Monday, 22 June 2009

Top tips for Bolivia

DO be prepared for the winter cold (especially on bus trips!). Minus 15 on the salt flats or in the desert is bloody freezing! But at the same time, DO remember to go out in that cold and look up at the stars. Simply amazing!

DON'T expect anything great for breakfast (except at Tonito Hotel in Uyuni). It's usually bread with butter and jam and Nescafe to wash it down.

DO use coca leaves or coca tea to help with altitude sickness. We've never experienced headaches like that. But DON'T believe it when they say the altitude diminishes your appetite - Davey Two Meals disproved that urban myth!

DO spend some time in Sucre to sample the great food, fruit juices, bakeries, bars and chocolate. Yum yum!

DO be ready for people to sell you every type of empanada or bread or drink in a plastic bag (who needs cups!) when you are at the bus station or even on the bus. We never bought that 'turkey turkey' stuff to find out what it was so if it's sold to you, please tell us!

DO go see the amazing wildlife in La Pampas. Toucans, alligators, caymans, sloths, anacondas, pink dolphins...the list goes on and on. And DO take the 19 seater plane flight, it beats the hell out of a 24 hour bus trip.

DON'T book your Death Road ride with Gravity Tours unless you are 100% sure you are going. They don't do refunds - bummer.

DO be prepared to pay a different price for the same thing on different days. But DON'T worry, it's 10 BOBS to the Pound so it's all cool.

DO try llama steaks. Tastes like good veal and has more vitamins than beef to boot!

DON'T just order the 'special' meat dish from the menu (as Dave did), unless you like tripe.

DO get up early to see the sunrise over Mount Illampu and Lake Titacaca. Magnificent.
Mr and Mrs T x

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Jungle fever in La Pampas

After two relaxing days on Isla del Sol, we faced a very cold start in La Paz to get our 6.15am flight to Rurrenabaque in the Beni region of Bolivia for our tour of La Pampas, the Amazonian wetlands.

The pain of leaving the warmth of our beds at 4am was only made worse when we arrived at the airport (only just, as our taxi stalled at least 10 times on the way and we were sure we were going to have to get out and walk!) to find the 6.15am flight had been taken off that day's schedule, replaced with one at 7.15am. Muchas gracias Amazonas Airlines! But it didn't end there, not only was the flight at 7.15, it was also not going to Rurrenabaque as the grass airstrip there was flooded so we'd been re-routed to Reyes where would have to catch a bus back into to Rurrenabaque. Not a great start.

But, the view from the 19 seater plane (Dave's idea of great fun, not Libs') was spectactular. The airport in La Paz is actually in El Alto, on a broad plain some 400m above the valley city so when we took off, you could see how the area drops off the precipice into the city below. We also had a great view of the long line of Andean mountains running along the east of the city, with the plane flying so close to Illampu that you felt you could reach out and touch the peak. And with the flight taking off at 4400m and rising to around 6000m to pass the ranges, it was an easy glide down to Reyes at a meagre 250m above sea level where the landscape was flat, wet and very green.

To our dismay, the weather was not hot. It was warm but winter had arrived in the Amazonian basin of Bolivia so it was not t-shirts and flip flops. But no matter, we joined our tour group and literally crammed into a 4x4 for a 3hr ride to Santa Rosa. The nearer we got, the more amazing animals we saw - a Toucan, a huge JabirĂș stork, eagles, vultures....then we boarded canoes with our guide Jamie for the ride up the Yacuma River to our lodge, again seeing more and more animals as we went....alligators, pink river dolphins (yes, they really are pink), piranas, howler and squirrel monkeys, Capibarra (world's largest rodent, kind of like a guinea pig on steroids) and too many birds to mention. And all this just on the ride in!

And the animals were hardly afraid of us and our lodgings. Both mornings we woke to a toucan in the trees outside our room, to squirrel monkeys in the trees behind, one morning, a large woodpecker pecked his way around the trees looking for insects to eat and every morning, we awoke to the noisy Hoatzin, a kind of punk looking pheasant with an electric blue face and bright orange mohawk plume! And there was the ever present one eyed alligator waiting beside our canoe boats, we were told waiting for scraps, not tourists' limbs!

