Sunday, 12 September 2010

Time to say goodbye

My last week in South America saw me take in more places in beautiful Peru. First stop was Arequipa, Peru's second biggest city, also known as the white city. The night bus to Arequipa was awful. It was so hot it was ridiculous and during the journey the man in front of me reclined his seat so much that I could not actually move!! After literally no sleep we crashed at the hostel when we checked in at 5am.

Arequipa is a pretty city, up there with Cuzco but with not as much to do. The plaza is beautiful as are the surrounding buildings including the cathedral. All weekend the plaza was filled with parades which celebrated the military. In typical South American fashion they go all out with their parades, they even take all the decadent furnishings out of the cathedral and parade them around with them.

Arequipa is surrounded my many active volcanoes, on some of these volcanoes they have discovered remains of Inca children. The most famous discovery was that of Juanita found at the top of one of the volcanoes with a number of other mummy's. Juanita's body had frozen so when discovered the mummy had been fully preserved, she now holds pride of place in the city's museum and has unearthed many keys to the Inca empire. It turns out that Juanita did not die of natural causes, she was actually sacrificed to the Gods. The museum is an interesting insight into Inca culture and looks at it from an angle I was not familiar with, I did not realise they were quite so savage towards their own kind.

There are not many sights to see in Arequipa but the convent certainly should not be missed. The nuns still live in part of the convent, but the rest is open to tourists to look around. It is enormous, like a small city within a city, there are even street names! It was interesting to see the places where the nuns used to live and spend their time. There was even a pet guinea pig in one of the rooms, which made my day!

There are plenty of nice terraces to enjoy a drink or have a meal in the city. One of the best restaurants in town is the creperie which boasts over 100 types of crepes, both savoury and sweet.

The city makes a great base for exploring the Colca Canyon which is a few hours away. The Colca is one of the deepest canyons in the world and it is twice the size of the grand canyon which is pretty large itself!

We spent a few days exploring Colca and its surroundings. The many volcanoes that surround it make an awe inspiring sight. The road to the canyon even winds up to 4900m as it weaves around the volcanoes. You are guaranteed to see all sorts of wildlife around the Canyon, llamas, alpacas and vicunas fill the surrounding plains. The canyon is one of the best spots to see andean condors, though you have to be up early (5.30am) to head to the canyon and see them. We were in luck as there were quite a few around when we got there. The condors are endangered and most of the remaining birds in Peru reside in the canyon. They are pretty impressive creatures, the way they glide across the sky seems so effortless.

The small town on the way to the Canyon that many tourists stay in is called Chivay, it is a pleasant little place, with a little plaza and markets. We actually stayed in a tiny town called Coporaque, we stayed in a beautiful hostal. The place was host to a llama-alpaca crossbreed called huarizo, we were told it was quite nasty though so not to get too close to it, I did run behind it quickly for a photo though!

The canyon is host to many activities. Hikes run for several days through the canyon, but we just settled for a short hike along the canyon. We did partake in a bit of extreme zip-lining though. This took place over the Colca river. It was just two wires, they were really long though and extremely steep. We did not have to break as we were equipped with parachutes to slow us down! I was pretty scared at the top, a lot more so than the last time we zip-lined but once you were on the wire it was not that scary and the views were pretty cool.

After one final nightbus (I've lost count of how many I have taken this trip, but it must be a lot! I'll never moan about the national express again!) we arrived in the dry desert of Nazca. There is not much to the town itself, but it is host to the mysterious Nazca lines. I was not sure whether to do the flight over the lines due to my fear of flying, but I bit the bullet and went for it. After a bit of a misunderstanding where we were not told we needed to take our passports so had to go back and get them! We boarded our little Cessna plane to see the lines. I was slightly worried by the fact that the door handle of the emergency exit came off in one of the guys hands when we closed the door, but the flight was on the whole pretty smooth. The pilot uses the wing tip to point out the lines in the desert which means the plane is often at an angle. Many people are sick when they take the flight over the lines but I made sure I did not have any breakfast, which was a wise decision. The lines are incredible, I fail to understand how they could have been drawn when you cannot get the scope or scale of them unless you are metres above in the sky. There were several lines and you could see them all really clearly from the air.

One of the other things to take part in in Nazca is the Pachamanca ceremony. This took place in a hostel just outside Nazca. It is a ceremony that they only normally do on special occassions. During the ceremony, they cook all the food in the ground over a series of hours, it is all wrapped in banana leaves and buried. It was incredible to see them uncover the food, and they made a delicious veggie selection aswell.

Next stop was the oasis of Huacachina which is in the middle of huge sand dunes. It sort of pops out of nowhere as you are driving past all the sand dunes. It is a beautiful little town and is known for its sand buggying and sand boarding trips. So of course it was time to give it a go. The sand buggying was one of the best things I've done, it was so much fun, like being on a constant rollercoaster for an hour. The driver was nuts and I screamed for the majority of the time! He would drive us to the top of some of the dunes and we could sandboard down them, we spent most of the time going down on our fronts though which was brilliant fun, although I think I had most of the sand dunes in my shoes by the time we had finished.

On the way to Paracas we stopped at a famous pisco vineyard in Ica. We had a short tour of the way the pisco is made and then we had a tasting session with many tasters being passed around and many of the vineyards other products made from its homegrown produce. The pisco was pretty strong but had nothing on the pure pisco we tried in La Serena.

We finally stopped for the night in Paracas, finally back down at sea level and it was nice to see the sea and beach after being in-land for so long. Paracas is a base for trips to the Ballestas isles, known as a mini version of the Galapagos islands. We had to be up pretty early to take the boat trip out there. We saw several varities of birds, many sea lions but best of all loads of humboldt penguins they were so cute and small, and waddling all over the islands. You can occasionally see dolphins and whales but we were not in luck that day! I have never seen so many birds in all my life though, the islands are not inhabited but men go over once a year to collect the guano (bird poop) which they use as a natural fertilizer.

