjoyable, but it was. No special buildings, no special activities, but the city was lively and there were plenty of things to see if not much to actually do. In retrospect, it was probably that the majority of buildings were all in one piece and painted white (an annual requirement i believe)... makes such a difference.

An hour later the girls arrived back after walking most of Sucre to announce that cheap but perfectly satisfactory accommodation had been found five minutes from the town centre (and i quite like the refreshing little tingle you get from touching anything metal in the showers here anyway). Five minutes in the other direction was a park area where a very happy Katy was able to do some personal training with Letty. I was very happy to sit and watch.

nestled away on another side street was a french cafe / restaurant. We've met alot of french travellers in south america (really, a surprising amount) but this was the first french eatery, so obviously Letty was very happy. the coffee and hot chocolate were devine and whilst most of the food was beyond our budget, what we had was delicious with a bonus of free internet (ok - the real reason i liked Sucre!).

When we could tear ourselves away from the cafe, the local market was big and thriving... with all the latest fashions. We found a juice bar which back in the uk would have been closed down long ago, but served superb smoothies for virtually nothing.

It was also here that we sent our few christmas gifts back home as being a well developed city, we figured they had best chance of making it home in one piece. Which - because we are so lame at keeping this thing up to date - we know they did.

But apart from this amusing photo of a mobile home - Sucre style, there's not much else to say about the place, so we move on...

Our journey from Sucre to was notable only for stopping off at Potosi. And Potosi is most notable for being the worlds highest city (altitude... probably also coca-leaf consumption). You would think it might make more of that claim but what we saw was more dust & debris; though rather strangely, they had the most amazing and modern bus station, so maybe its a sign of things to come.

We went from that station to a small, smelly side street for our next bus - the smallest bus so far (via a strange breakfast involving noodles and what we were told was chicken). Thankfully we were virtually the only passengers. Off we went through the bumpy dusty street on our way to Uyuni and their infamous salt flats. We managed to get into the middle of nowhere before the wheel quite literally fell off (to be honest, we were suprised it hadn't happened before now).

Thankfully the bus had a spare tyre and with a little brut strength and a lot of shouting the driver managed to fit it and once again we were on our way for all of five minutes before the wobbling became worse than it was before (the 'spare' was down to the carcass). more shouting, more hammering and the orignial tyre was re-fitted. Once again we were on our way, wobbling all the way into Uyuni.

We were greeted with the normal welcome of 'stay here my
friend' interspersed with 'we have the best 4x4in uyuni - never breaks down'. The 4x4's ususally only take up to 8 people, so we were in a good position to haggle, and we'd got quite good at it by now. We also managed to strike a good deal for the hostel for the night. all unpacked and excited about the following we day we went out to eat...and in Uyuni that means pizza or pizza. we had pizza.

The sole purpose of Uyuni is as a base for the salt flats (either tours actually mining the salt). and as you don't see the miners the only people you actually meet in uyuni are other tourists. Not really our thing, but the place itself is a it of a one-off, so we grin and bare it. The town itself is small but stillmanages to be sprawling; the main tourist hub is really quite pleasant but stray away and it gets decidedly more threadbare. Good night market in the main streets though.

the following morning, We arrived and jumped onboard our trusty 4x4 that would be whizzing through the Salt Flats. what another amazing experience. Full of brilliant photo opportunities. We had a great day speeding through the "flats" with so much white to see... really - horizon to horizon absolutely nothing. We got to share our 8 seat 4x4 with 10 poeple so quite a squeeze in the end.

(click images for a larger version)

Aside from the obligatory comedy photos, we also stopped off to view a dormant volcano, had lunch in the middle of nowhere and visited a mine/museum type thing (didn't go in), with petrified cacti outside. this place might just be the dictionary definition of desolation.

In true Bolivian fashion we broke down on our way back, while we sat in the truck Tim and the driver got out along with a french chap and all looked under the hood, then the driver climbed on top of the engine... with some banging and water adding we we're once again on the move just as the sun was going down. Then again in true form a few minutes later the driver was once agin under the hood with Tim trying to stop the smoke and start the 4x4. what was amusing the first time round was now considerably less so with the sun rapidly fading and the thought of ten people sleeping overnight in a 4x4 in the desert. Thankfully, at the last gasp, the thing restarted and we rolled back into town as dusk officially turned to night.

Managed to grab a pizza, well what else? and go to the train station. Our first South American train journey how exciting? As it turned out, not very. slightly more comfortable than a bus but alot louder, with a dvd of cirque de soleil blasting through the cabins.

