Farewell

December 15th, 2000

So, Ladies and Gentlemen, there you have it, the end of this particular adventure. Finally it’s time to unpack my rucsac, take off my hiking boots and give my camera a chance to cool down.

In the end, I was on the road for a total of 20 months and in that time covered 80,000km (50,000 miles) visiting 16 different countries on 3 continents as well as taking over 4,300 photos and writing 16 diaries that log every day of the trip. Maybe I should write a book ?

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to see many different cultures and landscapes from snowy mountain peaks to desert to lush tropical jungle. I’ve been the furthest south that I have ever been (Ushuaia) the highest that I have ever been (Huayna Potosí) and the deepest (diving in the Coral Sea).

Highlights
Lots of people have asked me what my favorite place was and I have to put my hand on my heart and say that I honestly don’t know. There were too many wonderful places for too many different reasons. Some were simply places of outstanding natural beauty and others are special, not so much for the place itself but for the people that I was with or the things that happened there.

If I did have to write a list of “must see” places then it would definitely include:

  • Borneo
  • Kakadu and the Top End of Oz
  • Bora Bora and Maupiti, Polynesia
  • Chilean Lake District, Patagonia, Torres del Paine and Ushuaia
  • Rio de Janiero
  • Foz d’Iguacu
  • Bolivia !
  • Machu Pichu & Cusco

The World Keeps Turning
They say that a week is a long time in politics and it has been noticeable how quickly things have changed in some of the places that I visited.

I was in Indonesia just after their elections and I remember sitting in the market in Berastagi, Sumatra and talking to two locals: Ira and Jani. They told be about the elections and how important they were. They said that for the last 30 years Indonesia had trusted Suharto, a national hero, with their country and lives, only to discover that he was corrupt, had abused his power and had basically “taken them for a ride”. They said that the country was devastated and that things were on a knife-edge. If a good, trusted leader wasn’t found in the presidential elections, due to take place a couple of months later, then the country would be thrown into turmoil and possible civil war. The country’s hope and future was in the outcome of those elections. Abdurrahman Wahid was duly elected and there was a real optimism, finally they could move on !

It’s been heartbreaking for me to hear that that new leader has just been accused of corruption and that the political system there is again in turmoil. I think of Ira and Jani and the other Indonesians and of how their hopes must have been dashed again by self-seeking politicians.

In Rio there were posters at the hostel where I stayed advertising BBQ’s at the home of a certain Ronnie Biggs, the infamous Great Train robber. Now, less than a year later, he is back in the UK and in prison.

The coup in Fiji came as a bit of a surprise as it happened only a couple of weeks after I left. I didn’t really notice any tension while I was there (admittedly living on a beautiful desert island probably didn’t tune me into the political problems) and to be honest I was surprised that one of the most laid-back countries I have ever been to, actually got around to it ! You could imagine a bunch of generals sitting around smoking and drinking Kava and one of them says “What about this Coup then ?” and the others kick back, lie starting at the ceiling and, taking a long thoughtful drag of their thin cigarettes, say “Tomorrow, we’ll do it tomorrow…Bula !”

“You’ve got to have a dream / If you don’t have a dream / How, you gonna have a dream come true ?”
There were quite a few dreams that I had before travelling. Things that I wanted to do, places that I wanted to see. So many of them came true that I don’t know where to begin. There were so many places that I’d read about, or seen pictures of, and to actually be there and to see them “in the flesh”, so to speak, was unreal.
Riding an Elephant, diving with Sharks, seeing Penguins, Whales, Kangaroos, Piranhas, Koalas, Orangutans, Proboscis Monkeys, Toucans etc was unbelievable.

The food was also quite alternative and included: LLama, Alpaca, Crocodile, Camel, Emu, Guinea Pig, Kangaroo, Beetle Grubs and Dog – and they’re only the ones that I know about !

I consider myself very fortunate in that I was rarely ill. I got Giardia a couple of times, tooth-ache once and the odd cold etc but nothing too serious. Did things go wrong ? Of course, that’s all part of travelling. Things rarely worked out the way that you expected them to but they always worked out somehow – you just have to be flexible.

Any Differences
People ask “What have you learnt ?”, “Have you changed ?”. They are difficult questions to answer. If I’d learnt nothing and hadn’t changed in some way then it would be quite sad really. As to how I’ve changed ? That’s probably easier for someone else to say than me.

It’s been fascinating to see how different cultures have different ideas about things and approach common problems in different ways. Not necessarily better or worse ways, just different.

It’s only when you get to some of these places that you realise just how protected we are in the west. We take consumer rights, road safety, food hygiene, justice, democracy, even holidays etc for granted without ever thinking of how lucky we are to live in a society that provides those things. I guess that that is one of the things that I love about travelling – the different perspective on life, the different pace.

Is travelling a holiday ? No, not really. It can sound fascinating and exciting, which a lot of the time it is, but it can also be quite stressful, what with the continuous packing and unpacking, finding yourself in new cities, countries and situations that you’re not sure of and sometimes having to deal with things in a language that you don’t know, constantly meeting new poeple. Although all these things can definitely give you a buzz they can also be a strain at times. Saying “Goodbye” is probably the hardest thing to get used to. I have been fortunate enough to have travelled with many different people over the course of the trip, sometimes for only a day or two, sometimes for several weeks.

Maybe because the situations in which you meet are often intense you feel that you have got to know people well in a very short space of time. Ultimately, though, a time comes when, for whatever reason, you part company and have to say goodbye. I’ve lost count of the number of times where I’ve had a great time with people and then you have to part company and you suddenly find yourself on your own again. There is no family to go back to, to friends to call up and go out with, it’s just you and the big wide world.

Faster, faster !!
It can be all too easy to see another amazing view or sunset and to say “That’s nice”, whip out the camera for a quick picture and then move on. How quickly in life do we rush around and not appreciate things for what they are ? I got myself into the habit of stopping, sitting down, putting the camera away and simply observing the scene, looking at the details and controlling my breathing as I did so – meditating I guess. That way I didn’t just see it but I experienced it, breathed it in. You probably all think that I’m a bit of a fruit loop but you should try it – it will change your perception of things.

This not only happened with scenery but also with my diving. When I was doing my Dive-master I had to assist a friend, Jason, who was doing his Naturalist Speciality. Our instructor, JC, briefed us before going down telling us, amongst other things, to find a big rock and to study it for at least 20 minutes. I’ve never seen diving in the same way since. We saw so many plants and animals that we hadn’t even noticed before, as well as seeing the interaction between them. As JC said “If you go down looking for big fish, then that is all that you’ll ever see. Look for the small and you will always see the big.” Again, it’s about slowing down and taking time to look. That’s not just for diving but for life in general.

Where do we go from here ?
Who was it that said:

“The more I know, the more I know I don’t know” ?

travelling is a bit like that:


“The more you travel, the more you realise that you haven’t really seen anything”

I think that it is true to say that my list of places that I’d love to visit is probably longer now than when I started. Is travelling out of my system ? No, I’ll probably always travel to some extent. I’m not sure that I would travel for so long next time, 20 months is a long time to be constantly on the move but I definitely intend to be doing some extended holidays in the future. That said, for me it’s time to stop for a while. It’s been a long time since I stayed a while in one place and I’m looking forward to catching up with friends and family.

Thank You
So that’s it ! A big “Thank You” to everyone that has taken the time to read this web-site and to email me with ideas, support, gossip etc. It really was appreciated. Also, I’d like to thank all of you that I’ve been lucky enough to travel or meet with over the last 20 months for making my trip so special and for giving me friendship, support and a different perspective on things.

I hope your dreams come true !

Iain

xx

Southern Peru

November 12th, 2000

We were trying to work out if he’d been bullied at school and was now trying to get his own back on the world? Maybe his wife wasn’t satisfying his carnal needs ? Or maybe it was just because he had to work on a Sunday ? Whatever the reason, the immigration official on the Peruvian border seemed determined to give me a hard time !!

We must have been there the best part of an hour trying to persuade the official to give me a stamp. It was touch and go for quite a time, as he told me that my passport was illegal and quite probably a fake, but eventually he relented and we were allowed to enter the land of the Incas.

Puno
The first thing that you notice about Peru is that the roads have asphalt. The second is that it’s double the price of Bolivia. The third is that it’s tourist country, not that Bolivia is without tourists but they tend to be of the Backpacker variety. Here we were into tourism on a large scale and it was a bit of a shock. Finally, the fourth is that, unlike Bolivia, the showers are less likely to give you electric shocks ! (If you’ve been to Bolivia then you’ll know what I mean).
Our first stop in Peru was the town of Puno that lies on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

We decided to get straight into Peruvian cuisine and that night it was roasted Cuy, better known to English speakers as Guinea Pig ! It’s probably not particularly surprising to discover that there isn’t actually much meat on a Guinea Pig, but not to worry, it was worth it for the presentation. The Guinea Pig looked like it had been rolled over by a steamroller, with legs splayed out and its little teeth showing.

The following day we were in the local market trying out the Peruvian “liquardos” and told the woman serving us that we’d tried Cuy. We told her that in our countries we keep them as pets, “So do we” she replied, “until we eat them !” A slightly different definition of the word “pet”.