The final stop on my travels was Lima, which is absolutely huge. There is not really much to see and I think everybody pretty much has the same opinion of Lima in that its a bit of a shanty town, there are nicer areas but you would not want to stay there very long. I did not really do much whilst there other than a walk along the beach front. The nightlife was not bad though.

After almost 5 months it was time to say goodbye to South America. Lima airport is a pretty nice airport although I got completely ripped off there as a bottle of water cost a ridiculous 5 pounds and then I was told I could not take it on the plane despite buying it in the airport! Lima had the tightest airport security I have ever seen. The flight to Miami was not bad despite the seatbelt signs not being taken off the whole time and the worst  movie I have ever seen 'The bounty Hunter' being the choice of film! I did not get much sleep and then had a 12 hour stopover in Miami airport to look forward to. I was going to go out in Miami but lack of funds meant I had to stay in the airport. It is not a bad airport, big enough to wander around and plenty of places to while away a few hours. The time passed pretty quickly and I was on the last leg of my journey back to London. The flight was pretty smooth but again I did not manage to sleep, I did see a pretty good film called Please Give, really recommend that one. I arrived at Heathrow on Tuesday morning after over 36 hours of travelling, suffering severe jet lag and sad that my trip had finally come to an end.

It has been an epic 5 months, I have seen and done the most awesome things, visited the most incredible places and spent it with the most amazing people. Thanks to everyone who I crossed along the way for making the last 5 months the best time ever. I am going to miss you all, and I am especially going to miss beautiful Latin America. I know for sure that I will return in the future!

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Tracing the Inca Footsteps- Cusco and the Inca Trail

After a short bus journey from Puno (7 hours which is a breeze after some of the longer nightbuses) which included a stopover where there was the fluffiest alpaca I have ever seen in my life, we arrived in the beautiful city of Cusco, which reminds me very much of Sucre in Bolivia. There are several sites in the city where you can see original Inca ruins, many of the Inca foundations still exist and the Spanish just built on top of them.

There is plenty to see in the city including a couple of pretty good museums. The Inka museum was a must stop before the Inca Trail to inform ourselves about the history of Peru, the pre-Inka and of course Inka cultures. The other museum I visited is the Pre-Colombian art museum, which is Cusco´s only international standard museum, and you can tell straight away, the lighting was excellent and the description of the exhibits was really informative and perfectly translated into English unlike other museums I have visited which have had some hilariously bad translations. The collection of artefacts was wide ranging and it is always a bonus to get in for a student price!

Cusco is another South American city host to a Cristo on top of a hill. It was a steep 40 minute walk from the city to the top where the Cristo stands. It was a beautiful view of the whole city and the surroundings. From the Cristo you are also able to see some of the Inca ruins at Sacsayhuaman, there are stacks of Inca ruins in the surroundings of Cusco, but I did not want to get too Inca´d  out before the Inca trail. One of the most interesting Inca Sites is the Koricancha right in the centre of the city which is the most obvious example of the clash between Inca and Spanish styles.

The most annoying thing about the city is that it is very touristy, which you notice even more when you have come from Bolivia which is completely the opposite! You cannot walk through the main Plaza (Plaza de Armas) here without being constantly harrassed by an array of people offering their wares, massages, restaurants, clubs etc to you, which can get pretty tiring.

After two days of acclimitization in Cusco at 3300m it was finally time to head out onto the Inca trail. I did not suffer with altitude sickness at all during the trail which is probably due to the fact that I have spent a considerable amount of time at altitude and have properly acclimatized. After packing a duffle bag for the trail-it cannot be over 6kg as the porters have to carry it, we just carried our daypacks-and armed with my sleeping bag and walking poles (best investment ever!) we headed for Ollytantambo in the sacred valley, it was a small little town and so we mostly just chilled and carb-loaded in preparation for the trek.

The first day we set off from Ollytantambo at 7am to drive for an hour to the beginning of the Inca Trail. The first day was not particularly difficult trekking wise. It was supposed to be the easiest day, but I have to say on the whole I think I found the first day the hardest. Probably just because we were just getting started and I did not know what to expect, but also because the sun was absolutely burning hot. Also the first day the whole group had to trek together and we kept stopping and starting which made it difficult to get into any sort of rhythm.

 Highlights of the first day included a horse which stumbled into a stand outside a locals shop causing general chaos! We also took in quite a few Inca ruins. I got bitten by a cat at the lunch stop (thankfully did not break the skin!) which was ironic considering I was the only one out of the group not eating trout! We arrived at the campsite around mid-afternoon and spent the rest of the day relaxing around our little campsite and visiting another Inca ruin which had a pretty cool view of the valley.

The second day was the start of the real hardcore trekking. We awoke at 6am and after fueling up with brekkie and being introduced properly to all our porters, which included not shaking hands with them, but shaking feet, we headed off for what is deemed by many as the hardest day of the trek. The group started off all together at the bottom of the climb towards the highest point of the trek the dead womans pass at 4200m. The climb took us from 2900m to 4200m at the top and is supposed to take 5 hours. However, equipped with my walking poles and zigzagging method of walking up the hill (which is very effective!) and my ipod in tow I got into a zone and just absolutely blitzed up the hill. We started off with a method of trekking for 10 mins and taking 2 minute breaks but once I felt comfortable and got into a really good rhythm I did not need to stop as often. I lost the rest of the group and managed to get to the summit of the dead womans pass in 3 and a half hours. I have absolutely no idea where that came from, as I have done sod all exercise since I have been in South America, but I just felt really comfortable and loved every minute of it. The views from the top were amazing and after soaking them in, and with my legs starting to turn to jelly I decided to head for the camp which was just under an hours trek downhill. I actually found the downhill section a lot harder than the uphill, it is pretty tough on the knees, and you have to be really careful because some of the "steps" are pretty steep. I was the first one to make it to the camp over an hour ahead of anyone else in the group, so I just chilled on a ledge and soaked in the beautiful surroundings.

