Soaring in the salt flats….

I’m spending the smallest portion of my trip in Bolivia, just ten days, so despite the injury to my leg, it was time to pack in some more adventures. We drove to the colonial mining town of Potosi, the highest town in the world at 4,090m! It used to be a very rich place thanks to the mining of silver, although once this went, so did the riches, and now it mostly produces tin. It’s still a very charming town, albeit a little worn. We were offered a tour of the working mines, but I’d read that it was a very emotional and chastening experience, not least because of the children who work down there for $150 a month and so I passed. If you’re interested to know more about the cold minders and their working conditions, there’s a great article here.

After a couple of days in Potosi, we drove to Uyuni, famous as the gateway to the amazing salt flats at Salar de Uyuni. The remote small town sits on the edge of the high altiplano, a wilderness that extends for hundreds of kilometres towards the border with Argentina and Chile. Our hostel was really nice and within ten minutes of arriving, a doctor in a white coat appeared to redress the bandage on my leg. The home visit was a bargain at BOB100 (€10)!! Within the hostel was an incredible pizza restaurant which lays claim to be the highest in the world. I have a feeling a lot of businesses around here are the highest something!

On our way to the salt flats, we stopped off at a train cemetery where the physically-abled of us (not me obvs) soon regressed back to childhood by climbing and scampering among the long-retired carriages. We also stopped off at a local market to buy some items to aid us in taking some perspective-bending photographs.

Driving across the salt flats in a 4×4 was pretty fun, and the view was like nothing else I’d seen before. Salar de Uyuni is a dazzling dry lake of over 12,000 sq. kms, made of blinding white interlocking salt crystals. It is the world’s largest salt pan, and the white expanse was ridiculously bright; how one woman coped sans sunglasses I’ll never know!

After a delicious lunch, we drove further out to unleash our inner David Bailey. Somehow I managed to fill a couple of hours with handstands on Corona bottles, while others were chased by Godzilla. I’m not sure what was more fun: being in the pictures or being behind the scene watching the weird set up and practice shots. If you’ve followed my blog from the start, you’ll know that I’m a fan of a jumping photo and this location didn’t disappoint as you can see.

Once we packed up our photoshoot sets, we headed back towards the town, but not before appreciating an incredible sunset over the salt flats. 

img_20171205_225759_349315072086.jpg

The following day we began the long drive into Chile, through the high Bolivian altiplano, a desolate landscape that is probably the most spectacular that we’ve been treated to on this trip. And that’s saying something! The journey, which took us past dazzling coloured lakes that were home to flamingos, llamas and vicuñas, was broken up with a night’s stay in a mountain refuge. After eleven hours on the road, the basic facilities were much welcomed, especially the dinner, although I tucked myself into bed well before the 85% Estonian vodka made an appearance! 

 

Hospitals and haute cuisine in La Paz….

20171129_12211046447359.jpg

La Paz is the capital of Bolivia, and at 3,640m / 11,950ft, it is the highest administrative capital in the world. From a distance it reminded me very much of Quito, sitting as it does sprawled across a valley and encompassed by mountains. However, upon arrival downtown and on closer inspection, I realised the similarities ended there. It seemed to be a much more bustling city with more noise, traffic, dirt and people on the streets. After the last couple of weeks in sparsely-populated towns, it was an assault on the senses and quite welcomed. I met my Instagram buddy, Steven, for coffee and we wandered around the ‘Witches Market’ which is pretty much like most other markets in South America, apart from one rather macabre distinction: they sold llama foetuses, strung up at the entrance of the stalls. Some were large with fur and obviously removed just before birth, while others looked like bird skeletons and removed earlier on in the pregnancy. Steven is fluent in Spanish and we learned from the stallholder that the foetus is offered to the earth mother, Pachamama, when new buildings are erected. I think I’d prefer some champagne personally. It was fun getting to know Steven beyond Instagram pictures and we’ve promised to visit Mallorca and Amsterdam respectively once we’re both back in the real world.

As it was the last night on the trip for many passengers, the hotel laid on a spread for us on the top floor restaurant which, with its neon orange and green colour scheme and formal matching tableware, looked like an Irish/Dutch wedding on speed. All crimes against interior design were soon forgotten once the free wine and food appeared, all of which was delicious. We were also treated to some traditional Bolivian dancing, although three of the four dancers looked like they’d rather be anywhere else than in the room with us, especially when their leader indicated it was time to pull up a gringo from our motley crew and teach them the movements. They were visibly relieved to be, um, relieved of their duties, and we headed into town to discover the city’s nightlife. We didn’t get too far as we were persuaded to visit ‘The English Pub, which was about as English as a native llama. A few too many pisco sours later and the group were either playing beer pong or dancing on the bar, which seems to be de rigeur on this continent.