The Floating Islands of Uros
Close to Puno is a rather strange community of the Uros people. It is strange because it is located on several floating islands out on the lake. The islands are made completely of totora reeds, which grow abundantly there, and which are bound together, layer after layer, until they can support the necessary weight. The Uros people started this existence to isolate themselves from the Olas and Incas on the mainland. Everything here is made of totora, from the islands themselves to the houses the people live in and the famous reed boats that they use for transport. Life here is well adapted to the conditions and as in most other schools the kids here still play football…They just have to be a bit more resourceful when someone kicks the ball out of play.

Cusco
Next stop was one of the highlights of any visit to South America, the ancient capital of the mighty Inca Empire – Cusco.
At 3326m Cusco is a beautiful place and is the longest inhabited city in the Americas. It has many steep winding streets many of which still show the traditional Inca stonework.

Inca Stonework

Inca stonework is truly amazing. There seem to be three main types of stonework attributed to the Incas:

  • The first type uses different sized, different shaped rocks (some weighing 300 tons) and fits them together so perfectly that you can’t even fit a piece of paper in the join. An example of this is in the picture of
    Sacsayhuamán.
  • The second type is similar to the first except that the stones are more regular in size and shape and are built in rows. They still maintain the unbelievable accuracy in the placement of the stones though. An example of this is in the picture of Pisac.
  • The third type is far more conventional stonework where relatively small rocks have been built together in a rather haphazard way. An example of this can be seenhere.

The Inca’s were master builders and even understood the problems caused by earthquakes. Many of their walls and doorways incorporate the magic 13° angle which has been proven to give buildings the best protection against earthquakes.

The Inca Trail
The Inca trail is a 3 day hike along and old Inca pathway which starts at Kilometre 88 and ends at the famous ruins of Machu Picchu. It’s only 33km (201/2 miles) in length but in that distance there are 3 mountain passes that exceed 3,700m (12,100ft) with the highest at 4,200m (13,780ft). Along the trail, as well as the stunning scenery and vegetation there are several Inca ruins to explore.

There is a certain amount of snobbery in some parts about doing the trail ‘independently’ and not going with an organised group. Shame really. Alex and I contemplated this dilemma for a good 2 minutes before deciding to go with an organised group. Why ? Many reasons: You get to meet other people; You normally get a local guide who can explain what you’re seeing and can give you lots of background information and stories; We’ve both done heaps of trekking in the past and didn’t feel that we needed to ‘prove’ ourselves.

The main reason, though, was that our particular group woke you up in the morning with a cup of coca tea. We figured that if we had to be woken up at 4 or 5 in the morning then it was probably best with a cup of coca tea ! Let’s face it, we fancied being spoilt for once.

There ended up being 18 of us and a better group you couldn’t have hoped for. Everyone had fun and it really added to the experience.

The trail itself is quite spectacular as it winds through the mountains and over some 4,000m passes. Having been “at altitude” for almost a month and quite used to hiking I didn’t find the trail too bad but I could quite understand the problems that people could have coming straight from the airport to this. As we learnt on Huanya Potosí, altitude sickness can be a real problem.

Apart from the final night, there are no permanent camps on the trail and everything has to be carried on the trail. For those on organised tours the local porters perform this task and they really have to be seen to be believed. They are piled high with tents, bags, food etc to the point where all you see is a mound of equipment with 2 little legs sticking out the bottom. It’s a hard life for a porter as they have to set-up and dismantle campsites. This means leaving the camp last and arriving at the next site first so that it is ready for when you arrive. They are truly amazing and even with so much gear and wearing nothing more than flip-flops on their feet they race past you on the trail as if it were a jog in the park. We’d made a point of picking a tour group that we’d heard took care of their porters and also made sure that they received good “propinas” (tips) at the end. They deserved every Sol.

Machu Picchu
On our final morning we got up early, had breakfast and headed off towards our final destination, Machu Picchu. After around 2 hours we reached the Sun Gate which is situated at the final pass before descending in MP. From here you get a beautiful view of Machu Picchu and, as the sun rises, the shadows thrown on MP accurately trace the line of it’s terraces. Well, that’s the theory anyway. Our view of MP from the Sun Gate reached a good 20m into the early morning mist. We waited as long as we could for the mists to clear but eventually had to accept our fate and keep moving.

As we descending we got tantalizing glimpses of Machu Picchu as bits of cloud cleared for a moment but then descended again upon the site. Finally we entered one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. Our guide gave us a really informative tour for a couple of hours and then we explored on our own. We ended up staying for over 7 hours i which time the clouds cleared to reveal the site and it’s surroundings in all their glory.
Machu Picchu was discovered by the American historian Hiram Bingham in 1911. It seems to have been abandoned since before the Spanish conquest, as they report nothing of the site, and no “treasure” was ever found there. So what was it’s purpose, what went on there and why was it abandoned ? The simple answer is that nobody really knows. Like the Egyptian Pyramids, maybe that is what gives the site its mystic quality.

It’s hard to describe why but it is an amazing place. It’s location and surrounding hills are stunningly beautiful but it’s more than that. There really does seem to be an energy there, something special. In one of the temples, where the walls were made of large granite blocks that fitted together perfectly, it was interesting to watch people. Everyone, without exception, was touching the stones and running their fingers along their edges. It was totally compulsive, you just had to do it, and it was as if they were making contact with something.

Back in Cusco
We got the train back and spent another week in Cusco and it’s environs, visiting lots of interesting and beautiful places such as Pisac, Moray, Chinchero and Sacsayhuamán (known to backpackers as Sexy Woman – think about it) which is lit at night and looks great.

Within Cusco itself there is lots to keep you occupied from the Cathedral, which has a picture of the ‘Last Supper’ clearing showing Jesus and his disciples having Guinea Pig as the main course, to Coricancha (Quechua for ‘Golden Courtyard’) an old Inca temple. Apparently the walls used to be lined with 700 solid gold sheets weighing 2Kg each, until the Spanish arrived.

The Spanish ransacked and destroyed most of the Inca building and in their place constructed bad quality churches, decorated them with ‘over the top’ interiors more reminiscent of a boudoir than a place of God. Architecturally, the Spanish arriving in Peru was definitely a step backwards.

It’s very easy to spend a long time in Cusco but unfortunately time wasn’t something that we had an abundance of.

Arequipa
Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city but has managed to retain a small town feel. I found it very relaxed and a lot less tourist orientated than Cusco. This is a Peruvian town for Peruvians.

There aren’t a lot of things to do in town but two things stood out. One is the Monasterio de Santa Catalina (Convent of Santa Catalina) and the other, the Museo Santuarias de Altura (Museum of the High Sanctuaries). The Convent has been there since 1580 and parts of it are still in operation today. It is a cloistered convent which means that once a nun enters the convent she is never allowed to leave and was fascinating to see how the nuns used to live.

The ‘Museum of the High Sanctuaries’ is focused on the Inca ceremony of appeasing the mountain gods with human sacrifice. Back in 1995 the perfectly preserved body of a young girl was discovered on Mount Amputu, a victim of this form of sacrifice. They named her Juanita, and you can see her along with many burial artifacts in the museum.

Colca Canyon
To the northwest of Arequipe is Colca Canyon which is apparently the second deepest canyon in the world. One point, the Cruz del Cóndor, is famous for seeing Andean Condors rising and falling with the thermals just a few metres from the edge. The day that we got there, however, was a national holiday for condors and, unfortunately, only one of these awesome birds decided to stay home and not to go away for the weekend. Alex and I were joined on our trip to Colca by two English lasses, Sarah and Caroline, who we travelled the next 2 weeks with.

Nasca
Back to Arequipa and the last (relatively) long bus ride of my trip – 10hrs to Nasca. Apart from almost missing the bus and a rather good magician it was quite uneventful and we arrived in Nasca early in the morning to face a barrage of touts all trying to sell us tours or accommodation – not good first thing in the morning !
Nasca, as a town, has to be one of the most uninspiring places that I’ve been to. It was hot, dusty and…..that’s about it ! We were here for one thing though – to see the famous lines.

There are many theories concerning the Nasca Lines – huge shapes and pictographs, some over 180m (590ft) across – that have been created on the desert floor by removing the darker, sun-baked, stones to reveal the lighter stones underneath. Some say that they were made by ancient peoples called the Paracas, others that they are proof that we have been visited by Aliens. What is strange about them is not only their size (the wingspan of the Condor is over 130m (425ft)) or the choice of animals (some are not known in that area) but that, intriguingly, they can only be seen properly from the air. The jury is still out as to who, why, how etc (although I like the idea of tribal Shaman having out of body experiences whilst taking some mind-expanding drug) but we thought that we would go and have a look for ourselves.

We got a tour that included the plane ride and a visit to the Cementario de Chauchilla and a few other things for a bargain US$35 and headed off.

Our plane was a small 6 seater affair and we got in expecting a nice scenic flight over the lines. Beforehand Caroline insisted that we all take travel sickness tablets which we did, mainly to keep her happy but thank god that we did ! Our scenic flight was more like a stunt ride, fortunately without the ‘loop-the-loop’ and ‘barrel-roll’ but with more or less everything else ! It wasn’t helped by the fact that we left late morning which apparently has more turbulence. Our pilot would lean the plane on one side and shout something like: “Monkey, 80m, Left hand side under the wing-tip, right here, right now !”. Like one of those ‘Magic-Eye’ pictures we would be staring at the ground, wondering what on earth he was talking about, and then suddenly the shape would just seem to emerge from the desert floor. He would then put the plane into a ridiculously tight turn and then lean it the other way so that the people on the other side of the plane could see. Thanks to Caroline’s forward-thinking the sick-bags managed to remain unused. The Lines awesome and everything that I’d hoped for and more.

