Monthly Archives: October 2013

Sugar to Salt to Stars

Bee Says: Non Geog-buffs might not realise that Sucre is actually the capital city of Bolivia, hiding slightly in the shadows behind the hugely popular La Paz. However, visitors to Sucre are never allowed to forget they are in the capital, as every opportunity is taken to remind re-inforce this fact! “Welcome to the Capital City” is written on buildings, cafes, walls and even a few peoples tee-shirts. Of all the places we have visited, Sucre stole my heart and instantly leapt to my top spot. I think this was mainly as it’s the first place I’ve been that I could imagine myself being happy living in. Sucre is nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains that form a protective ring around the city, and make for attractive views from any street. Like Santa Cruz and Samaipata, we were surprised how European the vibe was. Sucre was super safe, really easy to navigate and with treasures to be found around every corner. One such gem was a cafe called Metro where the staff treated us like long-lost family and I discovered a drink called El Submarino which is essentially a big glass of hot milk with a chocolate bar dropped in it. Heaven! In Sucre we visited our first museum and what a beaut if was. The Ethnographic and Folklore Museum was FREE and basically consisted of a room of masks made by various Bolivian cultures. You walk down a long, near pitch black corridor, with the masks illuminated on each side. The fact many of the masks resembled horror movie characters (Saw, Sackface a la The Orphanage… and some that just appeared to be whithered skulls) led to some pretty hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck moments the deeper into the mask collection you walked. We both agreed it was the perfect setting for a horror story. The masks were beautiful, intricate and so detailed that you could spend hours just examining one. Well worth a visit! We also visited the Mercado Central, a huge market selling everything you could imagine. We settled on some Brazil nuts (thanks Tim R for your previous detailed answer to the Brazil Nut query, we took your advice!) and some jazzy Bolivian knitwear to ready us for the cold of the Salt Flats. Unfortunately we bought each item of knitwear seperately, and once we put our jumpers, hats, gloves and scarves on all together we realised we had given NO thought to colour coordination. We both looked like a multicoloured multipatterned Alpaca had thrown up on us!

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The highlight of Sucre definitely had to be El Parque Cretácico (Dinosaur Park!!!) although our journey there was just as memorable. In most of Bolivia one mode of transport is a “micro” – a small mini bus that drives a circuit of the town but that can drop passangers at other spots on route for a few extra Boliviano. The micro’s are varying in quality, we saw one with a hole in the floor through which you could watch the road zoom underfoot (!) but they are generally a cheap, safe and easy way to navigate the city. We knew the number 4 micro would take us to the Dinos, so hopped on and asked the driver, who nodded. Twenty minutes later, we pulled in to a millitary zone and it was clear this was the end of the line. The driver waved us off up a dirt path with no dinosaurs in sight. Eventually we stumbled across a beautiful palace like building, and as we entered we were told we were at The Castillo de la Glorieta. NO DINOSAURS HERE! I think maybe the driver had different ideas about the Bolivian culture we should be soaking up so had basically forced us to his favourite tourist spot? Either way we had a look around, meeting a group of school kids in there who ALL wanted their photos taken with the weird muy blanco foreigners! But, we really wanted dinosaurs, so we walked back to where our driver had dumped us and were told that yes, the parque was on the micro 4 route, but the opposite end of the line! We boarded a new 4 and 45 minutes later we had basically seen the whole of Sucre for about 60p and were finally at our desired destination.

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El Parque Cretácico isn´t just a bunch of life-size dino models (although they are pretty nifty). The main draw here is the fact you can see geniune dinosaur tracks, a definite “bucket list” item for me and something that didn’t disappoint. Over 450 prints, from various sized dinos, are impressioned on a 70 degree wall of a cement quarry. Although it’s a wall now, the huge slab of earth used to be a lake floor but over millions of years had been pushed vertically.

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A short guided tour taught us some fun facts, we watched an episode of Walking with Dinosaurs in a small theatre and then could scamper around taking in the incredible views of Sucre and… discover a, erm, dino-vagina (or just a hole for everything actually, as I have since been corrected!). Not something I expected to find in South America, but it made for some good photos.

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The girl in the photo above is Kim, and we met her and her boyfriend Tom in Samaipata. Although they left a day before us, we caught them back up in Sucre. Having no phones and no email, we had to arrange an old-school style meeting, basically “Be at the bar called Amsterdam on Wednesday at 7pm”. This was especially fitting as Tom and Kim are Dutch. It worked, and we were reunited, spending the majority of our time in Sucre with them. We really hit it off and they were the dream travel buddies, really enhacing the fun factor of Sucre for us. We made the most of Happy Hour both nights, but in a terrible badly translated “joke” Tom ordered us 6 Caipirinha´s one night (after already drinking two jugs of local beer) which ended up in headache horror all round.

Nick Says: Waking up the next day with a slightly sore head, it was time to take the bus to Uyuni. We huffed and puffed up a very steep hill for 15 minutes, where the friendly man who had sold us our tickets a few days before quickly ushered us to where we needed to be. For the first time on the trip, there were other backpackers boarding a bus with us. The Gringo Trail was calling us, and it wouldn´t disappoint… After our last ‘bus of terror’, we were a little bit leery about this journey, but Tom & Kim had nothing but good things to say about their night bus journey on the same Samaipata to Sucre route, so we just chalked it up to a bad driver and settled in to our seats. The 8 hour journey down was spectacular, and gave us a glimpse of what to expect. We were entering the Bolivian Andes. However, rather than enjoy the mountainous terrain, I found myself at the beck and call of a tiny Bolivian toddler. He was bored and crying through most of the journey, so I decided to make a few faces at him. The gringo being silly was a big hit, and in no time I was the difference between a screaming child and a laughing one. I think his Mum was appreciative, until I taught him to stick his tongue out. Which he bloody loved – especially constantly at his Mum. Oops.

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We arrived in Uyuni ready for adventure. The mythical salar de Uynuni beckoned. However, the town itself defintely doesn’t inspire much. Built by tourism for tourism, it’s piled high with tour operators and dime a dozen pizzerias. As ever, Bee insisted on seeing the positive, and in this case Uyuni had ‘amazing light’. The only good thing for me was the excellent Minute-Man pizza joint we went to. Tasty pizzas (including llama topping) made Uyuni just fine, although the first night I drank a beer and pretty much turned green. Thanks altitude. This wasn’t to be our last brush with the high elevation – our tour would take us to over 5000m above sea-level, with some dangerous consequences.

We booked our salt flat tour with Cordillera Traveller, a recommended operator who were good to organise a little extra we had decided to throw in after the tour (more on that later). We paid 850 bolivianos each (including sleeping bag and the extra at the end) but one guy on the tour only paid 650, so there’s definitely room to bargain. Setting off at 10.30am on a Sunday morning, we met our fellow salt tourers (the Lonely Planet tries to call them ‘Salterians’, which I think is a truly terrible name). There was Beau, a big hairy Canadian guy from Vancouver who turned out to be the guy we got along with best and travelled onwards wit afterwards (a very funny guy who dispelled the nice Canadian myth though), Paula & Richard, a Swiss couple who like to take exotic fortnight long holidays all over the world, and Frans, another Dutch traveller who is backpacking from Colombia to Argentina. Full of excitement, we set off crammed together in our Toyota Land Cruiser, together with our guide Silvio.

