A Travellerspoint blog

June 2009

Bolivia Roundup

sunny -20 °C

We spent about 2 weeks in Bolivia, which I´m going to have to compress a little because we´re so behind on this blog and i´m determined it not feel like hard work. Finding a reliable computer & internet combination in Bolivia is something of a challenge.

From Titicaca we got the bus to La Paz. No, not Gareth, silly, that would be El Paz! La Paz is the highest capital in the world - and if the 3660m+ altitude doesn´t have you gasping for breath the fact that it all appears to be built out of 45 degree angled sections of pavement will. We spent a night here, excited at the fact that we found the Star of India, a so-called "British Indian Curry House". Fantastic, we thought! It´s felt like forever and a day since we had a curry. Unfortunately the manager was a div, the poppadums were minute and fishy and the madras was average, strangely potato-ey and gave me the trots something rotten for a week.

However, before I was aware of my impending stomach-related trouble we were on a plane to Rurrenebaque in the north of the country, which is the gateway to the Bolivian Amazon. This was one of the occasions where the journey was an experience in and of itself, as we flew with TAM (Transporte Aero Militario), which is essentially a Bolivian low-cost airline flying on decommissioned military planes from working military bases. Entertaining watching the squaddies march around carrying chairs and luggage for the plane but we weren´t really sure if we could take pictures of them without being shot for sedition or something! Also quite refreshing to have no pre-flight briefing, no security, no X-rays... less so being locked in a small room for 45 minutes pre-embarkation.

Anyway, we got there in the end, and signed up for a 3-day tour of the pampas. This turned into a bit of a Heart of Darkness experience for me due to aforementioned issues, which I shall now gloss over. The tour itself was OK, unfortunately it rained stairrods for most of the second day, but we got to see alligators, capybaras and pink river dolphins, and fish for pirañas! Angi caught a huge red piraña which we then ate for dinner. That´s the food chain in action for you. Just before asking us if we wanted to have a swim our guide informed us that they can strip a human body of flesh in 5 minutes flat. Nice...


Coming back the rain had meant that TAM had cancelled all their flights for the next 4 days. This was because the heavy military airplanes couldn´t land on the soft grass runway! So we ended up having to pay and extra $100 to fly the 300 km to La Paz in a minuscule 6-seater Cessna. We were absolutely terrified at first, as the plane was significantly smaller than a lot of cars we´d been travelling in, but it ended up being a fantastic ride once we realised we weren´t about to die.


Back in La Paz we decided to try and end our recent spate of bad luck by buying some good luck charms and having our fortune told by a magic man. Apparently, Angi is bad and I have an enemy (allegedly not Angi, someone from my work - I think I know who...). We will have lots of money but only one son. A couple days later we had our fortunes read by a pair of trained yellow and white budgerigars, who told us that I was a single young man and that Angi was a little girl who should play the lottery on terminals 3, 2 or 6. Not sure which one I prefer really.


From La Paz we headed south to Potosi, a dusty little colonial mining town with the distinction of being the highest city in the world. The main draw here is to do a tour of the working silver/zinc/lead mines. This was quite an eye-opener for me as I used to trade these commodities from a desk in London. We started the day getting togged up in waterproofs, wellies, hard hats and headlamps, had a brief tour round the processing plant (which was very basic and full of pools of noxious chemicals used to separate the ore from the scrap, sulphates, mercury and cyanide anyone?). From here we went into the mine itself. The tunnels started out high enough to walk through but before long we were sliding around on our bellies. The interchange between "floors" in the mine involved a scramble up/down a 45 degree rock face, with no guide ropes, no steps, no toeholds, walls and ceiling covered in asbestos, while wearing wellies which were at a minimum 2 sizes too big. The lower floors got hot too - 30 degrees plus, with no ventiliation and tasting the clouds of particles in the air. We talked to a couple of miners that we came across, mostly sitting in the dark on their own chewing coca leaves to keep them going. The most shocking was a 13-year old boy, working alone as his dad was too hungover, just at the start of working a 23-hour double shift, with almost no breaks and no food during that time. All this for a random but generally small amount of recoverable ore per day, not always enough to keep them above the poverty line. Sobering stuff - must remember not to complain about working conditions in the office. We were very glad to see the blue sky again after 3 hours entombed. Then at the end of the trip we goofed around with some live dynamite which was exciting, to say the least!


