A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: AartiHemal

The final leg

Bolivia & Peru

So after La Paz, the plan was to make it to the Amazon - however that turned out harder than it initially looked.We booked flight tickets to Rurrenabaque - but the landing strip there is grass and so we could not take off on Wednesday as it was raining there and the ground was not suitable to land. And so we were told to come back the following day and after waiting around for 5 hours we were told that the ground was still wet and there were no guarantees of a flight the next day either. So we tried to get a refund - which we did minus a whopping 20% admin fee and after 4 hours of arguing (a very shitty day) and with another Dutch couple we booked a jeep to take us there the next day. We eventually got to Rurrenabaque after a tiring 12 hour journey on roads as bad as the ones in Kenya and after chilling out for a day there, we started off on a 3 day Pampas trip.

The Pampas trip was great for seeing animals - in particular monkeys, river dolphins (we even swam amongst them on day 2) alligators, different frogs, turtles and loads of different birds. We tried to find anacondas but were unsuccessful after walking around in knee high water for around 4 hours - unfortunately it wasn´t the right season. And on the last day we did some piranha fishing but only caught a few - again it was the wrong season. We also did a night boat ride down the river to look at the orange aligator eyes.

After the Pampas trip, we started our 2 day jungle trip. This was completely different - we hardly saw any animals as they all hide very easily in the jungle, but got alot of information on how the natives used to and still live in the jungle, and how they still use the nature for medicine for different conditions etc... we took alot of walks in the jungle, including the slightly scary night walk - especially as the guide told us to turn off our torches because he had just heard something.... but it was great fun. We visited a nearby village on the second day which in truth was very similar to the villages I have seen in Kenya.

After another day of relaxing in Rurre, this time we managed to fly back to La Paz where we stayed for a couple of days before heading to Lake Titikaka and Copacabana. The lake is the highest navigable lake in the world at 3,800m. Copacabana was a bit of a disappointment mainly because the weather was shitty, and because we were getting tired of the high altitude now. The next stop was Puno where we visited the floating reed islands of Uros which were quite interesting and then we made our way back to Cusco - we completed our full circle round South America. We spent 3 days in Cusco where we visited our school and homestay - it was good seeing them again after 7 months and a better grasp of Spanish.

The next stop was Arequipa where we did a 2 day trip to see the Colca canyon, and came back to Arequipa yesterday. We go to see some bullfighting this afternoon before taking the night bus to Lima, fly out on Wednesday, and reach London on Thursday (Miami immigration permitting!!)

Posted by AartiHemal 08:51 Comments (2)

Bolivia - The highest country in the world!

15 °C

We got to Tupiza in Bolivia without too much of a hassle, and also gained 2 hours in the process - due to time difference. Tupiza is a lovely, small little town with not much to do apart from chilling out and booking tours to the salt flats - Salar de Uyuni. Tupiza is also near the place where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid met their match and were killed. We scoped out the tour agencies, decided on one of them and got ready for the tour in 2 days time. It was a 4 day tour in a 4WD, with uncompromising roads, extremely high altitudes (over 4,500 metres above sea level) but great scenery and culminating on the massive salt plains (12,000 sq km). The advantage of starting the tour from Tupiza as opposed to Uyuni, where 90% of people start their tours was that we see the places at different times from the masses, and save the best for the last... ie the Salt plains.

The tour started in the morning at 8.30am, and we had an American couple - Tim & Ellen in our jeep as well. They are also doing a similar route up Bolivia as us and we have done a bit of travelling with them since. On the first day we went though some great scenery, saw a few craters, lots of llamas and some flamingoes in a lake.Bolivia_Ma.._bc_020.jpg

On the second day, we saw more flamingoes, passed by 5 lakesBolivia_Ma.._bc_057.jpg, all in different colours due to different mineral content, had a dip in a hotspring and reached an altitude of 5,000 metres above sea level (that is higher than any mountain in Western Europe and only 200 metres below the top of Mt Kenya). Bolivia_Ma.._bc_050.jpgThankfully we slept at 4,200 metres, otherwise it could have been an uncomfortable night. The third day was quite uneventful, and it just consisted of us getting to the edge of the salt plains for Day 4. We started early on the 4th day - at 4.00am so that we could catch the sunrise at a vantage point, an hour plus drive away.... for some reason, the driver didn´t seem to be in a hurry, and when we got there, we found that we had to walk up this big rock to get the best pictures.... normally it would not have been a problem, but we were at 4,000 metres above sea level, which made the rush up pretty hard. And so we just managed to catch it, but unfortunately, we were about 30 seconds too late for the perfect pictures. We had breakfast after we got down, and then walked on the plains for a bit. The plains are a fantastic sight..... Bolivia_Ma.._bc_255.jpga sea of white as far as you can see in every direction. (p.s. don´t think there is any danger of the world running out of salt) We proceeded on to visit a salt museum, had lunch at got dropped off at Uyuni where we would spend the night.

