Epilogue: Cold Turkey.

1 04 2009

It’s very strange to be back home. I miss South America incredibly: the culture, the people, the food and the joy of backpacking and the unknown. When you are backpacking, no two days are the same. For now, I’m happy reflecting on the amazing time I had; the experiences, the lessons learnt, the friendships forged and the memories gained. However I know in the not so distant future, the itchy feet will return, and I shall escape once more…

I hope you have enjoyed reading about my Escape to South America. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to email me: mattjks@hotmail.com. Or perhaps you want to offer me a job, or maybe publish my writing, thus allowing to me earn a living doing what I love – to travel and to write – to inspire people, whether they are new to travelling, or have travelled extensively, to fulfil their desires and take time off from their normal lives. From six weeks, to four months, to two years – to discover and experience the world; whether to work, volunteer or simply explore.





La Cidade Marvilhosa

3 03 2009

A short bus ride later we had arrived in Rio, or as the 10 million locals call it – Cidade Marvilhosa. First appearances seemed to support this: huge skyscrapers merged with jungle clad mountains, and were surrounded by golden stretches of sand and cool turquoise waters. Some of the world’s most iconic landmarks and scenery can be found here: the impressive Sugar Loaf Mountain, the famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches and the spectacular Christ Redeemer, standing on top of Corcovado Mountain, ever watching over the city.

On January 1st 1502, a Portuguese Captain, Andre Goncalves, steered his craft into Guanabara Bay, thinking he was heading up the mouth of a great river. The City takes its name from this event – Rio de Janeiro means the ‘River of January’. When gold was found in nearby Minas Gerais in the 1690’s, the city became the epicentre for the gold trade, and the sugar cane economy bought yet more wealth into Rio. By the 18th Century, the majority of Rio’s inhabitants were African Slaves, and almost nothing in the city remained untouched from their influence. This can still be seen today, in the music, cults and cuisine.

In March 1808, Dom Joao VI of Portugal became so taken with the city, that he proclaimed it “The United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves, of this side and the far side and the Guinea Coast of Africa”. Along with this mouthful of a title, Dom Joao’s reign also saw the introduction of paved and lit streets. With the boom of the coffee trade in the area, the late nineteenth century saw Rio start to develop as a modern city: trams and trains were replaced with automobiles, the first sewer system was introduced, and a tunnel was opened through the mountains, paving the way to Copacabana and beyond.

During the 1930’s, Rio enjoyed a reputation as home to the first generation of jet setters and Hollywood glamour filled the air. This in tow brought with it a wave of modernisation that saw Rio transformed into the city that exists today.

The only thing that seemed to be lacking on first impressions was the quality of hostels. There are so many hostels in the city, and the nice ones are far and few between. Having been unprepared, we ended up spending our first night in a not so nice one, which consisted of another Rio staple – rooms that sleep around 30 people, complete with three tier bunk beds! These are definitely not advisable after a few caipirinhas, or if you have a tendency to sleepwalk, or suffer from vertigo. Also air conditioning was at a premium, so sleeping on a third tier bunk, like I ended up having to, having drawn the short straw, was like sleeping inside a dead camel left out in the desert sun – not pleasant!

Fortunately it was only for one night, and we checked into a lovely hostel for the duration of our time. The Mango Tree was recommended to us by Jane, and had a lovely bar outside in the garden, a nice social atmosphere, hammocks and most importantly normal size bunk beds with fans and air conditioning! Another blessing was the lack of exposed wiring, plumbing and general lack of severe subsidence we had seen in some hostels…

Our first two days were spent just walking around and chilling out on Ipanema Beach. I would definitely recommend staying near Ipanema, as it’s generally a bit safer, the hostels are nicer and it’s a little more relaxed.

