Saturday, 15 December 2012

Week 9 – Santiago and Easter Island, Chile

Fred's world tour

Week 9 – Santiago and Easter Island, Chile

24th until the 30th of November 2012

In brief:

  1. Visit the 'Museo de la memoria' and be horrified at what occurred in Chile during the dictatorships.

  2. Go on a good old fashioned bar crawl for the first time since Buenos Aires.

  3. Fly to Rapa Nui (Easter island) and watch the sunset behind the Moai statues of Tahai.

  4. Rent a mountain bike to explore caves, rugged coastline and the volcanoe Rano Kau.

  5. Walk around the petroglyph infested ceremonial village of Orongo.

  6. Explore the island by bike going up the highest volcanoe Terevaka.

  7. Venture along the most bike-unfriendly area that is the north-west of Easter island.

  8. Bike the length of the east of the island up to the north and marvel at the Maoi carving site of Rano Raraku.

  9. Take a dip in Anakena beach where 1300 years ago Polynesians arrived in canoes.

  10. Buy souvenirs and awe at the huge pacific turtles coming into the fishing port.

  11. Go to a 'cafe con piernas' (coffee-shop with legs) on my last day in Latin America.

My 9th week was the week I had been looking forward to doing since I was about 13year old when I first heard about the mysterious Maoi statues of Rapa Nui (Easter Island). However, I first had a full day in Santiago before my flight. I started it by walking around the traditional plazas and parks of the area near the hostel, Barrio Brazil. I was making my way to the 'museo de la memoria' according to the tour I did it was a 'must do'. Nothing really prepared me for what this museum had in-store for me. I knew about the dictatorships that plagued Chilean history and that those that opposed the regime saw their freedom or lives taken away. On the other hand I had no idea of the scale of it and how extreme it was. This museum documents it all from start to finish. At the entrance they had lists of the gross human rights violations that occurred all over the world and Chile's one was no exception. The museum depicted with audio-visual splendour the events and some were very graphic indeed. Last time I felt this uncomfortable and with a shocked look on my face the entire time I was on a school trip to a concentration camp in Germany! The ending was uplifting and filled with songs, video clips and photos of celebrations nevertheless I couldn't help feel very subdued at the end. The video interviews with some that were tortured was simply haunting and has permanently been ingrained in my memory. What was a bit strange was the live hip-hop and rap concert that was occurring outside the entrance and under the archway of the museum!


With a very hot day manifesting itself I thought it was the perfect opportunity to go back to the hostel to chill by the pool, chat to some other travellers and also pack my bags for tomorrow's flight to Easter island. I also signed myself up for an organised bar crawl of Bellavista, the party district of Santiago. Bar crawls are a great way to meet people, see places at night and sample the local drinks. In this case Pisco and coke or Piscola was the order of the evening among the free shots offered. The theme of the night was 'Grease lightning' the 1980s film with John Travolta. I was however, completely surprised when the organisers were puzzled by the T-Birds logo I had written on my arm and on the back of my shirt! After all, its the name of John Travolta's gang in the film! Despite this, the night out was great fun and ended around 6am leaving me 3hours sleep! Chileans know how to party.


Nothing could cause me to oversleep on Sunday the 25th of November 2012, for today I was catching the 5hour flight to Easter island! Like a little child I get very excited at air travel but this time it was extra special. The flight literally flew by, there is nothing I like most on a plane than to watch movies and seeing as I had been deprived of Hollywood films for the last 9wks it was bliss. Two and a half movies into the flight we were flying over the island before turning to land. Upon arriving I walked my way to the hostel seeing as it was only two blocks away. Unfortunately for me it wasn't located where the website indicated. It took a local builder in a pick up truck to offer me a lift to the hostel for me to realise where it was. Upon arrival it turns out the hostel has a meet and greet service that I'd managed to completely bypass at the airport arrivals. Oops.

I was checking in at the same time as a multilingual German called Sebastian that works in London so we spend that afternoon exploring the centre of town together. That's where we would eventually find our first Maoi statue with its back to the sea and facing the village. Moai are placed in this way as they would always be made to overlook their village. Naturally next to that there was one that contradicted that but turns out it was cemented in this way by a misinformed well intended person. From there we walked north-west of town to the Maoi platform of Tahai. This is where all guidebooks say you have to see the sunset from and so we did. No better way to end the first day... except if you count the delicious fish pie we had in a restaurant that evening with another guest of the hostel.


The next morning I had to get some well deserved sleep to recover and to be in perfect form to see the island. Seb on the otherhand took up the opportunity to go see the sunrise on the other side of the island with three Argentinians that had rented a car. Unfortunately for them they missed the very start of the sunrise but it does mean they will be going again on Wednesday when I could join them. When I finally arose I went walking to some bike/car rental places and tour operators. I was convinced by a mountain-bike rental company who said that the island was explorable by bike because its only 20km in diameter and all I needed was a book. This book was written by the linguistic author and Rapa Nui resident from Scotland, James Grant-Peterkin. It explained all there is to know about the island and the ruins. Although tours are all encompassing going without a tour guide would make for a more pleasurable experience. Not only that but I was given a good offer on the bike rental too. Next thing I knew I was off exploring south from the town centre along the coast with a book, water and some bread rolls in my backpack. I stopped at various places en route that tickled my fancy and that the book recommended. I got to see Maoi statues, supreme caves with cave paintings and beautifully rugged volcanic coastline en route to the volcano Rano Kau.


The volcano trekking path seemed achievable by bike so up I went meeting plenty of hikers on their way down including Michael the Australia from the Hostel. From the top the view was spectacular. The main town of Hanga Roa on one side and a crater lagoon on the other. The lagoon was apparently one of the sources of fresh water for the locals. It is now now teeming with flora and fauna. Incidentally the reeds in this lake (scirpus californicus) are the same as those found on the floating islands of lake Titicaca in Peru. The soil in this crater was also, interestingly enough, the source of the immunosupressant drug Rapamycin discovered within bacteria here. This medication is widely used to prevent rejection of organs after transplant, particularly kidneys.


From the crater I biked along the North rim to Orongo the ceremonial village where round, grass roofed stone houses still reside. The great thing about this place is the beautiful view of the sea and the myriad of petroglyphs (carvings in rock) that were simply exquisite to see in the light of the evening sun. I came just at closing time but the guard allowed me in anyway which was very nice. In one of the houses here is where a beautifully preserved Moai was found and then taken to London where is still stands today in the british natural history museum! Odd to think I've seen that Maoi almost 8,500miles away (13,500km) in London and here I stand right where it was taken from.


To end the first full day in Rapa Nui I went to a cultural dance show which involved a lot of shouting and people wearing very jumping around on stage. At one moment I thought the grandmother next to me might be having a heart attack at the thong-wearing Rapanui man! After the show I took a quick picture with the performers and then joined the guys at the hostel for pasta. I was carbo-loading for the next days' worth of epic biking. It was really great to get to know the others and generally have a good chat.


