Nick Says: When Bee leant over to tell me she felt sick, my first reaction wasn’t to make sure she was ok. Actually, it was to wish I’d said it first – damn her quickness. I felt just as queasy! The reason for our mutual poorliness was due to the fact that we had gone from sea-level to 5000m in the space of two hours. We’d avoided altitude sickness so far, but our luck had run out.
Re-wind a few days and you find us in Arica, a beach city on the border of Chile and Peru. Accompanied by our Canadian bear friend Beau, we had come for a few days R&R, and plan our next moves – he to Peru, and us back to Bolivia. While we didn’t hold out much hope for Arica, we’d heard good things about the beach. Which sadly turned out to be completely wrong. A dirty strip of sand littered with broken glass and with cars parked along it, it didn’t ignite an instant love affair. Borrowing a couple of beach towels from our hostel (Hostal Sunny Days, a friendly place about 5 mins walk from the bus terminals if you’re ever here), we tried our best to catch some rays, but in the end we gave up and headed back to our room. Teaming up with Beau, we instead headed out to a seafood place our host Ross had recommended. Walking along the sea-front towards the port, it struck me what Arica reminded me of. It was Southampton with a beach. It even had the rowdy locals too – a car racing past bellowed ‘GRINGO!’ at Beau, much to our delight. I guess that’s what you get for walking around shirtless down here.
Entering the busy port, we wondered if this supposedly amazing seafood place really existed amongst the belching smoke of trucks entering and leaving. But there it was, Maracuya. We walked in and were transported elsewhere. Built literally on the water (you can see it under your feet as you eat), Maracuya is a ramshackle place which serves up absolutely huge portions of delicious seafood. We started with a chowder which had every single shell-fish I could imagine, and then some more. While enough on it’s own for a main, we then got dozens of tiny fried fish to eat. However, as tasty as it was, the food wasn’t the highlight of the meal. Instead, that honour went to the family of sea-lions that played in the dock outside. Me & Bee had never seen sea-lions before, so to have several giant specimens swimming around close to us was a dream come true. But the animal spotting wasn’t finished then. Walking along the dirty beach, we looked into the water and saw dozens of TURTLES! It was their feeding time, and they lay among the waves bobbing their mighty heads out of the water to breathe and to catch the flying fish that were leaping out of the sea. In amongst these amazing creatures lay pelicans, also trying to muscle in on the action.
So while on the surface it didn’t look a particularly promising place, scratch hard enough and Arica reveals its charms – even more if you’re a surfer. But after a few days it was time to leave once again, bidding farewell to Chile, the country that we were never meant to visit. The bus and the mountains beckoned, and with it our brush with altitude sickness. Luckily for us though, it only lasted around 30mins. We’d heard of fellow backpackers whose entire trip had been blighted with it. As our sickness subsided, as if by magic the bus crew brought round free ice cold, glass bottled soft drinks for us. Unexpected and much welcomed. It was then at the seeming roof of the world, we left Chile and said hello to an old friend, welcome back to Bolivia. Next stop La Paz.
Bee Says: Let’s not deny facts here. La Paz has a terrible reputation. In fact in the latest South America Lonely Planet, published in Sept 2013, there is a whole page dedicated to its dangers and full of warnings! It sounded so dire we honestly gave some thought to skipping it altogether but we desperately wanted to see this unique city built into the side of the snow-capped mountains. As our bus crept closer, we knew we have made the right decision. Words can’t describe how stunning La Paz is, it looks well… impossible. Buildings stacked liked jenga blocks amongst the purple Andes. A Mexican wave of stunned silence swept the bus, even the locals, as we descended into the chaos.
We decided to splash the cash a little more here and stay in a hotel. It was definitely worth the hit, as we felt very safe tucked up in our 5th floor room with amazing views of the twinkly mountain houses. One of the main tourist warnings is bogus taxis that kidnap people and force them to withdraw money at an ATM. (Yeah, nasty)! Add to this on our first night we had a facebook message from marvellous Mark (who we did the Amazon boat with) to say HE was kidnapped in a taxi in La Paz!!!! But that he escaped unscathed and will tell us all when we meet back up with him in a couple of weeks. This did nothing to ease our anxiety about the city, but we purposely chose a central location to avoid using any taxis, until the last day when but we got our hotel to ring a legit radio taxi. The other tourist warning came to us as we checked into the hotel, in fact it was the first words out of the consierge’s mouth (!) apparently in Bolivia you can buy authentic Police uniforms in the market. Yup, the market! As a result La Paz is rife with fake policemen who approach backpackers and request passports/money/you to follow them etc. The advice, if this happens, is to take them back to your hotel for the staff to deal with. We say TONS of policemen and various other military types, but no one gave us the slightest second look.
