Reflections on South East Asia

This is a very different post for me because every other blog I have written reflecting on my travels in a particular country or continent has been produced via a combination of immediate responses furiously scribbled as I travel and then more detailed, informed thoughts right after my time there. They have been in-the-moment and and timely. South East Asia, on the other hand, has manifested itself incredibly differently. As I type this – thoughts that are spilling from the recesses of my mind out through my fingertips and directly out onto this blog page – it is a year since I was in Vietnam. I spent just over 3 months in SEA – Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore – first flying into Bangkok, Thailand on 29th May 2016 and then flying out of Singapore on 8th September 2016 (although Singapore often felt worlds away from the rest of South East Asia that I often wouldn’t group it within the same experiences and reflections).

Yet I didn’t write a single reflective note while I was there and I have only now – in July 2017 – started to put together all the thoughts and feelings I have about South East Asia into the written word. Honestly, I think it is because South East Asia stole my heart. I fell in love with it completely and utterly, matching its pace and being totally immersed; there’s little time for the mind when the heart is occupied. And then I left, leaving a part of me there, and spent a lot of my time in Australia, as wonderful as it was, mourning the loss of South East Asia; grieving that was too raw and fresh to be able to write about it without it hurting far too much.

Sound dramatic? It is. It was. When somewhere – or something – captivates you in that way, when it pulls you in and sets you free, it is devastating once that has gone. South East Asia was the first place I travelled alone – a solo female traveller – with the exception of Laos (side note, I wonder if that is why Laos doesn’t stand out as much for me in terms of how it made me feel) so I recognise the significance it holds in that respect; the freedom, challenge, empowerment, independence and sheer euphoria at travelling alone are so many of the things I found wonderful about backpacking and that formed an identity I had spent years searching for. Elements that I would now identify as prerequisites and desires for the life I want to live. So to experience all of those together, for the first time, will always make South East Asia stand out for me. I proved to myself that I could do it, even when I would be sat there actually speaking aloud the words “I can’t do this” as I would be sat on the balcony of a hostel in Vietnam overlooking the busy Hanoi streets, a single tear falling slowly down my cheek. I knew somewhere deep within me, that I could, even when it felt ridiculously hard to, and I did. South East Asia was the first place I realised I was stronger, braver and far more capable than I gave myself credit for. Than anyone gives themselves credit for.

I guess I will always be protective of South East Asia; protective of what it means to me and protective of that being tainted by anyone. I am aware of how subjective any travelling experience is and, therefore, the opinion of any country. People often ask me which has been my favourite country and I find that so hard to answer, subjectively or at all, as your feelings towards a country have only about a third to do with that country itself and the rest is shaped by the people you happen to meet and the experiences you happen to have, which can be down to chance, luck, weather, political situations and so on. So I don’t have a favourite country – or favourite countries – but there are countries that were my favourite to experience. For me at lot of those were in South East Asia, despite having good and bad experiences and a lot of frustrations, all of which are my own and personal to me. As ever, the opinions, thoughts and reflections I present here are just that – mine – and not to be taken as absolutes.

One of the wonderful things about travelling around South East Asia is how relatively easy it is to, well, travel. I didn’t realise at the time until I went to Australia and saw how expensive it was to travel in comparison and then went to South America and saw how difficult and convoluted it was to travel in comparison. That’s not to say it should be easy or cheap to travel around another country – why should they accommodate travellers or adapt their systems for us? We are visiting their country, their culture, and it shouldn’t have to be tailored to make that more accessible for us, not when we profess a desire to want to see a country as it really is. However, I completely took for granted how cheap, easy and (relatively) stress-free it was to travel around South East Asia. I would get frustrated when we would arrive at our destination at 5am instead of 6am as stated – their concept of time is definitely something to be taken loosely – or when I got moved 3 times between different buses as they couldn’t figure out which one I was supposed to be on to get from Hanoi in Vietnam to Danang. But arriving somewhere early is actually far better than late and at least I managed to get a seat on a bus with minimal effort.

There were some issues with the buses and it wasn’t always smooth sailing. In Vietnam, where you mainly get nightbuses from one place to the next due to distance, they drove so fast and beeped their horns so regularly (apparently to notify motorcyclists of their presence but I never did understand the need for such dramatic declarations) that you were surprised to find yourself not in the middle of a traffic accident. It was also on my journey from Dalat to Mui Ne in Vietnam were the bus blew up on the way but the driver still persevered around the winding mountain roads and a group of locals even tried to push-start it once it had clearly failed. In Pai the mist surrounding the mountains was so bad that all we could see was white when we looked out the window but the driver kept going anyway (are you sensing a theme?) And many buses and minivans would collect locals along the way from the sides of the road despite already being at full capacity.

 

But I took minivans, buses, night buses and local buses to get from one destination to the next in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia, including ones that crossed borders; Cambodia into Thailand, Thailand into Malaysia, Malaysia into Singapore. Half of them I booked a day in advance whereas the other half I booked the morning of travel, meaning I could make the decision that day if I wanted to move on; the freedom and flexibility this offers as a traveller is completely wonderful, as often you will not know how long you wish to spend somewhere and part of the joy is being able to be spontaneous about your movements. There were so many different bus companies to choose from that you would rarely encounter a problem where you couldn’t book a seat, plus you could find these companies – or tour operators – literally lining the streets in each location you were at; you could walk a minute from your hostel (or even find a tour desk in your hostel) to book transport, so it was quick and easy to do. Moreover, the majority of buses would leave from the centre, or near the centre, of one city and take you to the centre, or near the centre, of the next.

I remember my bus to Danang stopped away from the city and I, stubbornly, walked about half an hour in the heat with my backpack sticking to my body. Another time I opted to take a local bus rather than a “tour” bus from Danang to Hoi An as it was so much cheaper but this also stopped far from the centre, this time my stubborn refusal to pay for a motorbike ride and fear of being scammed leaving me with an hour walk trudging around the hot, humid streets of Hoi An. But they are the only two examples I can think of where my walk from the bus dropping you off to the centre, or my hostel if pre-booked, took longer than 15 minutes. The majority of South East Asia caters for travelling – for backpackers – in how regular, cheap and easy the transport is, plus the cost of a tuk tuk/motorbike/taxi if you are caught short will never break the bank.

As with most developing countries where it is cheap to travel, poverty is an issue and hand-in-hand with that often brings the risk of theft or scams. I try not to generalise or blanket anywhere or anybody – I also travelled to South America and similar things could be said there, plus I lived in London for 5 years where muggings are also commonplace – but I can really only speak of my experience and this was part of my experience of SEA. There are elements of haggling and scamming everywhere in South East Aisa – whether that be for hostel beds (in Laos this happened a lot), for tours, for bus trips or for market goods – but, for me, the place where I felt the most wary of being scammed and the place where I feel it happened the most to me was in Vietnam, in particular Hoi An. I heard the most stories about travellers being charged double what had been agreed at the beginning by motorbike taxis and motorcycle tours, with them not being taken to their final destination until they had been paid what they were now demanding. Personally I couldn’t ever really tell if I was getting a good deal or being taken for a ride or not.

Firstly, Hoi An is known for its tailoring, many visitors having a suit or dress custom-made while they are there as its one of the cheapest places to have something tailored to you. However you are advised to offer around half of the price they ask for, but it gets very confusing and they are very persistent, and you leave not really being sure if you have been scammed or not. I paid £12 to have a bikini custom-made for me, cheap for at home but actually expensive for Hoi An, especially is it pulled away at the seams by the time I reached the end of South East Asia, but I was in a rush and I didn’t haggle as much as I should (or could) have done. I also had an experience where I was on the “better” side of bartering but at the same time still ending up feeling scammed when I booked a tour of the My Son Ruins through my hostel. The Sunrise tour was advertised at 180,000 dong and I managed to haggle it down 160,000, later finding out someone else from my hostel was on the tour and paid the higher price. However you pay more for a Sunrise tour than for a day tour and, after falling in love with sunsets I decided to pay a higher price and wake up at 4am to experience a sunrise over the ruins. But my bus didn’t arrive until 5am and we weren’t on the rad for long before the sun rose – when we queried about the sunrise they quipped that sunrise is too early, to which I questioned why it is called a My Son Sunrise Tour if you don’t experience the sunrise at the ruins. “Because we go early and you avoid all the tourists.” Then call it a My Son Early Tour!

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My Son Ruins

The element of haggling brings about its own issues of being ripped off. Hoi An was particularly hot and the air really still while I was there and as I wandered round the markets I noticed mini wooden fans on every stall for 20,000 dong; you will often come across the same items again and again on these stalls, and literally everywhere was doing them for the same price. Then, on the day I finally decided to purchase one, I wandered over to the first stall I saw, picked one up to buy and was told it was 70,000 dong. I was palpably shocked and said something along the lines of “no way, these are 20,000 everywhere, it is not worth 70,000” and she replied, “ok, fine, 20,000 it is”. They try their luck, hoping you don’t know better or have just arrived and are unaware of the local price of things, which is definitely an issue; every new place you go to you have to first establish the rough going price of things, which varies city to city as well as country to country, and this can take some time, often meaning you are a little bit scammed to begin with, until you figure it out. And don’t get me wrong, bartering is part of the experience and part of the culture and it can be fun, but it can also be exhausting and tiring and frustrating; I even had to barter over a can of coke, for goodness sake. I remember at one point even saying I missed England, where everything was far more expensive but at least you knew everyone was paying that same. I mean, I kind of didn’t miss the prices, I just found being on edge and having to work so hard to purchase anything was getting slightly draining.

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Markets in Hoi An

I’ve touched upon Tuk Tuks and motorbike taxis but this definitely deserves a mention of its own as it is such a big part of the culture of South East Asia. You literally cannot walk down a single street without having “Tuk Tuk?”, “You need Tuk Tuk?”, “Pretty lady want a Tuk Tuk?” barked at you in succession. Sometimes you will pass 4 or 5 Tuk Tuk drivers in a row whom ask you the exact same question for you to give the exact same answer each time, sometimes the SAME one person will ask you 4 or 5 times, changing it from a simple “Tuk Tuk?” to “Where are you going?”, to “I can take you Tuk Tuk to airport?” even after you said no to the first question. If I said no to taking a tuk tuk at all, why would I suddenly need one to the airport?? Replace the word Tuk Tuk with Taxi or Motorbike, and you pretty much cover one third of the conversation you engage in during your time in South East Asia. When you’re hot, tired and just want to get to your destination, having someone come up in your face and repeat the same sentence at you over and over could be tiring, but at other times it would also make me laugh at how ridiculous it could be. If I wanted a tuk tuk, don’t you think I would just ask for one?? But then I would remind myself that my culture and my way isn’t their culture or their way – and I am, after all, in their country – and pull myself out of my privilege to recognise that it was their way of making a living.

In fact, I think this is something we should always be aware of when travelling to another country; we are in their space, in their world, in their culture. Who are we to impose our ways of living onto them? It can be hard at times – and of course there is a place for observations and opinions and personal preferences, which I hope I express here without judgement or condemnation – but we also have to remember that we are a visitor in their country and we don’t necessarily do everything better or right (blimey, far from it!) For me it’s about recognising our differences and reflecting on those while being respectful. I had some of my most wonderful experiences when crossing cultural barriers with locals, this being one of my favourite things about travelling to other countries altogether. When I was picked up in a taxi from my hostel in Hanoi to be taken to my bus leaving for Sapa and the Vietnamese taxi driver began singing along to Hotel California despite not speaking any conversational English, slapping my leg enthusiastically as he threw himself into the lyrics; when I rode a moped to a waterfall in Kampot and a man from a nearby Khmer family having a picnic came up to me to ask (via gesture) if he could have a photo with me, which caused shrieks of delight and laughter from his family members as I happily obliged and threw my arm round him for a picture before sitting with his entire family with a huge smile on my face and warmth in my belly.

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Or when I hitchhiked in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, to the Jungle Trek, jumping in a huge car with a Malaysian family and not being able to communicate at all with one another in the same language but their kindness breaking any barrier; when I was asked to stop and speak with a group of Vietnamese students in Ho Chi Minh city whom wanted to practice their English, asking me about the Royal Family, about where I love to travel, about the religion in England, and them teaching me popular Vietnamese songs.

Or when I spent an entire day – from 4:30am – with my Tuk Tuk driver all around Angkor Wat in Siem Reap that, even though we barely spoke to one another we had shared so much in that one day, I felt sad to say goodbye and asked for a selfie, to which he happily obliged; when I had a sore throat during my Homestay in Sapa and the woman running the Homestay – Mamasa – offered to give me a “home remedy” which I jumped at the chance for and involved her plucking at the skin on my neck, leaving me with bruises on my neck and a story that will last me a lifetime.

The food. Oh my goodness, the food. How can I not yet have mentioned the food?? Food, as with culture, is one of the big reasons I love to travel. I love food – I have always loved food – and I have never been a “fussy” eater. I literally will try anything and I will always be up for trying the local dish, even if it is something that may not usually appeal to me. South East Asia was not as wildly adventurous in terms of food when it comes to China (dog, lamb testicle, grilled worms, roasted scorpion) or to South America (Guinea Pig, Alpaca, Lllama, Sheep’s head), probably Barbecued Rat along the Mekong River in Vietnam being the most adventurous I had, but the food was fresh, cheap, well portioned, and made using the most simple yet tasty ingredients. One of the things I loved most about travelling around South East Asia was how cheap and easy it was to eat out, wandering the streets, beaches or mountains all day to then realise you are hungry and be able to decide to eat, there and then. Taking a pew on a small, colourful, plastic chair on the pavement, you would be able to devour a meal made in 5 minutes while being surrounded by locals. It was the ultimate in dining like a local and so wonderfully easy and tasty.