Thankfully, day two was a little warmer so we donned our wellies and went out looking for Anacondas. Again, not exactly Libs' idea of fun but we did find a small one - about 1.2m long - early doors so we asked Jamie if we could jump back in the canoe and go looking for a sloth as he'd mentioned them the day before. Somehow, Jamie spotted one in the top of a tree a little later on, he was all stretched out in the branches, trying to catch some sun through the clouds. We didn't see a puma though, but neither of us were too worried about that.

After a huge lunch and little siesta (we are getting used to all this food and sleep!), we went down river to go swimming with the pink dolphins. They are meant to be very inquisitive and are even known to nibble your toes while you swim. Libs was having none of that so it was only Dave and the others from the group who braved the murky brown water to see if the dolphins would engage. No dice. We think it has something to do with the layers of DEET bug spray we were re-applying all day long! We guess that stuff just isn't tested on dolphins. We finished the day with a few beers and watching the sunset while some over energetic travellers (not us) played football and volleyball.

Our last day in La Pampas kicked off with us fishing for piranas but on the way, Jamie managed to spot a young two toed sloth chillin in a tree. What a cute little fellow he was!. Fishing was good fun, if a little worrying when you brought those little suckers into the boat. Dave got one just as we were running out of bait and Libs got a kind of large sardine looking thing, an act of true charity from a former vegetarian! Then we tried to attract the dolphins again by jumping in the river and swimming towards them but they kept swimming off. Dammit! Maybe it had something to do with the alligators on the river bank that Jamie pointed out only AFTER Dave had got back into the boat. Sheesh!

On the ride back to the shore and our 4x4, we spotted so many families of turtles as well as alligators and caimans all sunning themselves in the sun. Dave made a list of some of the animals we saw with Jamie (we all know how Dave loves making lists) and came up with: Capibarra, Cormoran, Gallileta (water fowl), JabirĂș stork as well as many other varieties, blue kingfisher, toucans, two and three toed sloth, pink dolphins, Anaconda, black caiman, yellow spotted turtles, macaws, woodpecker, Hoatzin (also known as the Stinkbird!), herons, raptors, vultures, eagles....and so many more we didn't know the name of. In short, La Pampas is a wildlife haven so for many types of animals and it was truly stunning to see them all so healthy and happy in their natural habitat. We were both really glad we did this tour as it was one of the best things we'd ever seen.

Mr & Mrs T xxx

Lago Titicaca and Isla del Sol

A four hour bus ride out of La Paz takes you to Copacabana on the shore of Lake Titicaca and near the border with Peru. It's a stunning ride north as the crystal blue lake starts to appear in the west, flanked by the snowcapped Andes ranges and mountains of Illampu and Illamani in the east.

Copacabana itself was not much to speak of so we jumped a boat straight out to the Isla del Sol, reputed birthplace of the Incan empire. Arriving at Yumani in the south, we were met at the pier by a 14 year old boy named David who offered to carry Libby's backpack up the steep stone steps and to our lodgings. Silly boy. It was a sheer rock face that rose from the shore up more than 200 steps and given the lake is still at over 4000m, the altitude made the pack all the more difficult to carry. But carry it he did and we found a lovely little cabin with a view across the lake to Illampu for our stay.

There is little to see on the island itself and the Incan history is poorly promoted but the scenery you can take in, especially during the long walk over the island from Yumani in the south to Roca Sagrada in the north, is simply stunning and worth the effort. You pay a small fee to the local community to use the well maintained path and we took a packed lunch and sat with our sandwiches overlooking a crystal blue bay before trekking back to our cabin. It was interesting to see the same old men guarding the checkpoint in the sun - do they sit there all day, every day, collecting the fees and marking their little book!? Not a bad gig.

Dave got up early the next day to watch the sunrise over Illampu, Libs stayed in bed with the stomach cramps she'd been carrying for a few days. Then it was a boat back to Copacabana after breakfast and the bus back into La Paz that afternoon, from where we'd fly to Rurrenabaque to stay in the Amazon jungle!

