Ponchos, Pancakes and Pachamama.

29 11 2008

Leaving La Paz, we headed across the border to Cusco in Peru. We still hadn’t done everything we planned to do in Bolivia, but we needed to get to Cusco before the rainy season kicked in. The reason for this was that we planned to do the World famous Inca Trail, which finishes off at the magnificent Machu Picchu.After checking into our hostel, we headed down the hill to have a look around the city and hopefully book our tour. We planned to come back to Cusco for Christmas, so didn’t plan on spending too much time exploring, as we were too excited about doing the trek. We had been thinking about the trip long before we arrived in South America. It is one of the highlights of any trip to the continent, and we had poured over photos of the amazing ruins as we planned our trip in rainy Wales. It had been Claire’s dream long before, ever since studying the Inca’s at middle school; and now the time had finally arrived to see them in real life!

We had planned to book one of the alternative tours, such as the Salkantay. All the treks eventually end up in Machu Picchu, but all take different routes to get there. However, once we had looked at photos of the different tours on offer, we decided that we wanted to trek along the genuine Inca trail, walking the path that the Inca’s would have walked over 600 years before. Furthermore, the path passes a number of well preserved ruins along the way, each offering an opportunity to gain further insight into the Inca Empire.

As we headed down into town to book our tour, we recognised a friendly face lying on a bench. It was Susan whom we first met in Bariloche, and kept bumping into at every stop. As we approached her though, we came across a horrible smell coming from her direction. Looking closer we saw that her leg was bandaged tightly up, yet the material was soaked in a pasty yellow concoction. She explained that she had damaged her foot falling over whilst intoxicated, and rather than go to the hospital, the staff at her hostel insisted that she visit one of the local doctors, which she did.

The doctor lived outside the town, up a narrow backstreet. Upon arrival, she was invited into what appeared to be his garage, and was full of dusty knickknacks, with an old massage table amidst all the clutter. His treatment can best be described as typically unconventional; first his massaged her entire foot, and then spread the said yellow paste all over her injury. The paste itself was rather pungent, and resembled the smell of a homeless man’s trousers… She had since been back twice for further treatment, and claimed that it miraculously appeared to be working. Her foot was healing incredibly quickly, and she hoped to be back on the dance floor in no time.

Whilst I remained slightly sceptical of ´witch doctors´ and their so called ´miracle´ treatments, the evidence was there before me. South America is a mix of modern and traditional, from views on medicine through to religion. Whilst predominantly Catholic, the older Pagan traditions still play a principal role in day to day life. The indigenous people still believe in a lot of the things that were believed by the Inca civilisation, and even before then. The Inca trek itself was, and still is a pilgrimage, and the ruins along the way are all heavily influenced in their design and original purpose by the beliefs and ideologies that the Incas themselves subscribed too. All have Quechan names which relate to their design and purpose.

Quechua (Runa Simi) is a Native American language of South America. It was already widely spoken across the Central Andes long before the time of the Incas, who established it as the official language of administration for their Empire, and is still spoken today in various regional forms (the so-called ‘dialects’) by some 10 million people through much of South America, including most extensively and numerously in Peru. In fact, it is the official language in Peru: at the last census (1993) there were over 3 million speakers of the language in Peru alone.

We booked our tour with United Mice. We were fortunate to get a place on the Inca trek, as usually you have to book 3 months in advance. Fortunately for us it was quieter during the wet season, so we were all good to go! We hired some smaller bags in town, as we didn’t fancy carrying our large pack backs the whole length of the walk. It is possible to hire porters to carry your belongings, but having found out that nobody else in our group was hiring one, we decided to follow suit. With the tour booked and paid for, we set about stocking up on the essentials; snacks, wet wipes (didn’t want to be completely dirty!) more snacks, batteries and a small bottle of rum to keep us warm at night! We were so busy trying to work out how to make our bags as light as possible, whilst still making sure we had all we need, we almost missed our orientation meeting that evening. We were still rearranging our bags way after we returned from it as well.

The next morning we awoke at 4am, and carried our bags (as light as possible) to the awaiting bus outside. The rest of our group was already on board, but it was still a tad too early to make conversation. We contented ourselves with dozing and staring out of the window, watching Cusco disappear behind us, and the snow capped mountains and flora becoming the prevailing view. Disembarking the bus in the last town before the trail begun, we headed to a small café to fill up on breakfast to keep us going for the morning. Most of us ordered two breakfasts, and plenty cups of tea and coffee, just to be on the safe side! As we gradually began to wake up, and the food found its target, conversation began to flow. We could tell right away that we had a good group; we had 7 medical students from Sydney (Aussie, Julian, Scott, Rich, Emma, Jacqui and Maddi), and a couple, Stephen and Johanna from just outside Surrey. All looked in good health and up for a laugh.

Before we left to start the trail, we were set upon by a number of locals trying to sell us coca leaves and walking poles. We bought some coca leaves, but didn’t really feel that we needed the walking poles. Only after seeing that the rest of the group had bought them (all apart from Scott) we decided to be sheep, and bought one each. I’m so glad that we did; they proved to be the best buy of the trip, due to the treacherously wet walking conditions. They were also great for pointing things out, swinging around, and once or twice, for poking another group member with.

From the out, our guide Freddie was full of information on the surrounding area. He regularly stopped us and made us sit whilst he told us about the Inca ruin that we could see. He explained that most of what we know about the Inca Empire is hypothesis. Many believe that the Incas did not have a system for writing, therefore leaving no written accounts of their civilisation. However others propose that the Inca kept their accounts, their genealogy, their astronomical calculations, and (probably) their stories on a complicated system of cords and knots, called quipu. Either way, very little can be put forward at hard fact about how the Incas lived, and the purpose of the buildings that we can still see today, dotted all across the Inca Empire.
Freddie also explained about the Inca’s beliefs, and what the indigenous people today still believe; much of which is based in Inca mythology. Freddie explained about Pachamama, who is a goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes. Pachamama is usually translated as “Mother Earth”. He also explained about the Chakana, or Inca Cross. The Chakana is the three-stepped cross equivalent symbolic of what is known in other mythologies as the Tree of Life. It is represented in many of the buildings in a diamond shape. The snake, puma, and condor are representatives of the three levels; the condor is the heavens, the snake is earth or water, and the puma is the underworld. These symbols were represented repeatedly in the ruins that we saw.

The first afternoon consisted of a long up hill walk through the trees to get to our first camp. We were soaked in sweat by the time we reached it, but thankfully there was a fresh mountain stream in which we could wash. I didn’t waste any time, and stripped off my saturated clothes, and thoroughly enjoyed the feel of the ice cold water as it cleansed me of the day’s exertions. As each member of the group arrived at camp, they each followed suit, and after, we sat in our clean clothes, enjoying a hot chocolate and looking out at the amazing view. Our tents had been pitched right on the edge of the mountain side, affording us breath taking views across the valley through which we had trekked that day. We fell asleep that night the moment our heads hit the pillow. Unfortunately for me, my sleeping bag was far from adequate, and quickly the cold mountain air permeated my sleep, and I was forced to put on every piece of clothing I had packed, in order to try and get at least 10 winks that night.

The next day we continued the trek up hill to get to the highest point of the trail – Dead Woman’s Pass! (It lies at 4200m, and is so called because of the way the mountains lie, they create the shape of a women lying down.) The last section to the top was pretty tiring, yet the great thing about the group was that everyone walked at their own pace. There was no pressure at all on anyone. The aussies were doing remarkably well considering that they had literally flown from Sydney to Lima, then headed straight to Cusco to do the trek. They were suffering from both jet lag and altitude sickness, yet you never would have guessed it.

At the top of the pass, we paused for a group photo and also to each have a glug of rum, and to pour some into the earth to toast Pachamama. The rain finally came later that day, but in true traveller style everybody pulled out their rain gear and carried on walking. The aussies had even accessorized and got different colours: they looked like a walking rainbow. A lot of the walk is through cloud forests, and the views were not quite as amazing as they could have been due to the weather, but this didn’t put a dampener on the experience. In fact, the light through the cloud produced a somewhat ethereal quality.

As a group we were all relatively fit and kept up a good pace, yet nothing could prepare us for the pace that our porters went; I swear they were part machine. We could never have done the trek without them; they carried the tents, cooking equipment and food for the whole group. Each morning they packed up after we had left, and practically ran to the next point to prepare lunch for us, and then on towards the camp for the evening. They were dressed mostly in shorts, t-shirts and sandals, yet not once did they slip on the wet surface. We were incredibly grateful for their work. Furthermore, the food that the chef and his assistant prepared for us three times a day was amazing. For breakfast we had fresh fruit, porridge and pancakes. Then for lunch and dinner, we had heaped platters of rice, pasta, vegetables and a selection of chicken, llama and beef. We never went hungry; the only quibble we had was that we finished the supply of strawberry jam too quickly! We ended each day with a selection of teas that aided digestion, ease tired bodies and keep us free from altitude sickness. We were truly spoilt.

