Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Inca Trail

Well this was a trip I'd booked up months ago, and it doesn't come cheap so it should have been a highlight... and it was! The bus picked us up before 5am and it was a couple of hours to get to Ollyanatambo where we were to have breakfast and pick up the last few people. Dayan (a Kiwi who became my tent-mate and usual partner in crime) distinguished himself immediately by forgetting his passport and having to go back for it (thankfully when the bus was sill in Cusco. The full muster of trekkers was 2 Australian couples (who new each other), an English couple, a New York/Israeli couple, two older American ladies, an older American couple and their daughter, Madison from Canada, Dayan and myself. You can see it was quite a coupley bunch!

We had our breakfast in Ollyanatambo and there were sold at for a while as we waited for the bus. Everyone but me bought a stick to walk with. I got myself a water bottle holder, which was actually very useful. People also stocked up on Coca leaves for the tough time ahead. Our guide was Hubert (or Hubertcito as we later new him) and his assistant was Augusto (Or Gordito (little fatty) as Hubert always called him!). After another hour in the bus we started on the trail, after the all important group photo and stamp on the passport. The first day is meant to be relatively easy, and a bit of a warm up, and it was. At our first stop for lunch we were amazed by the quality of the food, and by the luxury we were afforded in our little tent with picnic tables that was set up for us everywhere. (For our group of 16 there were 22 porters, including the chef and his assistant. Many had taken personal porters to carry 6kg of stuff for you, me included. All those that didn't ended up taking a local porter for the tough second day for far more money!) Most of the scenery was nice, but not amazing at this stage, and we also saw our first Inca ruin. Hubert stopped to point out some of the flora a few times, and later at the Inca ruin he gave a long history talk, and a few people started nodding of a bit. He wasn't a great orator, with poor English grammar and a tendency to repeat everything. You see he would repeat everything, and his English grammar wasn't very good, which made his talks seem interminable, though basically very informative, because he would repeat everything. At the end of the day we had afternoon tea in our camp, closely followed by dinner, again the food was very nice and plentiful. Hubert gave us a tale of woe, about he was persecuted for abjectly failing to follow the rules of society! Can you believe the wanted to knock his house down because he didn't bother with planning permission, and then they had the cheek to shut his restaurant down, just because he didn't bother with a licence. He later told how he punched a guy when driving a lorry, and let his brother take the rap for it because he didn't actually have a licence. We began to get the idea he was a bit of a chancer! After dinner and this speech everyone went to bed ridiculously early, I know we got up at 4am and had to get up at 5 the next morning, but it was still poor! I didn't sleep great, but managed not to hear the domestic a nearby Peruvian couple were having despite almost everyone else being woken by it.

Day two and we were awoken with the hot drink of out choice in our tents! Well almost, as my tea turned out to actually be coffee. Also turned out everyone was a terrible faff, and I was packed and sat in the dining tent for 20 mins before anyone else joined me for breakfast! The highlight of breakfast was some very nice porridge with cinnamon! This was to be the hardest day, with us going over the highest pass, with a lot of climbing in the morning ( in the morning we were to climb 1400m, that¡s higher than Ben Nevis). People spread out a bit more today, with Dayan and myself usually at the front, followed by Diane, the 60 year old American lady (those two names did cause a bit of confusion!) Poor old team New York was suffering from the altitude and was often far behind. After around 2 hours or so we had out morning tea, from there we were to press on for 4 hours before a late lunch. 2 of these four hours were up, and 2 down lots of steps, many of them original Inca. The pas was called the dead woman's pass (Warmiwa├▒usca) and Dayan and I took about 50 mins for the '2 hour' climb to the top, with me first after a cheeky late sprint. This of course precipitated a long wait for the rest, and up there the cloud rolled in over the pass and it was pretty chilly. At the final camp I gave my feet a much needed wash in the cold stream and after lunch managed a brief nap before tea. Again it was an early night for all, so I had to lie and listen to my iPod as I was not tired enough! The scenery had been better this day, and more varied. Some sections were not unlike Scotland, others were very pretty could forest.

Day three was to be the longest and most interesting day: lots of Inca ruins as well as cloud forest and two more passes. Before we left the porters all introduced themselves, and we did likewise. The first pass was straight away from the camp, and was not as bad as it looked at first, then came an Inca ruin, with a talk from Hubert and plenty time to wander around, then an early lunch. Then it was a long slow ascent to the third pass, but through some lovely sections of cloud forest, and other sections where the path really clung to the side of the cliff and had taken some construction. Just over the third pass was another Inca ruin, and after this we all went off at our separate speeds again, down a long descent on artfully constructed staircases, into what was becoming rain forest. Towards the end was an optional detour into a ruin which few people took, but I did. This was pretty spectacular as I was the only one in sight when I got there. It was mainly a huge series of terraces, but having it to myself really made it special ( some sections of the trail got really crowded, and you were very aware of the 500 people a day using it). The camp on this day was on quite a steep hillside, but actually had a bar nearby, which was surprisingly cheap for its middle of nowhere location. Dayan and I had a beer or two before and after dinner with 4 girls we'd repeatedly met on the trail who were in there own group, the bar was a bit strange and barren with its plastic furniture and incongruous 80's music (Phil Collins anyone?). This night we also had the massive faff of sorting out tips for the porters, but we got there in the end, it helped that they gave us ´Macho tea´ which has alcohol in it beforehand. We also got cake as it was the last night!