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Now, the basic Salt Flat tour takes in 3 days and 2 nights. The first stop is the antique train cemetery, the place where rusted locamotives last used in 1940 have gone to die. Rail travel was the brainchild of the then Bolivian President Acre who was desperate for Bolivia to install a good transport system, however it was met with anger by the indigenous people who even took to sabtaging the builld, as they felt the trains would intrude on their traditional way of life. After posing in a few olde junkyard trains, we whizzed on to the Salar de Uyuni itself, the world’s largest salt flat. The second and third days take you even further away in the spectacular scenery of south-west Bolivia, including lakes, flamingoes, volcanoes, hot springs, and geysers. It truly was like nothing we had ever seen before. Even trying to recall it in my head makes me think I dreamt the whole thing. Parts of it were like an alien landscape, as if we’d taken an accidental detour to Mars, while other parts made you realise the grandeur of Nature. It seemed impossible to take a bad photo, and we were presented with an endless conveyer belt of oppotunities to snap away. There was the island of giant cacti standing almost dead centre of the flats, the blinding whiteness which allowed to mess with persepctive in pictures, the soaring peaks and deep canyons which flowed by our car. Words can’t do it justice, but hopefully the pictures can allude to some of the majesty.

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Silvio proved a brilliant guide. We had heard horror stories about this tour, some the night before we set off. Guides who were drink-driving, others who crashed the car, some backpackers who had to walk for hours as their car broke down. Luckily for us, everything went super smoothly. Silvio took his work incredibly seriously, often petting his car (which he named Colonial Cowboy, and not Colonial Boy Cow as per our first misguided translation!). If we got dust inside, it would put him in a bad mood and he would glower until we gave him chocolate, which brightened him right up. He also kept us away from the “convoy” of other tour agencies and jeeps, making us really appreciate the remoteness of our environment and not feel like we were just on a package holiday. This is a common criticism of the tour in general; that you end up surrounded by so many other people at every stop point. We barely saw anyone else and even had the hostel to ourselves both nights! Although not an English speaker, thanks to Bee, Franz, and Paula we were able to understand Silvio’s very clear descriptions of just what we were seeing, and enjoy the brilliant lunches he claimed to prepare (he just chopped the fruit, the tasty food was cooked elsewhere). Our first night we stayed in a hotel made of salt (including the beds, and the floors were just piles of salt – handy for seasoning during our evening meal!) which caused us to wake dehydrated, but ready for more. However, the elevation was getting higher and more difficult to deal with…

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 Bee Says: We have both got off very lightly in terms of altitude sickness. Almost everyone else we meet has suffered with crushing headaches, nosebleeds, vomiting, dizziness etc. We were patting ourselves on the back and feeling seriously relieved that so far altitude had left us alone. On day 2 however, the Salt Flat tour goes turbo-high. Driving out to see lagoons in every colour (red, green, blue and purple) our jeep shifted into 4WD mode and we creaked up verticle rockfaces, getting higher and higher until we topped out at near 5000m above sea level (over half the height of Everest). As we walked up to some volcanic rock formations, even the boys in the group were panting with laboured breathing. It was at this point I realised well.. I wasnt really breathing at all. I have asthma, which I mostly try to ignore, but 7 years in London has left it in the chronic category. We would later learn that at 5000m up, you are breathing 50% LESS oxygen than at sea level, so hardly a shocker that for my withered lungs, it would feel pretty scary. My inhalers worked to a point, but mostly I sat paralyzed with fear as my lungs burned and wheezed. I was very aware we were in the middle of nowhere and that panicking only makes asthma worse, so I tried to zen out and we stuck my ipod on the car speakers creating a perfect alien-landscape soundtrack of Mogwai, M83, London Grammar and Adem. Luckily as soon as we left mas-mas (super high) altitude, I felt better and could get back on with having the time of my life! So the fear didn’t dent my adoration of all things salt flat, but I have learnt that altitude is not something to sniff at… it basically feels like a hipo sitting on your chest. We’re having to examine our future plans, such as trekking to Machu Picchu (waaaah) because currently breathing is tough just lazing around, let alone hiking 50k. I´m hopìng another week or so at altitude as we travel La Paz and Isla de Sol will miraculously toughen me up into some iron lunged hulk-bee but I have to at least consider the chance that this won’t happen, and anything over 4000m will continue to leave me a bit like a gasping fish. Anyway back to the tour…

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Nick already summed up the magical world of the 3 days Salt Tour perfectly, and all I can add is that it feels like you are seeing an absolutely secret world, hidden high in the sky and almost inccessable. Everything looks like a dream. The perspective, the light, the beating sun, the odd volcanic rock and higgeldy cacti… It feels like one long mirage, where you imagine you are seeing one thing and as you drive closer, it merges and molds into a thousand other things before you realise it’s just a piece of rock. Every second of taking in my surroundings felt like I was seeing the world for the first time. Its hardly surprising that the desert here apparently inspired Salvador Dali and is thus named after him. One unexpected treat was stumbling across a lagoon packed with flamingoes. One of my favourite animals for most of my life, I’ve never seen them in the wild before. They chirrup, they fight, they fly about. I could have watched them all day long! They certainly fitted in perfectly with the all-round surrealness.

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On Day 3 I was feeling fine again, despite a night in a hostel with no heating where the temperature dipped below freezing, therefore the six of us had to sleep in one room for warmth! We wore ourselves out pre-bed with hours of boisterous games of cards, where we were playing with two decks of cards: one Dutch, one British, leading to mass laughter and confusion as Jacks became Backs and Kings became Hings. Day 3 was the 22nd October, and a special day for me as it was the anniversary of having a beastly operation last year. We woke at 5am and raced up the mountain, in order to watch the sunrise over earth that was bubbling and boiling furiously and creating huge geysers. I’ve never seen one before, and I imagine this is the perfect way to see your first. It wasnt the altitude taking my breath away this time!

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Next up, my first bath of the trip! And what better place than in a hot springs, 4500m up a mountain? This was a first for both of us, and it is as wonderful as you imagine – stepping from 5 degree chill into bathlike water and lazing around until you are prunelike. It was in the hot spring that something very special happened to me too… I met another person from Bradford! I heard the dulcet tones of my beloved hometown accent and swizzled my head Exorcist-quick and yelled I KNOW THAT ACCENT! She was an ex head mistress who is now enjoying travelling the world and seeing everything there is to offer outside of our glorious BD. It was lovely to have such an unexpected encounter in somewhere so unexpected.

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In other proud Yorkshire lass-ing, in the exact middle of the salt flats there is a collection of world flags, dazzling against the white and blue backdrop. There was no Union Jack, or Swiss or Dutch or Canadian flag to pose with but by the time our group had started sighing with disappointment, I was RUNNING towards the flags and snatching the most majestic of sights. A Yorkshire Rose! In the middle, flapping in the wind happily. I have no idea how it came to be there, but it gave me a clutch of homesickness in the wilderness.

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I can’t imagine that anything will match Uyuni for being the best experience of my life, but at least we have 5 months to hunt for something. I would do it all again (even the muy asmatico) in a heartbeat, and would have been on a real glum downer if we hadnt added a little extra into the itinerary. We were meant to end the tour back in Uyuni… but during our Amazon boat tour, Nick made the mistake of napping and leaving me with our Lonely Planet and a can of beer. By the time he woke up I had come up with a cunning plan…. How about we go to CHILE?! And the plan grew and grew, ending on the salt flat tour where rather than go back to Uyuni, our tour guide dropped us at the Frontiera, where we could stamp out of Bolivia (and talk our way out of a bogus tourist tax to boot!) and hop into a shared bus to San Pedro De Atacama. CHILE!!!! As if we weren’t seeing enough countries already…? But we couldnt resist a peek, and obviously a sample of the wine whilst we are at it.

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Nick Says: Yep, why not just pop over to Chile? It’s one of the true joys of travel, the freedom and ability to go where you want, and when you want. The homeland of my friend Francisco (who’s rather inconveniently trekking in Nepal at the moment), Chile is a country 4000km long but only 180km wide at most. Bordered by the Andes in the East, the Pacific Ocean on the West, and the Atacama Desert in the North, Chile prospered in almost isoation from the rest of South America, and is now the most developed country in the region, and one where you can definitely feel the influence of Western countries. It honestly feels like you’re in a Mediterreanean country here, with simple joys such as the buses running on time.