I called it a night at 0300 as my alarm was set for 0700 in order to join a mountain bike expedition along El Camino De La Muerte. In case your Spanish is as rusty as mine, allow me to translate: Death Road. We met our very sprightly guide, Linda from the Netherlands, and set off to the start of the route weigh would eventually descend 1,300m. Linda regaled us with stories of her very impressive cycling exploits while doling out protective gear, for which I would later become very thankful! The start of the ride was up in the clouds and bloody freezing, and was actually on the asphalt of the ‘new road’. For 22km we freewheeled down the winding road, taking in some stunning scenery, before reaching a tunnel which we bypassed to try our first ‘off roading’ of the day. We then jumped back on the bus for the short ride to the start of the ‘old road’ a.k.a. Death Road. The road winds itself down through the mountainside and several micro climates and is very narrow in parts, as in the width-of-one-car narrow! It’s incredible to think that it used to handle two-way traffic with various passing spots. Our other guide and photographer, Rodrigo, led the way and we gingerly followed, taking some time to learn to trust the bike over some pretty rocky terrain.

We all made it to the marathon point (42km) in one piece and stopped for snacks, after which we continued down the home stretch. On one of the fast downhill sections, my rear wheel got a puncture and luckily I managed to jump off the bike and land on my feet. Five minutes later, however, when the back wheel of my replacement bike skidded on a rock on a slow and innocuous section of the road, I was not so lucky. For some reason, as the bike fell it took me with it for several metres and we were locked in rather a painful embrace. Unlike at home in the Netherlands, I was wearing a helmet and therefore I folded my arms across my chest to protect my collarbone instead, which is often injured in a bike fall, and that meant Linda had to extricate me from the bike in which I was tangled. She was very calm as she asked me if anything hurt (yes; my leg and lower back), if anything was bleeding (I didn’t think so) and if anything felt broken (no). She asked if I could make it to our bus, which thankfully trailed  behind us the whole way, and I thought I could. However, upon sitting up, we both saw the blood which was quickly soaking through the thick protective clothing and I realised (I guess the initial shock had masked this previously) that my right leg was in fact extremely painful. Linda and our driver, Santi, carried me to the bus and gently sat me down, before Linda proceeded to remove my trousers and shorts, giggling “it’s been a long time since I’ve taken off a guy’s pants”, to which I responded “me too love, me too”.

Once removed, we could see that the copious amount of blood (that thankfully was not not spurting which  Linda took to be a good sign) was coming from a narrow but deep cut in my thigh. We applied a compress and started the three and a half hour drive to hospital. I felt a bit ill and closed my eyes, each bump in the road bringing a louder ‘ouch’ than the one before. I was very impressed by the healthcare received in La Paz: I was met at the roadside by a porter with a wheelchair and was taken immediately to a ward where I waited all of forty seconds to be seen by Dr. Mayra. The medical staff all knew my name and why I was there thanks to the biking company who had obviously called ahead to forewarn them (“another stupid effing gringo who’s fallen off a bike” is how I imagined the conversation went).  The whole experience was seamless. Thankfully Dr. Mayra’s first act of treatment was to give me some pain medication before inspecting and cleaning the wound. To be honest, cleaning the grazes was three most painful part of the treatment, more so than when I got my pretty large tattoo. Dr. Mayra was concerned that the depth of the wound may have resulted in a blood clot so I had to go for some tests, but thankfully all was clear, and three stitches, $173, and two hours later, I was in a taxi back to the hotel. A taxi ride which was more frightening than anything I encountered on the death road if I’m honest.

Ian had very kindly accompanied me to the hospital, and paid the bill as I didn’t have my bank card with me. We found a pharmacy near the hotel and went to collect the four sets of tablets prescribed. They wouldn’t take Ian’s card and asked if we could pay cash, in response to which I took out a wad of notes that were stuck together with congealed blood, demonstrating why I was there in the first place. Miraculously, the pharmacist said she would take the cash, albeit with a disgusted look on her face.

On a previous trip, Ian met a girl called Cat, who joined our tour in La Paz and is staying with us for three weeks until Santiago. Cat is lovely and I felt really guilty at monopolising Ian on the first day of their reunion. Thankfully, the opportunity to make it up to them both presented itself the very next day when I took them for lunch at Gustu, La Paz’s only Michelin starred restaurant. We opted for a tasting menu, although the wine pairing was ‘prohibido’ due to the election on the following day. The meal was delicious, as were the soft drink pairings, and I was pleased to hear lots of exclamations of pleasure coming from Cat’s mouth (although I’ve since discovered this happens pretty much any time a plate of food is put in front of her).

The following day another group from our tour decided to tackle the Death Road, this time resulting in one person fracturing their collarbone and requiring a three day stay in hospital to insert a metal plate; and one woman went over the side of the cliff and had to be roped up by the guides. Miraculously she only ended up with a few grazes on her leg. A couple of others also fell off the bikes but thankfully received no injuries.  Our tour leader said that he’s never had any fallers before and I’m guessing he wasn’t expecting five in two days! I have to say that the touring company, Dragoman, and the cycling company, Gravity Tours, were both amazing. If this blog post hasn’t put you off, I’d highly recommend both.

