Sunday, December 31, 2006

Puno and the 'floating islands'

After an unexpected and prolonged stay in Bolivia, Beat and I move on along the shore of Lake Titicaca to Peru.

WE HAD no problems crossing the border into Peru. In fact if we hadn't stopped at the border I would never have even noticed. The idegenious peoples of Peru and Bolivia are very similar you see. The main difference is that things are much more expensive in Peru. It's 6 Soles to the pound, rather than 15 Bolivivanos. Outrageous. I'm going to have to think very seriously about spending now. People say something costs 2 soles, and I think that's really cheap, like 2 Bs, but it's not! It's 30p!

We were sad to say goodbye to Bolivia. It had been home for over 5 weeks. Such a fascinating country with the most amazing differences in landscapes and natural beauty and very friendly, colourful and humble people. Of course many try to seize the opportunity to rip you off, but on the whole they are very nice and helpful. It's a country rich in the currency of culture, but sadly poor in the actual currency of money. I hope some day this turns around and that if I ever return there will be less poverty begging and desparation in the streets of all the cities.

But, anyway, I'm in PERU now. The biggest soft drink here is not Coca-Cola but 'Inca Kola', a local traditional soft drink since 1935. It's a fizzy yellow concoction that tastes of bubblegum. It would sell by the freight-load back home if marketed to kids, but it's been bought by Coca-Cola and they won't export it lest it becomes rival to it's main product. So you have to come here to drink it, unless I'm really resourceful and send some home. But let's face it, that won't happen.

We arrived into Puno and stayed in a very weird place called Hostal Europa, which was incredibly recommended in the usually useful Lonely Planet. The theme of the hostal is supposed to be EUROPE, but over the map of Europe hangs flags of USA, Argentina and Brazil. Are Brazil in the E.U.? Also there was a big picture of Los Angeles on the second floor. Crazy.

Basically the place was a hole. A Rat-hole as Beat likes to say. We never even properly checked in, and the woman behind the reception was breastfeeding when we arrived. We got the top floor room in a construction site and the floors were wet. Great. I hate staying in these hostals which are little more than rubbish hotels, not 'hostels' at all.

But Puno (which is also a pretty rubbish place) was just a stepping stone for a trip to the famous floating islands of the Uros (left). There are about 40 different floating islands on Lake Titicaca made out of reeds that grow up out of the water. The people there eat the reeds as well. It was strange walking on the islands. They really do float and as you step on the reeds sometimes water seems up. They have to constanly replace the reeds as they rot away. The people on the island have lived there for hundreds of years, originally as a way of escaping from the aggressive Incas, who presumably couldn't build boats.

The people of the Uros can build boats (below), great big reed boats with puma heads on the front. It takes 7 men a month to build a boat big enough to sail 30-40 people, stat fans.

The islands themselves were, I have to say, not what I'd expected. Although the experience was interesting to witness these islands and to get a grip on how the people lived, the whole thing has become shockingly over-touristic to the point where it was a bit disapointing. Almost all the people on the islands have stalls trying to sell you things like cloths and models for a not-very-cheap-price. They almost harass you to buy stuff. I'd rather have paid more for the priviledge of coming onto the island and seeing them live their lives rather than the kind of over commercialisation that we found. There are some islands, we where told, that don't allow tourists on. Good for them.

After that we stayed the night on the island of Amantani, which was a more orthodox island of 5,000 inhabitants that did not float. Just to clarify, it is the island that didn't float, I imagine most of the inhabitants would float, although I didn't empirically test this hypothesis.

We were put into groups of 2-4 people and assigned a family to stay with, who made us lunch, dinner and breakfast. Very friendly people. They only spoke Quechua, a local language, and a bit of Spanish which made conversation a little difficult, but we had a beer with them and had a nice chat. Our host mother spoke no Spanish so drank very quickly. Not a cheap date.

In our group (left)was myself, Beat, a Japanese guy called something like Mokita, and a guy from London called Nick. But the thing was, Nick had family in the south-west...and was a Plymouth Argyle fan! As if to prove it he had a blue Argyle t-shirt with the club crest on! Fantastic. I'd almost given up on discussing the shortcomings of Nick Chadwick while in South America. I tried with a Brazilian once but he just replied, ironically, "Who? Maradonna?" I said, "No, Nick Chadwick." He said, "I don't know this Neil Chadweh, I know Maradonna. Good player. Too many drugs." And that was that.