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We arrived in the town of San Pedro de Atacama after descending 2000m. A really pretty town made of adobe single storey buidlings, San Pedro is 100% designed for tourists though. In fact we outnumbered the locals! It was also incredibly expensive, with our costs here even outstripping living in London. Waaah! While Chile as a whole is pretty pricey, it’s nowhere near as much as San Pedro. However, that didn’t stop us hunting out some local bargains for lunch, which meant eating in a cage for one meal. One thing I won’t regret spending money on though was on one of the best sweet pies I have ever eaten. In a cafe on the main plaza we tried to order panckaes, but were told they had run out. The waitress then told us mango something was very good, so we ordered one, without knowing what we would eat. A glorious mango meringue pie arrived, and every bite was heaven. I would go so far as to say a trip to San Pedro (and Chile) is worth it just for this pie. More often than not though, we could be found in the lovely garden of Hostal Sonchek, where we stayed. Drinking Chilean wine with Beau from the Uyuni tour while relaxing in hammocks was a pretty good life.

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San Pedro is also one of the best places in the world to stargaze. Due to it’s location at altitude and in the worlds driest desert, it offers almost guaranteed clear skies. Excited to have this unexpected opportunity, Bee & I wasted no time in booking ourselves on a tour. However, waiting for the bus Bee felt her lungs burn. Maybe standing in the cold for several hours wasn’t the best idea. Reluctantly, she turned back to go home. I wanted to go with her, but she insisted I went otherwise we would have wasted quite a lot of money. Driving out to the desert I wanted to be anywhere but on this tour, but it was still an amazing experience. A canopy of stars surrounded us, and our clever Canadian guide talked us through how to spot the different constellations before letting us loose on powerful telescopes which showed us dying stars, nebulas, planets, and even other galaxies. It was truly inspirational. However, the best was yet to come – the next night we left San Pedro on a night bus to the border city of Arica, and the stars from the bus were even better! This time Bee was given a full panoramic view of them, and I was able to point out the things I had been shown, including the constellation of Scorpio (the best) and Alpha Centurai, the closest star to our own, at a mere 4.6 light-years away… Arriving in Arica early the next morning, we breathed in the sea-level air and gazed upon the Pacific Ocean. We had crossed a continent to be here, from East Coast to West. It felt good.

 

Being Twenty Something Burnouts: 1 Month Review

  • Time: One Month
  • Distance Travelled (total from UK):  15,184 km
  • Distance Travelled (in South America):  7,692 km
  • Time Spent On Buses: 4 Days
  • Time Spent On Boats: 4 Days
  • Items Lost/Broken/Stolen: 2 (Watch & Sunglasses – both Nick’s)
  • Injuries/Illnesses: 2 – Nick’s glass-in-back in Manaus, Bee’s first week  travel tummy
  • Changes to Itinerary: 2 Biggies … all will be revealed!

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Q&A With Bee

One Month In, How Do You Feel? In some ways it feels like one month has flown by, but when I look at the map of South America and the distance we have travelled, it seems hard to believe we’ve squeezed so much in! Most people told me that it would take a month before I really found my feet and felt comfortable backpacking, but I think our tactic of plunging in the ‘deep end’ and starting off in a barely travelled route worked really well in turning me from city slicker to travel bum within days. When you find yourself in a shabby Venezuelan bus station at 9pm, needing to negoitiate a night bus transfer in another language whilst also deal with a gross stomach ‘issue’ there is no choice but to suck it up, look confident and dive in. I feel really grateful for all the incredible experiences i have had so far and very lucky to have so much still ahead of me! I feel like I am learning so much about myself, about Nick and the world every minute of every day, my brain is going to get too big for my head soon.

Stand Out Moment? Every day seems to have a moment where I look around and think WOW. Even today, walking to the internet cafe in Uyuni as we wait for our Salar de Uyuni tour tomorrow, there was something about the endless blue sky, the chill in the air and the sparkle of the dusty ground that left me breathless (that, and the altitude!) – the light in this magical place is different to anything I have ever seen, it casts a pink tinge on everything. The stand out moment for me though is watching the tropical lightning storm set the nightsky ablaze as we sailed up the Amazon. It went on so long that even back in my hammock I could position myself to watch every flash and fork.

Most Surprising Thing?  I think how much I am loving this! Before I left I was almost catatonic with fear, I had no idea what to expect and could only imagine the most nightmareish scenarios. I am surprised how quickly I adapted to living out of a tiny backpack, no hot water, no laundry, being surrounded by people curiously staring at me for being muy blanco, navigating ourselves over remote regions of South America…! I never think of myself as very brave or daring, but the things I am doing here are proving me wrong almost every day. It’s a huge confidence boost, and if I can do it then ANYONE can!

How is Your Health? As readers of Like a Skeleton Key might know, this time last year I was laid up in bed awaiting surgery with some gruesome internal bleeding. It looked like this trip was never ever going to happen. Although Ive had some hiccups along the way, I was sent off with full approval from my GP who thinks this trip will be the best thing to help me have a brain and body break from hospital, scans and appointments. I was apprehensive obviously, but so far and so good. My body is finally playing nicely and there hasnt been anything I havent been able to do yet. On the 22nd October 2012 I spent the day in theatre in St barts hospital. On the 22nd October 2013 i’ll be waking up at 5.30am to watch the sun rise over the Salar de Uyuni and feeling SO fortunate

Best Meal? Broasted Chicken in Guayaramerin . We asked a Tuktuk driver to take us to somewhere good, and he dropped us at a tiny shack serving Bolivian KFC. It was the tastiest thing I have eaten all trip, made all the more delicious by the fact it cost 1.60 for my plateful and a bottle of fanta!

Most Useful Piece of Kit: A padlock! I didnt see this item on any Lonely planet recommended packing lists or the blogs I scoured, but its been the best thing we have. We can use lockers for free, we can double lock our rooms when we are out and even padlock our backpacks to  things as we travel.

Least Useful Piece of KIt: I splashed out on a pair of karrimor khakis, paying extra for zipped pockets. By the time I had sat on the flight to MADRID, two zips had broken. One month in, every zip has broken. I hate you karrimor!

Favourite Place: Sucre

Least Favourite Place: Boa Vista

Anything Else? Get the sick bags ready! Before Nick and I left, everyone raised an eyebrow and said ‘six months, together, every day?!’ with many insinuations that we would be fighting like mad after a few days. But honestly, the best part of the trip is getting to spend every single day with him. Im greedy, I never tire of hanging out together and always felt we didnt spend enough time together when we were rat racing.  We have slotted together perfectly in travelling, with my Spanish complimenting Nicks ninja like planning and route skills. We always have the same brain-twin  thoughts about when to slum it, when to treat ourselves and where to spend the bigger chunks of money etc. Obviously there has been the odd moment of desperation when our bus goes the wrong way or we are shattered, hot and sticky and carrying a hundred things like Where’s Wally but the main thing is we have a rant (and not at each other!) then move on.

Q&A With Nick

How’s it all going? Very well so far. Although having travelled a lot in the last few years, it’s been some time since I did an extended stint away. I was a bit nervous to see how I would get on, and with the added pressure of making sure Bee was ok on her first trip. Well it turns out I didn’t need to worry about that, as she has taken to it like a duck to water. It’s very different travelling as a couple to when you’re with friends. You always have someone to talk to at any moment about how you’re feeling, you’re never bored, and you can appreciate some of the more magical moments together. On the other hand I guess I’m a bit more cautious and a bit more hesitant to throw myself into the more adrenaline based stuff as it’s not really up Bee’s street. I’ll definintely do some at some point, but I can predict there will be less broken bones on this trip.

Favourite Place? I think the river-boat on the Amazon. I’d dreamt of doing it for ages, and it really lived up to my expectations. I loved experiencing the river culutre, and the fact you had to slow your pace of life down to the bare minimum. It felt like absolute bliss.

Least Favourite Place? Like Bee, I would have to say Boa Vista. The two dead bodies I saw on the road as we arrived didn’t help matters.