The last morning was a super early start as we wanted to get to Machu Picchu before the crowds. We had to forsake the wake up tea in our tent, but the group really managed to get ready quickly and we were the second group out on the trail in the morning. Everyone managed to keep up an impressive pace together for almost 2 hours till we got to the sun gate where we got our first view of MP. To be honest this was a bit misty and not as great as I expected, however, once we descended closed and things cleared up a bit we got the real great postcard view. We took some team photos, I revealed myself as a Puma, and then we headed down for a bit of a rest at the entrance before going on a tour with Hubertsito for a couple of hours around the site. He was actually more informative and less frustrating to listen to hear this time. After that we had as much time to wander as we wanted and our ticket for the bus back to meet up in Aguas Cllientes. We were quite weary, and after less than an hour more Dayan, Madison and I headed back as Machu Picchu seemed best appreciated viewed from close above on the hill than wandering among it. It is amazing, but we were underwhelmed by some of the attractions, such as the rock shaped like a condor (or not), the rock sculpted like a Guinea Pig, and the rather phallic sundial, which was rather underwhelming despite being sold hard by Hubersito. It was still morning when we descended on the bus, but we'd been up for 8 hours!

I'm going to have to go now as I'm shattered and have to be up at 7am to go fly to the Galapagos tomorrow, so you'll have to wait at least a week for Aguas Cllientes and back to Cusco and all the rest. This has been rather rushed too, sorry!

Slumming it in our private tent eating our 3 course meal.

Crowds on the steep path up to Dead woman's pass.

Getting a lecture from Hubersito.

Some Inca Rubble.


There you go, Matchu Picchu.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Puno to Cuzcho

I'll start with a little diversion to back to Puno, as I totally forgot that the day I arrived I also went to the the Coca museum. The Coca section was quite small and basic; mostly reams of text, but quite informative. There was also a display of costumes for local dances, and quite an interesting video about them too (including the weird Waka Waka!). The strangest thing though, was that while I was there the background music included "The Dark Isle" played on the panpipes. Wasn't really expecting that.

Anyway, to get to Cusco I'd booked on the Inca bus, a posh tourist coach with a guide that stopped at various sites. I thought that since I was rushing through this area it would be good to see a bit more. It wasn't cheap, but within the daily budget. I think I was the only native English speaker on board, with lots of older Italians and French. An argetinian guy that had been on my Puno boat trip was also on board. The first stop was at a fairly crap museum in Pucara, but it was the first inca things I'd seen. It was also in a pretty town with a nice church on the square, and I bought a dodgy empanada thing off a street-vendor for 1 soles as I was starving. We did get tea on the bus, and stopped for a very nice buffet lunch where I certianly ate my fill, including trying cebiche for the first time (yum). The other stops were at the pass (Abra la Raya, 4319m), an inca site (Raqchi) and a church (in Andahuaylillas). The pass was just to take a few picture at the highest point on the trip, it was over 4000m and I got the altitude sickness headache for a little while here. The Inca site was quite good with I huge wall, and various other buildings in a decent state of repair. The Jesuit church was also interesting with impressive art works and alterpieces, and again it was on a lovely town squre, not really worth going much out of your way for though. The guide was reasonably informative too.

I got to Cusco at 5ish, and despite not knowing where I was Iwent for a walk with my rucksack to find the office of my Inca trail tour company as I had to register that day. Turned out I was heading in just about the correct direction, and I ended up there a bit tired and sweaty a little later. They wanted to me to pay my balance there in cash, and to know my accommodation for the pick up, so I had to go a roaming around town again, and finally found a cheap hostal quite a way away (I went for my own room rather than a dorm in a party hostel as I was knackered and wanted to be ready for the trail: because of the long boat trip in Puno it was like 3 days travelling in a row). That evening I ate in a restaurant with another comedy menu. Beef with tree sauce sounded interesting (actually three sauces) but I was intrigued that the drinks menu included "gin with gin", and this was not a mistranslation as the Spannish version said "gin con gin".

The next day I just did nothing. Got this blog up to date, skyped home, got my laundry done, bought some stuff I needed for the trail and braved the dodgy looking slightly hot shower. I was actually a bit sick, perhaps it was the empanada or the cebiche I ate the day before, and I wanted it out of my system before the Inca trail too! I packed my bags up for the trail and set my alarm for 4am so I could get my pick-up the next day for the Inca Trail!


At the top of the pass.
Some scousers had stolen  this poor alpacas legs.


