There and back again

There and back again
Macuto, Venezuela

Macuto, Venezuela

We’re afraid we don’t have much good to say about our experience in Venezuela. Maybe we weren’t really up for it as it was an enforced overnight stay inbetween us getting home, but we reckon even on balance it wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience.

We just had the one night here after re-jigging our flights, and after discovering that the airport was a couple of hours from Caracas (in good traffic) up on the Caribbean coast, we opted to stay in a little seaside hotel 20 minutes from the airport in Macuto. We had booked and were to have a driver collect us at the airport. Seemed simple enough.

Now Venezuela is one of those places with a lot of false markets paid for by its oil revenues, e.g. petrol prices and the official Bolivar exchange rate. The black market exchange rate was anywhere from 10-50% better than the one used by official channels (like banks and credit cards) so we had plenty of USD cash and we were looking to swap with locals. This does set up some awkward circumstances whereby you don’t know how legal the whole thing is, and plenty of your potential money-changing partners are characters of questionable salubriousness.

Our driver kept us waiting at arrivals for about an hour while we wandered aimlessly around, attempting to casually signal to any non-official looking locals that we had hard currency to change simply with a a smile and slight roll of the eyes. It worked quite well surprisingly and when the driver eventually did turn up we had a few rates, the baggage porters quoting the most aggressive prices. Our driver was surly, demanded payment in dollars immediately, and proceeded to take us to our hotel via a 20 minute wait at a petrol station (he did fill up his SUV for about £3.20, so no wonder there was a queue). The hotel was pretty grubby, and we settled down in the restaurant for some heavily over-priced and under-flavoured food. The romantic post-dinner stroll along the Caribbean waterfront was not to be – the streets were dark and empty and from what we’d heard of Venezuela we didn’t want to chance it without knowing the area better. So for our last night of the trip we headed back up to our bedroom, read, and watched some Spanish tv. Nothing like going out with a bang.

In the light of day we risked a quick stroll around the environs. ‘Caribbean’ conjures up certain images which this waterfront unfortunately fell some way short of. There was a tatty restaurant, a beach of sorts (it may have just been a sandy car park near the sea), and an oil tanker sitting at anchor just off the coast. St Lucia it was not.

More than ready to get back to the airport, we were picked up by grumpy driver once more and arrived with ample time to spare. We sat in the departure lounge with faces glued to the windows waiting for our Iberia-sponsored rescue plane to land. We were by now very excited about getting home, seeing our family, friends, and Nan, again.

The journey back went well, our overnight Iberia plane was last furbished in the 1970s, but aside from that it was all smooth with a short connection in Madrid. In the clear skies over the English Channel we were even able to spot Southampton, the Hamble, and Ritchie’s parent’s house. Ritchie’s dad was on hand to collect us at Heathrow, and he whisked us back to Hedge End. We were home.


Cusco: The Return

Cusco: The Return
Cusco, Peru

Cusco, Peru

We were changing accommodation for our last few nights after a curious inquiry at the rather posh-looking Cusco Suites had led to the price come crashing down every time we said ‘no’ until it was very reasonable indeed. Cusco Suites is the ex-townhouse of a lawyer, which has recently been converted to a B&B-type-place. They were evidently quite new to the hospitality business and we had a few odd experiences… it dawned on us that we may be guinea pigs and hence the cheap price.

Anyway the building itself was fabulous, we were in the 2nd courtyard back from the street on the top floor, which was very peaceful, even if the shower did have a tendency to electrocute you in the morning.

Having spent a decent amount of time in Cusco we were happy to amble around leisurely now, going back to see the things we really liked again, and meeting up with Dee and Victoria for dinner and drinks for the last time before they headed to Panama and us to Venezuela.

So the day of our departure arrived, and our tortuous-sounding three-day jaunt back to Blighty began. If only we had known what was coming…

We’d booked ourselves on the 7.30 am, the earliest slot we could find out of Cusco for the hour long flight to Lima. Our connecting LAN flight left Lima at 12.45 and we didn’t want to take any chances. This was with the Internationally acclaimed ‘Star Peru’, even though LAN themselves offered the route they didn’t leave till 9.10am. “No problems!” Our travel agent exclaimed with a broad smile on her face. Yet again, we was done.

At check-in the attendant asked us in passing if we had a connecting flight that day, alarm bells should have rung. Sure enough, in the departure lounge, an announcement rang out that due to ‘bad weather in Cusco’ our flight was delayed by one hour. It was a beautiful, sunny morning. Starting to guess at the real situation (that our Star Peru ground staff had absolutely no idea where our plane was) we told them about our connection again and much to our alarm (as we still technically had loads of time) they started to panic. We were taken out of the departure lounge back to ground-side where they explained to the LAN desk what was going on, and we checked in for our connecting flight. They then told us that they would ask the Captain for permission for us to take our back-packs onto the plane so that we didn’t have to wait for them in Lima. They were clearly expecting a close call.

