Saturday, July 31, 2010

Bolivian adventures never cease to amaze!

From Sucre to La Paz, we took what was apparently the nicest bus that Bolivia probably has to offer. Sadly, the first 1.5 hours was probably the most painful bus ride I've ever taken. Thanks to the wonderful sea sickness pills that my parents had given me, I passed out for the next 10 hours! We woke up to a lovely view of La Paz, which is the highest capital in the world. It makes for a picturesque site since the city is built in a valley with homes all round the surrounding mountains and cliffs. We haven't really gotten use to the altitude...we were hoping that 3 weeks in over 3500m would do it, but it's still hard to make it up a flight of steps without puffing and wheezing!

Bolivia's history - I went on a really informative city tour around La Paz. No wonder there is so much poverty here. They have had over 200 military coups in the last 155 years. They even had a president that only lasted for 6 hours. At one point in the last 20 years, inflation would rise nearly 500% every month. There is so many things to enjoy about Bolivia. There is much more culture here and you see indigenous people everywhere dressed in traditional garb. Aside from Catholicism, the Spanish influence is not as evident. There is an interesting balance between religion and superstition and the mixture of different beliefs intertwined. When you visit Witches' Market, the tourist shopping area - you can find mummified baby llamas in every stage. The very small/fetus size ones are for offerings to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) and the slightly bigger ones are buried under a construction site before they build a house for luck, safety and prosperity. Unfortunately, the hardship of the locals are also seen in everyday life. The wrinkles that line the faces of people are evidence of the lack of opportunities that exist. I never thought I would be heartbroken about how the crackdown on cocaine could make a whole country suffer even more. Because of the limits of coca leave production, Bolivia loses over $500 million dollars every year. In a country where you can easily survive in relative luxury at $10 a day, the impact on the locals is staggering.

We've met many people who have absolutely loved the insanity of Bolivia. And truly, there is a never endless amount of adventure that occurs here. Everything is a challenge here - breathing, getting a bus, crossing the street, arriving anywhere. The only thing that seems easy is getting sick. Every traveler we've met is sporting a cough of some sort, either because of the freezing weather or some sort of food poisoning. Interesting enough, I've had one of the best meals of my life here! It was Mixto Shawarma (chicken, shish kebab, beef, tabouleh, eggplant) and the most delicious chocolate cake (with layers of dulce de leche and almonds in between). I know, I had to talk about it since it was fantastic. Of course when I tried to go for a repeat the next day, the place was closed down (with a sign that didn't explain whether it was the sketchy kitchen or the illicit activities that I'm sure goes on there...)

Death Road - Known as the "Most Dangerous Road in the World", it's famous for tourists biking (and unfortunately dying). Don't worry Mom and Dad, I've already done it and survived!! Oh my gosh, this was one of the best and most exhilarating things I've ever done. Yuko skipped it cause there was no way she was going to go down from 4700m into 65km of downhill goodness. The trip starts with a drive from La Paz for an hour until you are high up in the Bolivian Andes. I wasn't expecting to see snow and ice everywhere. But all of a sudden we stopped a lagoon, where the guide proceeded to give us a full face helmet, hardcore pants and vest, knee and elbow pads and one of the best full suspension bikes I've ever tried (and trust me, it was worth paying extra). You start at a freezing icy highway, where you zoom past trucks and cars at some crazy speed. The views are spectacular of the mountains and valley. You feel the cold brisk air invigorate you as you bike through clouds at a breezy 80km/hr. There's plenty of stops along the way to admire the views. One of the guys in my tour bailed within the first 10 minutes. Thankfully, he is alive and well, it served as a great reminder to the rest of us to be extremely careful. Trust me, between all the adrenaline coursing through my veins, I was holding on to the brakes for dear life for the whole 4 hours! You continue to a gravely road, which is technically the start of Death Road. It's insane and it's clearly not for the weak of heart with extreme drop-offs, no guardrails and its muddy road with loose rocks. It's width is the size of a one lane road with 150m cliffs on one side and the mountain on the other. It's exhilarating and you feel so alive biking through mini waterfalls. You see amazing views of varied topography, from hawk-like birds flying over you until you end up in a really hot subtropical area. The whole experience was simply amazing...

After La Paz, we decided it was a shame not to do anything Amazonian in South America. So we took a 3 day tour of The Pampas and we're soooo happy that we did because the Amazon Basin was fantastic! After a quick panic in the airport where we thought we missed our plane, we ended up making friends with our Dutch boy and took a small 20 seater with twin propellers to Rurrenabaque. The next day our tour began and luckily we had the best group and guide ever! Although the Brits had a weird and hilarious obsession with llamas - hence our group name "Sexy Llama Bitches". It started with a 3 hour jeep journey, where we caught a glimpse of some of the wildlife we were going to see. Hard to believe it was going to get even better after seeing all those birds and these gigantic guinea pig looking mammals (whose name I can not remember for the life of me). After, you're treated to a 2 hour ride on a motorized canoe that takes you down a winding river. It was exciting seeing caymans (kinda like an ugly crocodile/alligator) and turtles and so many different types of birds (only ones I can name - the herons and storks). I didn't know that turtles where so affectionate. They look like they are perpetually spooning sitting on logs on top of each other like they're doing a conga line.

