Saturday, 28 January 2012

Jesus, Monkeys, Mosquitoes and Che


I was glad to leave La Paz's weather behind but I was going to miss the chips in Oliver's Travels (the English pub).

The bus to Cochabamba took several hours and a hotel in the centre of town was a short 10 block walk from the bus station.

As it was Saturday night I hit the town but the sudden and heavy downpour dampened more than my clothes and I ended up having a reasonably early night.

The next day I met Jesus, well it's actually a statue of him on top of a hill on the edge of town. It's similar to the one in Rio but slightly bigger thus making it the largest statue in South America! There are a couple of ways to get to the top and I chose the cable car over the steps, which will come as no surprise to anyone. A return ticket costs 80p and it was worth the money...there were lots of steps.

Once at the top, for some reason the statue didn't seem as big as I thought it would be! However you can go inside and climb up several dodgy metal spiral staircases till you end up just below the head of Jesus. As with all large non habitable concrete structures there was the faint whiff of urine in the air but the views through the little peep holes more than made up for it.

The next day I decided to go on a day trip to the “colonial” village of Torata. I walked down past the biggest market in South America to where the minibuses were. Dammed if I could find one! So instead I went to the bus station to book a seat on the next morning's bus to Santa Cruz. It's a 10 hour journey and not one of the bus companies had a “fat boy seat”....sod that!!! Instead I went back to my hotel and did some research on what was along the road to Santa Cruz. Turns out it was a place called Villa Tunari.

On Wednesday morning I got a bus for the slow and uncomfortable 4 hour ride to Villa Tunari. The road snaked its way along and over the mountains before entering the lowlands of Bolivia. Getting off the bus at the side of the highway I lit a fag and let the beads of sweat form into droplets and slowly roll down my face.

Yep! It's hot and humid in the lowlands...

I scored a great little hostel on the main square and had a walk around the town. Ten minutes later I was back in the really is a small town.

In the afternoon I was having a coffee in a roadside shack when the heavens opened. For the 1st time in months the rain was warm!

The following morning I walked to the edge of town across the bridge to Inti Wara Yassi. Its a rescue centre for various animals caught up in the illegal exotic pet trade. You can volunteer here for 15 days or more but I just came for a visit.

Once you pay the entrance fee its a walk uphill through the jungle to the mirador (or viewpoint). Small groups of monkeys were swinging in the trees and following you along the route. At the viewpoint there are great views and monkeys to stroke (if you want fleas...)

The next day was Friday and after some confusion on my part I got the 9am shared taxi to Santa Cruz, five hours away. The window was open and my arm didn't have any sunblock on it...doh!!

Santa Cruz is a big city of 1.5 million people and being dropped off at a roundabout somewhere in the city made me stick my arm out and waggle my finger. One pound and 12 minutes later I was at the main square getting out of the taxi.

I got a hotel room half a block from the main square. It was more than I had wanted to pay but the bed was big and the cable tv had ESPN and Fox's the 1st weekend of the 6 nations, Chelsea are playing Man Utd and its the Super Bowl on Sunday.

In the evening I headed to the “Irish pub” on the main square. It turned out to be a huge disappointment (there should be a U.N mandate that states you can only call yourself an Irish pub if the guy behind the bar is in fact Irish, otherwise just call it a pub!) I walked out without even having a drink. Instead I walked around the corner to another bar, the beer was a third cheaper and the bottles twice as big!

The next day....the 6 nations were on! Well done England!!!!!

In the evening I left my hotel and headed to the main square only to find the road was lined with people. For the next three hours one dance group after another went past. It was the practise run for the main carnival in two weeks time. It's not just Rio that has them, every large city, small town and village holds one!

The next day was a Sunday and there's not much to do in a Latin American I went to the zoo.

Monday came along and the only thing I had to do was get a visa extension. A quick taxi ride to the immigration office was followed by an amazing experience. The visa extension took me FOUR MINUTES!!! I’m in shock over how quick it was!

On Tuesday I got a taxi to where another taxi was parked and then travelled to the small village of Samaipata three hours up the road (its about 1200m higher than Santa Cruz and therefore cooler).

Samaipata is a small beautiful village (with people from at least 24 countries living here) surrounded by lush green hills on the edge of the Amboro National Park. It also has caves, waterfalls and a very ancient fort nearby.

It's a great place to chill out in and that's what I did for three days in a row.

On Friday morning I got back onto 2 wheels. A Dutch guy living here has a couple of dirt bikes for rent, so that is what I did.

Now, I’ve never ridden a dirt bike before and the main reason why is because the seat height on most dirt bikes are based on having a 32 inch leg, mine are only 29 inches long. However once I was sitting astride the Chinese made 150cc beast my toes could touch the ground, so as long as I didn't stop next to a pothole I would be alright.

And then I was off...!!

I was heading to a place called La Higuera and it was only 170kms away. The 1st 120kms to the town of Valle Grande took about 3 hours along quite good tarmac roads, 1st along a valley and then up into the hills.