So we sat in the departure lounge for three and a half hours in total, as LAN planes landed and took off for fun, unfazed by the azure skies and bright sunshine that had so daunted the Star Peru pilot corps. We tried a couple of times to get ourselves switched to LAN, but to no avail. Eventually our boys got us airborne, at 10:30, and we landed into the haze of Lima at 11.45, exactly one hour before take-off. The really interesting thing is that the way our round-the-world ticket works, if we miss one flight the rest of the ticket collapses and we lose the remaining flights – and we were already checked in for this next flight, which meant we couldn’t alter the ticket, so it was make this plane, or bust.

We were greeted in Lima by a Star Peru customer service agent whose expert advice was to ‘hurry’, so Jie ran off to the check-in desks whilst Ritchie waited for the bags (captain’s permission had evidently not been forthcoming). The LAN check-in girl was a bit confused by our arrival and explained that basically, we were checked in but there was no way for her to check our bags, so our only option was to try to take them through security to the gate, where the stewardesses could sling them in the hold. With half an hour till take-off we raced through the airport, both lugging our big backpacks as well as all our hand luggage. We paid our departure tax, and ran into the security area, where we had to quickly strip our luggage of liquids/scissors etc. as they were now effectively going through as hand baggage. Out flew a stream of sunscreen, mosquito repellent, toothpaste, shampoo, perfume, and Ritchie’s Vietnamese whistle which was metallic, and slightly pointy. Good job we were carrying backpacks, as suitcases wouldn’t have fitted through the scanners and we would have been stopped right there.

With contraband thus removed we staggered the remainder of the way to the gate where we left our backpacks at the door of plane and collapsed into our seats. We’d made the flight to Venezuela, and therefore we still had tickets home.

Camino Inca

Camino Inca
Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru

Cold and early we boarded our bus in the dark, empty, streets of Cusco and headed out into the Sacred Valley as the sun rose. We passed the railway bridge that had been washed away in the January floods, and parked up in a sports field just short of ‘Kilometre 82’, now the farthest extent of the trains from Aguas Calientes. From here the train follows the river up the valley to Aguas Calientes which is the modern town that sits directly below Machu Picchu. The train is the only method of land transport for the town of Aguas Calientes, and the buses that they have there for shuttling people to MP have to be brought in on the trains!

With the sun on our backs, we set off at a brisk pace, steadily climbing as we went. Our altitude training soon began to tell as some of the others in the group began struggling at the inclines. Ritchie dished out some coca leaves for chewing to help them, but the effects seemed marginal. Unperturbed we marched on, having plenty of time at the front to chat with our guide.

For our group of 16 hikers, we had 3 guides and we reckon 21 porters who carried all our tents, food, equipment etc. When we had set off in the morning they were busy packing up all our stuff and then, an hour or so later, they had snaked past us with all the gear, practically running up the mountain. When lunchtime came around we arrived at a lonely farmhouse where our porters had been busying themselves erecting a small marquee with table and chairs and cooking up a fantastic lunch. In what became an embarrassing habit, the porters all assembled as we arrived, panting and wheezing, and applauded our efforts – these the men who had overtaken us hours ago, with all our kit on their backs!

At this stage on the trail we were still near (very scattered) human settlements, so every now and again we’d have a herd of goats coming the other way, or have to stop and be overtaken by a donkey train taking supplies up into the mountains. We had some scattered rain on that first afternoon, but overall the weather held out and we arrived at our evening camp (tents and everything already assembled), exhausted but exhilarated, and ready for the popcorn and mint tea that were being served up as hors d’oeuvres. Dinner was, again, plentiful and surprisingly varied, and delicious. It was worth paying the extra to come with these guys.

We awoke very early for the dreaded day 2. Officially the hardest day, it involved traversing the pleasant-sounding ‘dead woman’s pass’ (we were told that this was due to the shape of the rocks resembling a lady lying down, but we’re not so sure). We were woken by a ‘knock’ on our tent door, which was followed by two hot cups of coca tea being pushed through to us. Bleary eyed we peered outside to find a bowl of hot water on the ground for us to wash with. These porters were rapidly becoming our favourite people ever.