We were then taken to the Cementario de Chauchilla which I’d seen photos of before. The photos show the surface of the desert covered with bones and corpses that have been dug up by grave robbers and just left lying around. Maybe I’m a bit sick but I was quite looking forward to seeing that. Unfortunately, it was a huge disappointment. Since the photos were taken the powers that be have decided that it wasn’t ‘right’ and so have re-buried most of them and dug several open pits under wooden shelters where you can see some of the nicer corpses on display. Apparently they even change their clothing sometimes to keep them looking nice. I was gutted – the reason that the cemetery was previously so appealing was because it was a bit macabre, different. Now it was sterile, controlled and touristy. As a disappointed Alex said “It looks more like a Nativity Scene”.

Nasca didn’t warrant a stay overnight and so we got a local bus to our next destination, Ica.

Ica & Huacachina
We actually stayed just outside Ica at the oasis of Huacachina. Although the oasis itself is a bit dubious looking its setting is stunning, being surrounded by huge sand dunes, some well over 150m high, that went on for as far as the eye could see. As well as being a good place to chill it was also good for sand-boarding, the only downside of which was the exhausting climb to the top of the dunes.

We were lucky enough to make friends with a local called Roberto who took us on different trips in his open 4WD truck. For one we went miles out into the desert to see a calcite mine and on another we saw the fossilised remains of whales – 600m above sea-level and 56km from the sea ! It was great but I spent the next week discovering dust in the weirdest places. Probably the most poignant trip was to a family Pisco distillery. Since the 15th century Roberto’s family had owned a large estate in the area but with the coming of a military government in the late 1960’s the land was forcibly taken and given “back to the people”. They received no compensation and saw their beautiful home used as a storehouse. The new land allocations were too small to be effective and many were consequently left untended. He took us to what was once the family Hacienda and described how it had been a magnificent house when he was a child – now it was all but a ruin. It must have been heartbreaking.

Members of his family still live in the region and produce their own Pisco so he took us to see how it was made and to taste the results.

Pisco

The main ingredient of the ‘Pisco Sour’ cocktail, Pisco, is made from 4 parts grape juice and 1 part Pisco. It is left for 15-20 days to ferment before being distilled and mixed to produce a liquor of around 48% proof.
There is disagreement concerning which Pisco is the real Pisco. As well as being made here, there is another Pisco in central Chile that claims to be home to the original. The Peruvians say that there’s is obviously the real one, claiming that the grapes used for Pisco don’t readily grow in Chile and that the Chileans have to use a hybrid variety and extra sugar to achieve the same results.
Which is true ? I don’t know but I definitely wasn’t going to disagree with someone that was giving me free drinks!

Pisco & Paracus
We were following the coast northward and next stop was the town of Pisco. As well as being famous for its namesake drink, it is also a good place from which to see the most important Peruvian bird and marine sanctuary. The Reserva Nacional de Paracas and Islas Ballestas have many animals including the Guanay Cormorant, Peruvian Booby, Peruvian Pelican, Humboldt Penguins, Chilean Flamingos and thousands of sea lions.

Too soon, though, we boarded what was to be the final bus of my trip and headed for my final destination, Lima.

Lima
Whilst travelling around South America, I’d heard lot’s of stories about Lima and very few of them were positive. So it was with a certain amount of interest that we entered the capital of Peru.

Coincidentally, Alex and I were flying from Lima on the same day. He to the USA and myself to the UK. That gave us a few days in Lima to soak up the atmosphere, to do some last minute shopping and to say farewell to Sarah and Caroline. To be honest I actually quite liked Lima, you had to be a bit careful but no more than in other places I’ve been to. We met some lovely local people there and enjoyed Ceviche (raw marinated seafood) in the local market, bought dodgy CDs to remind us of the music which we heard continuously and generally chilled.

It was sad to say goodbye to the girls and also to Alex with whom I had travelled for almost 3 months ! It was a little strange being n my own again but it wasn’t for long.

Homeward Bound
At 8pm on Friday 15th December 2000, I was in the departure lounge of Lima airport getting ready to leave a continent that had been home for the last 8 months and which I absolutely adored.

It very hard to say which country or place that I enjoyed the most but South America is beyond doubt my favourite continent. Its size and diversity are astounding and it’s peoples amazing. It will always be a special place to me. I hope that I will have the opportunity to return one day.

There is one more update to go…


View Southern Peru in a larger map

Bolivia

September 7th, 2000

On 7th September I got the bus from Salta up to the Bolivian border town of Villazón and a potential border crossing problem. Why ? Because I no longer even vaguely resemble my clean-cut, short haired passport photo ? No, it was because my passport was too clean.

It was only after washing my clothes in Salta that I realised that I couldn’t find my passport – oops. I thought that it actually looked pretty good considering it had gone through a full wash cycle, and the time spent ironing the pages dry and sticking the cover back on with Pritt-stick had been well worth it. A lot of my passport stamps had run and some were unreadable which was a bit of a shame but I’d always said that the trip wasn’t about collecting passport stamps – just as well really.

So it was with trepidation that I approached the Argentine / Bolivian border crossing not sure if I’d have to get a bus to Buenos Aires to find a British consulate and a replacement.

I needn’t have worried, at the border they looked at it, laughingly asked if I’d washed it, stamped it and let me pass. Thank God for that !

Tupiza
After a night in Villazón (one night is enough !) I headed off to Tupiza, a small town in a beautiful setting of arid semi-dessert and strange rock formations. It was in this part of Bolivia that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their demise. The similarities with the wild west were uncanny: From riding horses through the arid, cactus strewn landscape to watching the locals attempt bull-riding, at which they were quite successful, until the bull managed to escape that is. It was last seen heading off down the dry river-bed hotly
pursued by around 30 locals.

When it came to leaving Tupiza we started to hear stories of imminent strikes and blockades all around Bolivia. The news was pretty sparse and no-one seemed overly concerned and so we didn’t pay it too much attention.

There was supposed to be a train, apparently through spectacular scenery, that we could get but after a couple days of ‘maybe it will come’ it became apparent that it wasn’t going to and so we finally had to take a bus to Potosí. The 8 hour ride took 16 and is definitely up there with the worst bus-rides of my life. It included stopping at least 3 times to change a wheel which seemed determined to disassociate itself from the rest of the vehicle !

To Oruro
In Potosí rumours of strikes and roadblocks were, again, rife and on the bus to Oruro I finally experienced my first. About 200 people had blocked the road with boulders and tree’s and were demonstrating about student grants. Standing nearby were a large number of police in riot gear.

There was already quite a build-up of vehicles when we arrived and no-one knew quite how long we would have to wait. We were in luck though, and after 10 minutes the vehicles started driving around the roadblock with the demonstrators shouting but doing, thankfully, nothing more.

Oruro & Chance Meetings #1
As a town I would put Oruro in the class of “Non-Offensive” – Nothing special but then again not particularly bad either.
It was here that I decided to change my route through Bolivia. I was going to go from there to Santa Cruz, then Trinidad and then on to Rurrenabaque in the north but for some reason gut-feeling was saying to head straight to La Paz and, in my experience, it’s usually best not to ignore your gut-feeling. That’s when strange things started to happen.

The following day I was heading into town when I saw some backpackers and their gear by the side of the road. As I got closer I recognised them as Carey and Susi, two American girls that I’d met in Salta, Argentina, a couple of weeks previously. They, and their friend Heather, had got stuck in a roadblock just outside of Uyuni and, through different circumstances, had unexpectedly ended up in Oruro and just happened to be there as I passed. We chatted a bit and soon discovered that we were all heading to La Paz and so we arranged to meet up that evening.

La Paz
The journey from Oruro to La Paz was uneventful but memorable for two reasons:

  1. The road had asphalt, which in Bolivia is a bit of a novelty and
  2. The first view of La Paz is simply unforgettable. The main highway travels across the vast, flat and barren
    Altiplano with no real suggestion of what is about to appear. Suddenly the ground drops away and there, nestled in a huge canyon that is 5km rim to rim, sits the city of La Paz ! Absolutely amazing !

Chance Meetings #2
If meeting up with the girls had been a coincidence then the following day was even more bizarre. We decided to go to a museum and were wandering around when who did we meet but Karen and Alex, two Aussies that I’d originally met 3 months before whilst trekking in the Torres Del Paine National Park in Southern Chile and with them was an American guy called John – the group expanded.

Doing time in a Bolivian prison
On our first ‘group’ adventure we all ended up in prison ! I’d heard about San Pedro prison when I was in Santiago and thought that it sounded fascinating. The only information we had was the name of the prison and that we should go up to the gate and “ask for William”. A tad vague but worth a try, so off we went.

We found the prison without too much trouble but felt a bit stupid just going up and asking to see a prisoner called William. One of the guards saw us looking a bit apprehensive and motioned us over. We said that we were looking for William and he pointed to a well dressed man on the inside of the gate and with that they opened the gate and let us in, no checks, no ID, nothing !