The third day we again arose at 6am, and in the morning took in a further two passes, the climbs were only about an hour in total, though steeper than the day before at times. The next two passes were at 3700m and 3900m and there were some ruins which we stopped at along the way. That morning was the first time I really saw a lot of people on the trail, the trail is restricted to only 500 people at any one time (which shows how incredibly lucky we were to have done it) this includes porters so it is probably only around half that number who are trekking, it made for a pretty peaceful few days, for long periods of hiking you would not see anyone, maybe just a porter, which was great as you could really soak in the scenery without being disturbed. That morning it seemed like everyone set off at the same time which was annoying because the climb became congested and you could not go at your own pace. However groups stopped for lunch at different times so after the climb we did not see anyone else for quite a few hours. Infact in the trek to lunch-which was absolutely beautiful and took in so many different ecosystems and even an Inca tunnel-we did not see anyone else the whole way. If we had not seen the one porter I would have been convinced we had gone off the trail! Thankfully we were heading the right way and we ended up at our lunch stop which was at a beautiful place atop a mountain, the views were stunning. After a carb overload of rice, pasta, potatoes and bread! we carried on for another 2 hours, all of which was downhill. We only saw porters the entire way, and we followed their lead in running down the steps, it is just so much easier, though I do not know how they do it in their sandals and with their heavy packs! We came to a crossroads at one point the shorter route going to camp and the longer route going through an Inca Ruin, we chose the longer route which was a great choice, because it was fantastic, the terraces were amazing, and the views of the valley below were great. We carried on for a bit more downhilling before ending up in the camp after a long day of trekking. The final camping place had shower facilities, it was a bit like butlins. We payed for a hot shower which was absolutely fabulous after three days of dirt and dust had built up on the skin, it was nice to be clean, if just for a little while!

On our final day we were awoken at 3.40am to make the final pilgrimage to Macchu Picchu. We woke to rain, and so we started our trek in the dark and the rain making it slightly lethal. We got to the gate where you have to queue to get in any closer and had to wait for 30 minutes. This was broken up by the fact that some complete fool managed to fall off the ledge while standing still! Thankfully the fall was not too steep as we had passed some places where he would not have been getting back up from had he fallen. At 5.30am the gates opened and we started our hike to the sungate, after an hour or so the rain stopped (obviosuly due to the sun dance we performed) and we arrived and got our first glimpse of Macchu Picchu. We carried on for a further 45 minutes or so and arrived at our destination of Macchu Picchu, the trek was over and it was all incredibly worthwhile.

Macchu Picchu is absolutely incredible, the morning fog giving it a mystical feel as it disperses and reveals the different sections of the ruins to you. It was just epic in scale and so sophisticated in its construction. We had a tour around all the main sections, temples, houses, towers. My favourite part was the sundial which was surrounded by a load of freaks who belonged to some sort of cult and were worshipping the sundial, passing around some potion and looking into a crystal ball (I kid not!). After the tour finished my body completely seized up, the last 4 days had finally taken their toll, and my calves became difficult to move, going downhill was a complete nightmare! We spent the rest of the day soaking in the beautiful views and relaxing in the sun on the terraces.

The weather was great the entire time, if a little hot for trekking, the sun was incredibly strong too. The perfect conditions were on day three when it was a bit more cloudy and there was a nice breeze. We did have some rain on our final day which is apparently a good thing as it clears the fog and smoke from Macchu Picchu. Although the mosquitos came out in force on the final day, and I am currently itching like crazy from the buggers!

The food was absolutely amazing the entire way through the trek. Our two chefs fed us incredibly well and were great with the vegetarian food. We ate several times a day, they would even bring us coca tea in our tents in the morning! Breakfast was brilliant: porridge, omelettes etc which fueled us for the day. They would give us a little snack pack each day with biscuits, fruit and sweets. Then for lunch and dinner we would have delicious soups followed by a really good meal usually rice, veg and something egg based. We also had afternoon tea consisting of crackers and popcorn. The chefs even made a cake for us on the second day and iced it as well, I have absolutely no idea how they made it, apparently in a soup tin and they can smell when it is ready! It was absolutely delicious. I think the only thing I did not like was some sickly corn pudding on the first evening which just looked like syrup, and the jelly on the last night (obvs. not veggie friendly!)

The porters did an outstanding job they carry your duffle bags and all the tents and equipment. They run along the trail in their worn down sandals, I just have no idea how they do it. When we would get to the camp for lunch or at the end of the day, everything would be set up waiting for us, they would have wash bowls and our tents all set up, they are just absolutely brilliant. They do not get paid a huge amount which is a crying shame considering how hard they work. The guide Wilbur was also great, he had a wealth of knowledge and was a really interesting guy to listen to, afterm dinner we would listen to his tales, for instance about the evacuation off the Inca trail in February due to the flooding.

The Inca Trail was an awesome experience and one I will never forget. I would definitely do it again , although not for a considerable amount of time!

After a full day exploring Macchu Picchu, we headed for the town of Aguas Calientes which was pretty grim, it was so touristy, and it is all the more noticeable after being away from large groups of people for the last few days. We boarded the train back to Cusco and it was a complete nightmare. Obviously the last thing you want when you are completely ruined from the Inca Trail is a train that constantly breaks down but that is what we got! It ended taking an hour longer than it was supposed to, and it was full of mosquitos which gave pretty nasty bites! Finally we arrived back in Cusco and the sight of a bed for the first time in days!

We spent another two days in Cusco, mostly just relaxing and recovering from the trek. I can finally start to walk normally again! We also had an epic night out to celebrate completing the trek, this was obviously well deserved though! Today I have spent in a very hungover state which is not great considering I have a 10 hour nightbus to Arequipa later!

I have really liked Cusco and obviously the Inca trail has shot to the top of the highlight of my trip! First impressions of Peru are really good. Tonight, I head on to the second biggest city in Peru, Arequipa which is supposed to be beautiful and then onto the Colca Canyon, which is twice the size of the Grand Canyon! It should be a good few days!

