Saturday, 14 December 2013

Bus travel in South America

A Cruz Del Sur bus (from their site)
We felt we should add a post purely about bus travel in South America and share some of our experiences. Generally it is very safe and the companies are great. This goes for all countries except Bolivia, where many companies are dodgy (generally) and the buses are not of a very good standard. We had a theory that Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Chile sell their old buses to Bolivia when they are run down and looking pretty tired.

In Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Chile the buses are like being in business class on a flight. They have Semi-Cama (almost flat seats, with a leg-rest) and Cama (fully –reclining beds, totally horizontal – amazing).

We had great buses in Brazil, we also used a couple of private transfer companies (listed in the links on the left), but also used Catarinense & 1001. Both fine.

In Argentina we used a small company (sorry can't remember their name) where our bus was severely delayed but the company bought a ticket with an affiliated company for us and we were fine. It was lucky we spoke some Spanish as all announcements of the cancellation (a bloke walking along the platform, shouting) were in Spanish.

Peru was probably the best for buses in the countries we went to. We mostly used Cruz del Sur. They are more expensive but very good, efficient and great staff (apart from the surly woman we came across in Paracus). There is a watch out in Puno; we did some research and found the best company to book from Puno to Lima was a company called TourPeru, so we went to their ticket office at the bus terminal in Puno and booked 2 tickets for the next day, they told us their system was down and issued us a receipt for the tickets and asked us to come back the next morning an hour before our bus and collect the tickets – basically the bloke who sold us the tickets was moonlighting for another company and gave us tickets for this other, cheaper bus company (to be fair it was to the correct destination). It was all very dodgy and we were not impressed with the company he put us on. So always check this.

Bolivia was by far the worst country for buses. As a rule they do not have functioning toilets and even on 10-12 hour journeys they do not stop for the toilet. We saw men peeing in plastic bottles and dirty nappies being thrown out the window. Pretty much the only thing missing from Bolivian buses was livestock. We learnt to dehydrate ourselves for several hours (longer on longer journeys) so we did not need the toilet.  
In Bolivia you can only purchase bus tickets on the day of travel, not in advance like you can in Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. None of the buses we travelled on in Bolivia were clean or comfortable, but if you are prepared for this you will be fine.

Chile is like Peru with regards to it’s buses. They are very efficient and clean and comfortable. We used  Tur-Bus and Pullman, both were great.

Full Cama
Semi Cama

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Sadly the adventure ends.

Angel & Ellen Lewis
It's been an adventure!
After 3 months travelling through this gorgeous continent we have come to the end of our adventure.
No more buses, no more flights. It's been an amazing trip which we know we have been extremely fortunate to do. We have met some amazing people along the way, done some crazy things and seen some of the most wonderful places on earth.
It's now time to get back to the real world and get jobs, buy a house and settle down in our new home town of Melbourne, but first we have another 5 weeks of 'holiday' spending time with Angel's family in Sydney, celebrating his first Christmas and New Year with his family in 11 years. To say his mother is excited would be an understatement. 

Thanks for reading and we hope you have enjoyed reading about our adventures as much as we have had seeing and doing these things. 

Angel & Ellen x

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Us vs The Volcano

We got off the bus in Pucon in the wee hours of the morning after the 12 hour journey from Valparaiso, we had taken posh semi-cama seats. We arrived into bus station which is not far out of town and then walked a little down the street towards the small village and looked to our left and... wow, there breaking out of the landscape is the magnificent active volcano Villarrica (2860m). Covered in snow (it's a glacier) the volcano dominates the entire landscape.

Volcano climb
At the beginning of the climb
We had met a bloke in Valparaiso and got chatting and said our next stop was Pucon, 'There's nothing there but a volcano which you can climb' he said, Ellen looked and Angel and said that's what we were going for. Needless to say Angel was not aware of this volcano climbing decision, until now.
So we had come here to attempt to climb an active volcano. Nice. We checked into our hostel, it was just before 9am but Emma (the hostel owner) let us into the room anyway and we cleaned ourselves up and headed out to the Main Street, 'O'Higgins' to find somewhere for breakfast. As Pucon is one of those towns where early (like 5am) departures for adventure sports are the main attractions, hostels and hotels do not usually include breakfast, so we hoped to find a cafe open, but after all this is Sunday and this is South America (ie, very few things are open on Sundays). We did manage to find a cafe and had eggs and toast with more bad coffee (again, we do not understand the South American obsession with instant Nescafé). We then set out to find the volcano hiking company we (Ellen) had researched about. As in most tourist towns around the world, many companies in Pucon just want your money, they tell you that you will get to the summit and give you average quality gear, we went with Aquaventura, they have a very good safety record, they don't guarantee you will make it to the top and you do not actually pay for the adventure until you get back from the hike. They give several opportunities to back out with it costing you either nothing or just the cost of the transfer to the base of the volcano. 