Most Surprising Thing? I think the lack of backpackers. While we’re now in Uyuni and well and truly on the Gringo Trail, prior to this it’s been completely by chance that we’ve met anyone. English had only been spoken by myself and Bee in Venezuela, and even Manaus in Brazil was thin on the ground for tourists. Yet we managed to meet an English guy called Mark and crossed one of the more remote borders in the world with him, as well as spend 4 days on a river boat normally the sole province of Brazilians. Yet coming down to Uyuni, I expected us to have gathered a travelling crowd. But instead it was just me and Bee! Although I’m not sure how we managed that as the town is full of backpackers…

Weirdest Sight? I don’t even really know where to start with this. The anatomically correct dinosaur vagina on a life size model of a Titanosaur was a bit unexpected. But for sheer strangness, it was probably the marching band made up exclusively of tiny children dressed in shiny majorette uniforms that appeared out of nowhere and stopped all the traffic in a tiny Bolivian mountain village.

Any regrets? We both really wish we’d brought UK/London souvenirs with us. Lots of people have been curious, and we would have loved to give some to people as gifts to say thank-you for all their kindness! I also regret teaching a tiny Bolivian child the goblin face. He wouldn’t stop tormenting his mama with it. I have created a monster.

 

From Santa Cruz to Samaipata

Nick Says: Arriving in Santa Cruz completely changed our perspective on Bolivia. I don´t know about you, but all I heard about the place (apart from things to see) was how poor it was, and how cheap everything is. Well take a trip to Santa Cruz and decide if you’re really in some ´third world slum country. The city is super modern, with bars and cafes that wouldn’t look out of place in London. It’s an obviously wealthy city, with all the youngsters sporting designer clothes (not fake ones either like other parts of the country!) and flashing their brand new iPhones around. We actually felt like the poor relations being there.

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After a day mooching around the place, which is incredibly easy to walk around for a city of 1 million plus, we decided it was time to go and meet some other backpackers. While Bee’s Spanish is certainly getting us around the place, and making friends, it’s hard to have truly in-depth conversations. To try and rectify this we went to the city’s Irish Pub, according to the Lonely Planet “a backpackers second home”. Except it wasn’t at all! It was definitely a local hang-out. And also a very clean-cut local hang-out… as everyone seemed to be drinking juice or milkshakes in there. We felt like the naugty kids sipping on our Pacena beers, lovingly wrapped in kitchen roll. Even Guiness was off the menu (they´d run out?). The only part of Irish-Pub-Bingo they did tick off was that they played The Cranberries on repeat.  Afterwards we stepped out onto the main plaza where we witnessed our first protest of the trip. It was a very chilled out affair actually, as it was an anti-violence protest, so no riots just yet. We then made the most of the fancy city and went to another ice cream parlour, the best one yet. Vaca Fria was an ultra-cool ice cream bar which looked like it belonged in Shoreditch and served dulche de leche ice cream. I’m going to come home a massive fatty at this rate.

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We were really impressed with how many cultural events were going on in Santa Cruz. we witnessed a Bolivian X Factor auditions round (!) and a big free concert featuring a local kids marching band troupe and some African inspired performances too. They were real family affairs and a great (cheap) way to pass the siesta slump where everything else shuts down.

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Having exhausted the sight-seeing options of Santa Cruz (there’s not really any, and Aqualand, the local waterpark, was closed) we took an early morning stroll to the shared taxi rank, and then onwards to Samaipata.

Bee Says: Samaipata wasn´t on our original itinerary, but we were both tempted by it´s description as a friendly, sunny spot high in the mountains. We also were in dire need of a little luxury after our many hours clocked up in bus seats followed by our budget Santa Cruz hostel (the nicest thing Lonely Planet could say about it was that it had hospital style beds!) and in Samaipata we could stay at the La Paosada del Sol – a little piece of heaven for weary travellers! It´s run by a jovial Texan man and his lovely Bolivian wife. Here we had a COMFY bed, hot water, access to a laundry service and the best food of the trip so far. The hostel has a restaurant attached with incredible local chefs serving up traditional and American fusion food, and everything we ate was mouth watering. A real change from 20p street empanadas! We had wanted to do the Che trail, but sadly we hadn´t clocked that it was a 2 day (and pretty pricey) thing, so we parked that plan and instead headed out to El Fuerte, our first archaeological site. El Fuerte is unique, in that it encompasses buildings of three different cultures: Chanés, Incas, and Spaniards. The Chane carved rock is probably the star of the show though, with its still-visable depictions of jaguar, puma and the carved lines of a snake, where llamas were slaughtered and the blood running down from the top of the stone would make the snake appear to crawl. The incan ruins were also pretty amazing, we noted the narrowness of the doorways that were still stranding, “no fat people in Incan times” our guide chuckled. I guess they didnt eat those llamas they were sacrificing.

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We were lucky to have a guide who spoke some English and could explain just how incredible the site is, as it sits almost exactly between the four regions of Bolivia; Andes, Amazones,Oriente & Guay. When you stand at the top – one side of the mountain is covered in forest, the other is completely bare. It´s that extreme! El Fuerte also sits in line with the Isla de Sol and Machu Pichu… pretty goosebumpy stuff, how on earth did these people know how to work it out so many thousands of years ago? I still struggle catching the right night bus!

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This was our first taste of proper altitude, at 2000m above sea level. It was amazing to see eagles soaring… below us! We had been tipped off that Samaipata was the best condor spotting location in the world, so after missing out on Che we signed up to go on a days hike and bird spotting. We eagerly work up at 5.30am on our first day, only to be told that storms in the night had flooded the already quiet tough pathway to the condors. ALAS. Instead we got a different taste of wildlife at the wonderful animal refuge, a 4k round trip scenic walk to reach and a fascinating place, full of animals rescued from the black market. Free monkeys bounded around our heads, I saw my first hummingbird and Nick saw… tortoises having sex. Not quite a condor, but he couldnt complain. By this stage we had made friends with a lovely Dutch couple, and were really enjoying having some travel buddies again to explore with (and make the most of Happy Hour with). We woke at 5.30am again the next day, for condor hike attempt 2… only to hear rain pelting down and be told the flooding was now even worse. It was disappointing but as we hadn´t gone to Samaipata especially to do it, it wasn´t the end of the world and the place is beautiful an brilliant enough to keep us entertained for a few lazy days of pottering around the mountain edges and drinking hot chocolate in cafes. It felt like a much needed holiday. But with rainy season making itself known early, we felt we better get moving to Uyuni sharpish, as the salt flats become only partially visitable once the wet sets in. Time to leave our Care Bear life in the clouds…

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Nick Says: The place we were staying also seemed to be magnet for ex-pat business owners all around Bolivia to come and meet up. One night we were sat next to them all, and couldn’t help but overhear the loudest guy complain loudly about how Bolivian bus drivers are very much exploited and forced to drive all hours, which led directly to the World’s Most Dangerous Road near La Paz getting its moniker. A fine point you may think, but the guy who made it also happened to be the owner of one of the biggest bike rental companies who organise tours down that same road. So in effect he was making a living from these bus drivers being exploited. Did I say anything to him? No. Should I have? Perhaps. I didn`t for several reasons. One was it would have caused a big argument in the middle of their dinner, probably not the coolest thing to do. Others were that I don’t understand Bolivia sufficiently enough to enter into that kind of argument. It’s never clever to argue unprepared. His company do have a reputation for being the safest, so perhaps he thinks that unless he runs a good company, others will not? And finally, me and Bee have been catching a lot of long distance buses – aren´t we also exploiting the drivers then? Hmm, it`s one of those ethical dilemmas which could tie you into knots.

