Category Archives: Bolivia

Hello, Goodbye

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.