Tag Archives: Sucre

The Dollar Challenge: What will a buck get you in every Latin American country?

Bee Says: Before we went travelling, we got a few nice farewell gifts. For example, Nick’s dad gave us two identical emergency blankets, which luckily we could return to him unused at the end of our trip. Meg got me a nifty pink Leatherman and a super strength head torch. My favourite gift of all was from my good friend (and now member of Team Bridesmaid) Kerry. She works in a bureau de change, and knows ever-y-thing about currency and foreign moneys. She had the genius idea of presenting us with 15 dollar notes before we left; one for each country we would be visiting and she set us the great dollar challenge. We were to report back on what we felt was the best purchase we made for a dollar in each country. Not only was this just a really interesting project to keep us out of trouble, but it also really helps to highlight the strength of the dollar in different countries and the comparative wealth between them. So thank you Kerry for being such a smart cookie – check out her lovely Leeds foodie blog here, and we hope you (and everyone else) enjoy the results.

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1. VENEZUELA – GUARAPITA OVERLOAD

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Bee Says: Ah Venezuela, the first country we visited and which remains right in the top spots of our all-time favourite destinations. Whilst we were there, the exchange rate wobbled massively in our favour and meant it was the richest we were in any country. While the official rate was 10 bolivars to the pound, and 7 to the dollar, the black market had exploded and gave us rates of 50 bolivars to the pound and 35 to the dollar. To put this in context, a beloved bottle Polar beer cost around 30p! But our first winner for the great Dollar Challenge had to be our discovery of guarapita. Whilst flicking nervously through our South America on a Shoestring guide book on the flight to Caracas, my magpie eyes spotted a recommendation for a local Venezuelan cocktail; a combination of rum with passion fruit. On our last night in Puerto Colombia, we decided we had to go seek out this mysterious drink and see what all the fuss was about. I marched up to a van selling booze on the street and ordered two guarapitas (in my fumbling just-off-the-flight Spanish) and the guy behind the bar lifted out TWO huge litre bottles of orange stuff. Realising my mistake I quickly explained I only wanted two CUPS of guarapita. This was still misunderstood as I was passed a litre bottle with two empty plastic beakers! I was about to explain further, when the chap told me the price and the litre bottle cost… yup! About 75cents.

As you can see from the very legitimate old Russian Vodka bottle it came in, guarapita is brewed in someone’s back garden and certainly tasted as you’d expect. Heavy on the rum, less so on the fruit. We sat on a low wall next to the harbour, watching the sunset and the birds swoop and the locals coming out to dance on the street to music that an old car was playing from a huge sound system. One glassful had our cheeks rosey. Two glassfuls had our hearts thudding and by glass number three we both swore we could feel our hangovers already creeping in; so we donated the rest to some people next to us and staggered back to our hostel.

2. BRAZIL – HOT SAUCE SAVIOUR

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Nick Says: While the World Cup may be coming to an end, it’s been great to see images of Brazil on TV and all over the place for the last few weeks. Particularly Manaus, where we got to spend a week or so whilst waiting for our boat down the mighty Amazon. But we found Brazil a fair bit more expensive than Venezuela, thanks to the fact it isn’t in such dire economic and political turmoil as its neighbour… However, most things were a bit more than a dollar here, until we shopped for last minute supplies for the boat ride at a supermarket  (Carrefour!) and found some bargain hot sauce. While the 4 day boat trip through the Amazon was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the entire trip for us, it was the hot sauce that got us through it. A meal of bland beans, rice, and either chicken or beef twice a day quickly becomes tiresome, unless you just happen to have a bottle of fiery pepper sauce lying around. Then you suddenly become everybody’s best friend – which isn’t a bad thing on a boat where robbery isn’t entirely unknown… But 4 days of hot sauce changed me as a man. Before I was a bit bemused to watch Bee slather every meal with it. Now I’m right there with her, drowning any carefully prepared culinary delight in hot sauce (habanero preferably).