Along the way my favourites would have to be Pad See Ew and Pad Thai in Thailand (I could literally eat these all the time); a Khmer Curry (my favourite being an aubergine one I had in Battambang, but everywhere the rice was sticky and tasty with the most delicious, flavoured curry I have ever had) and Amok Fish in Cambodia; fresh spring rolls made at my Vietnamese Homestays in Sapa and the Mekong Delta;

Khao Soi in Chiang Mai and in Laos (although the food in Laos was heavily French-influenced with a lot of baguettes); Street Food Markets; Mee Goreng in Malaysia and pretty much any Hawker food in Singapore, but mainly the Malaysian-influenced food for me or the infamous dishes at Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle. I am actually salivating talking about the food and looking back at pictures. Food, food, food.

Coffee shops and cafes were also much more prevalent than I expected, mainly in the cities of Vietnam (Hanoi and Hoi An in particular), Cambodia (Siem Reap especially, but also Battambang and Kampot) and Laos. Oh, and the fresh, icy fruit shakes you could get pretty much anywhere in SEA for around £1 became my staple, and favourite, breakfast item.

Interestingly I also fell a bit in love with the hostels. They were basic – sometimes rustic – and cosy, offering all the amenities you would need and more often that note came equipped with an individual power socket, and individual light and even, at times, a curtain to pull across your bed; these little things became luxuries for me and would be the absolute dream in terms of a hostel bed. They weren’t fancy or over-the-top, nor were they over-priced, but they often had a homely feel, especially the more independent ones ran by locals (NB, I generally avoid party hostels; I love a good drinking session and I have visited party hostels as a night out but I wouldn’t choose to stay in one. I don’t like to have it forced on me, I like to be able to get some sleep when I want to, and a lot of the time they are run by backpackers who also just want to party so the experience you have is usually far poorer and not at all cultural). In most of these there would be a common area where you would meet fellow travellers and end up hanging out, doing tours together or going for dinner. At DeNative Guesthouse in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, the bungalow-style thatched buildings were quaint and cosy, and the fire pit with tree-trunk seating had fellow travellers drinking around it at night before blasting out some karaoke on the Guesthouse system.

Another example would be Mr Peace Backpacker’s House in Dalat, where the owner was eccentric to say the least – giving hugs on arrival – but where we would have hostel dinners together and a load of the travellers staying there played card drinking games on the terrace and went out to the local jaunts (100 Roofs Cafe and BeePub) together. There was more of a sense of community in these hostels, and they made up a good chunk of the backpacking experience in South East Asia.

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Bee Pub with Mr Peace and fellow backpackers

One of my favourite hostels – The Hangover Hostel in Koh Phi Phi – was a one-room, 10 bed hostel with two bathrooms off the main room where the “common area” was the patio out front. All 10 of us staying there spent the evenings drinking whiskey and eating nuts on the patio with the hostel owner, and all of us went out together for a night out of Muay Thai, food and bars on the beach in Koh Phi Phi.

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The Hangover Hostel crew

Safety. As a solo female traveller, most of the time I felt safe backpacking around South East Asia; I can only think of one time where I felt unsafe or at risk, at a backpacker party hostel in Ho Chi Minh City, and I made the decision to leave at 5am, in floods of tears, to find another place to sleep and thus removing myself from the situation. But other than that I am struggling to come up with a time that I felt unsafe or at risk; maybe I have romanticised South East Asia and put a mental block or any negative feeling, but I honestly didn’t feel more at danger being a female or being on my own. Sure, things felt more stressful or emotional if they went wrong, but the locals were so friendly and the areas so widely backpacked that you will usually find someone – fellow traveller or local – who is wiling to help you. Don’t get me wrong, all sorts of terrible things can happen – and have happened – with backpackers, but also all sorts of terrible things can happen wherever you are, whoever you are and whatever you are doing. Some of it is down to common sense and you develop a safety gauge and learn how to trust that; it doesn’t matter if you maybe think you overreacted or were irrational later, if you feel unsafe then you remove yourself from that situation.

I have managed to talk on and on about South East Asia without really mentioning the things you do there, which seems insane but maybe justifies the point I made earlier about so much of your encounter of a country being about who you meet and the individual experiences you have as opposed to tangible things about that country itself. But it would be a huge omittance on my part to not mention the wonderful array of landscape, activities, travel, culture and architecture that is South East Asia.

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The interesting yet harrowing museums of the War Remnants in Ho Chi Minh City, Women at Work in Luang Prabang, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Hao Lo Prison in Hanoi, Cope Visitor Centre in Vientiane, Landmine Museum in Siem Reap.

The energy and character of local markets, food markets, floating markets and crab markets; the colour in the form of painted houses and street graffiti.

The crazy city roads and of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Chiang Mai where it is less dangerous to just close your eyes, go for it and don’t hesitate rather than attempt to weave the insane traffic; the borders you can cross from one country to the next by road or by boat along the Mekong River (Thailand into Laos, Vietnam into Cambodia).

The moped rides you can take along the winding Hai Van Pass of Vietnam, the vast island of Koh Phangan, the terrifying grid system and dual carriageways of Chiang Mai, the steep and wide Bokor Mountain in Kampot and the moped-friendly roads in Pai; the scenic cycling routes of Hoi An, Kampot, Luang Prabang, Singapore and Malacca.

The marvellous use of bamboo in the form of bamboo rafting across the rivers of Pai, bamboo canoeing along the rivers and canals of the Mekong Delta and the crazy yet exhilarating Bamboo Train in Battambang.

The numerous temples, statues, celebrations and commitment to religion that you cannot avoid or help being moved by.

The Half Moon, Full Moon and beach parties in Thailand; Reggae Muay Thai bar in Koh Phi Phi, 100 Roofs Café in Dalat for a maze-style Hide and Seek session, Monkey Bar in Koh Lanta for karaoke, Sakura Bar in Laos for post-tubing drinks, Raffles Bar in Singapore for the classic Sling, Amsterdam Bar in Koh Phangan for the weed and the sunsets.

The surprising, spectacular mountains in Danang and Kampot; the varying caves you can wander around in or crawl through in Halong Bay, Kuala Lumpur and Kampot; The natural canyons of Pai and Chiang Mai in Thailand, the Sand Dunes of Mui Ne in Vietnam, the harrowing Killing Fields of Phnom Penh in Cambodia, the resourceful Cu Chi Tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, the impressive and mighty Angkor Wat ruins in Siem Reap in Cambodia.

The stunning ocean, rivers and lakes with Xuan Huong Lake in Dalat, Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, Secret Lake in Kampot, Nam Khan River in Luang Prabang, Pai River, Thu Bồn River in Hoi An, Kampot River, Nam Song River in Vang Vieng, Penang River, Hàn River in Danang, the Malacca River, Siem Reap River, Chao Phraya River and its connecting canals in Bangkok.

Cultural activities including elephant feeding and bathing in Chiang Mai; Meditation with Monks in Vientiane (Laos); helping kids with their English in Luang Prabang; Cooking Classes in Hoi An; visiting the Rice Fields in Laos and the Pepper Plantation in Cambodia.

The gorgeous beaches, waterfalls and islands of Halong Bay, Koh Phi Phi, Kuang Si Waterfall, Koh Phangan, the Mekong Delta, Koh Lanta, Koh Tonsay, Maya Bay Koh Rong Samloem, Perhentian Islands and Koh Chang.

The incredible landscape, jungles and treks in the Cameron Highlands, Sapa and Penang.

Kayaking in Vang Vieng and Halong Bay, Scuba Diving in Koh Tao, Snorkelling in Perhentian Islands, Tubing down the Nam Song river in Vang Vieng and Canyoning the waterfalls of Thac Datlana in Dalat.

The surprising things you fall in love with including the rustic, simple bamboo bridges of Laos compared with the tacky, over-the-top bridges in Vietnam and the large, impressive bridges in the cities of Thailand.

The unsurprising yet still remarkable things you fall in love with including the spectacular sunsets at Pre Rup in Angkor Wat, the viewing point in Koh Phi Phi, Mount Phu Si in Luang Prabang, the lookout in the Pai Canyon, from a boat along the river in Kampot and at the Amsterdam Bar in Koh Phangan.

During my time in South East Asia I caught severe sunstroke and had to go to hospital for blood tests and medication in Thailand, had a snake draped round my neck in Vietnam, got up close with monkeys in Thailand and in Cambodia, bruised my back during a Wipe Out water park activity in Thailand, had a 2 year relationship end and had my sister come to join me in the Thai Islands for 10 days. And I fell in love; with the people, the place, the culture. There is so much to do, so much to see, so much to experience; it is vast and beautiful and enriching.

The 3 months I spent there were the most challenging, enlightening, rewarding, exciting, petrifying and enriching experience of my entire life. I left my heart in South East Asia; where did you leave yours?

LS.

 

Reflections on South America

As with any post I write, this is completely subjective and based on the experiences I had personally; they are therefore not absolutes or definitions, but opinions that are my own. I don’t wish to offend anyone – South Americans specifically or those people and countries I make comparisons to – and I am extremely grateful to have been able to visit another continent and explore South America in the way I do. I will forever be thankful to those who were kind, welcoming, generous and helpful towards me and any “negative” comment I may have about my experience is not, and will never be, a poor reflection on that; I truly loved my time in South America. And here are my reflections. 

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The mountains, the mountains, the mountains. I didn’t realise South America was so mountainous (ignorant of me, most probably) and I never got bored of them. I could never quite comprehend how many nor how huge they were or how close they would be to cities, literally being a peaceful, gargantuan backdrop to the hustle and bustle. In Ecuador you would literally drive amongst the mountains; you feel at once part of them and completely intimidated by them. We do not get mountains close to anything like that in the U.K., and I will miss them dearly.

The language. Oh the language. The beautiful, intense, rapid-fire delectable language that is Latin American Spanish, spoken with the rolling of Rs as though one word flows into the next and without any pause for breath, rendering it inaudible to the inexperienced-language ear of a confused and ignorant Brit whom can only just about speak very (very) basic, broken Spanish. Asia was different as even if your bus driver didn’t speak English pretty much everyone else on your bus would and you would join forces to make sense of the situation, plus the booking of the bus would be done through a hostel (where most spoke good English) or a tour agency (where most spoke very good English) and all the locals – both adults and students – would be desperate to speak in English to you as it was the way to practise a language that would progress them in life, so you could always count on someone able and willing to converse with you in your language. Not in South America.

And it absolutely shouldn’t be; the problem is that I didn’t speak Spanish (not well enough, anyway) not that they didn’t speak English, and part of immersing yourself in a country and in their culture is to speak their language and it is ignorant and arrogant of us to expect for another country to cater for foreigners. I respect their language, I love their language, I want to be better at their language and converse with the locals, as it should be. But I found it really really hard, never having really had to learn a country’s language to travel to it as English is spoken as standard, plus not being taught another language at school until an age when it was more of a struggle to absorb. I just don’t have an ear nor a tongue for languages. And I therefore found it frustrating, not being able to communicate or navigate in the way I would have liked or to acknowledge and appreciate their language in the way I would have liked.

Plus, so many people who travel South America are from another country in South America, or Spanish foreigners whom speak the same language, or foreigners from other countries whom have learnt Spanish and/or are wanting to practice it as much as they can, so even those that can speak your language are conversing as much as possible in Spanish. It feels as though everyone around you is engaging in a conversation that you cannot be part of but desperately want to, which can feel quite isolating plus it limits your ability to immerse yourself in the local culture. It has certainly opened my eyes, and my soul, to the privilege I have had being British in a world where English is very often the predominant language and to the isolating experience of those who cannot speak the common language. I have been fortunate and for that I am grateful, but now it has hindered me and I have to question its benefits for me in the long run and in the big wide world. I feel strongly that in the U.K. we really need to make other languages loads of the curriculum at a much younger age and encourage bi-lingual learning in many facets. Otherwise we are limiting and depriving ourselves of something beautiful.

The bus systems – especially the local ones – are a bit of a nightmare, where you can wait forever for one to show up to then pass you by completely or not be going the whole route. The journeys also take longer than stated and take ages to board as more often than not the driver does not take your money but another employee situated further down the bus so you end up queuing twice; once to get on and once to pay. The particularly difficult thing about travelling across South America, compared to South East Asia for example, is how difficult it is to then get to the main bus terminals to take your long haul bus; in most countries you cannot book these tickets online if you are not a citizen, so you have to go all the way to the one bus terminal that is located far from the main part of the city or countryside to book your ticket, or arrive really early the day you are travelling and pray to whatever you believe in that there is space. 

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It is basically the opposite to Asia in terms of transport from one country to the next where there are travel agencies every 100m with various bus companies that depart from the centre (of a town or a city that is significantly smaller, it is so cheap and easy to book your bus whenever you choose and the departure point is usually relatively close, or if not then a pick-up from your hostel is included as standard. By comparison South America is more expensive, time consuming and long-winded. Now, I’m not saying it should be made easy for tourists – a huge part of the reason we travel to other countries is to experience their culture and their worlds, so to expect them to accommodate us is audacious and demanding, plus it kind of defeats the point of the experience of that country, untainted by tourism. It can just feel difficult and overwhelming and, when you are on a time limit or struggle to communicate yourself in their language, frustrating.

The long-distance buses. Having said all the above, the long haul buses are pretty incredible. In Chile I took a 22 hour direct bus from the north – San Pedro de Atacama – all the way to the city of Santiago; the capital in roughly the centre of Chile. The toilets on board were functioning, the bus driver safe and competent, the employee whom stowed your baggage and checked your tickets was friendly and helpful, and the stops regular. Plus the landscape you see on the journeys is absolutely incredible.