We pushed on for many hours that day. A lot of the group were still struggling with the altitude, and the mountains weren’t helping. We conquered all 4215m of Dead Woman’s Pass, but there was still more climbing after that. Another epic lunch kept us going, and right at the end of the day, in fading light and with a thick fog over it we came to the most impressive Inca ruins yet; a huge complex perched on an outcrop that was amazingly intact. With no-one else around (all the other Inca-trekkers follow an slower schedule than SAS) and with the dim light and fog it was very atmospheric. We lingered, hoping to soak up some of the history, before turning and shuffling the remaining 500 metres to camp.

A glorious morning awaited us the next day, and the fort ruin from the previous evening was visible today sitting up on the mountain free from fog with commanding views over the valley below. After breakfast we set out on what was probably our favourite section of the walk. Flat (!!), with the glorious sunshine and spectacular views, both of the valleys below and the flora surrounding us, we spent a very pleasant morning. A steep 2,000-step downhill section took its toll on everyone’s knees, but by now the prospect of our 3rd night camp, within striking distance of Machu Picchu and replete with hot showers and cold beers, was forefront in everyone’s minds and we soldiered on, arriving mid-afternoon for a late lunch, but hours ahead of the other groups that would be joining us that night.

We promptly drunk the place out of beers, but at least we did it early so that we could get to bed on time and ready for our early morning start the next day. We were 8th in line at the entrance to the Machu Picchu national park at 5am the next morning, and from there it was still another couple of hours climb until we finally reached the Sun Gate, and could look down on the lost city of Machu Picchu, bathed in a glorious sunrise. Except it was cloudy. We waited as a crowd gathered, the morning mist gradually evaporating under the sun’s rays. There were several false cries of ‘there it is!!’ as the clouds shifted, with people pointing wildly at piles of rocks in completely the wrong direction. When the mists finally did part there was no mistaking where it was.

We wandered down, taking pictures every other step, and did our tour of the city. Needless to say it is an amazing sight. It is sooo large, you can wander the streets, houses, and temples for hours. With the tour completed we were given a choice: depart for Aguas Calientes where we had a buffet lunch waiting at our hotel…. or we could do the extra hour-long ascent of Wayna Picchu, one of the mountains that towers over the city. For some reason, after four days walking and climbing we thought it might be nice to do a bit more so we huffed, puffed and sweated our way up to the top, where we realised that maybe it wasn’t such a clever idea. Never mind, we were there now and so we sat around admiring the view and trying to picture the Condor shape that Machu Picchu is supposed to have when viewed from above.

We enjoyed some off-piste exploration of parts of the city as we made our way slowly to the entrance to catch the bus down to our hotel, every now and again running in to a stray Llama wandering around. Aguas Calientes (the new town down in the valley) has a hot spring complex which is particularly appealing after a 4 day trek so we made straight for there and a good soak. We slept well that night and in the morning caught the Inca Train back to Kilometre 82 where we had started from.

On the way back from Aguas Calientes we were dropped at Ollantaytambo, in the sacred valley. We were nearing our limit for being able to be absorb Inca ruins, but weren’t quite there yet so we took another tour around this spectacular location. Set at a junction between the sacred valley and a smaller joining valley you could see from the top of the hillside ruins why they had built there as it gave you great views in all 3 directions. After the tour (where we felt we had been able to ask some very advanced Inca questions as a result of what we’d learned at MP), we headed into the very quaint town on the valley floor. Various streams flowed beside the streets as we wandered through the low grid of simple houses looking for somewhere to get lunch. Eventually we found a pretty little courtyard and settled for the afternoon… it was dark before our shared taxi (i.e. someone’s private car) got us back to Cusco.

Good times in the city of the Incas

Good times in the city of the Incas
Cusco, Peru

Cusco, Peru

Cuzco deserves its plaudits. It sits nestled in a valley surrounded by lush green hils (one of which proclaims ‘Viva Peru’ in letters goodness knows how high) and it has retained a lot of its colonial charm, especially in the old town area. We were staying in a classically laid-out old townhouse that fronted onto the street but had an open central courtyard which the rooms faced onto. We took breakfast out in the courtyard of a morning, and felt a bit like lords of the manor for the first few days as we were the only guests.

We soon got down to exploring town. The central square is fantastic, huge and open, with a cathedral on one side, a church on the other, and arcades of shops and restaurants filling in the gaps. Enjoyable once you get used to constantly turning down massages and helicopter trips to the Nazca Lines at every step. We went to see the market which was impressive, and as is our wont we sat down to try some local-style lunch there, which was some sort of chicken and pasta soup.