The day started with breakfast with the rest of the gang and then we parted ways me on my bike and they got in their car going in the same direction to climb Terevaka. As you bike you find yourself looking around and double-taking a rock thinking 'could that be a toppled Moai or their Pukao (topknots)?'. There are possibly thousands or archaeologically significant rocks on this island so its a high possibility that it is something worth stopping to look at. My first stop was one such discovery where I caught the glimpse of a head through some trees so pulled up to get a closer look. This was in fact Ahu Huri A Urenga apparently noteworthy for having four hands and for the fact that the statue faces the exact direction of the rising sun at the winter solstice (June 21st). These Rapanuis were a clever bunch!

From there I got back on my saddle and biked the hills to get to Puna Pau a small volcanic crater and quarry for the Pukao because of the red scoria stone. The topknots or Pukao were a later addition to the Maoi culture as there are only 100 in existence compared to the 1000 or so Moai. Although they look like hats they were considered to be more like a representation of the hairstyle of the time. The hairstyle consisted of long hair worn tied up in a bun hence the 'knot' part of the topknot. Each of these bad boys can weigh up to 12 tonnes!


Then on my ride I saw a mountain with three white crosses so naturally I felt inclined to hike up to the top. It turns out early Spaniards declared the island converted to Catholicism by putting these crosses up. Little did they know that as soon as their ships sailed the locals, in view of their wood scarcity, took them down and used the wood. The views from the top were pretty impressive. I could see the volcano Ranu Kau that I biked up yesterday and Terevaka the highest peak on the island that I was heading towards today.


At the starting point of the trail to Terevaka there was the inland platform with seven beautifully restored Moai called Ahu Akivi. I took a break and read my book about this location and also the section about national park preservation rules. Its a given that you should not climb on the platforms or touch the rocks. In the book in mentions that in 2008 a Finnish guy climbed to one of the platforms to take an ear lobe from a Moai! He received 3weeks house arrest in his hotel, $15,000 dollar fine and deportation from Chile. Then, within a few minutes I was shocked to see a guy climb on to the platform at Akivi to get a picture. I shouted in shock and warned of the repercussions but no doubt as soon as I left they would take that 'perfect picture' anyway. Shame.

With time flying by I headed up on my mission to the top of the highest point on the island, the Terevaka volvanoe. At 507 metres high I had my work cut out on my bike. I was expecting to see the others from the hostel walking down because they got there earlier. Instead I met them right at the top of the Volcanoe! Sebastian, Michael, Ariel, Guillermo and Mariana gave me an amazing welcome to the top. It took me 58minutes from start to finish and I was completely shattered so it was nice to see these guys there. They had even acquired a small labrador puppy as a companion that started following them at the start. Very cute thing, it needed carrying some of the way by Ariel (who's nickname was Legolas fitting as he looks just like the Lord of the Rings character). They left me to have some lunch and they made their way back down. After all it would take me seconds to get down by bike. Whoop whoop!


Next I headed east towards some lava tunnels, some of which had caved in and formed caves. The Rapanuis (islanders from Rapa Nui) had ingeniously converted them into banana planting areas, the high moisture and protection from the strong winds made for ideal growing conditions. This wasn't to be my only caves that I would visit. I next went in search of a cave that opens out to the cliff by means of two holes. It took time finding the entrance but I eventually saw a dark hole barely big enough to crawl through and decided this was it. The book recommended a torch but armed with just my camera I used the focusing LED that gave me 2seconds of faint light at a time! Not ideal but I got through the six metres of dark small tunnel which then opened up to a bigger space and then the two exit holes. The book warned of the slippery floor when wet as you could find yourself falling straight out of the exit holes located 30m up from the sea!


By this point it was 4pm and I toyed with the idea of going round the north-west part of the island. From what I heard it was uninhabited, not had a path to speak of, would take 5-6hours to complete and its definitely not recommended to be done alone or by bike..... so... off I went. The allure of plenty of toppled Moai combined with the isolated environment meant that I would be seeing sights very few other people have seen. Those were reason enough for me. My observation and biking skills where put to the test as I would be looking around to try and spot that, Moai, or petroglyph, or foundations of ancient houses. All at the same time as avoiding crashing my bike into the multitude of rocks. I was simply blown away by some of the derelict beauties that littered this side of the island.

The biking got progressively more difficult as more and more rubble dominated the landscape instead of the lush greenery found elsewhere. This therefore turned into a bike carrying adventure the more I progressed. What was also noticeable here was the multitude of cow and horse cadavers around the place in various stages of decomposition. As horses are left to roam free on the island I suppose nature takes its course wherever. Did you know one of the most common causes of road traffic accidents on the island is collisions with horses or cows and you can't get car insurance here! Any damages have to be fully paid by the driver and given that everything is super expensive here because it is all imported I would not like to contemplate the costs involved.

Three and a half hours later, with no more water, no more food left in my backpack and a broken body I reached Anakena beach. A beautiful sandy bay at the north of the island with palm trees and Moai to marvel at. The water was pristine blue but unfortunately for me I had little time to explore today as the sun was starting to go down. I purchased some water from the nearest kiosk that was closing up and then wasted no time in cycling the tarmac road to Hanga Roa (the main town). I was still one hour away from a shower, food and a bed. On arrival back at the hostel I met up with the other guys and went to get some chicken hotdogs or as they call it, an 'As de pollo'. Seb ended up by having two 'Asses' :-) (sorry Seb that was priceless).

A 5:50 wake up call was in order for my penultimate day in Easter island. Seb, Michael, the Argentinians and I were all going to watch the sunrise from the Ahu Tongariki. This location perfect to see the 15 Moai restored to their former glory on a 220m long platform also known as an ahu. This ahu is in fact the largest ceremonial structure anywhere in polynesia. It was restored at a cost of 2million dollars to the Japanese government and a private Japanese construction company. A Moai at the entrance is fondly known as the 'travelling moai' as it was sent to Osaka and Tokyo for trade fairs and returned. The same Moai was also used to test theories of how moai were moved from the site of manufacture to their ahu. The sunrise mas magical and well worth the early wake up.


En route back we saw an overturned car and rushed over thinking people were still inside as it wasn't there when we arrived earlier. Fortunately it was empty, remember what I mentioned about no insurance!! I hate to see the bill for that rental car! After a leisurely breakfast with the gang my third day's adventure was on! I donned the back pack with food, water and cycled to the museum which houses precious artefacts excavated from around the island including an original Moai eye and one of only a dozen female Moai. The eyes are made of white coral and the pupil of red scoria rock (same as the Pukao). From there I swung past the port to see if I could see turtles that the Argentinians spotted yesterday. With no luck off I went to the south-east coast of the island at the base of Rano Kau to see the impressive stonework platform of Vinapu which is often compared to the incas' wall construction. The moai statues here like on the north-west side of the island remain toppled over with their Pukao slighly further after having rolled away.