We arrived in Tupiza, at 4.30am - still the middle of the night - and, bless them, we we're still being hounded by people to stay in their hostels. With little power to resist we followed like sheep... somehow picking up someone else who tagged along with us... the three had become four! The person in question was a lovely Swiss woman called Florence.

We crashed at our hostel until a sensible hour to get up and then found somewhere for breakfast. Now what you first realise about TUpiza is that all the restaurants seem to come in a "tupiza restaraunt kit" that being pine wooden interior, with matching tables and chairs and you guessed it a pizza menu. So what is there to do in Tupiza..well this is horse riding country, so we booked a days ride.

When we arrived in the morning we we're a little early as we had hoped to grab some breakfast en route only to find Tupiza was shut. But the nice man from the horse riding company took us to his home and fed us all a Bolivian breakfast: dry bread, strawberry flavour jam, dulce de leche (like caramel, very popular, very sweet, very 'Tim'), and instant coffee or for Katy "solo agua caliente, por favor". And the very cutest kitten ever (OK - i know, they're all cute). When we tried to pay, they wouldn't let us - result.

So off we went to mount our trusty steeds. BUt not before we we're kitted out in chaps, bandanas and cowboy hats. I got a big brown horse called Lucchio and Katy got a grey called Morrow. Letty named her's Squirt. Everyone was happy with their beasts (Florence least so, as she said she'd never ridden before).
Our guides turned up and looked about 13, Katy assured me that she was younger than that when she and Sara used to guide in the Welsh mountains.

Off we went through dusty red tracks surrounded by amazing 'cowboys and indians' views (alot of western movies have been filmed here). Then down into the valley floor through some amazing rock-formations. we had a break here and another guide turned up, a young Goth who rode like a maniac, to take half of our group on a shorter day. we made our way along a disused rail track towards our lunch destination by the river. It was a truly lovely day.

Katy was - of course - in her element; I think i maybe had a bit more control than Letty, but the comedy award must go to Florence, who - let's be blunt - had no apparent control at all... horse wants to stop? horse stops. horse wants to gallop? horse gallops! Rising trot? not for our Flo! very funny from behind though. heading home Katy's horse decided to rear up. a lot. which she found super fun (the guides, less so judging by the look on their faces).

With a brilliant day behind us and our behinds knowing all about the brilliant day, we headed back to the hostel for a well deserved shower and food. And later that evening we sent Florence on her way towards Paraguay. We'd only been together for the briefest time but it seemed so much longer... a pleasure to meet you Florence.

Whilst at the station, we bought tickets for the following morning to continue our journey, to Salta. Goodbye Bolivia, you will be missed. hello Argentina.

(* after the drunken Bolivian in front of us mentioned that this is where everyone gets robbed as we arrived at a fuel stop.)

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Bolivia pt I: Copacabana, La Paz, Cochabamba 11-21/11/10

by Tim

What a difference a lake makes. We left dreary Puno and followed the perimeter of lovely lake titicaca for quite some time before reaching the Peru / Bolivia border.

With beautiful blue skies and baking hot temperatures we had to disembark and walk the last one hundred metres to the border control. and queue, hot and stinky with many other people from many other buses. thirty minutes later we got to the front and handed over one piece of paper, then told we had to queue again next door to hand over another. whatever, after an hour we had passports stamped and were allowed to step across the border to try to find our bus.

a short dusty ride later we had arrived at copacabana. i don't know the backstory to mr manilow's famous song but i can't imagine Lola did many shows here!

as we stepped off the bus, we were immediately hassled by people who would just love us to stop at their hotel. We had just read in the guidebook that they can be particularly vociferous here, sometimes turning to physical violence in a bid to get your cash. Well, unfortunately the only thing assaulted that day were our ears but it was worth it as we eventually bartered a room for the equivalent of 3GBP a night. It wasn't a great place but we've stayed in worse (though not much worse).

So, our first taste of bolivia was not massively different to our last taste of Peru, hot dusty and largely undeveloped but we were used to this and quickly felt at home. The town had a sea-side feel (well, the lake is huge) and 'selling tat to tourists' was clearly top of the agenda, but it did it in a nice way and the hard sell was softened by the many cafes / restaurants lining the main street which leads down to the lake. Away from the main tourist-strip the streets and houses deteriorate considerably except for the local church which was fairly magnificent and from what we could see immaculate. But with not much else to do, the following day we took the usual tourist route of visiting the Isla del Sol (is translation really needed?).

More blue sky, more hot sun and a rickety boat trip with rickety chairs, we arrived an hour or so later to a place with even less to do than where we'd left. But that's OK, because we were here to walk and take in the sites.