Considering that the official Inca trek is one of the most popular trails to take, we saw nobody for the first 3 days of the tour. We were alone, with only our guide and porters. It was great to be out in the open, and imagining what it must have been like all those years ago. Even, going back 100 years, to when the ruins were first discovered. The place was covered in over-growth, and no where near as well maintained as the path is today. Only 500 people can walk it at any one time, and the trail is closed each February in order to clean it and keep it well preserved. Everywhere you look you can catch glimpses of Inca ruins, many of which are around 90% original. You can also see the famous Inca Terraces. The Inca built huge agricultural terraces into the mountain side. The terraces had 2 purposes: the most important was to ensure food, then, secondly, erosion of the land could be blocked this way. They were all well irrigated, and each had its own store house to preserve food for when it was needed. Some of the terraces were experimental, meaning that they brought crops from the low lands and vice versa, and experimented at different altitudes to see how well the crops produced. They even encouraged certain crops to grow at different altitudes, thus supplying the entire empire with a huge array of different food types.

After an equally cold nights sleep, we began the third day that would take us to our final campsite. This was also one of the hardest days as had to tackle what is known as the ´Gringo Killer´; over 3000 steps, taking us over 1100 metres down. This is when we had never been so grateful for our walking poles. Playing twenty questions and numerous other games to keep us going, we started the knee assaulting descent. We made it to the bottom though, only to find we then had to head back up hill in order to get to the final ruins before Machu Pichu. They were definitely seeing, and yet again we had the place to ourselves. We spent hours wandering around the two sights, Winay Wayna (Forver young) and Puyupatamarca (Town above the clouds). The walls had stood the test of time, and whole houses still stood. They had complete drainage systems, and huge stone steps. There were gardens, and temples with windows that had been positioned for the sun and the seasons. It was awe inspiring. We were incredibly blessed with the views of these sights as well. Each time we arrived at a spot there was terrible fog, and the view was somewhat marred. Yet every time, after around 10 minutes, the fog lifted and revealed to us the sight in all it glory. We were offered an ephemeral glimpse, enough to take it in, before the fog slipped back and hid the view once more. This further added to the numinous ambience of the trail.

The third night was a shock to the system: the campsite that we stayed at actually had other people staying there, lots of people! In order to get as close as possible to Machu Picchu the night before, all the groups on the trek converge at the one place. Luckily for us our company had chosen a pitch slightly further away from the main group. We had got used to our solitude, and were in no rush to join civilisation just yet. We did however make a quick reconnaissance mission down to the main site, where there was a bar where we bought a couple of beers to have with our last supper together. That night we said thank you to our porters and also, as is apparently tradition, we sang them a song. In keeping with the theme, and also to keep it easy, we decided on The Proclaimers “I would walk 500 Miles”. The porters look terrified as we burst into a rendition of the infamous song, yet they were soon cheering and laughing along (most with their fingers in their ears). In return, they sang for us a traditional song in Quechan, that they all learnt as youngsters. It was a lovely moment, and we were incredibly grateful to them.

The next morning we were up bright and early in an attempt to be one of the first groups to the gate that leads onto the final stretch to Machu Picchu. We were promptly up and ready, and were actually the first group to the gate. However we hadn’t even had time to go to the bathroom, so in two separate groups, we left our bags and quickly headed back to use the facilities. On our way back though, to our place in the queue, we weren’t prepared for the level of abuse that we received from the other groups, who were behind us. They called us all sorts of names, and refused to believe that we weren’t in fact pushing into the queue. It was quite shocking to hear grown men and women act in such a way, and at such an early hour in the day. We weren’t too bothered though, we were the champions at the front!

As soon as the gate opened we headed straight down on the final leg of the walk. As the rest of the walk had been, the steepness was measured in Peruvian terms. The final section was deemed by our guide to be ´Peruvian flat´, thus meaning that it was on the whole uphill, with a few small flat sections. Not wanting to rush this last section meant that we were overtaken by a few anxious hikers, determined to run the whole course so they could say “they were the first there!” It seemed a waste to rush through without taking in everything along the route, especially on the final section. We finally reached the Sun Gate, the first spot that offers views over the site of Machu Picchu. In with keeping with the rest of the walk, there was thick cloud blocking the view. We waited around in the hope that it would clear, yet as more and more groups appeared, we decided that it wasn’t going to happen this time. I believe that it only cleared for us when we were alone as a group.

As we headed down towards Machu Picchu, we found ourselves walking quicker and quicker. Claire and I had been looking forward to this moment for ages, and round the next corner we were not disappointed. It was every bit as awe inspiring and breath taking as we had hoped. A civilisation lost in the clouds, built on the edge of the mountain, with the river raging below, and the immense terraces still in place, sloping down the sides. All the buildings had stood the test of time phenomenally, you could visualise perfectly how it would have been all those years ago. It was impossible to believe that what we were seeing had been lost for over 600 years.

Built around 1460 by the Emperor Pachacuti, it remained unknown to the Spanish conquerors that brought the Inca Empire to an end. It lay forgotten for many centuries, only the local Indians and settlers knew of its existence. It wasn’t until July 24th, 1911 that it was rediscovered, by an American explorer Hiram Bingham. He had been exploring the area, and had discovered many of the other ruins that lie along the Inca Trail. Bingham was led to the site by an 11 year old boy, and it didn’t take him long to realise that this might be the place that he was looking for. Bingham’s theory was that it was the site of the Inca’s last refuge from the Spanish. (It wasn’t until the 1940´s that doubts began to arise over this assignation – many now believe it to be Espiritu Pampa in the Amazon jungle) Machu Picchu still remains one of the most best preserved remains of a citadel which the Inca´s used for both religious and agricultural reasons.

The buildings were built without mortar, and carefully designed in such a way as to remain standing against the elements, and withstand numerous earthquakes. In fact, the architects who built the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, a site also built on shifting plates, visited Machu Picchu to learn more about the design and construction of the buildings. The place contained such energy and I was in my element exploring. I loved it for the way that it transported me to a time long forgotten. I spent many hours walking around, peering through doorways and running my hands over the ancient brick work. In some houses I could almost smell the smoke coming from the ancient fireplaces.

Sadly it was eventually time for us to leave. We walked the down the hill to the small town of Aguas Calientes, where we boarded the train back to Cusco. There was a small problem with the train, as we had to pay extra because it was the tourist train. As soon as the train was moving I was asleep, my dreams transporting me to ancient empires. I was suddenly awoken however by a masked man, waving a dried llama in my face. Apparently it was an example of traditional dance… I was more content however being left to my dreams. It was in all an incredible experience, one that I shall definitely never forget.


Coca, Prison and Death Road.

23 11 2008

On arrival in La Paz, we headed straight to our hostel, The Wild Rover. We made sure to get a registered taxi as we had heard tales about robberies, and worse… Putting our bags in our room, we headed up to the bar to see if we could see any familiar faces. There were none, but we settled ourselves at the bar for our first Bolivian beer. We had travelled to La Paz with Natalie, an American girl we had met on the Salt Flats. She was only 19 yet incredibly outgoing and talkative. She had travelled extensively and had lots of tales. Within minutes she was chatting to a guy at the bar. His name was Simon and he was from London. He had been at the hostel for a while as he was waiting on a new credit card and funds.

We asked him how he had lost his things, and he told us that he had taken a cab straight from the bus station, which had taken a detour on the way to the hostel. It had headed down a back road, where another guy then jumped into the back seat and held a gun to the back of Simon´s head, forcing him down onto the seat. The guy cocked the gun and demanded all his credit cards and pin numbers. Once he had given his details to the man, the driver threw him out, but not without getting his bags out of the boot and throwing them after him…they weren’t completely heartless…!