Chilean long-haul buses were some of the best – Turbus in particular – offering aircon, reclining seats and the use of their website to watch films. Bolivian buses were perhaps the worst, run-down and most basic whereas Argentinian ones provided a meal and Peruvian provided snacks, but the fact that you could get long-haul buses and night buses from one part of the country to another – or from one country to the next crossing borders along the way (Peru into Bolivia is even on the one bus, no change required) – was incredible.

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The safety. Ohhhhh, safety. Is it safe? Are you safe here? Are you sure doing that or going there is safe? Seguro, seguro, seguro. You spend a third of your time having the fear of God put you by other people questioning your safety, fretting over your safety, or regaining tales of their lack of safety, then you spend another third of your time feeling wary, anxious and unsafe yourself and trying to manage that, leaving you with only a third of your time where you can actually relax and absorb the experience. It’s tough, really tough, as South America is a fabulous continent with fabulous people and you want to be free to enjoy it as much as possible, but sadly there is a danger issue. And, yes, sure, anywhere has its elements of danger and its unsafe pockets, and your safety can be compromised anywhere in the world, whether that be mugging, accidents, groping, attacks or even death, and I have had experiences where I have felt unsafe in Asia, yet there is a heightened danger and safety issue in South America, and you can feel it. I’ve never heard so many stories from fellow travellers about their first-hand experience of muggings, gun-point robberies and attacks, plus horrifying tales of witnessing murders.

As a woman there is an added element of danger due to unprovoked sexual attacks from males; in Rio I was groped on the bum and had a Brazilian male literally grab my face and shove his tongue down my throats during carnival; men can be predatory and assume possession over women. It is such a shame as you have to censor, regulate and monitor in a way that can inhibit or restrict your exploration and sense of freedom: cameras or phones are often left behind in case they are nicked so you can’t take photos or rely on google maps; outfits are selected based on disguise of your money belt or bumbag with comfort taking a backseat and fashion (pah, fashion goes out the window with travelling anyway) is relegated to the boot; credit cards are kept at home while cash is distributed across bum bags, pockets and bras; solo night-time venturing becomes limited meaning you have to hope to join up with people in your hostel or perhaps miss out on evening activities; certain areas are off-limits for exploration on foot, purely because of safety, but you can so easily stumble across them by accident and many of which you may have to cross to reach your destination so a taxi becomes a necessity rather than a desire. And, of course, all of the above is rendered impossible when you are moving from one city to another where you have no choice but to bring all your belongings – deliciously and temptingly exposed on the outside of your body – and have no control over what time you arrive in your next location or even exactly where. Danger’s paradise. 

The locals. So many locals were so kind and helpful when I (or we, when I travelled with Katie for a month) looked confused, lost or in need. In Foz do Iguacu, Brazil, a man went out of his way to get us off the bus at a safe place and onto another bus after we ended up going too far and almost crossing the border into Paraguay, communicating in Portuguese with the new bus driver to make sure we got off at the right stop; in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a cafe customer offered us money to take the local bus to the main bus terminal when it turned out we were miles away; in Bogota, Colombia, the uber driver insisted on putting my bags in the boot and seating me in the front beside him, looking the doors, as it was safer for me; in Valparaiso, Chile, a local cafe owner offered to drive us back to our hostel and taught us how to ask for help and insisted we came back if we felt unsafe after it transpired we would be walking back down a dangerous hill at 11pm; and, in every single country, I had locals come up to me and ask if I needed help when it was obvious I could speak little Spanish and was struggling to communicate my needs. 

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Once again I have been humbled by the generosity at willingness of others, making me question my own active approach to those whom are foreigners in my country and are, perhaps indirectly, looking for help. Despite the few that made me feel uncomfortable by leering, pouring and kissing their teeth or touching me without my permission, for the most part the locals are so warm and kind, wanting to engage in conversation with you and know more about you. 

 

Their curiosity and interest in you as foreigners – as tourists – is starkly comparable to our part-dismissive part-irritation at tourists in England (at least, in London) and reminded me of the joy of being human. Of interacting with people and not expecting the worst. Of crossing cultural, gender, age or social barriers to offer yourself out to another. Being more open to human interaction and connection is something I will definitely take away with me. Humbled, humbled, humbled.

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The courtesy. I know that us Brits can be overly polite – saying please and thank you at every possible opportunity, apologising profusely, queuing for hours on end – but our awareness and consideration of others is something I value and appreciate. I struggled with the apparent lack of this in South America, although this isn’t me passing judgement or disdain on South Americans as people as their culture is just different from ours. Yet being sat next to someone on a bus who insists on playing a Facebook video through their phones at full volume with no headphones, having a Brazilian brazenly cut in at the front of a 59-deep queue of people whom had waited over half an hour at the terminal, or not being thanked after letting someone past or picking up something they dropped for them was something I found frustrating and borderline rude. I did have to catch myself, though, as I am in their country and who am I to impose my culture on them? I just feel that this type of common courtesy it is something (out of perhaps only a handful of things!) we have got right in the UK, despite me not coming across it in Asia, either. 

The colour. South America is so colourful. That might be my one word to define it. Colourful. And in so many facets, too. Firstly, the music; the colourful music that often has no words but speaks to your soul, gripping on to an electric emotion – whether that be love, hate, passion, desire, euphoria – and vibrating through your body so it has no choice but to respond in a way it hasn’t before, with edges and flows. The music and the dancing.

Secondly, the buildings; the colourful buildings, houses and favelas, scattered in a rainbow heap up the side of cerros softly juxtaposed against the dark green mountains, or lining narrow, cobbled streets.

Thirdly, the graffiti; the colourful street-art graffiti, fiercely and passionately popping up on the sides of buildings, on walls along the edge of a hill, down alleyways and on the entrance of hostels, angry letters pierced around government and patriarchal spots, the colour and creativity blaring out at you.

Fourthly, the landscape; the colourful yellow sand dunes, stark white waterfalls, rainbow city scapes, piercing blue seas, rich green jungles and mountains, browny-red streets, bright white salt flats, dirty orange canyons. 

And finally, the people; the colourful, diverse, frightening, unique, intense, exciting, curious, aggressive, brave, strong, loving, warm people.

This is their culture. Colourful, colourful, colourful. 

Thank you, wonderful, beautiful, dynamic South America; I have loved you.

LS.

Bolivia to Argentina Border Crossing

My flight back home to the UK was from Buenos Aires so, despite having already spent time there as part of my travels, I had to go back through and therefore decided to allow myself at least a full day in BA before having to fly so I could relax, knowing full well the journey from Uyuni in Bolivia would be a long and painful one. I paid 40 bolivianos (£4.80) for my “night bus” from Uyuni to Villazon at the border and, when I arrived for my bus at 7:30pm, I could see why it was so cheap; a run-down, decrepit, one-floor bus where many of the seats were broken and wouldn’t recline and those that would only did so as far as about 110 degrees. The bus was mainly filled with locals whom got off at their stop 2-4 hours in the journey, with kids filling the aisles and a lot of changing seats going on. With no toilet to speak of either – and with my bout of diarrhoea still hanging in there, for which I had bought and desperately taken an Imodium just to get through the night without ruining the bus journey for everyone – this really was not what I would class as a night bus. 

Add to that the quality of the Bolivian roads and you have yourself a nightmare journey. I had heard – and been warned – about the dodgy roads in Bolivia but, other than Death Road which is no longer used for transport purposes, I hadn’t experienced anything that severe myself and didn’t really know what the fuss was about – could people not handle a bit of windy, mountainous roads or a little bit of bumpy travel? But, my goodness, the road South from Uyuni to Villazon was another thing entirely; “bumpy” doesn’t cut it. At one point we were going over so much uneven, free turf that it was almost like I was receiving a massage from my chair with the amount it vibrated, which might have been relaxing had it not been for my head being thrown into the window with every single up and down and my arse almost falling off my seat every 30 seconds.

It was dark so I couldn’t quite decipher the “road” entirely but at one point we passed a gaping whole in the road to our right and at another we dropped down so low and fast from a standard road boulder that my heart went into my mouth. Everyone around me was sleeping and I had no idea how; never mind a fear of safety, I had no way of getting comfortable enough, or stable enough, to even begin to doze. 

We arrived into Villazon at 4:20am, 40 minutes ahead of schedule, after I probably managed to get about an hour of sleep in total, feeling cold and uncomfortable for the majority of the time and focusing most of my energy on controlling my bowels. As soon as I stepped off, despite being pitch black and in the early hours, I was swarmed by local men asking where I was going and if I wanted a taxi. When I told them I was going to La Frontera (the border) they told me a price in bolivianos but I knew it was about a 10 minute walk so I refused – I needed to warm up somehow! I regretted the decision a few minutes later when I found I was walking down an empty street on my own, but I soon made it to the border where a kind Bolivian lady informed me it didn’t open until 6am (7am Argentinian time). Brilliant. So I sat on a stone step by the border, wrapped in an eclectic mix of most of my clothes (Thailand pants, walking boots, alpaca jumper, winter hat, alpaca gloves, Rio scarf and my Thailand towel wrapped around my shoulders) while I wrote my Salar de Uyuni blog as a way to pass the time. 

At 6am I changed my remaining bolivianos for Argentinian pesos and made my way to the border to find the local Bolivians were smarter than me and had headed there early and formed a lovely long queue. So, despite me being first to the border, I was now 15th in line, outside in the freezing cold with my fingers turning blue. I eventually made it to the front, got stamped out of Bolivia and then at the next window was stamped into Argentina, where I then had to put my bags through a security van before walking approximately 15 minutes to the bus terminal in La Quiaca, the Argentinian town by the border. I was told the only direct bus going to BA was at 11am, arriving at 3pm the following day, so I paid the 1,700 ARS (£87) and went to sit in a hotel cafe to have some breakfast and abuse their wifi.

When I got back to the bus terminal at 10:45am and put my bag on the bus I realised it wasn’t a direct bus at all; instead I had a bus to Jujuy, which would take about 5 hours, and I then had to wait 2/3 hours for my bus from there to BA. Awesome. This was just getting better and better. I suppose I would get severe cabin fever on a 27 hour bus, but what I would do for 3 hours in Jujuy with all my luggage I had no idea and it just meant I felt I couldn’t properly settle or sleep, especially as Jujuy wasn’t the final stop on this bus and you never could rely on the bus drivers to announce the stops.

We arrived in Jujuy at around 4pm after making numerous stops along the way where local women would climb on board and try to sell their sandwiches. Fortunately the roads were much smoother and sturdier was than those in Bolivia and I could enjoy the beautiful mountains under the blue sky fir this leg of the journey. There wasn’t much in the way of food at Jujuy and my connecting bus to Buenos Aires was late, not arriving at the terminal until 7:30pm, but I was lucky to have no one sitting next to me so I had 2 seats to myself. I was shattered but took a sleeping pill to be safe, falling asleep at around 8pm but being woken at 11pm as we were stopping for half an hour at a cafe service station and I had to get off. Excellent. Back on the bus I quickly fell asleep again, before waking at around 7:30am and being able to grab some food from our rest stop at 10am. 

I’d been told we would arrive in BA at 3pm and, based on the number of stops we made with market food the previous day, I thought I would be fine to not buy any more snacks. Wrong. The only stops we made were for passengers to get off and on – no food or opportunities to buy anything the whole way – and we didn’t reach Retiro bus station in Buenos Aires until 7:40pm. By this time I was tired, hungry, had a headache from the high volume of the films they played on the TVs (which I couldn’t properly follow because they were of course in Spanish, but I did kind if enjoy trying to decipher as much of it as possible) and disappointed to have my 1.5 days in Buenos Aires before flying home cut down to only 1 day. But, hey, at least I had planned for issues and allowed myself more time.

So, 48 hours after getting my first bus from a Uyuni in Bolivia I finally arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina. So it is doable although tedious, long and a bit boring if you are by yourself. It has been recommended to break up the journey with stays in Salta or Rosario, which I would have done if I’d had the time, but that also does increase costs as buses across Argentina are generally quite pricey. As with many things in South America, don’t expect it to be on time and don’t expect to get exactly what you’re told you will get!

LS.

Bolivia 5: Uyuni (Salt Flats)

Despite being one of the shorter bus journeys I have taken on my travels, the leg from Potosi to Uyuni was possibly one of the worst for me. And it wasn’t even a night bus. I spent most of the 4 hour journey trying to fight the diarrhoea that had been haunting me for 2 days since my night of drinking in Sucre, battling a headache and sickness from the altitude and struggling to doze off despite being exhausted because I was absolutely freezing. I was relieved to just get to Uyuni, although dreading the diarrhoea-filled night ahead and having to wake early to book a salt flats tour for the following morning.

I pounded the streets to try to keep warm and quickly get to my hostel, Piedra Blanca Backpackers, arriving at 10:30pm to a fast asleep dorm room where I had to climb up to my top bunk without any sort of ladder attached to the bed. Using the sides of the lower bunk and the bunk bed next to it, I heaved myself up; a physical activity I had to repeat 4 more times during the night as my bowels continued to get the better of me. It wasn’t looking promising for a 2 day tour inside a jeep.

I woke up at 7:15am the next morning (more accurately, my bowels woke me up) and got dressed before heading out to scout tour agencies. It turns out not many tour agencies offer 2 day tours (which I wanted due to time restraints and having seen geysers/lagoons in Chile) and nor do many offer tours in English (which I generally needed if I wanted to learn much at all about what I was seeing) – not for at least double, if not quadruple, the price anyway. I eventually settled on a 2 day tour with Salar Camel, where the “guide” (more on that later) only spoke Spanish but there were other English-speaking travellers taking the tour so maybe they could aid with translation if necessary. I managed to get the price down from 400 to 380 bolivianos (£45), knowing I would need to pay approximately 60 bolivianos more for things that weren’t included in the price, and was told to return to the office at 10:30am.