As soon as we entered William took us to one side and we noticed two other prisoners had stood behind us – “Who are they ?” – “Bodyguards !” – What had we let ourselves in for ? We were taken to one of the cells and told the price for the “tour” – apparently the price included the bribing of the guards – bargain !

We spent over two hours being taken around and chatting to people. It’s an amazing place, like a city within a city. It has shops, dentists, food stalls, hairdressers. It even has several football teams that are sponsored by Coca-cola to the tune of $10K a year ! It is a male prison but their families are allowed in pretty much when they want. Some children actually live in the prison and go out each day to go to school. The only people, it seems, that aren’t allowed in are the guards ! They go in twice a day to count the prisoners but as soon as that is done they find it wise to leave. The prison is, for all intents and purposes, self-regulating.

All types of criminals are held there, William, our guide, happened to be a drugs
trafficker from Santa Cruz serving a 4 year sentence. In the prison it all comes down to money – You’re not given a cell but instead you have to buy one. If you have money then you can have a “nice” cell in a good wing complete with whatever you can afford – cable TV, Nintendo, cook, cleaner etc. If you don’t have money then you end up sleeping on the kitchen floor ! It’s ironic that the only coverage of the Sydney Olympics that I saw, was whilst watching Cable TV in a Bolivian prison cell !

Choro Trail to Coroico
The Choro Trail is an old Inca Trail that runs from the La Cumbre Pass (@ 4800m), just north of La Paz, down to Coroico (@ 1500m). Although we’d all originally had our own plans we decided to do the 4 day trail together. We were joined by an English girl Sarv and, with packs bursting at the seams, headed off. Little did we know then that six of us would end up spending the next 5 weeks together.

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The Choro Trail is beautiful. It starts off high in a stark landscape of snow and ice and slowly leads down a valley passing through several distinct layers of vegetation: from snow to mosses, to grass, to small bushes, to small trees, larger trees, and eventually to jungle. It was fascinating to see it change so much in the course of a single trail.

Coroico
We arrived in the hill town of Coroico and a very different Bolivia from what we’d seen before. The cold, desolate, dusty
Altiplano had been replaced by warmth and thick vegetation and the llamas by parrots. We decided to chill for a few days in Coroico (our hotel had a pool) before heading north to the Amazon but things were about to change.

Things get serious
As we’d been doing the trail the situation that we’d encountered before with roadblocks had been getting progressively worse and had now spread throughout the country. La Paz had, apparently, been effectively cut off by the demonstrators and around the country no goods or people were being transported. We were marooned !

The demonstrations seemed to be caused by several different issues. One was a change in the law concerning Land Rights, another concerning Water Rates and, probably the most serious, were problems caused by the eradication of Coca.

The Coca Leaf

The Coca leaf is a fundamental part of the culture in Bolivia and has been used for centuries for almost every aspect of their daily lives and traditional religious ceremonies. Often it is chewed, or drunk as an infusion for it’s “perk-up” properties, similar to the West drinking coffee.

“The juices extracted produce a feeling of well-being, giving a high degree of insensitivity to hunger, cold, fatigue and pain, and indifference toward hardship and anxiety.”*

Unfortunately, it is also these “juices” that form the basis of the drug Cocaine. Many western governments would like Bolivia to reduce it’s production of Coca leaves as this production obviously has a link to the amount of Cocaine available in those nations. America seems to have taken this one step further and has “requested” the Bolivian government to totally
eradicate the Coca plant. This “request” come with the threat to withdraw all US Loans, Aid and Funding if they don’t comply. The Bolivian farmers have asked to keep a small crop of Coca to satisfy the cultural side of Bolivia but America refuses to listen. It seems perfectly content to destroy another nations culture rather than to address issues within it’s own. There is, not surprisingly, a growing anti-American feeling growing in Bolivia as America effectively bullies the Bolivian government to take action.
I think that everyone acknowledges that there is a problem with Cocaine and other hard drugs but surely the action of the western nations should be to support and encourage nations, such as Bolivia, to find alternative means of income within a partnership rather than to use our more fortunate position unfairly.

Meanwhile, all we could do was to wait, drink lots of Bolivian wine, and sit it out. Suzi and John managed to get back to La Paz in a minibus that took the risk of trying to cross the roadblocks. We stayed a few days longer but time and visas were running out and we needed to get moving. There were still no busses getting through from La Paz but we decided that we had to try to get north – there must be a way, and besides, how bad could the roadblocks be ? And so on a Saturday morning we headed off to below the town to the junction with the main road to try our luck.

The Journey North
There were quite a few locals trying the same thing and we only had to wait a couple of hours before a bus arrived. The driver told us that he could take us to the first roadblock. It was a start.

The first problem we encountered wasn’t actually a road block but a small landslide that had covered the road. The road was only a little wider than the bus with the hill on one side and a steep 300m drop to the river on the other. Some people got some shovels and started to clear the slide with one person keeping a lookout. From time to time he would shout out “Rocks !” and everyone would get out of the way as more debris fell from above. We decided that walking across was probably the wiser option although the bus did eventually make it to the cheers of it’s passengers.

After another hour or so we finally reached the first roadblock. No-one was there but there were plenty of rocks and trees to prevent the bus from going any further. There was nothing for it but to get our stuff and to hike until we could get another ride. It should only be 20 minutes or so. So off we went and the 20 minutes turned to 40 minutes, then to an hour. Four hours of walking later, it was pitch black and we’d seen no sign of any vehicle. We ended up sleeping by the side of the road in a small village as did some of the other people that had been on the bus – much to the bemusement of the locals.

Day 2 started with the sunrise and a primus stove coffee. We headed off again and after only 3 hours we reached another landslide and finally a bus that had been seconded by our fellow travelers and was coming back to pick us up. The 20 minutes had turned out to be 20km !

This bus was able to take us only a few kilometres before hitting another roadblock. This one was manned and a very different proposition from before. They had fires lit and a burnt out car and as we walked past it they shouted and threw rocks to scare us. We just ignored them, kept walking and hoped that nothing serious would happen. Around the corner our bus “re-grouped” and we waited together for a pick-up that could take us into Caranavi, the next town.

Once there, we discovered that the road north had been dynamited by demonstrators and that it was a no-go area. There was, however, a bus going north through the mountains to Rurrenabaque in an attempt to avoid the roadblocks. We quickly got a few provisions and piled aboard along with several other people from our original bus.

It was beautiful scenery as we wound our way up steep, narrow roads and into the hills. After a couple of hours our driver stopped and talked to some men by the side of the road who said that there was a roadblock up ahead. On their advice our driver decided to go back to a small village, that we had just passed, and to wait.

The village was called Villa Florida and consisted of about 13 buildings situated around an open grassed area. We have since looked for the village on several detailed maps of the area but have never found it. We sat around playing cards, sleeping and chatting to some of the locals who were curious about having 6 gringos in their village which was way off of the beaten track. By late afternoon it was looking as if we would be there for a while and the village decided that it was time for a Locals vs. Gringos game of volleyball. We lost badly but had a good laugh. That evening, as we sat around chatting and trying to find some food, the village children decided that I would be a good play companion and “Uncle Iain” as I then became, spent all night running around the village pursued by a throng of local children.

It was soon obvious that we wouldn’t be going anywhere that evening and prepared ourselves for another night of sleeping in the open.

On our bus were a traditional Bolivian band (trumpets, horns and a big bass drum) and as it was
Sarv’s birthday the following day we asked them if they could play “Happy Birthday” to her just after midnight. Midnight, however, came and went quietly and so, assuming that they had forgotten, we settled down to sleep.
At 4am we, and probably the rest of the village as well, were awoken by a rapturous version of “Happy Birthday” which sounded as if it were being held in an arm lock and severely beaten. The band, who were now totally drunk, hadn’t forgotten after all !!

Day 3 and the morning was spent still waiting to see if we would be able to continue or would have to turn back. At midday our driver returned from the roadblock to say that things were moving – it was time to go.

Everyone got their gear together and we were soon off and tooting some lorries that were coming in the opposite direction. We got to the village where the roadblock was only to find that it was back in place, only this time they blocked the road behind us as well and so we didn’t even have the option of going back. We were well and
truly stuck !

The feeling on the bus had changed noticeably. Instead of being individual groups of passengers the bus had gelled into a single entity with a common purpose. Our fellow travelers were very kind to us and very protective. They knew that we were at a disadvantage in these situations and did their best to help us.

When we were stopped everyone started to disembark but we were asked to stay on the bus and out of sight as it might make things more difficult if the villagers knew that there were gringos on-board. We did as we were asked but it was soon obvious that the quick solution that everyone had hoped for wasn’t going to happen and that we were going to be there for a long time. Someone came to tell us that we could leave the bus and there was a genuine sense of surprise in the village – we could have been space aliens as far as the locals were concerned.

We were told there would be a meeting of all the camposinos (farmers) that evening and that the fate of the bus would be determined then. In the meantime all we could do was wait.

It was late afternoon when the bus was challenged to a game of 5-a-side football by the locals and we began to wonder if they were holding us just to have a team to play against ?! We got a team together and I was the gringo representative.

We asked if we could leave if we won – “Maybe, but if you lose then you’ll never leave” – It didn’t seem like particularly good odds. The game was quite serious but good fun and we ended up beating them 6-3. Probably not the best result under the circumstances.