Our "ecolodge" was basically wooden cabins with beds and mosquito nets. It as very rustic and kinda cool with all the hammocks you can laze about in. The next day we went searching for Anaconda in the muddy marsh. Let's just say that I now have a sock that will perpetually be brown cause my boots had holes in it. Thankfully, we saw one on dry land - did you know that a 3 foot anaconda is like 50-60kg?! We all felt really thin ;) After the trek, we went down the river, saw a toucan and a sloth and went fishing for piranhas. Although Yuko didn't catch one she was a trooper for trying since you have use meat as bait. As for me you ask, I caught the first one! We had it for dinner later on that night. Tastes like fish ;) ...and it's not that meaty but there's something satisfying about eating a meal you caught. On our last day we swam with the dolphins, caymans and piranhas...apparently the dolphins keep you safe by warding away the carnivorous animals, call me a skeptic but I wasn't sure how I felt about that specially since they were all in the water that day. So, I jumped out of the boat and got Yuko to take a picture...I lived to tell the tale!

Isla Del Sol - Our next adventure took us to Copacabana in Lake Titicaca. At over 3800 m and over 160 sq km, it is the highest navigable lake in the world. According to Incan mythology, this is the place where the world was created. The god, Viracocha, came out of the lake and created the sun, the stars and the first people. We took a boat out on its turquoise waters and took some lovely pictures of the views. The ruins were disappointing (what bloody ruins? It's just a rock seriously) but the 3 hour hike was beautiful. It was majestic feeling the hot sun bear down on you and watch the rays sparkle on the water. The next day, Ben had the great idea of taking a rowboat, having a picnic and a swim. That was one of the most relaxing and funniest experiences ever...let's just say that the water was freeeeezing!

We've headed into Peru already...I know these updates are getting long but it's really hard not to try and share the cool adventures we've been having. I think it'll get even better!

Row row row your boat...

Isla del Sol - Birthplace of the Sun

I'm a piranha fishing pro!

Best Tour Ever! The Pampas Rocks!

A cayman right before he lunged for the water!

La Paz by night at the Mirador (viewpoint)

The Witches' Market. Llama fetus anyone?

My hardcore mountain biker chic look.

The cliffs we biked on Death Road!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bolivia = the REAL South American Adventure!

While I don't normally skip adventures, I'm going to for this particular goodness. Don't worry, I'll get back to it...but right now, I'm going to delve into the random adventure we've just had. So our supposed 2 hour ride from Potosi to Sucre took a wonderful 12 hrs. Since I did the mine tour, we missed the last bus and decided to take a "taxi" which is actually a minivan that shuffles people across the 2 cities. First there was the flat tire, but that was fixed relatively quickly. I was in the front seat with the driver and Yuko was nestled in between 2 older Bolivian gentlemen (that ended up being quite nice). So off we drive on the thankfully paved roads...and about 20 kms away from Sucre our taxi broke down. First it was kinda exciting, in a Bolivian adventure sorta way. After tinkering with the van for about 2 hours, the first theory was that it was the lack of gas, but the driver hitched a ride, got some and then they figured out it wasn't. After a few more hours, other theories emerged about the battery, the alternator and then the pump. Needless to say, we were obviously not amongst mechanics. So they gave up and ended up starting a bonfire on the side of the road. We ended up tearing down trees for firewood, enjoyed the stars and practiced our Spanish. The stark realization that we were going to have to sleep in the van in almost freezing temperature didn't really hit us until 3am (we were suppose to arrive at 10:30pm). So yup, we've finally used my emergency blanket and my super duper headlamp! We finally got into Sucre after hitching a ride with this crazy woman taxi driver at 7am who was nice enough to pick us up but drove like a manic fiend across the winding road overtaking everything in site from trucks, to kids running and barking dogs. And before you ask, we still had to pay the full amount despite getting here way later than expected...meh, at least we're safe and sound in Sucre. From the little we've seen, it's a beautiful and peaceful UNESCO city. We've stayed almost a week here - not doing a heck of a whole lot but getting warm and healthy. Again, it's been meeting about great people...we've had copious amounts of wine (the Bolivian strain is not so bad), played hours and hours of Shithead and just generally hung around talking about life and such.