I went back to my hostel to pack for my 2 days and to have breakfast; although 70 bolivianos (£9) is more than I was paying in other parts of Bolivia they obviously feel they can increase the price as you need a night before the tour, and the breakfast of toast, butter, jam, scrambled eggs, cereal and yogurt was actually pretty decent, especially on a cold morning before a long tour. Back at Salar Camel tour office at 10:30am – where they kindly let me leave my main backpack while I was on the tour – the 6 of us (me, a Costa Rican, a Peruvian and Dutch couple plus a Canadian and Swiss couple) jumped into the jeep with our driver Luis (who, rather than being a tour “guide” that gave us information, was more of a driver/DJ/photographer for our trip) and set off for our first destination.

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Along with all the other tour groups in the world – whether on a 1, 2 or 3 day tour – we stopped at the Train Cemetery, where the train track that used to run from Bolivia into Chile is still firmly in place surrounded by the remains of the trains that collided in the crash that stopped the use of the track in the 1990s.

It’s crazy to have these rusted, desolate, hollow carriages scattered across the open desert, and while the graffiti that has since splattered the carriages is quite apt for any train system and the opportunity to climb atop or inside the carriages was a cool experience, it did feel a bit like tarnishing and climbing over someone’s grave. Like so many other things I visit as a tourist myself, I kind of wanted there to be no other tourists. This was the first of many stops where we got little information from Luis – even in Spanish, so I had to slyly eavesdrop into the the explanations given to other groups.

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Our next stop, again like everyone else, was at Colchani Town for the markets – where I purchased my magnet for Bolivia – and the Salt Museum, before heading out for a drive across the salt flats. It is hard to describe how incredible it is just cruising across this large expanse of flat, white land with the bright blue of the sky as a stark contrast, the sun causing the salt to shimmer and sparkle.

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We stopped the jeep at Playa Blanca, near to the first ever Salt Hotel, and it was here that we took our first lot of photos in the salt flats, greyish mountains in the far distance offering the only perspective of this otherwise never-ending, undefinable stretch of white land. We took the obligatory knobby salt-flat photos, abusing distance and perspective to make the impossible look possible (well, not really, our photography skills weren’t that great, but we tried) while I also pranced around on the salt, doing cartweheels and generally being a dick. 

It was then time for lunch in the Salt Hotel, where we had typical Bolivian food of fried hamburgeser, fried egg, quinoa, vegetables and potatoes, dressed up with mayonnaise of course, washed down with coke and followed by a banana. We then went back outside and took more photos round the corner of a sort of salt-shrine to different countries around the world, with around 30 flags jutting up out of a salt stage in the middle of the salt flats. More than anything it was just amazing to be outside in the heat from the sun, yet cold from the wind, and take in this beautiful, vast landscape that was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

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Back in the jeep we drove for maybe another half an hour/40 minutes before reaching an island in the middle of the slat flats that was covered in cactuses. It doesn’t sound very appealing, but it was a rocky, mountainous island that had the biggest cactus I have ever seen in my entire life and offered incredible views of the endless salt flats.

You had to pay 30 bolivianos (£3.60) to get in – and they even wouldn’t let you walk the perimeter of the base of the island, despite being free-to-the-public salt flats, without buying a ticket for the island – but it meant you got to use their bathrooms, and you never know when your next toilet stop may be in the middle of solid, flat salt. Plus it was a peaceful way to spend an hour, and when we came back down there was a group of male Bolivian drummers playing local, energetic music and eventually a group of female Bolivian dancers joined in the show.

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We then drove to Thunupa Volcano where we watched the gorgeous sunset over the salt flats, taking in the incredible array and changing colours of orange, red and yellow. 

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We also took some standard sunset pictures, a few jumping shots plus a video of us walking across the salt flat water where the camera was spun and you couldn’t decipher what half was us and what half was our reflection in the water.

It was one of the most incredible sunsets I have seen on my travels and, with Uyuni being my last “new” place on my travels, it was really wonderful to experience it here. I could have spent hours out here, dancing in the sunlight.

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It was then a 5 minute drive to our accommodation for the night at a Salt Hotel at the base of Thunupa Volcano. It was really cool to stay in a place where Salt lined the gaps between the bricks and the floors in our rooms were carpeted with salt. We had dinner at the hotel – vegetable soup followed by spaghetti Napoletana, washed down with a bottle of red wine between the six of us, before having a shower and then heading to bed for an early night at around 9/10pm.

I was surprised, having been warned about how cold it would be, to sleep really well, waking up naturally around 6:45am to get dressed, pack and have a “breakfast” of bread rolls and cold cheese empanadas at 7:30am. Not the best meal on a cold morning before a hike, but I guess I shouldn’t really complain.

We then purchased our tickets to Thunupa Volcano for 30 bolivianos (£3.60) each before driving the first part up to the site of the mummies, discovered within the mountain around 30 years ago and with which we had to access by crawling through a small door into the inside of the mountain. With my basic understanding of Spanish it was hard to decipher the exact details but it seemed they were being kept there for conservation purposes and, while all deaths were naturally, some skeletons were those of children.

We then began our uphill climb up the side of the mountain, the sun beginning to beat down on us and the altitude taking up the space in my throat, making it hard to breathe properly as I hiked. Fortunately the view of the surrounding salt flats below kept me motivated and, once at the Mirador about 45 minutes later, I was so glad I persevered; the Crater of the Volcano and the surrounding multicoloured mountain (similar to pictures I have seen of Rainbow Mountain in Peru) was absolutely incredible, and I sat there just taking it in with the Canadian and Swiss couple, marvelling at how incredible our world is.

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It took about half an hour to walk back down where we drove back down the remaining part to return to our hostel for lunch; chicken Milanese with pasta and vegetables, as always flavoured with mayonnaise. There was another group staying in the same hostel and each meal they seemed to get something slightly better than us; pique macho the night before, scrambled eggs for breakfast, and now chicken on the bone instead of deep-friend flat chicken steaks, which they also got with tomatoes and cucumbers. We never did find out how much they paid to get better food – plus an actual guide whom seemed to speak English – but our food envy was an irk alongside not having an actual guide. Oh, and the fact that the women working at the hostel were really rude to us, despite us paying them to be there. 

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We began our journey back to Uyuni at around 1pm, making our first stop about half an hour in to take more knobby photos in a completely desolate stretch of salt flat; it was amazing to have literally no one around other than the 7 of us, plus our jeep, and to be surrounding completely by pure, sparkling white.

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We spent a while here taking photos and silly photos before driving on for another 40 minutes to stop and taking photos of what I like to call “salt boulders” before driving the final stretch back to Uyuni, arriving at Salar Camel at around 4pm. Despite not getting quite as much information as I would have wanted on the tour, Luis had impeccable music taste and was relentless and determined when it came to taking our perspective photos on the salt flats, plus it was just such an incredible and peaceful place to be that it almost didn’t matter. I loved it.

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“Salt Boulders”

I had to start my journey back into Buenos Aires, Argentina, that evening, knowing it would be a long haul and that my diarrhoea – still in full, stubborn force – would make it even more fun. However this was still my last “new” place on my year long travels around the world (I literally cannot believe it has come to an end) and I want to finish on the wonder and beauty that was the salt flats in Bolivia; probably one of my favourite countries in South America, despite it clearly not being a fan of my bowels. Farewell, Bolivia, you have been dynamic!

LS.

Bolivia 4: Potosi

I had a bit of a whistle-stop tour to Potosi, being in and out in the space of a day (not even one night) and spending a good chunk of that on a bus, but I was running out of time and my priority was to get to Uyuni for the salt flats. So, I arrived at the new bus terminal in Potosi at around 10am where I caught a taxi for 7 bolivianos (86p) to the town centre. I headed straight for Big Deal Tours – as recommended by Lonely Planet – and enquired about their mining tours. There has been a lot of controversy about the mine tours – the element of voyeurism, whether it is really ethical and what reason you are doing it for – so I had decided that if I was going to do it then I would do it with Big Deal, as it is the only agency set up and ran by ex miners themselves. If ex miners are happy for the tours to exist then I felt better about it, plus a cut of the tour price goes to the miners themselves in terms of rice and food. 

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The stunning mountains from Sucre to Potosi

I paid 150 bolivianos (£18) for the tour at 1:30pm and then left my big backpack at the tour office while I went to explore the city for a couple of hours. I didn’t get very far – only to inside the Mercado – before I was stopped by a Peruvian man whom wanted to know where I was from and chat to me about my travels. Somehow, all of sudden, he became my tour guide of Sucre – knowing the city well as he does regular business there – and began taking me around the many Iglesias and museums of Sucre. Unfortunately most were closed – apparently places shut early, or completely, on Saturdays – so I was unable to go to many of the miradors listed in my tourist map, but I did get to sample the local Peruvian sweet snack (I can’t for the life of me remember the name but it is similar ish to a doughnut in texture but more oily and dripping with maple syrup) and he took me to a different viewpoint of the city where he asked for a photo of us.

He was very touchy feely, which isn’t wildly unusual in my experience of South American men, but when he asked for us to pose for another photo together and went to kiss me – actually, he managed to make contact before I could say no – it went too far for me and I asked for some space (espacio) and was much more wary after that. Not long after I said I had to leave to make my tour; not untrue, but slightly earlier than necessary. I then spent a bit of time on my own wandering the streets, purchasing my second salteña in Bolivia (this time a carne one) and finally succumbing to the cream-topped street dessert I had seen literally everywhere. The classic version is a plastic cup filled half with jelly and then topped with cream but I went for one that had one third flan, one third jelly and one third cream, which basically tasted like a trifle but without the sponge, so my idea of heaven (especially at only 2 bolivianos, or 24p). 

I was back at the tour office just before 1:30pm and we (me and 5 other tourists) soon set off in our minivan. Our first stop was at a market stall to pick up some gifts for the miners; coca leaves for the altitude and a big bottle of juice as it helps with the effect on their lungs. We did not buy them cigarettes as recommended in lonely planet, as this actually really isn’t food for them considering the other health risks and other fumes that go into their lungs. We then stopped at a mining office to pick up our equipment, being provided with wellies, trousers and jacket to prevent toxins going on our clothes, as well as a helmet with a light attached to the front and a drawstring bag for our valuables. Not for the first time in South America (or even Bolivia) I was looking pretty fetch.

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We were then driven to a site that was almost like a mining workshop, or factory, where the rocks that had been collected and removed from the mountain were separated and the minerals produced. It was incredibly noisy and fascinating. I found it pretty difficult to breathe here, and the heat was stifling, but the workers seemed genuinely happy and apparently had no issue with us visiting to watch.

 

We were then taken to Cerro Rico – the mountain where the mining takes place – where I was surprised to be gifted with pretty decent views of Sucre as well as to stumble across children of the miners playing up the side of the mountain, using parts of cable to climb. It reminded me of how kids in the UK used to always play outside, in the dirt, but now we are so health and safety conscience, aware of the dangers of kidnapping and rape as well as sadly spoilt by technology that I rarely see this at home. I felt warm from what I saw but also sad by what I hardly ever see anymore. Before going inside the mountain I gave my coca leaves and juice to the wife of a miner and mother of the children, and then we were in.

Thank goodness for the helmet as, even though we were told repeatedly to keep low and kind our heads, I managed to knock my head against the rock above me a whole three times in the first 20 seconds. I’d make a pro miner, me. We squat-walked through the narrow and low passageways, at times having to use the mouth masks we were provided with as the fumes felt too strong (not for the miners – they are used to it and none were wearing masks) and taking care to breathe regularly and properly as the affects of the altitude and the confined space could suddenly hit you. We did a lot of crawling, ducking and climbing, coming across a miner finishing off his days’ work with a wheelbarrow full of rock, before finishing back at the start next to the shrine of El Tío. 

Translated as The Uncle, El Tío is believed to be the “Lord of the Underworld” whom rules over the mines, simultaneously offering protection and destruction; there are many statues of this spirit in the mines of Cerro Rico and miners bring offerings including cigarettes, coca leaves and alcohol, believing that if he isn’t fed he will cause destruction. Sat by the statue as we listened to the story, we then finished by taking a sip of pure alcohol that the guide had brought with him, toasting El Tío before pouring the rest over the statue.

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El Tío statue

What surprised me the most – after everything I had read and heard about the terrible conditions the workers were under – was that it actually wasn’t as bad as I expected. Our tour guide, an ex miner himself, told us how the conditions had improved greatly since the mountain was rented to smaller companies; the pay was better, the miners got an 85% cut of the profit and, by and large, they could decide on the hours they worked. Whereas they would previously work 15/16 hours a day they now worked from 9 til maybe 3/4, finishing early on Saturdays to drink cervazas together and get drunk, and they would have Sundays off. Their pay was close to 4 times better a month than a worker in a coffee shop; yes, there are more risks (explosions, asbestos, etc) so it is only fair they should be paid more because of this, but most of the miners we came across had been working in mining for 20/30 years and wouldn’t want to leave; there was a sense of community amongst the miners.

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View across Potosi from Cerro Rico

I am not tying to glamourise mining and it was definitely tough, exhausting and potentially dangerous stuff, but what I saw of it and what I was told by our guide was not what I had been expecting and there was something heart-warming listening to the brotherhood that exists between them. Maybe I got it wrong, maybe the reality was being covered up – which would really upset me – but I genuinely got the impression they enjoyed what they did and were more than happy for us tourists to be there. Also I personally wouldn’t want to work in those conditions; I experienced cabin fever and a stifling, breathlessness after only 2 hours in there. But it was an interesting experience and I would recommend it if you have the time, although if the mining tour doesn’t interest you then I would probably advise skipping Potosi altogether.

