Bolivian Salt Flats

Heading from Puno, we crossed the Peru/Bolivia border and arrived at the town of Copacabana (not that song). We left the bus and were told to come back in 30 mins for the next bus. We were then moved on to what appeared to be a local commuting bus (read tiny and cramped with no air conditioning). Not ideal but will do the job.

Bus CrossingAbout an hour in, we were woken up by everyone being told to get off the bus. Totally unaware of what was happening, once we’d gotten off we saw our bus head towards a strange floating boat with our bags loaded on it. Turns out we had to get a different passenger boat to cross Lake Titicaca. After we had paid our fare, our boat followed it over before rejoining the bus and heading onwards, all very bizarre.

Heading in to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, I was reading the Lonely Planet, which I’m quickly going off as they are so inconsistent. After praising the country at the start of the book, the following is highlighted for La Paz:

La Paz is not a safe city, especially at night. Violent attacks, including strangling victims and assaults with weapons like clubs, is on the rise.

In the last few years there have been many incidents of ‘express kidnappings’ by taxi drivers, where the driver and his accomplices (who board later or jump out from the trunk) kidnap and beat you until you provide your ATM PIN details.

Not surprisingly, this put Annie and I on high alert, and our first impressions of a ridiculous traffic jam (due to, inexplicably, a lane of our motorway being taken over by on coming traffic) and then a lady peeing in the street where our bus dropped us off, didn’t help. However, this is not a true reflection of the city. Although El Alto, the city just above La Paz, can be dangerous, speaking with locals, they said that there isn’t that level of danger in the main city, and it did not feel any less safe than any other part of the continent.

Salt Flat Jumping

We came to La Paz to get through to Uyuni and see the Salt Flats, something that everyone kept saying is essential viewing. It’s a three day tour and a bit of a journey for us to squeeze in, but we thought it would be worth doing. Arriving in Uyuni early in the morning we caught up with our tour group. We initially tried to get on a tour with an English speaking guide, but this was not going to be an option. These tours come with a jeep and a tour guide who is also the driver, mechanic and cook. The rest of the group were not native English speakers, which initially was disappointing but turns out they were a great bunch of people, all dual or tri lingo, putting us to shame.

Uyuni Train Grave Yard

First stop was the train graveyard just outside of the town. A desert area filled with old abandoned trains for climbing around, plenty of ways to hurt yourself, great fun.

Crossing the land we passed plenty of Llama’s before getting to the Salt, massive deserts of white salt as far as the eye can see. Due to the white flat, this is where everyone plays around with their cameras and perspective shots, took us a while to get the idea (I won’t post the photos that didn’t work) but with a little guidance from the tour guide, we got there.

The next day we headed to see Flamingos in a large lake, which in season can be as many as 30,000 – just now there was a lot less on display, but we got close enough to snap some pictures and soak up the views.

More driving and seeing lakes and massive views, a stop at the Tree of Rock was a nice highlight, more time to climb and explore.

Hot SpringsThe final day started at 4am; before sunrise, we headed up to 5000 meters above sea level to the hot springs and geysers, after three nights without a shower this was an amazing start to the day, 30 degree spring water to clean and sooth. The geysers were strange, hot natural gas pouring out of the ground forming a misty cloud around the area.

Finishing the tour, we headed back to Uyuni and then back up to La Paz for more fun and games.

Full photo set (there are loads) are here on Flickr.

Peru – Part 1

We didn´t have high hopes for Lima, our first stop in Peru, as we hadn´t heard many positive stories about it from fellow travellers. I was pleasantly surprised though, as it has a lovely coastline full of good surfing spots. And even more importantly, a public pool that was open and would let us in! The city itself is designed for cars, with packed motorways cutting through the centre of town. The main roads were constantly traffic jammed, with local police often taking the place of traffic lights and directing hundreds of cars with a blow of their whistle and a point of their hand.

El Circuito Mágicgo del Agua
The one activity we were both keen to see was the ´Magic Circuit of the Water Show´ at the Parque de la Reserva. This park has distinct 13 fountains that are all lit up in different colours in the evening. This was in a park in central Lima, and having got our times slightly confused, we arrived nearly 3 hours early. Instead of leaving the park and returning later, which would have meant paying the entrance fee of 4 Peruvian Soles again (about 50p each), we were true budget travellers and made the very most of the quiet of the park, despite the cold. The show itself uses lasers and the main fountain to create images in the sky, all to a mix of music. Although fun, it did feel a little dated. And after a 3 hour build up, maybe our expectations were a little high!