Mr & Mrs T xxx

La Paz

We arrived in La Paz on early Friday morning (5th June), what an amazing sight to see the huge city laid out in the valley with snowcapped mountains in the background. Who the hell thought a sheer valley more at than 4000m was a great place for a city?!?! Crazy spaniards!

We checked into our hostel (all you can eat pancakes for breakfast - Daveo was happy!) and booked everything we wanted to fit into Bolivia before our flight to Sao Paulo. Our itinerary looked something like this:

Sat 6th - Tiwanaku
Sun 7th - Bike tour of Death Road
Mon 8th - Bus to Copacabana and boat to Isla del Sol (Lake Titicaca)
Wed 9th - Boat to back to Copacabana and bus back to La Paz
Thurs 10th - 6.15am flight to Rurrenabaque and 9.00am start for La Pampas tour in the Amazon
Sat 13th - 5.00pm back from La Pampas tour
Sun 14th - 9.40am flight back from Rurrenabaque to La Paz and 11pm bus from La Paz to Cochabamba

And breathe!!

So as you can see our schedule for the rest of our time in Bolivia was tight, but all worth it!

The archeological site at Tiwanaku was pretty good, although we thought that perhaps more had been discovered, it is still mostly being excavated and therefore a trip back in say 2 years would probably be more worthwhile. The history was interesting but not all that awe creating. The 7ft 90 tonnes monolith was pretty impressive - but the fact it stood alone in a half built museum was slightly disappointing.

When we got back to La Paz from Tiwanaku the Gran Poder festival was in full swing and we got fantastic views of it from the roof terrace bar at our hostel. The colours and costumes where amazing. Traditional dresses dolled up to the nines, and then there were the sombreros and frills - we've never seen anything like it! There were so many different bands playing and dances going on and when we went to bed that night it was all still going. The Bolivians sure know how to party!

Unfortunately for us, the Death Road never happened on the Sunday as Libby got sick (the usual stomach upset you get when you're travelling!). We were so gutted we never got to do this, as so many people raved about it. A quick word of warning for any travellers heading to bike Death Road, we booked our tour with Gravity who are highly recommended and supposed to be the best and most safe, hence why they are more expensive than the others (600 bolivianos each), but they wouldn't give us any kind of refund for not being able to go or offer us a reschuled time, despite the fact they always seem to have 2 van loads of people going everyday on this trip. Dave got up at 7am and walked down to the meeting point on the Sunday morning to tell them we couldn't make it because I was ill, and all they would offer us is 25% off booking it again, brilliant!!!! So we lost out on our 1200 bobs and we weren't about to pay another 900 bobs to book it again. So a little word of warning, either book with someone else, who is equally as good and safe and has a better policy if you can't make it or just make sure you don't get ill!

Late that day Libby managed to drag herself out of bed to get some "fresh air" and we walked around La Paz a bit and then went to Restaurant Alaya so Dave could try some traditional Bolivian lunch - he ordered a dish for two, but as I wasn't eating in true Davey Two Meals style he eagerly chomped his way through it, apart from the tripe and the freeze dried potatoes!

Later on Dave went out and ran into some very drunk revellers still going from the festival the night before - only 1 out of 5 tuba players in one band could manage to squeeze out a note.

Mr & Mrs T xxx


If you ever come to Bolivia, make sure you visit Sucre. It is a haven of good food and warmer weather, something you will appreciate given the cuisine is often lacking in other parts of this wonderful country.

We ended up spending five days here before heading on to La Paz, working our way through dinners and 2-4-1 cocktails at Florin cafe, breakfasts with freshly baked bread and great vegetarian lunches at El Germen, a surprisingly cheap but very swish dinner at Restaurant Munaypata overlooking the city (including llama steak - tastes like very good veal), lazing in the sun and enjoying the fresh salads and milkshakes at Cafe Mirador, super cheese rolls from a little bakery we found on the way back from our B&B....the list could go on and on.