In the evening on the island we were made to dress in local dress (for men wool ponchos and silly hats were the fashion) and dance with the locals. It was cringeworthily touristic, if that is in fact a real phrase, but quite fun. I mastered the basic if slightly repetitive dance moves quickly and blended into the local scene.

The next day we headed to the island of Tequile, where the people speak only Aymara, another local language. Interestingly, there the man must learn to sew or he cannot get a wife. He must knit her 20 skirts or something before marriage. Also, the men wear funny hats that indicate they are single, kind like at a traffic light party in a student union.

On the way to the island, we were struck by bad seas. The boat was tossing around like a boat in bad seas. Now, I haven't got a good stomach for these things, but I managed to keep my breakfast down. The same could not be said of some other passengers. One girl went outside straight away, another had to be carried out. A French woman of about 60 threw up on herslf inside the boat! One by one we were dropping like flies. People even threw up after they got off the boat. It was a proper horror show.

On the way back to Puno I asked Bruno if I could drive the boat. The driver was on deck having his lunch. Bruno shrugged and said, "ok." He sat down, put on his headphones and closed his eyes. So I drove the boat for ten minutes, which must conflict with some kind of insurance policies or SOMETHING. It was a good ten minutes. Then we got too close to another boat and the driver came back in to take over. But he was a rubbish driver. He kept falling asleep.

After the tour we were signed off by our enigmatic guide Bruno; "My friends, for two days we have been friends, you have asked me lots of questions. Now the tour is over and we are not friends." Quite.

We stayed another day in the rat-hole of Hostal Europa in Puno. Just in case you ever go there is a good bar called something like 'Kamazariky' in Puno. Apart from that, hop around the islands and then get the hell out.

In our case we have headed to Cuzco, the former capital of the Inca Empire and now the biggest tourist city in South America after Rio, possibly. We are ther for the new year and then we will head out to see some sights in the 'Sacred Valley' and possibly even Macchupicchu, the BIGGEST sight in South America.

Happy New Year! The picture above is me and Nick with our host 'father' on Amantani. He looks happy.

Copacabana and Isla Del Sol

Festivities take place in the small town of Copacabana, which shares it's name with that beach in Rio de Janeiro.

I SPENT Christmas in the small town of Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. We were actually in a hostal overlooking the lake. Some great sunsets (left). Titicaca means 'grey puma' in the local language. Bolivians crudely claim that out of the grand shared lake, they got the 'Titi' and Peru got the 'caca', which means, well, you can guess what it means. Copacabana is nothing special, but a nice quiet place, a good change from La Paz. But before all that, Beat and I headed to Isla del Sol, or 'Island of the Sun' for four days to check out the place and look at some piles of rocks.

The Incas believed that the first Inca, and also the very sun, moon and stars were born on the island, out of Titicaca Rock (sort of right and below-ish). That's this rock that looks (alledgedly) like a puma, and all these things emerged mysteriously out of it's mouth. Science seems to refute this creationism, but it makes for some very interesting mythology.

The Incas had a big thing for pumas. In their society (around 1100 - 1550 AD, history fans) the main animals in their mythology were snakes, representing the underworld, pumas representing this world, and condors representing the world above. How clever am I? I could be a professor of mysterious old stuff.

Titicaca Rock is set on a very scenic part of the island. This place must have held a great deal of importance for the Incas. It's a beautiful spot. You can camp on most nice spots on the island for free in fact, or stay in a hostel for little over a quid (as we did. In fact just to mention we stayed in Templo Del Sol Hostel which was run down, but had character. There we met many Germans, one of whom was a priest who had been travelling for 3 years and slapped a bus driver who mistreated his luggage. Incredible. You meet really interesting people travelling).

Opposite the 'puma' mouth is the sacrificial stone table where the Incas killed Llamas, and hopefully also people, in honour of the God's. It's a nice structure, very interesting and is also a great picnic table. It reminded me of the death of Aslan in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Very sad. But he came back to life! Just like Jesus. Strange...

Down from this place are the main ruins, Chincana (below), I believe they are called. Very impressive. We were alone so we had a nice chance to explore all the nooks and crannies and to really feel the vibe of the place. The rooms, windows and doorways are all still well preserved and laid out. Cool. It was really sunny too, which suits the name of the island. Lots of these ruins have waaaaay too many tourists around so if you get a chance to walk around them on your own it's nice. Beat had to go to the toilet , but we couldn't find the appropriate room so he went outside the ruins.