Then I ventured along the north-east coast towards Rano Raraku stopping en route at various derelict Moai statues and their crumbled ahu. After a while one has to realise that there is only so many pictures that you can take of a rock. This is true right up until you make it to Rano Raraku the quarry for all Moai. Here they are carved face up then lowered into a pit upright so the back of them could get decorated with carvings. They would remain here until transportation to their destined ahu. The hillside of this volcano is home to 397 moai in various stages of carving. Once work at the quarry ceased, time cause earth to bury half or up to two thirds of the Maoi making the hillside look like its littered with Maoi heads. There are plenty of unfinished ones in the rock face one of which measures 21metres tall and would have weighed 250 tonnes had it been completed. Ambitious Rapanuis!


I spent hours walking round this location, admiring and fulfilling my childhood dream of walking with these giant sculptures. My walk took me into the crater lagoon when once again you could see unfinished carved Moai on the inside of this crater. I sat and read my book under the shade of a tree when suddenly a saw a heard of wild horses galloping up into the crater to have a drink from the lagoon. Such an idyllic setting to contemplate things.

With time simply flying by I still had a lot to see and do. My next stop was Ahu Tongariki but this time during the day and there was still plenty to admire. Including the petroglyphs on the rocks and the fragments of damaged moai behind the platform. If you weren't careful you could easily walk across the petroglyphs. They charge 30,000 chilean pesos to visit the national park here which is about £40 per person. However I fail to see what they spend it all on! With more than 70,000 visitors per year paying this amount that is in excess of £2.8million per annum in revenue. Yet I fail to see a small roped off area around petroglyphs or adequate signs along trails like the north-west part of the island. Most if not all Moai currently upright on platforms were either the work of charity or archaelogical funds from foreign countries so where is all this money going to I wonder? It saddens me really because almost if not all of the moai could be restored to their former glory on their ahu. If it took 2million dollars of the Japanese's money to erect 15 moai at Ahu Tongariki imagine what the last 20years worth of national park fee could fund?... Someone made a point in saying 'why would they invest in restoration if they could just pocket the money as tourists are going to come anyway'. Its the sad truth unfortunately.

My bike tour took me back to Anakena this time when I had a bit of time to enjoy it. I saw the statues there, relaxed on the sandy beach and took a swim in the refreshingly cool pacific water. Did you know that this very spot was used as a landing area for the polynesian's double hulled canoes some 1300 years ago? It was the end of the day so I had the beach pretty much all to myself. I didn't go as far as stripping off completely naked unlike my Argentinian counterparts earlier that day! Once I'd recharged my batteries I hit pedal to the rubber and cycled back to the main city in time to return my bike to the rental place. I met up with the gang and then we had a chilled out hostel-cooked group meal to celebrate my last night.


On my last day I caught a glimpse of the huge pacific turtles in the port, brought some souvenirs with the help of Ariel's negotiation skills and tasted some locally made blackberry ice cream. The flight was delayed by four hours so that gave me some more time to say goodbye to the wonderful island and LAN airlines paid for a delicious lunch at a French owed restaurant. Unfortunately because of the delay I arrived at Santiago at 2am in the morning but thankfully LAN also arranged my onward travel to my hostel which was nice.


A long lie in at the Casa Roja hostel and then I met up with Michael (the Australian from Easter island staying at the same hotel in Santiago!) to go and explore the centre one last time. We also went to a 'cafe con piernas' which translates as 'coffee-shop with legs'. Its not a fast-coffee type of place as you may think from the name but it actually means is that the waitresses have a lot of 'leg' showing. When the idea was first devised the coffee was bad tasting and one way to lure clientèle was with the opportunity to set eyes on pretty ladies. This has since escalated to practically a standing-up lap dance from pretty ladies wearing nothing more than bikini bottoms! Of course the amount of clothing varies according to the type of coffee-shop. They range from mild to extreme. All I can say from my experience of a Santiago coffee-shop is that the coffee has since improved dramatically. Google ‘cafe con piernas santiago’ to educate yourself if you wish. Be warned!

To finish an epic 9th week I went out to dinner in Bellavista followed by a Piscola-fuelled and Caipirinha-fuelled night out until 6am! With a 9am wake up, that's plenty of sleep ;-)

Next week I head to Sydney to have some downtime but also focus hard on job hunting seeing as my agency has so far let me down despite saying, 'We are 99% sure we will find you a job in time'. Remind me next time not to rely on agencies.

A big thanks and credit must be given to James Grant-Peterkin's book 'A companion to Easter island' second edition 2012. A must-read book before and during any trip to Easter island. £21 if bought on the island and I'm sure cheaper if bought on the internet before going.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Week 8 – San Pedro de Atacama to Santiago, Chile