3. BOLIVIA – MICRO 4, THE ENDLESS BUS RIDE TO DINOSAURS

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Bee Says: Bolivia took us from Sugar, to Salt, to Stars and then up to the witch markets of La Paz and the epic Incan terrain of Isla del Sol. Our money certainly went furthest in Bolivia, and we reached the end of our month in the country under budget. It occasionally felt like it was actually hard to spend money, and this is probably demonstrated best by our adventure on the micro 4! Before we left for our travels we had been given a few “Top things to see before you die”, “50 Best bits of the world” type travel books and it was in one of these that we learnt we could walk with dinosaurs in Sucre, Bolivia at El Parque Cretácico (Dinosaur Park!!!) 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 passengers 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(ish) 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.

4. CHILE – HAIRY LITTLE LLAMA MAGNET

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Nick Says: Chile has stated aspirations to be a ‘first world country’ in the next few years. It already feels like it’s there to be honest. It is the strongest economy in South America, and easily felt the most prosperous of all the places we visited. But as a result, it was also the most expensive of all the Latin American nations we went to. Making it even more expensive was the fact we had pitched up in San Pedro de Atacama – the major tourist destination in all of Chile. So while we managed to live as cheaply as possible (street food served in cage, delicious red wine from origin) it was pretty tricky trying to find something that matched the dollar challenge. But then we saw it, eyeing us up inside a tourist tat/artisan craft shop. It wanted to be bought. And it got its wish, and now lives on our fridge – becoming the Chile instalment of our other challenge, buying a fridge magnet from every country we visited.

5. PERU – HUANCHACO PIER (DAY OFF FROM BEING SICK…)

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Bee Says: Whilst we had some of our trip high points at Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo, Peru wasn’t great to us for many reasons particularly Puno and the fact it will always be remembered as Poo-ru rather than Peru. When we weren’t frantically tag-teaming a toilet, we struggled to find much to write home about that cost less than a dollar. Tourism has hit Peru in a big way (its basically the new Thailand) and as such, prices reflect this. We had a nice day out in the sunshine in Huanchaco though, and we handed over a dollar for both of us to stroll around the creaky wooden pier. From here we stood for hours watching local lads fishing with bits of wire glued to a square of wood; which seemed to be working well for them judging from the splish-splashing buckets full of fish we saw.

 6. ECUADOR – PINK CATERPILLAR RIDE OF JOY (THE WINNER!!!!)

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Nick Says: We’d just taken a last minute decision to fly out to the Galapagos Islands, paid out a not-insubstantial amount of money to a tour agency (which we had no idea would be legit or not – but turned out to be amazing) for a 7 night cruise around the islands, and were now sitting eating a slice of pizza and drinking a beer while trying to get our heads round the fact we no longer had the money. Was it a good idea or not? Had we made a mistake? One beer led to another, and then we heard a rumbling along the road. Not much traffic goes past on the Galapagos, so we were pretty curious. But this curiosity turned to first disbelief, then incredible excitement once we saw the source of the rumbling –  a giant motorised pink caterpillar on massive wheels came zooming past. We looked at each other and nodded. We quickly grabbed our stuff and shouted, ‘let’s chase it!’ Which wasn’t the best plan as it was really quick. Finally we caught up with it as the next bunch of excited people (mainly children if I’m being honest) got on-board. We leapt on, ready to hand over any amount of money to ride the pink caterpillar (a phrase I never thought I’d write) and laughed with joy as the man asked for a dollar each for the privilege. We knew we had a winner before the ride even started, but the journey confirmed it. Putting peddle to the metal, we roared off on a whistle stop tour of Puerto Ayora. No stopping for you pedestrian! Out of my way giant tortoise! We rode on for what seemed to be miles, careering around corners like a bat out of hell. But then came the surprise ending. Pulling up at what we thought to be the finish, the driver then proceeded to doughnut the pink caterpillar in high-speed circles. We whooped at him to keep going. He obliged. What a dollar. A few days later as our cruise stopped by Puerto Ayora we talked most of our fellow passengers to hop and ride with us again. They loved it.