We woke at 5am to get to the hiking office by 5.30 (it was 2 blocks away), the weather was good, a nice clear day. We were told the chairlift was not working the day we went up as it was too windy, so this added another hour onto the 4 hour hike to the top. At the top of the chairlift, after hiking an hour, single-file, up the volcanic shale we all sat down to put on our crampons, hard hats, gloves and ice picks. We then headed up the glacier.  It's a hard slog, not flat at any stage, you just put your head down, watch where you put your feet, single-file hiking. At approximately each hour of hiking they stop you for a rest, you carve out a seat in the snow and ice, sit down and have a snack and get up again, after 4 and a half hours of continuous 60-90 degree angle hiking we unfortunately reluctantly gave up. We were 3/4 of the way up the volcano but the remaining quarter was to take another 2 hours and it was about a 90 degree incline, Ellen's legs had given up and Angel's feet were macerated and blistered in the rented boots you have to wear (think rigid ski boots, and try hiking in them!), our guide had told us that walking down is harder as you have to concentrate more and this when a lot of accidents happen due to fatigue (a lot of hikers have died doing this trek) so we made the sensible decision to slowly walk back. We were disappointed with ourselves but there was no way we could have made it to the top in the condition we were in, if the chairlift had have been working there may have been a possibility that we might have made it further as it would have cut out the initial hour of hiking. We'll just need to come back another time and try again! The good thing about giving up was we were able to take our time and appreciate the view, it was magnificent, and as our guide said, the views from the top were the same view as where we'd got to. We sat and ate the empanadas we had brought along for our snack and took in the breathlessly beautiful view.

The next day we decided to stay in Pucon another day, mainly because we were so tired,and Angel could barely walk with the blisters and damaged feet from the boots so we took it easy, enquired about either going rafting or to the hot springs for the additional day and strolled around the town to the 2 lakes and had lunch (an awesome breakfast burrito!) and a siesta (when in Rome) and then dinner at the best steakhouse in town, La Maga. The steak was great, Angel had a 500g bife de chorizo and Ellen had the 350g one. 
We also did our laundry for probably the last time as we only have 5 days left!
We had dinner with Sarah and Brian, an Australian couple who were staying in the same hostel and Brian had done the volcano hike with us, but he had made it to the top. 

The following day we went rafting! It was brilliant fun, there were some straight sections of water but the guide made it interesting but either pushing us in the water or getting us to play games so we would fall in. We had wetsuits and helmets, gloves and special shoes but the water was still cold but so clear! The group was great and the Brazilian girls are going to send us photos they took with their waterproof camera. 

Our temporary dog
While we were in Pucon we adopted a stray dog, well she adopted us. She appeared on our first day, followed us around for a couple of hours so we bought her some dog food and she loved us more. The following day we could not find her in the evening after our hike, and the next day she found us near the market and then followed us the entire day, waiting outside stores we were in, sitting beside us when we had lunch outside, took us to the beach (she looked like she wanted to show us something and it ended up that she wanted to go for a swim), in the evening when we went back to the hostel to change for dinner she was not waiting for us when we came out, but we headed up to the Main Street and there she was, waiting at the end of our street and was so excited to see us, we walked to the restaurant and she waited outside while we had our steak, we cut the small bits of fat off and kept them for her, and she was there waiting for us when we came out. 
We hope someone else sees her sweet nature and takes her in, or other travellers feed her. None of the strays look starving, they are all in quite good condition, but the problem here in Pucon according to the owner of the place we had lunch is that everyone wants puppies so around Christmas there is a new wave of puppies and then by late summer they are dumped. It's very sad. If we had been locals we would have kept her. Angel really does not like dogs and this one he really liked and grew attached to. Such a sweet natured dog. We called her Bob, like our cat. 

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Valparaiso, a city of dogs and graffiti

The first thing you notice about Valparaiso is the fresh sea air, the next is all the stray dogs! We thought there were a lot in San Pedro de Atacama, but here, they are everywhere.
Dogs & Graffiti
After checking into our B&B we took a 'free' 3 hour walking tour of the city and at each point there was another pack of dogs ready to follow us. The tour was great, it was the same company as the one we did in Santiago, tips4tours, you pay what you think the tour was worth. We began the tour in the old town, which is UNESCO listed, it's beautiful , if a bit run down and due to it's heritage listing it's difficult and expensive to renovate the buildings so many at left to deteriorate.
We then headed up one of the amazing old funiculars to one of Valaparaiso's many hills to see the magnificent views of the port town (the dogs didn't come up with us in the funicular - there was the next pack waiting for us at the top). Due to the nature of the hills, the economy and the poverty (Valparaiso has the highest unemployment rate in all of Chile) the houses are built with an eclectic mix of materials and designs which makes for a very interesting landscape, also the colours are a highlight as most houses are made of corrugated iron they paint with bright colours, a bit like La Boca in Buenos Aires. We headed down many narrow cobbled streets their walls covered in graffiti, apparently it originated during the Pinochet dictatorship as a form of protest but it has turned Valpo (as the locals call it) into an open air art gallery. In fact, so many of the worlds graffiti artists are drawn to the city and some house owners to prevent horrible 'tagging' on their properties either commission artists to paint murals on their facades or they give artists carte blanche to paint what they want if the owner can't afford to pay.
Piano Stairs, Valparaiso
Piano stairs, Valparaiso
Apparently there is a code within the graffiti world where you don't mess with a other artists canvas, though there are always exceptions to this as you see around the city. 
The town is beautiful and while on the walking tour we met one American guy who arrived in the town 2 years ago planning to stay a couple of days and he has never left, you can see why as the city really does grow on you.
There are some brilliant restaurants in the city including Cocina Puerto, and some pretty good ice cream shops.
The B&B we stayed was called La Nona, a cozy, family-run place managed by a couple who own the house which was owned by Rene's grandfather, a immigrant from England. It's always been a B&B, Rene's grandmother ran it up until a couple of years ago when she died. Rene was really helpful in telling us what to do and where do go, and he laid out a pretty mean breakfast too!

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Ah, Mendoza. Wine, beef, wine, beef...oh and some pasta.

Wine tasting
Wine tasting
We had planned on popping back into Argentina to come to Mendoza all along, initially it was for 2 days but we stayed another we loved it so much.
With its wide avenues and boulevards, pretty parks and many restaurants, it is hard not to love Mendoza. Our B&B is near the centre, it's run by an older couple who treat you like one of theirs, they organise breakfast around you, give you a key if you will be out late (1am, latest of put whole trip! rock on!) and want to make sure you have a great time.