The exact purpose of these ruins is unknown (to us at least), but I believe it may have been some kind of Inca King holiday home. In fact close inspection of the earth on the ground of the ruins indicated the Incas seemed to wear size 8-10 Merrell walking boots. What an advanced society! I await a better theory from historians. Come on Robinson, get your Time Team together and tell me.

Their are some less impressive ruins on the south of the island but we had fun playing with some children, games of 'hide-and-seek' and so forth. The children here are much cuter and quieter than kids back home. I've decided I'm going to adopt an Inca child when I get back and call it something that means 'Sun Child' in an indigenious language. (A South American indegenious language, of course, not English. I don't know what 'Sun Child' is in Cornish).

The best bit of the island was walking around. True, carrying 25 kilos up a hill at 4,000 metres nearly gave me a heart attack, but it only takes 4 or 5 hours to walk the entire length of the island, with a smaller 'day' bag. Much walking on this trip, there is.

Life on the island is very different to the mainland. Less poverty, no begging, although everytime you go past some kids with a donkey or llama they instinctively adjust into a tourist friendly pose in front of it. They know exactly what you want. Then after you take the picture they run up to you shouting "pagar mi, pagar mi," ("pay me"). A fun game is to take a picture from reasonably far away, then run away from them. They can't leave their sheep so, haha, I win!

But in all seriousness I really liked the island and it was a definate highlight to the trip. Things are what you make of them and we had a really good time walking around and seeing stuff.

For Christmas I had a rubbish beef type thing in an apparently wizard themed restaurant in Copacabana, where we were waited on by a child. Children do a lot of waiting tables and general working in Bolivia. Bizarre. Children bringing and opening beers for you is an experience I can't imagine much happening in England. Beat had a squashed hamburger. He was very upset.

There are lots of hippies in Copacabana, selling all manner of nick-nacks and trinkits. Not my thing, really, although girls may be interested.

Apart from that what is there to say? We stayed in Copacabana in Hostal Leyenda, with a nice view over the lake where you can get nice shots of the sunset. We climbed up the hill next to the town to see sunset one day but it was a non-event. At least we had wine and cake to enjoy the mood of the late afternoon, and there were some good photo-ops.

Monday, December 18, 2006

La Paz

Interesting days in the Bolivian capital as Beat and I visit the city's Coca Museum and risk our very lives on The World's Most Dangerous Road...

LA PAZ, like a drawing by a third-set art student, is nothing special to look at. It's noisey, crowded and polluted. In short, not one of my favourite cities ever. It's also at 3,600m above sea level and is kind of built on a long slope, making walking any distance uphill a real effort. The place is kind of like one big market with stalls everywhere and of course the usual people begging and the like. If someone, child or adult, offers you some chewing gum or chocolate it makes sense to help them out and buy it even if you don't want it. At least they are working and not asking for money flat out for nothing.

But it does have some good things going for it. First up was the Coca Museum, which is actually my favourite museum I've visited while I've been in South America. It was small and pokey but had loads of information and photos and models and stuff.

The museum takes you from the ancient societies of South America that chewed the coca leaf to colonialisation, where coca leaves are grown, how they affect you, how they are used, chewing technique and cocaine processing and drug addiction. All fascinating. To chew you roll some leaves into a ball and stuff them in the corner of your mouth. After 10 or 15 minutes the leaves soften and the alkaloid properties are released and you swallow the resulting juice. They taste foul, of course, but the desired affect is worth the displeasure. Coca leaves were, and still are, an integral part of the societies that live in this region of (mainly) Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

Coca is used to cope with the high altitudes endured by the Andean people living in the mountains. There is simply less air up there (here) and chewing the leaf desensitizes you to altitude, pain, hard work, hunger, thirst, tiredness. In other words it was used extensively by the Spanish to work the natives to death. Horrible.

Even today miners in the silver city of Potosi won't go into the mines without coca and spend about 12% of their yearly income on the leaves!

The place really interested me. The more recent history of cocaine being used as an anesthetic, pain killer and even soft drink was fascinating. Coca-Cola was invented by a pharmacist in 1886 and contained caffiene and cocaine untill about 1912 or 1914. Imagine the buzz that would give you! Apparently Coca-Cola still use tons of coca leaves to flavour the drink. The 'cola' bit comes from the cola nut of Ghana, if I remember rightly. In the museum there were cool adverts and posters advertising 'Kokaine' when it was still legal, as a substance to smoke or as a remedy for toothache! Fantastic.