Two more things we must mention are the chocolates and fruit juices/salads . When in Sucre, you must visit the Para Ti chocolate shop and have yourself a hot chocolate, made fresh with melted chocolate and hot milk, as well as pick yourself up a box of truffles. Awesome. Equally good and somewhat better for you are the fresh fruit juices you can pick up in the local central market. The ladies have the fruit all laid out in front of them, you pick what you want and they blend your juice for you or chop your salad up while you wait. 30p for two large glasses of fresh juice is pretty good value (even if the price seemed to change each day even though Dave ordered the same banana, paw paw and passionfruit juice from the same woman three days in a row!) as was the 40p fruit salad Libs got, complete with sweetened fresh cream.
It was a sanctuary few days to relax in our nice B&B and enjoy the sun and good food in town(although we do have to admit to an evening of chicken and chips in our bedroom while we watched Desperate Housewives on cable tv!) and we did do other stuff - we visited an indigenous market in a town named Tarabuco nearby, where locals in traditional dress come to sell their artensal wares and pick up their grain, meat, sheep, fruit and veg, all carried home on their backs or on their sturdy donkeys! On the way back we were lucky to pass a rally car race that was taking place in the region and got right up close in the dust to see the cars hammer through the hills.
Sucre was a great place to recharge and relax before heading north to the capital, La Paz.
Mr & Mrs T xxx


The bus from Uyuni to Potosi started with a little confusion on board. Seems even though there are numbered seats and tickets, some of the local peeps enjoy riding in the aisles to their destinations. That's cool. Mysteriously, a woman kept coming on the bus selling some form of meat and rice dish by calling out over and over 'turkay turkay!'. Libs wouldn't let Daveo buy one to find out if it was really turkey but given we haven't seen a single turkey in Bolivia, that was probably a good decision.

Across the aisle from us were another couple on their honeymoon in South America, although they were, for some unknown and very crazy reason, cycling most of the way! They had started in Ushuaia in the very south (i.e. near Antarctica!) cycled up through windy Patagonia and even through the Atacoma Desert in Chile and across the Salar! "Of course you have some sort of wizzbang GPS kit on your bike, right?" Dave asked. "Oh no," says the Geordie bloke, "just maps and a compass we don't really use. That's why we got lost in the desert for a few days." What is it with Geordies?!?!

We were going to Potosi to do a tour of the mines in Cerro Ricco and that is what we did the next day. We knew that this wasn't a nice tourist tour where you stand behind glass in an air conditioned room, but rather a physically and mentally challenging first hand look at the trecherous conditions in which Bolivian miners work for very little reward. Libs was very nervous given her claustrophobia and while Dave acted tough, he was packing it on the inside!

First stop was to get kitted out in our safety equipment, boots, overalls, helmet with lamp. Then we stopped at the 'miners market' to buy some gifts for the workers as they essentially are all self employed and need to purchase their own gear, coca leaves to handle the high altitude conditions and even their own dynamite to blow holes in the rock! Crazy. Before we arrived at the mine we visited a 'processing plant' which could only be described as victorian given the way the rudimentary machines splashed around dangerous chemicals like arsenic while the raw materials where crushed, washed and separated in the search for silver, zinc and tin. It was a reminder of Bolivia's lack of development relative to it's neighbours given they are able to extract the raw materials but do not have the technology for smeltering so their profits are meager in comparison to the risks they take.

Arriving at the mine itself, we first met with some miners who were kicking back with some coca leaves (actually, quite a lot of coca leaves!) and some Ceibo, a 96% alcoholic 'drink' they sip or mix with soft drink to help cleanse their bodies of the dangerous minerals that build up over years in the mines. Not sure which is worse but given Bolivian miners only have a life expectancy of around 55, they prefer to drink than to not drink.

We then entered the mine. Libs turned back after about 30m but there's no dishonour in that as the tunnel got steep, dark and narrow very quickly, making it difficult to feel your way. With andrenaline and fear pumping, not to mention the noxtious fumes, Dave's breathing was difficult all the way through but he made it through the four levels, over 80m down and more than 1.2km into the mine. The conditions are simply medieval - some miners still work with hammers and chisels, carrying the rock out in bags on their back; most miners are very young, 16 or under; Dave saw four boys push a cart of rocks weighing 2 tonnes to a team of two adult miners who shovelled that rock into wicker baskets that were then lifted to the surface with a hydraulic winch, the only modern technology he saw at work.