Wine tasting glasses
More Wine Tasting
We booked a full day wine tour for our first day with Kahuak, pricey but it took us on a private (no one else booked so it was just us) tour of 3 wineries; Navarro Correas, Trapiche and Familia Zuccardi. All big wineries but the latter is a bit more touristy with 2 restaurants. The best tour by far was the Navarro Correas, our guide was great - the tour we booked was a driver to take us to the wineries where we would have tours with the winery staff - it was just us and her and she showed us around the place and then sat with us and poured 3 large glasses of wine. 2 red and 1 white; Chardonnay, reserve Cab Sav and a Gran Reserve Cab Sav which was awesome, definitely our favourite, and hers too. The next 2 wineries were not as intimate, big flashy entrances and impersonal tour (felt a bit like going through the motions, but the wine was good).

We finished the day with a lunch at the pasta restaurant at Familia Zuccardi. It was good but not as good as we had hoped, the wine was great, the starters great but the pasta was a little tasteless. But after all we were there for the wine!

Bife de Chorizo
Abi & Kayleigh with bife de chorizo
The following day we decided to stay another day and just walked around the town, went to the markets and visited each of the 5 plazas in the city, interestingly built as evacuation points for earthquakes. (Plazas Chile, Italia, Espana, San Martin and the big one in the middle of town, independecia).
Bife de Chorizo
Bife de Chorizo

A couple of months ago back in in Brazil we had met Abi and Kayleigh who we noticed on Facebook were also going to be in town for a couple of days so we met up with them for dinners 2 of the 3 nights we spent here, it was great catching up on what each of us had done, we had similar routes and travel dates and had missed them a couple of places by a day or so. One of the places we ate was La Lucia (pic right and above) AMAZING. I dreamt about this steak for days afterwards and expect to for a very long time.

We really enjoyed Mendoza. The wide boulevards and beautiful buildings - the reason the streets are so wide is due to Earthquakes - back in 1861 they had a massive one which killed thousands and most  were killed by the falling rubble, so when they re-built they did so with wider streets for the people to escape into during earthquakes.

The squares are a beautiful place to sit and people watch while eating some snacks or your lunch.

The people were lovely, the wine was great and the steak was out of this world, cutting it was like cutting through butter, perfectly seasoned, perfectly cooked. 

36 hairpin turns!
The border crossing back to Chile was a little crap though, and all Chile's fault. 
When your bus arrives at the border, you get off the bus and queue at an Argentinian desk and get your exit stamp, then queue up at a desk beside this to get your Chilean entry stamp, then back on the bus and wait for the bus to move into the border building where your bags are removed from the bus to go through an x-ray. We had arrived at the border at lunchtime, rather than having shifts, the Chilean border staff stop for lunch. The minibus in front of us still had 5 bags on the belt to be checked, the border staff stopped, had lunch while the mini bus people had to wait. About 45 minutes later they continued checking the bags, then everyone from the minibus had to queue up to put their hand luggage through the X-ray machine. Then it was our turn. It has to be the most disorganised border entry we have been at, all in, including the bus queuing it took us about an hour and a half to get across the border. Chile is as strict as Australia in what it lets you bring into the country food wise. The main things are no fresh produce and no honey.

In San Pedro de Atacama we had the same process (though remember there was a strike of these border staff) but there was a French lady who's boyfriend had his bag searched for a garlic which he had forgot in his bag and they saw it on the scanner, but during the search, while she stood beside him during the search she had an apple in her hand and the border staff did not notice. 

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Santiago, the first time.

Main Plaza, Santiago
Main plaza, Santiago
We decided to spend 3 nights in Santiago as we had come from San Pedro de Atacama on a 24 hour bus journey and we thought we deserved a few days of rest and hoping for some brilliant food.

The city is improving according to our guidebook. It's a pretty standard big non-coastal city. Big, dirty, hectic and people hassling you (dirty mainly because there is a strike by the municipal workers, yes a strike in South America, you would never believe it!).

Our hostel, Happy House, is brilliant. It's a gorgeous old converted house with high decorative ceilings, polished wood floors, a pool, massive comfortable rooms, and a pool. Did we mention they have a pool? It's located in Barrio Brazil, about 20 minutes walk from the main part of town, there are cool cafes and restaurants nearby, including an ice creamery. It's great. 

We ate at a local restaurant which was recommended by the guy on reception at the hotel, it's called  Varcas Gordas (the fat cow) and had the most amazing bife de chorizo and lomo steaks, with chips and salad, and wine, and cocktails. So amazing after so many weeks in Bolivia where pretty much the only option is pizza. We could hardly contain our excitement. 

There is a great ice cream place around the corner from the hostel, very cheap with great ice cream and it's right across the street from a park where you can watch the local teenagers ride skateboards. 

Santiago Markets
Santiago Markets
We bought empanadas on the street for lunch on our first day. The money in Chile is like Australian money (plastic) and when we got the change from the vendor we thought nothing of the ripped $2,000 note (£2 approx).  We discovered that ripped notes in Chile are not accepted ...anywhere (not even the banks), so we threw it on the floor and within seconds it was gone - not that whoever picked it up could use it either. Lesson learned. Don't accept damaged notes in Chile. 