7. COLOMBIA – SECRET JUNGLE PAN AU CHOCOLAT

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234adc4c6a9c11e3838a1219189c01ee_8Bee Says: From our Galapagos adventuring where we spotted giant tortoises, swam with sharks and scampered about with blue footed boobys  (and pink caterpillars..!) next we hiked into the wilds of Colombia, spending some time camping in Tayrona National Park before celebrating Christmas in  40 degree hot hot hot Cartagena. Not being a natural adventurer, the one thing that tempted me into this remote jungle was the TRAVEL LEGEND that somewhere… deep beneath the canopies… was apparently the best pan au chocolate in South America. It’s hinted at in Lonely Planet and people who have visited Tayrona whisper hished directions to the bakery as they pass in hostels and bars. We ended up hitting jackpot with our campsite, as it was a mere 2 minute stroll (follow the irrisitable smell that starts wafting to your tent at 4.30am!) to pick up these giant chocolate loafy beauties, which fill you up all day for hiking and swimming. You could easily walk past the small shack serving up these unexpected delights, so to find them we had to follow the eau de chocolat with our nose; cartoon style. Forget yoga, stuffing my face with these was my number 1 happy place!

8. PANAMA – SOAP AT LAST

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Bee Says: By the time we hit Peru, our supplies of British shower gel had well and truly run out. We weren’t worried; after all we had managed to stock up on sun cream, shampoo and pretty much every other essential we needed whilst on the road. However, shower gel and soap were another matter entirely. For three long countries trekking, we just could not find anything! The odd shower gel we stumbled over would be imported from USA and cost about $20 a pop, so we had to sadly return it to the shelf and carry on our stinky sticky way. Panama was almost a dollar challenge bust; firstly because after our real-life-horror-story crossing the Darian gap, and Nick’s nasty back injury, we spent the majority of our time in a hotel room where nothing cost less than a dollar! Then one night I snuck out to purchase a few make-your-own-mini-bar snacks from a shop over the road and on the shelves were… SOAP! A real life bar of soap! And better yet, it cost $1. This beaut gave us a great deal of joy and lasted us all the way to Mexico, even if by then it was a scraggly slither of joy rather than in its original glorious form.

 9. COSTA RICA – SWEATY BORDER CROSSING COCONUTS

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Bee Says: Costa Rica heralded sloths, snakes, night hikes, the best Mexican food we would ever eat and… the WORST border crossing of the entire trip. We went through the main Panama/Costa Rica border crossing, at Paso Canoas. First we were herded into a little room where our names were ticked off and sniffer dogs smelt our bags (and cheekily pulled out some of my underwear!) before being herded back out again and into a massively long queue for an exit stamp. After a breezy hour or so, we were finally let out of Panama and allowed to queue up for Costa Rica entry/searches/waiting around for no real reason. That wait went on… and on… and on… and in total the border crossing took over 4 excruciating hours of standing around. As Nick said in our original post about Costa Rica: For those of you thinking backpacking is all beers on the beach, try standing around a sweaty border crossing for a few hours while men with guns ask you questions! When we had finally been allowed to enter Costa Rica officially, we were both feeling weary, wiped and woeful. And just then, a man approached us selling coconuts… 2 for a dollar! Suddenly travel life was on the up again.

10. NICARAGUA – BASEBALL ON BIG CORN

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Nick Says: Ah Nicaragua. Probably our favourite country on the entire trip. Whether it’s a visit to the gorgeous colonial city of Granada, going to the world’s weirdest museum in Leon, riding on a boat with pigs and meeting the incredible Ike on Big Corn, and of course getting engaged on the tropical island paradise Little Corn, this was a country full of adventures and stories. It was also fertile ground for the dollar challenge. Beer was a buck, lobster not much more, bus rides and museums were a dollar, but the winner had to be the baseball game we went to on Big Corn. One tiny island, four competitive teams all battling it out for the championship. Saturday night was baseball night. The standard is high – one Big Corn local had made it to the Major League in recent years. The atmosphere was amazing, all beers and reggae music blasting out. We paid our dollar equivalent entry and walked in. We saw 5 balls before the tropical storm that had plagued us for days strike one last time, and rain off the whole thing. Days later, once we were back from Little Corn and catching up with Ike once again, he told us about the rearranged game the night before – and that he had tried to get hold of us over on Little Corn in order to ship us back, put us up for free at his, and take us to the game as he knew how much we wanted to see it! What a guy. But luck was on our side, as the last game of the championship had been brought forward. I could go. Sadly for Bee she was laid low with illness (/engagement boozing hangover), so I dashed across the airfield, got into the stadium, grabbed some fried chicken and watched a classic. My team (North End) may have been beaten in the last innings, but the game had it all. The crowd had even more. Sign me up to next year’s games.