Back at the tour office just after 5pm I picked up my backpack and took the bus (minivan with the destinations writing on placards on the dashboard) to Ex Terminal – the old bus terminal – for 1.50 bolivianos (18p), paying 30 bolivianos (£3.60) for the 6pm bus to Uyuni with Diane tours. I needed a good nights rest before hopefully going on a salt flats tour the following morning…

LS.

Bolivia 3: Sucre

My bus from La Paz to Sucre cost me 80 bolivianos (£9) for a single seat downstairs, by the window. The cost was the same for downstairs as with upstairs and I was hoping with less passengers downstairs it would be quieter, but it seems I had Bolivian Lads on Tour on my bus and they insisted on chatting and laughing loudly for the first few hours, but they eventually stopped (although at 1am, awoken from my sleep, I had to ask one of them to turn off his music that he was blasting out his phone). Apart from that, with the aid of a sleeping pill, I slept pretty well and we arrived in Sucre at around 8:40am. The terminal was further away than I had thought it would be but, it being early morning and me being stubborn, I still chose to walk with my bags to my hostel, Spanish Friends, in the town centre, where I had booked two nights for a total of 84 bolivianos (£10).

I checked in and dumped my bags before eventually going out to explore the city, starting by heading up to the Mirador – the viewpoint of the city – at the end of Calle Dalence. Unlike other Miradors this didn’t require too much exertion and I made it to the top after a short 10 minute walk, and decided to head straight to the cafe that overlooked the city for a banana coffee shake for 20 bolivianos (£2.40). 

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the top of Calle Dalence

 

Afterwards I made my way back down and along Calle San Alberto to Mercado Central, which has the classic fruit, veg and meat stalls as well as crafts, jewellery and electronics. I spent a good couple of hours wandering around Plaza 25 de Mayo, Parque Bolivar and the market-lined streets, people watching and perusing the numerous stalls. Apart from the hustle and bustle of the local markets it is quite a tranquil and relaxed city, with locals relaxing in the plazas and parques and the side streets fairly quiet save the cars parked up on the kerb. 

At around 2:30pm I headed into Casa de la Libertad where I paid 15 bolivianos (£1.80) for entrance and an English speaking tour guide. It was really insightful to learn more about Bolivian history and Bolivian politics, and moving to hear about the figures of respect and awe in Bolivia. I feel a warmth towards Bolivia that I can’t quite identify or justify, but I have felt something inspiring about the people and the place. Afterwards I took the short walk to San Felipe de Neri, which is actually a school but in the afternoon, once class has finished, you can pay 15 bolivianos (£1.80) to enter and take the stairs to the rooftop.

 

 

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San Felipe de Neri rooftop views

This offered possibly some of the best city views I have experienced; in the centre of town, on a flat roof, you have 360 degree views of the city and the surrounding mountains, much closer than the Mirador I went to in the morning, plus the white bell tower and church-like architecture of the building itself adds an air of grandeur and beauty to the landscape.

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San Felipe de Neri

At around 4pm I walked over to Plaza Juan Frias, which has more market stalls and shops but also houses a tattoo parlour, Prodigy Tattoo. I had been thinking about getting a tattoo on my travels since Asia, deciding against it in Thailand only because of the number of beaches there and not being able to swim once I had it done, and I kind of decided on a design while I was in Australia but the time suddenly disappeared and it would have been fairly expensive. Now I am at the end of my travels it felt appropriate to get it done, even more so in a country I have really warmed to and a continent very different from my own.

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The fact that I also had to communicate what I wanted in an entirely different language (using my basic Spanish, a bit of google translate and some elaborate gesture) added to the experience of getting my 3rd tattoo while travelling. 2 hours later, after discussing what I wanted, making some designs actually doing the work, I had a brand new tattoo on my left wrist for 150 bolivianos (£18). I was buzzing a bit afterwards, proud of myself for getting it done despite the barriers and on a high from the pain/pleasure.

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I decided to head out to Kultur Berlin that evening, a hostel in Sucre that is known as a bit of a party hostel and where travellers often go for a night out. It wasn’t quite as busy or full of energy the night I went but I needed a drink and their happy hour included 2 glasses of wine for 27 bolivianos (£3). WINE. I hadn’t had white wine in so long or been able to pay the same for wine as for other drinks, so naturally I snapped up the offer; 3 times over the course of the evening, in fact. I spied a table of guys playing Bullshit while on my second of six glasses and invited myself to join, before we went to Goblin for a pint of local ale at around midnight. I headed back to my hostel at around 1am, feeling merry and tipsy. 

The next morning I felt ropey, clearly having somehow lowered my tolerance to wine since travelling and struggling with the lethal combination of a heat, altitude and a hangover. I had breakfast at my hostel and then went out to enjoy the markets and the sun, but I ended up spending most of my time with a dodgy stomach trying to either find a toilet or not let my bowels get the best of me. This is the second time in Bolivia I have experienced diarrhoea the day after drinking alcohol (in fact, wine both times, too) so I’m not really sure alcohol mixes well with altitude and slight lack of hygiene. I’ve heard that most stomach bugs aren’t actually to do with the food but the spreading of germs through touching doors and so on, but clearly alcohol agitates something for me. I also don’t think the lunch I had – a salad buffet followed by Fideo (pasta) soup and lasagne – helped very much. As much as I love to eat the local delicacies when travelling, I really think I need to start making more sensible food choices and being kind to my insides. 

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Plaza 25 de Mayo

I decided to head back to my hostel so I would at least be nearby a (clean) toilet if needed and spent an hour relaxing on the rooftop before taking my first – and last – Spanish lesson. I’ve moved quite quickly through South America and haven’t really had the time, or the money, to spend taking classes, but Sucre is a popular place as the lessons are some of the cheapest and it is a relaxed, chilled city. Plus the hostel I was staying in is also a Spanish school, so even though I am near the end of my travels and was unlikely to learn much more in one 2 hour class (at 70 bolivianos, or £8.50), it felt like a nice and relevant experience while in South America. Plus it was kind of fun to feel like I was back at school and (I’m sorry, but I am going to sound like a pretentious twat now) I really do enjoy learning.

That evening, still feeling rough, I indulged with some chocolate while packing my bags (crazy to think I won’t need to do that soon) for the next morning. I set my alarm for 5:30am as I wanted to catch the 7am bus to Potosi, paying 10 bolivianos (£1.20) to get from my hostel to the bus terminal at 6:30am and then paying 20 bolivianos (£2.40) for the bus to Potosi, leaving Sucre with more than I arrived with.

LS.

Bolivia 2: La Paz

The bus journey from Copacabana to La Paz is unlike most others as you have to cross Lake Titicaca to get to it. This means having to get off the bus at Tiquina and paying 2 bolivianos to be taken across the lake on a speedboat whilst the buses are shipped across on something resembling a giant raft. At the other side, after a 10 minute journey, you then have to wait for your bus to make it across and collect you; with so many passengers and so many buses, most of which won’t wait around, it’s important to know exactly which bus you were on and keep nearby to fellow passengers. We waited quite a while for our bus – at least half an hour – before re-boarding and continuing our journey into La Paz. The roads were bumpy, unfinished and narrow but it was one if my favourite journeys into a place, passing by the low cable cars of modern-day La Paz before seeing the city within a valley from up above, winding down the roads that weaved from the mountains into the valley. I was completely entranced.

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We were dropped nearby Plaza San Francisco at 5:40pm where I then walked 20 minutes to my hostel (The Adventure Brew Hostel) where I passed by an Easter celebration at Plaza San Francisco; thousands of local Bolivians dressed in white, dancing and cheering at the activities on the stage, with hoards of street vendors selling choripans (hot sausage sandwiches), pastels and hot morado.

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After checking in and dumping my stuff at the hostel I went back out to the Plaza for some food, picking up meat on a stick with potato and nut sauce for 9 bolivianos (£1.10) before sitting down to devour a hot pastry sprinkled with icing sugar and maple syrup accompanied with hot blanco (the white version of Morado) for 10 bolivianos.

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Back at the hostel I was greeted by Charlie (my Colca Canyon/Machu Picchu friend) and after having our free beer at the hostel it wasn’t long before we were drinking more beer, heading to Loki hostel for bad music and rum & pineapple, making our way back to our hostel for a bottle of red wine before getting roped into drinking games with some apple flavoured alcohol and covering each others’ faces with paint. Unsurprisingly – having consumed wine, beer, rum and vodka – I spent a good hour vomiting in the hostel bathrooms with Charlie rubbing my back in between my toilet sessions, eventually putting me to bed at 3am.

I felt pretty rough the next morning and Charlie had some admin to do so we didn’t make it out of the hostel until 12:30pm, having attempted to soak up the hungover with the hostel breakfast of pancakes and bread. Our first stop was the red teleferico; the 4 cable car lines in La Paz were recently installed over the last couple of years and are a great way to get up from the valley into the higher parts of the city as well as have great views of the city itself.

The red line passes over the cemetery – a large, grid-like stretch of land that looks oddly like a primary school with the boxed layers of coffins with coloured flowers in each square – and takes you up to Mercado 16 de Julio at the top of the valley; at 5km long it is the biggest market and it houses everything you might ever need from garden rakes to parts of a blender. The ride up, at only 3 bob (40p), was so interesting as you are really close to the houses and land below, and the market insane with good views of the valley below. We also had lunch at the market, tucking into Trucha with pasta and yucca for 18 bolivianos (£2.20).

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Once back down (after queuing for some time; the red line is really popular on Sundays and Thursdays due to the market) we made our way towards the Witches Market where copious stalls sell local remedies and llama foetuses, which are traditional buried at the site where a new house is being built as part of warding off bad spirits. On our way to the market we passed one of many DVD stands and spotted the entire collection of Mr Bean, a programme we had enthusiastically been reminiscing about the night before over rum. At 10 bolivianos it was an absolute bargain so we naturally bought it and made crazy plans for that evening.

We then went hunting for tour agencies, booking our Death Road cycle for the next day with No Fear Adventure for 380 bolivianos (£47.50), both of us opting for the middle bike with hydro breaks but not paying 480 for the ones with better suspension (my arse later regretted this). Both feeling in the need of a pick-me-up we crossed the street to Cafe del Mundo, as recommended by the tour agency, where we had a disappointingly Luke warm coffee at the same price as our large trout lunch, 18 bolivianos, in a quirky cafe where Charlie couldn’t stand without bending is head to the side and crouching slightly.

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We then made our way down to Plaza San Francisco, reeling in the temptation to shop for hours at the artesenal market, to hop on a minivan bus heading to Plaza Espana, costing 2 BOB (25p) each. It was on this really cool ride through the city with music playing from the radio that my stomach suddenly felt pretty dodge followed by shooting pains in my bowels. It was clear I desperately needed to get to a toilet as something serious was brewing, but stuck in the minivan with no idea of where we were I had no choice but to clinch my butt cheeks and prey it would stay in.

We jumped out the minivan and ran into the Mercado (although I was doubled over from the pain in my bowel that I more crawled up the steps) and raced to the back of the shop to find the bathroom occupied by a woman changing, with all her things sprawled around the bathroom. She knew I was there and needed to go but she made me wait, practically in a ball of agony on the floor. I finally got in and could relieve my bowels, then return to Charlie and make the 5 minute walk up to the yellow cable car entrance where we got in line to purchase our tickets.

Suddenly I desperately needed to go the toilet again, with shooting pains running through my stomach, so I left Charlie in the line while I dashed to the nearby public bathroom where I paid 1 boliviano to sit for 5 minutes in the hope everything would pass through in this time. Charlie had the tickets for the yellow lines, all line costing 3 bob (40p) each way regardless of which point in the line you join on. We spent the next hour going across the yellow and green lines, passing over an army base and seeing the wealth change in the houses, churches, buildings and surroundings as we went, the most upscale areas having churches and gardens. 

 

It was also amazing to have different views of La Paz and see the mountainous valleys up close, bits of marble and land still jutting upwards or down in a pit. On our way back on the same lines the sun was setting and we witness the scattered lights come on across the city and eventually the vast blackness around us. It was really interesting and incredible, plus we would sometimes have a whole cable car to ourselves and when we didn’t we would share it with people (mainly young Bolivian women) whom wanted to talk with us and make suggestions for our time in La Paz.

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Back where we started in Plaza Espana we got on a minivan to Plaza San Franciso for 2 BOB (25p) where we quickly went to find some food as I desperately needed another bathroom trip. It’s looking less like a hangover poo and more like food poising or, given the fact that Charlie and I ate exactly the same and he was fine, something I touched that was dirty and I hadn’t washed my hands after. Anyway, we found somewhere offering soup followed by a main for 8 BOB (or BS, which I couldn’t help but nickname bullshit) I had to head to the toilet straight away, and whilst the fideo and mani soup was good I don’t think the Carne Revuelto (scrambled meat, mixed with scrambled egg and potato) was doing any favours for my stomach. Probably not the best choice. The rest of the evening we spend curled up on the sofa of our sister hostel, The Adventure Brew B&B, watching episodes of Mr Bean and laughing like kids. Back at our hostel we were greeted by Jen, Dan and Pete whom had arrived that day, but we didn’t speak for long as Charlie and I had to get up early for our Death Road cycle.

Yungus Road, dubbed ‘El Camino de la Muerte’ (The Death Road) by locals, begins at 15,400 feet and used to be the only road from La Paz to Coroico but due to the number of accidents and deaths per year (200-300) a new road was built.  The original narrow road winding round the rolling hills of the Amazon rainforest is now predominantly used by locals living there and cyclists wanting to tackle Death Road. Plus the tour vans transport the Death Road cyclists’ luggage behind them for the various pit stops, for at the end when the cycling has finished, and also for if anyone becomes too nervous on the bike and wants to hop in the van instead (although I personally felt more safe on the bike than in the van, with the bikes taking up less of the narrow road space and you feel in control).