We decided to do a DIY tour of some of the sacred valley of the Incas, so we set off for a little bus station about 10 minutes from the main square and boarded the bus bound for Pisac. We repeated the name of the place that we wanted to get off (Tambomachay!) continously to the driver until he realised that we were dumb tourists who needed to be told when to get off. The bus set off winding its way up the steep hills behind Cusco, and sure enough when we arrived he turned and shouted “Tambomachay!”, at which point half the bus got off as well. From there it is a leisurely 10km dawdle back down to Cusco that takes you past or through 4 sets of Inca ruins, building in impressiveness to the final one, Sacsayhuaman (or Sexy woman to tourists) which is perched on the crest of the hill overlooking the city below. Whilst Ritchie busied himself exploring an underground tunnel network (bring torch) Jie got chatting to a guy who hangs around waiting to guide tourists. The ruins are so large, and interesting, that we thought it was worthwhile and so he gave us the tour. It was a great tour, really worth having the local knowledge – he told us how Sacsayhuaman was the head of a giant puma that includes the city of Cusco, he showed us the animal patterns in the stonework, and even distracted his mate the security guard so that we could clamber to the top of the hill to see the base of the former tower and look straight down onto Cusco. Unfortunately we’ve forgotten his name.

Cusco was also a culinary delight – with so many tourists to cater for there are all types available and all wallet-sizes catered for. Jie insisted that we try Peruvian Chinese and it was so good we went back. Other notable mentions go to 2 Nations (the other nation being Oz) for fantastic food, and Victor Victoria, a local lunch place with great food and very friendly staff.

One night we took in a pub quiz in the local British pub, just the two of us as ever, and came in 2nd place. We were pretty pleased with ourselves, especially when the quiz organisers congratulated us and asked if we could join them again the following week, an invitation we had to decline as we had a date with the Inca Trail.

Copacabana – Cusco. Worst. Journey. Ever.

Copacabana – Cusco. Worst. Journey. Ever.
Juliaca, Peru

Juliaca, Peru

Travelling South America is a tale of bus journeys, and we saved the worst for last. Sure, we’ve had worse conditions – hotter more cramped buses (Moldova), terrible roads and loud music (Laos), we knew that would happen and accepted them, but what made this one worse was that it was so unexpected and could, nay should, have been better. There are plenty of nice coaches around, the roads are generally good, but somehow we ended up in the clutches of (what can only very loosely be described as a travel company) Colectur. We met outside the little booth in Copacabana where we had purchased our tickets, the little old pig-tailed lady smiling sweetly at us as we unknowingly began our day’s torture. A tiny little minibus picked us up, bus number one. Our bags were slung up on the roof, we hung around waiting for more people, the exhaust pipe fell off on the way to the border. All pretty standard and not too much of a problem so far. We were dropped off ahead of Bolivian customs and had to lug all our stuff across and into Peru, where we came out the other side ‘sans tickets’ (the old bus driver had those – he’d turned back at the border) and mildly bemused. Eventually we were herded up and put on an old, shaky, but slightly larger, bus. Which promptly had to stop for petrol and to pick up a variety of locals and their goods. The large, modern, comfortable, (normal), coaches that had set out at the same time as us from Copacabana for Cusco, were by now long gone.

The goods we had picked up were clearly contraband; as we approached a makeshift customs checkpoint in the road there was a flurry of activity up front as a Bolivian woman quickly unwrapped a container that had been sitting in the aisle, jumped off the bus only to appear moments later without it. Meanwhile the driver was busy arranging a blanket over his knees which shielded from view whatever it was that he was keeping in the footwell. We were stopped at the checkpoint but the driver pointed out that the bus was full of tourists so we were waved through, to much high-fiving by the locals onboard. Next up was Puno, where our by now clearly unofficial bus stopped near the bus station (it wasn’t allowed inside) and we had to gather all our bags again to go inside and find bus number 3.

In the confusion (none of us tourists knew what was going on) we demanded that we were going to Cuzco ‘directo’ and were taken by our ‘guide’ to another company’s counter where new tickets were printed for us and we were directed to a bus scheduled to leave in 4 minutes. Trying to board however, we were told that we hadn’t paid the ‘bus terminal tax’. We obviously had no Peruvian Soles having just crossed the border so Ritchie ran around the station waving US$10 trying to find somewhere to change it.

Eventually we got on bus number 3 which promptly sat where it was for another half hour. The 10:30pm arrival in Cusco that we had been promised by the evil pig-tailed lady in Copacabana was looking a little uncertain. When we eventually left, it was on a local service so we were stopping at every town. We pulled into Juliaca and Jie, hoping we had enough time, dashed off to the loo. She needn’t have hurried. An hour later we were still sat there whilst an argument ensued outside between our driver and a woman who wanted to bring a small forest, or at least a decent sized copse of trees on board. It was weird, they were all in pots and wrapped in newspaper. After a while Jie tried leaning out the window and shouting ‘Vamos!’ but to no avail. The argument ended with the trees being loaded on board and we set off again, the sun now setting and Cusco still apparently six hours away. Still, at least we could read our books to while away the time. Not so. Twenty minutes after sunset the driver killed the lights in the bus.