We did an interesting free alternative walking tour of Santiago (with tips), the guide, Matthew, was really informative and walked us around the several markets and some of the old areas of Santiago finishing in the cemetery where he explained animitas. These are a bit of a cultural/religious phenomenon where an 'innocent' is killed in a tragic way and as they were 'pure' and taken in such a way they are considered kind of like saints (note: the catholic religion does not accept these 'saints' nor condone them), people prey to them and ask for things like jobs, health, money. It's quite widespread in South America.

We have booked to come back to the same hostel for a couple of nights before we leave for Australia. All set. 

Monday, 18 November 2013

San Pedro de Atacama

This place has to be the most expensive place in South America. Don't get me wrong it is a great place and there are some amazing things to see, but when you can get a very basic double room with shared bathroom for £58 here and a more superior room in the nations capital for £28 a night, something is very wrong. We had to watch our spending carefully here as everything is almost twice the price of Santiago, and about triple the price of Bolivia (water is £1 for 1.5 litres whereas in Bolivia it is 30 pence for the same size bottle). The restaurants are about £8 for a sandwich, compared to spending £8 on a full steak dinner for the two of us, with beer in Sucre. The food is of better quality than Bolivia though.

We arrived after a 2 day transfer from Uyuni in Bolivia, up at 4.30 am with probably the grumpiest driver in all of South America, and then arriving at the Chilean border to find (surprise, surprise) the border staff were on strike. A strike in South America? Unheard of! (Please excuse our sarcasm).

San Pedro (or San Perro as one of our tour guides called it, due to the high number of stray dogs in the town) is a small border town at the north east of Chile. It is the main base of tours to the Atacama desert. We took 2 tours, one to the salt pools and another to the luna valley. Both tours were with Cosmo Andino tours and were very good. Interestingly the first tour with our brilliant guide who did not speak English was a more enjoyable tour than then one with the English speaking guide!

Running the dunes
We spent 2 nights in San Pedro, our hostel was great, a little place with 5 rooms 15 minutes walk from downtown, with free bikes and a brilliant breakfast - with home made bread, it was a bit like soda bread with grains through it. The cleaner/cook Elizabeth was lovely and helpful and carried her English/Spanish dictionary around which was sweet, she wanted to learn more English, so our conversations were with broken Spanish and English.

The first tour was out to the salt springs, where you really struggle to get your body down into the water, you practically float on the top! We spent about an hour in the water but as the salt gets into wounds, and we still had mosquito bite marks it was a bit stingy, but good fun trying all the different positions to float in.
Our guide Ivan then drove us to the 'eyes' of the Atacama - 2 very deep fresh, but salty, water pools in the desert which are about 600m deep. Then he took us to a salt lake, one with water, and we drank Pisco Sours while watching the amazing sunset.
Amazing Sunset

The next day we had an afternoon tour of Dead Valley and the Luna Valley. This was a larger tour group in a bigger bus. The guide was great, but just didn't have the personality like Ivan had. We did a lot more walking on this one, but it was nice to walk through the rock formations and sandy valleys - you could hear the sand cracking with movement, one section was a very steep sand dune we had to run down - Angel did it at such speed he was really enjoying himself, straight down with the sand coming up to the knees with each step. Brilliant fun.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Boliva: Lagoons, Salt Flats, Volcanos and more

Cactus Rose
We booked a 4 day 'Salt Flats Tour' with La Torre Tours. Afder doing substantial research on Trip Advisor and other travel sites and reading blogs we decided that the tours are much better from Tupiza than Uyuni. In Uyuni they have very inconsistent reviews, which is mainly down to the fact there are so many tour companies there and most of the drivers and cooks are 'freelance' so someone who is a questionable driver can work for several companies. In Tupiza there are only a handful of companies and La Torre Tours are the best from what we can tell.
Lots of Land Cruisers, and a Nissan
Our tour started at 8am and we were shown to our Land Cruiser and introduced to our driver, Mario, and our cook, Isabella. Both very lovely and cheery people. We handed our stuff to Mario who was standing on top of the truck loading our gear and provisions for the trip. We also met the other couple on our tour, Sue and Tom from Switzerland. It was just the 4 of us on the tour, there is a maximum of 5 people on a La Torre Tour (from Uyuni they pack 6 people + the driver and cook in the jeep!) and we took turns in sitting in the small child seats in the back of the Land Cruiser.

Very cold at the lagoon
Day 1 is mostly driving to get us to the first nights' hotel, we start by passing the spectacular vertical red rock formations just outside Tupiza and then travel along winding dirt roads past some pretty amazing scenery(we will run out of superlatives in in this blog). We stopped for lunch at a small mining town where we had arrived on the day of the village school's 7th anniversary and they were having a presentation. It was quite sweet as the whole town (of less than a thousand) were out in the main square to celebrate the day. The food was great, Isabella had pre-made some chicken schnitzels and we had salad and potatoes to go with it.

We drove on through the Anawanapampa desert and Mario noticed one of the back tires had a small leak so we stopped on the road (dirt track) and he changed the tire (our second flat tire in 3 months, not bad considering all the miles we have covered!) we drove on and stopped in an abandoned town which the locals call a 'Ghost Town' it is where an army of Spanish lived after the invasion when they made the Inca's work the mines, at times not letting the Inca's out of the actual mine caves for months at a time, and they had to keep everything in there with them including the livestock! After a stop at our highest point of 4,855m we stayed overnight in San Antonio de Lipez at 4,200m in a hostel (no showers), all the acommodation on this tour is very basic and all 4 of us are in one room, with Isabella and Mario in another (even more basic than ours), there are toilets but as we said, no showers, not until the 3rd night when you can pay 10 Boliviano for a shower, well this is the desert and water is precious (and 10 Boliviano is less than a Pound!). Mario repaired the hole in the tire with the help of our torches - and removed the tire from the wheel by driving the jeep over the wheel and freeing the tube from inside, luckily Mario is a mechanic.