The next day we made our way to Potosi and met up with Tim & Ellen. Potosi is a mining town, and used to be very rich at one stage when it mined silver, but the silver reserves have since been depleted. Its also reputed to be the highest city in the world - not a bad place to celebrate my 30th birthday, but not a good place to recover from hangovers either. The lack of oxygen at 4,000 metres makes recovery extremely slow and painful. We went out that night as it was my birthday eve, stayed out till 1.00am, had a few drinks too many (well I did anyways) and spent most of my birthday watching TV and getting over my hangover.....

The following day, we went to visit the famous mines. They are still operating, but work is still done with primitive tools, in cold conditions and at an altitude over 4,200m. There are organised tours, with ex-miners as tour guides. The miners are mostly self-employed and work in co-operatives and get paid by how much silver they extract. The tour starts with a visit to the miners market, where tourists are encouraged to buy gifts for the miners. So we bought them cocoa leaves (which helps them to work and not feel hungry during the day as they only eat in the mornings and at night), soft drinks ( to keep up their sugar levels) and dynamite (for obvious reasons)!! Some of the dynamite would be given to the miners, and some would be exploded outside for demonstrative purposes. We first visited a plant where silver is extracted from the rocks, and then went into the mines .Bolivia_Ma.._sc_360.jpg

I only managed to get as far as the museum, which is 300 metres into the mines as it is extremely small and dark, and there are lots of noxious chemicals and gases which can make breathing difficult. Aarti only managed a bit further up - the shaft got smaller and you had to pass the miners working which made it even smaller. But we managed to have a feel for how hard it can be for the miners. Most of them work in the mines due to lack of other work, and alot of them only live for 20 years after starting working in the mines due to toxic fumes. This really is a job from hell! After the rest of the group came out from the mines (there were a few others who couldn´t make it either) we were treated to a few dynamite explosions.Bolivia_Ma.._sc_410.jpg

Definitely the highlight of the tour. We visited a couple of interesting museums in the afternoon and made our way down to Sucre (only 2,500m) the next day.

Sucre has got to be Bolivia´s most beautiful city and is the symbolic heart of the nation. Its got white washed buildings, sheltered pretty patios and thankfully, strict controls on development. We spent a few days there, visiting a dinosaur park where they uncovered footprints millions of years old, went to a nearby market to stock up on cheap andean merchandise, and generally chilled out.

Next stop was La Paz at 3,600m. For the first couple of days we just walked round town, booked our amazon trip, ate the delicious street food, and booked a couple of other tours. We also visited the very interesting Coco museum.

On Friday, we went to see some pre-Inca ruins near La Paz which were ok - nothing like the ones we saw in Peru. Saturday we took a day trip to get to the top of a dying glacier, Chacaltaya. This involved driving up to the glacier - we got to 5,300m and then there was a half an hour walk up to the top at 5,395m.Bolivia_pa.._sc_047.jpg And thats 200m more than Mt Kenya!!!

On Sunday, I attempted to moutain bike down The World´s Most Dangerous Road - WMDR (According to the World Bank). This is a 44km stretch of a gravel track just 3.2m wide with 600m drops, rock overhangs and waterfalls that spill across and erode the road. An estimated 26 vehicles used to disappear over the edge until a new road was built 18 months ago. However, the old road is still used sometimes by vehicles, but mostly by companies who offer these mountain biking tours down the road.... ohh and 11 riders have also died mountain biking - but they were all avoidable deaths. Aarti was in the support bus.