But the really interesting aspect of the last few days was our trip on the World's Most Dangerous Road, or 'The Death Road' as it's also known.

First, some facts. The Death Road is the teacherous pass between La Paz north to Coroico. It descends from 4,700m to 1,200m in just a length of 83 km of road. That's a drop in altitude of 3,500m! So you go from the snowy ice capped mountains down to humid tropics in just a few hours. Incredible.

It's called 'The Death Road' due to the number of accidents every year. Annually, 26 vehicles plunge over the edge of the road into the abyss on average, killing between 200-300 people. The reason for this is usualy bad/drunk drivers, terrible visability and weather conditions making the road unstable. Also, at points the road is only THREE METRES wide with no barriers, and drops of over 1,000 metres! It's really quite dramatic.

Now I know what you're thinking, this sounds kind of dangerous right? In addition to the countless vehicles that sucumb to the perils of the road every year, 9 bikers have died cycling the pass. But riding the Death Road is actually one of the biggest tourist attractions in Bolivia, and there are many different companies that offer the trip. The biggest and 'safest' companies, such as Gravity, charge about 65-75 US Dollars. Gravity in fact took out their last group on 9th December, as they state as their professional opinion that during the wet season (December-February) it is TOO DANGEROUS to take people down the road. Rubbish! Our company, El Solario, charged 35 US Dollars and said they go out all year round, rain or shine. Rock on!

And we found them to be a very good company indeed; safe, organised, friendly. The day we went out was bright and clear. Perfect. We were a group of 6 with me and Beat joined by two more Swiss, two Ozzies, our guide Christoph and driver Alberto, who has to drive The Death Road everyday. Lucky him. Beat was happy as he coud speak Swiss-German all day.

I was a little nervous before starting off. I'm no adventurer, I don't even like going on the fast rides at theme parks. This was one hell of a ride, however. The first part of the road is all (icey) asphalt but really pretty safe. It's only when you descend down into the foresty areas you can see the dangers of driving the road in poor conditions. You ride through waterfalls along gravelly, stoney surfaces. While all this is quite fun, the pinch of reality hits when you see literally loads of crosses marking places where vehicles have fallen away over the side. Occasional tires and pieces of metal come into view just below the edges of the road.

I, of course, suffer badly from vertigo. But riding takes alot of concentration. Although we stopped every so often, there's no time to caually observe the various drops beyond the road in front.

It took about 4-5 hours cycling from start to finish. The road is virtually all downhill, the few km uphill were a killer at that altitude. I was by far the slowest member of our group on the actual dangerous bits of the road, but it's not a race! You just have to go at you own pace. Rather that than end up a statistic.

The trip is advertised on the danger/adrenaline aspect but we found that the most enjoyable aspect of the day was the amazing scenery and the way you plummet from Andean cold climate, wearing jackets, gloves and trousers to the humid valleys wearing t-shirt and shorts and getting bitten by damn mosquitoes.

After the last leg of the trip we all enjoyed one of the best cold beers I've ever had. I was sweating and sore and had really had my fun by that point. Any further and the experience would have been pure endurance.

We then had a nice lunch and Alberto drove us back up the death road to La Paz, which was more nerve-wracking than cycling down as you have no control. I did NOT sit on the side of the mini-bus which overlooked the precipice. No way. When we hit asphalt again I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Although the road seems dangerous it's relatively safe to cycle. People who get hurt push their limits too far. Same goes for the drivers that fall victim to the road. You have to know what you're comfortable with and stick to that!

Of course after every such 'adventure' excursion you get a free 'I biked/survived the blah blah blah...' t-shirt. The one from El Solario was particularly bad. I don't get the sizes over here. I just got an 'Inca Kola' t-shirt that's a medium and it's bigger than my Death Road T that's an XL. "Go Figure," as our friends from the colonies would say.

They have actually just opened the new 'safe' road from La Paz to Coroico so the traffic taking on the Death Road will drop dramatically. Only buses and cars for people who live in houses and villages along the pass will still be using the road. Along with thrill-seeking tourists of course. But the number of deaths on the road will virtually drop to zero, which will actually be bad for business for biking companies. It's a funny old world.

So I am safe and sound in La Paz. I'm staying at The Adventure Brew Hostel. It's quite good; comfy, nice building, internet, dvds, book swap and they make their own 7% beer which is really quite nice, especially at 6 Bolivianos (40p) a go.