We had heard the tales about La Paz´s crazy nightlife, and the first night at the Wild Rover Hostel was no different. We however refrained from indulging too heavily as we had booked that day to cycle the next day down… the World´s most dangerous road!
The Yungas road was built by prisoners during Bolivia’s 1932-35 war with Paraguay. For many years it was the only route linking northern Bolivia to the capital. In 1994, 26 vehicles went over the edge – an average of one every two weeks. In 1995, the Inter-American Development Bank listed the road as the most dangerous on earth. The new road circumvents the worst sections but hundreds of vehicles use the old dirt track as a short cut. In each year since it was built, up to 200 people have died on this highway: coca-growers, soldiers – and the odd tourist. In fact, since 1998 over 18 backpackers had died whilst cyling down
It is described by the companies that run the tours as “a spectacular 38-mile ride, descending more than 11,800ft from the Andean mountains into the Amazonian jungle”. This is a pretty apt description, although it’s important to remember why it’s called what it is, and to respect it for those reasons. First thing to remember is to purchase your trip with a respectable company. We had heard about a few, and decided to go with B-Side. They are locally owned, but have thorough safety checks, 2 guides per 5 cyclists and the latest and best equipment. Our bikes had front and back suspension, and most importantly, hydraulic disc breaks!
We left early in the morning and headed up to the top to begin our descent. On the way up we made sure that we chewed coca leaves to relieve ourselves from the side effects of the altitude. The consumption of Coca tea, as well as chewing the leaves, increases the absorption of oxygen in blood, which helps combat altitude sickness, and has a marked digestive and carminative action. We had first been given it during the Salt Flats tour to aid with digestion and to prevent us from suffering from altitude sickness, which had affected many people that we had met. Once at the top we were handed our gloves, safety vest and helmets. We tested our bikes around the car park, and then we were off!
At the end of 2006, after 20 years of construction, a new road (a by-pass) from La Paz to Coroico was opened to public. As a result far less traffic now uses the old road, although you still run the risk of having to overtake the odd lorry or two whilst heading down on your bike. The first 20 km of the ride is on the new asphalted road, yet after this you veer off and begin your descent down the actual ´death road´. You travel at times at around 40kmph, depending on how confident you are. Regularly our guide stopped us and explained what we would come across round the next couple of corners, and how best to tackle it. We headed down in single file, our group of 5, speeding over the gravel surface, trying to ignore the 1000m drop to our left, and dodging the odd waterfall which poured over the path. Twice on the way down I felt my bike slide out, frantically remembering to press my breaks gently, I came to a halt with literally centimetres between me and my untimely demise. It was a truly exhilarating experience!

Before we knew it we were at the bottom, we had been so focused on surviving that we didn’t even notice how long we had been cycling. We each bought a beer and toasted to our survival. After a quick swim and some lunch in a nice hotel, we began the ascent back up. This time we were perched in our support vehicle, with our bikes firmly secured on top. Only once we were free to look around, did we fully appreciate how dangerous the road is. Dotted along the side of the road are numerous crosses and plaques. Most of the road is no wider than 3 metres, and on numerous corners we peered out of the window at the drop below.

The next couple of days we spent exploring La Paz. One of the most interesting things was the markets. You could buy anything you wanted here, especially if you wanted stuff made out of llama. The highlight was the witches market. Here you could buy dried Llama foetuses (if you were so inclined…); these are thrown into the foundations of every new house (99% of the houses!) in order to protect the house and those who live in it. You could also buy dried frogs covered in glitter, the frog powder brings money and a dried frog with a cigarette in its mouth brings even more. Also, another must for your new house is a dead armadillo; armadillo bodies are put on top of doors to prevent burglaries! You could save a fortune on paying for a guard dog or the latest security equipment!

Unfortunately, Claire also fell victim to the first case of a dodgy stomach, so she spent the next few days resting up and rehydrating. Meanwhile I did the opposite… curious as to how good La Paz´s nightlife actually was, I spent the next few nights investigating. The bar at the Wild Rover was great, and there was a good crowd each night. Each night consisted of pool, numerous drinking games, including bar limbo, before heading out to one of the numerous bars. Most of the bars are in Sopacachi, a very pleasant and upmarket suburb. As you cross the bridge to get there you notice the difference in living conditions. Suddenly there are high rise buildings, flash hotels and nice restaurants and bars; a sharp contrast from some areas of the city. The bars are great though, and full of locals and backpackers alike. There was also plenty of live music and cocktails!

Once Claire was better, she experienced the nightlife for herself. We even visited some of La Paz´s nice restaurants; one in particular is worth mentioning. Owned by two guys, one Germany and the other an American; they had combined their passion for food to create an amazing menu, using the best local ingredients and attention to large flavoursome portions. The best thing was the desserts – we had the chocolate volcano, complete with sorbet and fresh raspberries. It was amazing! Also if you get a chance (although we never made it) there is also an amazing Indian restaurant. One of our friends had been in India for over a year, yet he said the curries in La Paz were as good, as definitely hotter!

Everybody in the hostel, and people we had met on the way were talking about San Pedro Prison, La Paz´s infamous penitentiary. The last thing we had to do before leaving La Paz was to visit it for ourselves… I had heard about San Pedro prison before I even left the UK. I was at a wedding shortly before leaving, and a girl I used to know from school was telling me about her brother who had just come back from travelling around South America. She filled me in on all his tales, from Machu Pichu to Patagonia, and then she went on to say that “he was lucky he got home alive”… She told me that her brother had bribed his way into a notorious Bolivian prison, where he was shown around by murderers, then taken into the inner sanctum where he was introduced to an infamous drug baron and his family. Here they were offered cocaine and rum. It was apparently an insult to refuse both, so he had to decide… Now that was a story and a half!

I thought little of what I had heard at the wedding until we were on the Salt Flat tour and met the two Irish girls. They were travelling in the opposite direction, and had just come from La Paz. Swopping stories and tips, as in common place, they mentioned that one of the things they had done in La Paz was a tour of San Pedro prison, and it was a must see when we visited ourselves… It was one thing to hear a tale at a wedding, yet another to actually contemplate handing over hard cash to bribe our way into a third world prison. Yet, the same feeling came over me as when I had first heard the tale at the wedding; curiosity, excitement and a desire to life a little on the edge. Where else in the world would you get an opportunity like it?!

Whilst still not official, tours of San Pedro have been running since around 1996. The prison tours became so famous that they were written up in The Lonely Planet Guide Book as ‘one of the world’s most bizarre tourist attractions.’ The first and most famous tour guide is Thomas McFadden, a British subject charged with trafficking 850grams of cocaine and sentenced to 6 years imprisonment. He spent 4 years in the prison, between 1996 and 2000. Once whilst out for a night in La Paz; having bribed the guards to escort him, he met a girl from Israel. He invited her back for the night to his cell, and the next day, she told some of her friends to visit her. Not before long, backpackers were turning up every week, at the gates of San Pedro, asking for Thomas and to be shown around. Thomas arranged with the guards to receive a large cut, and so began the tours of La Paz´s notorious prison.

Money is everything in Bolivia, and in the prison it is no different. Is you have money you can buy whatever you want, even your freedom. In a corrupt penal system, without money you have no way of bribing the necessary officials, or even getting your case heard. A fair trial is unheard of. Inmates in San Pedro have to pay for everything; from food to accommodation. When the first arrive, they are forced to purchase their own prison cell. A price is negotiated with the previous tenant and an official Sale/Purchase contract is drawn up. The new owner then receives the Ownership Title (Titulo Propietario) provided he has paid the purchase price, the Title transfer fee (20%) and an Administration fee to belong to one of the eight sections. The title is signed and stamped by the Section Delegate and Tax Secretary in order to complete the transaction.

There are eight sections in the prison, each of which has a hotel-style rating. The wealthiest prisoners pay up to US$15,000 to live in the five star sections in apartment-style accommodation, with all the modern conveniences of telephone, television and ensuite bathrooms. This area is usually where the corrupt politicians and officials live. However, as always with places like this, there is another side to the coin. The poorest inmates live in dirty hovels, often with 5 or more inmates crammed into one tiny ´cell´, something much more expected in a third world prison.

In addition to buying their own cells, prisoners must cook their own food, or eat at one of the many restaurants inside the prison, owned and run by the inmates themselves. In order to pay for the food and further support themselves, they also need to earn money. Some set up small businesses inside the prison. Apart from restaurants, there are also barbershops, carpenters, photographers, photocopying services… Some inmates support themselves by making handicrafts and selling them to visiting tourists, and also get people to sell them outside the prison. The lowliest job in the prison is the people who wait behind the main bars to pass messages or fetch inmates when they have a visitor; this people are called taxistas. Everybody needs some form of income though, so every job is important.

Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America, so for many women and children living in prison is sometimes the only way of ensuring their family stays together. During the day, the women and children are free to come and go as they please. The children leave in the morning and head to school, and the women bring food and supplies from outside the prison to sell at market stalls in the different sections, in order to help support their families.

There also facilities to relax and have fun. There are pool halls, video games room, gyms, saunas and also football courts. Football is the biggest sport and there are intersection tournaments, which also generate a fair amount of money through betting.

Around 80% of the inmates are serving sentences for drug-related offences, and around 75% of the total prisoner population are awaiting trial. There are on average four deaths every month inside the prison from natural causes or from violent attacks. The police rarely enter the prison. Everything is controlled and run by the inmates themselves. Each section makes their own rules and hold annual elections to nominate a delegate and financial secretary for their section. These are taken very seriously, and most delegates hold a huge amount of respect from their sections and neighbours.