By the time I reached the main square I had gotten used to the bike (and its general lack of being able to take corners at speed...or it could have been my lack of talent) well apart from my arse! After a fag and a wiggle it was back on board the beast for the last 50kms, all of it along dirt roads. The night before in Samaipata it had pissed down turning the road outside the bar into a fast flowing river. So I was expecting the road to be a little muddy!

After several km's of flat dry road I turned a corner and headed uphill. As I climbed up and into the clouds the road got wetter and more muddy but the views were great. On the high point of the road the low clouds reduced the visibility down to less than 50m. The road was just ribbons of mud and water and my back wheel was moving around a lot, which was fun but not when the front wheel joined in as well.

Then it started to rain, heavily! There was no shelter so I got very wet from the waist down. My forward speed reduced down to about 10kph because I couldn’t see to well with the rain in my eyes, my hands were numb from the freezing cold weather and even though I thought the road conditions couldn’t get any worse they did!

Forty minutes later the rain stopped and I could see patches of blue sky around the corner...but I still had over 20kms to go!

At about 4pm I arrived in La Higuera with wet boots, damp jeans and a big smile on my face. The hamlet of La Higuera has about 15 to 20 houses nestled two thirds the way up a mountain ridge, overlooking the Rio Grande in the valley far below.

La Higuera is infamous because this small village is the place where Che Guevara was killed (or assassinated depending on your view point). In the village are a couple of statues and a small museum and that's about it!

I got a room at Los Amigo's run by a French couple (who are a little bit on the bohemian hippy side) so the food was great but of course they refused to speak English :)

The place was quiet.....with birdsong the only sound.

In the evening after great food and watching “the motorcycle diaries” I was in bed asleep by 9pm. A few hours later the 3rd weirdest thing in my life happened. I could write about it but you'd never believe me!

The next day I just wandered around...

On Sunday it was time to go. As it hadn't rained since I got here the road had dried out and the cars had compacted the mud in most places. Therefore along the flat sections I could hit 60kph but most of the time I was going around corners, admiring the views and stopping to take photographs.

I arrived back in Samaipata in the middle of the afternoon, dropped of the bike and had a long hot shower. In the evening I had several cold beers!

On Tuesday I was planning on taking the 12 hour night bus to Sucre. Then I found out that it was the carnival on the weekend (which I had completely forgotten about). Looking online it became obvious that a room would be very hard to get! So I decided to stay in Samaipata, getting a room here was proving difficult as well! I was in the bar ( chatting to David and Kirsty, the Aussie couple who own it (along with their gay dog Charlie) about my plight. One phone call later I had somewhere to stay.

Turns out a German bloke called Frank (who owns Roadrunners tour company) who I had shared a few beers with the night before had a little cabin at the bottom of his garden for rent. He was more than happy to rent it to someone that wasn't from Santa Cruz! So for 600 bolivianos I had a place to stay for a week. It had a kitchenette and a living room with a covered patio and 3 dogs who liked belly rubs!

On Saturday evening the carnival started!

...Right now it's Monday afternoon and the bands are still playing, people are still drinking and water balloons and spray foam are STILL filling the air but I think they call it quits on Wednesday!!!

...It's now Thursday 23rd and I was going to be leaving Samaipata this morning. however when it came to packing the bag last night I realised that I didn't want to leave just yet....but I will be definitely catching a bus on Sunday morning (maybe).

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Heading to a hole


The nearest town to the Peruvian/Bolivian border is Copacabana, which gave its name to the beach in Brazil. The beach here isn't a place you would want to sunbathe, saying that the tourist part of town isn't really much either.

However, the accommodation was cheap (Bolivia is one of the poorest/cheapest countries in South America depending on whether you live here or you are just a tourist) and the beer was cold.

I spent 3 days hanging out here not doing much at all. On Sunday I got a morning boat to the Island of the Sun. it's the largest island on Lake Titicaca and according to Inca mythology it is the birthplace of the 1st Incas.

The boat ride took about 90 minutes and dropped me off on the southern end of the island below the small village of Yunani. To reach the village involved walking up an Inca staircase followed by a steep path. Thankfully 50m above the jetty was a hostel...result! It only took me 5 minutes of walking to reach it but by the time I got there I was knackered! I am okay walking around at 3800masl so long as its flat, the minute I start walking uphill I slow down and quite often come to a complete stop!

I spent the rest of the day chilling out on a grass terrace reading a book, looking at clouds, distant snow capped mountains and listening to the waters of the lake lap against the shore.

When the sun went down I got cold. I even ended up wearing my beanie (1st time in south America) and both of my fleeces. By 10pm I was huddled up under the covers and the several blankets did the trick of keeping me warm and cosy throughout the night.

In the morning I enjoyed an average coffee but with excellent views!

At 10:30 I was on a boat heading to Challapampa on the northern point of the island. This little community is popular with skank heads because it has a small sandy beach for free camping and evening drum circles.

The reason I came here was to walk the 5 miles or so back to the hostel.

The trail is well maintained and easy to follow. It climbs out of the village and heads upwards onto the ridge line. The arid nature contrasts sharply with the deep blue water of the lake. Along the trail the views were....awesome!