We started off 22km up the road at La Cumbre at 4,700m. The first 22kms are on tarmac where you can reach dizzying speeds of 70-80Km/h. We were given instructions at the start, got our great mountain bikes (Kona double suspension - worth over $2,500) and we started our trip. The first 5 minutes are abit scary as you try and get used to the high speeds, and get a feel for your bike, but it started to get fun soon after. We made lots of stops so that the group didn´t get too stretched and this continued for half an hour until we got to a series of uphills. I and most of the others apart from 4 guys sat it out and rode on the bus because the weather conditions were not great - it was raining and we were still at over 3,000m which would make it quite difficult. Half way through the uphills, we came across a motorbike crash with a German woman badly hurt (probably due to the wet conditions). We had 2 support busses, and one of them had to take her back to La Paz to a hospital so we were now only down to one support vehicle. We continued on and we soon got to the gravel track and the official start of the WMDR. Now the fun started!! We obviously rode at lower speeds, and again it took us a few minutes to get used to the new surface, and the fact that the road was now much narrower with big drops. www_gravit..a_com18.jpgHowever, its definitely not dangerous if you follow instructions and go at a pace you are comfortable with. Saying that, one guy broke his collarbone half way down the track by going too fast at a corner. But the views, when I dared to look up were fantastic, and the experience was great. When we finished the ride (Yes, I survived intact) we had dropped down to 1,100m. We had a late lunch and then made our way back to La Paz up the same road - on bus this time!! It was great to get back intact, and we (yes Aarti also) got a t-shirt saying that we have conquered the WMDR.

Having survived one death wish, we decided to embark upon another one and visit the San Pedro prison the next day. This is a unique prison where there are no guards inside, no curfews and prisoners have to work to pay for their cells. It used to be a normal prison until 16 years ago, when during a big crackdown on drugs, a few drug lords were arrested and were put in a seperate part of the prison. Here, they could build their own flat, and could basically get all the food, amenities that they could afford and were allowed out on weekends. They would have barbeques, champagne parties etc...In time, that got replaced by prisoners who could afford to stay at the rich section, paid their way while the rest got dumped with the population. Eventually the population rebelled, and now the same rules apply to both sections but both sections are kept apart. To get into the richer section will cost you $400 plus rent for your space. There used to be official tours to the prison, but that was stopped 3 years ago as most toursists went to visit the prison in search for cocaine.

However, some of the foreign prisoners have started arranging unofficial tours, and I had to call up one of the prisoners (a South African) to arrange a day and time - was quite surreal talking to a prisoner, trying to arrange to visit the prison. We got to the prison at 11.30, and after abit of difficulty managed to get into the prison. That was the first time we had set foot in the prison, and it felt pretty weird looking at prisoners roaming about, and guards outside!! We were taken to a Portuguese prisoners flat - he seemed like the main organiser of this tour and chatted to him for abit while another prisoner was summoned to give us a tour of the prison. All of this felt extremely surreal. The Portuguese had a big bed, nice mattress, ensuite, a small kitchen with a dining table, a lap top and cable tv with more than 100 channels. We talked about the prison for abit and then another South African came to give us a tour of the prison. Most of these people were in prison for drug trafficking. On the tour, we visited the best place in prison, a 3 floor flat belonging to a Colombian (it was bigger than our flat in London) and it had all the amenities including internet etc..., met a Canadian who was in for carrying a gram of coke, met a guy who had chopped up his sister into 8 pieces (which we only found out later thankfully) and heard lots of crazy stories. The prisoners seemed very pleased to have visitors from the outside and it was a fun 2 hour visit - and we came out intact!!

We chilled out yesterday, and today we are off to the Amazon for a week. That and more in the next post.

Posted by AartiHemal 08:49 Archived in Bolivia Comments (1)

Mendoza and Salta

Argentina

sunny 25 °C

After a short 7 hr bus ride from Santiago, we got to Mendoza on the 29th of Feb. We got there in the afternoon, and met up with our traveller friends from California whom we have been bumping into all over South America. We found out that Mendoza was celebrating its birthday that weekend, and there were some festivals happening so went to the park, got distracted by our hunger, and by the time we finished our dinner, there was a show going on, but it was impossible to get in as the place was packed out. It did look quite spectacular from the outside, but there was a concert happening at the same place the next evening and we were determined to make that one.

We did a tour of some wineyards (bodegas) the next day on bikes. Aarti and I were on a tandem bike since she can´t ride one, and boy was it hard work. We visited a couple of bodegas, got a tour at one of them and some wine tasting at both of them, and had lunch at another place with more wine.... Cycling can be thirsty work!!Pucon_Chil.._sc_076.jpg

That evening, we did manage to see the concert, and at midnight they had a special fireworks display to celebrate Mendoza´s birthday.