Whilst relatively safe, stabbings and violence do occur. This is not surprising, considering the high availability of narcotics and alcohol within the prison. Cocaine is actually produced inside the prison, and at night the larger laboratories run, making large amounts of cocaine, that is sold within and outside the prison. Individual prisoners often set up their own crude processing and filtration systems in their cells. Most prisoners are on drugs, and a large amount of money is passed through the prison this way. The prisoners from the poorer sections smoke cocaine base, which is the less refined paste that cocaine is made from. It is highly addictive and sometimes causes the prisoners to self harm in order to ´come down´. One inmates pet is known at ´Crack Cat´, as it is also addicted to smoking ´base´.

For more information and a more insightful look at life inside San Pedro prison, I recommend that you read Marching Powder by Rusty Young. In 2000, Rusty lived inside San Pedro with Thomas for 4 months, and the book is Thomas´ story about his life inside the infamous Bolivian prison.

Having read the book prior to visiting San Pedro prison, I knew something of what to expect and roughly how the system worked inside the prison. Nothing can fully prepare you though for what you see. We had spoken to the Irish girls and also some people in the hostel to get some tips on how best to get inside, how much it costs and most importantly who to ask for.

The night before we went, we sat in the bar trying to find a few more people to drag along with us. As luck would have it, we came across Enda, an Irish lad who we had first met in Mendoza. He was travelling with 2 other guys and all were interested in visiting the prison the next day. We also managed to enrol Sarah, a girl from London, who was keen on going, but not so much on her own! We had been advised not to go in a too large a group, as we wouldn’t all be able to fit in one cell…! So we said our good nights and arranged to meet at 11am the next day.

On the way to the prison the next day, we were all somewhat nervous, there was little talking. Before we got to the plaza outside the prison, we made sure to remember to buy a number of cigarette packets and lots of sweets. The cigarettes we had been told were useful as sweeteners for the prisoners and the sweets themselves were primarily for the kids inside. We had been told that to get in, all we had to do was hang around in the well kept Plaza, and wait to be approached. Within 5 minutes of standing around, a large black man with a South African accent came up to us, and asked if we were “Waiting for someone?” He introduced himself as Kenny, a former prisoner, inside for drug trafficking. He explained the procedure and costs, and before we knew it we were inside the main gates, and palming 250 boliviano (around 25 pounds) to the prison guards. We then signed our names and received a stamp on our hand in return, before walking into the main courtyard.

Someone in the hostel had advised us to ask for Juan (not his real name), and whilst we had been signing in, Kenny had sent one of the taxistas to fetch him. He was a local man, and like so many others, was also awaiting trial for drug offences. He was well dressed and spoke very good English. Juan took us on a three hour tour of the prison, where we visited all the sections, and were introduced to a number of prisoners, some whom were more than willing to tell us their story. We saw the large kitchens, the shops and restaurants, the church, the pool halls, and at one stage stupidly wandered onto the football court. We were given the opportunity to purchase beautiful toys that had been made by one man and bracelets by another.

Midway through the tour we stopped off at one cell belonging to our body guard, Eduardo, who was inside for murder. He showed around his cell, which was home to his wife and two kids. His wife kindly offered us some coconut cake she had baked and made sure we all had somewhere to sit. The place, whilst in one of the more upmarket sections, was still cramped. The roof was made from tin sheeting, and had a hole through which to get up onto the roof. Whilst we were chatting to Eduardo´s family, a taxista turned up with 2 more people for our tour, they were a Dutch couple. They looked incredibly nervous, and when they were offered some cake, immediately turned it down. Eduardo explained to them jokingly that “it was free from drugs”… they did not laugh, and remained hungry. On our way out we purchased some more cake to eat as we walked.

As we were shown around the prison, numerous little hands tugged at our trousers; their seemingly innocent voices asking for a ´dulce´ (a sweet). We handed them out to all that asked: some even being cheeky enough to immediately ask for “una mas” (one more). They behaved like children do; their laughter and mischief following us along the tour. It was impossible though not to ask ourselves what sort of life they were living, and what things they had seen and heard. But then, who were we to judge, and furthermore, would their life be any more wholesome on the outside world.

The tour was full of contrasts; from seeing the 5 star sections, we headed down to the infirmary where we saw a number of base addicts who were being treated for self harm. Their expressions were vacant. It was both eye opening and sad. At one stage, when I bent down to hand out some more sweets, I looked at the wall in front of me, and noticed that it was splattered with what appeared to be blood. I looked at Eduardo for confirmation, who simply nodded at me. There were constant reminders that we were in a prison, and that it had potential to be incredibly dangerous. The most poignant of these was the ´swimming pool´. I had read about this in Marching Powder, so felt a chill down my spine when I saw it. The prisoners themselves sometimes decide on the punishment of prisoners, if they have committed a certain crime, such as rape. The pool itself was used, as described in one rather graphic section of the book, for one particular vigilante punishment.

We did not however, feel unsafe during our tour. Despite the fact that we had bodyguards, their presence eased any tension that we may have felt. We were careful not to take any photos without asking permission first (a camera cost an extra bribe at the gate – we only took one between us) Claire and Sarah had made sure that they dressed appropriately, something however which the Dutch girl had failed to do. Wearing a pair of hot pants and vest top, she unnecessarily attracted attention to herself, and to the entire group. Her ´wet blanket´ of a boyfriend simply tagged along at the back, slowly getting paler; and at one stage he had to be escorted to the bathroom by our bodyguards, as his nervous bowels weren’t holding up too well…

The tour ended with us being invited back to a cell, belonging to one of Raul´s friends. When inside the cell, with music blaring from the CD player, we were invited to ask any questions that we had. Raul also asked us if we wished to try any ´local produce´. Looking at the table, we noticed a few bags of cocaine scattered across a mirror, with a powdered credit card poised for use. We declined, but by all accounts from what we heard in other hostels, not everyone shows the same restraint.

Raul showed us back to the main gate, and asked us if we had enjoyed the tour, and to tell all our friends to ask for him. Whilst I wouldn’t say that I ´enjoyed´ the tour per se, it was certainly interesting and eye opening. Also it makes for a great story!

Tourist Police, Salt Hotels and Llama Bolognaise.

17 11 2008

The bus towards the border was a rundown rusty contraption; very different from what we had grown accustomed to during our travels around Chile and Argentina. I loved it though! For the first time this trip, it finally felt like we were getting off the beaten track and out of our comfort zones, and exploring further into the heart of South America.

The journey, whilst hot and dusty, proceeded without problems, until we finally reached the Chilean border, where we were instructed to get out and get our passports stamped for exit. However this is where the confusion started to arise; a number of “officials” were telling us that we had to turn around and head back, as having driven the 12 hours here, we could not in fact cross. There was apparently, what I could grasp with my limited Spanish, a strike amongst the personnel on the Bolivian side and their immigration office was shut… However, our bus driver assured us that it was fine and to proceed in getting stamped out of Chile.

After half an hour of asking a number of people the same question, and pooling together the different answers, we managed to work out that we could in fact head across to Bolivia, where we could get our passport stamped, however we had to walk there… the bus was not allowed to drive us the 2 mile stretch along a flat dusty road. We were in the middle of nowhere, and had little choice. Loading ourselves with our backpacks we started to walk, dust kicking up behind us. After walking for a while, we stopped to make sure that the rest of the passengers were following us. There were only 4 travellers on the bus, Claire and Myself and a two German girls. Turning around, we saw the rest of the passengers struggling with their massive loads. We thought we had it tough walking with our backpacks… the rest of the passengers had packed their livelihoods, complete with small children and the kitchen sink. We turned back to help, and I found myself swamped in bags by an old lady, who seemed only too keen that I chip in and help. I found myself with my backpack on my back, my two day backs on my front, two large hold alls in each arm and a bag the weight of small elephant on my shoulders. I looked quite a sight as I struggled slowly along the dirt road, where hopefully another bus would meet us at the border to take us on to our destination; Uyuni.

Karma was on our side, and as reward for helping with the bags, a bus was waiting when we finally made it across. The Bolivian immigration office is set in an old train cemetery. Uyuni, founded in 1890 as a Trading Post, is an important transport hub, being the location of a major railway junction. Four lines join here, respectively from La Paz (via Oruro), Calama (in Chile), Potosí, and Villazón (on the Argentinean border, where the line now ends). I’m no train enthusiast, but it was really interesting, and slightly eerie to see the large rusted steam locomotives in their final resting place, their only purpose now to serve as a place to hang some clothes to dry in the hot desert sun.