Yesterday Beat and I went for an excellent but extortioate Japanese lunch. We had fantastic sushi with soup and vegtables and other bits and bobs. However, the wine we ordered was not 40Bs but 120! Back home 8 quid for a bottle of wine in a restaurant is fine but here it makes your head spin. Still, it's nice to live like a king on the money of a pauper.

Tomorrow we head to Copacabana and the Isla Del Sol, where the Incas believed people were created by the Sun Gods, or something. We'll find out more later. Hopefully we'll be on the island for a few days then spend Christmas at a nice place overlooking Lake Titicaca.

Today I have nothing to do especially. I got the bus tickets, swapped some books, had a pancake breakfast. So all the important things taken care of. I might go to the modern art museum or the cinema. Not sure. I'd like to write more emails but have got really into this blogging and if I spend too long in an internet café my brain starts to turn to musha and I start telling people in Spanish that I don't speak English. Yeah.

Take care.

Hasta a vista.

Some more pictures from The Death Road...(including our driver, Alberto)

Our group at the end of 'The Death Road'. Six surviors out of six!

Friday, December 15, 2006


I thought it was time for a map update. The top one shows the Bolivia journey in detail. It doesn't look like I've covered much ground in Bolivia, does it? But half of the country is in the Amazon basin, which is full of malaria, scary animals and cocaine processing plants, so I've not ventured too far into the jungle. I've taken the trouble to label just a few things of interest in the country. Perhaps it will encourage others to visit? Also, I have included a map of the whole of South America, to show The Big Picture.


Sucre, Bolivia's prettiest city. An example of some colonial architecture which is evident everywhere in the city.
Getting up in Backpackers Sucre, 'fresh' for some Spanish lessons.
Ruins in Samaipata. Bunch of stones.
Beat takes five.
Me at one of the Las Cuevas waterfalls in Samaipata.
The other waterfall. Pretty nice, don't you think?
"Woah-woah-woah, mysterious girl, I want your..." That video was in a waterfall, right? If you squint hard enough you can see Peter Andre in his mid 90's heyday.
Hmmm, another little waterfall in the jungle in Villa Tunari.
This was taken just before me and Indy found the Golden Indian Head and he was crushed by a giant boulder.
Beat makes a new friend.
I think this monkey just looks really funny. Look in his eyes!
This monkey is one of the cutest things I've ever seen.
Villa Tunari at sunset...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Back up in the sky.

I'M ANNOYED. There seems to be some kind of virus on my photo memory card. Of course I can get a new one but I've loads of great pictures on there. Maybe they will be a shop that can sort it out, with some kind of anti-vral software type stuff. I'm not really very good with these things. If anyone has any ideas...

But what will happen will happen, there's nothing you can do about it. I'm in Cochabamba for a few days and there's not too much to do here. Plenty of excursions to 'pile of rocks' type ruins but my appetite for that has waned, gonna save it for a crack at Macchu Pichu. There are, however, some nice cafe/bars and Beat and I are rejecting beer these days for rum and cokes, or as they call them here, 'Cuba Libres' (Free Cuba!). Excellent.

The ride here was a pretty authentic South American journey. A long twisty trip in a squashed seat up through the lush misty mountains in the rain on a bus with sometimes two kids in one seat and people sitting in the aisles. They always say you have to travel How The Local People Travel. It's like some kind of travelling rule. It's Bad if you fly or take a comfy bus. I personally think if you can find a comfy bus you should be rewarded for ingenuity.

The city here seems pretty standard. Plaza, parks, university...oh, and a big Jesus on the hill, but I've seen one of those before. There's a big market here that we'll try to get to hopefully. We're out of the Amazon basin here. Cochabamba is around 2500-3000 metres above sea level so it's not too difficult getting around and it's cooler and less humid than the low-lands.

My camera problem has thrown up an activity for tomorrow, else I'll try to get it fixed in the capital La Paz, our next stop in a few days.

It's weird thinking about people getting ready for Christmas back home. There are a few decorations popping up here and there but otherwise it's a low key affair in Bolivia. If I were a super-organised traveller I suppose I could have cards and presents arriving back home, but unfortunately that's not me. If it was me, then I wouldn't really be me, would I? Be real to yourself. Didn't someone say that once? Think about that.

Have I any general thoughts? Not really right now. I'm a bit worried about my camera. And it's frustrating as I can see the pictures on the card on the camera screen but can't put them on a CD or upload them. Arrghhh!

I'll report back.

