Tag Archives: South America On A Shoestring

Colombia to Panama Overland – Does Cheaper Mean Better?

Bee Says: As you may have guessed from our wildly ambitious 6 month schedule and the breakneck pace we have ploughed through South America: a driving force in our travel decisions has been to try as much as possible and to always opt for the off-the-beaten-track and less well travelled routes. This was the main reason behind a decision that we made early on regarding our pivotal crossing from Colombia to Panama (and therefore South America to Central America). The options to cross from Colombia to Panama are as follows:

1. Fly from one of the major Colombia cities to Panama City: Appx $300 per person.

2. Travel on a sailboat, taking a 4 day tour via the idyllic San Blas islands: Appx $400-550 per person.

3. The “newly safe” route via Capurgana (the Lonely Planet only declared it safe in September 2013, and have a full page spread in the latest South America on a Shoestring recommending it) that we opted for which consists of:

  • Travel to Turbo, a seedy town in the Golfo de Uraba in the north of Colombia. You will need to spend the night, in order to be at the dock bright and early the next morning to catch…
  • A lancha / panga (speed boat) that travels 3 hours to Capuragana, a beautiful Caribbean coastal resort. Another night here, and then…
  • A second speed boat 45 minutes into the first town in Panama: Puerto Obaldia where you will go through a lengthy customs search and interview, due to the fact this route is still occasionally used by drug smugglers.
  • In Puerto Obaldia you can link up to the 3-times-a-week Air Panama flights to Panama City (which you MUST book a seat on in advance, Puerto Obaldia is only reachable by boat or plane and as it´s sat in the middle of the Darien Gap… is not a place you want to find yourself stranded in!)
  • This route cost us (including all travel/accomodation) $147 per person.

On this trip, I have learnt that backpacking is a constant balancing act between budget, comfort and safety. There is a constant responsibility to stay within your financial means, but without cutting so many corners you endanger yourself. As you can see, taking the adventurous #3 route above was half the price of any other route and with the Lonely Planet heralding it as safe, we decided to take the plunge.

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We had been so excited to test out the new route and then to log on here and recommend it to our fellow travellers. Unfortunately, we are here to do the exact opposite. By reading our story you can make up your own mind, but I would advise everyone to AVOID this route at all costs and suggest that Lonely Planet on this occasion have woefully under-researched the journey. Safe is certainly not a word that springs to mind when I shudderingly re-live the experience.

Nick Says: On paper this trip sounded perfect – not very well travelled, lots of adventure, and a chance to save some mega bucks. It seemed like the type of trip I had enjoyed taking in the past, and got us off the luxury buses and flights we’d been taking recently. In fact, it was nice to have to think for ourselves again! We started nice and early on Boxing Day, getting to Cartagena bus station and finding transport for Monteria (there’s no direct route to Turbo, the destination of the day, meaning we had to do it in two stages). Once crammed aboard our tiny little bus, we set off on the supposedly 4 hour journey. A word to the wise, set off as EARLY as possible if you ever find yourself on this route. It takes forever! 5 hours later we were nowhere near Monteria, and the bus pulled into a nameless station. We were then all booted off and piled onto an even more smaller bus, where the previous 2 inches of leg-room felt like a luxury from a Shah’s royal palace. Bee took the opportunity to go to the loo, leaving me with a Spanish phrase to make sure they waited for her. Obviously cue the bus engine roaring into life, and me desperately repeating the phrase as they drove off with Bee still at the station! For some reason, the driver wanted to park the other side of the road. Slightly agitated now, I looked over in no small relief as a clearly bemused Bee was led by a guy I’d never seen onto our bus and back to me. I’m still none the wiser why it couldn’t just wait for her!

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A bumpy and dusty hour later we were finally in Monteria, and in the waiting arms of the bus touts. I didn’t think it was possible, but somehow these guys had found an even smaller bus to cram us onto for our next 4 hour ride – this time to Turbo itself. 6 more bumpy and dusty hours later, we arrived in darkness to our destination. Kindly dropping us at the hotel we wanted to stay at (which we’d been unable to contact before getting there) we set on our way, 12 hours after leaving our Cartagena hostel. We quickly found our hotel, bounded up the stairs, and found there were no rooms available. Dang. So we went back into the delightful streets of Turbo, but this time the guy behind reception came with us in order to show us another potential hotel. After pointing us in the right direction, we got there and found… no rooms. Hmmm. Turbo is not really the place you want to be stuck in at night with nowhere to go… We quickly walked back to the main drag praying something would turn up, and luckily the travel gods listened to us. I’ve found on almost every trip I’ve ever been on that if you place yourself entirely on the mercy of human kindness, you’ll never go wrong. Most people will genuinely want to go out of their way to make sure you’re ok. And so it was with Ron, the first hotel’s reception guy. He had followed us to the second hotel to make sure we were alright, and then spent the next 20 minutes personally escorting us around Turbo to find accommodation, even picking up another lost traveller en-route. Once he had completed his quest and safely deposited us (at a delightful hotel that possibly charged by the hour), he gave us a cheerful wave and was on his way. A true Christmas miracle.