Exasperated, most people including Jie opted for sleeping whilst Ritchie, unable to sleep, slipped on the ipod and watched the stars outside. A shooting star flashed across Orion’s belt and Ritchie’s free wish very nearly went on collapsing the house of that ticket seller in Copacabana with her still in it, before the thought was checked and something more benevolent chosen instead. Not content to let everyone sleep, at about 9pm, with most of the bus out cold, the driver put on a CD of the most annoying Spanish songs that sounded as if they were from a pre-schoolers tv show. It was so loud even the ipod couldn’t block it out. There’s no other explanation for it – this was a cruel joke.

When we rolled into Cusco at 12:30am we were so relieved that the ordeal was over. We slumped into a taxi and paid him too much to take us to our hostel.

The hottest spot south of Havana

The hottest spot south of Havana
Copacabana, Bolivia

Copacabana, Bolivia

Our tourist bus to Copacabana picked us up from our hotel early in the morning. We are always wary of these buses that offer hotel pick-ups as you can spend ages driving around to different hotels and then waiting ages whilst they root people out of bed. We groaned as we boarded to see that we were only the second pick up and the bus was almost empty. Nonetheless the journey was pretty smooth and soon enough we had glorious Lake Titicaca shimmering to our left out of the windows. Two thirds of the way there we all had to disembark to cross a strait in the lake to the other side. We went and bought tickets for the little dinghy that ferried us the 500 metres across to the other side whilst we watched as our bus was driven onto a flat barge and floated over to meet us.

We checked into the lovely Hotel Utama – they had Coca tea and bananas out waiting for us for free in the lobby, ahhh – and then we attempted to scale the mountain next door, Cerro Calvario, to watch sunset across the lake. The thin air was a real killer on this one and we both struggled to reach the summit (Jie so much so that she missed the sun actually setting). The way down was a little easier and we collapsed into a local restaurant to get a taste of the local specialty – ‘trucha’ (lake trout). The trout was introduced to the lake by the Spanish who didn’t think that the locals were getting enough protein, and they’ve taken to it. Plain, tomato sauce, diablo sauce, garlic sauce, lemon sauce… you can have it any which way but it’s all fresh and delicious.

We did a day trip to the Isla del Sol, out in Lake Titicaca, one of the holiest Inca sites it is supposedly where the sun was born. Our boat left Copacabana at 8:30am and then chugged ever-so-slowly across to the island. We arrived at the far, northern end two hours later and set about walking back along the island’s central ridge to the southern end where we would be collected at 3:30 pm. The island contains some Inca ruins, ‘special’ rocks, and a ceremonial stone table, of which the stone table was by far the most interesting because some crazy American lady was setting up a ceremonial ritual, much to the horror of her two kids aged around 10. “…you’ll sing with me when I signal, won’t you?” She implored the daughter who shifted awkwardly on her stone seat, and turning to the boy: “…and you’ll dance with me, right?”. “I’m not sure…” he replied, to which she countered “We’ve come a long way for this… many lifetimes” we had to stop ourselves s******ing out loud as she went on about contacting the ancestors. Great as this spectacle was, we had an island to traverse if we were to make the slow-boat home, so we trooped off up the hill to the sound of a ceremonial cymbal being bashed back at the table.

It was a hot and hard old slog over the island, but the views were fantastic and we made it to the quay in plenty of time to enjoy a cold beer before embarking. Back on land we met up again with Victoria and Dee, had more Trucha and headed home to our new hotel, the swanky La Cupula. Next day we had a slow one – just a quick trip up a nearby hill to see the ‘Inca observatory’ (some rocks with a hole in) and then around the market blowing the last of our Bolivianos, as we were off to Peru the next day. We spent the afternoon in hammocks and deckchairs in the lovely gardens of La Cupula looking down the hill at Copacabana and catching up with some blogging (!?!) and reading.

The Peace

The Peace
La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz, Bolivia

On first inspection La Paz appeared to be more of a very, very, large market, with roads and buildings just getting in the way of trading, rather than a proper – or in fact capital – city. The city is topographically quite something; basically built in a large crevice in the Bolivian altiplano. The business district is towards the bottom of the ravine and so the skyscrapers in that part of town not only fail to breach the level of the surrounding plain, but the owners of the shacks perched high up on the valley’s steep sides can peer in to the 30th floor to see what’s occurring.