Some Inca thingy wall watsit.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bolivia

Time spent: 10 days, did a lot.

On budget/time: Yes, spent less than Chile and Arg, but probably not enought to compensate for them.

Lost/stolen: My antibacterial handwash, that I'd carried all this was and hardly used. What a loss. It will be suitably mourned.

Sound of Bolivia: ¿Donde Esta Mi Padre? and all Theo's other whiney love songs, no question.

Taste of Bolivia: Cold rice? Maybe not. Had some good llama.

Highlights of Bolivia: Many great experiences, different to anything before: The salt flats, the mine, the gravity assisted mountain biking, the prison!

Drink of Bolivia: Cheap red wine, chilled to almost freezing was popular, though we had one of those vintages later at the correct temperature and it was great. Bolivian beer was generally unremarkable (and the Potosini quite bad) but the microbrewery beer at the hostel was tasty, and their dark beer "Negro" quite interesting.

Bolivia was chaotic but fun, I was ready for somewhere a bit more 'backward' and it was more of an experience. It's quite different to where I was before with a huge indigenous population, and traditional dress everywhere but the big city centres. Customer service was often surly, as they seem to care less about getting your money as being left in peace and getting home; not to be hassled is quite good, but you ofter have to hassle them to get what you want. The protests and elections shennanigans made it interesting too.

Lake Titicaca

It was about 4 hours from La Paz to Copacabana (on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca) on the bus. About an hour of it was spent crossing the lake at a narrow point on a strange ferry system. The bus was put on a raft thing, just big enough to accommodate it, and the passengers had to make there on way across and then meet up with it. I managed to get on the wrong bus momentarily on the other side. D'oh.

At Copacabana I had half an hour to wander around before my bus left for Puno (after I remembered to get my passport out my rucksack, I had to wander surrepticiously past a guard who was checking them when we got off at the ferry point). The post office, which I wanted to go to was shut, so any postcards from Bolivia will have a Peruvian stamp on them. Copacabana itself looked a bit scruffy, with lots of building sites, and it smelled. There were a few nice wee nooks, but I wasn't too disappointed to have given it a miss. I then left my jacket in the bus company office and nearly boarded the next bus without it, I was having quite a day! The next bus soon crossed the border, there I briefly spoke to another Scottish guy, from Kircaldy originally. Thats 2 other scots in SA now! I also tried to take the guards stamp with me when I left the customs office! The journey along the lake side was quite scenic, especially between the ferry and Copacabana

I got in to Puno about 5 and walked quite a way through markets with my rucksack, something I hadn't done for a while as when travelling with others a taxi becomes a reasonable option. I booked a bus tour to Cuzcho two days later, changed money and checked into quite a nice wee hostal, in a single room (well it had 3 beds in it) as I was ready for a rest and some privacy. It had a nice hot shower and a tv for some olympic watching, though it was a bit chilly. That night I had Alpaca for tea, yum, and zero cholesterol apparently, err great.

Next day I'd booked a tour to some of the islands on the lake. It seemed a bit of a farce at first when we weren't on the boat we expected, and more and more people kept getting shepherded on till it was quite packed. No brits now, once in Peru the demographics changed, there were more people, more older, more younger, lots of Americans and Spannish appeared. The first stop was on the Uros floating Islands, which was pretty cool.

They are, like it says on the tin, floating islands, made from blocks of the root systems of the local reeds lashed together and then covered with layer after layer of reeds. The houses and everything else were made of the reeds too. We got quite an informative demonstration and talk, but soon it was off to the proper island of Taquile. This was a 3 hour journey on the boat (only 30km, it was a slow boat). There it was a relatively stiff climb (especially at altitude) up to where we had a talk about local customs, lunch (including an infusion of local mint, which looked suspiciously like a stick in hot water), a very amaturish local dance show (crap might be a better word) and then we climed up to the local town square on the top of the hill. The island was very picturesque, quite Mediterranian looking. It was soon time to get back to the boat for the 3 hours back home. I hadn't brought my book, just my guide book, but I'd been talking to a Swedish girl at lunch and did so a lot of the way back. In the end it was a lot of travelling for not much sight seeing, but I think it's the only real way to see the lake and I quite like being on boats. The sun here is very penetrating so I hid in the inside deck most of the journey.

It was going to be another early 6am start to Cuzcho the next day and I hadn't been sleeping well, so it was a pretty early night, after trying to get this damn blog up to date!

Copacabana from the bus.

Me on the floating islands.


On Taquile Island.