The beach itself is split into a number of sections, each allocated a number and defined by the clientele that frequent it. We stayed in the family section, having heard tales of some of the other areas…

The first night in Rio, we went out for drinks in nearby Leblon, one of the more affluent and trendy areas in the city. We also had our first food by the kilo meal; something I’ve only ever heard of in Brazil. Similar to a buffet layout, but your plate gets weighed at the end and you get charged by the kilo. I found it particularly hard to be restrained and to remember that it wasn’t actually an all you can eat buffet.

When we checked into the Mango Tree the next day, we met another couple from the UK; Steve and Iola. As we got talking we discovered that Steve had set up a company whilst at home, along with a friend, called the Tea Appreciation Society. (http://www.teaappreciationsociety.org/tea.asp?page=home) They had designed some T-Shirts, one of which was for the clothing company howies, who Claire works for. Another reminder that it’s a small world we live in! With time being of the essence, we decided to skip the beach for a few days and get about exploring the city.

We began at the Praca XV de Novembro, the former hub of Rio’s social and political life. Today its home to one of Rio’s oldest markets, on Thursday and Fridays, were its stalls are packed with traditional food, clothes and handicrafts. We then visited the Paco Imperial; these has served many purposes, from the Governor’s Palace, the Headquarters of the Portuguese Government in Brazil, and later the Department of Post and Telegraph. It was also here, on May 13th 1888, that Princess Isabel proclaimed the end of slavery in Brazil. Today it’s a popular meeting point and library.

We took a trip towards Rua Uruguaiana, whwere we found a concentration of shops known as Saara. Traditionally the cheapest place to shop, it was originally the centre for the Jewish and Arab Merchants, who moved into the area after a ban prohibiting their residence within the city centre was lifted in the eighteenth century. In the narrow maze of streets, you can find anything and everything.

From here we headed to Largo de Carioca, which is home to the Igreja e Convento de Santo Antonio; the oldest church in Rio, built between 1608 and 1620.  Rising up behind the church, is the unmistakable shape of the Nova Catedral. Standing at 83m high, the cathedral resembles some futuristic tepee. Built between 1964 and 1976, it can hold up to 25,000 people, and regardless of what you may think of it, is an incredible feat of engineering. The space inside is enhanced by the lack of supporting columns; four huge stain glassed windows dominate your attention, each measuring 20m by 60m. Its like no other building I have ever seen, particularly any other Cathedral.

Getting around Rio is very easy; there a large number of buses and subways, and you can buy tickets that combine the two. The day next day we headed across to another of Rio’s bairros: Santa Teresa. As it clings to the side of the hill, it necessary to catch the tram up to top, winding upwards, through its labyrinth of cobbled streets and early nineteenth century mansions and walled gardens. You also cross over the mid eighteenth century Arcos da Lapa, a monumental Roman style aqueduct.

Whilst there isn’t a huge amount to see in the area, the views over the city are spectacular, and there is a rather bohemian atmosphere to the place. Its home to many of the city’s artists and intellectuals, and the streets are full of galleries and little boutiques. There are also a number of good café’s and restaurants, one of which we found ourselves, passing the afternoon, drinking some cold local beers, eating some local snacks, and taking in some live jazz.

Rio’s favelas cling precariously to the hillsides, no matter where you are in the city, their prescence can always be noticed. Whilst not exclusive to the capital, the appearance of the slums seems harsher, in stark contrast to the glitz and beauty that surround them. In no other city have I seen such an explicit reminder of the divide between the rich and poor.

Every Friday in the area of Lapa is a massive street party. The street is lined with clubs and bars, and people spill out onto the streets and dance the night away to the live samba bands that play under the arches of the aqueduct. We decided to go that night with a group from the hostel. Whilst it’s definitely something that needs to be seen and experienced, its worth keeping your wits about you and remembering the old mantra, of safety in numbers. We had great fun dancing in the streets, but it quickly took a turn for the worse when a few locals started on one backpacker near us, and I found myself grabbed round the neck by a street seller for refusing to purchase some sweets from him. I’ll never forget the desperation in his eyes, as he demanded the equivalent of 10p of me. This was the point we decided it was time call it a night.