Bee Says: We slept fitfully on our plastic sheeted bed, waking up at 6am and desperately keen for a shower. Only… this wasnt just an Aguas Caliente lie, this was an Agua in GENERAL lie, and we found the shower could only muster a few drops of dribble before giving up entirely. Therefore, as we trundled down to the dock, the main concern on my mind was how smelly I might appear to our fellow passangers. This soon took a major nosedive in terms of things to worry about! We had researched a few blogs prior to the trip, and the consistant piece of advice was to sit near the back of the boat, as the crossing is notoriously choppy. To be fair to Lonely Planet, they had hinted at this… claiming the ride was so bumpy “if you still have your teeth intact at the end of it, itll be a journey you never forget”. For this reason we were sat at the dock, names first and second on the passenger list, 3 hours before we departed therefore feeling confident about our chances at the back row. Sadly when the time arrived to embark, locals with ID cards were called to the boat first and snapped up the luxury back seats, leaving us and a couple of other travellers with the misfortune of foreign passports to be herded onto the dreaded front row.

Within moments of setting off, we had the sinking feeling we’d made a terrible mistake. The main problem was that it was a flimsy 30-seater power boat that had 3 whopping engines attached to the back (legal…?) and so once we set off the power was so strong that the front where we sat, was almost vertical! The ocean had a 3 metre swell  and storm clouds were swirling in, yet it soon became clear that the captain (in his waterproof mac and ski goggles) didn’t care about anything other than gunning the engine, getting us as fast as possible over that crossing and pocketing the money. This meant that every wave we hit, we were launched into the air and would come crashing back onto the wooden seats with a crack. This happened over and over. Locals were crying, people were screaming in pain, it was absolutely traumatising and a waking nightmare of collective fear. Waves came from every direction and every few minutes we would be launched so high off our seats that you’d have this sickening few seconds of total awareness before you landed of just knowing how much pain was about to course through your body… but there was nothing you could do to stop it. I have certainly never felt anything like it, and before long I was hunched over with every nerve ending from my head to the base of my spine shrieking. 

Because Nick is constantly putting my needs above his own, when he realised how wounded I was feeling, he twisted round to comfort me. He spent ten minutes just lifting me out of the seat to try and absorb the shock impacts himself. He sang little made up songs in my ear and whispered how brave I was being. It was at this moment that we got smashed by the hugest wave yet, sending Nick in his twisted position back into his seat with a crunch, swiftly followed by his agonising screams. Something was very wrong. We had a terrifying few minutes thinking he had broken his back or slipped a disc, and we were in the middle of nowhere with an hour left on this hellish journey. There was a small glimmer of fortune in that shortly after we pulled into a small fishing village to refuel, and at least we could check that Nick could stand and hobble, reassuring us slightly that he hadn’t broken anything. It wasnt reassuring really though, as he was white as a sheet and murmering in pain. As we boarded to set back off, we pleaded with the locals, but no one would give up their back seat for injured Nick (I dont blame them) so he had to take a seat next to the captain. He found the back less bumpy, but was absolutely drenched for the duration alongside his i-pod (sorry, k-pod) and Casio watch. Which do you think survived? Good old Apple! I remained upfront and had an agonising hour of being apart from Nick and having horrific imaginings that he was in so much pain he might faint and fall overboard, and generally fretting none stop that I couldnt comfort him or even see him.

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After what felt like forEVER we docked in Capurgana. The stories we began to hear from locals who noted Nick´s condition were fast-flowing and harrowing; ranging from the uncomfirmed reports that two weeks earlier 14 people were thrown overboard and some were left out at sea, the numbers of people who arrive with smashed teeth, ruptured spleens… oh and that days previously a Taiwanese lady was so injured, the military had to airlift her out (as the worst part is that Capurgana is so isolated it can only be reached by boat or plane – no roads) Take the tales with a pinch of salt, but it was shocking to hear that even the hostel owners and tourism officials raging so publicly about this cowboy operation!