Anyway, we were picked up from our hostel at 8am and taken to the booking office to pick up our helmets and the rest of the group (there were 10 of us in total) before driving the hour or so to the start point of the cycle, which was high up in the mountains and was therefore both freezing and high in altitude. We hit got all our gear on – knee pads, elbow pads, waterproof jacket and trousers, gloves and helmet – before hoping on our bike and taking it for a small spin. We then started our first part of the downhill ascent, which was on a “normal” road winding round the mountains and I imagine was a way for us to get used to the bikes and the way of navigating any oncoming vehicles. 

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The hardest part of this cycle was how cold it still was at this height, our fingers literally freezing and going numb and the sudden pelting of rain pouring down our faces. We were unlucky with the weather for the first part of the day as there was a lot of rain and a lot of thick white mist so we could barely see anything, let alone the apparently spectacular landscape. After this short cycle we were thrown back into the minivan and given snacks of a fried egg roll, banana and chocolate bar along with a can of coke. Shortly after we arrived at the beginning of death road where we were re-briefed on it not being a competition but to also try to not go too slow or let the nerves dictate; most deaths and accidents occur by those trying to show off and go super fast and careering of the edge, or people being so slow and anxious that they struggle to control the bike over the rocky terrain.

For me the hardest part of death road was controlling the bike as it careered and skidded over the extremely rocky pathway, the back wheel jutting out and away whenever it caught in a big stone at the wrong angle. This meant were hands were cramped round the handlebars and my arms took the force of the vibration as I tried to steady the bike over the repetitive bumps, so the injuries I sustained were mainly from the impact of the terrain through the bike onto my arms and my butt cheeks.

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And this is also probably what made it scary – skidding over rocks on a narrow path with a ridiculously deep and steep drop, you can see how possible it is for something unfortunate to happen, especially at the narrowest stretch of only 3 metres wide. Plus the fact that for the first part we were mainly surrounded by white mist and rain we couldn’t even really see the edge let alone what was over it, adding to the mystery as well as to our personal sense of achievement if we did manage to successful completely it without dying in such difficult weather conditions. I couldn’t see properly because of the rain in my eyes and the rain caused an extra layer or risk for the cycling itself, but aside from these factors and the potential of death, it wasn’t actually as terrifying as I expected. Especially as we stopped every half hour or so to regroup and take photos at every opportunity, either at a particularly stark cliff edge or a beautiful waterfall moment for individual shots. 

Additionally, as the road is a steep decline, it doesn’t require much of you in the way of pedalling; it is more about controlling the bike then cycling it, so you don’t feel the physical joy or benefits of classic cycling. However, about half way through, the rain did stop and the mist cleared up so we had much better views of the mountains and the valley below, plus the road flattened out for a bit and then there was even an incline for a while, meaning we could actually use our legs and cycle. Some parts of the road were also easier to cycle on. It was at this point, going uphill, hat I caught up with a girl on our tour and as I went to pass her I said “passing left”, as we were told to do, so she would know where I was. As soon as I said it she decided to swerve left straight into me, where I had no choice but to swerve away and break suddenly, making my right leg impact with my handle bar. Not long after a truck suddenly approached from around the jungle so I had to break suddenly and found myself skidding along the rocks and almost falling flat on my face. Fortunately, however, we all made it to the end of the Death Valley ride – our spot for lunch – still alive. Then buffet lunch was needed and the cervezas well deserved, but afterwards we all felt completely wiped out. Our clothes wet from the “waterproof clothes” not protecting us from the pouring rain one iota, the bus ride back to La Paz through the cold, high mountains was certainly a chilly and uncomfortable one. 

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Back at the tour office around 7pm we picked up our “I Survived Death Road” t-shirts and our DVDs with the photos and videos from the day before heading back to our hostel for some food and drinks. I was pleased to have completed it and it was hard work navigating the bike and the terrain, but for someone whom loves to cycle it wasn’t my favourite and if you are after an adrenaline hit I’m not sure this would do that for you; it was fun and the landscape was beautiful, the tour company efficient and safe and communicative, and it did feel good to survive death road, but whether or not it is miss-able I am unsure of. After some celebratory drinks and games of President, the long day caught up with me and I hit the sack around midnight.

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Plaza Murillo

The following day for me was a chance to explore, on foot, more of La Paz, starting by going to Plaza Murillo and passing the market street on my way, and then up to Mirador Killi Killi; although not the hugest climb you do feel the shortness-of-breath from the altitude, but it does offer decent pan views of La Paz Valley from the top. Back down I wandered into Mercado Camacho to see what food Rudy had on offer – almuerzos from 8 bolivianos up – but as I wasn’t hungry I continued my DIY walking tour to Plaza San Pedro.

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Mirador Killi Killi

At 2pm there is a free city walking tour that starts from here but I had also heard about “prison tours” from Crazy Dave, so I decided to wander around and sit in Plaza San Pedro for a while from around 12:30pm, and it was then that Crazy Dave approached me with 3 English people whom also wanted to do his tour. By 3pm there were about 10 of us sat in the square as Dave began his “tour”, but we ended with about double that as more and more people joined throughout, plus locals would watch and stare in mild amusement. Crazy Dave came out of a San Pedro prison 2 years ago, serving 14 of his 16 year sentence for attempting to smuggle cocaine out of Bolivia back to the US. His time inside crossed over for 3 months with Thomas McFadden – the Brit thrown into San Pedro prison for attempting to traffic drugs back to the UK, whose stories on the corrupt prison system, the payment and mortgaging of prison “cells” and the cocaine produced in the prisons that he would often use on his tour guides of the prison when tourists heard about him and wanting to visit him in prism, make up the famous book Marching Powder, which I recommend you read.

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Crazy Dave (plus amused locals) in Plaza San Pedro 

Crazy Dave really was crazy, telling the story of his life but acting out all people involved and coming up close to us and using us as the other person in his story. It was hard to keep up at times as he did digress so I was really glad I had read the book to help me follow his thread, but he let us ask him any questions and he answered them honestly, sometimes digressing completely! He wore no shoes but had an AMP and a microphone with him so he could sing and perform to us, and afterwards he let us take photos with him and took a group to a place where he bought one gram of coke for 50 bolivianos (£6) for those whom had asked him for it – he didn’t offer or bring it up but was willing to help if asked. It was a crazy but fun and interesting way to spend 1.5 hours as you are sat right outside the prison in question. 

The rest of the afternoon I spent wandering around the neighbourhood of Sopocachi, walking up to Mirador Monticulo for lovely up-close views of the yellow cable cars travelling through the valley. I then headed back towards San Francisco Plaza but went through the artsenal markets instead, spending a couple of hours perusing the myriad of shops selling socks, hats, gloves, scarves and bags before settling on a pair of alpaca socks and not buying any rings despite trying on about 15.

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up-close with the yellow cable cars

I then went for a set dinner or arroz and vegetable soup followed by something resembling spaghetti with meatballs before making my way back to my hostel. Joining with Dan, Charlie, Pete and Jessie (from our death road tour) we drank until 1am whilst debating the origins of sexual desire and the need to say the words of other languages in their accent even when talking to people in the same language as you (something I didn’t agree with – not only does it sound pretentious but if you are saying the words correctly, even if in your own accent, I think this is fine when talking amongst friends). 

My last day in La Paz was first spent booking my night bus to Sucre for that evening; apparently it is cheaper if you book the day of travel and I paid 80 bolivianos (£10) for a semi cama seat all to myself by the window, in the downstairs section where there are less people. I then caught a minivan on Llampu street near Gonzalez going in the direction of Mallasa as I wanted to go to Valle de la Luna. It was approximately a 45 minute journey that cost 2.60 BOB (35p) to get to the entrance where you then pay 15 BS (you may note I interchange between BS and BOB; BS is what the Bolivians write after the amount and BOB is the currency acronym, both of which I like due to the typical Brit terminology of both BOB and Bullshit). Anyway, 15 bolivianos is approximately £1.85 and there are two “trails” you can do around these crazy spikes and juts of land in the deep valley, but neither took me as long to complete as they advised they would (15 minutes and 45 minutes) even with stopping to enjoy the views. It was really cool to see another part of the valley and be away from the crazy city for a while, but if you are only in La Paz for a couple of days then I would perhaps miss this one out.

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Valle de la Luna

Back at San Pedro Plaza at around 2:30pm I stumbled across Charlie on a road nearby after he had taken Crazy Dave’s tour that afternoon. So Charlie, Tessa (a woman from our hostel) and James (a guy they met on the tour) and I went for lunch, with me this time having Aji de Fideo (a soup with spaghetti, potatoes, chicken and beef on the bone) for 15 bolivianos (£1.85).

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Aji de Fideo

Afterwards, totally full, I went for a wander round the markets trying to find my 6th watch since travelling but also not being sure of the point with only 10 days to go, before heading back to my hostel to charge my devices and change into my comfy clothes in prep for my night bus to Sucre. After saying goodbyes – for the third time – to Charlie, Dan, Jen and Pete, I consumed far too many bread rolls and pancakes in my anxious sad state before walking to the bus terminal at 7:15pm in time for my 8pm bus to Sucre. I really really liked La Paz, way more than Lima in Peru, but I was ready for a couple of days just to relax and maybe – maybe – not drink any more beer.

LS.

Bolivia 1: Isla de Sol / Copacabana

The 13 hour bus from Cusco, Peru to Copacabana, Bolivia was a fairly straightforward one. Leaving Cusco at 10:30pm, with me paying 65 Peruvian Soles (£16) instead of 55 soles so I could get a downstairs single seat with Huayruru Tours, we weren’t disturbed until around 8am the following morning where we were briefed on what would be coming up; the first stop for the toilet and to change our soles into bolivianos (the Bolivian currency), the second stop to get stamped out of Peru (where our migration card was a necessity), where we would then walk across the border to our third and final stop to be stamped into Bolivia, for which we had to fill out various forms.

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The border crossing from Peru into Bolivia

We would then continue in the same bus into Copacabana, where we arrived at around 12:20pm (Bolivia is one hour ahead of Peru). I didn’t have anything booked for Copacabana and decided to get a boat straight to Isla de Sol across Lake Titicaca, paying 20 bolivianos (£2.50) for the 1 hour 15 minute journey that departed at 1:30pm. It wasn’t as rough as I had expected but it was slow and the sun was high.

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The ferry port, Copacabana

We arrived at the South side of Isla de Sol, the Yumani Communidad, at around 2:45pm where you have to pay 10 bolivianos (£1.25) to enter the island. I had reserved two nights in Hi-Inka Pacha, which is a steep climb up the side of the mountain, and this is where most of the hostels are located. It is generally recommended to leave your main bags at a hostel in Copacabana as the steps are steep, the sun is hot and the altitude is high but, as I had just arrived, I had no choice but to battle my shortness of breath with the heavy load and clamber up the stone steps, as local Bolivian women trundled past me with huge bags slung over their backs, mules at their sides.; the first experience I had of how impressive and strong, both mentally and physically, these women are.

I finally made it up to my hostel at around 3:30pm, which had the most incredible views over the ocean. Sadly I didn’t have the best start with the lady running it as she was trying to charge me more bolivianos than I believed I owed and she refused to give me the wifi password so I could check my email confirmation. Marcelo – a Chilean whom was staying there and helping out – could understand English and, sensing my difficulty, tried to help by talking to her, but this just riled her up more.

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The view from Hi-Inka Pacha, and Marcelo with the sheep.

Once I paid what she was asking she then typed the wifi password into my phone, first refusing to let me use it on more than one device, but after tutting and muttering she eventually typed it into my iPad and my other older phone (remember I took it snorkelling?? One phone works for whatsapp and the other works for google maps – not ideal). I dumped my bags and sorted myself out – feeling tired and frustrated – before deciding to go on a walk and explore the island.

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I hadn’t really been able to appreciate the view of the beauty of the island on my hike up due to how weary and demanding it is, but now I could really take in the vast, shimmering water of Lake Titicaca and the beautiful colours offered by the island itself; the greens of the trees, the yellowy-orange of the land, the bright blue of the water and the multi-coloured houses and local apparel for sale dotting the streets. I decided to walk to Mirador de Palla Kasa, a spot that offers panoramic views of the island and the surrounding lake but which is fairly exerting due to the uphill climb and the altitude.

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Fortunately the time of day eased the heat of the sun and there were a few flat points that offered respite. Along the way and at the viewpoint itself are local woman sat on the ground, their crafts splayed out before them as they try to lure you in to buy. Their long black hair, tied in two pig tails and then looped together at the bottom, give an air of innocence and youth that is betrayed by their worn faces, but they never fail – even when out of breath as they climb uphill – to greet you as they pass.

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After enjoying the view I walked slowly back down towards my hostel and stopped at the restaurant next door, Ls Islas Restaurant Y Hostel, for dinner. At just before 6pm I took a seat on the patio outside for views across the lake and ordered my menu del dia – Quinoa soup (a soup local to the island) followed by Trucha (trout) with vegetables, rice and chips (quite possibly one of the best pieces of fish I have ever had) and banana covered in chocolate sauce for 40 bolivianos – only £5 but still on the higher side of things. At around 7pm, just before my “dessert” of banana, I had to go inside as it was freezing – something about this island means it is boiling during the day but freezing cold at night, and after that point I just couldn’t get properly warm. I got into bed at around 8pm in an attempt to warm up, wearing two pairs of trousers, two tops and one jumper, 2 pairs of socks and a hat and gloves, before somehow managing to fall asleep. The past week of hiking, early mornings, sun and altitude had taken its toll and that night I got a full 12 hours of sleep, waking up just after 8am the following morning.