La Paz

The bus left for La Paz at 730 in the evening, and was fairly uneventful until daybreak, apart for a late stop in the middle of the night for a wee and an egg and chip roll. When we awoke we realised we'd not been moving for quite a while. Turned out we were at a blockade just outside Ouro, miners this time. There were more of us than them, but they had dynamite. The usual tactic is apparently to get off the bus with your bags and walk through to the other side of the blockade (usually a few kms) and get on another bus there. However, rumours were starting to fly: there would be another blockade further on before La Paz, there was now a blockade somewhere behind as well so we couldn't return to Sucre. We stayed with the bus and were rewarded when a half hour amnesty was announced and we were allowed through, about 5 hours late by this point. When we got to the breakfast stop (around lunch time) we met again the French couple who'd been on the mine trip. They'd heard their bus wasn't going through the blockade anyway, walked for 2 hours in the cold with their packs, ridden on the back of a truck and were now negotiating to pay again for another bus to La Paz. They chose poorly, especially when on arrival in La Paz we saw their original bus pull in at the same time as us. Arriving into La Paz is quite spectacular. The city is in a valley on the plain, with huge mountian overlooking as well. As you descend into the valley you see cheap red-brick houses clinging to the steep sides... very impressive. We checked into the Adventure Brewhostel - yes, finally a hostel with its own microbrewery. It wasn't the cheapest hostel, but was very swish. We had just time for much needed showers (finally hot this time!) before having a brief walk into town, internetting and finding a place for dinner (not so easy). The problem with many of these Andean cities is that they have far too many steep slopes, especially a problem for Richard who had to keep stopping to cough up a lung. Anyway, we finally got a decent place after wandering past many shops selling dried llama fetuses (feti?), which are good luck apparently, though not for the llama. The bad luck for the llamas didn't end there as that's what we selected for dinner - and very nice too, a white meat, but quite steaklike, especially in the sauce it came with.

After dinner it was back to the bar in the hostel, as for every night in the hostel you get a free beer from their own microbrewed range, now that's civilised. We met Jodie, an English girl who we'd bumped into in the internet cafe earlier as well as Veronica from Glasgow and her friend. Veronica being this first scot I'd met in South America, despite meeting half the population of Ireland and lots of English, French and some Dutch. Anyway, a good night was had, with the microbrewed "Negro" going down worryingly easily at 7%. Things degenerated into er... Mario kart, where I performed shamefully - must have been the altitude. We left when they were very strongly hinting they wanted to shut the bar at 230am. This may not have been the best idea since Richard, Jodie and I were due to cycle down the worlds most dangerous road getting up at 630am the next morning.

So, the world most dangerous road... this is one of the big things to do while in La Paz. It doesn't come cheap, but you hope that you're getting a bike with decent brakes etc and don't want to skimp! It starts an hour or so from La Paz at a height of 4750m and finishes at a height of 1100m, so no, you don't have to do much pedaling! So how dangerous? Well 8 tourist have died on it since 2001, with many more badly injured. 200-300 used to die in traffic accidents every year but there is now a better road on the other side of the valley. Scary biscuits!

Well we turned up at the cafe we were meant to meet at at 715 rather the worse for ware, possibly still a little drunk, however, after breakfast and the bus journey we were raring to go. We were kitted out with bikes, waterproofs, helmets, goggles, gloves, and an all important snood. A safety briefing given, and the company were certainly very safe and professional. We set off on the first sections, which were on a normal sealed road, enjoying the freewheeling and getting used to the corners. The views were pretty grand, but you kept your eyes almost exclusively on the road ahead. We proceeded in shortish sections, from 5 minutes to half an hour, waiting for the slowies to catch up and having snacks and water. An hour or so in there was 2 uphill sections. We were given the option to do these in the van, as the altitude was still killer, but most declined and gave it a go. At the end of these sections was "heartbreak hill", where I think everybody had to get out and push. By this time I'd rediscovered muscle groups I'd forgotten I had, and they weren't very happy about it. After a bit more down hill we were on to the gravel track, and the most dangereous road proper. Only one lane wide, with cliffs of up to 600 ft on the side, this was fun! No really. Once you got used to the gravel you could let go a bit. There were a few rivers to cross and a waterfall to go under, and the whole thing was great fun and quite a buzz. We got to the bottom early afternoon, after descending 3600m over 60 km. At the bottom we went to an animal sactury for a free beer and a very nice buffet lunch, and a hot shower (there was also the option of a swimming pool, but our legs were very much against the 5 minute walk to get there). The animal sanctury also had some very entertaining spidermonkeys, that were desperate for attention, and threw Richards clothes in a puddle while he was showering. Obviously its not recommended that you take photos while you're cycling down, but they were selling dvds of photos the took afterwards, so I don't have any photos, but hope to get some of Richard who bought the dvd eventually. At the end of the trip we were also presented with our survivors T-shirts, all in all a very enjoyable day and a great experience.

It was a 3 hour bus trip back, and a return to the hostel bar for our free beer and to eat, after a late night-early start we were wilting a bit, Veronica popped in for her free beer eventually as well.