Coach CrashWe´d arrived in Lima with no onward travel plans, but quickly decided to make the most of our time and pop down to Bolivia before the Inca Trail. Paul and I have a general rule that we wont take any bus journey that lasts more than 24 hours (a day on a bus is just too much), but we did find a bus that would take us to Puno, near the border of Bolivia, in 18 hours. This bus, followed by another the next day, would get us down to La Paz with enough time to spare. Although we both had our lifetime fill of buses in Argentina, we decided to go for it, thinking how bad can it be? Around 12 hours into the journey, we found out. In the middle of the night, we were woken by screeching brakes, screams, and then a sharp thud. Although Paul and I were fine (we had both independently put our seatbelts on earlier as the driver had been going at a fair lick around the corners), there were a few injured passengers on board, including an older man sitting near us who was thrown out of his seat on impact. After initially refusing to open the doors to let frightened passengers off the bus, the driver eventually relented and we were all able to see the bus crashed into a pile of rock and sand at the side of the road, uncomfortably close to a sharp drop. After eventually getting the bus dislodged and back on the road, we were all reloaded back onto the bus to the nearest town, where we waited for 8 hours for a replacement bus. This replacement bus had clearly been taken out of retirement, and so after another slow 13 hours,we eventually arrived at our destination, Puno; tired, groggy, but more than anything relieved.

Puno is a medium sized town on the edge of Lake Titicaca. We hadn´t planned on spending any time there, but due to the nature of our previous journey, we ended up staying there

Santiago

Santiago Skyline
As part of our pre-planned flights, we had to cross the border into Chile and make our way down to Punta Arenas to get to a suitable airport before flying up to the capital, Santiago. This would involve a few more busses and a pass through what was expected to be troublesome customs. Chile is very protective of its borders and has strict restrictions on food produce, so we were a little nervous of bringing any food in. After a quick munch of our supplies on the bus, Annie declared her last remaining chocolate bar to a rather relaxed officer, turns out it was no hassle at all.

We only spent a short evening in Punta Arenas as we had a 7am flight the next morning. The city is right at the bottom of South America, ships and boats leave for Antartica, not sure if I fancy that trip, one day maybe. Staying in a budget hotel, we felt spoilt having a TV with 100 channels, some from North America and in English. I’ve not really watched TV since leaving the UK, bar a few shows on the tablet, and not really missed it, but this was a nice little splurge. A brief wander around a few streets is all we saw, along with dinner in a diner style restaurant before scooting off up north to the capital.

Arriving in Santiago we were both awfully tired, narky and a bit worn out. Unsure what to expect from Santiago, we unpacked and looked for what to do. Annie being half mermaid has been suffering from a lack of swimming; in Argentina we searched for proper outdoor pools but kept coming up against closures. It’s still currently low season/springtime and combined with the fact that swimming doesn’t seem to be a popular past time in South America, it has been a bit of an issue. A little research showed that a local facility had both indoor and outdoor lane swimming pools, but as there was a public sector strike on in the capital, both were closed to the public. Trainers on and out for a run was the backup option, a reasonably popular activity with the locals it seems. See Color Run for more on running in Santiago.

Mote Con HuesilloWandering around the streets, there are street vendors everywhere selling all sorts of food and drink. I was intrigued by the Mote con huesillo, a sweet drink that has a base of husked wheat and filled up with a really sweet dried peach liquid, mixed with sugar, water and cinnamon. It was really sweet and unfortuantly not that nice.

A local walking tour was recommended by fellow travellers called Tours for Tips. Billed as a free tour, you pay what you want at the end, and we went along for a nosy. Seeing the city with a great guide and a nice bunch of people, with the sun splitting the skies, we were really impressed. We wandered about the massive fish, fruit and veg markets (Annie’s heaven), watching the locals going about their daily activities, it was interesting and a real taste of Santiago. The quality of produce was unbelievable and an absolute bargain. Santiago was really starting to glow. As a mid morning snack we had a Sopaipilla; a delicious deep fried pumpkin, made with flour, corn and salt patty covered in salsa, beautiful.