It really was a difficult and uncomfortable thing to do but we both emerged with a strong sense of respect for these workers who struggle with terrible conditions to provide for their families. Given the basic wage for a miner is GBP65 a month and any increase is subject to the fluctuating silver, zinc and tin prices, you wonder why they bother. The short answer is, they know nothing else.
Before leaving Potosi the next day, we visited the Santa Teresa Convent which was a cloistered order of some 500 years of history. The convent was amazing and the story our tour guide explained was very interesting but unfortunately we were interrupted by a group of 40 disrespectful brats from La Paz who were added to our small group, making the tour impossible. We tried to get the guide to split them from our group but they refused so we left. If you go to Potosi, visit the convent but make sure there aren't any school groups due to arrive and spoilt the serenity!

Next up, food and more food in Sucre!

Mr & Mrs T xxx

Friday, 5 June 2009

Salar de Uyuni

As cliched as it sounds, the Salar is truly one of those places on earth like no other, where words fail to convey the stark otherness of the landscape to anything else you've seen. Hopefully our photos help fill in the bits our words miss.
Our 3 day-2 night tour Salar and the surrounding desert and lagoons began on 25 May where we met our 4x4, our driver Ariel, our traditional Bolivian cook Caterina, and the two French couples who were also on our tour.
Now, so that we can get the bad stuff out of the way, we just want to point out that while we did not maim or kill the Frenchies during our tour, we did seriously consider abandoning them without food or water in the desert. You know how the French have that innate ability to annoy the life out of you without really trying? Well these people had it down pat. We won't bore you with details, suffice to say we would have killed to have had Hannah there on the tour to throw in a loud 'mange tout, mange tout, may wee may wee' everytime they opened their mouths.
Moving on, we started by visiting a train cemetery just outside Uyuni where huge hulks are left there to rust in the sun, remnants of a time past where the Germans, Americans and British helped give the Bolivians a railway network. Shortly after entering the bleak salar, we visited Colchani, a salt processing town where 5 foot pyramids of salt are also left in the sun, this time to dry before being baked in ovens and shipped out nationally and for export.

Driving on to the Salar proper, the vast whiteness of it all surrounds you and you start to wonder how many people must have lost their way over the centuries and perished in the sun while trying to find their way out of a place with no points of reference other than the mountains in the far distance?! Thankfully, there is now an obvious black track that the 4x4s (and some mental cyclists we saw!) use to find their way to Isla Incuasi, where we stopped for lunch, to walk the hilly island covered in cacti and, as most travellers do, to have fun playing perspective with our camera. Check the dinosaur shots!

On the way off the Salar, we visited the 'Crystal Caves' where salty stalacti sparkle in the dim light. The cave is also close to a pre-Incan graveyard though the tombs were robbed by the Spanish in colonial times.
Our first night was spent in Colchaki, a small village just off the edge of the Salar. We lodged with a local family which gave us a real insight into their way of life. We complained about the cold but they live with it year in, year out! Amazing! Equally amazing was the multitude of stars and satellites we could see that night, out in the supreme blackness of the Salar and desert. A little less amazing was the village band who were practicing across the road - don't give up your day job muchachos!

Day 2 was less salar, more desert, volcanos and lagoons. We started early to see the active Volcano Ollagre which borders with Chile, then a long drive through the desert to lunch with flamingos beside a lagoon (joined later by a desert fox named Antonio who apparently regularly turns up to collect some scraps). In the afternoon we saw the Arbol de Piedra (the rock tree) and then onto Laguna Colorado where flocks of pink flamingos and other birds live and play in the shadow of snowcapped mountains. Truly stunning! That night we tried to stand out and see the stars again but only managed about 2 mins as it must have been minus 157! (that may be a slight exagerration, but only slight).

Super early start of 4.30am for day 3 so we could see the thermal geysers at their most active. That much was true, the first we saw was shooting sulphuric steam out of the ground like a burst mainline pipe but there was no way in hell we were getting out of the 4x4 in that cold! We could see very well from our seats thank you very much. So we left the geysers to themselves and headed south to Laguna Verde which, as the name suggests, was emerald green, owing to the ascenic that naturally occurs in its waters. No flamingos playing there! The early start was made worth our while when we stopped for a pre-breakfast dip in a thermal spa bath! Ahhhhh! So good! Topped off with pancakes for breakfast, awesome. On the long drive back to Uyuni we stopped to see the Dali rocks (art imitating life or vice versa?), the Valle de Rocas, lunch in Villa Mar and afternoon break in San Cristobal.