The next day the plan was to go to prison, the imfamous San Pedro prison no less. This is a trip that doesn't appear in the Lonely Planet or anything, but you hear lots about from travellers along the way. There is a special wing of the prison that houses all the Gringos, and some richer Bolivian prisoners. They pay to get into this section, and pay for their rooms, a varying amount to the last occupant depending on how good it is. They have it very easy for a South American jail, with cable TV and access to drink and drugs. We just phoned up one of the South African prisoners inside, whose number we'd been given, and arranged to go that afternoon. The guards let us in and we were taken first for an introductory talk by a South African woman (not a prisoner) who claimed to be working for a charity for imprisoned gringos, though its not so clear exactly what she did. There were afew cockroaches around, and we did get bitten by things as we sat on the mattresses, so its not that luxurious, but they still have it very easy. We got tour from another South African chap, quite incomprehensible most of the time, too much marching powder I think, and also saw his room and met his wife and daughter (families are allowed to stay in this wing with the prisoners, but can leave when they like). Well that's a brief description, but all in all it was a truly surreal experience, and I must say I was quite glad when they let us out. One of the strangest things I've done.

That night was my last night in La Paz, and last with Richard who I'd travelled with for 10 days, so we thought it would be good to go out properly. While having our free drink in the hostel bar we also met a couple who Richard had met before in San Pedro, where they were waiting for new passports after having them nicked. They'd just had their wallet stolen upon arrival in La Paz and said there was quite a queue to declare such things in the Police station. We headed out by taxi to try and hit the town. The first few places we tried were shut, and at this point we were cursing Lonely Planet. Then we found an English bar that was open, but would serve only vodka (because it looks like water) as there was actually an alcohol sales ban in place before the referendum 2 days later. Eventually we went back to the hostel bar which was still serving but a bit dead (many people seemed to have heeded advice to get out of Bolivia before the referendum) for a disappointing early night.

I decided not to stay in Copacabana on the Bolivian side of lake Titicaca next night, but to head on to Puno on the Bolivian side so that I didn't get stuck, which could have meant not making it to my Inca trail on time. I was able to turn up at the bus station next morning and get on a bus almost straight away.


I only have 2 photos from La Paz, so here's one of them.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sucre

When we got to the bus station we got straight onto a bus to sucre for 1 pound 50p. So much for the blockade. The road to Sucre was actually proper scenic! There were trees and everything, something we hadn't seen for about a week. Eventually we saw where a earth barrier accross the road had been bulldozed, obviously one end of the blockade, and also various places where people had dug up a bit of the tarmac. When we got to the bus station we were even able to get a bus ticket to La Paz overnight on the next night just like we wanted! However our taxi to a hostal wasn't allowed into town due to police blockades, we eventually got pretty close and walked the rest of the way. Where we stayed was pretty swish looking, but lacking in hot water. We soon walked into the main square and saw many people milling around, waiting to make a march or protest, but not much happening yet, so we went and had another very nice dinner. Next day we wandered back to the square and this time there was lots going on, people gathered to protest about pensions, military marching bands playing (it was the day before Independence day) and shoe shine boys continually hasseling us. We bumped into the Irish girls from the mine in Potosi again, turned out they'd been delayed by washing not being ready and bits missing... more Bolivian Chaos. We had a wander round some other squares and streets - central Sucre was very nice looking. Then we went for some museums, which weren't open in the morning. Our first attempt to get into the natural history museum led us to the museum next door, an overpriced and crappy collection of some dead guys glitzy furniture. The natural history museum itself was at least cheap, with a motley collection of cross-eyed stuffed animals. Last up was the main attraction, the hall where the independence declaration was signed, now a museum. Unfortunately while we'd been in the other museums a long protest march had been heading throught he square letting of bangers. Now there was a rally going on right outside the museum so they wouldn't let us in. Eventually the orator gave up and we got in. We had the same "no English tour, Yes English tour, wait 30 mins, go there now" shennanigans before being led on what was an amazingly interesting and informative tour by a very professional guide, where we learned much about Bolivian history and current affairs. On our way out we took the opportunity to get our faces on local TV as one of the protest leaders was being interviewed and we just happened to walk past and grin like a couple of gringo idiots. Then it was off to the bus station where we dined on cold chips and colder rice before getting out bus. An Australian girl who'd been in out hostel in Potosi recognised Richard by his cough, and we also met a French couple again who'd been on our mine tour. We set of to overnight to La Paz on our nice comfy cama bus (with scabby blankets) with the threat of blockades once more in the air..

Photos:

Cathedral in the main Plaza.


Military band.


In the market.
(I may have better photos, but they're not all uploaded yet.