With only a few days left we decided to have a little splurge and treat ourselves; so we booked to go and do something we had always wanted to do; hangliding over the city! We went with Jane and her boyfriend, and it was a whirlwind experience. We got picked up early in the morning and taken over to the base of the mountain, a coupe of beaches round from where we staying. After a quick safety talk and we had signed our lives away, we barely had time to stare, wide eyed, up at top of the mountain that we would be running off, before we found ourselves in the car on the way up. It wasn’t until we saw the huge colourful gliders, and the 2 metre ledge jutting out of the mountain top did it sink in what we were about to do.

Helmets on and safety harnesses in place, we had small amount of time to practice our run. My instructor told me to place my arm around him, stare at the horizon, and keep running. On no account must I stop… simple huh! Then we were strapped into the glider, my hands clutching the cold metal bar, and my eyes focuses on the huge drop in front of me. I got the news that I would be first up… I’m not sure what it worse. Either way I couldn’t back out now, not with everyone watching. 3…2….1…

I ran as fast as I could, my feet pounding the hard gravel beneath me, my eyes not moving from the distant line of the horizon, topping the vast blue sea in front of me. Suddenly I looked down, my legs still moving, but no longer was there any ground beneath me, only my shadow metres below, laughing up at me, as I glided across the Rio sky. The feeling was immense – fear and adrenalin quickly turned into euphoria and a strange feeling of tranquillity as if I had done this before. The beach stretched out below me, the white crest of the waves playing below me. I could see roof top swimming pools with Rio’s elite taking a morning dip, cars moving below like ants, and the City’s great landmarks everywhere I turned. At one point, a flock of birds in V formation flew below me, as the thermals arising from the city, helped me soar higher and higher. Eventually we could fly no more, and it was time to feel the ground beneath my feet once again. We circled around and glided down onto the makeshift runway on the beach, my legs turning to jelly and struggling to gain traction as I drifted to the ground. I stood there, watching up as the others finished their peter pan moments and came back down to earth to join more.

We spent the rest of the day on the beach, sampling the delights on offer and soaking up what we had just experienced. The choice of food on the beach is unreal; no matter what you fancy from pizza, brownies, or even an Indian, it can be found from one of the street vendors roaming up and down.

There were also staggeringly high waves that afternoon, and still feeling a tad invincible I swam out to play. At around double overhead (12ft) these weren’t what you’d see on the average day in Aberystwyth. I swam into them, feeling their power take me back into the beach, before ducking under and back out again. I did this a number of times, before getting a tad too cocky and trying to body surf the wave too far: unable to duck back under, I found myself being dragged across the sandy beach, the fine sand leaving a friction burn the size of a two pence piece on my spine.

As I walked back onto the beach, a little dazed and my head full of seawater, I felt a warm trickle of blood drip down my back. I headed up the bar hoping to get a napkin to wipe it with. Instead I was told to turn around, which unwittingly I agreed to do, only to feel to sharp shearing burn as the vendor poured a large measure of Rio’s finest cachaça in an effort to sterilise my wound: a tad unconventional, but effective none the less.

Before we knew it, it was our penultimate day away before flying back to blight and reality. The world of 9-5 was just around the corner… We still had a few things left to tick off though before we had to face all that, so we headed back to Lapa: this time to visit the famous Lapa steps.

The Lapa Steps, are on of Rio’s lesser known landmarks, and are the brainchild of one man, a Chilean artist called Selaron. He came to Brazil in 1983 and fell in love wit the place, and a few years later, began work on the steps, as a tribute to his adopted country.

Originally the 215 steps were covered in blue, green, and yellow tiles, the colours of the Brazilian flag. However, now they are constantly changing, as people from every corner of the globe send in their contributions. Selaron spends every day tending to the steps, and laying the new tiles down.

The tiled stairway has graced the cover of everything from National Geographic to Playboy, it has even been in a number of music videos. Selaron calls the steps his ‘great madness’ and will not seize work on his piece until the day he dies.