Anyway we set about exploring, as is our wont, and we quickly found the so-called ‘witches market’ where they sell large amounts of Llama foetuses which are traditionally deposited in the foundations of new buildings for good luck. It is impossible to get lost in La Paz, as the main road runs downhill along the bottom of the valley, so to re-orientate you just turn downhill until you hit this road and then head up or down it to where you want to go.

Our phrasebook is full of Spanish words for exotic and tasty sounding Bolivian cuisine which seems to be ignored by the vast majority of gringo restaurants who offer only the universal pizza/pasta. In an effort to discover some of these dishes we ventured into the markets at lunchtimes to eat with the locals which, surprisingly, is not something that we saw any other tourists doing.

Dozens of competing tiny little stalls with seating for 10 people (max) were each overseen by a couple of pig-tailed ladies who direct people to seats and dish out the food, passing it hand-by-hand over the heads of other diners whilst the cash gets passed the other way. Needless to say these were not English-speaking havens so we had to rely on catching the eye of one of the ladies and indicating our eagerness to sample her wares. We were then invariably ushered right to the front (within spitting distance of the fried chicken fat) and squeezed in next to the policemen and bowler-hatted market women. Luckily for us navigating the menu was not a problem – this decision had already been made by the stall we were at, which offered one type of soup and then one type of main dish. The food was excellent, if only occasionally recognisable, and really good portions – all for 70p per person.

It has been a while since we enjoyed a good curry, so when we saw someone wearing a T-shirt proclaiming that they had survived ‘the world’s most dangerous curry’ in La Paz, at the Star of India restaurant, our interest was piqued. When we found out that it was also (purportedly) the highest curry house in the world we had no choice but to do it. With one eye on another long-haul Bolivian bus journey in the coming few days, Ritchie (wisely) chose against ‘the world’s most dangerous curry’ which was their vindaloo (thus foregoing the free t-shirt if he had finished his plate). It was a strange one, not exactly like an English curry house (the Botley Purbani has nothing to fear), the poppadums in particular looked like they hadn’t been fried at all and were tiny, but it was a welcome change and tasty all the same.

We took in a trip to the Coca museum. Very interesting. Went through the history of chewing coca leaves which suppresses hunger, and reduces fatigue and altitude sickness (so pretty useful for manual workers in Bolivia) and its early inclusion, in cocaine form, in drinks such as the original coca cola. Then onto the US war on drugs and the attempt to obliterate the coca crop worldwide. This met with protest in the Andes where the leaf is traditionally chewed (so no cocaine) and eventually a kind of regulated cultivation has emerged. Only one export is allowed and that is to Coca Cola in Atlanta who still use the leaves for flavour. We picked up some tips on chewing and some more leaves, even though we were both well used to the altitude by now, but when in Rome…

Easter in Sucre

Easter in Sucre
Sucre, Bolivia

Sucre, Bolivia

Our accommodation in Sucre was basically a homestay in a five-bedroom house that the family next door owned. It is a lovely building with a courtyard, full kitchen (and only 5 sets of guests so not packed like at hostels) and a nice big lounge with cable tv. There were some problems making the reservation as the family don’t speak any English so they were expecting us to arrive one hour after Ritchie’s garbled call in Spanish, but instead they got us at one o’clock the next day. They seemed to take it pretty well.

With Easter at its height and National elections scheduled for Easter Sunday, Bolivia was entering a state of lockdown. No alcohol was to be served, a lot of restaurants, bars etc. were shut, and it was forbidden to travel by car on election day – the streets were eerily quiet and some kids took advantage by setting up a football pitch along one of Sucre’s main roads. Still, in anticipation of this it appeared that our house would be hosting an election/easter party on Saturday night so we duly turned up with a couple of beers we’d managed to find in a corner shop, and wondered how we would survive a party with our Spanish hosts. All of the other guests were studying Spanish, but most could also speak some English/French/German so although it was messy we did manage to communicate with other people. We found ourselves late in the evening dancing to Bolivian music and being force-fed Cubra Libres (a Bolivian tradition we were told) whilst the rest of the city was presumably tucked up in bed.

Sucre is another lovely colonial city – all the buildings in the city centre are whitewashed (by law) and feature red tile roofs. The city centre is plaza 25 de Mayo where we often sat and watched Sucre go by, whilst having our shoes cleaned and sipping on freshly squeezed orange juice. Sunday being election day was doubly quiet and everything was shut so we headed to the park with Dee and Victoria, who we had shared a jeep with in the slat flats and randomly bumped into again in plaza 25 de Mayo. The park was full, as there was nothing else to do in the city, and we enjoyed a lap in some go-karts, scaled a mini eiffel tower lookalike, and investigated the abandoned train station.