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Lago Titicaca

It was with sadness that I departed Bolivia, but Peru could not of started better with a trip to Lake Titicaca. The lake is the apparently the highest navigable lake in the world, and the second largest in South America. It is just so vast, you are tricked into thinking that it is actually the sea. It sits on the border of Peru and Bolivia, just about half belonging to each nation. I got to see the Bolivian side from Copacabana, a town on the lake front, but I did not get to visit the Isla del Sol or Isla del Luna, which was a shame because I hear they are really beautiful.

I did however visit the Peruvian islands on Lake Titicaca. Puno is the town on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, there is not really much to see or do there, but it is a pleasant base from which to explore the Lake. We set out early for the port travelling in style in rickshaws powered by a little old man on a bike. We then boarded our boat and set out to visit some of the many islands on the lake.

One of the many islands on Lake Titicaca is Taquile. It is a pleasant little place, where you can hike around 40 minutes to get to the main plaza. It was abuzz with tourists, as I found nearly all places on the lake to be. We had a brilliant guide Alejandro, who was extremely informative, telling us all about the history of the lake, the islands and the people. The view from the top of the island was stunning, just the sparkling blue of the lake all around you, there was also a fab restaurant which served up a pretty awesome Quinoa Soup and Veggie Omelette, as well as Inca Kola the local drink of choice, which tasted like Irn Bru.

The peninsula where we stayed overnight was called Luquina. This was my favourite place on Lake Titicaca, not just because we got to dress up in traditional dress!! There were no other tourists here, it was completely untouched, and did not have the usual tourist traps that were to be found on the islands we visited. The people were very warm and welcoming, and they greeted us with some of their traditional music. After this they challenged us to a game of football. I would like to say that I played football against the locals, but I actually think I spent more time shrieking and covering my head. We lost narrowly 5-4 which was obviously all down to the altitude, which at 3800m played into the hands of the locals.

One of the best parts of the trip was being dressed up in the traditional clothes. We looked absolutely ridiculous, but it was a lot of fun. I just could not get over the amount of clothes they wore, we literally had 5 thick layers of skirts on, which were extremely heavy. After we  were decked out and obviously looking like Peruvians, the locals put on a fiesta for us. They showed us a traditional dance, and then it was our turn to give it a crack, this must have been highly amusing for the locals who had slightly more mastery over the dance than us. We were shown a few more dances, one particularly cute one by the little kids, and then it was our turn to dance with our families. I pulled the short straw by ending up with the son of my host family Wilbur, he was ridiculously energetic and after 2 more dances (not forgetting the altitude of course!) I was completely knackered!

The host family were really cute, their house was surprisingly comfortable and it was not as cold as I thought it was going to be. The family members there at the time we stayed were the mum Juana, the son Wilbur and  his 11 year old sister, whose name I have forgotten! Thankfully the family had a child as we had brought gifts of food and toys including a skipping rope and a hannah montana ball! At first we thought that Wilbur, the 17 yr old was the only child of the family, which was slightly embarrassing...Here you are, have a skipping rope!

The family spoke Aymara which made communication difficult, but we got by with our basic list of Aymara phrases and a few smiles and thumbs up. The host mum Juana cooked us a dinner of vegetable soup and rice with vegetables which was pretty tasty. I did not sleep amazingly, the array of animals seemed to make noise all night, and the cockerel was making noise from around 5am for hours, I swear I nearly broke my vegetarianism and killed the bugger. The breakfast the next morning was slightly random, we awoke to a bowl of chips on the table (interestingly the family did not have chips, I think they just had some assumption that english people only eat chips!) and some deep fried pancake thing, not the healthiest.

We left the island in the morning for the Uros floating islands, the kindness and warmth shown by the people in their humble and simple existence was something I will never forget. The Uros islands were incredibly touristy. They were great to see and it was interesting to learn about the construction of the islands. They are made out of layers and layers of reeds, which have to be replaced every 15-20 years. We spent a little time here looking around the islands, and chatting to the locals, who tried to sell you their wares. We then took a short ride on this boat constructed by reeds, it felt like it was going to break in half at any point, as the waves created by the tourist boats came past.

Lake Titicaca is a beautiful place, and one in which I could have spent a lot more time. It was incredibly serene and peaceful and a great way of seeing the lives the traditional people live.

Onwards to the historic city of Cusco, my next post will hopefully be after I have survived the Inca Trail. Wish me luck! Macchu Picchu here I come!

Thursday, 19 August 2010

More "near death" experiences in La Paz- Death Road and San Pedro Prison

La Paz is host to the road known as the most dangerous in the world a.k.a. death road, so obviously the ideal thing to do would be to jump on a bike to descend its 64km.

There are many agencies that run trips along the death road, we decided to go with one of the oldest and most trusted (its not called death road for nothing!) Downhill Madness. We set off at 6.30am, not ideal to be sleep deprived when you need full concentration for the ride! They provided us with some breakfast, gave us our gear, hi-vis jacket, trousers, gloves, and full face helmet, aswell as a t-shirt which says death road survivor, which to me was tempting fate!

We drove about an hour to the start of the death road, at which point we donned our gear and had a quick pedal around on our bikes, which were fantastic. They were dual suspension, which took some time to get used to, but for the road surface and the descent, they were brilliant. We set off on part of the new road which had a tarmac surface, this was pretty easy to navigate, although one idiot in the group (Madness took a group of around 40 of us) managed to fall off at the first corner! The start of the descent is at almost 4000m and at 9 o clock in the morning, it was absolutely freezing, I could not feel my fingers! The most dangerous part was the traffic that kept passing us, it was rather too close for comfort at times! We stopped after 15 minutes or so for a snack, provided by Madness, and then we got in the vans to drive to the beginning of the real death road.

Death road got its name because of the number of fatalities and accidents that happened every single year. It is not difficult to see why, the gravelly descent is hardly big enough for one car in places let alone two. Their is very little traffic on death road these days because of the new road being open, so their is nowhere near the annual casualty list as their used to be. That is not to say that it is not dangerous though. The last person to die biking on the road was in May, which highlights the danger on the road.

