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 www.justgiving.com/fredcjI 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.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Fred's world tour week 4 - Rio to Paraguay

Fred's world tour
Week 4 – Rio de Janeiro to Paraguay
20th until 26th of October 2012

In brief:
  1. Run and workout one last time at the beach gym overlooking the Sugar loaf mountain.
  2. Go to a real Samba school and see a carnival demonstration and party with them after.
  3. Bump into Alistair Brownlee Team GB's 2012 Olympic gold triathlon champion on my run around the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, Ipanema.
  4. Sip Caipirinhas on Ipanema beach on a gloriously sunny day with a great group of friends.
  5. See the enormous waterfalls of Iguazu.
  6. Walk through the second biggest hydroelectric damn in the world.
  7. Wonder through the ruins of Jesuit missions in Paraguay.
Time flies when you are having fun and I can't believe I’ve only got two more days left in Rio. With the late, caipirinha-fulled Friday night with Jose and some other friends it took time for us to get going. It was overcast so beach was not really on the cards. I took the opportunity to go for another run along the beach and use the outdoor gym. Its really hard to resist this amazingly scenic place to do sport. 

Then that evening we sampled the delights of a restaurant that you pay per kilo of food you put on your plate. Its set out like a buffet with a variety of traditional food and then at the end your plate is weighed. You are given a receipt, you take it to the till at the end of your meal. Its very common to find these here and they are great because you can try lots of different foods and only pay for what you want to eat. To start the night we headed to Tijuca samba school to the north of the centre where they were having demonstrations from their best samba dancers in typical outfits as a 'warm up' to carnival I suppose. It also works as a fund-raiser for the school because you pay to get in. There's food, drink and a great party atmosphere not to mention the traditional Brazilian spectacle. With no other foreigner in sight its moments like this when its amazing to have a local who can show you round some places not in the guidebooks. Very cool! This was Saturday night so as the samba demonstrations finished Jose suggested we go to Lapa and get some caipirinahs (can you see a trend developing here on a Rio night out? :-). Who was I do decline going to the best street party spot in Rio for the second time!

On Sunday Jose had to go to work for the morning so I decided to go sightsee the only other place on my Rio to do list. That included going to visit Leblon, Ipanema and the 'Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas' behind Ipanema. What better way to see it than to jog around it. So although is seems strange I took the tube to Ipanema and then ran from there. Three quarter’s of the way round I came across Alistair Brownlee, the Olympic triathlon gold champion for team GB. He has such a distinct run and after cheering him on at the Olympics its hard to forget his face. It was only yesterday that I read an article online saying that he has had his appendix out recently and to recover has gone to Brazil! This was such an amazing coincidence. He was just doing a leisurely run in the opposite direction. I'm not sure if I was too 'star struck' or too determined to continue run in the other direction but I didn't stop and chat to him. Maybe its for the best, he might have thought I was very lame. In hindsight though, I should have spoken to him seeing as he is a bit of a hero now. However hindsight is a wonderful thing! To finish my running tour I ran barefoot along Ipanema beach amazing to be running in such a spectacular setting. It was even more blissful later to go the beach and sip caipirinhas on a sun-lounger, swimming in the sea and chatting to some friends until sunset. Little did we expect torrential rain around 9pm but hey, Rio can be like that in spring apparently .

Monday saw me fly out to Foz Iguacu the Brazilian side of the famous waterfalls of Iguazu (notice the different spelling). The next day I wondered to the falls and got to admire the huge power of hundreds of waterfalls that convene in this area. The geology explains the falls by a change in rock density at that particular spot but the legend tells a completely different reason. According to the legend there once was a god who's relationship with a woman was frowned upon by the other gods. One day as the couple were taking a boat down the river Iguazu another god caused the earth to open below them. The women perished into the abyss and turned to stone while the god turned into an overhanging tree watching over his fallen lover, a tree that still stand there today.... Personally I prefer the legend better.

Later that day I went for a tour inside the second biggest hydroelectric dam of 'Itaipu Binacional'. This joint project between Brazil and Paraguay went on to decimate wildlife, obstruct a migratory fish route and cost billions. All this in the search of 'clean' energy for both countries. The damn has 20 turbines. Two turbines can meet all of Paraguay's energy demands! The other 8 that Paraguay owns is used to sell energy to Brazil and interestingly enough none of the electricity generated is used locally and is sent out directly to San Paolo state for distribution.

The next day I took an organised tour to the Argentinian side of the falls. It is said that the Brazilian side is for the panorama and the Argentinian side is for the immersed experience. They weren't wrong! Via a series of wooden walkways you are able to get right up close to the falls to awe at their power and intensity. Not only that but the walk led us to see some small monkeys, a marsupial-type animal, toucans, lizards and very big iguanas. To finish the day off we went on the waterfall boat ride. We got right up close, got very wet and really got the 'immersed' experience everyone has been talking about. From there we went to the 'Three points' on the Argentinian side where you can see the other two countries all separated by rivers. This is where I left the tour group and Lucy, a very cool traveller whom I spent most of the day with. The tour group went back to Brazil side and I stayed in Argentina so that the following day I could take bus to Posadas and then to Paraguay.

The trip was long but I made it across to Encarnacion at the south east part of Paraguay. Did you know that Paraguay in it's greed for more hydroelectric energy flooded half the city of Encarnacion for yet another damn!? It means a whole renovation of the river front from slums to a quaint river-side walkway and artificial beach so I suppose that's nice. Paraguay is not really on many traveller’s itinerary and they tend to go round Paraguay on the Argentinian side. I think its mainly because of the lack of tourism infrastructure to the different sights. If something is very hard or complicated to visit less people do it. It didn't deter me, the eerie pristine jesuit missions of 'Trinidad' and 'Jesus' where worth the effort and hitch-hiking made for some interesting conversation with locals.

I also sampled the local delicacy, 'chipa', a type of bread made with manioc flour, eggs and cheese. Very filling. From Encarnacion there was a 6 hour bus to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, and what better way to start my stay in Asuncion than with a night out with some guys from the hostel. One of them was a doctor, qualified 2 years ago and is about to apply for specialist training in anaesthetics. He is in the exact same career position as me! How random! I could probably afford to stay in a nicer hotel than a £7 per night hostel but I love when these sort of encounters happen not to mention the other great Argentinians, French, Germans and Uruguyans that were also staying at the same place.

That winds up week 4. The next plan is to stay in Asuncion a few days and then head north into Menonite  and Chaco territory of northern Paraguay on the way to Bolivia.