As time wore on it became dark and the village meeting started. We got something to eat and the 6 of us stayed out of the way, thinking that keeping a low profile was probably the best policy. There must have been around 40 Camposinos in the meeting and it went on for quite a time. Finally some of our fellow passengers approached us and told us that we’d been summoned to appear before the council. They’d taken the decision to let the bus and the Bolivian passengers go but, unless we could persuade them, they weren’t going to let us leave.

We were all stunned. Suddenly we had been thrown into the centre of the debate.

It was suggested to us that Carey and Heather lie about their nationalities as being American wasn’t considered an advantage – We told them that we couldn’t lie because if they found out then we would be in even deeper than we were already. We passed out fellow passengers as we made our way to the hall. They gave us words of encouragement but couldn’t hide their worried expressions.

We entered the meeting and had to stand at the front, facing the camposinos. It felt as if we were on trial which, in a way, I guess we were. Fortunately for us Carey and Heather were fluent in spanish. We had to explain who we were, where we were from, where we had been, where we were going, what we were doing etc, as well as having to answer their questions.

After what seemed like an eternity, they thanked us for speaking with them and asked us to leave as they needed to discuss it further. We waited outside with the other passengers, our minds and emotions in turmoil you could have cut the tension with a knife. We’d done all we could and now just had to wait for the “verdict”.

Five minutes later the meeting finished and our driver appeared – we could leave…ALL OF US ! The feeling of relief was huge and we all hugged each other and shook hands with the other passengers and the locals, who were now
noticeably more relaxed.

It was 10pm by the time we eventually left. When we were under way we were told that they’d only decided to let us leave because we were predominantly female (4:2) – the other way around and it could have been a very different story. We didn’t really know how much trouble we’d been in. What did “not being allowed to leave” mean ? Were we to be held captive ? We didn’t know and we didn’t want to think about it – it didn’t matter any more.
By 2am we were stuck again, another roadblock ! We all used it as an opportunity to sleep and this time our driver was able to bribe the village leader to let us pass.

Day 4 and after some interesting driving we finally reached a military checkpoint at the junction with the main road heading north. It was now time to start saying goodbye to our companions as they reached their destinations. When the band got off they even played a goodbye tune. Soon we were the only ones left on the bus along with our driver and his two helpers. He suggested that we stop at a waterfall for a refreshing swim, we were already “late” and so why not.

We finally pulled into Rurrenabaque late on the Tuesday afternoon. Our “12 hour” bus ride had taken 4 days and I don’t think that I’ve ever been so glad to arrive somewhere.

Rurrenabaque and the Amazon
The town of Rurrenabaque lies within the vast Amazon Basin and the surrounding area has two distinct types of habitat: The traditional Jungle / Rainforest and the Wetland Savanna or Pampas.

After recovering from our travel adventure we organised a joint trip that included 3 days in the Pampas followed by 4 days in the Rainforest.

The Pampas
The Pampas is an area of wet grassland where it is possible to see many different types of animals and birds. We took a 4WD to Santa Rosa and then a 3hr ride in an open longboat down the Rio Yacuma in the pouring rain. We camped by the side of the river in a very simple tarpaulin shelter, went for day walks and boat rides and provided a “Meals on wheels” service for the local mosquitos. We actually saw lots of different type of wildlife while we were there including:
Alligators, Caiman, Turtles, Piranhas, fresh water Dolphins, Capybara (huge Guinea Pig type animals), Squirrel Monkeys, Toucans, Kingfishers, Jabaru and many other types of
bird life.

We did a boat trip in search of some fresh water dolphins and when we found them our guide said that it was OK to get into the muddy river water and to swim with them. “What about the
alligators, caiman and piranhas ?” – “No problem”. Not everyone was convinced though and in the end only Carey, Alex and myself ventured into the water. It was great until Carey suddenly let out a scream: “What is it ?” – “Something bit me !” – “Yes, very funny” – “No really !” She swam over to the boat, got out of the water and, sure enough, there were two bite marks on her thigh ! It was at this point that Alex and I, who were still swimming, thought it wise to get back into the boat !!

“The car in front is a Toyota !”
The weather had improved and it was a hot sunny day when we took the boat back to Santa Rosa. We were picked up by a 4WD and we all piled in for the 3hr ride back to Rurre. On the way back a car passing in the opposite direction caused a dust cloud on the dirt track and our driver slowed down with the lack of visibility. What happened next will be imprinted on my memory for a long time.

There were ten of us in the 4WD: 3 in the front, 4 in the middle and 3 on the small bench seats at the back. I was sitting with Hector, our Bolivian cook, and Carey in the back and distinctly remember looking down the vehicle when suddenly the 4WD seemed to explode ! There was an enormous bang, the shattering of glass and the vehicle contorted like an animal that had been shot. The whole world seemed to stop and an uneasy quiet descended upon us.
Alex was the first to ask if everyone was OK and slowly our senses returned and tried to work out what had happened.

We had slowed down to go through the dust cloud but a 4WD behind us had just kept going at full speed and had slammed into the back of us. Hector, our cook who was sitting opposite me, was in obvious pain and the rear window on his side had exploded, showering him with glass. He in turn had been thrown against Carey and had hit her cheek.

As we started to get out of the vehicle we realised how lucky we had been. The 4WD was still drivable but effectively written off. The large steel bumper at the back had been bent to the point of breaking and had only been stopped by the spare wheel under the vehicle.

Apart from Hector and Carey, Heather suffered minor bruising and Karin whiplash, the rest of us escaped remarkably unscathed. Everything had happened so quickly that we didn’t have time to brace ourselves and that had undoubtedly kept the injuries down. I’d somehow escaped without even a scratch even though I’d been leaning against the backdoor at the moment of impact.

The Jungle
We decided to postpone our trip to the jungle for a day and simply slept and relaxed in hammocks at our hostel. We’d gone with our driver to the police station that morning and the official had ruled that the other driver was 100% responsible for the accident. Also, news had come through that the roadblocks were over and that life in Bolivia was beginning to return to normal.

Our trip to the jungle was to last for 4 days. We were to be taken by boat 5 hours upstream to a drop off point, would then spend 3 days trekking and camping in the jungle before being picked up from a different spot, staying in a local village and then heading back to Rurre the day after.

It was an interesting trip and our guides showed us lots of different plants and trees and told us of their uses. As a demonstration an infusion was made from some tree bark was given to Karin for here whip-lash – within days she had made a full recovery !

As is usual for the jungle we didn’t see too many animals (they usually keep their distance) although we did see macaws, monkeys, fresh water stingrays, even a tortoise, and Carey and I were lucky enough to see a mother and baby Tapir as we collected our muddy drinking water. We fished and ate Piranha and our guide told us of large bloodsucking caterpillars. We weren’t sure whether to believe him or not but when I woke in the middle of the night to find one by my head I decided not to take any chances.

Blue or Red
We’d noticed a trend. In our eventful time together we had noticed that whenever we took transport that was predominantly blue in color then it would inevitable break down, crash or for some other reason, somehow not reach it’s destination. If, however, we took red transport then we seemed to be a little luckier. On returning to Rurre we were booked to fly back to La Paz on a Bolivian Army plane and the issue did come up of what we would do if the plane turned out to be blue ?! We needn’t have worried as it turned out to be camouflage green and even had a red-stripe. The only worrying thing about the flight was the Bolivian woman sitting next to me who was obviously a nervous flyer and spent the whole time praying and counting her rosary !

La Paz & Huanya Potosí
Back in La Paz we said farewell to Heather who had to return to the States and the rest of us prepared for our last adventure before going our separate ways.

At 6,094m (20,000ft), Huanya Potosí is one of the worlds highest non-technical mountain
climbs. We went with a specialist company for the 3 day climb and were joined by Günter and Tina from Germany and Marcos from Switzerland.
On day one we travelled by van to our starting point of 4,800m (15,840ft) where we set up our first camp. To put things in perspective this is at the same height as Mt Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe.

After lunch it was into our thermal gear and waterproof boots for a walk up to the glacier where we learnt how to use an ice-axe and crampons and got the opportunity to try something that I have always wanted to do: Ice-climbing !
The ice wall chosen for us was 20m high and vertical ! Climbing was extremely hard work, partly due to the altitude but mainly due to technique, or lack of it. The tendency was to be a bit over-zealous at the beginning, only for the ice-axe blade to become stuck in the ice. It was then a delicate task of using enough force to extract it without throwing yourself off of the ice-face when it did eventually become free.

The next day we packed up camp and climbed to our second camp at 5,200m (17,160ft) and above the snow-line. The altitude was making itself known and progress was slow but everyone seemed to be coping OK. We erected our tents and fitted as many people as we could into one for warmth before getting an early night.

At 1am we were woken to begin our summit attempt. It was just after the full moon and the moon reflected off of the snow creating a magical scene. It was totally still except for the crunching of our boots in the snow and to one side you could see the lights of La Paz glistening in the distance. It was also bitterly cold – They’d boiled water for us to take with us and within an hour my bottle had frozen solid.

We’d been split into three groups and, within each group, were all roped together for safety.
At one point we crossed a narrow snow bridge across a crevasse and shone our torches into the abyss – we didn’t see the bottom. As we slowly trudged, ever upwards, through the snow the colours slowly changed and the dawn appeared.