After a few minutes of biking we hit a wall of thick fog, which pretty much lasted for the entire descent.You could just about see the person in front of you, so tryed to hang onto them. Unfortunately Katherine managed to get two flay tyres and lost the rest of the group, so had to do this section, which was the hardest of the whole route, on her own! We stopped again for a snack, and finally emerged from the fog for the rest of the descent. It was not difficult, you just spent the large majority of the time on the breaks, except for the last half an hour or so, which was flat, and we actually had to pedal!

We ended at just over 1000m in the humid tropical climate, completely opposite to where we had started. Only in Bolivia! We grabbed a celebratory beer and headed to a nearby hotel for a buffet lunch. There was a pool there, but nobody swam, it was pretty grim. After refuelling, we jumped back in the vans, for the long 3 hour journey back to La Paz. This at times was scarier than the biking, as the van drove once again through the thick fog, and then had to navigate its way through the chaotic traffic of La Paz.

Death Road was one of my highlights of my entire trip, I felt completely safe the whole time. Though you can see that other companys do not abide to the same rules as Madness and were all over the road. As long as you listen to the companys rules and know your limits it is perfectly safe. As I said before you would have to be a complete retard to die on that road! I can now wear my death road survivor t-shirt with pride!

That night we had a pretty big night to celebrate our survival. We ate delicious asian food, first time I have had any the whole time I have been away. After we went to a popular spot called Mongos which was literally rampacked, you could not even move your arms, we decided to move onto a club called Blue, which must have had about one south american in. It was absolutely full of westerners. We stayed till about 5am, but it was full of pretty undesirable characters so we called it a night.

After about 2 hours sleep, we embarked upon another death-defying experience, trying to get into San Pedro prison. Anyone who has read the book Marching Powder will be familiar with the San Pedro prison. An english guy Thomas McFadden was incarcerated at the prison quite a few years ago, and during his time there he came up with the plan of giving tours to tourists to try and raise some money. Everything in San Pedro costs money, you have to pay 500 dollars to get in, then you have to buy your cell. Inmates set up restaurants and shops to try and make money, if you do not have any, you are effectively screwed. The tours are highly illegal and were stopped last year due to word getting out in the media about the activity. However, in the last few months the tours have started back up again, and so with apprehension we headed to the San Pedro Plaza to see if we could get in.

When crossing the plaza a woman approached us and offered to take us to the prison, it costs 40 pounds to get in, most of this is a bribe to the guards, and the rest is split between the organizers of the tours and tour guides. We were taken into the prison, and the guards asked if we had cell phones or cameras, all of which are now banned after the publicity. After this we were led through the gates of the prison where we met our tour guide Luis Felipe. He was from Portugal and spoke very good english. Flanked by two bodyguards, one in a grandad cardi, and a mouth full of gold teeth (who we believe was in there for murder!) we embarked on our tour of the prison.

From what I have already said you can tell that San Pedro is no ordinary prison. On top of this, families live with the inmates, the wives, and children are free to come and go as they please, the children even go to school and then come back. There was even one woman who had been to the prison every day for 36 years to sell her goods! The guards only enter the prison once a month, the prison is regulated by delegates who run each section, the rules are painted on the walls, and if you break the rules you are kicked out of the section. When we arrived they were setting up one of the sections for a big party for an inmates birthday, they were setting up huge sound systems, and a band was coming from outside to entertain them. It is the bizarrest place I have ever been, it is completely unlike a prison, it is just like being in the outside world. There are 7 different sections where the inmates live, some more desirable than others and so the price of cells are more expensive. The streets between the sections are lined with sellers of dvds, food, drinks or just about anything you can think of.

Luis Felipe was a very informative guide as he led us around each section, introducing us to inmates and regaling us with tales of the prison. He had been in the prison for 27 months for attempted drug trafficking, he was still awaiting trial, and he had no idea when this might be. The Bolivian system is extremely corrupt, so he might be waiting for a very long time yet. This is highlighted by the fact that you can pay 600 dollars to escape the prison in a bribe to the guard in the watchtower, two Americans recently made an escape.

The tour ended with us being taken into a darkened room to discuss the tip to the tour guides, after this we were led back to the gates, where we had to wait for what seemed like an age to be let back into the outside world and to regain our freedom, leaving behind the prisoners in their own little bubble.

We were really lucky to gain entrance into San Pedro and an insight into this world and the lives of the prisoners. We happened to go on a Sunday which is visitors day, and the only day you can gain entrance into the prison. It was a bizarre experience but again one I will never forget.

More forgettable was the Cholita wrestling in La Paz. Cholitas are the traditional indigenous women in Bolivia and Peru. I do not really know what we were thinking going to it, as it was a complete tourist trap. The Cholitas most of the time wrestled hideously unfit men, it just made for an ugly spectacle, it was faker than WWF, and is not something I would recommend to anyone, it is 3 hours of my life that I can never get back. The only good part of the trip was that El Alto offers a stunning view over La Paz and its surroundings.

La Paz is a crazy city and host to two of my favourite things I have done while I have been away. It is colourful, vibrant, chaotic but there are also beautiful aspects to it. The valley of the moon just outside the city is a peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of the centre. The southern zone where the rich people live is a complete contrast to the crazy packed streets of the centre. The main plazas and buildings, and also the oldest street in La Paz are really beautiful, and you would think you were in a completely different city.

La Paz was sadly my last stop in Bolivia. I did not get to do Potosi and the mines, but I know that Bolivia is definitely a place I will return to. I love it because it is so untouched by tourism and the western world, I hope that this remains the same when I return someday. I think pretty much all of the best things I have done on my travels have taken place in Bolivia, as well as some of the worst. It is the most stunningly beautiful country on earth, and each department has its own attractions and completely different feel. I am sad to say goodbye to a country that I have fallen for, but I hope that Peru can offer up more of the same.

Dodgy buses, flights and sickness in Sucre.