Needless to say the next couple of days were spent resting in a drug-induced fug, although I did manage to make it to the restaurant next door for a plate of picque machu, a meat and eggs dish, that I shared with Cat, and which was delicious. I really fancied a beer – for medicinal purposes of course – but unfortunately, the three day alcohol ban was still in force. Or so it seemed until our waitress waved a piece of paper under our noses advising we could have beer, but it will be disguised as a coffee. As you can see from the photo below, the ‘beeracino’ was quite convincing, although the unused tea bag which adorned the saucer kinda gave the game away!!

A tit in Lake Titicaca….

20171127_165323664403285.jpgLeaving Cusco behind was a wrench as it was the site of so many cool experiences, but onwards we must go, this time towards Bolivia. The journey to Puno, a town near the border, was uneventful, much like the town itself which seemingly consisted of one plaza and one street. A couple of us treated ourselves to a slap up meal of fried chicken and chips from a street vendor for the princely sum of four soles (€0.80) and headed back to our ‘hotel’. I use that word loosely as the smell of petrol and the suspicious white stains on the bedding did not exude an air of salubrity. We had an early start the following morning, although not as early as scheduled.  This was due to one passenger deciding to choose breakfast as the appropriate time to shout at the tour leaders about the standard of accommodation on the trip. She also had (non-existent) issues with what she saw as a lack of truck decorum. I’m not usually one for getting involved in petty dramas, but when she said “half of the people on the truck want to leave the tour”, I had to speak up and tell her not to speak for me under any circumstances, especially when nothing could’ve been further from the truth. I left the breakfast room to finish packing so wasn’t sure how the ‘meeting’ concluded, but it seems that it didn’t, as upon arrival at our lunch destination, the disgruntled passenger decided to end her tour early and leave the truck. There was a collective, audible sigh of relief when everyone found out, no doubt because she had been disruptive and annoying to everyone since the day she joined the trip. 

20171127_1104231524855646.jpg
I doubt many border crossings have this view

We drove into Bolivia and I think it may be the nicest border crossing ever. The view across Lake Titicaca was beautiful and the immigration process took all of 46 minutes for 16 of us and the truck. We continued on to Copacabana (no, not that one), a quaint little town situated right on the lake, and enjoyed a cheap and delicious lunch, washed down with a litre of Judas beer. We then boarded a boat to Isla del Sol, one of several islands on the lake which, by the way, is the highest navigable lake in the world.

The crossing was very choppy and silence soon descended as everyone concentrated on not throwing up. Everyone except the two qualified sailors who instead decided to try and outdo each other with their yachting experiences. The conversation certainly helped send some of us to sleep which was appreciated given the rough water.

Our hostel was a 45 minute hike up to the top of the island, and it’s location meant we were treated to a wonderful view across the glistening water. Hunger was calling so a few of us decided to grab a pizza – sidebar, pizza in South America is, so far, without fail, amazing – at a local, hilltop restaurant. Upon entering, I bumped into an Instagram follower who lives in Spain, and who had messaged me a couple of weeks previously saying he would be in Peru, but we kept missing each other by a day or two. We chatted until my food arrived and he left amid promises of meeting up for a beer in La Paz where we would again cross paths in a few days. 

20171128_125315493241365.jpg

The next morning we boarded the boat again, this time in the direction of Moon Island, where a 12km hike awaited us. Having not slept well the night before on account of snoring by my fellow roommates, I decided to laze about on the beach and soon made friends with a local dog with whom I shared my packed lunch. Once the hiking masses had returned, we made our way back to Copacabana for a group dinner before heading to bed. I slept soundly, no doubt dreaming of a drama free bus ride, a dream that became a reality the very next morning as we headed to the Bolivian capital of La Paz, where once again, new passengers awaited. 


Gary the gringo goes forth…..

In a few weeks’ time, I shall be heading to South America for nearly four months as I take a sabbatical from my job for what I hope to be an adventurous and enlightening experience.

I considered organising the trip myself, but after a couple of days of trying to put together an itinerary and already breaking out in a sweat from the stress, I decided to look online for help. It appeared in the form of STA Travel’s January sale! There was a trip from Quito in Ecuador to Buenos Aires in Argentina, taking in several other wondrous* countries along the 94 day journey which at first glance looked expensive, but with the post-Christmas discount applied it actually was comparable to organising the trip myself, so I put down the deposit and started dreaming of Patagonia, a part of the world I’ve always wanted to see given my interest in animals and nature.

*I thought it was spelled incorrectly too and missing an ‘e’, but apparently not.

BabyG

My interest in natural history stems from spending school holidays with my wonderful grandparents who let me stay up to watch every nature documentary on TV. It’s no secret that David Attenborough is my ideal man. I also got my love of sport from Pops and Nanny Dot, who, whenever a sporting event clashed with a documentary, would wheel in the small television from the back room and plonk it on top of the main box in the lounge. We watched both programmes at the same time, with the sport commentary muted until the documentary had finished. Oh the youth of today have it so easy with their on-demand viewing.

Read more