Villa Tunari

Thieving monkeys and Spanish speaking parrots...

THIS IS a one-dog kind of town. Actually there are in fact several dogs, but you get the idea. Beat and I are here to see some animals in the nearby Parque Macchia. It's a place where for a reasonable fee you can volunteer to look after rescued monkeys and birds and big cats for 15 days. Beat and I do not have 15 days, so we're just wanting to have a look around.

Our plans are initially thwarted by a downpour that last abot 18 hours. We got wet. Quite wet. We are not allowed to go into the park as the animals are hiding from the rain and the trail is dangerous. So we wait. And wait. Altogether we wait for well over an hour and a half. But then we didn't have anything else to do. At least we dried off.

Eventually we were let in and we walked around seeing some birds (parrots that speak Spanish - quite strange), met some volunteers and walked through the rainforest type forest. Good walk, getting good views of Villa Tunari and the BIG river next to it and the mountains. At the end of the trail is a little cascada (another waterfall). They're everywhere, these waterfalls.

After the walk back we go to the monkey house and that really made the trip worth it. There's loads of monkeys all ages jumping on you. It's great fun. Sometimes they curl up and go to sleep on you, it's quite charming. But you have to be careful, these monkeys are mischevious and clever little things and are experts at searching your pockets, even undoing zips. I presume they were after food. I can't think what use they'd have for money. It was all going quite well, then Beat sat on the bench that I was on and it collapsed dropping us into a sandy pool of water. Wet again. But it was worth it.

We didn't get to see any of the pumas or anything. That's in the refugio part of the park where the vounteers are. It would have been cool to work at the park and look after all the animals but unfortunately time simply doesn't permit. Beat and I must move on, and get back on the road. I think that a few more months more in South America would be good, but you can't do everything and it's always possible to come back to different countries on holidays and see places you didn't see this time round.

Villa Tunari doesn't have many great restaurants but we managed to find some battered fish that I assume must have come from the river or something. We also found a bar with no-one in apart from 3 guys watching a Steven Seagal movie. I don't know which one. They're all the same. The bar had a great sloping pool table so we wracked up a few games. Needless to say I was victorious over the Swiss.


More waterfalls. And are fascinating archeological sites really just a pile of stones?

THE LITTLE town of Samaipata is two and a half hours drive from Santa Cruz. Beat and I arrived here to...actually I wasn't sure what we were doing there. It was supposed to have some cool stuff. We were staying in Hostal Andorino, which served the best breakfast I've had in South America so far, fresh fruit and everything. Usually you have to make do with stale bread and dulce de leche.

We met up with another guy from Jodanga called Alan and went on a day-of-fun type excursion together. First we headed up to El Fuerte(left), which has some pre-Incan ruins. Apparently, if the badly translated info sheet is to be believed, the site dates back to 1500 years BC. BC! That's a lonnnnng time. It was used as a meeting/market type place I think. Or possibly a spiritual ceremonial site. Or maybe it was used for sacrifices. There's this European guy who thinks it was an alien landing site, but I don't think he has any infomation to back this up.

Anyway, so the site has carvings, nooks, crannies and some discovered ruins of buildings and houses. But really, when it comes down to it, it's just a pile of rocks, I think. But it was fun to walk around! And it was something interesting and cultural to do rather than watching dvds and that's important. Don't get me wrong, I think ruins and stuff are impressive and interesting, but maybe they need to be more complete to be more compelling and fascinating.

After the pile of (interesting, pre-Incan) rocks we spent the afternoon at Las Cuevas, a lovely area with two amazing waterfalls. I slipped on a slippery rock and hurt my arm but it was nothing serious. Nothing could dampen this really quite beautiful little spot. The two waterfalls are conected by a little river/stream which I walked down. Really fun, felt like a jungle explorer, especially when you leg sinks down in sand up to the knee. Bit weird. I didn't have have any swimming stuff but it was so hot that I just ran in in my shorts, which meant I was wet all the way back but it was worth it. And waterfall water is quite powerful stuff. I alsways thought I could survive falling over a waterfall but now I'm not so sure. And these were tiny waterfalls, too.

I also got quite burnt that day. But again, it was worth it. Really good day, really great scenery. Some of the rides in cars and buses here just yield the the most amazing views of valleys and stuff. Going through the hot, humid rainforesty areas you get all the mist floating through the trees and everything. It looks epic and totally cool, like you're in a documentary or something. I'm trying to underplay it all to emphasise how amazing it is. I don't know if it's working.