-this is me holding two live, lit dynamite bombs which exploded 90 seconds after this picture was taken. No shit!

From Potosi we caught an overnight chicken bus to Uyuni, another 1-horse desert town. The attraction here being the proximity to the biggest salt flats in the world - the size of Northern Ireland! We loaded up into a 4x4 the next day and were off. The flats are amazing - perspective crushes distance, and it seems like the only things in the world are the blue sky and white ground. Also some pictures here (er... at some point) from the Isla Pescados, a rocky outcrop of fossilized corals covered in ancient cacti. The rest of the tour was a little bit of an anticlimax, being a whizz around some coloured lagoons and high geysers (new Pendleton record - 5020m above sea level). The most notable thing about the latter days were the extreme bitter cold - down to minus 20 degrees C at the worst point. The last morning we got up at 4.30am and I was wearing 2 t-shirts, 2 longsleeves (1 thermal), 1 alpaca jumper, 1 hoodie, 1 waterproof, 1 pair leggings, 2 pairs socks, 1 pair jeans, 1 pair trekking trousers and a hat. Angi, as you can imagine, was wearing about double that and looked like the Michelin lady, but not smiling as much.


We were left at the border and caught a collectivo bus to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, our third country in a fortnight.

Posted by pendleton 12:14 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Screw you too, Peru

A cathartic rant in 5 revisions

sunny 16 °C

One of the main reasons that we decided to travel to South America was to see the iconic Macchu Picchu, an important Inka town that was ´rediscovered´in the last century. One of the best ways to see it is via the arduous four-day Inca Trail trek, which covers 33km of undulating trail and stone steps, the highest point of which is at 4200m.

The trek is now so popular that Peruvian authorities have limited the number of trekkers to 400 each day, meaning that we had to book our spots way back in October last year. We spent ages figuring out when we would likely get to Cuzco for the trek (knowing that it was about 5 months into our trip), and finally plumped for the 20th June for our start date. This would mean that we would see sunrise at the highest pass (4200m) on the day of the Winter Solstice and finish on the 24th June, the day of Inti Raymi, the Incan new year festival. Brilliant!

Seeing Macchu Picchu in this way is not cheap - the trek costs anywhere from $350 per person, more if you want to ensure that the heroic porters who lug all the camping equipment and food up the mountain get paid more than $8 each for the whole trip. We had sent in our passport details, got our trekking permits confirmed, stocked up on energy bars and warm socks and read everything we could about the area. We were looking forward to our visit with much eager anticipation.

We decided to warm ourselves up with a 3 day Colca Canyon trek near Arequipa in Peru, which was fab. More to follow on this later. After we came back, we tried to book bus tickets to Cuzco for the following day, knowing that we needed to get to Cuzco three days before the start of the trek in order to acclimatise to the much higher altitude. But we couldn´t - the buses weren´t going as there was a civilian blockade on the main road into Cuzco. We were roadblocked.

Blockades are a fairly common part of Peruvian life. No-one knows exactly why this roadblock in particular was set up as Peruvians simply love a gathering (Is it a party? Is it a protest? Who knows?!) but the rumours that abound seem to suggest a combination of factors. It could be due to a lack of adequate water supply in Cuzco; indigenous peoples protesting about recent police brutality against the Amazonians in the north of the country, or perhaps just a good old industrial strike. What we do know is that it is seriously affecting tourism (a major earner for Peru) and nearly a month on, is showing no signs of abating.

Because the trek is so busy and so regulated, our trekking company was frustratingly not permitted to change the start date for our trek. So how were we going to get to Cuzco in time? We had 4 options open to us:

Option 1 - Travel back to Nazca and then onto Cuzco, which involves a 3 day bus ride. However, we wouldn´t get there in time to acclimatise.

Option 2 - An option suggested to us by a friendly travel agent - take ´a´ bus to Cuzco via an alternative route. This would involve riding in one bus up to the blockade point, walking for half an hour (in the middle of the night) past the blockades and then taking another bus, which would be waiting for us, the rest of the way to Cuzco. We had uhm-ed and ah-ed about this and finally decided to sign up for the journey. That afternoon we met a couple that had completed the journey in the opposite direction. They had been promised a 10 minute walk between buses with an English-speaking guide to lead them. This didn´t happen. Instead, they had to walk for NINE HOURS with all of their bags, from 3am to noon! A lucky escape for us. Another couple we spoke to had got a bus which was going an alternate route to get around the roadblocks. They were promised a 15 hour bus ride (the journey normally takes four). What actually happened was that the driver got lost in the desert and made everyone get out of the bus and push it! As they approached Cuzco the bus went past a newly set up roadblock and had rocks thrown at it. Not fun.