But no sooner had we digested all of this, then it was time to get one of these buses. A change in plan had meant we were now heading to Sucre, the official capital of Bolivia. And I’m not going to lie when I say the last thing I was thinking of was the possible exploitation of the driver. No, instead I was thinking if I was going to live through the night. Now I don’t mean to come across as a ´been there, done that’ boaster when I say I’ve done my fair share of terrifying drives. There’s been buses zooming along a cliff face with the doors open and me close to sliding out, others where might equals right, and taxis where the driver has fallen asleep. Suffice it to say though, this was up there as one of the scariest of my life. Our driver decided to floor it non-stop to Sucre along a tiny mountain road (rock track?), with not a straight line in sight, and multiple rock-slides evident. We were at the front of the bus, and therefore given a prime view of every single near miss we had, and every car/van/truck/bus we almost clipped as our driver suicidally overtook around blind corners. I tried to sleep and couldn’t. I didn’t expect to live the night.

Bee Says: I was already apprehensive about this bus journey to Sucre, as over dinner the night before, I had also heard Worlds Most Dangerous Road Man mention that a Micro (the shared taxis from Santa Cruz… yes the very same type we had ridden to get to Samaipata days before) had plunged over the mountain. A little rattled by this, I accepted it was going to be a little white knuckle, but add to that the torrential downpour that happily showed up for the hour before we boarded, and I was desperate for it to all be over. I was however comforted by the fact we have done 6 night bus journies now in various countries and all of them have been absolutely fine… plus the drive UP the mountain hadn´t been bad at all. This faux bravado dissolved the second we sat down in the bus and saw that it was unlike any previous buses. This bus was fitted with a ROLL CAGE. When I was 16, my first boyfriend was a boy racer (laugh it up! I´m from Bradford ok!) and so I know enough to know that you only fit roll cages to vehicles that are most likely going to end up on their roof at some point. As we´d boarded, the nice old man who´d sold us our ticket had hugged us goodbye and wished us safe travels, and I remember being taken aback as South Americans so far have been very shake-hands formal. The hug took me by surprise, but now I had the sinking feeling that he really was wishing us good luck and some last minute comfort for what he knew was about to be a nightmareish 12 hours.

Then we started driving, and that is about the point that I started trying to remember the words to the Lords Prayer. As Nick said, our driver was gunning up and down these miniscule mountain dirt roads, over taking anything in sight. Many times we were creaking around corners so hazerdously that the bus was on two wheels, flinging us side to side (with added burning smell). If it hadnt been pitch black, in a remote Bolivian mountain (and with no phone signal, o2 hasnt got network pals in Bolivia) I would have got OFF the bus and walked to Sucre. Instead we were trapped and all we could do was grip hands and hope above hope that the we made it in one piece. Maybe I am doing the driver a dis-service, I imagine he does this drive hundreds of times a year therefore is confident in his maverick motoring ways, but we haven´t had a driver like that yet (and really dont want one again). The one glimmer of good in the treacherous trip was, as usual, the wildlife. We saw wild mountain cats and at about 3am in the morning, in the middle of nowhere, we passed a pack of wolves. The adults appeared to be about the size of donkeys, and protecting a smaller cub. It felt like the one point of the night we drove slowly, so we could really get a good gaze of these spectacular creatures.

We arrived to Sucre dazed, sleep deprived but delirious to be unscathed. The experience meant we added a nights stay here in Sucre, as neither of us fancy boarding a bus again tomorrow. Instead we are going to a dinosaur park!!! And then our bus to Uyuni on Friday will most definitely be in the DAY time. Lesson learned: NO NIGHT BUSES IN THE ANDES EVER AGAIN.

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round (and Round and Round) and Sometimes Stop.

Nick Says:  Guayaramerín turned out to be quite a lovely little town on the border. After setting foot on Bolivian soil, we were told by the soldiers that immigration had closed and we would have to report there tomorrow. So instead we walked around a bit, asking directions to the two hotels I had researched. We ended up at the Hotel Santa Ana, a really nice place even if the price did magically double when we checked out…  Guayaramerín is totally set up to cater for tourists from Brazil, with the national colours everywhere and prices in Reals. We spent a few days zooming about on tuk-tuks ($1 to get anywhere in town) and eating a lot of ice-cream. In fact, so far I’ve eaten more ice-cream on this trip than I have in the last year. It’s been tough on the road… If it wasn’t an Oreo sundae then it was a chocolate vanilla mix in a cone. Delicious.

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Anyway, I digress. It was odd to be back on land again, and even odder to have a choice over what we ate. Stepping out on the first night, we walked to the main plaza into what seemed to be the only place serving food. To descibe it as a unique experience would be an understatement. Our travelling companion Mark, a man who had spent 9 months on the road, as well as living a very interesting life, described it as the weirdest restaurant he had ever been in. Presided over by a heavily made up middle aged lady, it was a mix between someone’s house, a showcase for weird trinkets and statues, a shop which sold bedding, and a giant and fully stocked kitchen at the back which seemed totally pointless as in the middle of the room they had a microwave proudly on display. The tourists seemed to flock here for the speciality, which was frozen lasagne.This should have tipped us off as to what type of food to expect, and we were duly served frozen re-formed chicken in breadcrumbs and carboard chips. It was essentially inedible. I missed the boat food. However, it certainly had beer – as we asked the hostess, who was definitely one of a kind, if she served cerveza, we got a long, drawn-out and theatrical ‘siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii’. Later we asked if the soft-focus prom-style picture of a girl obviously in the her younger years was her. IN reply we got ‘yoooooooooooooooooooooooooo’ (it’s me) as if she was saying, ‘that old thing’. It was proudly on display next to the microwave. By Bolivian standards, the food was also very expensive, adding up to a truly bizarre experience. Contrast that to the next night where we found a more local place to eat and had huge plates of delicous broasted chicken and rice for around a quarter of the price!

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After a few days there, it was time to be on the move again. We had hoped to catch another river boat, this time down the Mamore. Going down to the port we were confronted with the amazing sight of the Bolivian Navy. Being a land-locked country, I hadn’t expected there to be one, but here they were, super professional and looking the part in the sailors whites. It turned out that they didn’t know when the next boat would be, and it would also take 7 days to get where we wanted. We then had to make a tough decision, to take 7 days out of our trip for what would be quite an adventure, or to press on. Sadly we had to press on – even with 6 months this would be too much time to take. It was the first thing we had to turn down, but it was the right decision – I would have hated to miss out on an amazing experience down the line because I spent another 7 days on a boat! Mark however pressed on, and signed up to the Bolivian navy. As you read this he’s currently somewhere on the river – the only passenger of a cargo ship. For us however, it meant the bus out of town.

Bee Says: And what a bus it was. Ahhh the Vaca Diez. The bus from Guayaramerín to Trinidad that would become our new home for 30 HOURS. Imagine taking a bus for 30 hours in the UK (you’d have to lap it a few times I guess). Now imagine that firstly, the bus looks like its just been dragged off a junkyard (the photo doesnt show the taped up windows!). Secondly, that the air con doesn’t work… so you are basically in an oven on wheels as the tropics temperatures spike at 34 degrees. Also, there are no toilets on the bus, leading to a constant chicken-game of needing to hydrate with water but also requiring a camel bladder to last hours with no breaks. And finally? The fact that your 30 hours won’t be spent travelling on a road. You will be travelling on a dirt track, that then turns into off-roading over dusty plains SO bumpy you spend more time with your bum in the air, than on the seat.

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Our bus, despite the naked ladies on the driver seat, was lot more tasteful than the beast next to us that was heading to La Paz… which was covered in questionable scenes of women clad in thongs, frolicking together in a river on both sides and the back! I much preferred our moon howling wolf and little running cherub girl.

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So the grand 30 hour bus journey was… an experience! In some ways it actually one of the highlights of the trip so far (I know!) because we saw the most incredible wildlife, it was like one long safari. We saw crocodiles sunbathing, neon pink flamingos, ostrich, pelicans, eagles, a big ginger owl and FINALLY… my beloved capybara! TONS of them! We peaked early with the number one spot, which happened less than an hour in to the journey. The driver would toot his horn constantly, and it took a while for me to realise he didn’t have road (non-road?) rage, but in fact was warning straying animals to move out of the way. After a particularly ferocious blast on the horn we smushed our faces up to the glass (plastic) and saw a gigantic black wild boar, who upon running out of the way of the bus, was now baring its teeth and snarling up at us!!! This led to us entertaining ourselves by doing impressions of the wild boar every few minutes, for 30 hours, and it never got old.