Santa Cruz

I venture east into the humid tropics of the Amazon basin to see Bolivia's rischest city...and watch lots of dvds.

THE JOURNEY to the city of Santa Cruz was one of the worst trips EVER. Fifteen hours on a rickety old bus bumping up and down the whole way on scary mountain roads. Add to that the prescence of a fat man taking up half my seat and you can see I was not a happy bunny. I was also not happy that I couldn't stay in 'Busch Hostal', which I was recommended by a guy from Santa Cruz. It turned out that the hostal didn't actually exist. Which is a slight problem.

Anyway I ended up at Jodanga Hostal which was very nice so it was all good in the end. Jodanga had a pool and a big TV. Also, it had Adam, a Kiwi with a ton of 'fake' dvds of current films in cinemas. Surprisingly good quality. So during my time in the hostal we watched Scorcese's new movie The Departed and a film called The Illusionist with Ed Norton and Paul Giamatti. It is interesting that The Illusionist is out the same time as The Prestige, starring Christian 'The Professor' Bale and Michael Caine, which is also about illusionists. This happens often it seems. One studio decides to make a film about bugs or volcanoes or astoroids hitting the earth and another thinks 'great ideam we'll do that too.' Well movie/illusion fans I can report that The Prestige is the superior film. It even has REAL magic in. Although they both utilise the magic of cinema, so I guess everyone's a winner.

But what of Santa Cruz? It's a nothng city really. After Sucre it's a complete let down. Lots of beggars, and really humid. Sata Cruz is kind of on the edge of the Amazon basin so it's sticky and sweaty with lots of angry mosquitoes, so the pool in the hostal is a life saver. My left leg has been savaged by blood-sucking insects recently, it looks 'orrible.

Much of the time at Jodanga it was either too hot and humid or too wet to go out so...why not watch some more dvds? I remember watching a bit of an animated Spanish movie about an egg. Think Finding Nemo. But with eggs.

The reason for the wetness is that although it is summer here in South America it is also the rainy season. So every other day there is some kind of tropical downpour. It's cool, but sometimes annoying.

Beat (left), my new travelling buddy, arrived at the hostal a day after me. A couple of interesting points about Beat; he's a Capatin in the Swiss army (he even has a Swiss Army Knife), and he's a full time pant-wearer. To address the first point, in Switzerland they have to do military service despite the fact they haven't had a war in 140 years. They even have a navy. To address the second point he says he doesn't like boxer shorts "because you're not in control of things." I don't know exactly what that means but it amused me greatly. I cannot confirm whether wearing pants in Swtitzerland is compulsory, like the army.

One interesting happening in Santa cruz was a big protest in the main plaza one night. The President Evo Morales has had a law passed that any land not being used that is privately is to be given back to the indigenious people, who make up about half the population. The two main groups here are Quechua and Aymará, although it's very complicated. President Evo is himself an indio. People in Santa Cruz are angry about this law firstly because many people in Santa Cruz are rich and own land and secondly because you need two thirds of the vote to pass the bill and they didn't get it but the law went through anyway. South America, eh? Apparently in Bolivia they have had 40 Presidents in 50 years or something silly like that. I don't know what keeps the country running. Good luck Evo!

It's very strange the contrast of the rich living so closer with the very, very poor. Honestly, so many people here have nothing, living on the streets. But it's an education, a learning experience definately. It puts countries like Argentina into a lot of perspective.

Monday, December 04, 2006


I visit Bolivia's prettiest city for 10 days and try and learn some Spanish while I'm at it.

THE JOURNEY here was not pleasant. After the Salt Lake trip I came down with a touch of something I will describe as 'travellers stomach'. Interpret that as you will. I made the 10-hour overnight trip on a bus with no toilet. Great.

As I arrived into Sucre I had the hassle of trying to arrange a room at a hostel at 5.30am, which wasn't a lot of fun. However, from this dark cloud emerges a becon of light. For it transpires that Sucre is, in fact, a beautiful, charming colonial city. The hostel, Backpackers Sucre, is an olden days style 18th century type place with a courtyard, patio, trees and all the other 18th century trimmings. Best of all, for the last 10 days I've had a quiet, comfy private room with cable TV (hearing Darth Vadar dubbed into Spanish is really quite an experience) for less than three quid a night. Pretty good.

My main reason for being in Sucre was to learn some Spanish. I am a complete beginner and felt pretty stupid learning how to say the alphabet (the Spanish alphabet of course. I know the English one). It was like I'd been in a car crash, lost my memory and was having to relearn everything again like the words for chair and spoon.