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“Trucha” – the best trout I have EVER had

After enjoying a proper lay-in and not having to move for anything, I got dressed and walked out the front of the hostel, which has the most incredible views – and found Marcelo tending to the sheep, trying to tie them up properly so they wouldn’t run wild. I offered to help, but I’m not convinced I didn’t just make things worse.

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I eventually left the hostel at around 11am and set off towards Templo de Sol – the Sun Temple – was which much more of a flat, gentle walk than the others. Starting by walking back down from the hostel a hundred metres I then took a right turn slightly uphill, to then walk flat for about 15 minutes before starting a gradual descent down towards he Templo de Sol. I had been warned I would need my ticket from arriving on the Island but, other than local women wanting to sell merchandise, I didn’t come across anyone. The temple itself was pretty but nothing spectacular, however I enjoyed sitting by the water and listening to it lap up against the rocks before I started my walk back up.

Finding that my body still desired to take things slow I then decided to walk down to the port and grab a bite to eat. I settled on a restaurant slightly uphill for better views of the water and the Glacier mountains in the distance, where I ordered an almuerzo of quinoa soup followed by pejerrey (king fish – another local dish) with, you guessed it, chips, rice and potato. Not just one carb, but three; the Bolivian way, it would seem. Whilst the fish was lovely and the vegetables in the soup making it a bit more balanced, I was already beginning to tire of the food, which I had been warned wasn’t great. Although I wasn’t suffering with my bowels or anything, I felt there was only so much plain white rice and plain boiled potato I could take; even my attempts to dress it up with mayonnaise, a favourite of mine, was wearing thin. For the rest of the afternoon I found a spot on the grass by the water and layed in the sun listening to music, before the sun went behind the island at around 4pm and left me feeling cold.

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The Port, Isla de Sol

I gathered my things and made a slow hike back up to my hostel where I had a warm yet dribbly shower (washing my thick, knotted hair took a long time!) Having slowed down after a busy, active, fast-paced week I could feel my mind and my body lacking in energy, enjoying the break from go-go-go, so I dipped into the restaurant that was part of the hostel and sat and had a hot chocolate on the sofa while gazing out at the views. I eventually decided to go for a walk along the island, this time dressing warm so as not to get so cold I wouldn’t be able to warm up again. Most people had headed for another Mirador so for he majority of the walk I didn’t run into anyone other than some locals, and it was lovely – the island was so peaceful.

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Back towards my hostel I picked a different restaurant and ordered a cheese, onion and tomato omelette for 8 bolivianos (£1), which was particularly greasy but satisfied my egg craving and filled the small hole that had developed following my large lunch. I was once again back at my hostel at around 8pm where I found myself climbing into bed, well layered up, reading a few chapters of Marching Powder before eventually falling asleep at around 9pm. I awoke at around 7:30am the following morning where I packed and checked out the hostel before making the climb back down the island, purchasing a return ticket to Copacabana for 25 bolivianos this time (£3.25) for the 10:30am boat. Isla de Sol is recommended for relaxing and hiking – I probably did far more relaxing than hiking but it was just what I needed.

Back on the mainland of Copacabana just after midday I was stunned by how the place had changed since two days previous – hundreds and hundreds of tents lined the beach with families preparing food and kids playing on their bikes; the lake was filled with jet skis, pedalos, water cylinders and banana boats; market stalls selling sunglasses were on overdrive and you literally had to squeeze through the crowds. I had been warned Copacabana was popular during the Easter period but I wasn’t expecting this. It was like Broadstairs on speed.

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Copacabana beach

It also meant most hostels were “occupation” and I spent some time trudging around looking for one nights accommodation, to be told that everything was full in the centre and to look on the outskirts. At that moment a female traveller asked me if I was looking for somewhere and if I wanted to share a double room, as dormitories were non-existent. So we found a hotel and paid 80 bolivianos each (£10) to stay in a twin room for one night. A bit expensive but we had little choice.

I spent the afternoon wandering round the streets and absorbing the Easter culture of Copacabana. There were hundreds of stalls and street “games” on offer including foosball, pinball and roulette. Locals in their hoards were entering Basilica de Neustra Senora de Copacabana to lay their flowers purchased from outside. A nearby chapel was filled with people lighting candles and placing them on the tables.

and the beach, where I spent a good hour just sitting and watching, was filled with the family spirit over the holidays as they basked in the sunshine. As my travels have neared the end I have become more homesick and emotional, and this just made me miss my family so much – I have missed out on every holiday now and I so wanted to be at home celebrating with those I love.

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Towards late afternoon I decided to walk up to Cerro Calvario; a steep climb up rocks that leads to an amazing viewpoint over Copacabana with some religious statues and offerings at the top. I would have thought that, after the heights of Ecuador and Peru, I would be used to the altitude but I still found it hard to get oxygen in my lungs, the air feeling thick and hot in my throats as I made the ascent.

It really doesn’t matter how physically fit you are, the altitude is an absolute killer. Still, it makes the achievement more satisfying and the view from the top even more rewarding, and the late-afternoon sun shining down on the lake below, causing it to shimmer, was incredible. 

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After making my way back down and perusing the market stalls (I could literally have bought sooooo many jumpers here, they all looked super cosy) I headed to the local food Mercado for some dinner. While there are restaurants that offer food for a similar price I like going to the Mercado as this is where the locals all dine, and you end up squished next to one another while you chow down on your meals made by local Bolivian women whom bark their daily offerings to passers by, deafening you as they do so. Trout is the local speciality in Copacabana but after having both trout and pejerrey on Isla de Sol I wanted something other than fish so I opted for pollo dorado (fried chicken, on the bone) with pasta (I’m so over rice) for a very reasonable 13 bolivianos (£1.75) but then had food envy when I saw the enormous portions of delicious looking trucha being devoured beside me. 

 

Afterwards I headed outside where I picked up a glass of Api (similar to Morado – a hot, thick berry maize drink) for 3 bolivianos (40p) whilst watching the locals in their families sitting and drinking this hot drink whilst eating hot snacks (similar to doughnuts) on this crisp evening. I then heard the beginning of the Easter procession in Plaza 2 de Febrero so I wandered down to have a peak. Crowds were swarming around the procession, of men dressed in white cloaks carrying a cross and other symbols, while one man offered a speech before the procession began moving and the crowds followed. I made the decision to partake and, after committing, there was little chance of getting out again. It was literally heaving. I admired the faith and commitment of those following but, after a while, made my escape down a side road. 

Having slowed down over the last few days my body was enjoying the rest and craving more so, at around 9pm, I headed back to my hostel and got yet another early night before checking out at around 9am. I went for a coffee at a cafe with a terrace overlooking the lake and then spent the next couple of hours down at the beach amongst the locals, probably being one of the only white people there. Around midday I made my way back to my hostel to pick up my bags before heading to the tour agency where I had booked my bus to La Paz for 1:30pm at 35 bolivianos (£4.50). After a lovely 3 days of rest, I was ready for the energy of La Paz.

LS

Peru 4: Cusco

Cusco is the main hub for tours of Machu Picchu, so I spent one day and one night in Cusco prior to my tour and then another day and night afterwards, all of which I will now discuss in this one post after going into detail about Machu Picchu in my previous post. 

So, my bus from Arequipa arrived in Cusco at around 7am where I caught a taxi for 8 soles (£2) to my hostel – CuscoPackers – which was just on the outskirts of the old town up a small hill. Small, but in a town with a high altitude you could feel the affects just by climbing up the 20 or so steps to the top. I made it to my hostel around 7:30am where they kindly let me have a coffee from the breakfast despite not having stayed the night before, but as I couldn’t check in until around 11am I spent the next few hours researching into Inca trails/Macau Picchu treks. As mentioned in my Machu Picchu post, I settled the 4 day/3 night Jungle Trek for the following day with Inkas Destination as recommended by the hostel manager.

After checking into my room and having a shower, I set out to explore Cusco. Like many South American old towns, Cusco has a grid-like structure of mainly narrow, cobbled streets focused around a number of plazas, with more main roads leading off and away. Also like many other South American towns, there was a market – or a Mercado – housing all sorts of crafts as well as quick, cheap meals and drinks.

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So I made my way towards San Pedro Market where I purchased a headband for my trek and my fridge magnet for Peru, before sitting down to devour Caldo de Cabeza for 8 soles. Directly translated this is Head Soup but it is always sheep head, so I tucked into a brothy soup that had a giant sheep’s head floating on the top, eye staring straight at me. Now lamb happens to be my favourite meat and whilst I enjoyed it, there was a slightly odd, pungent taste to the meat on the head (and the eyeball, which I dared to consume). I’d recommend trying it, but I doubt I will be going back for more.

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Caldo de Cabeza

I then went on an exploration of the town, weaving around San Francisco Plaza and the main Plaza de Armas before starting a slow uphill walk towards San Blas. On the way you walk down a narrow street with high, stoned walls known as “12 Angle Stone & Inka” (part of the palace of the sixth Inca, Rock).

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12 Angle Stone & Inka

After this point you have a few narrow streets to choose from in which to continue your ascent. I heard someone nearby mumble something about a Mirador nearby so, despite being slightly put off by the local Peruvian youths hanging around on the steps, I weaved left and began the uphill walk.

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I could begin to see the view as I made my way up, struggling against the altitude the further I went, and after climbing 40 steep steps with my head reaching dizzy-breaking point, I made it to an open platform that offered panoramic views of the town with the glorious mountains as a backdrop. 

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On my way back to Plaza de Armas I took a left down loreto where Inca walls line both sides of the alley before heading to AV El Sol and making my way to the migracion office. Having cleverly lost my Peruvian migration card I needed to obtain a new one for being able to cross the border into Ecuador; at the migracion office I was given a receipt with an amount of 14.40 soles on it (£3.60) that I had to take to Banc de la Nacion, where I then had to queue and pay the amount to be issued with a ticket that I had to take back to the migracion office, where they then issued me with a new migracion card. Slightly convoluted, but it was sorted.

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I then walked over to Qorikancha, an Inca site that forms the base of Iglesia de Santiago Domingo, where you lay 15 soles (£3.75) to enter. Personally I wasn’t that struck by this site, plus once you have gone to Machu Picchu it really really doesn’t compare, but the gardens surrounding the base were beautiful. As the sun was beginning to set I made my way out of the Inca Site and wandered back round the streets near San Francisco Plaza.

Here I picked up a takeaway Causa (a typical Peruvian potato pie dish of mashed potato layered with avocado and chicken mixed with mayonnaise, topped with an olive and half a boiled egg) as well as necessary snacks for my 4 day Jungle Trek, for which I was being picked up between 7 and 7:30 the following morning.

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Causa

4 days later, at around 10pm, I arrived back at my hostel in Cusco after my Inca experience, absolutely shattered from all the walking, the altitude and the early mornings. After pottering and getting in contact with my family I hit the sack before waking up the following morning to have breakfast and check out. I first made my way to Cuzco’s cathedral, where I hadn’t come at the right time for a “tourist” visit but there was mass going on and I was allowed to enter, providing I was dressed appropriately and didn’t try to explore beyond the limits. The church was absolutely packed – with locals dedicated to their religion but also with curious tourists – and the inside was absolutely stunning; the marble/stone building, the spectacular artwork, and the lights and colours at e altar. What I was most moved by was when the choir started singing – I don’t think I have ever heard anything so beautiful in my life.

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Afterwards I decided to head to the Choco Museo. Since travelling I have struggled to find chocolate that rivals the stuff we can get at home, and whilst I happily walk around the various chocolate museums or chocolate shops where you are entitled to free tastings I have never been that overwhelmed. This place was different. You could sample various pieces of chocolate (milk, dark, white, white coca), chocolate liquor (cream as well as normal, fruity as well as simple chocolate), chocolate spreads (fruits or nutty flavours), cocoa tea as well as the finale; freshly made hot Chocolate that was, without a doubt, the best hot chocolate I have ever tasted. I went back approximately 15 times, no lie. I also got into a lovely conversation in the cafe area with a German couple whom had been living in Australia for 35 years – a wonderful thing about travelling.

Just like Lima, Arequipa and possibly many other parts of Peru (as with Colombia, etc) there are walking tours in Cusco and quite a few companies to choose from (Green, Red, Yellow, Blue…) In Cusco there is also the standard city tour as well as a tour of the Highlands, which I had booked for 12:50pm that day. However after my 4 day jungle trek (and the 2 day colca canyon trek not long before) I was done with walking, plus the guys I had met in Colca Canyon and then again in Machu Picchu were having a lunch before saying goodbye to Ed whom was getting a flight back to the UK, so in this instance I ditched the local culture in favour of spending time with friends before going off on my own once again to Bolivia. So we went for a classic Peruvian lunch of soup (I opted for asparagus) followed by seco de alpaca (alpaca stew, which was actually delicious – chunks of tasty, gamey alpaca as opposed to the flat, tasteless plancha I had in Aguas Calientes) accompanied by a glass of red wine for 20 soles (£5). 

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After waving goodbye to Ed we chilled at their hostel for a couple of hours before heading out to a bar, where I had my final Pisco sour on Peru while we ranked the Disney princes and princesses on order of hotness. Standard. I left around 8pm to go back to my hostel and pack before taking a taxi to the bus station for 10 soles in order to make my my 10:30pm Huayruru Tours bus. It would be taking me from Cusco, Peru, all the way to Copacabana, Bolivia, arriving at midday the following day for 65 soles (£16.25). I had sped through Peru and was really sad to say goodbye to these guys; it seems that the closer I get to going home that harder I am finding it to part from friends. But I was still excited to see what Bolivia had to offer…

LS.