Sucre had a fantastic central food market which we regularly raided to do some home cooking, or to try a cheap local delicacy in its upstairs cafeteria. We were surprised by the quality of Bolivian cuisine, which doesn’t seem to get much acclaim outside of Bolivia, but we loved the hearty soups and stews that they specialise in.

Leaving Sucre, we bade farewell to our ever friendly yet incomprehensible hosts, and arrived at the bus station. Having identified our bus, we were rebuffed at the platform entrance for not having paid our ‘bus station tax’. Having then sorted that and arriving at our bus, we dumped our bags near the rear of the bus and waited to have them loaded on board in the luggage compartment – pretty standard stuff by now given the number of times we have done this. But Sucre bus station has its own system; as we tried to get the driver to load our bags, he refused and instead would only load bags that were being lowered to him on a rope from the 2nd storey of the bus station. He made himself understood that, rather than hand him our bags where we stood, we had to fight our way back into the terminal, upstairs, to the man with the rope, to whom we could give our bags which would then be attached to the rope and lowered to the driver to load on the bus. Of course.

City in the sky

City in the sky
Potosi, Bolivia

Potosi, Bolivia

Next stop Potosi, at 4090m above sea level it is one of the highest cities in the world. The bus to there was a bargain at just 25 bolivianos (£2.50) each for the 6 hour journey. Bolivia, however, is a new paradigm in road transport for us; the road linking Uyuni to Potosi is unpaved and very mountainous. The bus was not like those in Chile or Argentina, it was smaller, no air conditioning, had Andean pan pipe music blaring loudly out of all its speakers (one track was an interesting cover of ‘Smoke On The Water’ by a local pan-pipe band), and we had a box of baby chicks and a dog for company. Still it was comfortable enough and we juddered our way to Potosi with only one near-fatal incident where we came around a sharp corner to find ourselves face to face with another bus on our single laned road. Both buses screeched to a halt and the other one had to back-up, even the locals seemed a little concerned, or at least curious, by our emergency stop, but we soon settled back into enjoying the scenery.

Maundy Thursday was in full flow as we arrived in Potosi. The Bolivians are quite religious and so this was a big event. As we explored the quaint, narrow, steep streets of the colonial city centre, we kept running into a procession that was made up of different schools or churches being led by a ‘Jesus’ in custody (he was getting a good shoving from one particularly sadistic Roman guard) and then a band playing very melancholic music, and then, most bizarrely of all, loads of adults and children in multi-coloured Ku Klux Klan outfits. Very strange.

We decided to do a tour of Potosi’s famous Silver mines. It was the silver from Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) that kept the Spanish empire in business for several hundred years, enslaving locals and shipping in African slaves to work in disgraceful conditions inside the mine. Today much of the silver has run out, but they still mine tin and smaller amounts of silver. Unfortunately conditions for the workers haven’t really improved. The Bolivian government has urged modernisation but the locals fear job losses and so continue using their old-school methods (basically 100% manual labour).

We stopped off first at the ‘miners market’ where our guide told us about the habits of the miners (or rather Javier from our Salt flats tour told us – despite paying extra for an ‘English tour’ our guide was not able to replicate what he said in Spanish in the Queen’s best, so Javier ended up as our translator). A healthy bunch, they chew coca leaves all day which suppresses their hunger and gives them more energy to work. They smoke like chimneys, home made cigarettes which didn’t seem to have a filter, and for liquid refreshment they drink Fanta, because they don’t trust water, or they sip at small bottles of 96% alcohol. Not kidding. We bought our ‘donations’ at the market – we opted for the simple coca & booze package – and set off into the mine proper.

Walking down the tunnel into the side of the mountain, stooping beneath the low ceilings, splashing through puddles that collect inbetween the mini rail tracks, we felt our breathe quicken with mild claustrophobia and the thin air at 4000 metres above sea level. We trudged on, sometimes stooping, sometimes scrambling through gaps, marvelling at (or dreading) the ancient-looking cracked and splintered beams that it appeared was keeping the rest of the mountain stable above us. Cerro Rico has already lost several hundred metres in height since the Spanish started digging, we hoped that it would end the day the same height it had started. As we penetrated deeper into the mine we came across the working section. Today being Good Friday, a lot of the miners were on holiday, but there were still some slaving away. It became really hot down where the action was and every now and again we’d stop whilst our guide listened intently down the shaft – sometimes he’d shout “Vamos!” and we’d all have to run into an alcove to get out of the way of an oncoming mine-car full of spoils. The miners, using hand picks rather than drills, were glad to receive our gifts but they didn’t slow down for a break, even in the sweltering heat.