But back to the last few weeks. After La Serena we headed to San Pedro de Atacama, Northern Chile. This was our last city in Chile, which means we were going to do it well. We wonderfully bumped into our fave Scots, and we had a crew of Londoners, French/Canadians and Irish who we did some fantastic tours with. On one of our excursions we woke up at 4am to head to the Geysers. Aside from the fact that it was -9 we had a blast looking at the natural geysers, blasting jets of water and steam into the air. We had almost forgotten how cold minus anything feels. But we were rewarded with a swim at a hotspring (that felt pretty damn chilly). I tried llama meat for the first time and it was delicious! I think it might be my new fave meat - it's really really tasty in a non gamey way. It's suppose to be healthier and leaner than beef. Either way, I can't seem to get enough of it. We got back early to watch the Chile match in a bar that was filled with really proud and excitable locals. I've never been in a place where people celebrated so much even though they lost " Vamos vamos Chilenos"! We started with 10 pitchers of beer and ended up having our own little bonfire party at the hostel with pisco sours and wine. The next day, we discovered the joys of sandboarding! Of course Yuko is now a pro as well...apparently anything with a board and she's ON baby! ON! If only it didn't kill your lungs so much to climb up the sand dune, it'd be far better. We went to the Valley of the Moon afterward and as you look over the cliff, you see this majestic view of craters and dunes. It was amazing seeing the sunset as it changes colours and actually see the moon rise from behind the mountain. After, it didn't take much to convince us to go to the desert party, which pretty much consisted of drinking and standing around a gigantic bonfire. But we had great company and I'm a big fan of drinking under the stars in open air...
Salta, Argentina = Felt a bit like a blip but Lynsey, Toby, Yuko and I had a fun wine/gorge tour to Cafayate. HL - Yuko scrambling up a cliff in boots...yeah, we thought it was a city tour. Oops, not so much. Her new nickname...spiderwoman. We headed up north again to the border and walked through to Villazon, Bolivia to take the train even further north.

Tupiza, Bolivia - This was just another short pit-stop to stock up on Alpaca goodness so that we could be warm and be prepared for our excursion. We heard that the Salt Flats were going to be extremely cold and we definitely needed some warmer clothes. Our list consisted of buying sweaters, toques, scarfs, socks, leg warmers and basically anything that we thought we would need. Check the Facebook pictures, you can see us modeling the gear and looking local. It's funny, I still think of Flashdance when I wear the leg warmers...we look local, in fact, we're actually taller than a lot of the locals! Wahoo. We feel like giants...Yuko loooooves it!

Uyuni Salt Flat Tour - We took a 3 day tour = ie. we spent 3 rather grungy dirty days on an old beat up Toyota Landcruiser we named Tupac (in our defense, he was an aboriginal leader that fought against the Spanish Conquistadors...the rapper may or may not have been named after him). Day 1 - Lots of salt. Bolivia has the largest salt flats in the world. It was really impressive and we tried to take some funky pictures but to be honest, it really didn't turn out very well. Apparently, taking perspective pictures are a lot harder to take than it seems. We also played in the Train Cemetery - which is a graveyard for all the old trains that use to carry the minerals across the country. It was basically like an adult size jungle gym with lots of rust. We stayed in a Salt Hotel, saw some mummies in a cave and watched shooting stars. I've never seen so many stars in my life. With no light pollution, at over 4000 meters, you can see the Milky Way and stars all the way to the horizon. There is something wonderfully poetic about seeing millions of stars surrounding you. Day 2 and 3 consisted of seeing lagoons, lakes and some really interesting rock formations. We saw a red lagoon, a blue one, a white one, a green one. To be honest, we were kinda done with it...the cool thing was that it started to feel a bit like a South American safari. We saw flamingos, llamas, vicunas, wild rabbits and other bird species. We spent a lot of time in Tupac seeing the landscape and played a lot of random music from Scotland, Ireland and Canada - educating each other of some really cool bands. It was a nice refuge from the incessant pan flute that they seem to play everywhere here! Make them stop!

Potosi - This is the highest city in the world. At a breezy 4060 meters above sea level, it was really hard to breath. Nothing like struggling to breathe after walking 50 meters and feeling your heartbeat a million times to feel alive! Apparently, drinking mate de coca or chewing coca leaves (yes it's from the coca plant but no it's not like doing coke) helps with altitude sickness and energy. I did the mine tour (Yuko opted against it since it's not great for claustrophobic people) on the local mountain that they've been using to extract primarily silver and zinc since the 1800s. It was fascinating crawling through the sometimes extremely hot and cold mine. The pictures do not do it justice, there is no way of being able to truly describe it. The conditions are really awful and the life expectancy for the miners is very young. They use their own explosives, there is asbestos everywhere and depending on where you are, there is not much air circulation. I really enjoyed learning about the culture behind it. They believe in God, Tio (God of the Underworld) and Pacha Mama (Mother Earth). And it's about respect and paying homage.

Aside from the fact that it's been on the cold side, we're really enjoying Bolivia (ok, at least I really am). It's rougher, poorer, less westernized and it's interesting. The people are either really friendly or completely not. It's ridiculously cheap (definitely more of what I expected or had hoped the rest of South America would be). Everything here is truly an adventure...tomorrow we're off to La Paz to have some more wonderful excursions.

Llamas and Flamingos. Our Bolivian safari.

What...another lagoon?

Salar de Uyuni. The largest Salt Flats in the World.

The Valle de la Luna, San Pedro.

We tried really hard to get good pictures at the Salar. Results...questionable.

The mine tour in Potosi.

The different coloured quebradas (mountains)

We feel as cool as we look ;)

Vamos Chile! Watching the game with the crew.