Potosi

The road from Uyunyi was scenic in a very barren and ugly way, interesting but not pretty. The journey was around 6 hours and we got to Potosi mid-afternoon. First job was to try and get a bus out to Sucre for the following evening. After a short hike with our packs and asking at about a hundred bus companies it became clear none would sell us a ticket, saying something about a national blockade. So we dediced to proceed to a hostel, the rather cosy Koala Den. There we found out we could do the mine trip the next day anyway as the miners had Sunday off, so we booked that up for Monday and found out a bit more about the strikes which were causing trouble, with many people upset at old Evo in the run up to a referendum that was happening on the 10th (today as I write this). That discovered Potosi had a very nice centre, even if the sprawl on the hills around was a bit ugly. I started to fell a little the effects of altidue as Potosi is the highest city in the world at 4060m and I'd stopped the pills. I remember that number as that night we had a very nice dinner at bar 4060. The next day we went in the morning to the Royal Mint. As the silver mine at Potosi financed the Spannish empire through much of it's glory days, much of it's coinage was minted here. After some confusion we eventually got a half-decent English tour (no English tour, English tour in 30 minutes, no English tour, English tour NOW). The rest of the day was mainly spent internetting and sleeping as most things were shut for Sunday. We did see rather a lot of Marching brass bands, which seems to be a big thing in Bolivia. In the evening it turned out almost all restaurants were shut, and the one that was open had no meat, no salad, and few beers. Maybe it was the blockade or just general Bolivian Chaos. The next day was out trip down the silver mine. An early start and we first went to get out protective gear. Then to buy gifts for the miners - fizzy drinks, coca leaves and dynamite, and some dynamite for ourselves too. We went to visit a plant where the process the ore, but then it was on up the mountain for the main event, descending the mine. This was a fairly hairy affair. The tunnel first went 400m into the mountain, generally not big enough for me to stand. Then we had to descent to the next level down, which basically involved crawling and sliding down a shaft. The air was full of dust making breathing very difficult, we had bandanas to cover our mouths, but that then became to hot. We pushed on a bit to see some miners at work using techniques seemingly unchanged for 200 years. They spent around a day making a long hole with a big chisel and hammer, and then stuck some dynamite in it. And repeat. After seeing this the two Irish girls in our group decided they'd had enough and got out of there. Our guide decided that without them we were up to a challenge and directed us to climb and slide down another steep shaft while he took the stairs round the corner. We made it and continued down another level and found some more miners working in the old way. It was then time to get out and lungs were really burning from the dust. Crawling back up you were just thinking of getting out, and thinking things would be easier if you weren't 6´2´´. We were very relieved to see the light at the end of the tunnel and cough and splutter our way out. We spent around 2 hours underground. Of course the miners do this every day... for 50 Bolivianos (less than 4 pounds). There are children as young as 12 down there, and if you start that young, life expectancy is 28. Starting at 18 you should make 40. Scary biscuits. After recovering we got to set our dynamite outside. There was a 3 minute fuse, so we all passed it round with the fuse burning for photos, and then boom! (In truth slightly disappointing to see but loud.) After a quick cheap and crappy lunch and well deserved beer we headed to the bus station on spec, knowing that the road to Sucre we wanted had been blockaded the day before.

Photos:

Main Plaza in Potosi with the mountain containing the mines in the background.


Down the mine.


Survived the mine, but yes that is a lit dynamite bomb.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Salyar de Uyunyi Trip