So the last time I blogged, the political situation was pretty uncertain which was playing havoc with the travel plans. The miners were striking in Potosi, blocking off the city to the outside world. The strike spread to neighbouring Uyuni and Oruro. Thankfully we managed to do the salt flats just before the strikes got worse, as a couple of days later Uyuni and the salt flats also became out of reach. We did manage to get a bus out of Uyuni to La Paz, however it did have to go a roundabout way and was in itself pretty terryfying. The road from Uyuni to La Paz goes through Oruro, but because of the spreading strikes going through was out of the question, so we had to go around. This meant going off road and through the salt flats for part of the journey. I cannot really begin to describe how bad the bus journey was. I tried to read, but you just could not keep still because the road was so bumpy. I managed very little sleep, as the bus constantly stopped and started, and felt like it was about to tip over at any point. Surprisingly we did manage to get to La Paz in one piece, and this would not be the last of "near death" experiences in Bolivia over the next few days.

The next experience with Bolivian transport was a flight to Sucre. The road to Sucre was blocked off so we decided to fly there from El Alto airport in La Paz. We flew with Aerosur, for what will be the first and last time in my life. I am not even convinced the guy flying the plane was a pilot. I felt like I had somewhat combatted my fear of flying due to all the flights I have taken over the past four months, but this one flight just reminded me why I hate it so much. The flight in itself was not that bad, it is only a 45 minute flight, and save for the very annoying French people who kept trying to take pictures out of our plane windows, it was not that bad. The landing though was something else. As we came into land, I got the feeling that we were going far too fast and when we finally did land we did not seem to slow down as we zoomed along the runway. We finally came to a halt, and when the plane turned back to taxi up the runway, we realized that there was literally only 5 metres of runway left, and what lay beyond this was an absolutely massive cliff! It was undoubtedly the worst landing I have ever seen, and we were so lucky to have stopped when we did.

Despite the bad experience with the flight, I am so glad we got to see Sucre. It is a beautiful place, again completely unlike anything I have seen in Bolivia. It has a very mediterranean feel about it. All the buildings in the main centre have to be painted white once a year, to retain its colonial feel.

There are plenty of historic sights and activities around Sucre. The city is another place in Bolivia that is home to dinosaur footprints. The footprints are a good little trek away and then you are supposed to view them from around 200m away. However, our guide decided to take us right up to them, it was a bit of a dangerous hike which reiterates the fact that it if off the tourist track and that you are not supposed to go right up to them. The footprints were good but not as good as the ones I had seen at Toro Toro national park just outside Cochabamba.

Sucre is also host to a number of orphanages, we visited one which was run by nuns. It is the only orphanage that was non-government backed. The government do not support orphanages with children from the age of 0-4. I have no idea why, as surely these are the most in need of backing. I was a little apprenhensive as to how the conditions in the orphanage would be, as clearly they rely to a large extent on the backing of donations from visitors. We went to the market beforehand and stocked up on essentials to take like, milk, cereal, nappies, fruit and lots more. The orphanage was a pleasant surprise though, it was very well run and the children looked like they were really well looked after. They all seemed well fed and quite content, which was completely different to what I had expected.

Sucre has the honour of being host to one of the worst clubs I have ever been in, in my life. Everywhere seemed to shut down pretty early, so after having drinks at Joyride, a popular tourist hangout, we decided to look for somewhere that was open. The place we ended up (I cant even remember its name, and nor would I want to!) must have been the only place only, I have no idea why we stayed there, it was so shocking. It smelt so bad, that when you ordered a drink they gave you an air freshner to spray around the room, it was truly horrific! We also drank some disgusting immitation vodka called Natasha, which caused a shocker of a hangover! It was just a horrific place all round.

I was ill the next day, I am not sure if it was Natashas fault or just a bug. Sadly I spent most of the next 2 days in bed, missing out on a 7 hour hike which I really wanted to do. Instead I had to settle for shit films on tv. It was such a shame to get sick at that point as Sucre was a beautiful place and I would have liked to have seen more of it. I have been pretty lucky and only been sick twice the whole time I have been away so I suppose I cannot complain too much.

I did manage to crawl out of bed to watch a beautiful sunset over the recoleta district of the city. That was literally the only thing I did for over 2 days though, which was a bit miserable as it was a beautiful place.

The end of the few days in Sucre meant only one thing, another dreaded internal Bolivian flight back to La Paz. Sucre airport must have the worst security in the world. The bag scanners were not working so they just did a quick check through your bags. The body scanners did not work either but they did not even search you. If you were late for your flight, they did not even search your bags, you just went straight on the plane. It was absolutely appalling! Thankfully the flight with BOA this time, was far better. I actually think the man flying the plane was a qualified pilot. The flight gave beautiful views of the mountains surrounding La Paz, and we arrived safely back in El Alto airport, ready to embark on more adventures in La Paz.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Salar de Uyuni

I was pretty nervous about crossing back into Bolivia due to the change in the immigration rules. I was unsure whether I would be allowed back in, and if I was allowed whether I would have to pay an extortionate amount for the privilege! My fears abated as we approached the border crossing though, literally a shack in the middle of the desert with one guy manning it! He just asked if it was my second visit, stamped my passport and that was it. In fact the biggest hiccup of the whole crossing was the bus transporting us across the border breaking down twice in the middle of nowhere! Thankfully the driver was able to fix it ok, and a mechanic turned up much faster than the AA would in Britain.

At the border our 4 x 4´s were waiting to take us on our 3 day trip across the Salar de Uyuni and Reserva Nacional de fauna andina. Our driver was called Davide and we nicknamed our vehicle Jerky which lived up to its name as we had a flat tyre about twenty minutes into the start of the trip. We only got one more flat tyre throughout the entire trip which was not really bad going considering the state of the ¨roads¨.

The crossing took us past some of the most beautiful scenery and landscapes imaginable. Incredible lagoons like the green lagoon which looked like it had a tide, just like the sea. The smelly lagoon was filled with flamingos, it is amazing to see these creatures in the most desolate landscape imaginable. The lagoon actually did not live up to its name, it was not that smelly! What was smelly though was the geysers, the sulfur smell was completely overpowering. I could even smell it later that evening. Though late in the afternoon, the geysers were still bubbling away quite powerfully.