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Nick Says: Now I’ve had my fair share of incidents while travelling – ribs broken by a Thai boxer, a night in the Darwin A&E dept, chased by wild dogs, attacked by Indian jungle bees, and a mishap with a pot-hole in Albania. But this was the most scary and painful of all. The pain was sickening, and coupled with the genuine terror that I might have done something permanent! So I almost wept with relief when I discovered I could still walk. i just couldn’t do much else. Seizing up and with limited mobility, we got ashore at Capurgana. Luckily my reservations I had fired off hopefully into the void several days earlier (and never heard back from) came good, and we were soon ensconced in Luz del Oriente, a fantastic hotel right by the dock in Capurgana. After settling into one of their Lord of the Rings themed rooms (ours was Gandalph. No explanation or apparent reason at all why this Caribbean resort had produced this small tribute to Tolkien), the owner provided us with ice for my back and the advice that I should get myself to the clinic for ‘the injection’. The fact that there’s a well known injection for people in my position and pain says it all really. So we hobbled into the ramshackle health hut, where a lovely Colombian lady doctor made sure nothing too bad had happened, and then invited in a nurse. Who proceeded to pull down my board shorts and stick a needle into my bum. So this was ‘the injection’. After handing over $20 for that privilege, I then received a prescription for lots of amazing drugs designed to help me, and settled onto the floor for two days of recovering before the next part of the trip.

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In any other context, Capurgana would have been a potential trip highlight. It’s a remote, unspoilt, Caribbean gem. The water looks lovely (and is apparently warm), the people are super friendly, and there a ton of activities to do. But not for me or Bee, who spent our time recovering from the trauma of our crossing. Unable to even dress myself, Bee had to become my carer. I could hobble down to dinner (where the table had to be dragged over to me, as I waited whimpering for food) but that was about the extent of my adventures. In fact the only good thing about my stay in Capurgana was that I was able to get an amazing hat with a crab on it to replace my poor Panama hat, which was another victim of the Turbo boat. When I had bought it we had jokingly put a bet on how long it would last. Neither of us expected a mere 4 days! He burned brightly and briefly.

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After what seemed like an instant, it was time to leave South America behind and enter Central America. It wasn’t really the way I had anticipated doing it, but it was dramatic. Using previously unsuspected strength, Bee managed to haul both our bags, both daypacks, and me down to the dock, where we got in a tiny motor-boat destined for Panama. What a difference a captain (and lack of three super-charged engines) make. Despite even larger waves, we skillfully weaved our way through the ocean with barely a bump. I think we both breathed a huge sigh of relief. I was even ready to let him off the fact he may be smuggling Class A’s along with us and our luggage. Within 45 minutes we were putting ashore in the tiny town of Puerto Obaldia, the first major settlment in Panama. Although there was really nothing major about it. I remember thinking that I couldn’t see where the airport would be, which was a worry considering Bee’s dislike of tiny aeroplanes… But these thoughts were quickly chased out of my head as we waded onto dry land (no docks here) and trudged into customs. Luckily we were prepared for how thorough they would be, otherwise it would have been a shock after the light-touch ways of the South American borders. We had to unpack everything we owned and show them to a stern looking man (cue confusion over what Bee’s contraceptive pill was. She finally explained in Spanish that it was for ‘no baby’ causing much hilarity for the woman queuing behind) who would flick through everything. It was a good opportunity to see just how much tat we’ve gathered up so far. I NEED that wooden ludo set dammit! Then we set on our way to the border control. What a difference a passport makes. We had travelled over with some Colombian tourists, and they had to provide print-outs of bank statements, $500 in cash, and answer quite a lot of questions. One look at our EU passport, and we were waved through without a care in the world. The Colombians were quite rightly a bit miffed, and asked why, which just made the official demand even less of us. I might have well have saved myself 50 quid on the Yellow Fever vaccination for all the good it’s done us here. Anyway, once through that gauntlet we could finally check in. Except it was hard to find the Air Panama office, There was this shack down a road with an Air Panama sticker on it, but that couldn’t be it could it? Well, obviously it was.