SopaipillaThe tour went on through the city cemetery, a little bit of a morbid thing to see but coated in rich history. Stories of communist and socialist leaders, local idols and shared coffins were enjoyed by all before ending in a pub for a sample of Terremotto, a potent local cocktail made with pineapple ice-cream & pipeño (sweet white wine).

The same afternoon we went on a bike tour across different parts of he city, focusing on politics and history, covering a lot further but lacking the detail that was gained from the closer groups in a walking tour. I was really impressed with the historical muriel expressing the city’s fights with power, government and industry.

Over the week we were there, a few things caught our attention. Blur and Beck were playing at the local stadium, Annie being the uber Blur fan was torn over going along, at £46 a ticket we eventually decided to let it pass by and focus on using our fund to do alternatives to what we can see at home.

Our final day was spent down at Chile’s second city Valparioso, a large port that was an essential route back in the California gold rush of the early 1900’s before the Panama Canal opened and effectively killed the city. The city is famous for its hillside neighbourhoods, linked to the bottom with 18 funiculars. This being Latin America, there was another strike on leaving all 18 closed for a few days, time to walk! Every single wall in the city has some form of graffiti on it, generally of very high standard. The locals have an accepted rule that good work does not get tagged over, so whilst empty walls are full of tagging, homeowners encourage the locals to use their walls for art. It works beautifully.

We also sampled a homemade version of a local snack that South American’s love, Alfajores. You get them all the time on busses and airplanes; two wafers covered in chocolate and sandwiched together with some dulce de leche in the middle. Sold by a little man from his house who is now a Chilean celebrity, anyone is welcome to walk up, ring his doorbell and buy one for 200 pesos, quirky!

Thats the end of Chile! Next stop was the neighbouring country of Peru, heading to what was top of my South American list to do, Peru and the Inca trail.

Colour Run Santiago

Colour Run: StartingTrying to keep fit, especially with the Inca Trail looming on the horizon, we have been running around every city where possible. I did a little run around the local parks and central area of Santiago on arrival and did notice a few tents, but didn´t think much of it.

Looking though some what´s on guides, Annie noticed that there were a couple of running events in the city on Sunday, Urbathon – a 10k obstacle race and the Colour Run. Urbathon was sold out and looked to be the same as the UK based events run by Mens Health and Rat Race, Colour Run just launched in London this year but hasn´t made it to Scotland and seemed like it´s worth a try.

Colour Run: Quatro KilómetroThe event is a untimed 5k race with the emphasis on fun, you are issued with a white t-shirt and a packet of colour. Being a bit thick we didn’t realise the colour was in the bag and turned up to the start without ours. Queue thousands of people throwing colour over themselves like an out of control circus whilst we stood feeling a tad odd, standing pristine in white like a washing advert. In desperation we tried to stand uncomfortably close to people who were throwing colour, hoping to catch some of their colour dust. We needn’t have worried.

A fantastic atmosphere had built up; DJs were playing music as they counted down to the start. Suddenly a massive cheer roared out as the sun and sky disappeared, huge clouds of coloured power took over as everyone threw their colours up in the air! We were coated and well ready to go!

Before doing the run, I did a little bit of research and found a blog that advised to wear glasses, cover your camera phone in a plastic bag and bring water to wash your mouth out with as this stuff gets everywhere, good tips!

Colour Run: Meta AnnieAs you approach the kilometer park, you can see a cloud of colour in the sky above it. Running (or walking due to the crowds as you get close) you see volunteers with handfuls of colour, launching it directly at the runners. The first one got me right in the face, ooft! Each marker has a different colour, so by the end you end up with multicoloured t-shirts, shorts, pants, socks, shoes, hair, skin, ears….

It was a fantastic event, will be up for trying it again if it reaches Scotland, though how it will work in the rain, I´m unsure. A full photo set of the run is available here

El Calafate

Glaciers

After many many hours on a bus and miles travelled, we arrived in El Calafate. El Calafate was one of the few locations (along with Iguazu in the North) we had identified prior to setting out because it was the gateway to Perito Merino National Park, home to a big huge glacier. Unfortunately it just so happens that these two chosen sites are at opposite ends of a very large country, hence the seemingly endless bus journeys to get to our destination. We had originally planned to stay in El Calafate for only 1 day, but after arriving at our lovely hostel, we decided to stick around for an extra day and add in a day´s hiking in the Fitz Roy range.