Option 3 - spend approximately $900 on a pair of plane tickets from Arequipa to Cuzco via Lima.

Option 4 - not go and then moan about it afterwards.

In the end, after much deliberation we went with option #4. So we didn´t see Macchu Picchu, one of the crowning glories of South America. Bugger. With a couple of weeks under our belt as of writing this, this doesn´t seem the worst thing in the world, as we´ve come to accept that changing travel plans are all part of the fun of travelling. But at the time it felt like a real blow. Sorry Sunil, Adriana and family, we tried, we really did....

Posted by pendleton 07:54 Archived in Peru Tagged transportation Comments (0)

Getting High

sunny 20 °C

We are going up in the world.

Not socially, of course - quite the opposite really, we are slowly becoming soap-shy llama-wearing coca-chewing travelling bums. But in terms of metres above sea level we are headed higher and higher.

First stop off was at Arequipa, a fairly pretty colonial city which we just didn´t really take to. Possibly because lots of stuff went wrong for us here, but we didn´t gel. We used the city as a base for a 3-day trek down (and up again) Colca Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the world! The canyon is around 2100m deep and we traversed about 1300m of that I believe, with the river at the bottom being around 2000m above sea level. The trek was pretty tough but we managed it and were very satisfied. We saw lots of condors and beautifully functional terraces which have been used non-stop since pre-Inca times.


From Arequipa we were supposed to go to Cusco to do the Inca Trail, and then see the crowning glory of Macchu Picchu. However we had to change our plans, and that´s the last I shall say (see Angi´s rant for more details). Sorry Sunil, Adriana & family, we really tried!

So we went east, and higher still, towards Bolivia. We stopped at the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca for a couple of days, picking up a bit of culture. This place is seriously high - like 3800m, with blazing sun during the day going to well below freezing at night. The quality of light up here is just unbelievable - I have uploaded approximately a grillion photos of the sky, the light and the lake


We saw some fantastic costumes and masks in Puno, and some traditional music makers too. Really reminds me of Tibet for some reason, not sure if this is a valid comparison or not, hopefully we get to find out.

On the Peruvian side we also visited the islands of the Uros people, who build floating islands out of reeds on the lake. No, really! They originally ran away to the lake to escape persecution by the Aymaras but are now a bit dependant on tourist handouts which is a bit sad to see.


From here we crossed over into Bolivia. The difference between the Peruvians and Bolivianos at this altitude ísn´t that great - and is much less than the difference between lowlanders and the altiplano folk. The people up here have a very hard life, most of them living as subsistence farmers and handicraft makers for tourists. Spanish is by far the secondary language, the northern/Peruvian side speaking Quechua and the southern/eastern/Boliviano side speaking Aymara. These are both tongues which predate the Incas, and are still in common parlance! Amazing...

Quechua - Ayancho
Aymara -Camisaraki


Posted by pendleton 14:49 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Do Another Line?

overcast 20 °C

After a day of sandboarding silliness we went to Nasca. Another indistinguished town sitting on a high, arid, rocky plain, Nasca was left entirely to it´s own devices until in the 1920s someone flew over the town in an air plane and saw that all around in the desert HUGE patterns have been etched into the terrain. The biggest are about 300m long! We know hardly anything about the people that created them, including why they would go to all this effort. Either it´s a message to the gods or a giant advertising campaign for the predecessor of Inca Kola. We took the vomit comet flight over them and just about came back with stomachs intact...

Here´s the Colibri (hummingbird), clearly the best one


And this guy is either a spaceman, an owl, or an Inca Kola rep, depending on who you talk to


(loads more in the gallery)

The only other thing the Nascans left is some incredibly well preserved mummies in their burial chambers. The desert is so dry that everything has remained perfectly preserved for a thousand years, give or take.


Posted by pendleton 10:05 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Sandboarding 101

overcast 20 °C


Some daft punters

A couple planks of wood

A beat up old hoopty-wagon dune buggy, complete with psychotic driver (not shown)

& some sand dunes

Process: strap #2 to #1. Use #3 to take to the top of #4. Release.

Results: sandy, happy people!


Posted by pendleton 15:57 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

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