At 5,500m (18,150ft) we reached our first challenge: a 30m ice-wall. It was, thankfully, not too steep but still hard work with the altitude. It was here that we had our first problem. Alex, Sarv and their guide were in the group behind us and Alex was in trouble. He had developed a bad headache, his vision was going haywire, he was dry-retching and finding it hard to stand up. Apparently you can’t tell in advance who will be affected by Altitude Sickness but when the symptoms develop you have to stop – It’s no exaggeration to say that it can kill. Their guide had no choice and decided to turn back, their ascent was over.

We really felt for them as they headed back to camp, but there was still a long way to go. In our group Karin and I were the worst affected, not by altitude sickness but by exhaustion caused by the thinness of the air. I would never have thought that it would be so hard. We would rest, feel fine and then head off again only to be out of energy only 30m further on. At one point we had to make a decision, to go on or to turn back. We were extremely tired but had our minds set on a goal besides which we didn’t want to let down the others. We knew we could make it, we just needed time.

We kept climbing and the path became steeper and more precarious with huge drops on either side. We stopped and secured ourselves to admire the view. It was spectacular with amazing views of Lake Titicaca on one side and an ocean of cloud below us on the other.

The summit was in front of us along a knife-edge but it was here that our guide told us that we would be turning back. He said that we need another 30 to 40 minutes to reach the summit from there and that we had to turn around by a pre-arranged time which was fast approaching. Besides which, the weather was about to change for the worse and we needed to get down from our exposed position.

There were mixed emotions of frustration and relief. We all knew that, given the time, we could have made it to the top but that this time it wasn’t to be. We’d reached a height of 6,050m (+/- 20,000ft).

It wasn’t over yet, though, as we still had to get down. We were able to reach a less exposed spot and within minutes we were enveloped in thick cloud and snow, reducing our visibility to less than 15m. By now I was so tired that I kept stumbling and falling, my brain just couldn’t react quickly enough to keep my balance. After what seemed an eternity we reached the ice-wall back at 5,500m. Myself and Marcos descended first and then sat in the snow to wait for the others. It was bitterly cold and a blizzard was blowing into our faces. The next thing I remember was Carey stirring me – I’d fallen asleep ! You hear stories of climbers that die and part of you wonders why they couldn’t keep going until help arrived. Now I knew.

We kept heading down and with every metre we lost in altitude it became a little easier to breath and my mind became a little clearer. We got back to our camp and it was good to see that Alex was fine. We rested a little and shared stories before our final descent to our pick-up point, 3hrs further down the mountain.

Climbing a mountain wasn’t actually something that I’d really thought of doing bwfore but I was glad that I had, and the experience is something that will stay with me for a long time.

Time to say “Goodbye”
We’d travelled together for 5 weeks and to say that it had been an “adventure” is as huge an understatement as you could make. It was time, though, to say “Goodbye” and to go our separate ways. Sarv was heading off to Sorata, Carey and Karin to Lake Titicaca whereas Alex and I had decided to stay in La Paz for a time to do a few odd jobs and to catch up with emails and websites. It was sad to leave each other but it had been a lot of fun and we had a lot to be thankful for, not least that we’d all survived in one piece !!

La Paz
We ended up staying almost 2 weeks in La Paz before finally moving on. During that time we spent a lot of time in Internet Cafés, shopping and did a day trip to Tiwanaku, an ancient
pre-Inca civilisation whose city rests near the shores of Lake Titicaca. I’d read about it many times and to actually see it “in the flesh” was fantastic.

I really like La Paz. Like most cities it’s a busy, noisy place but, in my experience, its also very friendly. It also has a collection of many things that I will forever associate with Bolivia:

  • Roadside food stalls selling all kinds of great food like Salteñas
  • Carts full of oranges where you can buy freshly squeezed juice
  • Liquardo stands in Markets. A liquardos are liquidized fruit with milk and are to die for.
  • Shoe-shine boys. In Bolivia there is no excuse for having dirty shoes as shoe-shine boys are everywhere and for less than 30 cents US your shoes can look like new. One particular group in La Paz is quite memorable as they all wear matching combat jackets and black balaclavas and look like an arm of a terrorist organisation.

As with most capital cities, La Paz is a city of contrasts. From the market area, close to where we stayed, you can see the high walls of the canyon rising all about you with thousands of simple dusty houses clinging impossibly to it’s steep sides. It’s still quite traditional and market stalls abound selling all manner of things from batteries to dried Llama foetus’. As you move down the canyon then things begin to change. The streets become wider and cleaner and McDonalds and “nicer” hotels begin to appear. If you keep going to San Miguel, a little way out from the centre, then you enter a different world. It’s here that the better off Bolivians and ex-pats live and it’s an area of nice restaurants, appartment blocks, supermarkets etc which is so far removed from the rest of Bolivia that it’s hard to believe that you are in the same country.

We met some great people in La Paz, both backpackers and locals and had a fantastic time. Time was moving on, though, and so we eventually headed out of the city and into the mountains.

Sorata
Sorata is a quiet town situated in the green mountain valleys to the north of Lake Titicaca. It’s memorable, not only for the sheer beauty of it’s location but also because it has to be the first mountain retreat that I’ve ever been to where you have to loose altitude to go there.

It’s a great place to go hiking or simply to chill and catch up on some diary.

Lake Titicaca and the Isla Del Sol
Lake Titicaca sits at 3,800m (12,500ft) and covers an area of 8,000sq km (5,000sq miles). It straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru and is one of the worlds highest navigable waterways.

On it’s southern shore is the small town of Copacabana, reputedly the town that the famous Rio beach was named after. It’s a relaxing place and was great for sitting on the balcony of where we were staying, sipping a beer and watching the sun go down across the waters of the lake.
Probably the most famous of the islands in Lake Titicaca is the birthplace of the mighty Incas: the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun). It is a very special place and you can understand why it was sacred to the Incas. On our first evening there, Alex and I sat in awed silence for over 40 minutes as we watched the sun sink into the still, deep waters of the lake, setting fire to the sky as it went.

Moving On
After 4 days of hiking around it was eventually time to leave the Isla del Sol, and not only the island but Bolivia as well.
I’d originally envisaged being in Bolivia for only 4 or 5 weeks but actually ended up staying 2½ months. It’s diversity is astounding : the cold barren Altiplano with it’s salt lakes, flamingos and volcanoes; the green mountain valleys that are reminiscent of Switzerland; Lake Titicaca which is in a league all it’s own; the huge snowcapped peaks that rate second only to the mountains of the Himalayas; and the lush tropical jungle of the Amazon basin – Bolivia has it all.

Getting around Bolivia can be an adventure in itself but it’s people are always helpful and, in my experience, incredibly friendly. It’s a wonderful place ! If only the American government would support and encourage it instead of bullying it and using it as a scapegoat ?!

It was with a definite feeling of sadness that I walked through the archway that marks the border with Peru and into a new country and new experiences.

’till next time,

Iain


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Bolivia, Chile & Argentina

August 14th, 2000

I’d first met Pip whilst doing voluntary work for the Parks and Wildlife commission in the Northern Territories of Australia, assessing Cycads. After that we’d met up again by chance in Perth and later, over Christmas and the New Year, in Melbourne.

Since then we had both continued our world trips, with the odd email now and again to chart our progress.

In June, I received an email from Pip saying that she would be flying to Peru at the beginning of July and would be in South America for a couple of months – maybe we could meet up ? As she was traveling from west to east and I from east to west be decided to meet up in Sucre, Bolivia around the middle of August.

Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is quite a pleasant town with some nice old buildings and a central plaza supposedly with sloth’s living in it’s tree’s. Jeremy, an American guy that was also on the bus from Asuncion and who had got to know the Paraguayan police better than he’d wanted and was subsequently $90 worse off, and I came to the conclusion that there weren’t really any sloth’s at all. It was just a rumour spread around by the locals to make all the tourists walk along with their faces skyward and consequently trip over unsuspecting benches !!

Time, unfortunately, was not on our side as we had to get to Sucre to meet Pip. Nither were our navigational skills – we got seriously lost about 15 minutes before our bus was due to leave – This was one time that I was glad that the bus operator had been economical with the truth concerning bus times and the extra 30 minutes allowed us to catch the overnight bus to Sucre.

Sucre
Surrounded by low mountains Sucre is Bolivia’s second capital. La Paz may have the President and Governmental Departments but Sucre is home to Bolivia’s Supreme Court.

Even though our meeting plans had been a tad vague “I’ll meet you at the Villacruz hostel in Sucre, Bolivia around the middle of August”, Pip, Jeremy and I managed to arrive in Sucre within an hour of each other. Mission accomplished.

Sucre is a very pleasant town and we spent a few days just chilling, catching up with each others lives, visiting a few museums and going to the market for fresh juices that were to die for. Talking of the market, it had an interesting meat section that displayed just about every conceivable (and some not so conceivable) body part of a cow that you have ever seen. Some of it complete with fur/hair. Definitely not for the squeamish !!

Pip and I figured that we had about 2 weeks together and so came up with an action plan for our travels. We decided to head across the Bolivian Altiplano to San Pedro in Chile, then to hitch across the Andes to Salta in Argentina and then, if time permitted, to head back up to Bolivia. We didn’t know if it was all possible, especially the hitching bit, but traveling would be boring if everything was planned out to the Nth degree wouldn’t it ?