From San Pedro de Atacama I set out on a three day trip by jeep across the salt flats in the high Altiplano of southern Bolivia. There were five of us in our jeep along with out driver Theo, Alexandra and Isabela from Poland (travelling independently though), Jo Jo from Germany, Richard from England and me. We adopted the moniker 'Ill team' or 'team sickness' as quite a few of us were a bit sick, especially Richard with his spectacularly hacking cough. The first few stops were at salt lakes, Laguna Blanco and Laguna Verde or something like that, which were of course coloured white and green. You have to realise that although we were in the tropics we were up on the Altiplano, mostly at heights between 3600 and 5000m up, so it was well baltic during the day, and a scary -20 or something during the night. The height meant that we would also be prone to altitude sickness, Richard had a large stack of altidude pills, and I took some to ameliorate the effects, it was only after that he told me about the side effects; tingly fingers and a blue tinge to vision were definitely experienced, along with making any fizzy drink just taste plain weird. The next stop was as the hot springs, which were much smaller than those at Pucon, but at an ideal temperature. Unfortunately you had to get changed outside in the freezing balticness under your small towel, it was very tempting to remain in the water indefinately. Another stop was at the geyser or fumerole fields, these were nearly at 5000m and there was plenty of bubbling and steaming going on. We'd had a very late breakfast stop so we had lunch when we arrived at our final stop, at Laguna Colarado, a red and white salt lake with some flamingos in. There was time for a walk up to a viewpoint nearby over the lake in the afternoon. The accommodation was somewhat basic and staffed by grumpy Bolivian women in traditional dress. They did have nice soup though. In the evening we had a few bottles of localish wine, which was not at its best when chilled to about freezing, the bottle with a poem on it was the best, obviously infused with culture. Also here we first discovered that most Bolivians and most travellers seem to have been brought up in a barn, and didn't understant that leaving a door open when it was -20 or something outside is a bad idea. Next day we had breakfast and did what morning ablutions we could tolerate given that the bathroom floor had ice on it. Indeed one of our party managed to yank the toilet cistern of the wall, which actually made the dour local women laugh as they tried to stem the flow and immenent formation of an ice rink. This day we had a bit more driving and had a few more stops at viewpoints at lakes, and at some interesting rock formations. We also came upon some middle of nowhere villages that were pretty desparate looking, including where we stopped for lunch (nice soup again) and one where there seemed to be an abandoned station. When you see some photos you'll realise how barren the landscape was (moonlike?) with practically no vegetation. Though we did eventually see some vicu├▒as (wild llama like creatures). We also stopped for the obligratory changing of a flat tire. In the evening we had slightly better (more insulated) accomodation behind a village right on the edge of the main salt flat. We had a wander around this one donkey town, below cactus hill. The donkey was the only sign of life, thought there seemed to be some scattered llama legs randomly left around! That night we again had dinner, chilled red wine and coughing fits. There was curious incident in the night time with a somnambulent German finding his way into the 'wrong' bed, as with most things lets just put it down to the effects of altitude. On the final day it was on to the salt flats proper - just flat whiteness all around. This is a great oportunity for lots of silly photos as you can mess with perspective... cue giant penguin. The main stop was at "fish island" and rocky cactus strewn island on the salt flat where you can climb to the top, which is reasonably strenuous at altitude. At the top we found a sign commemoreating the 1st of August, and what do you know, it was the 1st of August. We got some more team photos of out sick team, taken by out official photographer from out rival team, christened team loser. It was then that we realised that there was some blood near the 1st of August sign where people had left offerings to Pachamama (the local mother earth god; our team managed to contribute a sachet of mayonnaise and a small necklace I got in a surprise package in Chile). Further investigations nearby revealed a decapitated and disembowelled sheep, obviously a sacrifice on this auspicious date. On a different note, throughout the trip we had been subjected to the one CD that Theo our driver seemed to own, on constant repeat. This consisted mainly of whiny love songs (in Spannish) which seemed quite unbefitting for a stocky aging Bolivian with half a mouthfull of teeth. The CD did grow on us eventually, especially certain tracks such as "¿Donde esta mi Padre?" which we adopted and tried to sing atop fish island. Upon decending we found the local celebrations in full swing, with some drumming and dancing, yes, a few of the bowler hatted local women were actually dancing with gringos and smiling! The local men had the beers out. All in the name of Pachamama, no doubt. Back in the jeep and the final stop was at a salt hotel (building made out of blocks of salt) where we again took some silly photos. Just the vast flat expanse of the salt flats that day was amazing. We got into Uyunyi -afternoon to discover that it was a shithole. The first thing we did was book our travel out, with JoJo and Izabella of to La Paz early evening, Alexandra back south that night, and myself and Richard heading to Potosi early next day. We had lunch, internetted then it was just about time for dinner. The dinner restaurant was interupted by a fairly dire singer coming in to serenade us and ask for a donation (not forthcoming). The highlight of the night however was the comedy translations on the English menu, when it finally came (service in Bolivia generally seeming a fairly grudging afterthought). It was hard to choose between ordering "Fried Pope, with Salad" or the undecipherable "Male Itch, without salad". We were pretty glad to leave Uyunyi the next morning, en route to the highest city in the world.

Los Photos:


Me at the Border.


Hot Springs!


Team ill at Plaza 1ro de Agusta on 1ro de Agusta, sheep blood not visible.


Look, I'm pure wee!


Arrrghhh, el pinguino grande!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Chile

Time spent: About 16 days roughly (In 2 spells, not counting the 3 hours or so on the Ushuaia-Rio Galleagos journey)

On budget/time: Spent a lot, but went on some really great tours, can hopefully make up for it in the Andean countries.

Lost/stolen: Lost my glasses in the hot springs near Pucon, D'oh!

Sound of Chile: They seemed to know their British Indie in various places, but it may always be remembered for Any Winehouse, Shakira and Sophie Ellis Bextor who all had their moments.

Taste of Chile: Lomo a la Pobre gets a mention; Poor mans steak, it comes with fried eggs and onions and chips. It's a no brainer.

Highlights of Chile: The Navimag and Torres del Paine definitely win. Santiago was a decent city, Valpairiso a bit of a let down.

Drink of Chile: Where to start, where to end? Cristal and Esciudo beers come in 1 litre bottles. Ron Silver, Long Island Ice teas, Pisco sour, and Frutilla Colada all get a mention. I didn't lower myself to try the local speciality in Punta Arenas - Fanta Schopp, which is a Fanta shandy. How wrong.

I liked Chile, it was pretty easy to travel and meet people, though some of the cities and towns were a bit scabby and uninviting. I had a great time on the bus tour down throught the lakes, though the weather was dire so we didn't get to do as many activities as we'd like (except drinking). When the Navimag was delayed two days by weather I was considering cancelling and missing out Patagonia. I'm so glad I didn't as the Navimag was great, as was Torres del Paine, and the weather, though not perfect, was pretty good.