We got stamped into Bolvia with no problems, and sat and waited for the rest of the passengers to turn up, watching with slight concern as our bus driver knocked back a few beers with some of the ladies, dressed in traditional costume. There was also a lady selling a lovely chicken stew and potatoes, a bizarre sight considering we were reasonably far from any town, but business was good and not before long she had sold out. We sat in the sun and ate our first Bolivian meal, before boarding the bus and heading on the final leg into Uyuni.

Arriving in Uyuni we set about finding a cheap hostel quickly, so we could head out and start researching companies to book a tour to the nearby main attraction, the Famous Salar De Uyuni. We decided on Hostel Avenida, and signed in and dropped our bags off, before heading out into the town. Rounding the corner we bumped into Susan, who we had first met in Bariloche, and then again in Mendoza. She had just come off her salt tour, and couldn´t recommend enough that we start the tour from Tupiza (around 5 hours from Uyuni). If you start here you see the Salt Flats as the Finale on the last day, rather than first thing on the tour, which is the case if you go from Uyuni. This sounded far better, so we started looking for companies that ran from Tupiza. As luck would have it, we rounded the next corner to see a large Tupiza Tours 4×4, who were in Uyuni to drop some people off, before heading back to Tupiza to start a new tour the next day. Furthermore, they offered us a free lift if we went with them now, and could start the tour the next day. It seemed too good to be true!

We headed back to our hostel to inform them that we would not be needing the room after all, and explained the situation and that we had to leave immediately. However we were told, in rather plain words, that we had to pay for the entire night (despite it being 4 in the afternoon) as we had signed the visitor book. I proceeded to argue with the large women behind the counter, in my broken Spanish. I did understand though when she started mentioning “amigos” and “policia” and “Salir Bolivia” (leave Bolivia). Having only just arrived in the country, we were in no rush to leave just yet. We had also read a number of alarming stories about corruption in the Bolivian police force! I decided not to call her bluff, and managed to get away with only paying half the night. However, if you read this and are going to Uyuni.. DON’T stay at Hostel Avenida!

Rushing back to the 4×4, the driver informed that there was no rush, and we were to have some food as he had to sort a few things before we headed off. We finally headed off as the sun began to set, casting long shadows over the arid land that stretched for miles either side of the road. When the sun had finally set, and darkness had set upon us, the temperature suddenly dropped. Driving along in the back of the 4×4, we found ourselves thankful for the blankets that they kindly provided for us. We snuggled up on the back seat, and started to doze. We hoped to arrive in Tupiza just before midnight.

We were just drifting off when there was a loud groan, that appeared to come from the car, and we grinded to a halt. It was pitch black outside, but we could still make out the steam pouring from under the bonnet, thanks to the interior light! This is when things started to get bad!

The driver stepped out to see if he could see what was the matter… the only problem being is that he had no torch at all. Luckily I had packed mine in my day bag and he used that to examine under the bonnet. It was clear to nearly anybody who owns a car that the engine had seriously overheated! Steam was wafting out in great gusts into the cold desert air. All we needed to do was wait for it to cool, then hopefully we could top it up with water and make it on to Tupiza. That is, if there wasn’t already serious damage to the engine… However… we had no water either! This was supposed to be a company that specializes in 4×4 tours of the large expanse that comprises of the Salar De Uyuni and the Reserva de Fauna Andian Eduardo Avaroa: over 16000 Square kilometers of wild landscape, ranging between 4000m and 6000m in altitude.

In the end, Claire and I had to head out with our water bottles, along with another girl in the car and siphon water from a nearby river. It was dirty, freezing cold and tenuous work. We had to make around 10 round trips to get enough water for the engine. This only got us as far as the next town, where the engine overheated again, and this time we were forced to knock on doors in the middle of the night and ask to use the locals taps. We arrived on the outskirts of Tupiza around 5:30am, and as we were pulling up into town we heard a large bang: one of the tyres had burst! We checked into the first hotel and promptly fell asleep.

When we finally awoke, we decided, unsurprisingly, to book our tour with another company. We decided on La Torres, who had been recommended to us by Susan. We were to leave early the next day, and set about getting stuff ready. Claire had just popped out to get supplies, when there was a knock at bedroom door. I opened it to find the driver from the previous night. He started by apologizing, but then went on to say that he had seen us book our tour with another company, and therefore he had talked to his boss, and demanded that we pay for the previous nights journey. They asked for the equivalent amount as to had we decided to get a taxi from Uyuni. I explained our decision to go with the other company, and reasoned that we had helped them the previous night and had played a pretty crucial role in getting us to Tupiza! He wasn’t having any of it, and said we should speak to his boss.

When Claire came back, I explained what had happened. She said that she had been accosted by the boss herself in the hotel foyer. We immediately went to see her together to sort this problem out for good. She was a sour faced, made up, middle aged lady, who pretended not to see us when we walked into the office. We started off calm, explaining about the multiple problems that befell us the night before, and how we were concerned about our safety. She said this was ridiculous, and demanded we paid. She said we were the “most disgusting tourists she had come across in 35 years in the tourist trade” This went on for a while, until for the second time in the same amount of days, we found ourselves threatened with the police. This time we didn’t give in, and when a group came in to enquire about tours, Claire told them to leave as the company clearly had no concern for safety or its reputation. We played her at her own game! We placed a token amount of money on the counter, less that a bus fare, and walked out, explaining that we would make sure that we wrote a thorough review of Tupiza Tours, and would tell everyone we met along the way how badly they had treated us. The word of mouth is the most powerful thing amongst travellers!

The next day we headed off on our 4 day tour with La Torres. We had a lovely group; there was our driver Raul and our cook Augustine, and two Irish girls, Katy and Annette! For the first part of the journey we were driving through the Reserva de Fauna, a vast wildlife reserve, which encompasses some of the most startling scenery in Bolivia. We had lunch outside a small mining community that still mined for silver and minerals. We were treated to our first taste of Llama, which is rather pleasant; slightly tough and salty but good with maize and veg! We were to spend the first night in a small town, around 4500m up. After making sure we couldn’t help Augustine with any dinner preparations, we headed out to see what the town had to offer! On the way we heard some other travellers, who had just turned up, bemoaning the fact that they were in a ´dead end town in the middle of nowhere.´ I don’t what they expected, but the town in my eyes was perfect for those very reasons.

Just down the road we came across the local sports pitch, where there was also a basketball court. After sourcing out a ball, we began a small game of 4 on 4 with some other travellers we met there. It was knackering playing at such a high altitude, something we had failed to realize until 5 minutes into the game. Unfortunately a rather lively game of football had also started with the local kids versus… not wanting to let down my country, or myself, I threw myself into it. Ignoring the rather worrying looks from the bench as I got paler and paler, I was determined I was not going to be beaten by some kids! I was though… absolutely thrashed! It was an extremely memorable moment though…sports have an amazing way of penetrating age, language and cultural barriers. Their laughter was contagious; all along side of the pitch, the younger girls and boys poked their heads through the fence to laugh at the gringo, as he had circles ran round him! It was absolutely fantastic! That night we played cards and drank rum, before heading out to stare at the night sky. There was zero light pollution, and the sky was ablaze with stars and planets!

The next morning we set off early towards the Sol de Manana Geyser. Waking up had been a struggle, as we had polished a fair amount of beers and rum the night before, made even worse at altitude. Even more confusing was the fact that Raul called us by the wrong names, whilst similar (I was called Max, something that had consequently stuck on every tour we have been on since…something in the way I say Matt… Claire became Clara, and Katy became Kacy. Meanwhile Annette was simply nodded at.), at 4am, when someone calls you by a different name, in Spanish, it can take a while for your brain to realize quite what’s going on!

The geyser itself is set at an altitude of 5000m, amid boiling pools and sulphur. It was quite a sight watching the mud bubble and spit, with great flumes spurting up in the sky. After the Geyers, we drove down to Laguna Polques, where there was a serious of hot springs. Here we sat and warmed up before tucking into yet more Llama for lunch! In the afternoon we headed onto Laguna Verde. Whilst striking, it was not nearly as impressive as the one we had seen in Chile. That night we stayed in a remote little place, far from any town. Yet again Augustine surpassed herself, with her ability to produce wonderful cuisine from nothing but the simplest ingredients and a gas stove!

The next day we headed off across the Pampa Siloli, a high altitude desert of volcanic ash and gravel scattered rock outcrops. The howling winds have sand blasted the rock into surreal shapes, notably the Arbol de Piedra. Literally meaning Stone Tree, it is a massive boulder eight metres high, that balances on a narrow stem. We stopped here for some photos and to look at a elusive Andean Fox that we luckily chanced upon. From here we headed to Ollague, Bolvia´s only active Volcano. As we got closer to Ollague, we could make out the thin plumes of smoke rising from just below its peak! Our first smoking volcano!