Day 2 began with an early start. Breakfast and we headed to the Lagoons, along the road we had to drive through several frozen streams which was quite amazing to see in the desert, it does get very cold in the desert at night. The first lagoon was our first glimpse of Flamingos, they were just eating around the edges of the lagoon, some of it was still frozen and they were sliding along the surface. A little longer along the road we stopped at a lagoon we thought was covered in salt, this was in fact borax, which is used in the manufacture of ceramics.

Any guesses?
About an hour later and we were at the gorgeous Laguna Verde (green lagoon). We stopped for photos before heading to the Aguas Termales just down the road, we all put our swimmers on and jumped in the springs, though very warm in the water outside it was blowing a gale and the wind was pushing the desert sand against us which meant we came out of the baths dirtier than when we went in, but as we keep saying 'it's an adventure!' After the springs we went to see the geisers, they were spewing hot gasses into the air - very cool to see. Next stop was at the red lagoon, this is where we saw hundreds of Flamingos. At our next hostel it was even more basic than the previous and colder too, so we used our rented sleeping bags which we really only needed because the beds looked like the sheets had not been changed, there were hairs and other bits in there. So we decided to sleep in the sleeping bags with the blankets over the top. We went outside before bed into the freezing night to see the stars, unfortunately the moon was very bright and this affected the ability to see all the stars, but being away from city lights and pollution it was still magnificent to see what we could.
Ah no, she's stuck
The first stop on day 3 is at the rock tree, it is a rock which has the form of a tree sticking out of the desert, there are other rocks around and it is quite something to see. Tom climbed on top of a few of them, while we took photos of him and stayed relatively close to the ground.
We then headed off to the next lagoon where we saw a fox, it seemed quite used to people, tourists probably feed it. Here we saw many more Flamingos, these were curiously more tame than the ones at the other lagoons. We were able to get within 2 meters of them and take some shots, it was extremely windy here and we had to really work hard to walk against the wind.

We stopped for lunch near some rocks, where we saw Viscachas (desert rabbit like animal) which were more than happy to see us as they eat all the crumbs left by the tours, probably not very good for them as you do not see carrots growing in the desert.
We stopped along the road to view the two volcanos Licancabur and Zaparelli before stopping in a town for Mario to have a break after hours of driving in the desert, he told us that this section is very tiring for the drivers and they are not sure why this particular section is so bad.

That night we had nice hot showers at the hotel which was made of salt. The floor was rock salt (you have to wear shoes or it is very uncomfortable) and the walls are all salt, even the pillars for the beds are salt.
Cactus Island
Up the next morning for the final day, we woke up 4.30 to see the sunset on the salt lake. It was magnificent and watching our shadows shorten as the sun rose was quite fun. We then drove to the Isla Incahuasi, which is covered in Cactus plants, it is at the heart of the desert, quite amazing to see. Here we climbed the island (it is like a small mountain) and then had breakfast where Isabella had made us a cake!
one of the 'Crazy photos'
It was then time for us to go to a section of the salt flats where we could take our crazy pictures. We spent 2 hours taking shots, some terrible, some quite good. Annoyingly our camera has some fluff and crap inside the lens so now all our shots have these spots. Will have to invest in photoshop when we get to Australia to clean our images. After our final lunch just on the shores of the flats, we arrived in Uyuni and went to see the train graveyard - Uyuni used to be the centre of all trains in Bolivia but then a new government changed the hub to another city and the trains were just left to rust.

This is where we said goodbye to Mario, Isabella, Sue and Tom and we organised our 2 day transfer across the border to San Pedro de Atacama while they all headed back to Tupiza.
It really was a brilliant trip, and having Sue and Tom with us was great - and not just because Sue can speak fluent Spanish and helped us out with the bits we could not understand.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Pretending we're Gaucho's in Tupiza

Us on horses. Not a sneeze in sight.
After yet another eventful bus journey in Bolivia, this time a toilet episode. After 4 hours driving the bus pulls into Potosi bus depot, where the driver picks up more people (more people than there are seats, so several people are standing, and will do for the next 6 hours) and taking this opportunity of a stop Ellen and some girls from the back of the bus get up to go to the toilet but are told to get back on the bus by the driver and that we will be stopping 'up there' (whilst pointing to the top of the mountain). Over an hour later the driver pulls up alongside a restaurant in a very small village and announces for us to get off for food and the toilet. All 40-odd of us on the bus pile into the restaurant and ask for the toilet, there is not one. Nice. So the driver shrugs and all of us scatter around the outside of the restaurant to find somewhere to pee - most of us go into the 'garden' (well, this is the desert) of the house next door and pee.
After this there was another 6 hours to Tupiza and the driver did not stop again. Luckily we have learned to dehydrate ourselves before Bolivian bus journeys and just to sip small amounts of water.
We arrived at about 6pm into Tupiza, with no map we had no idea how far the hotel was from the bus station so we just caught a taxi to the hotel (80 pence) and as soon as we got there we booked our 4 day Salt Flats tour, ending in a transfer to Chile (San Pedro de Atacama). Still within our daily budget.
We also booked a horse riding tour for the next day. Ellen has been wanting to go horse riding for a while and had read that Tupiza is one of the best places to do it. After all this is the area where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid allegedly met their ends.
Add soundtrack here.
Angel actually quite likes horse riding but is unfortunately allergic to horses, so there is a bit of preparation needed, mostly vaseline up the nostrils and antihistamines (also not being able to wear the clothes he has on on the horse again until they are washed).
We had to walk to the outskirts of town (took about 10 minutes from the centre, small town) with our 'guide' - he gave us the horses and then we followed him for 3 hours. He did point out the 'devils gate' though. We had great horses, they looked really well looked after, which was our concern, and were well behaved. Ellen even got hers to canter. She didn't know what this was but this horse did it. 
The ride was 3 hours, it was about 40 degrees by about 10am and we felt sorry for the horses having to carry us to the canyon and back. It was great to just relax and let the horse do the work and look at the scenery. It really is a beautiful place, yellowy dirt with red boulders and mountains jutting out from the ground with a brilliant blue sky. Really something to see. 
Dear reader, you will be happy to hear that Angel had absolutely no allergic reaction to the horse, either the antihistamine worked or he's not allergic anymore. 