Fred's world tour
Week 8 – San Pedro de Atacama to Santiago, Chile
17th until the 23rd of November 2012
In brief:
  1. Nurse my thousands of bites.
  2. Run to the ruins of Pukara de Quitor.
  3. Float in la laguna de piedra, a highly concentrated salt lake much like the dead sea.
  4. Dive into the 'ojos del salar' two freshwater holes in the middle of the salt flat.
  5. Make it to the top of the supposedly 6,006 metre high, Sairecabur volcanoe on 2nd try.
  6. Chill out by my first beach in 4weeks at the beautiful Bahia Inglesa.
  7. Wonder the bohemian streets of the once thriving port city of Valparaiso.
  8. Make it to Santiago and sample western infrastructure and night life once again.
This week started with a bitter day of arguing, complaining to the tourist office and negotiating a solution with the tour operator who's Sairecabur trek was plagued with problems from the start. Its not really my favourite thing to do but with the money paid and the disappointment, I felt I had to. Unfortunately for me the man in charge of the agency while the boss is away is the guide that fell ill! Awkwardddd! They were also left with no means to pay me back as the boss took all the cash. To cut a long story short, in the end they agreed to refund my bus ticket of the bus I missed and booked me on to a second attempt to summit on Monday. Of course completely dependent on interest from other tourists wanting to go. This time they promised a better car and a different guide. As I was running out of days on my trip I had to decide if it was worth the gamble of staying the extra days. With some ruins and other local 'treasures' still left to see I opted to gamble. That afternoon I booked myself to do some sandboarding the next morning with the guy that practically invented it and also a trip tomorrow afternoon to sample the lagoons on the salt flat. With the evening spare I decided to go for a run to some ruins 3km away. This proved harder than I anticipated. Not only is it still 2,400m above sea level but after yesterdays escapades of pushing the mini van out of sand twice and trekking 7hours with a mountain-guide suffering with altitude sickness my body was pretty drained. Nevertheless, the ruins were pretty and the sunset serene.
The morning didn't go to plan as no one else fancied morning sanboarding so the tour group was cancelled. On a plus note I got to catch up with my blog and came to learn that there was interest for monday's Sairecabur trip but still nothing is guaranteed. I also found out from talking to my hostel receptionist that the 'mountain-guide' from the disastrous expedition is in fact a well known cannabis smoker, alcoholic and has not even got a hint of a mountain-guide qualification! Great to know I put myself in the hands of such a highly skilled professional to climb up to my first ever 6,000m peak! ;-)
To make up for things the trip to the lagoons on the San Pedro De Atacama salt flat was brilliant. Our first stop was a salt water lagoon who's salt content is higher than that of the dead sea. After an explanation from the guide and a few scenic pictures we were invited in to have a float. The salt content is attributed to the thousands of years of high Andean snow melting and flushing down all the salt to eventually accumulate in this spot. The centre of the lagoon has an unknown depth which made for an eerie swim across the middle of it. The water was only a metre deep until the middle where the ground would dramatically end giving way to a deepest dark abyss. This was my first experience of floating like this in salt water and it was great. However I would not recommend crouching at any point in this water as the high salt content can cause 'discomfort' right where one would prefer not to have that sensation :-o
After rinsing the salt off our faces with a modified week-killer container the guide had, off we went to the 'Ojos del salar' (the eyes of the salt flat). Initially I thought it was going to be a mystical, all-seeing, spiritual place or something like that but actually its merely two to holes in the salt flat that resemble a pair of eyes. These two holes were filled with freshwater who's level was about two to three metres below the salt flat which of course required a jump. Again this also had an unknown depth however because of the freshwater if one was to drown the body would sink to a probable unrecoverable depth unlike the previous lagoon. Naturally I somersaulted my way in and let me tell you it was very cold that I swear my heart skipped a beat because of it.
The last stop was a beautiful lagoon with a crisp white salty shore where we would see the sun set over the salt flat on one side and the Andes mountain range reflect in the water on the other side. The tour also included a pisco sour which is a traditional Chilean alcoholic drink to finish the weekend in style.
Upon my return to the city I went to the trek agency to confirm that the hike was happening tomorrow and to my relief it was!
Excited to try and summit the elusive Sairecabur, my first 6,006metre mountain I was up and ready at 5:30am. The car was better, the guide seemed good and group was great. We had an American, a Spaniard, a Columbian and the Chilean guide. We made it up passed both places where the van got stuck previously so all things were looking good. Last time we started climbing at 4800metre and this time we reached 5,500m by car as our starting point. I could already smell the summit!
The climb was technically quite difficult, the altitude made things harder and the blistering cold was very noticeable. We persevered and in 2hours 20minutes, at 10:40am on the 19th of November I reached the summit with the rest of the group 20-30mins behind. I think because I did the trek from 4,800m to 5,555m two days ago I was more acclimatised than the others. The view from the top was magical. I could see the 'laguna verde' (that's not so verde) on Bolivian side where I was earlier that week and the salt flat of the Chilean side. The 360 degree view was beyond impressive and took time to digest. At the top there was a small book within an orange case for all the summiteers to sign. I checked my altimeter on my phone and unfortunately it showed 5,971m unlike the promised 6,006m from the travel agent! Surprise surprise.
After some food and group pictures we headed down. The wind was picking up and for this reason summit attempts here are always done early morning. Our trek down took time as some of the group started to develop altitude issues. The only thing one wants to do in this condition is sit and rest but actually the best thing is to continue down the mountain where the symptoms would dramatically improve.
The sense of achievement from the climb was immense and i'm glad I hung around to try to summit again even though the altitude was not actually a 6,006m peak as promised. Wikipedia also marks it as 5,971m peak. We got back to the city of San Pedro de Atacama around 3pm and I wasted no time in booking my bus for that night down south and making a few purchases. One of which was a few beer bottles for the guys at the travel agent as a thank you for sorting out the 'issue'.
On Tuesday morning I arrived at Capoipo from my overnight bus, I transferred to the coast village of La Bahia Inglesa and spent the day on a white sandy beach sipping refreshing drinks and tasting the fresh seafood while listening to the waves crash. One of the dishes was 'cerviche' which is basically raw fish marinated in lemon. Very tasty.
Soon that day was over and I had to catch my next overnight bus to Valparaiso the port town near Santiago. Once the economic heart of Chile as a stopping port for ships navigating from the Atlantic to the pacific. Valparaiso saw its wealth plummet overnight upon the opening of the panama canal. Its bohemian feel mixed with colonial architecture gave it a very unique feel. The sprawling houses over the steep hillsides was very marked. To help citizens move up and down them the Brits built 'elevators' and 'funicular' type constructs littered round the city. Unfortunately only a few of them are now operational due to the cost of maintaining them.
Having arrived early that morning it meant I was able to join a free walking tour which works based on tips. It was great. This American guy called Chris took us round some of the big sights and also quaint little unknown places. One of the nice touches was when we stopped at a woman's house where she's made traditional biscuits and gave us free samples. At the end we also sampled some Pisco the chilean alcoholic beverage. On the tour the graffiti art was special, the steep streets charming and overall the tour was a must as an intro to the city. All funded by generosity and tips.
With pointers of places to go from Chris, the guide, my first stop with a swiss couple was the house of Pablo Neruda the famous Chilean poet. Perfectly placed and with 5 floors of unique interior design. The audio guide was a fascinating insight into the man that became a national treasure.
From there I walked towards the hostel via the upper road soaking up the city and once back in the hostel I enjoyed a shower, a flat bed and a kip before heading out to dinner with the guys from the tour group to sample local delicacies.
My last day in Valparaiso comprised of seeing some more graffiti art that was fresh from a recent competition, a boat tour and riding another elevator.
wining graffiti competition house
Satisfied I had 'Valpo' covered I headed to Santiago that afternoon on a one and a half hour bus journey. The hostel was a brilliant, red, colonial building recently refurbished in Barrio Brazil. It had a pool, huge communal areas and a great group of people. To finish my epic week I spent friday on a 'tours for tips' walking tour of central Santiago and tasted the typical Chorillana (French fries, finely cut onion, spicy sausage, beefsteak and, crowning it all, one or two fried eggs). The afternoon I spent time by the pool chatting with other guests and then we all had a huge barbacue meal at the hostel which was very filling. I then went out and sample Santiago's famous night life and met some cool locals.

Next week I head to Easter Island to marvel at the Moai statues and spend my last days in Latin America before heading to Australia.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Week 7 – Uyuni, Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Fred's world tour

Week 7 – Uyuni, Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

10th until the 16th of November 2012

In brief:

  1. Cross the Uyuni salt flats, Bolivia.

  2. Stay in a hostel built entirely out of salt.

  3. Be amazed by the landscapes, fauna and altiplanic lagoons of south west Bolivia.

  4. Walk around a Geyser field in the early hours.

  5. Dip in a natural thermal bath at 4,000metres

  6. Learn about the night skies with an astronomer and use the £30,000 telescopes.

  7. Suffer for two nights while hundreds of bedbugs feast on me!

  8. Crawl through the salt caves of “Valle de la luna” created by water thousands of years ago.

  9. Attempt to summit my first ever 6,000 metre mountain but instead end up by pushing a stranded car for hours and treating our mountain guide for altitude sickness.