From here, we headed up the last sight on our list, and one of the most famous: the statue of Christ Redeemer. It can only be reached by bus up Corcovado, and then tourist tram or bus to the top. We went on a tour that took us to a selection of viewpoints, thus affording us the opportunity to take some fantastic photos of the Rio’s skyline. From the top you can see the whole city, and standing at over 30m high, the whole city can see the statue which was finished in 1931.

That evening we treated ourselves to a fantastic meal at Zuka, a Brazilian fusion restaurant. It was the last supper on our South American adventure, that saw us take in everything: from the snow capped peaks of Patagonia to the mystical waters of the Amazon, and everything in between.

We checked out the next day; settling the bill with the last change we had, leaving not a penny in our account. There was still time for last drama though: the bus taking myself (Claire was booked on a later flight unfortunately) to the airport was very late, and we had to sprint down Ipanema to catch it as it shot past the stop I was waiting at, fortunately pulling in 100 metres down the road. As we reached it, in a hurry to quickly get the bags in the bus, I completely failed to see the old gentlemen cycling past, and as I swung my bag off my shoulders, I took him cleanly out: his bike flying onto the sand, and leaving him in a heap on the floor. I barely had time to apologise in broken Portuguese and attempt to help him up, before the bus driver shouted at me that he was leaving. I had no choice but to board, leaving my last memory of the city, of a crowd of angry locals raising their fists and shouted at me in a language I still had yet to get to grips with. I turned to wave out of the window at a rather wide eyed Claire, surrounded by the speedo clad vigilantes, as I headed out towards my final destination – the UK.





Bloca, beaches and Bardot.

19 02 2009

Arriving in Santa Cruz in the early hours, we got ourselves in the queue to buy our train tickets… Some say its called the Death Train because of the amount of people who died whilst building the line, others say its because locals hitch rides on the roof and fall asleep and drop off to their untimely demise… the most credible explanation though is because early on in the last century, when the region of Santa Cruz was suffering an epidemic of yellow fever, this train line was the line used to transport the dead bodies out of Santa Cruz and into quarantine areas. Hence the Death Train.

The train runs from Santa Cruz to the border town of Puerto Quijarro. There are three different train running – Regional, Expreso Oriental and Ferrobus. I would not recommend the Regional, as you there is the strong chance of you actually dying – either of boredom or being eaten alive by mosquitos. The Expreso Oriental though is half the price of the Ferrobus, and only 2 hours slower. We opted for Super Pullman seats (cheaper again) and were not disappointed. Our carriage was air conditioned, the seats were ample sized and comfortable. (more info can be found on www.ferroviariaoriental.com/ and www.chiquitania.com/pantanal_and_brazil.html)

The journey was great; watched our last few films in Spanish and got bombarded at every stop by hordes of children selling every type of meat imaginable, more often than not by dangling it inches from our sleeping faces to try and entice us… There were also a number of passengers dressed in traditional clothing, speaking in a Germanic dialect, with a word of two of Spanish in between. We found out that they were Menonites; (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mennonite) a group of Christian Anabaptist denominations named after Menno Simons, some of whom settled in the Bolivian Savannah in the 19th Century.

After a while, the gentle rocking of the train lulled us into a deep sleep, that no amount of charcoaled meat was going to wake us from. When we woke up it was daylight and we were approaching the last stop. A short taxi ride from the train station and we found ourselves at the border crossing into Brazil! A stamp in the passport later and we were through. We now needed to catch a taxi over the Rio Paraguary to the town of Corumbá, where we could catch a bus to the city of Sao Paulo. Fortunately we found a taxi to share, as they can be quite expensive, and we didn’t fancy taking our chances on the back of a moped!

The change in Brazil was multifaceted: firstly we once again felt like incompetent tourists as our grasp of Portuguese left a lot to be desired, we had to resort again to elaborate charades and slowly spoken Spanish. Secondly; everybody was very helpful and didn’t expect cash for their services. Lastly, however, it was much more expensive than any of the countries we had visited so far!