Friday, 8 November 2013

How we are budgeting.

We were lucky enough to be beta testers of a new app called Trail Wallet. This great app is the brainchild of Simon Fairbairn &  a couple who sold everything and have been digital nomads for the past couple of years. 
It's a great app. You create a trip, add the dates, your daily or trip budget and then enter your expenses as you go, and break them into categories (eg accommodation, travel, sightseeing). Everything we spend is entered, from 1 Peruvian Sole for the toilet to 2.50 Bolivianos for bus departure tax. We can see how much we are spending via the graphs and it tells us our daily average.

You can even have several currencies in there at once. 
Without it we would be scrambling around with notebooks and calculators. No need. Just enter what you spend add the category and it's all taken care of, you can even ad expenses in advance, for example if you are doing a tour or booked your accommodation in advance.
For example, our daily budget is £100 for the 2 of us, for all our expenses (except flights, inca trail and jungle safari, that is out of a separate budget) currently we are averaging £87.94. Under budget. It tells us how much we have spent to date in total and that we are 64% spent. 

Cochabamba to Sucre

Cochabamba's main square
We stayed in Cochabamba longer than we expected for two reasons, one was we both got quite ill and wanted to stay close to a toilet, and the other was the buses were not as regular as we expected. Oh and one more reason, because Ellen is rubbish at map reading.
Cochabamba itself is a very quiet place, not a lot happening, it's not really on the tourist trail but we went there after Ellen planned our route and mistook the dot on the map for Totora as the one for Cochabamba, 231 km away. So Cochabamba was supposed to be a stop to break up a 14 hour bus journey, but it added 8 hours. Not to worry, it was a great place to chill out and Skype family and friends and catch up on the blog. Also as there is not a lot to do we didn't feel guilty for not getting out and seeing a lot of sights, as there were not many. There is a statue of Christ on a hill which you can walk to (with, according to guidebooks, a high likelihood of getting mugged) or take the cable car. After discovering there would be no toilet at the top we decided against it.
Dumbos? Why not!
Instead we did a bit of a walk, staying close to clean-looking cafes and restaurants, just in case. 
We walked through the town market, down Espana street, we ate in a place called Dumbos - an American style diner (if you squint and turn your head sideways) which sold burgers, salads and ice cream. Angel must have been ill, he didn't want any ice cream. For those readers who don't know him, this is heard of. 
On Saturday morning we headed to the bus station to buy our bus tickets for that night to Sucre. In Bolivia you cannot purchase bus tickets on any other day except the day the bus is leaving. So we bought tickets at about 9.15 am and the 8pm bus to Sucre was already full, so we got on the 8.15pm one with Trans Copacabana.

The ride started out quite well for a Bolivian bus company, left on time, then about 45 minutes into the journey the driver pulled the huge bus over to the side of the road, and walked into a dive of a cafe and had his dinner. No announcements, no warning. Some passengers got off the bus and followed  him into the cafe and others got off and relieved themselves in the bushes (there was no toilet, and as this is Bolivia, there is no toilet on the bus either). This was the only intentional stop in the 10 hour journey. Seriously. Lucky for us we had planned for this, done our research into Bolivian bus travel and had stopped drinking 6 hours prior so we were suitably dehydrated for the journey, knowing that Bolivian buses, though they usually have a toilet on the bus, they lock them and rarely stop for passengers to go to the loo.
At 1.32 am the bus stopped on the edge of a mountain road and after about 20 minutes of the drivers walking around outside the bus, we were all told we had to get off the bus and walk as the 'road' (read: dirt path) was muddy and we needed to lighten the bus to get it around the corner.  All the passengers got off in the pitch darkness and thick fog and proceeded to walk down the steep road (the drivers had given no indication of how far we were to walk). Luckily Angel always carries a small torch for such occasions in his backpack so we could at least wee where we were going as there was no light. We walked as far as we thought we needed to walk, and then after about 10 minutes of standing about and the bus came down the hill to pick us up, some old ladies had kept on walking down the hill and we picked them up about 200m down the mountain. Despite this little adventure we were not late into Sucre. In fact we were a little early. A first for our bus trips in South America!