Crossing The MarshlandDeciding to save the best weather for the glacier, we made our trip to El Chalten and the Fitz Roy range on an extremely windy day. We soon found that as we gained height, as well as strong winds, we also had snow and rain to contend with. Despite this (and Paul´s insistence that ´this is a really bad idea´), we had a great day hiking on the hills. After 21km we decided to call it a day and had a celebratory drink in El Chalten; celebrating both our survival and also the first real test of what we loosely term our hiking gear. Inca Trail, we are ready…ish.

Day 2 saw us taking a mini-trek to the Perito Moreno glacier. Watching the glacier from the viewpoints, every now and then the tourist chitter chatter was interrupted by a thunderous roar as chunks of the glacier dropped off into the water below. The noise continued long after the pieces had fallen, as the water rushed through and under the glacier. It´s very hard to put the experience into words, but it did make everyone stop in awe at the glacier ahead of us.

Glacier WhiskeysAfter looking at the glacier from afar, we then had the chance to get up close and personal with a boat ride and mini trek on the glacier itself. Kitted out with crampons, our little group spent around an hour and a half on the glacier, before finishing up at an ad-hoc bar for a whisky before returning to land. Standing on a glacier with a glass of famous grouse (on glacier rocks) was definitely one of the more surreal moments of the trip so far.

Due to last minute planning on our part (again), our 2 day stay in El Calafate turned into 3, as the bus we needed to get was full. Although slightly frustrated as the only reason we needed to go further South was to catch our flight back up North, we did consider skipping the flight and making our own way to Santiago. That plan was quickly dropped, however, when we discovered that would involve another thousand hour bus ride, and instead we took advantage of having a quiet day in El Calafate.

Latin American Cervesa

Beer Ordering AdviceTravelling and drinking go hand in hand, a night off the booze is normally a day on a bus or flight; I´m fitting in well.

One thing that has bothered me since we got here is the choice of beer which has so far been a bit dispointing. I came here with the impression that Quilmes was an okay light drink, I now realise it belongs on the shelf beside beside Heineken and Carling. Brama is a very, very small step up but still not great. The only saving grace is that they serve beers in a litre bottle which is almost two pints for about two pounds. Taste versus finance, never easy.

Luckily after some foot based research we have figured out that “Artisan” is their word for craft, my eyes light up when I see that hoping for a taste of hops and barley. Using this approach, I´ve stumbled over some intresting beers:

  • Antares was the first one to catch my attension as they have their own bars in a similar theme to a Scottish craft brewer. They run a non transferrable 2×1 happy hour, so we were ‘forced’ to get two each. Their IPA and selection is superb but outside of their own bars it´s rather pricey, up to four pounds a bottle, not often on a travelling budget.
  • Cerveza Artesanal Gilbert from a small brewery on the Chico Circito which did a small tasting session and then discounted us on a pint in the sun, it’s not available anywhere else and due to the cycle home I only had one.
  • Berlina India Pale Ale as sampled in El Calfate, quite a nice taste, rich in flavour but a over priced due to the town being expensive.

The end of the Mendoza Wine Tour finished in what was described as an Ale house, out of the 15 of so people on the tour, three of us (including the German, no surprise) picked the dark ale, both the light and dark were fantastic, I had a couple more and then had an awkard payment conversation with my lack of Spanish!

One night walking down the main pubbing and clubbing street in Santiago I noticed a bar that had not just one but three different bottles of Brewdog. I resisted going in as I refuse to be the British tourist that goes abroad and then stays with the safe option!. That may change in Sao Paulo, if Brewdog opens in time.

The quest continues…

Puerto Madryn

A bit of a detour on our southern excursion, we headed to the east coastal town of Puerto Madryn, which is the gateway to the Valdes Pennisula, home to many animals but the star attraction at this time of year is the Southern Right Whale.

We took the overnight 15 hour bus from Mendoza which was scheduled to arrive at 7am, we contacted the hostel before and asked them to arrange a trip to the Pennisula, collection time 8:15am. I was unware of the puncture that the bus got at 1am, sleeping right through the hour long delay, Annie informed me about this drama in the morning.