Over the next several hours we walked a fair few miles up and down dusty hill tracks, past ramshackle farms and through the occasional bit of woodland. but almost always we were in sight of the beautiful blue ocean. in fact, the only thing we were more likely to see than the ocean was an islander with a book of tickets demanding money to walk the next 200 metres along the path... i exaggerate. but they did appear with annoying regularity. admittedly,the fee was the equivalent of ten new British pence but its the principal! We stayed the night on the island finding what looked a closed hostel. showered and rested we headed out to eat - not easy on a really small island. we found one place that was open, but the menu of expensive pasta or expensive pizza in itself is limited but when there has been a rush on (3 other people) the hostess was in a flat panic by the time we arrived. She had to keep sending her children out to buy ingredients, i say buy, they kept on appering with ingredients from somewhere... needless to say it was a very long evening after a very long day and we all crashed at about 9pm.

The following day we headed down to the beach to wait for the return boat to copacabana. We watched as a big reed boat was coming into the harbour, then realised that it wasn't being paddeled, rather there was an motor moving it along, again i think this was more for the tourist to view rather than actually travel in. On the way back, the boat called in at an apparently ancient set of reed-bed villages. I was against going to these from the start because they just screemed 'tourist trap'! and when we reched them and noticed the plastic floats beneath the reed beds i felt vindicated. you were supposed to pay for the privilege of walking in these 'villages'... i stayed on the boat.

back in copacabana for the last time, we decided to splurge and stay in a special hostel. Completely blew the budget but it was worth it (by the way, this mega expensive room was still just US$30 for two of us!).

Behind our new abode was yet another hill - Cerro Calvario (Calvary Hill), atop which was a series of fourteen memorials with crosses (hence the name Stations of the Cross). It was an exhausting climb (for me at least) up huge stone-carved steps. So, how bad did i feel arriving huffing and puffing at the top sipping my chilled water to find a virtual mini village of old ladys, most of whom had hauled massive sacks full of cooking equipment and food... I made it immediately apparent that i was suffering with my achilles by hobbling everywhere but i don't think i was fooling anyone... i felt ashamed. After taking in the gorgeous views, we headed back down to find Letty and soemthing to eat.

I wouldn't normally go into detail about our meals, but we thought it was quite funny when we went for food that night, we found a nice looking (but empty) place. Quick, easy and cheap the three of us ordered different pasta dishes. they took forever to arrive and when they did we all ended up with exactly the same thing which didn't match what any of us had ordered! Tasty though and 'no desmasiado caro'! Katy decided that she needed to run, so got up and out early to run along the lake, only to feel as if some one was wringing her lungs out, which isn't nice. The high altitude taking it's tool, with breathing and running not being easy...apparently. I wasn't go to find out.

So, onwards and upwards or more exactly upwards, acrosswards and downwards to La Paz. Crazy La Paz. A massive city in the basin of a mountain range. Hot, busy, loud. We arrived in a 'locals' bus which was unbelievably cheap but terminates in a non-tourist area and without people actively hassling us to stay in their hostel, we didn't know where to go. Lucky then that we were travelling with Letty as the first non-native we saw was French and helpful and talkative. Armed with information, we plodded into town, steep downhill, hot with all our bags. as we neared the centre things became more frenetic; we eventually gave up on the pavement as it was too frequented by people and street vendors. luckily the roads were so clogged with cars we were fairly safe (as safe as you can ever be in South America). once settled in, we tracked down a cafe which was to become our 'local', then made plans for our next 'event'.

the following day, our next event saw us in a minivan heading out of town with ten others and a dozen mountain-bikes strapped to the roof. we had signed ourselves up for a 64km trip along the quaintly named 'Death Road'.

An hour later of slow climbing uphill the van pulled up in a layby, we all got out ready for our alfresco breakfast. At this point everyone was looking a bit jaded as we downed our dry bread & jam and foul tasting hot chocolate. We then all got dressed into our protective black & orange gear and after a quick safety briefing ("don't fall off the edge") we were assigned a 'ride' and we were off. the first 20km was all downhill on smooth tarmac road, which turned out to be a good thing as my pedals failed in the first minute and i ended up freewheeling all the way... and still came in top 5! Katy was crouched down a whizzing like a loon past everyone, but that was just a warm-up.

on to the Death Road real, which got its name from the shear number of people falling off the edge into oblivion or else crashing into oncoming traffic on a hairpin bend... or both. Its massively safer these days as there is now an alternative road which most vehicles use and at the time of riding, it had been five months since anyone had fallen off the edge and killed themselves... so really it was pretty safe.

the track was rutted by vehicles and eroded by water but not too bad and you soon forgot how certain the death would be if you fell off the edge. So we flew down sweeping bends trying to keep up with the guide, whooping and screaming... then the mist rolled in... then the rain started. this considerably upped the odds. couldn't see, slippy roads, massive puddles, wet gloves, dodgy brakes. still. too. fast. but what a laugh. by the end most body parts were either numb or aching, including our smiling mouths.