Given all this fear mongering and terror talk, we embarked on our La Paz adventuring with trepidation… But, we loved it! We we had a wonderful two days exploring the famous witches market (complete with llama fetuses strung over every shop door and mounds of curious lotions and potions), pounding the streets and enjoying this quirky chaotic city. As you’d expect in a city up a mountain at 4000m above sea level, the cobbled streets take you up and down vertical climbs and everything has a jaunty, gnarled look… as the streets and buildings seem to literally grip to the mountain for dear life! It is definitely one of the most amazing places and sights that our trip has taken us to so far, and I’m SO relieved we didn’t skip on the opportunity. We had lunch at Club La Paz, a favourite cafe back in 1940s with Nazis who had escaped to Bolivia, and later where many prolific literary, political and cultural figures would meet to chat over Saltenas and coffee… so we did the same! Although we maybe talked more about what jazzy bolivian knitwear to purchase next than the solution to world peace. I know it isn’t everyones experience, but we couldn’t have had a better time in La Paz. Everyone was super friendly to us, I think it always helps that we are speaking Spanish as I guess most tourists visiting might not be able to.
On our last night there we went to “the highest British curry restaurant in the world”. We have both had such big curry cravings and haven’t eaten anywhere but budget pollo frito joints for ages. The restaraunt was amazing, like walking into one of Bradford’s finest, so I felt instantly at home – the Indian music, the mango lassi, onion bhajis, popadoms. Nick even sampled llama curry. I opted for a spicy little number made using special chillies farmed from the Bolivian foothills, which I can report literally take the roof of your mouth off! This is a must-do if you find yourself in La Paz. Although once safely back in our hotel, we heard what we tried to convince ourselves were “fireworks” but were definitely gunshots judging from the sirens after. This isn’t an unusual noise in London so didn’t tarnish our mega La Paz good vibes but I wouldn’t be being honest if I didn’t mention it.
Nick Says: After a few hectic days in La Paz, we set off for our holiday. Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking, ‘you guys are travelling, why the hell do you need a holiday?´. Well it’s a pretty fast paced 7 weeks crossing a continent. Added to this is the pressure of always making sure we’re safe/not getting ripped off/on the right bus and place, and we’re starting to feel it a bit. So what we needed was a few days of doing nothing and relaxing. And what better place to head towards then Isla del Sol, legendary Inca birthplace of the Sun, and muy tranquilo (I’m basically fluent in Spanish now). But to get there we first had to hop on a bus to Copacabana, a town on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We missed the main tourist bus, so we took a locals only one there. This time the locals included a pasty ginger Bolivian guy, which was unexpected. Even unexpected for the Bolivian police, who stopped us and this guy to check our passports, to which he replied with a locally accented Spanish, ‘I’m Bolivian!’. This passport checking came just after our second bus/boat barge of the trip. Having never had it happen to me before, in the space of the last month I’ve now been kicked off two buses while they cross water on a precarious barge. I didn’t even bother to excitedly take pictures this time, I’m so used to it.
Copacabana is a pretty touristy place to go. Great if you want to meet other backpackers, pick up cheap presents, and drink microbrewed Bolivian beer, not so great if you want to soak up traditional culture… unless like us you accidentally gatecrash the yearly school fete and spend 30 minutes having magnetic electric motors explained to you in muy rapido spanish by a gaggle of Bolivian teenage girls!
It’s definitely a fun place to spend a few days and have touts try and get you in their restaurants. We rejected the restaurants, opting instead for the line of identical shacks along the lakefront that serve trucha (wild trout from the lake) with an array of sauces; tomato, garlic, lemon or… devil? Yum!
The one MAIN thing that no other backpacker or guidebook had told us about was the vast fleet of swan and duck PEDALOS which line the beach. They were magnificent. And for 1 pound fifty per half hour, a bargain to set sail on. If there was one thing I didn’t expect on this trip, it was to riding a jaunty yellow swan pedalo around Lake Titicaca. I even let Bee steer – much to the pedalo boss’s delight!
Bee Says: From Copacabana we took one of the twice-daily boats to Isla Del Sol, a two hour trip over the (surprisingly choppy) lake. We were dropped at the North of the island and from here we would walk over 10k to the south of the island where we would have our much deserved holiday. This was to be the first real test of turning into tortugas (turtles) as we trekked with our backpacks, daypacks and water on – about 12kg each of kit. Check out my snazzy Bolivian water holder. I mocked them for about a week before succumbing and now it is our most prized possesion!
The first happening on Isla Del Sol was… with a heavy heart we decided to part ways with our faithful friend cloud bear blanket. Ever since buying him he has cursed our bus travel, with A/C not working on a single vehicle since! We also couldn’t face the prospect of carrying him the 10k walk in blazing sunshine. So with a heavy heart I gave him to a couple of local women selling their artisan goods, and the SMILE on their faces was our highlight of the trip so far. Our captain and a few local men also gave us thumbs up and thanks, ahh. We now like to sit back and imagine cloud bear happily living his new life keeping the locals warm on the island. Before we started the epic journey, we took a 45 minute walk to some impressive intact Inca ruins and an amazing sacrificial table which was used for sacrificing actual HUMANS.