Fortunately for us, we met a local lad named Bruno who was on the way home to Sao Paulo after 6 months travelling. He very kindly arranged the most economic bus for us to take, and offered to teach us a bit of Portuguese and a bit about Brazilian culture and his home city on the journey.

Our hostel, O de Casa, was handily right near Bruno’s flat, so he helped us negotiate the subway and walked us to the door before saying his farewells. The hostel itself was very chilled, and had a homely atmosphere with a nice garden and large living room. Upon arriving we met two more local guys – Thiago and Leandro. They had just set up a new enterprise, to show visitors, the real sights and sounds of Sao Paulo. (http://www.soulsampa.com/sao_paulo/index.php) We booked ourselves a spot the next day.

The mid nineteenth century expansion of coffee plantations from Rio de Janeiro saw Sao Paulo’s fortunes start to rise. The region’s rich soil was perfect for coffee cultivation, and from around 1870, the city went under a massive transformation into a bustling business centre. As the local population could not meet the demands for workers for the ever increasing factories, the ‘coffee barons’ began to turn their attention to immigrants.

Sao Paulo is a city built by immigrants, whose arrival is largely responsible for making it the second largest city in the country. Conditions were initially appalling for the immigrants, with many dying of yellow fever or malaria whilst waiting in the port before being transferred. In response to the criticisms, the government opened the Hospedaria dos Imigrantes. Here vast dormitories, designed to hold around 4,000, were home to an estimated 10,000, crammed in together like cattle.

The population kept on rising, and the city is now home to around 12 million, and has a thriving cultural scene, as a result of its multicultural community. The food is fantastic too!

First stop on our tour was the city centre, where we visited the Praca da Se. The square is dominated by the Catedral Metropolitana. From here we headed up towards the Teatro Municipal, then on towards the Praca de Republica and the Triangulo. This is the business hub of the city, and home to one of the most important landmarks – the edificio Martinelli, which was built in 1928 and was modelled on the Empire State Building. We also took a tour of some of the street art, and visited some vintage record shops, where we learnt about some of Brazil’s musical greats, and the different styles of music inherent to Brazil and Sao Paulo. After which it was time for lunch – we were treated to some traditional brazilian food – I tucked in to a bowl of Feijoada; which is a stew of beans with beef and pork meats. As to which bits of pork and beef – its best not to ask! It tastes fantastic regardless!

It was Carnival time in Brazil, and sadly due to lack of funds we were unable to spend in the motherland of carnival – Rio de Janeiro. However, all was not lost in Sao Paulo. After lunch we headed out on the subway to one of the suburbs to a large community centre. Here there a large family event, with local samba bands and people of all ages dancing away and enjoying the mix of traditional and modern tunes. It was great fun, and a real chance to enjoy something away from the usual tourist trail.

The party continued into the evening, after heading back for a quick rest and some beers and pizza, we were back out on the streets for the local Bloca. Basically a street party and procession, which follows a selection of floats and bands through the streets: dancing, singing and drinking the night away. We stumbled into bed around 4am, our feet sore, but more than worth it!

The next day, after a considerable lie in, we headed down a great antiques market, just one block away from the hostel. We spent hours perusing the items for sale, wishing we had more money and a place of our own to put on the cool things we wanted to buy. On returning to the hostel, we came across Beth, an aussie girl who we had met in Mancora. That evening, we headed out once more, with a large group from the hostel, to a slightly salubrious end of town on recommendation from another local staying with us. A crazy night ensued… many caipiranhas were consumed! The Caipiranha is the traditional Braziliain cocktail – similar to a Pisco sour, yet much more sweet. It is made with lime and plenty of cachaça, a sugar can rum. More sugar is then added!

We decided it was time to head on, as we only had around two weeks left. We had planned on going to Ilha do Mel, but after checking the weather and seeing heavy rain forecast, we decided to head north towards the sunshine, and settled on Buzios. As the bus wasn’t until the evening, we spent the day in the park. Having decided to walk there with a picnic, we took a slight detour and turned up with a rather wilted lunch, and in desperate need for an ice cream. However with an ice lolly in hand, we spent the rest of our time in Sao Paulo relaxing by the lake, before heading to the bus terminal.