We constantly battled with Raul over what music was played on the stereo. He kept unplugging my ipod every time I closed my eyes for a second and insisted on playing his CDs. He had the worst choice in music ever, and played the same songs constantly on repeat! That was the only negative point about the whole tour! That night we stopped off at the best place so far, it was a hostel, made out of salt! The walls consisted of large white breeze blocks, they had salt on the floor, even the beds were made from salt! It was bizarre, but surprisingly warm and comfortable! Our beds looked straight out across the salt flats!

On the way here we also stopped off at another Laguna. This one was called Laguna Colorado, and its waters were blood red. Like with Laguna Verde, due to the mineral composite of the water, the water was a startling colour. This time the red hue gave it a morbid quality, the only life consisted off the large amount of pink flamingos as they gracefully walked along the waters edge. It was truly a sight to behold!

That night at the hostel we stayed up late playing cards and drinking yet more rum. The place was a meeting point for everyone on their salt flats tours, so there was a large number of us, anxiously waiting the next morning where we could finally head out onto the salt flat itself! The large amount of people also meant a large queue to use the electricity to charge camera batteries in preparation for the next day! The power itself was switched on for only 5 hours in the evening, so it was crucial to get in there and plug in your camera! In true Bolivian style, there must have been over 20 cameras, plugged into numerous adapters, into 2 sockets in the wall. The table was teeming with sparks! Luckily my battery charged!

The next day we were up before sunrise and headed down to the Isla de Pescado (Fish Island) Its entire surface is covered by giant cacti, some of which are over 10m tall, and thought to be over 100 years old! From here we watched as the sun rose over the salt flats. The Salar de Uyuni covers 9000 square kilometers of Altiplano, as is the largest salt lake in the world. It is not a lake in the conventional sense of the word; though below the surface it is largely saturated with water, something which we later found out when we drilled holes into it! Driving over the perfectly flat white expanse, you can see for miles and miles. It is like something from another world! It also makes for some great photo opportunities, as any visitor will tell you! It is worth planning in advance and preparing props! The sheer flatness and lack of detail allows you to play with the perspective and take some mind boggling photos! I have put some of mine on my photo section!

That afternoon we headed back to Uyuni, where we boarded a bus to Bolivia´s capital – La Paz.

Volcanoes, Sand boarding and Moon Walking.

13 11 2008

Heading back to Santiago after the amazing long weekend at Dunas, we hoped to pick up the police report and start the journey up north. We went to the central police station where we had been instructed to go, only to be told that they had no record of our report, then suddenly that we were in the wrong place for reports, then that they could find our report and could get a copy but it was currently somewhere in the postal system…. Incompetence does not do them justice. Why we couldn’t get a copy of the report at the time is beyond me. He even printed a copy off for himself yet refused us a copy, even after lots of angry imploring. Heaven forbid we fall victim to a more serious crime whilst in Chile. In the end they said they would email it to us. Unsure of what to do we also spoke to the British embassy in Chile to see if they could speed matters up, but were told there was little they could do unless we had also lost our passport along with the camera… oh the irony! Now almost three weeks later we still haven’t received a report or heard from them.

From Santiago we decided to head up the inconsequential town of Copiapo. Whilst the town itself offers little of interest, it is excellent as a springboard for excursions into the surrounding region. In our case we hoped to take an excursion to the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces; home to the breathtaking Laguna Verde and Ojos de Salado. At 6893m, this is the highest peak in Chile and the highest active volcano in the world! Its last two eruptions were in 1937 and 1956. Arriving in Copiapo we headed to the tourist information office to look for someone to stay and enquire about tours to the park. It is worth noting that Copiapo is also home to one of the most helpful tourist offices in South America. They had a wealth of information on where to stay and which tour companies offered what, all with maps and info on where to locate them. With map in hand we first set about finding somewhere to stay, after looking at a few we finally settled on a small hospedaje offering a cheap and cheerful private room, complete with tv! The tv couldn’t actually pick up any stations but it was a nice aesthetic feature…

The tour companies all had tours going, but were all charging much more than we were looking at parting with. On our way back to the main square we were approached by another backpacker, fresh from the tourist office. After exchanging pleasantries, he introduced himself as Lucky (we would later find out his real name was Gerhard!) and was Swiss, conversation then turned to tours of the park. He was also hoping to go, but was similarly keen to save some pennies. We decided to try our luck at hiring a car for the day. This turned out to be massively cheaper; including petrol, it came to the same price as a tour for one person! We hired our car with Ecorentals; it was a beast of a pickup, only a couple of years old, complete with a flash stereo and lights mounted on the roof (showing off my knowledge of automobiles)! We decided to head out first thing the next day. With an afternoon to spare we decided to head to the beach.

The beaches of Bahia Inglesa are probably the most photographed in the whole of Chile. Their white powdery sands, cool turquoise waters, and curious rock formations are a huge attraction. We had seen photos prior to going and couldn’t wait to spend the afternoon soaking up some rays and paddling in the exquisitely clear sea. With towel and book in hand we caught a bus to the coast. However despite being a stunning sunny day in Copiapo, the closer we got to the beach the greyer and more overcast the sky became. Finally we arrived at the beach to one of the gloomiest days known to man. The sand looked grey, and the waters reflected the sky. True the waters were amazingly clear, but we had had sunnier days in Aberystwyth. We were hugely disappointed. We sat on the beach for a while, praying the sun would reappear and transform the scene around us into the paradise that we had seen photos off, but the weather gods were ignoring our pleas (yet again!). After only an hour we caught the bus back to Copiapo.

That night, after a mediocre dinner, where we had been stared at the whole time by everyone else in the restaurant (very strange and a tad worrying…) we headed back to get some sleep as we had an early start to get to the park. After brushing our teeth, we pulled back the covers ready for some much needed Zs… to discover that the sheet was covered in lots of long (and short) dark black hairs. There were even lots under both pillows. We headed out to speak to one of the staff, to discover the place was completely empty. Luckily we both had our sleeping bags, thus saving us from having to sleep on the floor. That night we both slept zipped up to the eyeballs, on top of both blankets. In the morning, when we had to check out and pay, there was again nobody about so I left a fraction of the money for the room and stuck out to meet Lucky and start our tour!

The total journey was a whopping 520km (260 each way), and as I was, rather embarrassingly, too young to put my name down as a driver (for some reason you had to be older than 24) I kicked back on the back seats and took in the view. The first 200 or so kilometres were interesting but nothing much to write home about. We passed some small salt flats and lots of flat dry arid land. But as we approached the furthest point on the journey, the landscape began to change. As we climbed higher, the colours of the bare mountains became increasingly vibrant, ranging from oranges to purples to even greens. In the distance we could start to make out the volcanoes. The snow-capped Volcan Tres Cruces and the monumental Ojos De Salado. Neither looked like a typical volcano, and I have to admit I was a tad disappointed as a result… but they still cut an imposing shape, rising up above everything else. At around an altitude of 4500km, we rounded a corner and caught our first sight of Laguna Verde. It was breathtaking. The intense colour of its water cuts a start contrast from the surrounding dull shades of brown. It seems to jump out at you. We continued driving down to the edge where we had decided to have lunch. It was great, sitting there staring out across the turquoise waters, backed by the Volcanoes.

At the western end of the lake lies another little treat – wonderful natural hot springs. At around 40 degrees, and deep enough to lie in and keep warm, there is a low built around that acts as a perfect windbreak. The wind had started to pick up by now and was whipping across the water, so the wall was much needed. With a small moment’s hesitation, we stripped off, and spent the next hour basking in the hot waters and taking in the amazing view immediately in front of us. When we began to turn into prunes, we quickly ran out and dressed in the cold wind; luckily surfing in the UK had turned us into pros at this! Faster than superman, we were dressed and in the car.

We decided to drive a different way back to break up the monotony. The guide said this route should take around the same time, and we aimed to get back early evening, with enough time to get some dinner before our night bus out. The road was almost impossible to decipher where it began and the desert ended. We drove in what we hoped was the right direction, as we watched darkness gradually ascend on us. At one point, in the middle of what seemed a never ending canyon, we passed a random horse, all saddled up just munching away on some grass. We didn’t see a single soul or home for the whole 260km back. We finally arrived back at gone 10pm with around 15 minutes to say our goodbyes and board our bus further north, up into the Atacama Desert.