We both think we were lucky enough on this leg to travel through one of the remotest places in the world. Mile after mile after long mile passed with no electricity pylons or wire, no roads, no settlements, no wildlife even… just un-inhabitable dry dusty terrain! Sometimes the dust clouded into the bus so much that you could barely see your own hand in front of you. We are both still blowing orange dust out of nose days later.

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At mealtimes (and err, the two times the bus broke) we got to stop in some really rural settlements with tiny populations who gazed at our muy blanco faces (and sometimes asked in Spanish WHAT on earth are you doing here). As you can guess, we were so far off the beaten track. Even the Lonely Planet says very few backpackers dare to tread here, since more people with a brain would opt for the 1 hour TAM flight over days of bussing. At one point we had long enough to grab a bowl of chicken broth, complete with feet, which cost just under a pound!, which we slurped under the stars before dashing back on when the bus revved its engine. There were also the occasional bathroom breaks… and usually there were toilets that cost 1B to us but sometimes there was nothing. This was fine for the blokes onboard who can just go against a wall, but for me I had to clamber around wasteland until I found an old shack, surrounded by animal skulls!, and then crouch most undiginifiedly behind it. Upon finishing, a pig appeared from nowhere and sniffed my bum. It was a low point… But I was cheered out of my trauma by the fish phone box in the next big town.

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I just want to mention that bus travel everywhere we have been has felt incredibly safe. Amazing drivers and every time at least half the passengers onboard are women or families, which has really helped me feel at ease as I slumber away alongside them in our tin can on wheels! You get to know your fellow passengers quite well due to the cosy confines and every trip we’ve made at least one friend using my Spanish. On this trip we became babysitters to an 8 year old girl at some points, as her mum also had an 8 month year old to tend to. They were travelling to visit her mother who was dying, and it felt special to be able to communicate enough with them to make the journey a little easier.  We stayed in good spirits, playing memory games and listening to our iPods, and at the end we were rewarded to a crazy moment where we got off the bus… we thought for another standard snack stop. However suddenly the bus zoomed away from us! And onto a big wooden barge on the river. Having no idea what to do, we followed the other passangers and climbed onto the barge, precariously squidged on next to the bus and we were all pulled over the River Mamore! NOT what we were expecting and we also saw more dolphins, just to cap off a truly unique trip.

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We got into Trinidad exhausted and stinky, but opted to get a night bus straight out that night (ARE WE MAD! MORE BUSES!) as we were keen to get on to Santa Cruz. We left our luggage at the bus terminal so we could explore Trinidad which was very quaint and pretty, with a nice plaza to sit and fester in. We got back to the bus for 945pm and we chatted to a few locals as we waited, I seem to be especially popular with little girls who like to tell me I am muy bonital! Which after by this stage 40+ hours on the road, I certainly didnt feel! On our Bolivian travels we have aquired the beloved and majestic… CLOUD BEAR. Every night bus we take all passengers have these blankets because the air con makes for a chilly journey. I decided I wanted to be like them, so picked up this beauty for about 2quid at a market stall. However, since aquiring Cloud Bear every bus since has had broken air con…. So he has just become a rather large, decadent pillow.

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Now to explore Santa Cruz, before heading to Samaipata where we can spend a couple of days and do the Che Guevara trail. From there it´s on to Cochabamba for a couple of days, then finally on to UYUNI! Where we explore the salt flats for three days. We are both SO excited to do this part. It feels like lately the ratio of “travel” to “seeing stuff” has been waaaaaaay too bus heavy so we cant wait for a proper tour again and to see something so amazing.

Rollin´, Rollin´, Rollin on the (Amazon) River

Nick Says: So last time you heard from us, we were just about to set off on our 4 day river-boat up the Amazon, and across to almost the Bolivian border. We were packed and raring to go, but I had forgotten one important thing – things never go to plan when you`re travelling. After heading down to the busy port in Manaus, we asked around for our boat. After several attempts by the sellers to send us to Belem (several hundred kilometres the other direction) we finally got our tickets, only to find out the boat was delayed by a day. Ok, no problem – we just settled in for another night and spent the day at a nature park. Rather fortuitously we met another backpacker there, who came up to us to ask us bus directions. He turned out to be a British guy named Mark (I always need one to travel with) who after turning 50 had decided to jack in his old life in London and go and travel the world. So far he had been in South America for 9 months, visiting almost every country bar Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. Amazingly, he also turned out to be getting the exact same boat as us, which was really unusual as we were doing the non-backpacker route and fully expected to be the only westerners aboard. He was a very chilled out guy and easy to get along with, and being older it meant we all got treated with a bit more respect by the locals. Several times he was asked if he was our Dad! Although most of the time people thought he was Brazilian as he was super tanned. A proper ex-pat look going on!

So with our new travel buddy we arranged to meet the next morning at the dock. We waved goodbye to our hostel friends, and set off on one of the sweatiest walks of our lives. Manaus has been described as a pressure cooker, and with our bags on our backs we certainly felt the heat. By the time we finally reached the port we´d probably lost about 1 stone in weight. The only trouble was, we´d gone to the wrong port – our boat was sailing from one 10 mins walk away. So we set off again, sweating all the way there. We found our ticket seller, who put us on the phone to the captain of the boat, who spoke a very poshly accented English and apologised for the delay. He said the boat was just about to arrive and we could put our bags on and string our hammocks up ready for a 6pm departure. However, once down at the docks there was no sign of the Dois Irmaos (our boat to be) and instead a sailor miming that it was still on the river. We were hot, and had no idea what to do next. Setting our bags down, Bee decided to go back up to the agent and get hold of the captain. I would wait by the bags surrounded by sweaty sailors. Ages seemed to go past before Bee returned – and I must admit I was starting to get a bit worried! But she came back with news – the boat had broken down, missed its slot at the dock and wouldn´t be setting off until the next day at the earliest. Declining an invitation to spend the night on a different boat at the dock, we returned defeated to the hostel. Our reward for another night in Manaus? Going to the main plaza in the evening and getting to listen to what was claimed as a Beatles tribute band, but actually only played Paul McCartney compositions – including a mighty rendition of Live and Let Die.

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The next day broke with a promise of Amazonian adventure. We met back up with Mark, arranged a new meeting time, and told ourselves we would leave today. Another sweaty walk to the docks, but this time when we arrived about a hundred agents and dock workers rushed to greet Bee and shake her hand, and exclaim loudly at her in Portuguese. It turned out she had made a lot of friends in her stubborn quest to find out what had happened to the boat the day before. So if you ever need to sort out a boat from Manaus in the future, take Bee Barker with you. This time luck was with us, the boat was there! We boarded, put our hammocks up and waited to set sail. A mere two days behind schedule it did, and the three of us cracked open a beer on the top deck as we cruised down the Rio Amazonas and watched Manaus disappear into the distance.

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Bee Says: I had no idea what to expect from 4 days on a boat on the Amazon, but the most important thing was that I was armed with a leopard print hammock so was by far the snazziest on board! We were lucky enough to bag a spot on the second deck (of three) as the bottom deck had the scorchingly hot and noisy engine, and the top deck had a soundsystem playing Brazilian pop all hours of the day. As we left in the dark there wasn´t too much to see but we could just make out the moment we crossed the “meeting of the waters” where the white Rio Solimoes meets the Rio Negro, google images here! Lots of the artwork and tiling of the pavements in Manaus, and wider Brazil, is inspired by black and white waves because of this. We strung our hammocks up, with me in between Mark and Nick. The swaying of the boat kept knocking our hammocks into each other like those executive desk toys from the nineties. But soon the waves lulled us to sleep and we woke excited for our first day on deck. Every day basically followed the same routine: Wake up at sunrise (5am) to eat cream crackers & drink piping hot coffee for breakfast. Head to the top deck before the sun gets too hot, to wildlife spot. Ive never seen so many amazing creatures! We saw the famed pink river dolphins (as magical as they sound!) that played and splashed “escorting” our boat along the whole 4 days, giant otter (again, as if regular otters aren´t cute enough?), monkey fish that hurtle up to a metre in the air from the water to gobble insects, fireflies that glowed orange, yellow and green, toucans and parrots in every colour possible. Ocassionally I´d see a few red leaves on an otherwise green tree and think back to how autumn must be setting in back home… then the “leaves” would suddenly fly away, and I´d realise they were red ibis birds.