This week starts with a leisurely 6hour bus from Potosi through the vast expanse landscapes of south west Bolivia en route to Uyuni. With beautiful deserts, mountains, rock formations and wild vicunias (the more graceful type of llama) I'm glad I did this journey during the day. Uyuni is the starting point for most 4x4 car tours of the surrounding salt flats, mountains, lagoons and geysers. On arrival I had the mission of finding a three day tour starting tomorrow. With over 500 agencies selling apparently the same route but with varying levels of quality I had my work cut out. On my first stop I bumped into Chris, also a lone traveller from England, looking for the same thing. Then after talking to the first operator together I turned round to find Miriam and Eric the two Dutch couple on an eight month honeymoon trip that I got to know on the death road bike ride in La Paz. They were also looking for the same trip! What a coincidence. In the end we all found one operator that we liked the sound of but of course you never know with these things. Most of the time they just say things you want to hear and later once the tour has started you find out the little fibs they were telling. For only £75 we were all set to go on a 4x4 Toyota Land cruiser three day, two night tour of Bolivia's desolate south west. The morning of the tour we were joined by two girls from London, Julia and Dawn. Our first stop was the train graveyard. A place were mainly steam locomotives were sent to die. Due to the low humidity levels here the steel is really well preserved and some had even been converted into swings to form an eerie playground.


With cameras at the ready we headed off to the edge of the Uyuni salt flat to where they mine or collect salt. Just below the surface there is 'wet' salt so they scrape away the top layer into a pile and allow it to dry fully before collecting it in big trucks for processing.


From there we drove straight into the middle of the flat on what looked like an endless trail into the white distance. Half way to the centre of the flat we stopped to walk around the pristine white salt flat. The first thing you notice is the salt is shaped into hexagonal 'tiles' measuring around half a metre across. They form after crystallising in this way during the evaporation of surface water. Each made with incredible precision only mother nature could create such a spectacle.


Naturally this iconic landscape called for us to take some silly pictures. Some worked better than others. :-) you wouldn't thing it was that hard to co-ordinate 6 people to jump at the same time to take a mid-air picture.... well let me tell you, its pretty hard. Then came lunch. It was the most amazing lunch comprising of a thin T-bone stake, quinoa and boiled vegetables. It was really unexpected and was a perfect compliment to the amazing backdrop.


The next stop was 'Osla del pescador' also known as 'Isla Incahuasi' an island in the middle of the salt plain with huge Tritroreous cactus dominating the mound of rock. It looks so out of place that again, only mother nature could have conjured this up. What was also strange is that despite the strong beating sun, the arid air, the desert vegetation and the fact that its mid-day, the temperature is surprisingly mild due to the altitude. Which is actually quite nice.


From there we went due south to the salt hotel where everything from the tables and chairs to the chandeliers were made out of salt. I've never stayed in a salt hostel before. The floor was simply large granules of salt like a sandy beach indoors, brilliant! As we were just a short drive back onto to the salt flat we ventured back out again just in time for sunset. With more moisture the salt flat here has a different texture to the flat hexagons. Very knobbly and actually sounds like broken glass every time you take a step. Dinner was again surprisingly great and after a long day we hit the salt early (get it??). Its tiring having so much fun with great people! :-)

The next morning was an early start to make it across the vast expanses of desert terrain, winding round active volcanoes and stopping at idyllic altiplanic lagoons. Each lagoon different in colour due to the algae and minerals. Flocks of flamingoes... well... flock to feast on the salty water delicacies. We also stopped at the world famous 'arbol de la piedra' which is a rock that looks like a tree and that's it... however its strangely very appealing. It was also in an area full of rock formations that just called to be climbed. Like children in a playground we did just that. The end of the day finished next to 'La laguna colorada' where we would spend the night in a dingy hostel. With a 5am departure we didn't stay up to late. The reason for the early start was to catch the geysers during sunrise when the cool air would amplify the sulphurous steam coming out of the ground providing a marvellous spectacle. The geyser field was shaped by boiling mud-pools and sulphurous fumaroles. The lonely planet warned about not getting to close to these because the slippery mud and slope could result in you falling into the geysers. I thought to myself that no-one would be so stupid to do that and lo and behold a Korean chap wanted to get an up-close photo and started slipping into a fumarole! Luckily he managed to get some grip and get himself out of trouble.


The next stop was a natural hot springs of Polques supplied by a constant flow of 30 degree water oozing from the ground. Although it was the stop where every single tourist stopped and got it. After two days of not showering we didn't care too much and soaked in this thermal hot-tub at 4,200 metres above sea level. The shimmering reflection of the morning sun on the lake next to it made it hard to imagine being anywhere else in the world right at that moment. As the water fed straight into the lake it was completely forbidden to use soaps, detergents etc... which is why to my surprise I saw three of the tour drivers taking a dip in a different thermal pool using shower gels and shampoo. I chatted to them asking them why rules were different for them than for tourists and why they didn't really care about the fauna or flora of the area that actually form their livelihood. Their reply was simply that I should 'F*** off gringo, we can do what we want in our country'. Charming chaps really!


Once back in the Jeeps we headed to some altiplanic lagoons including the 'laguna verde' (green lagoon) that is not so verde because the change in the algae this year! This didn't detract from anything as it still gave a glistening reflection of the volvan Licancabur 5,930m. This was also the last stop and made for a perfect goodbye to Bolivia as we approached the Bolivian-Chile boarder en route to San Pedro de Atacama.


Chris, Miriam, Eric and I had got to know each other well for the last three days so we all went to the same cheap hostel and then signed up to the stargazing tour together. This took place at a French astronomer’s property who moved here a long time ago due to the perfect stargazing climate of dry air, barely any clouds year-round and the low light pollution. On the tour, we spent an hour learning about the southern hemisphere's glorious night sky, the constellations and some history behind the names. For the second hour we got the chance to look through some very expensive £30,000 telescopes at different stars, planets and galaxies. We also got to see plenty of shooting stars. The average here is ten per hour but I saw almost twenty. Did you know that a fragment the size of a grain of rice can cause a shooting star effect?!

The next morning proved to be the low point of my holiday so far... I realised I hadn't had the best night sleep what I didn't know was why until I looked at my arms and in the mirror. I was covered in bed bug bites!! I showed the hostel owner and he said that it could not have been from the beds because its been recently fumigated and its more likely to be mosquitoes from the stargazing. I didn't feel any mosquitoes bite me last night but I gave him the benefit of the doubt nevertheless. After a fairly relaxing day recovering from the Uyuni tour we got an early night. That's were it all went wrong. It gave the bed bugs plenty of time to attack again despite me being in a different bed. I couldn't sleep because of the itching. It was simply horrible. In the morning I was 100x times worse. The cleaner looked under the mattresses and found hundred of 'chinches', as they call them, with plenty more eggs waiting to hatch after the mothers feasted on me! Suffice to say I decided to change hostels, put all my clothes in plastic bags and take them to the laundry to be washed at high temperature. The owner of the hostel had the cheek of offering me mosquito repellent to spray on me for the following night. “No thanks” I said and off I went to a different hostel.