By the time we re-emerged into daylight we were extremely glad to be out of there. We were down there for a couple of hours, the miners work 10-12 hour shifts. Our guide had quickly procured one of the small bottles of alcohol from our ‘donations’ early on, and had being regularly supping at it throughout the tour. Now that we were outside he was going to demonstrate some of the explosives used in the mine. Cigarette in mouth, he gathered up the TNT that we had bought in the miners market, using his cigarette he lit the fuse and then ambled off down the hill a way to place them ‘somewhere safe’. We all watched, agog, sure that this man was about to blow one or more of his limbs off, but he was a pro and he had time to nonchalantly return to where we stood before two massive bangs echoed around the mountainside, to our absolute delight.

After the tour we went for lunch to the Koala Cafe with Javier and Manuel, and ate Llama steaks. We enjoyed our time in Potosi, it’s a lovely colonial old town, and Easter has made it quite interesting to be around. We had to leave on Saturday however, as Sunday was election day and travelling is forbidden! So we jumped in a bus for the (mostly) paved journey to Bolivia’s old capital, Sucre.

The Dazzling Salt Flats

The Dazzling Salt Flats
Uyuni, Bolivia

Uyuni, Bolivia

We packed our bags in the dark due to a surprise early morning electicity blackout at the hostel, and scurried around to Atacama Mistical’s office for 8am. Our faith in them as our tour company seemed justified from the professional and prompt way we were organised: our bags were stowed in the back of a pickup and we were each handed a 5 litre bottle of drinking water before hopping in a minibus to the border.

The Bolivian border was quite something. At 4500 metres above sea level, in the midst of a barren landscape of rock and stones and in the shadow of a great volcano it stood, a small shabby adobe shack with a Bolivian flag flying above it and a raised barrier next door which seems more ornamental than practical given that there is no road as such, and any vehicle could simply drive around it.

Waiting for us on the Bolivian side were our Toyota Landcruisers and crew. We ended up with 3 other Brits in our vehicle, as well as our driver and our cook whose names we promptly forgot so resorted to calling them Madre and Padre (mum and dad in Spanish).

The landscapes are incredible up here. Very stark and not much plantlife to speak of but every now and then a crevice appears with a stream at the bottom and grass, shrubs, birds, and llamas appear. We have seen lakes of every colour throughout the day but the most spectacular was the red lake which was covered in flamingoes. Apparently the vivid red colour comes from ‘volcanic micro-organisms’.

Our stop for the night was a ‘refuge’ high up on the altiplano in the middle of this barren landscape. Basic single storey adobe buildings have been built specifically for these tours with a few dormitories, very basic toilets, no showers and some tables for dinner. Madre cooked us up a 3-course treat on the portable gas stove; soup, spag bol and tinned peaches, but unfortunately the altitude was not agreeing with Jie who pushed her food around for a bit before getting to bed.

We awoke the next morning snug under our pile of duvets and blankets, and after a quick breakfast piled back into the Land Cruiser for more lagoons. Jie was feeling much better by this point and didn’t throw up for the rest of the time we were at high altitude.

We drove most of the day, stopping off at viewpoints of volcanoes, multi-coloured lakes, animals or general weird scenery, until in the fading light we arrived on the edge of the salt flats – a vast dry ancient sea-bed covered in salt, in some places 10 metres deep. We stayed at a ‘salt hotel’ that night – the building is made entirely out of bricks of salt, as are the tables and chairs. Most importantly, however, they had hot showers (not made of salt), Padre had given the other Land Cruisers the slip and gotten us there first so we got ourselves nice and clean and settled down to a nice cup of Coca tea and a game of cards whilst the remainder of the group turned up and started the fight for the showers.

Ritchie woke early to get a glimpse of the sunrise over the salt flats, but it was too much to ask of Jie who said she was happy to rely on the photographs. After breakfast it was off out onto the salt flats themselves. Mile after mile after mile of flat, white ground, occasionally arranged into a sort of cracked crazy-paving. When the sun got going the glare was quite something and at the end of the day a couple of guys in our group who didn’t have sunglasses had visibly burnt and puffy eyes, like snow blindness.

We spent most of the morning messing around with perspective photos, everyone dragging out whatever props they had on them to set up various funny shots. The best ones were organised by one of the other drivers who presumably sees this every third day of his life and has picked up a trick or two.

By the afternoon we had crossed the vast expanse of the salt flats (they cover 4,000 square miles) and were approaching the town of Uyuni, where our last stop was to be a train graveyard where a load of trains had been sat quietly rusting away in the desert for over one hundred years.

Rather than head straight out of Uyuni (although there’s no real reason to stay) we thought we’d stop and have a shower and a good night’s sleep before boarding a bus to Potosi the next day. Hotel Avenida and Minuteman Pizza came up with the goods.