After a few days of relaxing it was soon time to start executing Plan A, feeling refreshed and ready for action.

Potosí
At an altitude of 4070m Potosí is the worlds highest city. It’s history is of silver. In 1545 the Spanish discovered silver in Cerro Rico, the hill that overlooks the city. There followed almost three centuries of exploitation. “The silver veins proved so rich that the mines soon became the worlds most prolific and the silver underwrote the Spanish economy for over two centuries.”* The mining conditions were (and are) appalling and during the nearly 300 years of spanish control they say over 8 million people died in the mines. Sometimes the miners would be down for over 6 months at a time. When they came to the surface for a well deserved rest their families would apparently have a party because they knew that the next time that they entered the mines would be their last. A popular saying here is that with all the silver that the spanish took you could build a bridge from Potosí to Spain and with the bones of the slave labour that died mining it you could build another bridge back again.

It’s possible to do tours of the mines to experience them first hand. So we put on our worst gear, got some protective clothing and boots and headed off towards the Cerro Rico. On the way, our guide gave us some excellent information about the mines, both past and present, and gave us the opportunity to buy some gifts for the miners that we might meet. The shops on the way to the mines were an eye-opener as it is possible to freely buy dynamite, TNT, fuses etc for just a few bolivianos (less than US$1). Fireworks in Potosí must be a blast !!

After a quick demonstration of exploding dynamite on the surface (by an 8 year old girl !) we were equipped with a sulphur gas lamp and headed into the mine proper. After just a few metres our guide pointed to a white crystalline substance on the mine wall and told us not to touch it – “What is it ?” – “Asbestos !” – great !! After some dark tunnels we found our first miner. They all work independently and sell their ore to a cooperative. Our man had been working over 25 years and his lungs were giving out. He had 10 children to support and so couldn’t stop work. He didn’t expect to last another year. Two of his sons, aged 8 and 11, were in the mine with him, perpetuating the cycle of things.

As we were talking to him, I noticed a burning smell and, looking to discover it’s source, saw that the sulphur lamp that I’d idly hung by my side had set fire to my trousers !! The next few moments were spent frantically putting out the flames. I had to throw away the trousers afterwards but at least I had the satisfaction of giving our hardworking miner a good laugh.

In every mine is an effigy of the devil to which offerings of coca leaves and rocket fuel alcohol are made every Friday in order to keep the mine productive. An offering of alcohol is made to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth), a little is drunk and the rest poured over the devil and set alight. An eerie sight in a pitch black mine. The christian God may be Lord above ground but here in the bowels of the earth it’s the devil that gets homage !

Back in Potosí you can visit the worlds highest Internet cafe and also the Casa Real de la Moneda (The Mint). Although no longer in operation the Casa Real de la Moneda minted the Spanish coinage at the source of the silver for almost 150 years. With independence it changed to minting Bolivia’s new currency. It was closed only a relatively short time ago as the bolivian government decided to outsource the production of it’s coins and notes. Ironically, after almost 300 years of having it’s wealth and peoples exploited and decimated by a foreign power, the government decided to have their cheap, second rate, alloy coins produced by…you’ve guessed it, Spain ! The final indignity.

Uyuni and the Salar
Uyuni is a small town in the middle of a desolate landscape. It’s only semi-interesting feature is a train graveyard of old british steam locomotives, abandoned just outside of town with the advent of diesel. From here it was though, that we organised a 3 day tour of the Salar de Uyuni and Altiplano that would eventually take us down to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.

Uyuni sits near the edge of the Salar de Uyuni an immense saltpan of over 12,000 sq Km at an altitude of 3600m. It’s an amazing experience driving over the perfectly flat, dazzlingly white, saltpan. The Isla de Pescadores with it’s cacti and Vizcachas (large chinchilla type animals) sits, as an oasis, in this ocean of salt.

We eventfully left the Salar and moved onto the desolate, volcanic and stunningly beautiful Altiplano. With increasing height you encounter colourful lakes of blue, green and red, rich in minerals and bacteria and home to many Flamingos of the Chilean, Andean, and the rare, James varieties.

Keep going and you reach geysers and holes of boiling, bubbling mud, thermals and strange, surreal landscapes. Apparently this is where Salvador Dali found the inspiration for many of his pictures.

Last stop was Laguna Verde at 5000m and in the shadow of Volcan Licancabúr before we changed vehicles and started our descent into Chile and San Pedro de Atacama.

Chile – San Pedro de Atacama
San Pedro is a dry and dusty oasis town which sits in the Atacama desert at the foot of the Andes. Here Pip and I chilled (We left Jeremy in Potosí) and did very little except go to restaurants. We did manage to go to Calama, the nearest major town with ATMs and did an excursion to the Valle de la Luna where there was some amazing scenery and rock formations and a spectacular sunset which made the Andes glow red.

Across the Andes
Following our vague plan, the idea now was to get across the Andes to Argentina. We found out that there was an infrequent bus service, over the Paso de Jama, from San Pedro to Salta but we decided to stick to our plan, make an adventure of it and hitchhike. So on a cold Monday morning we checked out of our hostel and headed towards the border checkpoint, just outside of town, where we could hopefully get a lift.

At the border post we discovered that the pass was closed due to snow and high winds and nothing was allowed to leave the border post. The situation could change as any time though and so we had no choice but to wait. By 6pm (10hrs later) it was obvious that the pass wouldn’t open that day and so we headed back into town.

The next day followed a similar pattern and that evening we checked back into our hostel for the 3rd time, to the amusement of the owner. That evening we discovered an alternative way. It was to get a tour back to Uyuni, then a train down to the Bolivia / Argentina border and then a bus to Salta. It would take 2 days. Time was beginning to run out for Pip as she had to get a flight back to Oz but after much contemplation we decided to try just one last time.

The following morning we were back at the border post. At 9am the tour buses stopped on their way to Uyuni. Did we want to go with them ? Pip and I looked at each other – “We’ll stick with it !” and we watched them disappear into the distance. We started to prepare ourselves for a 3rd day of waiting under a hot sun when a commotion started, the pass had opened and the backlog of lorries started to move ! We quickly found some drivers who could give us a ride and were soon in a convoy of 4 chilean lorries on their way to Brasil.

The scenary was some of the most spectacular that I have ever seen, much of it even better that the Altiplano. We rose up to 4800m, made it over the pass and then dropped down towards the Argentine border. At an extremely windy and dusty border post in the middle of no-where the sealed road abruptly stopped and a dirt track welcomed us to Argentina. It was another 12 hours on some pretty dodgy roads before we finally arrived in San Salvador de Jujuy, our drop off point, in the early hours of the morning. We’d made it !

We had a celebratory beer with our drivers in a service station just outside town before heading for a hotel. They had been extremely kind to us during the trip, been infinitely patient with our spanish and wouldn’t even accept money for the beer. It had been a great experience.

The following morning we got a bus to our final destination of Salta.

Salta
Salta is a pleasant town to hang out in and the YHA is one of the best I’ve stayed in. It was also a good place to do some admin things like getting photos developed, sending packages and going to the dentist (I’d managed to get a gum infection in Bolivia and had dosed myself with drugs until I could get to Argentina to get it sorted out). We saw a few things around Salta and also went to Cafeyate, a small town to the south, but basically we chilled.

All too soon it was time to say goodbye to Pip. We’d actually travelled together for 3 weeks and had had a great time. Now she was quickly off to Iguaçu and Buenos Aires before flying back to Sydney to see the Olympics. Pip, thanks for being a great companion.

The “Freight Train a las Nubes”
El Tren a las Nubes – the Train to the Clouds – starts from Salta and climbs, through numerous switchbacks, 2500m through the spectacular scenery of the Andes to the town of San Antonio de los Cobres at 3700m. It is apparently on of the world’s great train journeys.

It is also unbelievably expensive with a days journey costing US$105 !! There is, however, an alternative. On Wednesdays there is a freight train, with a single passenger carriage, that does the same route and costs US$10 – bargain. Being the cheapskate that I am, it was the later that was the chosen means of transport.

It’s a beautiful trip with some amazing scenery and even the odd condor. The passenger carriage was surprisingly comfortable, the cafe onboard serves good snacks at local, not tourist prices and you get the chance to chat to the locals who live in the small villages through which you pass and for whom this is an important mode of transport. Well worth $10.

Soon it time to head north. I was quite sad to be leaving Argentina for what is probably going to be the last time this trip but there is still a long way to go. So on 7th September I headed north towards the Bolivian border and to new adventures.

Until next time, take care,

Iain


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Paraguay

August 6th, 2000

Ok, so hands up who knows where Paraguay is? I’ll give you a clue, it’s not in Africa. (What do you mean, that’s no help? What else do you want, blood ?)

Give in ? Ok, let me tell you about it…

Introduction
The Republica Del Paraguay is a landlocked country, pretty much in the centre of South America. It gained uncontested independence from Spain in 1811 (The spanish didn’t find anything there that they wanted to keep) and since then the country has gone from one oppressive regime to another.

Democracy is now the official form of government in Paraguay, although the country is still far from being politically stable.

When the spanish first met the original Guaraní peoples they were accepted into their society and this led to a predominantly mestizo (of mixed Spanish /Guaraní heritage) society in what is now Paraguay. It also means that spanish is the language of government and commerce and Guaraní the language of choice for the majority.