More scary was the journey back, as our driver was constantly stuffing coca leaves into his increasingly hamster-like mouth. I've never had the patience to try them myself (minimum forty minutes chewing required apparently), but they should act as a stimulant. All i can say is he either had a dodgy batch or he's been awake for three weeks straight... I've never seen such bloodshot eyes in charge of a motor vehicle. That said, we all made it back safe, sound, tired and very happy.

On our return we had decided to celebrate surving Death Road with a curry, we had heard on the back-packers grape vine of the best curry in the whole of Bolivia, and luckily for us it was just down the road. And it was so very good, not up there with Ruislips finests or Pundits (a must if you're ever in Upton on Severn!), but it was still jolly good.

The other most memorable aspects of La Paz were the street markets. Every day there seemed to be something different and every street had its own speciality; electrical goods, wools and fabric, ironmongery and flowers but mostly it was different types of fruit, veg and food markets. the sites, sounds and smells were almost overwhelming. Llama foetus anyone?*

perusing the markets took a long time, and the fruit and veg looked very nice but we weren't really in a position to buy much (trusting the hostel's kitchen about as far as the cockroaches could throw it); however on most occasions the market is where we would eat (using the time honoured tradition of seeing where the locals go and following them). And it worked. the food was either really cheap or really nice... sometimes even both. most of the time the not knowing what you were eating was best.

by now it was time to start heading South toward Argentina. this necessitated us to travel through cochabamba; a place we'd never even heard of, let alone made plans to visit. but i'm glad we did.

we got off to an inauspicious start. having had hostels thrust at us everywhere we've been so far, we didn't give it a second thought here but - with darkness rapidly approaching - we quickly became unstuck, with places being either too expensive or full. or both. the place we eventually happened on was both available and cheap, but... what's that word for the complete opposite of luxurious? Still, in the words of Meatloaf, two out of three ain't bad, so we called it home for now... and anyway these places have a way of growing on you (though in this instance that might have been literal).

we were on the edge of town and hungry so we blundered through backstreets until with surprise we hit the city centre. not surprise that we found it (we're quite good at that these days), but rather surprise at what a nice city it was. Bars and restaurants lined the main strip and this time they weren't dusty and crumbling, dammit some of them had neon! we ended up in an ice cream parlour called Dumbo's which looked more North American than South.

the following day, we returned to the centre in daylight just to reassure ourselves it was as good as we thought. it was. a well maintained central plaza and more fancy bars in streets we hadn't seen before. in the distance, we could see a big jesus on a hill and with time on our hands we set that as our destination. But not before another of our 'cost-cutting' measures: I let Katy loose with the trimmer on my hair... lets just say that it was not bad for the first attempt!

anyway, back to Jesus. It was a long way... enough for blue skies to turn to grey, to thunder & lightening, then torrential rain and back to blue skies again by the time we made it. Surprisingly (but also thankfully) there was a cable car to take us up the hill (Katy was champing at the bit to walk up but we'd already paid for the ticket). As we reached the top of the hill, the enormity of the statue became apparent... it was HUGE.

we took it all in and then took our - now obligatory - comedy photos (hoping that he can take a joke), before returning to town; this time via a much more sensible taxi.

Katy feels i should share with you the "abuse" she has had during her time running through South America with Cochabamba being her worst. Here they don't just wolf-whistle at you from moving cars and honk thier horns; which is some what anoying, especially as you can't plug into an ipod for fear of being mugged. no. here, as well as the yelling and honking she got slapped on the arse. twice. So for all of you who want to run in South America, my advice; don't! Unless you want to be followed, verbally and - sometimes if you're lucky - physically abused. Public Notice over.

Time to leave Cochamaba, with another over night bus adventure, this time we had two drunk Bolivian football players (apparently they're really good!) firing questions at us. They'd just been to a christening or something. What we got for our money this time was a 10 hour journey with stops evey hour or so that then becomes a 12 hour journey. and as bonus the more drunk of the two Bolvians will be throwing-up down the bus walkway, himself and his girlfriend. Ah the delights of bus travel. retribution came in the form of the bus driver ordering the now slightly more sober offender to clean up his mess. this he chose to do by wiping it up with his designer, snow-washed denim jacket.

And on that note we say a farewell to bileous Cochabamba and hello to sugary Sucre.

* to be buried at the threshold to your home for good luck (yours, not the llamas).