The bedbug bites sure did itch but I wasn't about to let that dampen my spirits so I booked myself on to a tour of the valle de la muerte (death valley) and Valle de la Luna (moon valley) which included a walk through the salt caves. It was pretty cool to walk round the desolate landscapes with unusual geology and we also got to hike through the salt caves which were tunnels in the salt mountains carved by underwater rivers thousands of years ago. The group was really cool too and what better way to finish the day than by watching the sunset from the overhanging 'piedra del coyote' (coyote rock).


For the next day I had booked myself on to a one day trek of the nearest 6,006 metre peak, Sairecabur. With a 5:30 am start, well 6am because the guide was late, I was raring to go. We stopped to watch the sunrise and the continued up the road right up to the point when the guide started to read a text on his phone, he took the bend to sharply and ended up by hitting a rock on his front tire and swerving off the road until the van was stuck straddling a sand bank on the side of the road. Seeing as the sand was soft, the van was not a 4x4 and the fact that the tires had no tread left on them we were not going anywhere! It took lots of pushing, sand in the face and stones under the tires to finally get the van free after two hours. Which of course meant we were two hours late starting our ascent. This was until the van got stuck again 10km away and 650m below the starting point! After multiple failed attempts to get the car free the guide decided we should still head off and try and make summit. Little did we know how far away we actually were and realistically stood no chance in making the summit in one day! Climbing over boulders, slipping on scree and getting breathless from the altitude Sedric, the other tourist, and I were doing surprisingly well. The guide on the other-hand was going very slowly and keen to get lots of breaks along the way. It didn't take long for us to realise that he was suffering from altitude sickness! He was adamant it was his viral illness so we continues up to 5,500m when, at 3:30pm, he fainted and could not go on! As it was getting late and the rescue car was coming at 5pm we nursed him down back to the van that was still stuck and had no rescue car insight. Worried about the impending darkness and cold temperatures Sedric and I persevered to get the van free from the soft sand. Once we succeeded that's when we noticed that both front wheels weren't pointing the same way! It must've been damaged in this morning's incident which meant we not only had a two wheel drive van with no tread on the tires but we also had reduced steering capabilities! Perfect for a cliff hugging dirt track back to town! Luckily we arrived safely to town at 9:30 pm. Unfortunately because I was told we'd be back by 3pm it meant I also missed my bus out of town that cost me 17,000 Chilean pesos. All in all it seems I'm not having much luck in this town.


Handstand at our unintentional end-point at 5,555metres

Next week I see if I can get my hands on a refund for the trek or at least part of it and I also aim to head south towards Santiago. Lets hope my bad luck changes!

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Fred's world tour week 6 - La Paz to Potosi

Fred's world tour
Week 6 – La Paz to Potosi in Bolivia
3rd until the 9th of November 2012

In brief:
  1. Sightsee La paz, including Valle de la luna, coca leaf museum and cemetery the day after 'El dia del muerto' (day of the dead).
  2. Cycle down the world's most dangerous road, the 'Carretera de la muerte' (Death Road)
  3. Witness the sunrise from Isla del Sol on lake Titicaca and trek from north to south of the island.
  4. See Argentina's first ever flag.
  5. Visit 68 million year old dinosaur footprints.
  6. Venture deep into the cooperative mines of 'El Cerro Rico' in Potosi
  7. Be part of a traditional independence day display.

Being at 3,660 metres high in La Paz, the highest capital city in the world, makes any minor activity a huge effort. You get a headache easily and constantly feel you've just run a half marathon. For my second day of acclimatisation I took a open top tour bus to the south of the city with the ultimate aim to learn about the city's history and end up at the Valle de la Luna. The city seems to be built on sand/rubble and unfortunately for the hillside houses each rainy season takes away more of the land beneath them until the house ends up in the river. I'm sure it seemed like a good idea building there when trees helped to hold the land together but then they decided to use the trees for combustible fuel hence the huge erosion problem. This erosion did cause and impressive landscape at the south of the city. The so called Moon valley for its alien landscape was a great place to 'run' around. This was overlooked by the devil's tooth mountain because of its appearance to, yep you guessed it, a tooth.

On the way back I learned how England has influenced La paz and Bolivia as a whole. In its mining industry, railway, tennis, football and even the bowler hat fashion of the indigenous women. It turns out the reason most of the indigenous women wear bowler hats is thanks to a British hat maker in Bolivia who was failing to sell his stock of bowler hats to the men so he then went on to sell them to high society's women claiming that they were all the fashion in Europe. Unfortunately this trick worked and then the lower class indigenous population copied. Until this day bowler hats are worn by the indigenous females as part of their traditional wear! 

That afternoon after the tour I went for a huge walk around the city to the Olympic stadium where a replica of the Tiwanaku ruins were. Although its not the real thing its quite nice to see the ruins from yesterday in full detail like they used to be before being weathered away. From there I went to some lookouts of the city, plazas and ended up in the cemetery. I'm used to cemeteries being really quiet and deserted places. This was completely different. It was full of life. Relatives walking around everywhere. They were singing, crying, praying, cleaning the plaques, changing the flowers, having picnics and drinking. Graves were in the form of towering stack sometimes reaching three stories high! Resembling more like apartment blocks than a grave yard. This was bizarrely a great experience.

The next day was the activity that I've been looking forward to doing every since I heard about it some 10 years ago... and that's to cycle down the death road or 'carretera de la muerte'. Named as such because before 2007 the road was used for two way traffic to Coroico. The road is a very narrow, cliff hugging dirt road constantly changing because of landslides. Many people died before the opening of the alternative and safer road. The road still sees its share of fatalities as some still see it as a short-cut with less traffic! The most recent was a car full of people died 4months ago. Its not unheard of for bikers to also go off the edge since it gained appeal among thrill seekers! The descent started as some 4000metres on paved road where you could get some serious speed going downhill. The idea was to get used to the bikes. Then we had breakfast and soon after were on the gravel track of the death road. Hardly wide enough for one car its hard to believe this was used for two way traffic with some passing areas. The cliffs on the left side of the road were ridiculously impressive and adrenaline pumping. We learnt that we had to ride on the left side i.e. the cliff side because up going vehicles have priority of the safer side! Not a problem then! For the next 50km I've never been so scared, excited, amazed and blownaway by any experience before. I was going fast, doing jumps, skids, overtaking and putting my dual suspension bike to its limits. I kept thinking that something like this would not be allowed in the UK. A minor lapse in concentration or brake problem and you could be off the edge! The ride ended around 2pm at some 2,000 metres lower and at a completely different climate! The tour included buffet lunch at the bottom and the use of a great pool. Just want the doctor ordered! (sorry :-)