The trail went up, over and down three peaks and highest one reaching nearly 4000masl. In a few places it was quite steep and the steps were taken slowly. Five hours and 2.5 litres of water later I reached the village of Yunami squatting indecently on top of the ridge (if I had walked up here yesterday looking for a hostel I would have been disappointed and more than likely crippled).

The village really isn't all that and I kind of feel sorry for the donkeys who have to haul everything up here, their lives must have been easier before the tourist arrived!

Crossing over the ridge and passing through the village I started my descent down to the jetty and my hostel. The walk down was quite enjoyable (which is the complete opposite if you are walking the other way) and when I got to the bottom the cold beer was just what I needed. The 2nd one was pretty good as well.

The next day I got the boat back to Copacabana. I spent another two nights here and on Thursday I got on a bus.

I was heading to the small village of Sorata and there are two ways to get there:

a) get off the bus at Huarina and hope one of the passing minibuses has a spare seat

b) go all the way to La Paz and get a minibus back to Sorata.

I chose option B

The bus from Copacabana to La Paz took about 4 hours and included the dodgy ferry crossing across the straits of Tiqunia. It was easy going till we reached El Alto, which is the overspill from La Paz, here be traffic!

Getting of the bus somewhere in La Paz I got a taxi to where all the minibus to Sorata congregate.

I only had a 15 minute wait till the 12:30 departure and I managed to call shotgun and got a seat upfront. It only took 3.5 hours to travel to Sorata and because I was in the front I got to see all of the “wonderful overtaking manoeuvres” attempted by the driver...and some were successful. The final part of the journey was a 20km descent down through the clouds and into a steep and rugged valley along twisty roads with large drops inches off the “racing line”.

Arriving in Sorata at around 4pm I got a room in the Panchita hostel, on the main square (it has the most comfortable bed I’ve slept in since...I don't know when) and had a little bimble around the village. The walk around the village was easy because at 2600masl I was 1200m lower than I was in the morning. In fact I haven't been below 3400m since I departed Moquegua at the start of December.

On Saturday morning after a long leisurely breakfast of champions I bimbled around the square and came across a sound stage being constructed. Looks like there's a party in Sorata tonight.

Monday morning came around and I was on the 11am minibus to La Paz, once again I had a seat upfront and as the weather was sunny with some blue sky great views were had as the bus climbed out of the valley and onto the plateau.

Once in La Paz I got a taxi to my hostel which is above the “English pub” (What! Surprised?) and chilled out. I had booked the room for 5 nights just I case I had a sunny day or two for day tripping. As it turned out it was 2 days to's overcast and drizzling!

Monday, 9 January 2012

Up, down and up again



After 35 nights in Cusco I left!

Now, there are plenty of things to do in and around Cusco

  • Machu Picchu

  • the sacred valley sites of Pisac and Ollantaytambo among others

  • Saqsaywaman

  • various museums and churches

Would you care to guess how many of these places I went to? That's right ZERO!!

I’ve already been to all of the above places before and my sightseeing batteries were drained. Instead, at night I barflyed at Norton Rat's Tavern (they had ashtrays on the bar) and during the day I lounged around or sat in of the squares watching people and clouds go by.

Life was easy and relaxing, just what I needed

On Christmas day I “skyped” with my always delightful family. Turns out I got a tax rebate from 5 years ago. The following week I spent it! It is a lovely woven wall hanging.

On Monday 9th of January I got on a bus to Puno and I was glad I got a big boy seat. The eight hour ride seemed at lot longer!!

Checking into my hotel I immediately arranged for a boat tour of lake Titicaca for the following day. In the morning the traffic woke me up 45 minutes before my alarm had to.....

Leaving the Port of Puno the boat headed out onto the waters of lake Titicaca. The sky was blue, the clouds white and fluffy and the sun was shinning (mind you at 3800masl it was UV intense).

The 1st stop was the famous “floating islands of the Uros people”. Around 70 floating islands made of reed roots are home to about 2000 people. It was interesting to see but it did feel slightly like a human zoo.

We spent about an hour there before heading out into the middle of the lake and the island of Taquila. It took about 2 hours to get there, which I spent sitting on the stern of the boat gazing out across the waters.

The island of Taquila rises steeply out of the water and every inch of land that can be terraced has been. It was a slow walk up the path towards the centre of the island, a locals home and an excellent trout lunch. They also laid on some entertainment in the form of traditional dancing (thankfully I wasn't asked to join in).

After lunch we walked uphill to the “town” square which had amazing views of the lake and the snow capped mountains on the distant Bolivian shore. Then it was a downhill walk to the other side of the island and the waiting boat. Back on board I had a wonderful 3 hour cruise back to Puno.

The next afternoon I went on a tour to Sillustani. Upon a hill overlooking Umago lake are several Inca and pre Inca funerary towers which once held the mummified remains of the posh people. The views across the landscape were epic!

On Thursday the 12th of January I caught the 07:30 bus for the 3 hour ride along the shore line of lake Titicaca to the Bolivian border and the town of Copacabana.