Bee Says: I like flying. I dont like small spaces. Get me on a standard Boeing jobby, the type we have zoomed around from the Galapagos, and I am a happy sky soarer. However, the thought of the teeny tiny propeller planes has always turned my stomach, to the point that we didn´t bother with the Nasca lines as I wasnt sure I had the guts to get in one. We had booked our flight to Panama City online and with Air Panama. We had been told the flights get busy, so I had assumed we would be getting a standard big plane that would be packed with passangers. The first hint that this might not be the case, was when we headed to the Air Panama shack, to check in our backpacks. They were weighed, and we turned to leave, when the local man (who turned out to do EVERY air related job single handedly, from check in, to baggage handling to donning a flurescent tabard and waving the plane in…) tapped me on the shoulder and explained that I needed to be weighed too. I laughed in his face! I thought it was a joke! From his frosty face I swiftly realised it was not a joke, and sheepishly stood on the scales whilst making horror-movie faces at Nick over my shoulder and saying through gritted teeth “JUST how SMALL is this plane if they need to weigh ME??”

Like good air travellers, we had given ourselves two hours to “get through” the airport. Turns out, in this case, the airport was an empty room with a fan in it, next to a landing strip. Oh and gaurded chummy Panamanian military man, who chatted away to us in Spanish whilst gesticulating wildly about the varying temperatures in North Panama. This would be great, except he regularly used his huge rifle to gesticulate with. Right at us. As we waited, a plane landed and out hopped a comically large number of soldiers from the tiny 20 seater vehicle. I looked at Nick and shook my head sadly. “No way can I get on that”. As it turned out, I should have begged them to let me in it, clinging to the wing and refusing to let go… because suddenly a tiny Hummingbird flew into view. Oh I’m sorry, an aeroplane disguised as a bird. It was SO SMALL. I didnt have time to freak out, as the pilot herded me into one of the EIGHT SEATS.

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We were lucky enough to be seated right next to the pilots, who both looked about 19, and spent the majority of the flight rotating between huge arm stretching yawns or rummaging around on the floor for a lost pen. Despite my doubts, I actually enjoyed alot of the flight. The views were incredible. Unluckily we hit a ton of thick cloud turbulance 30 minutes in, and I was the only female onboard to make it through the few-hundred-feet-drops without crying! Note how the man next to me is also weeping, leaving Nick to comfort his teenage daughter who was in a real state by this point. It is times like this that my Spanish homework really pays back, as I knew how to say to her “you are so brave” and I hope she believed it.

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The bumps werent fun, but I have to admit, the rest of the flight actually was! The most rewarding part was seeing Panama City suddenly jut out of dense jungle, and our pilots gave us a real sight seeing treat as they landed us with mindblowing views of the Panama Canal. By the time we landed I was on the biggest adrenaline high of my life and just gobsmacked that I had spent an hour in that tiny tincan of terror and hadn’t had a nervous breakdown, especially as I was still quite jittery after the boat of doom and fretting about Nick’s back! In fact, I would get in one again (maybe on a clearer day)… just maybe not for a few weeks. We have had quite enough excitement for a little while.

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Nick Says: We had been warned that getting through customs once at the airport in Panama City could take upwards of 4 hours. And so it was with only a little enthusiasm I greeted the announcement that we had to go into the special police offices behind a little door in arrivals. Luckily for us though, but unluckily for them, it was our Colombian travel buddies they were interested in. While they were both hauled in for lengthy interviews with a man with a gun, me & Bee sat around for half an hour, answered a question about when I was born (which I didn’t even understand) and then skipped on our merry way. After 4 days of travel, a near disastrous boat journey, and an adrenaline pumping fall through the skies in a tiny tin can, we had made it to Panama. We were in Central America.

Was it worth it? Well I guess we’re several hundred dollars better off and we’ll have a story we can tell forever (if we had flown the blog may have been a bit shorter), but overall I don’t think I’ll be repeating this particular trip. While not scared to get back in another speed boat, I’ve definitely got a healthy respect for them now, and will be demanding to sit at the back! Getting soaked is preferable to permanent back injury. We’ve also been told horror stories about the sail boats, although also some tales which made me want to do it too. So for ease of use, and most importantly safety, we would recommend you fly from Colombia to Panama (or vice-versa). I love pushing myself, and love travel adventures, but at the moment this trip is too dangerous for us in good conscience to say go for it. I hope they sort the boats out between Turbo and Capurgana, and I really hope nothing bad happens anytime soon there. Although I think it already may be.

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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.