Combined with the usual South American attitude to journeys of ‘there is no hurry’, we got to the hostel around 8:40 wondering what alternative plans to make for the day. It turned out that the bus company was keen for our business and was waiting for us; I’m assuming the lack of payment up front was assisting with that. A quick change at reception, drop our bags and we were back on another bus heading out for the day, no time to relax.

After a shortish bus journey (two hours seems like nothing around here), we were fitted with life jackets and put on to a small boat. Heading out in to the ocean was rather exciting, we had read that the whale season starts in May and runs though to December, with it almost being November I kept my expectations wound in. There was no need for that as it wasn’t long before whales were on the horizon, breaching the water and putting on a show!

WhaleAfter a bit of scooting around, we were right beside a mother and child whale, they showed a massive interest in the boat; coming right up to both sides and weaving directly underneath over and over, you could literally lean over and touch them (not recommended) spectacular stuff. We did this for about an hour before heading back to shore to see the rest of the Peninsula.

Next stop up was Penguins, the last time I went to see Penguins outside of a zoo was in Australia, it was highly disappointing, so once again I kept my expections low. These Penguins did not really have a habitat designed for human viewing, nests and small caves were being used as homes, with little show of movement or life, a few came out and looked around.

Elephant Sea LionsThe last main attraction was the Elephant Seals, big massive seals lining the beaches and doing absolutely diddly squat, due to maternity season males were saving energy and the females looking after their cubs.

A fine day though I personally would have been happy with just the whale watching.

We stayed one night in the town, did a bit of running and wandering before moving on and further south towards the Glacier.

Full photo set on Flickr here

Bariloche

As with most of the places we´ve been, we knew very little about Bariloche other than what we had hastily read in the Lonely Planet en route. So although we knew it was a pretty town in the lake district, we didn´t know much more. We´ve become a little cynical of the raving reviews the LP seems to give everything in Argentina, so we were pleasantly surprised when Bariloche lived up to the hype. It is in a beautiful setting, right on the edge of Lake Nahuel Haupi, and surrounded by the mountains. The town itself feels like a ski resort, with lots of board shops and apres bars, and you could imagine it absolutely heaving in the winter months. For our stay, though, the sun was shining and the town was relatively quiet.

Nahuel Huapi LakeOn our first full day we did the Circuito Chico, a 60km bike ride around the lakes. This could have actually been an easy 27km, but we like a challenge, and so added on an extra leg to an already hilly route (though to be fair, it was probably the scary Argentinian drivers that made it a challenge more than anything else). The friendly bike hire guy himself said that we needed to remember we were in Argentina, and Argentinians drive like maniacs. Very true – so true, in fact, that I voluntarily wore a helmet for the first half of the journey. The route was absolutely beautiful, and with stops at beaches, brewery´s, and viewpoints, it was a brilliant way to see the area.

KayakingThe Lake District is famous for its outdoor activities, and on day 2 we tried kayaking. Out on Lake Gutierrez, Paul and I spent the afternoon trying to master kayaking straight. We never did quite get it, so although the official route was 6km, we reckon with our navigation skills it was closer to 7. But at least we didn´t fall in.

Much to Paul´s relief, as well as home to lots of chocolate (yum), Bariloche also had a lot of brewery´s and pubs with a decent beer selection. Despite being there on election day when pubs were officially closed, we managed to find a few places that offered a different selection to the usual Quilmes.

A common theme throughout Argentina has been stray dogs, which roam around every town, and Bariloche was no exception. From our experiences, they all seem to be pretty friendly and just want a friend/food, but I´m still keen to learn the Argentinian knack of getting them to back off with just a look and a sharp word. Paul, on the other hand, smiles at the dogs and then enjoys having his ´companions´ trail us around town. It then results with us trying to squeeze through doors (at which they patiently wait for us to return) or run around corners to lose them at the last minute. I wont be sad to see the back of them.

Our time in Bariloche was extended due to our indecision as to how to get further South. After a few long bus journeys, we were toying with the idea of skipping a 2 day bus journey for a quick 1.5 hour flight. Aware that we were also running out of time in Argentina, it was a matter of time v money, enjoyment v losing the will to live. The battle was won by the buses, but as a compromise we decided to take a bit of a detour to the East coast to see some whales. Whales! Can´t wait.