Sucre market. look at her face!
We arrived in Sucre at 6.30 and shared a taxi to our hotel with a Kiwi girl who we had met on the bus, she was travelling alone. Arriving at our hostel was a little odd. We rang the buzzer, a guy answered speaking only Spanish saying we would have to wait an hour until reception opened,  but that we could wait in the courtyard, and then proceeded to stay on the intercom and not open the door. Still on the intercom a couple of minutes later, still talking to us and still not buzzing us through. Finally the door opened. Maybe he was still asleep. 
Dino Park, Ellen with Nessie.
The hostel (Kultur Berlin) is good, clean, very quiet, has German-themed cafe with great German apple cake (though appalling coffee!) and intermittent wifi (we are writing this from a cafe around the corner). Hot showers though, always a bonus! Also on the final day they came and told us we had overpaid by 640 Boliviano (about £64) and gave us our money back. which made it 50% cheaper than we budgeted for. Hostelworld had the wrong price. Nice!
Dinosaur footprints in the wall, look carefully.
In our first 2 days in Sucre, we went to the local markets then up to the Ricoleta neighbourhood and had a tour of the Franciscan monastery (the tour was only in Spanish and we impressed ourselves with how much we knew!) and then rode the 'Dinobus' out out to the very touristy site of the dinosaur footprints discovered in a quarry just on the outskirts of town. It was interesting to see the prints, but it was all very over-the-top - with very colourful life-size statues of dinosaurs and the 'imagined' dinosaur sounds piped around the park. Our guide was great though and even asked Ellen at the end if there was anything he could do to make his information better. Bless.

On our return to the hostel we discovered there was a general transport strike in Potosi, which was the town our bus to Tupiza needs to pass through, there will be road blocks and therefore no traffic can pass through Potosi for 48 hours, so we found ourselves stuck in Sucre for 2 more days, we had booked a hotel in Tupiza and they said they will move our booking to the 7th, and the bus company, we went back to the bus station to get our money back and they said we had to come back again tomorrow at 8am and get our money back. We were pretty sure it was a con and we would not get the money back in the end. Bearing in mind the tickets are 160 Boliviano for 2 (£15.80) and the taxi to the station is costing us 20 Boliviano return, and as we have been out there twice and would need one more time to go back, and at 8am, we decided to write-off the loss, and drank German beer at the hostel bar instead. 
I need to buy one of these!
As our room at the hostel was like a small apartment we spent most of the next day lounging around the patio outside the room in the hammock. Nice. We ate dinner at a great vegetarian place we had spotted just around the corner from the main square, very tasty, brilliant spicy salsa. 
The next day we planned the morning, dropped off laundry (rare that we are somewhere long enough to do it this regularly) and headed to the Simon Boliviar park, expecting it to be a large city park, but it was just a green nature strip with a road on either side, about 50m wide. It was pretty enough but also as Sucre is quite small it only took us 20 minutes to stroll here from our hotel. So we headed back into town to eat at the El Patio saltinas restaurant again and picked us up some of their amazing saltinas and empanadas and carried them with us as we walked to the city cemetery. It reminded us of the beautiful one in Buenos Aires in Palmero. Most graves it seems are placed in concrete vaults stacked high like bunk beds, this is because it is cheaper than family plots, some are 6 or 7 stories high. 
After eating our saltinas back at the hostel (we didn't eat them in the cemetery, that would be weird) we headed to what is now our local cafe, Metro, and had £1.50 frappachinos and skyped Ellen's Mum. 
El Patio's Saltinas
We finished off the day with dinner at a very interesting place called 'Nouvelle Cuisine' the name could not be further from the food. It's a really down-and-dirty steak house (in both senses of the word), bursting with locals and brilliant steak! The tables are covered in plastic table-cloths, the glasses were not very clean, so we drank the beer from the bottle, but it was certainly a great experience, the salad was a buffet and our steak came out undercooked but they were great when we asked them to cook it longer. It was a bargain too - we had a sirloin each,  all-you-can-eat salad, a big plate of chips and a litre of beer each, all for £12 (for both of us). Brilliant. Very full, we staggered back up the hill to the hostel where we had a couple of £1.50 mojitos. Bolivias very low prices have been keeping us well within budget, in fact we are struggling to spend our daily budget - including giving money to people sitting on the street. On our 2nd day in Sucre we were walking back to the hostel after the DinoTour and saw an old lady sitting on the pavement, she was not begging but looked like she was taking charity (we find many regional down-on-their-luck Bolivians do not beg, they sit there and wait for someone to give them money) so we gave her 30 Boliviano (just under £3) and her face lit up, she started singing and thanking us, there is so much poverty in South America and for us in London £3 would barely get us a take away coffee bit 30 Boliviano would feed this lady 3-4 solid meals from the town market. It made us feel good that we made her so happy, but there is the other side of the coin that in a couple of days she will be hungry again and relying on the charity of others.

We had a great time in Sucre, quite a chilled out couple of days, taking advantage of the strike and having an opportunity to relax on this hectic adventure without actually being ill! 
Tomorrow we have a bus to Tupiza. 10 hours through the desert on a cheapie bus (ie no reclining seats and probably includes livestock!) 