We ate a small snack of biscuits and water off it instead. We were also meant to go to a museum I had been told was all about a giant frog (amazing right!) but when we got there it just had some dusty old human bones… The mission over the island was slightly more ambitious than we expected, let alone carrying our lives on our backs. At 4000m the altitude leaves you pretty huffy and puffy (although my asthma has stopped being a total bane which is good) and the 10k takes you constantly up and down mountains, to the point where every downhill hike feels cruel as you know another, bigger peak awaits you! The trek was beautiful though, the glistening water below, the pink tinged snowy mountains alongside, the cacti, the bright blue sky and the stunning scenery. We had the route to ourselves for pretty much the whole time too, just meeting the odd local to pay island tax to and one glorious mirage-like cafe where I could slurp on a much needed coca tea – coca leaves are the best natural cure for altitude sickness/breathlessness so Im constantly chewing them or drinking them.
It was very satisying to arrive in the village of Yumani on the south, where our next mission was to find a hostel (preferably with a suitable holiday-like view) on a tiny budget of 30BS (3 quid) a night. The first place we asked wanted 80, then we tried another place who had a room for 30 but then pointed us off in the direction of another hostel. As we approach, a cheeky 10 year old girl informed us it was actually 100 (!) but with some negotiation we got it back to 30 AND only went and got the best room in the place, with this dream view on a daily basis. It shows that it pays to shop around and stand your ground in these tourist trap locations.
On our second day of “rest” we accidentally hiked to the dock, taking in the hanging gardens and waterfall en route. Neither of us stopped to think that the verticle steep downhill stroll would be pure tortue on the way back up. It was so hard going we had to collapse in a cafe half way that had llama in the garden. I tried to sit too close to one and it hissed in my face! We had heard about a gourmet chef who ran a restaraunt deep in the euclyptis forests called Las Velas, so that night we ventured there. The restaraunt was in the middle of the woods, with no electricity, so once the sun set we were in total darkness bar romantic candlelight. The husband and wife chef team have no set menu, so from the brief list of options we chose wild giant trout in wine sauce and a llama canneloni. We sat back patiently, taking in the isolated restaraunt vibes and spooky darkness outside. We waited… and we waited… and we WAITED until we were nearly driven to mouth-frothing hunger rage black outs. It was 3 hours before our food finally arrived! To be honest, it could have been a Big Mac and it would have tasted like heaven. The food was amazing, but it was definitely ruined by the crazy waiting time. The best part was actually leaving (!) as by now it there was only a blanket of stars to light our way home through the dense woods. My nifty head torch got its first outing (thanks meg and christina!) and we walked for about ten minutes (and before Nick says, I got spooked by a mule braying, jumping about ten foot in the air!) before realising we might have taken the wrong path. Another ten minutes of Blair Witch Project style marching around and we managed to find our way again and safely back to do some star gazing.
Nick Says: The next day dawned bright and clear, a relief after the MASSIVE storm that had hit the island the first night. I’ve never seen anything like it, with giant peals of thunder crashing overhead, and lightning strieks so bright they lit up the island like daytime. We had to run for cover as giant hail stones attacked us. Not quite the tropical island paradise we expected, but we did enjoy sitting in our room watching the storm sit for hours overhead. The flashes , sometimes 4 or 5 forks at onces, were so bright they left imprints of the window frame on our eyes afterwards.
Anyway, after two days of hiking Bee went on strike and declared all she would do that day would be to nap and read. I on the other hand wanted to explore some more. One of the best things about the island is the ability to off-road on your own hikes, despite it’s small size. After abandoning a trip to more ruins in the south (couldn’t find a way which wouldn’t involve a near vertical climb or boat trip) I decided to hike to the beach across the bay which we could see from our bedroom. Although a small hike (3 hours there and back) it really helped me clear my mind and focus on the next part of the trip. The scenery was of course stunning, with small waterfalls cascading down the cliffs. Once I finally reached my destination I went for a chilly but refreshing dip in Lake Titicaca. Returning to my rock where I’d put my clothes, I quickly became the target for two enraged gulls. I was obvously in their territory and they made sure I knew this as they divebomed and shrieked at me. Half-naked I felt especially vulnerable, and it was only after I threw a few rocks at them they left me alone! As a final adventure in Bolivia, it seemed fitting.
And so now we find ourselves back in Copacabana, with one night left in this amazing country. By the time you read this we will be in Peru, and all the excitement and challenges that will bring.