Argentina

Time spent: about 2 weeks
bites:none
On budget/time: slightly over-budget, too many long expensive bus journeys
Lost/stolen: Nothing I think!
Sound of Argentina: Varied a lot. El Calafate was Reggae town, local band in Salta with Rasputin style singer was good for a change, excellent music in Clan Hostel BA.
Taste of Argentina: Steak!
Highlights of Argentina: Glacier was top, BA a lovely city.
Drink of Argentina: Got on to the vino tinto a bit here, had the odd Malbec, but on the beer front Quillmes was fine and Salta not so good.

Argentina was nice, easy to travel in, and as modern as you could want. I found it quite easy to meet people and had a good time here, barring a wobble when I was feeling sick in Salta. I enjoyed Patagonia, and spent a lot of time travelling (at least 4000kms) on very modern comfortable buses. Food and drink was very nice and the cities and towns were generally nicer than those in Chile I felt.

San Pedro de Atacama

The bus from Salta to San Pedro was Semi-cama again, and I was sat beside a nice Irish guy. The journey went fairly quickly, for the first time in a while it was actually a scenic journey, with views of multi-coloured hills and winding roads across the Andes. It featured a stop at an extremely windswept and barren customs post on the Chile-Argentina border. Here a vindictive customs official put the border stamp right on top of my Ushuaia fin del Mundo stamp, that I'd gone to the end of the world to get! What a scumbag! There was a strange juxtaposition of on-board films, with Rambo 4 followed by Sex in the City. We actually got to San Pedro much earlier than expected, and I found it to be a very pleasant little place. After some consideration I decided that since I'd lost a lot of days in Salta I would head straight out on the Salt flats tour the next morning, as many of the activities around San Pedro were similar to those included on the tour, and also Bolivia would be much cheaper! I checked into a hostel, where I was in a very social dorm full of anglophones. I got my tour booked and had dinner in a nice restaurant with an open fire in the town. As seems normal here a local band with pan-pipes passed through to do a couple of songs. The opening number of ¨Close to you¨was not what I expected. I went back to the dorm (which was a bit more like sick-ward, myself included), had a bit of a chat with people and then had a much needed early night in a very comfortable bed. It was a fairly early rise the next day to head off on the three-day tour across the salt flats in Bolivia - it was an hour in a minibus to the Bolivian border, where we got divided up into our jeeps for the rest of the journey.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Salta

I travelled to Salta on the full cama bus from Buenos Aires. This meant as well as a fully reclining chair I got my tea on the bus and a nice lunch in place by the road. The journey took about 20 hours and was very smooth. I was only goingto Salta because it was en route to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. I planned to stay maybe one or two nights depending when I could get the bus. Much to my dismay I found the next bus was 3 days later, and full, so I would have to spend 5 nights in Salta. I found a pretty mediocre (at best) hostel and spent the evening wandering around town feeling pretty sick and alone, but I did spoil myself and have the biggest steak I have seen in my life. Next day I was feeling pretty rough, too many nights on buses and late nights in BA probably took their toll. To see all the sights in Salta would take less than a day, and I certainly wasn't feeling up to any of the expensive adventure sports you could do nearby, or doing any of the expensive local tours which would involve most of the day on a bus again, so I resolved to take it fairly easy, get this blog up to date, do some reading and so on.

On the first day I went up the cable car to the mountain overlooking the town, did some internet, and sat in a cafe on the square drinking tea and reading the crappy books that were the only English ones available in the hostel bookswap. Had another nice huge dinner on my own on the second night, but was still sick and lonely and I hardly slept that night due to illness, noise and whatever else. The next morning I'd kind of resolved to check out and go somewhere else a bit more expensive and try to get a single room, but I checked out a few places and they were too expensive or full, so I gave up. Just more tea, books and internet for the rest of the day, but then I met a couple of nice young English guys in my dorm and time became much easier to pass! That night we went out for dinner along with a French guy, and went on and had a few drinks afterwards. Next day we decided to see the new Batman Movie, and after had lunch, internetted, and checked out some local museums first.

The first was about local high altitude archeology, and the discovery of three mummified children on top of a nearby volcano. One of the mummies was on display, which was good to see, but other than that I felt most of the displays didn't tell me what I wanted to know. There was also a small art museum, which grew on me a bit, but had nothing spectacular. Batman however was extremely spectacular! Afterwards we had dinner in a place with a gaucho dance show and then a band (not that we knew when we went in and got stuck in the front row seats) where I again ate obscene amounts of grilled meats. Afterwards we went back to the hostel and had a couple of beers and played some cards. On the last day in town there wasn't much left to do, so I followed the pattern of earlier days. Lunch was local 'Lorco', which contained slightly to many intestines for my liking, and dinner was a huge pile of empanadas before a few beers back at the hostel with another French guy. In the end Salta really grew on me as a town, it had some very nice buildings, squares, restaurants and bars, and spending the time there wasn't as hard as I feared it might be. My 7am bus to San Pedro involved a pre 6am rise as it was a bit of walk.