Peru 3: Machu Picchu

I actually spent one whole day and night in Cusco before heading to Machu Picchu on an Inka trek (plus I spent another night and day there after the trek) as Cusco is the main hub for these tours, but for consistency and to prevent the post becoming an essay I will separate Cusco and MP into two blogs, starting with MP. It was while in Cusco, however, that I picked my tour. It was already not possible to do the official “Inca Trail”, the one where they only allow 400 or so people per day and it gets booked up 3 to 6 months in advance (and is more expensive than the other tours on offer) and I knew I wanted to do 3-4 days. So I eventually settled on the 4 day/3 night Jungle Trek for the following day, opting to book with a company called Inkas Destination as recommended by the hostel manager and with rave reviews on tripadvisor. So I booked and agreed to $259 USD ($40 less than on the website) and confirmed with Luis over he phone that either him or Miguel would be he guides, as they were the ones highly rated on trip advisor.

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Machu Picchu ready

I was advised I would be picked up between 7 and 7:30am so I woke early to pack and wait downstairs, but of course they didn’t arrive for me until 7:45am. We drove for an hour at first through the towns of Chinchero and Urubamba of the Sacred Valley through the winding mountains, feeling just a little bit car sick, and it was during this time I discovered that those in my group had all booked through different companies, our tour guide was not part of Inkas Destination but hired separately, we had all booked slightly different itineraries and had paid different amounts, and I would be getting the train back on my own as most were leaving earlier by bus.

I was angry and emotional – I had researched Inkas Destination and booked with them as I wanted their service specifically, and I expected that when spending 4 days on a tour with a group we would be doing the same as one another and not that I would be left at the end by myself. When we stopped for a break I spoke to our tour guide – Leo – about this and he basically told me that I was the problem and that he would happily continue without me and get me a bus back to Cusco. By this point I was so frustrated that I started crying; I’d already booked my bus from Cusco to Bolivia for after the jungle trek so I couldn’t start it the next day, and I  couldn’t believe how he was treating me. Fortunately everyone in my group was really supportive and after speaking to Luis on the phone he said that I could join his group of 3 the following evening if I wanted, but while he could cancel my train he wouldn’t be able to book me a bus back with the others; I would have to do that myself.

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Exhausted by the whole thing I decided to carry on and see how things went, with the minivan continuing for another hour through the winding mountains, through the town of Ollantaytambo, before reaching Abra Malaga with views of the snow capped Huacay Willca (Mt Veronica) where we were to begin our biking downhill. We were provided with bikes, knee pads, torso protection, a helmet and an overcoat, managing to look like something out of the power rangers, before receiving safety instructions regarding the descent.

To begin with we didn’t have to do much pedalling as it was a steep decline, mainly concentrating on negotiating the sharp bends around the narrow mountains and navigating vehicles coming in both directions. The view was absolutely stunning and it was still pretty cold at this point, but after we made a stop for a break and to gaze at views the rest of the journey required more leg work and provided more opportunity to take in our surroundings as we were allowed to cycle off at our own pace and speed having been given the end destination. One of the most fun parts was when you came across a stream crossing the road and you had to slow down in order not to slip but also lift you legs up so as not to get completely drenched, although my arse still managed to get a good soaking.

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We arrived in Huaman Marq’a wet, tired and happy, before being driven n the minivan for 25 minutes to the town of Santa Maria. Here we had a late lunch of soup, beef with mashed potato and a small slice of cake before walking 10 minutes to our accommodation for the evening; a locally-run hostel with a warm common area where only our group was staying and I got a room to myself. The afternoon was spent either water rafting (optional for 30 USD more, and although people said it was fun it also wasn’t the best as the water was brown) or relaxing, so I opted for wandering round the town and curling up on the sofa to read more of Marching Powder. Also, Leo was clearly trying to make up for things, asking me where I was from and about my travels, so I spent some time trying to build bridges with him – we had to spend at least another 24 hours together, after all. At around 7pm we went back to the same restaurant for dinner, once again having soup but this time followed by risotto and banana with chocolate. 

We had to wake up early the following morning for breakfast at the same restaurant at 6:30am, being served half an omelette and a pancake with the usual bread rolls, butter and jam. That morning the heavens had decided to open and it poured it down so hard that we had to wait in the restaurant and not set off at the time planned. In the end, it was so bad, that we ordered a bus to take us the 1.5 hour walk down the main road to the beginning of the uphill trek, as here we would at least be slightly protected from the jungle and it would make up for the time we had lost waiting for the rain to subside. We paid 4 soles each for the pleasure of being ridden over the narrow road over the river and land below, having a near-death experience as we went over a landslide.

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We made it to the base of the climb where we started our ascent through the jungle, passing a sign that marked we were walking along part of the official Inca Trail, before stopping at a local plantation in the jungle to learn more about coffee, yucca and the fruit trees as well as more information about the incas; how resourceful they were with Llamas was amazing, they literally utilised every part of the animal for their means! We also used the juice of fruit to draw on each others’ faces and dressed up in typical Inca clothing – all part of the experience, right??

We continued the trek through the jungle and out onto the open mountain-side where we were greeted with spectacular views of the Vilcabamba mountain range. It was incredible how high up we were and how high we had come, and sitting over the edge of the mountain with the sheer drop to the valley below was breathtaking.

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It was also really cool to climb down the official Inca steps and marvel kill and ability of the Inka’s. it was one of my favourite moments to walk along the same steps as them and to then sit over the edge of the stones, taking in the vast and impressive landscape. 

We then continued our trek, this time descending into the small village of Qellomayo where we stopped for a filling 4-course lunch of guacamole, a local chicken and veg dish, soup and spaghetti, before relaxing for about half an hour in the hammocks.

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It was then time to complete the last part of the trek for the day, hiking along the river and climbing up and over large stones to avoid the waterfalls streaming into the river.

It was also around this point that we had to take a “cable car” over the river for 5 soles each as the water was too high and viscous for us to walk across. It didn’t look particularly sturdy or safe, literally sitting in a metal box attached to cable wire with your legs dangling over the edge, but it was actually a really quick journey and pretty fun.

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From here we walked through an old train tunnel (I felt like I was in the Railway Children) before walking a bit further over the stones to reach the Cocalmayo hot springs. It was an optional 10 soles extra for this and, due to my dog bit wound still healing and not wanting to get an infection at this stage, I opted out and paid 1 soles to enter the springs so I could sit and read for a bit. 

It was around 7pm by the time our group had finished at the springs and, while you can walk the remaining hour to the town of Santa Teresa I can’t see why any group would want to after taking off their walking boots and refreshing their bodies. So we each paid another 5 soles to get a minivan to Santa Teresa, where we checked into our hostel (again I got a room to myself, this time with 3beds in it!) before heading to the restaurant next door for dinner; guacamole with bread, soup and then bifstek with rice and chips. Pretty standard really. It was here that I met up with Luis where we talked through everything and he introduced me to his small group; 3 guys from the US – Eddie, Kyle and Eli. We spent the next hour or so sat outside the restaurant drinking cusquena and chatting about our travels, trying to drown out the sound of the commercial music being played from inside the restaurant with other groups slowly making their way to the “dance floor” to perform awkward British moves, before we decided to hit the sack.

The following morning we had breakfast at a much more reasonable hour of 7:30am, at the same restaurant we had dined at for dinner the night before. One complaint about these tours; a lot of the time there are multiple groups dining in the same restaurant, where they only have a few staff, so why they tell all groups to arrive at 7:30am when some won’t receive food until 8am, due to limited serving resources, I will never understand. Anyway, after breakfast we were drenched to a zip-line site where you could pay an extra 30 USD to zip line between the mountains. I have had my fair share of adrenaline activities on my travels and have also done zip lining before so I decided against it. While most enjoyed it and some really really enjoyed it, if you have done any extreme activities before it seemed it would be enjoyable at most. I spent the hour and a half laying in a hammock in the sun, reading my book. I’ll take that in between all the walking.

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We were then driven to the hydroelectric power station (hidroelectrica at 6,270ft) where we had lunch of a pasta salad followed by chicken, chips and rice. We then started our walk along the train track to reach the town of Aguas Calientes; the town at the base of Machu Picchu. 

The walk along the track was quite repetitive and would have been mundane if it wasn’t for the passing people-trains; the bridge over the river that you could cross along the train track, stepping over wooden planks with big gaps in between with a sheer drop to the water below; and the first sighting of Machu Picchu atop the mountain in the distance. We passed by travellers going in the opposite direction, not looking happy to be making the same walk back the following day; this was the first time I was glad I had paid extra for the train back to Cusco.

I bumped into Luis, Eddie, Kyle and Eli on the way, my regular walking pace being faster than most, and when we reached Aguas Calientes we were taken to the same hostel by Luis where I once again had my own room. The rest of the afternoon was free time so I went for a wander round the markets and shops, and it was when I was chatting to a shop owner that I spotted Charlie, Ed, Jen and Dan walking past – I literally left the shop mid-sentence to greet my friends from the Colca Canyon!

We went for a few drinks with their tour guide, enjoying cusquena and Pisco sours, before they left for dinner and I went for a shower back at my hostel before heading for dinner with Luis, Eddie, Kyle and Eli. Luis took us to a bar where I had an avocado starter followed by trucker Aji, washing it down with more cusquenas, before the 4 of us headed for more drinks at street-side bars and devoured snack food.

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We finally called it a night and hit the sack at midnight before waking again at 4am with the intention to set off for Machu Picchu at 4:30am. Well, I was ready at this time but the guys weren’t, finally leaving at 4:50am for Kyle to have to run back as he had forgotten his ticket for MP. We took the 30 minute walk in the dark towards the base of Machu Picchu entrance at a hurried pace, crossed the river and then began the stuff, steep climb up the Rocky Mountain edge to make it to the top. Despite being dark for the majority of the walk and the air “cool”, the stones were so steep and the altitude tough that I had to strip off my top halfway up. A relatively short climb of 30-45 minutes depending on your fitness and altitude-resistance, it was tough and people would take breaks at the roads we crossed where the buses passed through (you can pay to take the bus up if you want).

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We made it to the top as the main entrance opened at 6:15am, where we had to queue for only about 10 minutes before getting in. Now, I have been so excited to visit Machu Picchu and been told how amazing it is by people who have been, but for some reason I still didn’t expect to be blown away in the way that I was; as we turned the corner and sighted the ruins for the first time, with Machu Picchu mountain as a backdrop, I was literally stunned by its beauty.

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I honestly was lost for words and just wanted to gaze at it for hours. As Luis took us around the ruins, explaining how they were used and the sorts of people living there, I was entranced by the architecture and how beautiful it still looked today. I also couldn’t get over the mountains surrounding me, which made me feel both tiny and powerful all at once.

As our tour by Luis ended I ran straight into Dan, Jen, Ed and Charlie, so we decided to take the walk up to the Sun Gate together. We had been informed this walk, that weaves around the edge of the mountain on a rocky path with an uphill incline, would take around 30 minutes but, with the heat and the number of breaks we took, I swear it took us closer to 50.

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Ed, Me, Jen, Charlie, Dan (and Machu Picchu!)

Either way, at the top, we had a panoramic view of Machu Picchu (teeny tiny from this distance) and the mountains, and we could really toast our Machu Picchu achievement with a beer and a smoke. We were actually pretty giddy at this point – ridiculously pleased with ourselves – and more likely than not were acting like kids, but we didn’t care. We were elated!

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The 4 of them were getting the bus back to Cusco from Hidroelectrica at 2:30pm so they had to get back down from the sun gate, climb back down Machu Picchu and walk all the way back to Hidroelectrica, so they left the sun gate before me while I stayed up there for a bit longer with Eddie, Kyle and Eli whom had recently climbed up. When I made it back down from the sun gate I spent a bit more time wandering around a Machu Picchu but it was really filled with tourists by this point so I eventually took the climb back down from Machu Picchu, my tired knees struggling with the steep drops.

Back in Aguas Calientes I treated myself to an hour massage for 40 soles (£10), which was actually one of the best I have had in a long time as she listened to me and really went to town on my muscles using her elbows, and had a large lunch of alpaca a la plancha; a disappointingly thin piece of meat that was over-spiced so I couldn’t really identify any particular taste. 

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At 5:30pm I took the short walk to the train station – located inside the craft market – to board my train at 6:10pm with Eddie, Kyle and Eli. The main difference in price being a 1.5 hour train followed by a 1.5 hour bus ride to Cusco as opposed to a 6-7 hour dodgy bus ride from Hidroelectrica that requires a 2 hour walk beforehand. Being able to relax in the afternoon and then board a comfy train – where we were treated to a snack as well as some bizarre performance/fashion show from the train staff – made the extra 80 USD worth it. JUST. It was on this train ride that Eddie turned to me and asked “so, do you get on this well with everyone –  as you’re really easy to get along with – or is it just us?” Oh, Eddie, it’s everyone. 

NB: I’m kidding. Sort of. I can get on with most people and I’m quite open, but these guys – and those from the cocoa canyon – I got on particularly well with, which is just chance. But then again, I am the common denominator… 🙂

We arrived back at our hostel – CuscoPackers – at around 10pm where we lazed on the sofas and updated our families before calling it a night just before midnight. Despite having a few irks and complaints regarding how the tour was run – not going with the actual tour company you booked with, not having everyone in your group on the same itinerary, not being told the entire truth when booking, having people randomly leave the group at bizarre points to then return to it, and the tour guides less-than-sympathetic responses to the issues you raise – I really really enjoyed the Inca Jungle experience and absolutely loved Machu Picchu, plus I honestly made some serious friends. I would recommend it over anything else in Peru – in fact, it was a highlight of South America for me.

LS.