Stretching for over 100km, all the way to the Peruvian border, the Atacama Desert stands at the North Chiles largest attraction. It is the driest desert in the whole world, with some areas never receiving a recorded drop of rain. The main tourist port of call is San Pedro de Atacama, a pleasant town just south of the Bolivian border, and our last stop in Chile before heading across. Sitting at an altitude of 2400km, this small town has been an important settlement since pre-Hispanic times, where it was originally a major stop on the trading route connecting llama herders of the these highlands with the fishing communities of the Pacific. Now it’s a friendly laid back pack, catering primarily for tourists, offering tours into the spectacular wilderness around. It is also right next to the Valle de Luna, our main reason for visiting.

The town resembles a movie set for star wars. The dusty streets are lined with small white, mud based abodes, with wood structures. Our hostel was no different, and didn’t even have a lock on the door. It constantly swung open unless a chair was placed in front of it. Security wasn’t at the top of their priorities. There is also no cash point in the whole town, so make sure you don’t do we did and turn up without sufficient moneda. We found ourselves having to exchange some of my ´emergency´ stash of US Dollars, at an absolutely abysmal rate of exchange.

We only had one whole in San Pedro so planned to cram as much as possible into one day. That night we hired our bikes in preparation to cycle the 14km to the Valle de Luna for sunrise. The Valle de Luna is a dramatic lunar landscape of wind eroded hills, surrounded by large crater ridden floors, and immense sand dunes. It is like no other place I have visited, and probably the closest I will get to seeing the surface of the moon firsthand. Through out the day it transforms through an array of colours.

The next morning we got up at 4am and quickly layered up, before getting on our bikes and started to ride. The journey there is nearly all flat, and luckily for us it was a full moon as both our torches were out of batteries. We cycled in silence, enjoying having the town to ourselves. Once we had left the town behind us, we sped along the empty road, taking in the amazing star filled sky. As the landscape was so flat, the sky was everywhere we looked. The moon lit the way perfectly. After cycling for around one and half hours we reached the start of the valley. Here we left our bikes locked up and continued the journey on foot. It was amazingly tranquil and also slightly eerie. The moon cast long shadows everywhere we looked, and there were plenty of dark nooks.

We scaled up the side of one dune, and scouted for the best place to watch the sun enter the day.We hadn’t even realised it was full moon, it was a complete divine stroke of luck The moon caused the place to look coldly beautiful and imposing. The only sound was the quiet hum as nature prepared itself for yet another day. We sat at the top, almost holding our breath so as to not too disturb the scene we held before us, and for us to perfectly capture the moment and hold on to it. We were the only souls about, and we sat and watched as the sun slowly rose on one side, and the moon bade it farewells on the other. The sun caused the scene to transform, the cold and supernatural quality being replaced with warmth and a spellbinding palate of golds and reds. It was an absolutely pure and treasured experience.

Cycling back to ´earth´ we hardly said a word, each happy reflecting on what we had just witnessed. 

After a quick lunch of empanadas (the café advertises 254 different varieties!) we headed back on our bikes for a completely different experience, we decided to head to the Valle de Muerta – the Valley of Death. Here there are massive sand dunes that you can throw yourself the slopes on sandboards (you rent them in town) as many times as you can find the energy to climb back up. It’s around 16km to get there, and make sure you take plenty of water! It’s not called the Valley of Death for no reason.

The journey there was exhausting enough as it was, especially with a sandboard strapped to your back. When you finally get there, you then have to trek up the sand dune, a feat of its own, before strapping the board to your feet and speeding back down! (If your good – or falling down repeatedly all the way to the bottom!) We went up down a number of times, It was pretty hard and tiring! Make sure you take wax for your board or you won´t go anywhere! After a while it was time to call it day, and start the cycle back, taking with us half the sand dune in our ears, nose and clothes. We decided on the way back to head back to the Valley of the Moon for sunset aswell, and complete the holy trio! However half way there, and with only 1 empanada in our stomachs, our legs and bodies gave up the go, and we could not go any further. Having dined soley on steak, wine and similar goodness, we had tried to cram two months worth of exercise into one day and at this point our bodies said enough!

We headed back, and after a quick shower to desand ourselves, we headed out for some much needed food! The restaurant we found was amazing – for just over seven pounds we had a three course meal with beer and pisco sour (his and hers) The food was amazing quality and went down very well! That night, we went to bed with full stomachs and aching legs, and dreamt of moon walking and the stars.

The next day we headed to the town of Calama, where we would catch our bus across the border into Bolivia. The town has nothing worth seeing, and a very expensive selection of accommodation. After finding the cheapest (and nicest) hotel we could, we spent the day reading in the main square, eating a number of completos! So far we had resisted… the Completo, along with Pisco Sour, is one of Chile´s Culinary ´delights´. Basically it’s very large hotdog, complete with salsa and plenty of guacamole! They love avocado in Chile, they have an addiction like no other. I actually saw billboard posters advertising the thing, with celebrities promoting the fact that they wouldn’t have got where they had without the humble avocado. Bizarre! Full of Guacamole, we went to bed for our last sleep in Chile.

The next morning we boarded the bus on to Bolivia!

Police, Chocolate Cake and ´Weiners´.

4 11 2008

Finally we were on our way into Chile! Unlike all our other bus journeys, we decided to do this one during the day. The reason being that to get to Santiago from Mendoza, you have to go up and over the Andes. We had been assured that we would definitely not want to miss out on the views!

The views were absolutely amazing, large snow capped mountains loomed up, then suddenly we were winding around up towards the clouds. The journey takes around 9 hours, and we were constantly shifting seats in the bus to steal better views. Luckily the bus was near empty so we had free rein of the top level to move about on, along with two other travellers. Eventually we arrived at the border and were instructed to disembarque and get our passports stamped. I had managed to keep mine safe this far; in fact I checked my bag every 2 minutes to make sure it was still zipped safely away.

Arriving at the front of the queue I handed over my pristine passport to gets its first stamp, only to be told that there was no record of me arriving in Argentina. I advised that is states clearly in the passport that’s it’s a replacement and assured them of the dates of my arrival and that I had been out and back into the country three times at the beginning of my trip. They checked and double checked the system and said again there was no record, so I could not leave the country. I managed at this point to also get the help of a kind Spanish family to translate my, by now, anxious/angry assurances that I had done everything by the book and they could contact the embassy if that had a problem. They said they couldn’t/wouldn’t do this, and I could only cross if I could show them a plane ticket. Stupidly though I had misplaced mine in Buenos Aires and had no copy left. They then conferred with each other and ´agreed´ that I could cross if I paid the 50 UK pound ´admin´ fee. This sounded wholly unfair and I told them so (with the help of my translators!) I had no currency on me, sterling or otherwise, and they refused to take card payment. I went out to find my bag to search for more paperwork I was determined to get into Chile today! Right at the bottom of my bag I came across an old stamped ferry stump, from Uruguay of all places, which turned out to save my bacon! My trip there was worth it after all! Ten minutes later, I was in Chile!


We arrived in Santiago that evening and went out for a large Chinese with the two lads from the bus to celebrate! However the next morning things again took a sudden plunge. Deciding to spend a whole day roaming around Santiago, Claire went to her bag to get her camera, only to discover that it was not there! The same panic ensued, with each bag being systematically emptied and searched top to bottom. The last time we had seen it was putting it back into her bag at the Chilean Border. Whilst we were debating with the officials there, a team of guards went on to the bus to search for narcotics and vegetables… Claire’s bag (complete with camera and almost 300 photos) had been on the bus then… Either they or the bus company must have taken it. We didn’t check out bags for the second part of the journey and took the photos with my camera. We called and visited the bus company, only to be told rather smugly that “No camera had been found”…. Luck and Honesty were not on our side!


Yet again we found ourselves at the police station (this time at least in another country) reporting a stolen item. The Chilean police are particularly unhelpful and, to put in mildly, slightly incompetent. (Disclaimer – Based purely on personal experience!) Having spent over 2 hours with a local copper, detailing how and when the camera was stolen, we were then handed a card advising we could pick our report up in 24 hours. We needed this for insurance purposes, and so we could put this episode behind us. The next day our report was still not ready and we were told it could be a week as it had to be ´reviewed and investigated´ by someone…


This was such a shame as Santiago was actually quite a pleasant city. We had heard mixed reviews of the place and most had dismissed the place as not worth visiting. With no report we decided to make the most of it and go around the city, seeing all that it had to offer. The first thing we did was head up Cerro Santa Lucia. This is a small hill in the centre of the city and offers lovely views around. Especially nice is the Darwinian garden at the top. Here we sat with a large ice cream (ice cream is very cheap in Chile!) and a large Mote con Huesillo, a typical drink in Chile, made with peach and containing a whole fruit and lots of grains of barley. From here we headed to the National Library, which was reasonably interesting and then headed down towards the main square, Plaza de Armas. On the way we stopped off at the Teatro Munipal and the Plaza de Consitucion. This was a nice square, with lots of large flags leading up to the Palacio Moneda. Here you can watch the changing of the guard. Plaza de Armas itself is home to the grandiose Cathedral. Here we sat and watched the world go by, before heading back to the hostel to get ready to see what Santiago had in the way of nightlife!