We had a lazy day the next day, and went to the park in the afternoon, with a picnic of wine, bread and olives, and didn´t do too much either the following day apart from eating some nice food and having nice wines. Pucon_Chil.._sc_124.jpg

We visited another Bodega (Familia Zuccardi) the next day where we would get a full tour of the winery, how the wine is made from start to finish, pick some grapes and more importantly, wine tasting and a big lunch with all the wine you can drink. It was a brilliant day, and the tour was very insightful into wine making - we tasted some nice wines, and drank lots during lunch which was massive!! I suffered the next day with a bloated stomach and spent the whole day inside watching TV, while Aarti braved another wine tasting session in town - this time it was some boutique wines from small wineries she was tasting. Pucon_Chil.._sc_139.jpg

We left for Cordoba that evening, but did not like the place too much and the weather didn´t help so we only spent one night there. We did manage to go see Che Guevara´s childhood home which has now been converted into a museum. That was quite interesting as we got to saw his famous motorbike, lots of pictures, some letters he had written to Fidel Castro, his family etc... Last_bit_o..c_1_258.jpg

We left Cordoba for Salta which is in northern Argentina and our last stop in Argentina. Salta is also where we found a different Argentina - more Andean in culture than Argentinian. We did a 2 day tour where we saw the famous countryside around Salta with its hills, gorges, and drove up along a spectacular railway line, which was a good way to experience the dramatic landscape. The railway line is considered to be an extraordinary feat of engineering and took over 20 years to build and climbs 3000 metres through rocky terrain of a steep gorge. The train has not been working for 2 years, so we did the trip by road which runs mostly alongside the railway line. We stayed overnight at Purmamarca, a small village with a stunning setting at the foot of a mountain stripped with 7 colours. Unfortunately, pictures don´t do any justice at all. The next day, we visited a few towns, saw some ruins and a mueseum and a church and made our way back to Salta. Last_bit_o..c_1_055.jpg

Tomorrow we are off to Bolivia - and we are very excited to go back to an Andean country after spending the last 3 months in more developed countries.... and its going to help with our budget as well as it seems to be running out of control after Brazil & Argentina.

Posted by AartiHemal 09:22 Archived in Argentina Comments (1)

Argentinian & Chilean Patagonia

sunny 25 °C

After leaving BA, we made our way down the east coast to Puerto Madryn, where the highlight was seeing sea lions in Peninsula Valdes and getting close to penguins in Punta Tombo.
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We made a day trip to each of the places. On the trip to Peninsula Valdes, we saw sea lions and a few penguins from afar. The trip to Punta Tombo was much better where there were at least 500,000 penguins, and you could walk around them. Argentina_..bc2_174.jpgArgentina_.._sc_073.jpg
We also took a boat trip and saw a few dolphins - they were quite playful and liked swimming near the boat, or showing off by diving in and out of the water. On our way back we stopped off at a Welsh tea house to have high tea. Puerto Madryn is also where the first Welsh travellers settled, the tea house culture seems to have stayed.

After spending a few days at Puerto Madryn, we made our way down to El Calafate, which would be the southern most point of our travels. El calafate is a purely tourist town which exists so people can go see the Perito Moreno glacier. This glacier is one of the few which is not shrinking and can be seen quite close up. We were supposed to take a tour which included walking on the glacier, but chose a wrong tour and instead had to make do with watching the glacier from the view point. We also took the boat option where we sailed pretty close to the glacier and saw a few ice breaks - was quite amazing. Argentina_..bc3_004.jpg

Then we made our way to Bariloche, which is in the lake district - took us 3 busses and 34 hours to get there from Calafate - our longest trip yet. We must have spent over 500 to 600 hours on the busses so far. Bariloche is a pretty town situated on the steep and wooded shore of Late Nahuel Huapi.We spent a few days there walking round the country side, I did some rafting on one day while Aarti visited the lakes on a day tour and generally chilled out. Argentina_.._bc_009.jpgArgentina_.._bc_064.jpg

From there, it was onto Pucon in Chile for some volcano climbing for me. This was going to be a pretty difficult climb - the day before the climb we were given out equipment - crampons, gators, icepick, helmet, waterproofs etc... And due to a really harsh summer, we were going to start the climb at 4.00 in the morning with the target of reaching the top by 10.00am at the latest, as otherwise the top got abit dangerous with falling rocks. About a week previously, there had been a narrow escape and they weren{t taking any chances. Obviously it didnt help that I hadnt done any trekking at all since November, and had been enjoying the fine steaks and wines for the last few weeks. The first hour was extremely tough for me as my body tried to adjust to the increased physical activity which it had not been used to for some time - but I slowly settle down and it got less painful, but more difficult as the gradient of the volcano increased. We would take breaks every 40-50 minutes and it was after the last break before the top where I got a bad side strain and couldn´t continue any more. I think it had to do with the way I sat down during the break, and it was extremely disappointing not to continue to the top. Pucon_Chil.._sc_029.jpgPucon_Chil.._sc_015.jpg

We took a nightbus that day to Santiago where we walked aroung the city for a couple of days, the highlight being going to a really nice Indian restaurant to satisfy out indian food cravings.