From Death road to Copacabana on the shores of lake Titicaca the highest navigable lake in the world and covers 8,400 squared kilometres. Incidental it was an English-made steam boat that was the first mechanical boat to float on its waters! It was carried in bits by Llamas from Chile. On the Monday I took a bus to this scenic lake-side town, I climbed up the pilgrimage trail of the Calvario to give me a better view of the lake and town. Again because its still 3808m up in the Andes this was no mean feat. I made it back down just in time for the 13:30 boat to the north part of the Isla del sol (Island of the sun) where according to Inca mythology the sun was created. The village at the north island is nothing but about 50 houses. Some have built extensions with rooms to accommodate tourist. As the boat landed a 12year old boy persuades me to check out his family's place. I drag along Annabel, Maxime and a Columbian couple. Impressed by the view, the cleanliness and the price of £2.5 for the night we all picked our rooms. All rooms had windows facing the beach and where the sun would rise tomorrow morning. We left our bags in the room and then went for a wonder. During the walk I got to know the other travellers, met Aymara (indigenous families) working on the fields, crossed paths with llamas and also appreciated the beautiful surrounds where we had chosen to stay the night. The walk ended at 'the' restaurant seeing as its the only one in town. At the table I found myself around a table with 5 nurses, four french and one swiss, and also Maxime. Maxime is a French Club Med fitness instructor who looks like a pretty big rugby player so you couldn't imagine that only 4 days ago he took a dodgy taxi that took him to a dark alleyway where three men assaulted him! They took all his possessions and clothes leaving him in his underwear. He was beaten pretty badly especially his face. He was then picked up by police who arrested him for indecent exposure and wanted to fine him a lot of money. Never mind that he had just been robbed and kicked in the head repeatedly! Anyway as was for my case the embassy came to the rescue and he thankfully was released with no fines. Crazy stories like this probably put anyone off travelling but it has to be said that they are very rare.

The next morning, after a stormy night I was up on the balcony enjoying the sunrise around 6am with a bag of fruit as my breakfast. It was very early on a crispy cold morning and yet I saw lots of men and women go work on the fields or take the animals out. They are very devoted and kind people. They are however very much against having their picture taken. That day I got a group together and we all set off up the mountain in search of our first Inca ruins. Lake Titicaca is so vast, blue and placid which made for a stunning trek. From seeing the ruins to the north we trekked to the south along the mountain ridge. The sun was beating down hard on us but because of the altitude it wasn't particularly hot and difficult to tell if you were getting burnt.

With three indigenous 'checkpoints' we had to pay three times for the privilege of walking along the island! By the third we thought they must be joking. After almost 5hours of beautiful trekking and two mostly unimpressive ruins I was on the boat back to Copacabana to feast on one last whole trout fresh from the lake. With belly full we were treated to an impressive sunset en route to La Paz by bus. La paz had torrential rain to welcome us back.

With time flying by I wasted no time in getting my overnight bus to Sucre to appreciate the whitewashed colonial city of Bolivia. Annabel and I relaxed in the nice green plaza took in the atmosphere followed by a visit to the museum where the first ever Argentinian flag is kept. It looks a bit tatty if you ask me but the glass case I suppose is doing a good job preserving this ancient treasure :-) . From there Annabel and I went out of town to the highlight of the city, the 68million year old dinosaur footprints. A cement factory had dug into the mountain and stopped where there was a change in the rock type. This left a cliff-face exposed to the elements where after a few months the weather helped to erode a layer and expose the glorious dinosaur footprints you can see today. Obviously when the dinosaurs roamed the earth that piece of land was horizontal and only the rise of the Andes made them vertical..... otherwise those were dinosaurs with spider-man talents! The tourist park was well done with moulds of the prints and live size figures which made for an interesting walk around.

From there Annabel and I thought we had pretty much seen all there is of Sucre so off we went our separate ways that afternoon. The hostal charged me half a day's fee and then I went to Potosi. Potosi is next to 'El Cerro Rico' which once housed the richest supply of silver ore and other minerals that made Potosi the wealthiest city in South America for a period. It also apparently underwrote the Spanish economy for almost two decades. Today was it left is mostly white silver, zinc, copper, arsenic and very bitter locals that hate the Spanish people! My Spanish accent of course didn't help things! The next day I went and did what is thought to be Potosi's 'must-do thing', a mine tour. It was only me who signed up to the tour that day which meant a more personal experience of the mines. I donned the hard-hat, lamp, jacket, trousers, wellies and got the intro from the guide. From the start of the tour the guide was racist, sexist, homophobic and rude in so many other ways I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing. There was a lot of fake smile and nodding from my part. Never the less the tour was informative. The first stop was the miners market we bought 96% alcohol, two bottles of squash and beer. These were as offerings to the miners we were to see en route. The 96% alcohol I thought was to clean machinery or tools but no this was 'Bolivian potable alcohol' for drinking! 30 mins into the mines we found a group of 4 miners and sat in a little tunnel with a light, chatting for 1hour while they consumed shots of squash mixed with the 96% alcohol. My guide took a few more liberties than the rest which meant I spent the next hour and a half following a drunk guide through small, dark, dusty and arsenic infested tunnels. It was actually quite entertaining . He would burst into song, randomly decide to go down a narrow hole, crawl in tunnels and explain to me how to kill someone with just a thumbs worth of arsenic he was holding! All in all I felt I got to know a lot about a miners, life, culture and the complete disregard for their own health. All this for the shiny silver we find in everyday life. On the way back to the hostel we stopped at the refinery which apparently broke every ecological and chemical safety rule ever created because there were 'no repercussions'. Good to know.

That afternoon I really didn't feel well, not sure if it was the gases in the mines, the altitude or the dust despite me buying an industrial mask. I was tired, had a headache and felt like I wasn't able to think properly. I definitely wouldn't have done the mine tour without the mask because of what i'd heard about the air quality so I can't imagine what I would be like after if I hadn't used one. After recovering a little bit I went for some sightseeing round the centre. The 'Casa nacional de le moneda' was an impressive museum that told the story of where Bolivia's and Spain's currency was made using furnaces, presses and cutters. There was also an impressive collection of silver artefacts, minerals and paintings from around South America. Did you know that none of Bolivia's currency is now made in country due to the expense of fabricating it? The bills are made in Holland, the 5 Boliviano coin in Canada and the rest of the coins made in Chile.

That evening the hole town was celebrating the 202th year of independence from Spain so there were parades of people, brass bands and even little kids botton twirling. A great way to end week 6.

Next week: I travel to Uyuni to do a three to 4 day tour of the Uyuni salt flats. Then I may either go into Chile or Argentina.