Other sights to see in the salt flats include the stone trees, which are just enormous rocks randomly placed in the desert. The active volcano that straddles the border between Chile and Bolivia was beautiful, you could just see the little puff of smoke coming out of the top of it.

There are a few cute little towns along the way including San Juan where the drivers stocked up on flags and decorations for Bolivian independence day which was yesterday. The island of Incahuasi which is filled with hundreds of really old cacti, it was a really nice little hike to the top of the island, and gave great views of the salt plains all around us. Another little town was Colchani which had a really cute artisan market, selling lots of handmade goods.

Obviously the highlight of the Salar trip is the photo taking out in the middle of the Salar. Everyone was trying to come up with new and original ideas, but it is hard when so much has already been done. We took quite a lot of good ones which I cannot wait to upload at some point (this blog will at some point get photos, it just takes too long to upload them here!). You could literally stay there all day just thinking up more ideas, it was great fun.

I did not really get too badly affected by the altitude. We climbed to almost 5000m during the crossing and on the whole stayed over 4000m for the majority of it. I did not really feel too much apart from a bit of shortness of breath when doing any hiking or activity. The only real time it hit was the first nights sleep in a hostal which was at 4800m, I think once you relax and try to sleep, it really affects you. I was struggling to breath through my nose, and our room got about half an hours sleep the entire night, none of us managed to get any sleep.

The weather was absolutely perfect throughout, it was warm during the day, and the sun was quite strong because of the altitude. The temperatures did not really dip that low at night either. It had been minus 30 there the week before, but it was only around minus 15 during the nights, so we were pretty lucky. I was prepared for extreme cold, but in fact it was never really that cold, during the nights I even had to take some of my 6 layers off because I was so warm.

The first hostal we stayed in was pretty grim, but not the worst I have stayed in. This was the night none of us got any sleep in our room though which probably affected my lasting impressions of it. The second night we stayed in the salt hotel which was completely made out of salt, all the furnishings, beds, tables, chairs, everything was made out of salt. It was such a novelty, and was ten times better than the previous nights hostel. It was not even that cold there, and the rooms were pretty comfy so managed to get a bit more sleep than the night before.

The food we had throughout the entire trip was amazing. They happily catered to my vegetarianism throughout. The food was actually some of the best I have had throughout my entire trip. Really great omelettes, spaghetti, soups. It was just delicious, and the cooks went to an enormous amount of hard work to look after us all.

There was an incredible amount of wildlife to be seen there despite its isolation and barrenness. In addition to flamingos, there were herds of llamas, alpacas and vicunas (Finally saw some in Bolivia, this is obviously where they are all hiding.), foxes, vizcachas (like a little chinchilla).

The Salar was one of the most beautiful places on earth and one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced.

We ended the tour in the town of Uyuni, there is not much to see here, it is a bit of a backpacker haunt due to the Salar crossing. I did a fair amount of shopping so now have even more to lug around than my already overflowing backpack!

I was supposed to be going to Potosi today but unfortunately that is now off the itinerary due to ongoing strikes and road blocks. They have been protesting for over a week and it is showing no signs of halting. Unfortunately the only way to Sucre is through Potosi so that is looking unlikely also. However, we have managed to find a bus out of Uyuni this evening to La Paz. We might catch a flight to Sucre on monday, although expensive, it is looking like the only reliable way to get there. I am absolutely gutted about missing out on Potosi, as going into the working mines was one thing I was really looking forward to doing. Sadly this type of thing is common in Bolivia, and I have probably been fortunate not to experience it up to now.

Hopefully if all goes well I will be in La Paz tomorrow and then able to get to Sucre which is supposed to be Bolivia´s most beautiful city. Fingers Crossed.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Not as chilly in Chile

Santiago was a nice city. Not as beautiful or as much to do as other big cities in South America but it was ample for a few days. There are a few really nice plazas surrounded with beautiful buildings. The main plaza was filled with street performers and really terrible artists displaying their wares, worst of all was a portrait of Leonardo di Caprio which looked more like Ricky Gervais.

There are a few sights to see in the capital of the Chile. One is the La Virgen del cerro san cristobal. Funiculars run up and down the hill, though they are quite scary, the view at the top is definitely rewarding. However the statue of the virgen on top of the hill was pretty tiny compared to the Cristo in Rio and Cochabamba. Smog and haze cover much of Santiago so you cannot see very far, it is one of the top 3 most polluted cities in Latin America, but on clearer days you can make out the mountains that surround the city.

Chile is famous for its hot dogs, a tradition I cannot take part in. However, some of the others did order hot dogs. These were no ordinary hotdogs, the Chile speciality is with avocado and mayonnaise, much to our amusement, they came with at least a whole avocado and a whole tub of mayo on them, it looked absolutely disgusting! They also love bread as do all South American nations, it is ridiculous, you absolutely cannot escape bread!

One of the coolest bar/restaurants in Santiago is The Clinic, it is also a Chilean newspaper and this bar is its offspring. It was pretty exclusive, and they served really good Tom Collins Cocktails. We wanted to have a big night out in Santiago but it was a Tuesday so it was difficult to find much that was going on. Thankfully due to the Chilean locals we managed to find a really cool little club called Clandestine, which just looked like a house from the outside, you could never tell it was a club. There was a band playing for a while, and then the dj served up classics like Dr.Dre and Rod Stewart. It was a brilliant night which ended in us being locked out of the hotel (it was after 4am) and me (apparently!) singing Radiohead High and Dry outside the hotel after it had played in the taxi. Obviously the hotel were more willing to let us in when they heard my reincarnation of Thom Yorke. I then proceeded to fall asleep on the end of the bed resting my head on my legs, comfy! All this amounted to a pretty messy hangover the next day.

Despite the hangover we did manage to see some more of the town. Santiago is host to a fabulous museum of pre-Colombian artifacts. It was a really great collection and also really informative.

One thing the Chileans have yet to master is the system of queing. You go into a shop/cafe etc and have to go to about 3 different desks and people to place an order, pay for the order, and then collect the order, it is disorganisation at its finest.