Geographically Paraguay can be divided into two regions: The area east of the Rio Paraguay (40%) is green, well watered and good for agriculture; and the area west of the Rio Paraguay, The Grand Chaco is an extensive plain come desert.

Encarnation
Having already visited Ciudad Del Este to buy a new camera (believe me, once in Ciudad del Este is enough for anyone) I headed straight to the relatively uninteresting town of Encarnacion, in the south, to visit the missions.

The Jesuits & the Missions. Some Background
The Jesuits were a catholic religious order that came to South America around 1610 with the aim of setting up villages to ‘reach out’ to the native Guaraní Indians.

These villages, however, were prone to attacks by Portuguese and Spanish ‘bandeirantes’ which took the
Indians as slaves. So between 1647 and 1750 the Jesuits took a far more protective stance and actually got a papal order allowing them to arm the Guaraní for the defense of the villages.

The Jesuit aim was to make each of the Missions self sufficient and to sell surplus goods to other missions and towns. They also did a fantastic job in educating the Guaraní and taught them to read and write as well as other subjects such as: religion, civility, arithmetic and music. The Guaraní were also very creative and excelled in the workshops set up for sculpture, woodcarving, art, textiles etc.

Unfortunately this utopia couldn’t last and in 1750 the Exchange Treaty was signed between Portugal and Spain. In the Treaty, the Portugal exchanged it’s territory in what is now Uruguay with Spanish territory in what is now Rio Grande do Sul in Brasil. The latter area contained most of the missions.

The Portuguese had little respect for the Jesuits and considered them as a political “thorn in the side”. The missions were also very profitable, but not for them, and they resented the Jesuits keeping potential workers from them. The Exchange Treaty would allow them to do as they pleased when the territory became theirs. The Guaraní, seeing the writing on the wall, decided to fight against the Treaty and were, unofficially, supported by the Jesuits.

This led to many bloody battles and the eventual expulsion of the Jesuits from all Portuguese territories in 1757. The Jesuits were later expelled from French territories and, in 1764, Charles III expelled them from Spain and it’s dominions.

The film: “The Mission” does a good job describing the Jesuit Missions and the political environment surrounding their demise.

Around Encarnation are the remains of several different Jesuit Missions. In Paraguay there are Jesús and Trinidad and just over the border in Argentina there are San Ignacio Mini and Santa Ana. I decided to spend a day exploring the Paraguayan missions and then another day over in Argentina.

The Paraguayan Missions
First stop was the Mission at Trinidad. I was surprised to find it in extremely good condition. The authorities had obviously put a lot of effort into maintaining the mission and it’s grounds.

From a lookout it was very easy to see, what was, a traditional mission layout of a main plaza surrounded on three sides by Indian housing and dominated on the fourth by an imposing stone church with some
magnificent carvings. To the side of the church were the cemetery on one side, and on the other the colleges and workshops. Behind it all was the garden where produce was grown for the community.

It was all much larger and more sophisticated than I had assumed and a credit to the Jesuits and Indians that had lived there.

On a hill 11km to the north could be seen the Mission of Jesús. Getting there wasn’t so easy but I eventually hitched a lift with a couple of Paraguayans who plied me with the Paraguayan version of Mate which is served cold. It tastes quite nice but isn’t particularly easy to drink in the back of a car on an unsealed road. The driver turned out to be the former local priest and so got me free entry into the site and a free ride back to Encarnacion afterwards !! Handy.
The ruins themselves were again quite well preserved but lacked the scale of Trinidad.

The Argentinean Missions
San Ignacio Mini was a good hours bus ride from the Argentinean border town of Posadas. It is a huge complex but with a completely different feel from the two Paraguayan missions that I’d visited the day before. In Paraguay the missions were extremely well kept in open grounds, free from vegetation and here in Argentina, although well kept, you could see and sense the jungle reclaiming it’s land. I actually preferred that. You have to remember that when the Missions were in service there were no roads and no towns. They were very much hacked out of the jungle and San Ignacio really encouraged that idea.

If San Ignacio felt more authentic, Santa Ana was like the ruins where the monkeys lived in Walt
Disney’s film: “Jungle Book”. They are located about 2km out of town, and then 1km off of the main road and in the jungle.

I got there late one afternoon and found it quite spooky walking around the ruins in the fading light by myself. Although re-cleared only several years earlier the jungle was again overpowering the site.

At Santa Ana the traditional Jesuit cemetery had been used by the local village up until 1975. It was like walking into a Hammer Horror. The tombs were overgrown and decaying and the mausoleums broken open, letting whatever in, or whatever out !

In the Argentina update I spoke about the cemetery at Recoletta and how you could see the coffins through the glass doors. Well, the cemetery at the Mission at Santa Ana took that one step further. The coffins were not only in plain view but most were open and robbed.

The human mind is a strange thing isn’t it ? I remember standing at the entrance of one of the open mausoleums, with the light fading fast and an open coffin at the far end. From the door I couldn’t quite see what was inside. Now logic says “Ok, time to leave !” but like some bad horror film where the person opens the door and your thinking “What are you doing you stupid idiot ?” my morbid curiosity got the better of me. I took a step into the mausoleum and, on tiptoe looked into the coffin. I still couldn’t quite see in and at that point noticed another half open coffin to the right just above my head. I think the term “f**k that !” sprung to mind and I made a hasty retreat, back into the relative safety of the cemetery !! Go on, call me a coward, see if I care !

Asuncion
Asuncion is the capital of Paraguay and is a small yet sprawling city of 3/4 of a million people. It doesn’t really have the feel of a Capital city but it’s nice enough.

Paraguay is unique in the area for not having a Liberator (I.e. an Artigas, Bolivar etc) and because of this there seems, in my opinion, they seem to lack a national hero or focus. There is a shrine, in the Plaza de los Heroes, where the remains of their “great” generals are held. A little strange when you bear in mind that every war that Paraguay has ever started has been a complete disaster !

Two things that should be visited in Asuncion are Museum del Barro and the Palacio Legislativo.

The Museum del Barro, quaintly called the Museum of Mud in the tourist info, (The spanish word barro means both mud and earthenware !) has a great collection of earthenware and relics from many different South American cultures and epochs as well as a nice collection of Modern Art and is definitely worth a visit.

The Palacio Legislativo is on the Plaza Constitución and is the main seat of government. It stands out for two reasons:

  1. It’s bright pink and
  2. It has a large hole in it !!

The hole came from an attempted coup in May 2000 (I.e.. a few months ago) when an army general drove a tank into the Plaza and decided to take a “pot shot” at the building !! They have apparently decided to leave the hole, as a mark of their battle for democracy (On the balcony they have also installed some heavy duty mounted machine guns to give democracy a hand in case another tank turns up). The coup failed but with national elections this coming weekend (to replace the Vice-President who was assassinated last October, again by an army general) I thought that it was probably a good idea to vacate the country.

Friendly Cops ?
The bus station in Asuncion is a potentially difficult place for tourists, strangely
enough, because of the police. In one, 2 hour period before leaving for Bolivia I had my documentation checked 4 times.

Are the Paraguayan police being extra efficient ? Hardly ! The Paraguayan border with Brasil at Ciudad del Este is a strange affair where you actually have to make a real personal effort to clear immigration. You are allowed into either country for a day without the normal formalities. This means, though, that the buses don’t actually stop at immigration unless you specifically ask them to. This results in many tourists finding themselves in Paraguay without the correct immigration stamps.

What the ‘efficient’ police at the bus station are doing is looking for tourists without the correct stamps. If they find one then they are taken to an office, given a hard time and told how serious an offence it is but if they were to pay a bribe ($50 or more) then the police officer won’t take it any further. Unfortunately, the police have no official Immigration powers and so don’t give you a receipt or passport stamp. This means that when the tourist does eventually clear customs they are stopped again, officially this time, and have to pay another, legitimate, $40 to clear real immigration. Policemen in Paraguay are best avoided.

Across the Chaco
On the evening of Saturday 12th August I boarded a bus, with 5 other backpackers and lots of locals, which crossed the huge Chaco region of Paraguay en route to it’s final destination of Santa Cruz in Bolivia.

Now I’m not saying that the Chaco is simply a dry, hot dust bowl but even the Paraguayan Immigration had the sense to put the Paraguay / Bolivia border post 500km before the physical border.
It was a hard bus trip. Unbelievably hot during the day, unbelievably cold at night. There were no proper roads, just dust tracks of the finest dust you have ever seen. By the end of the journey everything was covered in a thick layer of dust. The bus got two punctures during the trip, one in the middle of the Chaco (not a good place for a puncture) and the second by the Bolivian border post in Boyuibe, not a major problem except that, with the spare already used, it was a 3 hour wait while the driver got a lift to the nearest town to find a replacement.

We finally arrived in Santa Cruz at 5am on Monday morning, and were only 8 hours late (35 hrs instead of 27hrs) which, given the terrain, was actually pretty good going.

Summary
So now you all know maybe a little more about Paraguay than you did before. The Missions are definitely worth a visit and if you need a camera or other electrical item then Ciudad del Este is probably your best bet.

The people, apart from the police, I found to be very helpful and friendly but it’s hard to list Paraguay as a “must see” country in South America, unless you’re looking for something off of the standard gringo trail that is ?

Anyway, time to go. I have an appointment to keep in Sucre !

Take care,

Iain


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