Having spent some time here in Santiago when she first arrived in South America, Claire wanted me to meet some of her friends who she stayed with whilst here on her own. They met us at the hostel and we headed to a lovely bar for some drinks. Not only was it lovely to meet them, it was also a great chance to work on my Spanish. You sometimes get to comfortable conversing in the hostels in English, and only using Spanish whilst out shopping or site seeing. It was lovely to converse normally and chat about variety of different things. Their English was near perfect, but I insisted that we conduct most of the conversation in Spanish where possible as it was only right in their own country. It was a great chance too for Claire to show off all that she had learnt since being with them last.


We had lots of sushi, which is definitely not backpacker budget friendly, followed up with some amazing cheesecake. I just couldn’t resist! We had already spent too much; we may as well do it properly! It was here that I also tried my first Pisco sour. Pisco is the main Chilean spirit, and is basically a grape brandy. A Pisco Sour is made from Pisco, mixed with lemon, lime and egg white. Sometimes it is topped with a bit of cinnamon. I’m not too keen on them at all, but Claire and the girls loved them.


The next day we headed across the nearby neighbourhood of Bellavista. This is Santiago´s ´Latin quarter´ and is where most of the street artisans are and also the bars and restaurants. From here you can head to Santiago´s main sites, Cerro San Christobel. The summit here is home to large statue of the Virgin Mary and offers unparalleled views of the city. On the way to start the climb up we walked past a bar to hear someone shouting my name from the other side of the street. Looking across we saw that it was Jake who we had met in Mendoza and climbed (literally) up the hill with. He was with Emmett and Clara who he was travelling with. We headed across for a large beer before heading up the Cerro together.


Yet again we found ourselves listening to Jake, and opting to not follow the main route up and take a ´short cut´. Yet again we found ourselves walking up a steep dust slope, in the hope that it lead to the summit. Rounding a corner near the top we found ourselves not at the summit, but in fact in the middle of a building site, being stared at by several builders, probably wondering what these sweaty, red faced gringos were doing on their fenced off site. Luckily the care taker of the site was a large friendly man, who invited us over and fetched a chipped builder’s mug for us to fill from the tap. Refreshed, he pointed us in the right direction and we eventually found ourselves at the summit. The views were amazing and we spent a while, basking in the sunshine and taking in the panoramic before us. The view should be amazing, with the city perfectly nussled in the foot of the Andres, their snow caps looming way up the multiple high rise buildings. However, as the mountains are there, they serve to keep all the pollution concentrated over the city. There is so much smog. It is such a shame. Not wanting to walk back down, we decided to head down in style in the cable car. First though we stocked up on some ice creams, then began our descent back to the city below. That night we all headed out for a night in Bellavista. The guys from the hostel also joined us, and we had a fantastic night, ending up in a particularly ´interesting club´!


There was still no sign of getting a police report so with a certain important date impending, we decided to up and leave the city behind us and head to the coast. We hadn’t really been on a proper beach since leaving to South America so were very much looking forward to it. The important date mentioned was in fact my Birthday! Whoop! In order to celebrate properly we spent a while choosing the best location. We settled on a rather picturesque location named Dunas Hostel, on Ritoque Beach. It is situated around one hour and a half from one of Chile’s most visited seaside cities, Valparaiso. Ritoque beach is a 10 minute taxi ride from the small unattractive town of Quinterro. It was an absolutely perfect choice!


We arrived on the Friday before my birthday to discover two small brightly coloured A frames, a small collection of small beach retreats and a surf shack/bar. To top it all off, there was also the most amazing waves breaking on the shore, crying out to be surfed. There were a number of guys who had answered the call and were paddling out back to enjoy some of nature’s finest creations. Settling our bags down to take in the sea air and view, we were greeted by Ian, the owner of the hostel. He was a tall man, with a weathered complexion, complete with long grey hair and beard. He looked like a man who had seen a lot. When asked where he was from originally, he replied that he was ´a citizen of the world´… you can make your own minds up!


However the place he owned was perfect, showing us to our room, we headed into the smaller blue A frame, complete with decked patio, kitchen, wood burner and an amazing shower! It also had a perfect view of the headland and sea. We put our bags down, and then headed down to the surf shack to meet the other people staying at the hostel. I was truly blessed for my birthday weekend, not only was the place perfect, but the people I would spend it with were absolutely lovely in every way. (Colin and Molly, Ben to name a few – thanks by the way!) That night we spent it sipping Pisco Sours and then headed up to the first of many amazing sunsets. We sat on the headland and watched as the sun slowly said its goodbyes for the day and headed down to its ´waterbed´, casting amazing reflections across the seas surface.


The next morning I awoke to find that I was a whole year older, and a tiny bit wiser. I bounded out of bed to see what the surf was like to discover that it was one thing that would not be perfect on my birthday. It was too late the night before by the time we got settled and had resigned myself to going for surf first thing. However the winds were against me and the waves were coming in all messy and blown out. Ah well! I headed back in for an amazing birthday breakfast provided my lovely girlfriend! I then opened the card from home and my large card from Claire, which was full of mini replicas of every stamp that I had had in my lost passport! I also became the proud owner of a shiny harmonica! I decided that I needed to get an instrument that I could easily carry with me when I travel! Unlucky for every one else, I now also needed to learn how to play the thing! (Any tips/pointers would be much appreciated!!!)


Heading up the main A frame everybody wished me happy returns, before we all headed down to the beach for some bat and ball and dip in the sea. Around midday I had more surprises when Jake and Co decided to rock up to the beach to help me celebrate! Jake and I had so many similar interests and got on incredibly well, it was so lovely for him, and of course, Emmett and Clara to head down to see me. The rest of the day was passed in a lovely relaxing manner; the only exertion I made was to walk into town to treat myself to a bottle of gin and some chocolate! The walk in fact took longer than expected and we were passed on our way by randomly large procession of Harley Davidsons (over 100 bikes) and then had to wait for an equally large number of Ducks and Ducklings to cross over further down the road!


That evening, after another beautiful sunset, we sat down to a large Asado provided for by Ian. It was fantastic! The only problem was that it was tradition to put a large amount of salt on the meat. The meat is served up in sections, working through each part of the cow, saving the best meat until last. However after each lump was cut up it was sprinkled with salt before being passed round. I had to resort to hiding the salt. The whole thing was washed down with, you guessed it…lots of red wine! The best was saved till last though… after the meat was finished and we were set about tackling the flagon of red wine, Claire disappeared and came back with an absolutely amazing home made chocolate cake, complete with rich chocolate icing and fresh strawberries! She had been slaving away unbeknown to me, most of the previous night! I was truly spoilt! After dinner and a generous slice of amazing birthday cake each we headed down to the bonfire and spent the remainder of my birthday singing and chatting. It was perfect and an incredibly memorable day!


The next day was Sunday, and again the surf conditions were pretty bad. The day was spent in a similar fashion, mixing the bat and ball up with some volleyball and beach football. We had also befriended a local stray dog. We named him fidget as he couldn’t sit still. He followed us everywhere, and fetched stick, and dug huge holes. When we slept, he stayed on the decking sleeping on the door mat. In the afternoon, feeling a tad peckish after all our beach ´exercise´ we headed to the surf shack, where we were treated to some absolutely delicious seafood. It was fresh out of the sea and tasted great! Jake is a chef at home and very into his food. Unable to settle on one choice, he opted to buy the whole menu and set about sharing it with everybody, complementing each dish in turn. It was the first ´lazy Sunday afternoon´ we had had… don’t get me wrong, we had had lazy days before, but this was the first time a Sunday felt like a Sunday should. A day to relax, eat well, and truly reflect on how fortunate we all were to be where we were!


That evening (after watching the sunset, this time from the sand dunes) we all headed up to the main A frame and cooked a massive meal together. Nobody was exempt from kitchen duty, and between us we whipped up a mean veggie spag bol, with garlic bread and a fantastic salad, complete with a great cherry dressing (courtesy of Jake!) After, we headed back to the fire for our last night together. Conversation flowed as usual and the tunes rolled on one after the other. The night was completed when Jake and Emmett whipped out a large bag of mixed ´Weiners´! This started a long debate over what they should be called, as we all sat about with our Sausages nicely cooking on our skewers! A fantastic end to an amazing long weekend!


The next day we said our goodbyes (and thank you´s) and headed back to Santiago, to hopefully pick up a police report and start the journey up north, towards the Atacama Desert!