But it needed to be done. Every weekday afternoon from 2.30 to 6.30 I learnt my verbs, adjectives and pronouns with my teacher Carla, a Sucre local. She was nice enough, but I never felt completely relaxed with her. Someone else said the same thing about her. Strange. The school only charged 6 dollars an hour. Three quid an hour for a tutor would be hard to find back home.

It was weird being back at school. I had a exercise book with a cartoon mouse on it. I noticed the mouse was playing basketball, which is completely implausible.

I had homework as well, which was interesting. I thought of all the hours and years wasted learning German, which is spoken only by Germany, Austria and the Swiss pretty much. Instead I could have learnt Spanish which is spoken by, pretty much the WHOLE OF CENTRAL AND SOUTH AMERICA. And Spain of course. And a few other places for good measure. Madness.

It was intense with all this learning. I woke up one night shouting out loud, "conjugate the verb, CONJUGATE THE VERB!"

Outside of school I have been socialising with a nice group of people at the hostel here. There was Jenny from England, Sig, Mads and Mie (right) from Denmark and Patricia from Italy to name a few. Nice people. They have all since left and I have befriended a new group briefly. Importantly in this new group is a guy called Beat, a 34-year old ex-banker from Switzerland. No he really was a banker. Is. He's not sure what he'll do when he goes back home. (He speaks English as well as German!). He is going the same kind of route as me so we're going to be travelling together for the next few weeks. I'm leaving here a day earlier than him, going to Santa Cruz tonight. We've been recommended a place called Busch, but I'm not entirely convinced it exists, which would certainly make checking in problematic. Another option is Jodanga Hostel which has NO CABLE OR PRIVATE ROOMS. But it does have a pool. It's a bit pricey (almost 3.50 pounds a night) but it looks the best option.
Hopefully we'll do some day trips and then go to Cochabamba and then up to La Paz. Our aim is to spend Christmas at the town of Copacabana on Lake Titicaca, before heading to Cusco in Peru for New Year's eve. That's the plan, anyway. Things can always change. But it's a rough idea. From then on, who knows, although I fly to Sydney on Jan 22nd-ish (must check) so won't see much in Chile.

Sucre is a lovely place, 'spoilt' only by an abundance of beggars. It's simply a fact of life as Bolivia has a great amount of poverty. Walking around the city is fantastic. They have great Churches, houses and a walk up to overlook the city which is really quite splendid. There's an impressive cemetary and a park with a miniture Eiffel Tower.

It's a really nice place to spend time and I now feel fairly at home here. We've been out to different restaurants and cafès. I've discovered I have a weird ordering problem in restaurants in that if something looks unusual I have to have it. This is a good thing when you get something called 'Mondongo', a nice traditional dish, but GOD HELP YOU if you go for the 'Bolivian Surprise'. It's supposed to be the dish-of-the-week, but basically it's whatever the chef has left over; pasta, potatoes, chicken legs, and really, really HOT sauce. Not good for poorly Andy's stomach. The 'Bolivian Surprise' has now become a code word for...bad things.

Laura quizzed me on the dress over here recently. Like most young people in South America, in Bolivia the young people wear western style jeans, t-shirts, trainers and the slightly older people wear suits. But the old indio women wear crazy patterns and bowler hats and their hair in plats. I'm getting used to it but it's still pretty odd. I want to get lots of pictures but they always ask for money, so it's difficult. Hopefully I'll get some pictures up soon.

The Bolivians are very different from Argentinians. About half the population here has indigenious ancestors and they seem more passive and quieter than the Argies. I'm glad I came to Bolivia, it's a fascinating place. Really feels like real South America.

So my time in Sucre is almost up. I'm almost over my stomach thing now. Strange that in one of my favourite places I've visted I've felt the worst on the trip so far. When you feel weak and unwell everything seems like an effort. But I'm better now and I've really enjoyed it. The hostel, people, travellers, classes and everything has all been good.

On the book front I've finished Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Still prefere the Gene Wilder film version, and now I'm onto Freakonomics, a book about, er, freaky economics. I've also got an interesting book by a Japanese writer called Norwegian Wood. Hmmm. My reading has suffered from classes, cable and general socialising. I'll crack on now.

Right I'm off to get my bags and head off to Santa Cruz. It's only 12-15 hours.

I wonder if the bus will have a toilet?