11. EL SALVADOR – DESPERATE TIMES MCDONALDS

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Bee Says: There’s not much to say about El Salvador as sadly we were so squeezed for time that we only passed through San Salvador and the only money we spent was on… McDs! We tried to avoid the golden arches on the majority of our trip, but on this occasion we’d been in a bus since 3am for over 10 hours with no food, and being forced to watch a really weird almost-porno movie in a tiny sticky mini bus going over pot holes… we just could not bring ourselves to travel far to scavenge for food. McDonalds winked at us as we pulled into San Salvador and we were powerless to resist. Luckily it made for a handy (predictable) dollar challenge winner, as it turns out they have the pound-saver menu everywhere and our cheeseburgers were $1. Fun fact; in McDonalds in Latin America they put jalapenos in the burgers instead of pickles.

12. HONDURAS – MARKET PLACE EARRINGS

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Nick Says: My solo trip to Honduras was pretty eventful. When not scampering about Mayan ruins, or drinking delicious German beer in a micro-brewery, I was trying to dodge fiery protests  and bribery requests at the border. In between all that though, I was able to take time to do a little bit of shopping in Copan Ruinas. A beautiful, if somewhat heavily patrolled by soldiers, town the market offered loads of goods for great prices. I managed to pick up these earrings with a dollar after buying a few other pieces from the friendly market stall trader, and got to treat Bee with them on my return. I think she liked them!

13. GUATEMALA – ONLY A BLOOMIN’ ENGAGEMENT RING!

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Bee Says: After rocking my finest biro-bling for the journey to Guatemala, we thought it was time to upgrade to something a lil snazzier (but still unlikely to make me a target of crime). I found this beautiful hand-carved two tone wooden ring in a trinket treasure trove in Flores, and yep – it was $1 exactly. Obviously the real deal once we got back cost a wee bit more but if it hadn’t been for the fact that by the time we returned to England this wooden number was pretty much rotting off my finger and smelling pretty funky… I might not have been so hasty to upgrade to diamond and sapphires!

14. BELIZE – THE ORIGINAL CINNABON

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Nick Says: Caye Caulker was one of the most photogenic parts of the trip. A Caribbean getaway, we kicked back here for a week before heading onto Mexico and the end of our time in Latin America. The big thing in Belize was the food. We’d been a whole heap of different things ‘you just gotta try’, and they certainly lived up to the hype. Eating in restaurants may have been a bit pricey on the island, but street eats were plentiful and bargainous. We had cakes a-go-go from a big friendly chef guy, fried fish, breakfast burrittos to die for, and ice cold Belikin beer to wash it down. But the number one food we were told to try by everyone was cinnamon rolls from one specific bakery on the back-streets. Open only for a few hours twice a day, the cinnamon rolls would normally be sold out in about 30mins. So we turned up a dutiful 15 mins early, camped out by the door, and rushed through a soon as the sign was turned round to ‘open’. Did we want frosting on them? the baker asked. We sure did. I can still taste them now, simply some of the finest cinnamon rolls I’ve ever eaten, and two of the for a dollar!

15. MEXICO – CHEESY CHURROS IS WRONG

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Nick Says: I can’t say we really saw a whole lot of Mexico, but we did see a mariachi band playing in a food court and drink tequila with Mexican businessmen in a hotel lobby. We also went to the mall a lot, and were tempted daily by churros – delicious deep fried doughnut treats loaded with chocolate, caramel, or cheese. Wait, what? Yep, who doesn’t want hot liquid cheese on the sugary snack? It looked wrong, and potentially illegal. And at $2 sadly out of the budget for the dollar challenge, so the cheesy tempter remained uneaten, and we satisfied ourselves with 2 regular churros for the same price – making them a dollar each.

The dollar really is the currency of the world, and it was amazing to see what  we could, and couldn’t, get with a buck. It added a fun game to the times when we had to tighten our budget, and I can’t thank Kerry enough for setting us up with the greenbacks. So, if you guys have found anything amazing for a dollar on your trips, please let us know!

 

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.