All in all, it was a long 3 days with a lot of driving time but the landscape makes up for any annoyance at the cramped quarters. The Salar is something you must see to feel its bleak and vast power, the desert that surrounds it gives a different and often contrasting image at each turn and the lagoons show life does, literally, spring eternal.

It was one of the best things we've ever done.

Mr & Mrs T xxx

The start of new adventures in Bolivia

So... we took the smelly cockroach ridden overnight bus from Salta to the border town La Quiaca on 23 May, arriving to sub zero temperatures just before sunrise. No mi gusta! But we did meet Javier and Angela, a really lovely couple from Columbia who were on a 3 week tour of Bolivia and Peru. We crossed the border with them from La Quiaca to Villazon in Bolivia at 7am, where we had plenty of time to kill before the one train to Uyuni which left at 3.30pm, so we spent ours walking around the markets stocking up on thermals, ready for the minus 15 degrees we were about to meet in Salar de Uyuni!

There's not much to see in Villazon, except for the boxing ring next to the toilets at the bus station (we guess if you have time to kill, why not box out some of that pent up frustration?) and the Bolvian women in their traditional dress, hat and apron.

The train to Uyuni was actually very clean and comfortable and we spent some more time with Javier and Angela, where Dave was doing very well at practicing his spanish! Again Libby was good at practising her spanish listening rather than speaking.

Arriving in Uyuni at midnight, we were well prepared for the cold which actually wasn't as bad as we'd expected (helped by wearing all the clothes we'd just brought in villazon). That was a lot of travelling in one go to make it to Uyuni but definitely worth it for the Salur Uyuni tour which was truly amazing. We'll save that for the next post.

Miss you all. Lots of love,

Mr and Mrs T xxx

Dos and Don'ts in Argentina

Before we continue the blog with our Bolivian adventures, here are a few of what we think are essential top tips for those of you who may be planning a trip to Argentina in the future:

1. Don't eat three full Argentine meals a day unless you are in sumo training. 2 is enough (even for Daveo!) - we'd suggest skipping breakfast, unless it's the devine breakfasts at Oui Oui cafe in Palermo.

2. Don't order the "Cuban rice" dish at El Preferido in Palermo at dinner time (aka. 11pm) - its a heart attack waiting to happen as you can see from the pic.

3. Don't EVER give up your change. Coins are literally like gold dust, fight to the bitter end to hold on to your change. You'll need these coins for the bus, your bottle of water, your Alfajore snack, everything really. And nobody ever wants to give you change back.

4. Speaking of buses in Buenos Aires, do make sure you get on the bus heading in the right direction else you'll end up at the aeroporto instead of the museo. We can tell you the walk back to town isn't scenic.

5. Do try dulce de leche - its actually quite hard to escape it because the Argentines put it in and on everything - especially at breakfast. But one little word of warning, steer clear of the 4 inches of dulce de leche in between two thin shortbread biscuits (a typical torta) at Oui Oui - its extreme overkill.

6. Do try the alfajores, tamales, humitas, empanades and locros. All extremely great Argentine cuisine, especially in Salta and Cafayate.

7. Do drive the Ruta 40 from Cafayate to Cachi, but perhaps not in a Fiat Uno!

8. Don't take the Flecha bus from Cordoba to Salta or you'll be met by the rudest bus staff in the history of rude bus staff. And don't take the Balut bus from Salta to La Quiaca (the border town) or you'll have to share your seat with a cockroach/cocaracha!

9. Do try as many Torrontes white wines as you can. Amazing!! It is now our favourite grape.

10. Do definitely climb Cerro Uritorio, after all its just a "hill".

11. And do leave plenty of room in your bag and money in your bank to buy shoes in Buenos Aires (a little extra tip for the girlies!).

Mr & Mrs T xxx