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Lunch was always chicken, rice, beans, salad and noodles. Post-lunch was siesta time for everyone, as the stifling tropical heat made it impossible to do anything else. By 3pm it was back up top for more gazing around, watching the little communities on the riverbanks as they use the Amazon for everything – food, washing, working and travelling. Dinner was… IDENTICAL to lunch but with beef! We had read a top tip before taking this trip which was to buy pimiento hot sauce, firstly to flavour the food and secondly to befriend your neighbours… and this definitely came in very handy. After dinner we were treated every night to the most dramatic, incredible thunder and lightning storms that lasted hours. Luckily… no rain accompanied them, so we could huddle on the deck and watch lightening forks set the sky ablaze and thunder rattle through our bones. Words can´t really do justice to those nights, they were a pinch-yourself  memory I’ll always treasure.

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Even the toilets and showers weren’t that bad. The best shower by far was the ladies on bottom deck, which had a hole for a window at the exact right eye level so I could watch the Amazon float past as I washed my hair! You had to share your shower with a few spiders too, but they kept to themseves mostly. The toilets were similar to what you would expect from a music fetival after a similar amount of days/quantity of people using it. All in all the Amazon was a perfect serene experience and one I would recommend to everyone! Compared to official organised tours over here which can cost a fortune, this is public transport so we paid a tiny amount for such an incredible experience. The only bad side, which  am loath to mention but I have to be honest, was there were a few young lads our age on board. One morning, a guy sidled up to me and asked me to take a shower (and you can imagine what else) with his friend. I was so gobsmacked that I could barely respond other than saying NO loudly and many times. It really rattled me, as up until this point I have barely had a sleazy second glance and mostly men have been overly chivalrous towards me everywhere we have been. Also it was so obvious Nick and I were together, so he had some nerve waiting until I was on my own to ask. The experience did upset me, as the boys would keep staring at me (although to be fair the views are boring to them, as they’ve lived there forever!) but I didn’t feel threatened – just irritated as you cant really escape anyone on a small boat! I was extra careful after this though for peace of mind, Nick accompanied me everytime I went to the showers and toilets, waiting outside like a bodyguard. I felt like Cheryl Cole! But being with Nick and Mark I never felt worried about it and it was easy to forget about them. I only mention it because up until this point there isn’t a single thing we’ve done that I think would be unsafe for a woman travelling alone – however with the Amazon I would recommend (if you dont speak Portuguese) going with at least another person, or a group. This also makes sense from a security perspective, as it means you can always have one person bag-watching.

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Nick Says: Apart from the sleazy boys, who left us well alone after a chat (which weirdly involved Disney and barbequeing a bear, so maybe not the intimidating talk I wanted), everyone else on the boat was great company. Little communities soon formed between everyone, and your neighbours soon became friends. Despite our obvious lack of Portuguese language skills, it didn’t stop anybody from chatting to us constantly. The were several memorable people on the boat. First was Boss-Lady, who made the meals, served them to us (we were always last!) and basically ran the domestic side of the ship. There was no way you’d mess with her, even if she alternated between wearing beautiful dresses and Justin Bieber vests. Every morning she would wake us up for breakfast, a gentle nudge for Bee, a stinging slap on my feet for me. Smiles for Bee, scowls for me. However, she took a real shine to Mark, giving him extra coffee when she wasn’t supposed too! The charming devil. Next came the Argentine bikers, two middle-aged guys who had rented the cabin at the front. They were divorced three times each, and were motorbiking around South America on giant BMW bikes similar to those used in Long Way Round/Down, and which were stored in the hold. They didn’t have any maps though, so often borrowed my guidebook to plan their route! We were able to talk to them a bit more in Spanish, although Argentine Spanish is quite different apparently. Then there was distinguished chap. He had a neat little beard and always looked immaculate, no matter the hour. He also seemed quite stern at first. However, 4 days on a river-boat worked their magic on him and by the last day he was bare-chested, swigging beer at 8am in the morning, and beardless. He was also constantly chatting to us, and offering us things, pointing out animals on the bank, and generally saluting everyone. Finally there was crazy old guy who of course was in the hammock next to me. He became obsessed with Bee’s mosquito net (put up as a territory defender, as there was a real lack of mozzies) and convinced it would fly away, so was constantly instructing me to wrap it up. Or just pointing at it. Or stroking it. He also liked to shout at me in Portuguese while standing very close to me and occasionally slap my bum.

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Bee Says: We made a stop en route to drop off some frozen fish from the cargo, which was THE entertainment of the trip. Our boat neighbours, who hadnt seemed fussed by majestic river dolphins, swarmed on deck watching for an hour as the various huge fish were unpacked, weighed and rejected or accepted. There were so many types, zebra stripes and one that looked like a mini Moby Dick.

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Next it was straight on to Porto Velho where we arrived at an eye watering 4am. We could sit about onboard until 6am, when we had ONE mission. Get to Bolivia… in a DAY! We did this by getting straight on a bus, a melty 5 hours to Guajara Mirim (the Brazilian border town) with no air con. There was time for a quick look around this quaint little place and to get our exit stamp for Brazil (after our Venezuela mishap we were determined to get it right this time). Then it was on to a passenger launch which crossed over the River Mamore as the sun set, and in five minutes we were in Guayaramerín… HOLA BOLIVIA!

 

Are there brazil nuts in Brazil?

Bee Says: Venezuela > Brazil was to be our first of many border crossings, and the first I’ve ever done on land. Border crossings have a reputation for being tricky, so it was with slight trepidation that I packed my backpack up and headed to a Por Puesta taxi that would take us from Santa Elena across the border and on to Boa Vista, Brazil. The taxis wait for a group of 5 before setting off, so being typically British we rocked up at 8am raring to get going. At 9.30am we finally rolled out of town, complete with a boot full of frozen meat that our driver stopped to pick up en route! We had barely left Santa Elena before our taxi was pulled over by a heavily armed policeman who leant his massive gun and pointy finger into the passenger window and shouted (in Spanish) GERMAN? GERMAN? at us. My sweaty brow creased at his angry red face but between the driver and my limited vocab we realised he wanted to see our passports and then wanted to know what country we were from. His guesses went from German to North American, before he understood we were British. He then went very quiet. TOO quiet. He studied our passports for a painfully long time… before reaching his hand out with a huge grin and saying in perfect English, “Nice to meet you.” It turns out he just wanted to shake hands with a rare Brit couple and show off his language skills! I was so relieved I waved to him until he was a tiny ant-man in the distance and we had no more drama until the border crossing. The taxi driver isn’t used to taking foreigners (who have a different crossing process to locals) so forgot to stop us for a Venezuelan exit stamp. As we declared ourselves at the Brazilian border, the policia informed us that without an exit stamp we won’t be able to go back to Venezuela using these passports. Luckily our itinerary doesn’t take us back there… but still, we felt like we’d done something wrong and shuffled around sheepishly as we were reprimanded. Everything seemed to take excruciatingly long and even though I knew we were going to be fine, every question made me feel guilty and uncertain and I was very relieved when we finally got the holy second-country stamp and were off to Brazil! Not so fast… we were singing along to Brazilian radio for about five minutes before we were pulled over by armed police again, with the same cross faces and pointy fingers (and guns, I can’t get used to the weapons), and had our bags searched. Thankfully all they seemed to take a close look at was Nick’s dirty underwear (!) and finally we were on our way, hurtling along the baking hot road to Boa Vista where the road is so scorching that an optical illusion makes it look permanently wet. I felt the closest I’ll probably get to a mirage in the jungle, surrounded by palm trees and arid terrain. By this stage our bumbling border experience had captured the heart of a young Brazilian woman, Joelma, sat up front. I chatted to her in Spanish and we realised that she was also heading directly to Manaus from Boa Vista, and so would be a useful aid in navigating buses etc. She grabbed Nick’s Lonely Planet, found the Portuguese dictionary section and spent the next two hours underlining what she felt were the most important phrases in biro – mostly revolving around food and personal safety!