Route so far:

View Fred´s world tour - Route in a larger map

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Fred's world tour week 5 - Paraguay to Bolivia

Fred's world tour
Week 5– Paraguay to Bolivia
27thof October until the 2nd of November 2012

  1. Roast like a Christmas turkey in the heat of Asuncion, Paraguay
  2. Shave my head for charity.
  3. Melt on the worst 22hour bus ride I've ever had!
  4. Visit Santa Cruz and get detained by three Interpol police officers for 2hours.
  5. Go to the wildlife reserve of quimbe in Santa Cruz,
  6. Visit the ancient Inca ruins of Tiwanaku near La paz

This weekbegan by waking up to temperatures reaching 36 degrees in the morningrising to highs of forty something in the shade during the day! Whatwas worse is that the sun was so strong you felt like your skin wasbeing scorched and the effect was multiplied by the fact that thereis no breeze. This was spring time and apparently similar temps occurin the winter time which means this land locked country must not be avery desirable place to live. Luckily for me I booked myself into ElViajero the only hostels here with a pool. With little options but tostay indoors or in the pool I spent the morning sorting throughpractical things like laundry, booking bus tickets to bolivia,booking flights to borneo and shaving my head for charity! At thispoint I'm only £150 away from reaching my fund raising total for theRaleigh international charity at thought I would need to take drastic measures so I asked people tosponsor me to shave my head. I went to a local barbers whointerestingly enough cut the hair of US army personnel and has aframed picture to prove on the wall. I videoed the whole thing, putpictures up online and e-mailed people to sponsor me. Fingerscrossed.

Thatevening I felt like an animal that had been imprisoned all day so Iwent for wonder around during the 'cooler' time of day and wore myrunning kit in case I managed to make it to the river font. Ithappens that the entire river front is all under construction buttaking shape nicely. I wouldn't mind betting I'm the first gringo torun along these unfinished promenades. With the intense heat, even atnight, and the building site as its not hard to see why​? Aftergetting to know lots of the other hostel residents during the day thehostel organised a 'parrillada', a grilled meat dinner. This was asocial occasion to chat to other travellers and another reason whyhostels are great. You wouldn't have to stay in a dorm room like meand risk a sleepless night but hostels also have private rooms withen-suites or shared bathrooms. This way one can benefit from all thegreat things about hostels without the discomfort. I know what Iwould do when I get a bit older :-).

TheSunday was like being in a completely different country, it wascloudy and lots of wind. In other circumstances I would be a bitmiffed (annoyed) after the luck I've had with the weather whiletravelling but actually this was a welcomed relief from the heat. Itmeant I could go do some sightseeing and sampling the local foodbefore embarking on my 22 hour bus journey to Bolivia that evening
The railway museum - full of British made objects relating to the railway.
When the bus pulled up with windows open, air conditioning notworking, and an engine noise that didn't sound healthy I knew I wasin for a rough ride. Boy was I right! Within the first 30minutes allthe seats were reclined, felt like there was no space even for asmall(ish) guy like me, I was sweating like a piglet already and itwas 9pm!. To top it all off one of the window's got hit by a stoneand glass went flying around the cabin. Luckily for me I had my eyesclosed when the glass rained down on my face! The good thing aboutthe journey is that they had a guy who gave us simple three meals,drinks along the way and was our co-ordinator. He was telling us whento get off, where to go for the immigration checks and army checkpoints.... There were lots of army checks! Not entirely sure whatthey achieve except adding hours to our already long journey time. Below is Bolivian immigration!

I wasglad to see the terminal in Santa Cruz de la Sierra in south eastBolivia, tired, smelly, covered in my own sweat, hot and in desperateneed of a number two because you would not want to go in the bustoilet or any public toilets en route! I'm sure you wanted to knowthat :-)
The lightat the end of the tunnel for was the pool at the hostal Jodanga. Itdidn't take me long to get swimming and chilling pool-side getting toknow the other hostel guests. Over the next three days I explored thecity of Santa Cruz, saw blond haired Menonites in the town centre,went to a local wildlife reserve, spent time in the pool and gotdetained by Interpol (International Police)! Oh yeah! for 2 hours,three officers detained me in their bus terminal office claiming thatI should be carrying my immigration paper as well as identification.I only came out of my hostel to the terminal to buy my bus ticket forlater that day and only had my ID. Anyway its my understanding thatthe immigration paper is only needed on entry/exit of the country andupon request but not to be carried at all times. I said I wouldhappily retrieve it from the hostel. Unfortunately they said it wastoo late for that and that I should pay them 500 Bolivianos as afine. To do this they would have to take me to the city'sheadquarters and this would take 3-4hours and I could get a receiptfor the fine! I naturally wasn't best pleased as I don't believe Idid anything wrong. After a bit more arguing the officer suggested Icould alternatively pay them 250 Bolivianos and be released right nowbut 'of course I wouldn't get a receipt'! I smelt a fish! With someresistance/persuasion I convince them that we should go to my hostelpick up my passport, immigration document and money and then pay thefine. Their eyes lit up and agreed. They didn't even drive me therein an official police car. I felt very threatened as all three ofthem kept holding their gun holsters and handcuffs at any sign of megetting angry or raising my voice. Pretty scary to be in thisposition in a foreign country such as Bolivia. As soon as the hostelbuzzed us in at the front door I ran to my locker to get my guidebookand phoned the UK embassy from a hidden corner of the hostel. Theysaid Interpol were completely wrong, I should stay where I was andthey would call the front desk of the hostel and they would speak tothe officers directly. The officers were very surprised when thereceptionist handed them the phone and said it was for them. Theysoon changed their attitude and claimed they weren't going to fine meand that they only wanted to see I had the documents as a matter ofroutine. They did some serious back-pedalling! That right there, is aspanking by the British embassy over the phone! I've never been sorelieved in my life. The next thing I did is pack and then get thebus ticket I was going to get that morning (with the immigrationpaper just in case). I could then relax the rest of the day at thewildlife reserve with two Brits who were also going. At the end ofthe tour the park had a pool to cool down in.

After myincident with the police, it was nice to be on an overnight bus awayfrom there to La Paz. Unfortunately for me I discovered that aBolivian's thermostat is thoroughly skewed. The first part of thetrip I was boiling in the bus with the window open and the rest ofthem covering themselves with thick blankets on their already heavilylayered attire! The second part of the journey the heating wascranked up to the max as we reached the altiplano at nearly 4,000m,again roasting. Arriving in la paz was nice. Cool air temperaturewith bright sun. I checked in to the Bacoo hostel and then went for awonder round town. It was similar to Cusco in many ways, the localindigenous ladies selling things on the road side, the handicraftsand the toxic fumes of the unregulated motor vehicles. Excited to behere and chatting to other travellers I spent some time with theon-site travel agent and found out about good things to do in La Paz.My first stop was Tiwanaku an ancient Inca ruin 72km west of town.Said to be one of the oldest settlements before even Machu Picchu itmade for a great full day tour. During the day I got to know someother travellers Becky and Hallana. We had a traditional alpaca steaklunch and then visited a museum which concluded the visit to the ruins.

That night we came back to the hostel for the Halloween party at thehostel which was a great way to end my 5th week oftravelling.

Nextweek's plan is to see La Paz, Cycle down the world's most dangerousroad 'La carretera de la muerte' (Death Road) and got to lakeTiticaca the highest navigable lake in the world.