This was one of the only places I have experienced being ripped off in a taxi over here. We had to pay 4 times the price of the same taxi journey that we took at 4am. It was ridiculous!

The Santa Lucia hill was another sight worth seeing here, it was a short walk uphill, and is the place where Santiago was founded. It gives pretty good views of the city from the top. There was a pretty cool artisan market in Santiago and after stocking up on some more warm clothes for the salt flats in Bolivia it was time to head further north.

Next stop was La Serena, which is now Chile´s prime beach resort, and it is not difficult to see why, with several beautiful beaches after another. It was not really warm enough to sit on the beach or sunbathe, but after the cold we had been in, 14 degrees was pretty warm to us!

The hostel was a bit of a dive, with a carpet which looked like it had never been cleaned. It was also really cold. The breakfast consisted of one bread roll which says it all really.

The beaches were really beautiful and we just caught the end of the sunset there. The town in itself looked like any ordinary seaside town, full of tacky shops.

La Serena is home to a fair few kareoke bars and we blew the locals away with our rendition of Rick Astleys Never Gonna Give You Up! They absolutely love kareoke over here, they just sit round the table and sing it. I have to say though we may not have been the best, some of the people were absolutely dreadful, it became quite painful to listen to, and that accompanied by the djs shocking dancing made sure we made a sharp exit.

You can rent bikes in La Serena and bike right along the coastal road to the next town of Coquimbo. The bikes were a bit of a death trap, some where missing breaks, some gears, and some just looked like they would fall apart at any minute, but we all made it safely. It was a beautiful ride, right along the coast, and you can imagine the beaches would be packed with swarms of people in the summer. The highlight of the ride was at the port of Coquimbo where we saw the most gigantic sea lions in the sea, it was amazing to see them in their natural environments, but just hard to comprehend how massive they were!

Northern Chile is one of the best spots in the world to stargaze so we decided to go to one of the observatorys there. First though we went on a tour of the Pisco distillery (the local drink of choice), we saw how it was made, and got a couple of samples of the pure product, one was 65 percent strength and it was absolutely horrendous, it burnt my chest for so long afterwards! The mango pisco sour was much tastier.

The tour of the Mamalluca observatory was about 2 hours in total, it was really informative, the guide really new his stuff. We got to look through the telescopes at different planets (Saturn was definitely the coolest, it just looked like an image from a text book, not quite real) stars, and constellations. The milky way was incredibly clear, and was absolutely beautiful. I have never seen so many stars in my life, and it was great to see the constellations. Another bunch of Americans tainted the tour somewhat by reacting completely over the top whenever they looked through the telescopes, after a while it became quite amusing, and we decided to mimic them in dramatic style.

There was not much to see in La Serena but I imagine it would be great in the summer when the weather is warmer. After La Serena we headed even further north on a 17 hour night bus to San Pedro de Atacama.

The road was a pretty bumpy one, and I was quite uncomfortable, I did not manage to get a lot of sleep on this one, despite the fact that I am now a nightbus veteran. Yet again the bus served up a ham and cheese delight with a vacuum packed sandwich, I do not understand how they can eat so much ham and cheese, it is ridiculous.

The landscape dramatically changed as we neared San Pedro. Deserts and barren land as far as they eye can see. It was a cute little town though, the most expensive place in Northen Chile, and a backpacker haunt. The hostel was really nice, I thought it would be cold in the nights as it was made of adobe and straw but actually it was not cold at all, despite the minus 6 temperatures after dark.

San Pedro was where we really felt the heat again, for the first time since Brazil. It was probably around 20 degrees which was just perfect. The town is surrounded by many volcanos and there are tons of outdoor activities to be had.

I went sandboarding which is so much fun. It is effectively snowboarding on sand. We drove to some massive sand dunes, and after a quick lesson on what to do-basically on your heels to break, and go diagonal-we were off. The downside of sandboarding is having to walk up the huge sand dunes which is a killer on the legs, and after a few runs we just started going to the half way point and walking back up. It was pretty scary at the top for the first time, as the dune was quite steep, but once you were away, you could kind of get into the swing of it. The best part is when you fall-which was often in my case- it does not hurt at all as it is just sand, however, you do get sand absolutely everywhere! I think I will still be finding sand in my backpack and clothes for weeks yet! I would highly recommend it though, it was brilliant fun.

After sandboarding we drove to the valley of the moon to watch the sunset over the Atacama desert. It was truly incredible, once the sun set the colours of the valley and the salt plains just changed, it was so beautiful, surrounded by the most perfect landscape.

I thought I would be pretty sore in the morning after sandboarding but in fact I did not feel too bad, which was a good thing, considering I had booked onto a four hour hike through the desert. It was a pretty challenging hike and I feel absolutely exhausted as I am typing this. We hiked through the desert and down into a Canyon, of course the downside being getting back out of the canyon, we hiked right the way around it and at an altitude of almost 4000 metres the trek was quite a difficult one. Again though, it was worth it for the views and the perfect surroundings, it was incredibly peaceful as there was no one else around. Hopefully a high altitude trek will pay off for Macchu Picchu later on!

San Pedro is a cute little town to wander around, filled with little markets and shops, and really nice restaurants and cafes. I wish I had a little bit longer here, however, it is time to move countrys! I am leaving tomorrow morning for a 3 day trip through the Salar de Uyuni-the salt flats of Bolivia. Fingers crossed I will be able to get back into the country ok! I am really excited to finally get to do the Salar as it was something I was really looking forward to doing throughout my stay in Bolivia. It was apparently minus 30 there last week during the night, so I will definitely be wearing most of my clothes, which will make my overflowing backpack lighter if nothing else!

Brazil, Argentina-less so Uruguay- and Chile have been absolutely amazing, but they are no Bolivia. I cannot wait to return to the country and do everything I did not get to do last time. I am not quite sure what it is about Bolivia, but it just has something special, which I have not felt in any other South American country, I have completely fallen in love with it, and am so excited to return in the morning.