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We stopped for comida in a small road side settlement but at this stage neither of us had any Brazilian currency so we skulked around awkwardly eating the remains of some crisps from Nick’s bag. It must have been nearly 40 degrees in the sun, and we were wilting at the thought of another hours driving when Joelma came over with two frosty Coca-colas for us. it was so generous and just what we needed at that moment. A new friend and a refreshing drink! She also introduced us to her favourite Brazilian food – salgado. A fried ball of chicken, olives & veg that she proceeded to eat covering EVERY mouthful in pimenta (hot sauce). My jaw dropped. This is how I eat my food at home – smothered in so much hot sauce that you can barely recognise the dish below. I suddenly knew that Brazil would have a very special place in my heart (and tummy)!

Nick Says: The road (the only road) continued south into Brazil for hundreds of miles, past palm trees and scrubland until finally we reached the outskirts of the first major city in the north of Brazil – Boa Vista. However, while it seemed the journey was almost done, it was about to take a darker turn. Waiting in traffic, a guy was gesturing at the car. Getting out, we noticed that something on the bottom of the car had come loose and was dragging along the ground. I’m in no way mechanical, but it seemed like something we needed. A random piece of rope was procured, and the bit of metal was re-attached. We set off again, but only for a few hundred metres. Joelma turned round and said, ‘accident’. It was a bad one. Two guys had come off a bike and were now lying prone on the road. No helmets, and from the angle of their bodies, as well as some more grisly details, I could tell they would not be walking away from the crash. A crowd had gathered, and attempts were made to cover them with cardboard. I felt sick as we passed by. I never knew these two Brazilian men, and they never knew me, but I was now intrinsically linked to their deaths, and the final actions will affect me for the rest of this trip. It was only after we passed that Bee mentioned we may have been caught up in the crash if it wasn’t for our car breaking. Strange to think of that.

We soon rolled into Boa Vista station, where we jumped out a little shell-shocked. But there was no time to reflect as our bossy Brazilian friend marched us to the cash-point (which thankfully worked) and then led us into the ticket office. Through a combo of Bee’s Spanish and Joelma’s Portuguese the two were somehow able to forge a quick friendship – one I was shoved to the side of uncermoniously. Joelma would take Bee out to the station to parade her round and role-play Portuguese phrases in shops, before re-appearing with some sort of treat for us, including ice-cream which she managed to drop all over the floor (funny in any language) and bars of chocolate. She made sure we got the same bus as her (and in adjacent seats) and then it was off on another night-bus to Manaus.

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Ah Manaus, the city in the middle of the Amazon. Built up in the late 19th Century by rubber barons, it is the major port of the Amazon and a mish-mash of colonial buildings, brand new developments, and favelas. It’s a fascinating place, and by all accounts one of the safest and friendliest in Brazil. It will also play host to several World Cup games next year, and we drove past the stadium on our way in. Considering it’s meant to be staging games in matter of months, I’d say it’s got a fair way to go until it’s ready… We had a few days before the boat sailed, so it was time to enjoy hostel life and see some sights – first of which was the Teatro Amazonas, the opera house built in 1896 in the middle of what was then pretty much jungle. Taking a tour to this amazing building was brilliant, as it’s been fully restored and retains much of its original features. However, my lasting memory of the place won’t be the ballroom or auditorium, it will be the fact the building attacked me. Waiting outside and putting on sun-cream, a storm suddenly rolled in. With it came a powerful gusting wind, which slammed against the building and shattered the plate glass windows. One came crashing down next to me not more than 50cm from my head. Leaping back I marvelled at how close it had been. What I should have done is sprinted away as quickly and as far as possible like Bee. As seconds later another gust of wind blew out another window, causing a shard of glass to deeply slice my back up. OUCH. Luckily we had some tape int he medical pack meaning I avoided stitches, and could stick the wound together until it healed – not easy in the humidity! I’ll add it to my long list of injuries sustained on the road, which will be the subject of a future blog post!

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Bee Says: Ah the life of a hostel hopping backpacker. After spending the last week or so on our own, rattling round hostels with no fellow backpackers, it was a shock to the system to arrive at Hostel Manaus and find there were no private rooms available. We sloped up bleary eyed to a dorm, where we crashed out on our bunks. Being in a dorm actually worked out well, as we instantly befriended our roomies and I remembered this is what I love about hostel life. It is like a current in the ocean, you can just float along with the flow and you know there’ll always be a gang of people doing something you can go tag along to. This happened instantly for us, as a guy from Rio tipped us off about a concert taking place that night at the Teatre Amazones… so a few hours later we headed out. Myself, 2 Brazilian guys, a Dutch guy and an Italian guy (and Nick)… me and my 5 dates to the opera! We opted for slightly pricier tickets, so had wonderful seats high in the beautiful circle, with a perfect view of the stage. The concert was a traditional classical group from the amazon, who made their instruments from local resources and had tons of amazing percussions bits and bobs – including one that was just a coconut shell floating about in water that got tapped with a stick. I think even I could play that one. The night consisted of classical pieces, a famous local opera singer, a man in a shiny suit who sang Time to Say Goodbye in Portuguese, poetry and everything inbetween. The performance lasted hours and was electric, with the audience roaring and clapping in time and swaying to the beats. A truly pinch-yourself experience to be watching this and knowing you are sat in the middle of the jungle!

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From one type of music to another, we were led by our new tour guides to a streetside bar where we drank litres of beer (it’s so cheap here and so refreshing, as it’s served still partially in chunks of ice), ate fish dumplings and listened to a samba band whip everyone into a frenzy and turning the pavement into a dance floor. We sat for hours soaking up this taste of Brazil and both knew that there was something special in the air that would definitely be hard to beat. Marvellous Manaus has been a wonderful place to spend a few days pre-boat experience. We’ve had the time and freedom to find favourite local places, such as the Budega 101 where you load up your plate from a vast buffet of food choices and then your plate is weighed and charged by the kilo! It was here I discovered banana fritter, a popular sweet treat. We also spent alot of time in Skina dos Suco, a juice bar that looks like something from Grease; with high stools and long tables forcing you to squeeze in with the locals as you slurp the most incredible juices. Nick sampled Acai (palm berries – that look like eyeballs – and tapioca) which tasted horrible but he said has made his insides feel cleansed and happy after a few too many salgados. We also found his dream milkshake – Ovaltine biscuits and Ovaltine ice cream. I know my mum will understand just how happy this would make him!

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We have lurked around the port, checked out the markets and today we went to the Bosque de Ciencia (Science Park). A sticky bus journey 30 minutes through more and less desirable sections of Manaus bought us to the 130sq km jungle that houses squirrel monkeys (the most exciting wildlife spot I’ve had so far!), manatee, GIANT otters, crocodiles, sloth and electric eels amongst other beasties.

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Finally, we bought our hammocks (mine is leopard print… obv!) and tomorrow we set sail on our Amazon boat which will take us four days and nights through Brazil to Porto Velho and one step closer to our next stop. Bolivia!

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(PS. I still haven’t received an answer for my number one Brazil question, and the title of this blog post. I haven’t seen any evidence of them around that’s for sure. Socorro?)