Sunday, 3 November 2013

The Mighty Amazon

Very very small plane
Going to the Amazon was something we really wanted to do and Ellen did some research and found that is was cheaper and far less touristy to do it from Bolivia.
We booked with Chatalan, this is a company which is highly reputable and not one of the cheapies. 
We got up at 3am to get out 6.20am flight from La Paz to Rurrenabaque which was in a really small plane. Angel was unfortunately terrified, it was the smallest plane he has ever been on and it was a very bumpy ride with several drops! 
The flight was only 30 minutes and we were met at the Airport (read: shack) by the manager of the Chatalan Rurrenabaque office. 10 minutes later we were in the office and getting a debrief on our trip.
We met our personal guide Nilo, there was one other group of Mexicans who had their own guide. Nilo  would take us up the river to the Chatalan site and take us out for walks and canoe trips to see the jungle. 
The journey to Chatalan
The Chatalan site is 5 hours up the river from Rurrenabaque, we stopped for a snack after about 2 hours and the arrive
d at Chatalan for lunch. The river was magnificent, we saw loads of birds (mostly vultures) along the way and. Some spectacular scenery.
Our cabin was simple, we opted for a twin room as it was about US$100 cheaper, and it had its own bathroom and electricity from 6pm - 10pm. Each bed had a mosquito net. There were no blinds or curtains or glass windows, just fly screen. No one could see in as each cabin is within a secluded section of the site. The room was perfect for sleeping, in fact Ellen has had her best nights sleep of the whole trip here! The rooms are so dark as with the lights off there is no light source, no city, no cars, just jungle. Pitch black.
Birds on the lake
Our first day Nilo took us out in a canoe (another bonus of your own guide - he did all the rowing) around the lodges lake, it's quite large, it took us about an hour and a half to get around it, slowly, we saw loads more birds and some monkeys, our first Toucan in the wild, and a couple of fish jumping out of the water. It's just so peaceful (especially away from the drunk Mexicans) 
We ate our beautifully prepared dinner and went off to bed, as it's dark there is not a lot to do, it's early  mornings and early bedtimes in the jungle. That night it started raining at about 1am, now this is proper Sydney rain, not London drizzle. It poured down in buckets for about 15 hours and when it finally stilled at about 4pm the next day we could venture out and see the carnage; the pathways to the cabins were ankle-deep in water, the lake had risen so high the canoe pier could not be seen, and when we did venture out for a walking trip we took a canoe to the other side of the lake and walked up a path as we knew that would be clearer, but there were still streams of water pouring down the hill. We walked up to a viewing platform they had made and stood watching the birds, mostly macaws, enjoying the respite from the rain. 
Howler Monkeys
The following day we woke to the sound of howler monkeys, which sounded Very eerie, Angel thought it was the plumbing!  Today we decided to do one of the paths which were along the flatter areas, hoping the water had subsided. It had, a bit. After slipping and sliding through mud and rocks we arrived at the first river crossing, though the bridge had been washed away, so Nilo walked us a bit further downstream where he found a tree which had fallen yesterday over the river, and we balanced ourselves and walked over it. Along this walk we encountered several more bridges whcih had washed away, unfortunately not every river gave us a fallen tree and Nilo had to make us bridges out of whatever he could find, it certainly was an adventure. We saw loads of wild pigs, more macaws, howler monkeys, frogs, a Toucan, and even a woodpecker, which looked exactly like Woody!
Most bridges had washed away.
Dinner was a local dish of trout with rice and vegetables followed by the Chatalan team band playing for us and we all danced, after we had tried 'puma milk' ( a milky alcohol dink) and chewed coco leaves.  Later that night Nilo and Angel went out in the canoe on the lake, it was pitch black, with only the reflections of the stars on the lake and our torches as light we went looking for caimans. Unfortunately we only saw one with its eyes reflecting red with the torchlight, but the most magnificent thing to see were the stars. Just breathtaking. 
Our final day we woke to the sound of a Toucan, we've learnt their call and easily spotted one, then two in the trees high above our cabin. We had breakfast and began the 3.5 hour boat journey back to Rurrenabaque (it's faster on the way back as you have the river flow with you), had lunch in the town and arrived at the airport to find, to Angel's relief, that there was a much larger plane for the journey back!

Beautiful scenery
Angels's note on the jungle and your clothes:
Unfortunately it rained a bit on the boat on the way to the lodge and although the guides wrap your bags in tarpaulins, my bag got a bit wet, which is fine, but in the jungle nothing dries. Nothing. It's so humid and you are sweating that the clothes you have on get damp, when you take them off they don't dry unless you put them in direct sunlight. Needless to say we had wet clothes, shoes and towels. Lesson learnt. 

Friday, 1 November 2013

La Paz, a little disappointing.

To be honest we were quite disappointed with La Paz. We had been expecting a vibrant city with friendly people, but we found it was not and only stayed as long as we had to;  2 nights before our jungle adventure and one night afterwards. We even changed hotels on our return from the jungle as the beds in the first hotel Hotel Berlina, were just awful (broken metal coil jutting out of the mattress and ripped Ellen's leg, the hotel did not seem particularly surprised) But it did have an amazing rooftop view. We moved to Hotel Rosario and it was brilliant, great room (in fact the room we were in was the main image on their website) and great breakfast, and nice helpful staff.

Llama foetus anyone?
Arriving into La Paz is probably the most amazing thing about the city, you drive down hill into a spectacular valley of terracotta buildings. Its a sight to see and quite breathtaking.

After arriving into La Paz by bus (which was another adventure) from Puno via Copacabana, we did give the city a chance and set out to walk around the streets taking in the sounds and sights of this enormous metropolis. Starting at the Mercado de Hechiceria (witches market) filled with herbal remedies and, disturbingly, llama foetuses (apparently it is good luck to bury one under your porch, we passed), then we went to the Museo San Francisco, which was a bit disappointing really as they did not tell us when we purchased the tickets that half of the building had been closed off - and this included the section with the brilliant views our guidebook wrote of! Not to be too disappointed we headed up to the beautiful pigeon-filled Plaza Murillo, watching the kids feed and chase the pigeons which reminded us of Trafalgar Square in London, before feeding the pigeons was illegal, and then wandered the streets around this central area, then headed back over nearer our hotel to the mercado negro, a never-ending labyrinth of streets filled with stores selling everything and anything, here we picked up a few things we needed for our jungle adventure, including long-sleeved t-shirts. 
We ate twice at a great pizza place on Llampu street called Martinnis, we both got stomach bugs on our last day in La Paz so plain pizza was what we craved and so that is why we went back. Very friendly staff and great pizza's. We also ate at Kalakitas, a Mexican place which felt like we were eating in someone's living room, the food was nice but the overall experience was a little odd, but fun.