From there it was on to Mendoza in Argentina - the wine country.

Posted by AartiHemal 06:34 Archived in Argentina Comments (1)

From Brazil to Argentina

Pantanal, Iguazu & Buenos Aires

sunny 30 °C

After spending a week in Rio, we headed to Campo Grande from where we would take a 3 day tour to see the Pantanal. The Pantanal is a large flat area of wetlands, fed by rivers and a great place to see animals - mainly birds. After the 18 hr bus ride, we reached Campo Grrande at 9.30am and started on the tour which began pretty much straight away. We were going to the Pantanal at the wrong time as it was the wet season, and its very hard to spot animals with the lands flooded. But we didn´t have a choice due to time constraints.

The first day was spent getting to our lodge, which involved a 5 hr bus ride and an hour by an open air jeep to the lodge.

The next day, we spent a bone crunching, mosquito bitting 2 hours on the jeep to get to the spot from where we would do a 2 hour walk through the jungle. The walk was ok, as we spent most of our time trying not to step on the thousands of red ants, spraying ourselves with mosquito repellent every 5 minutes and looking for birds and animals. We stopped for lunch and then did another shorter walk just slightly furthur away.

On Day 2, we did a boat trip in the morning up a river and then a ride on mules in the afternoon. Didn´t see too many animals.

Day 3 we did Piranha fishing in the morning. I finally managed to catch one after 2 hours of fishing. Brazil_Jan_08_sc_304.jpgThen in the afternoon, we left for Campo Grande and got there in the evening. Although the trip was good, it would have been better if we had gone at the end of the wet season where we would have been able to more animals.

After chilling out for a day at Campo Grande, we took the night bus to Foz Iguazu - the Brazilian side of the falls. From the Brazilian side, you get to see the Panoramic views of the falls while you can go right up close to the falls from the Argentinian side. The falls were breathtaking, and as there are more than 200 different falls, you can spend a few hours looking at them. We spent 4 hours on the Brazilian side before taking a bus to the Argentinian side to spend the night there.

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The next day we did the Argentinian side - it was a brillian experience. First off, we took a ride iin a speedboat and got right up close to the falls - and got thoroughly soaked in the process!! Then we spent the rest of the day walking around the falls, with some walkways taking you literally over the falls, and the best one being the devils throat. In the evening, I had my first taste of the brilliant Argentinian beef - it was beautiful, all 400 grams of it (I had eaten a fish, Surubi - a local speciality the previous night) Most places serve pastas and Aarti will be alternating between that and Pizzas in Argentina. A change from Pizzas and rice and beans in Brazil. All very healthy!

We took a night bus to Buenos Aires the following day - in Cama suite!! This is equivalent to First Class on a plane with a flat bed, wines, nice food, plenty of snacks served throughout the journey.

We stayed in San Telmo, an old part of town in BA. We stayed there for a week, just going round town, saw a tango show, horse racing at a nearby town, met up with some travellers we had met in Ecuador and enjoyed the great food and wines.

We also went to see an Argentinian carnival - its obviously not on par with the Rio one with only 3 groups taking part - and inferior dancing and choreography as compared to the rehearsals we saw in Rio, but their floats were pretty amazing and we got seats in the front row which made it more fun as the dancers would come over to us to pose for pictures.

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We went to a football match at River stadium in Palermo - River Plate vs Gymnasia. We had to take a tour, as tickets were hard to come by - and its abit more risky seating with the fans than other countries so we had some VIP seats. The whole atmosphere was different, and the football was very European style. The only player on the field I could recognize was Ariel Ortega who plays for River. We also took a tour to see the Boca Juniors stadium which is a much more compact stadium and would provide much better atmosphere.
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We went to stay at an estancia for one night near BA 2 days ago. It was a really nice place to chill out, ride on horses, swim etc... Unfortunately, they are quite expensive too so we only spent 1 night there. There are better ones where you can see how the gaucho life is but this one was geared towards a quiet stay.

Tonight we are off to Puerto Madryn where we hope to see some whales and penguins.

More laters.

Posted by AartiHemal 06:41 Archived in Argentina Comments (1)

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