Arriving in Buzios, we checked into the Yellow Stripe Hostel. From first appearance, it looked like the most clean and stylish hostel we had stayed in during our time in South America. First impressions were not wrong; not only that, but it was owned by a great couple and had fantastic facilities. Our dorm overlooked the swimming pool. They also had a large living room, complete with Wii and the largest film collection to date, plus a great kitchen, BBQ and free beach equipment!

Buzios, once a quiet fishing town, was made popular by none other than Bridgette Bardot, who stumbled upon in whilst touring the area in 1964. As a result during the peak seasons, it can get very busy; however with 27 beaches, all within walking distance, or minibus service, you can be sure to find a suitable to relax on the beautiful white sand, or cool off or snorkel in the crystal clear waters.

Another thing we had to start doing now in Brazil was to cook for ourselves again. As with Argentina it is far cheaper to buy food and cook for yourself, and most hostels will have good kitchen facilities. It was great though to experience once again the social side to cooking in hostels – everyone sharing tips and compliments, and eating together. Another pointer as well for Brazil is the problem with the ATMs – only certain banks seem to accept foreign cards and also at certain times of the day.

Our week in Buzios absolutely flew by: we met a fantastic group of people, including Jane, a lovely Canadian girl. We went on a boat cruise, ate chocolate pizza, drank cocktails at sunset, feed the fish, drank out of a coconut, got attacked by giant moths, had fantastic crepes and beer, went to the most expensive club and regretted it, had the best BBQ since Argentina and got seriously addicted to Guarana.

It is the second soft drink brand most sold in Brazil, behind only Coca-Cola. Currently, it is ranked among the 15 brands most sold in the world! It tastes so good! We also had our first bowl of Acai – another Brazilian phenomenon. Blended with ice and served with Granola, it had become a staple diet for every Brazilian and backpacker alike… I however was not a fan.

Our week in the sun though had to come to an end eventually… and so we boarded a bus, with Jane in tow, to our final stop on our Escape to South America: Rio de Janeiro.





New photos!

4 02 2009

Just a quick one to say that I have uploaded new photos aswell! Just click the link to the right!





New Photos!

20 12 2008

Have finally loaded a new selection of photos up – Just click the link on the right! More to follow…





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!





Prologue: “My drug of choice is travelling…”

2 09 2008

It was during my late teens that I first began to suffer… sleepless nights, frequent periods when I would zone out completely, trouble focusing on work, itchy feet. Six long months at the start of 2005 confirmed the initial prognosis… I had fallen victim to the infamous ´travel bug´. Sounds cliche I know, but for those of you who have experienced the joy of loading up your backpack with a few of your worldly goods and heading away from everyday life; and simply exploring and experiencing some of the other amazing things that this big planet has to offer will understand where Im coming from. Nothing compares – forget heroin, my drug of choice is traveling.

 

The year 2005 saw me head off with my friend Mr Wagstaff and head off around Fiji, Australia, New Zealand and Thailand. <Check out www.offexploring.com/mattandandy to read more about what we got up too.> My first six months travelling was every bit as amazing and memorable as I had expected. However University beckoned – three amazing years later, and it was high time to dust off my backpack and escape once again… the destination this time South America.

 

When it came to booking my trip, there was always going to be one choice – STA. Having booked with them last time and finding no faults what so ever with the service that I received, they were always going to be my first point of call to get my plans this time in motion. I booked my last trip in their Brighton agency, from the word go they were every bit as helpful as I had heard. The great thing is that I didnt feel pressured to purchase anything I didnt want and trusted that they had my best interest and trip at heart. When it came to getting everything sorted for South America, I headed up to the London Store to do it. Two hours later and out I came with one return flight ticket in hand and insurance all sorted. Even better is the 10 percent discount at the Nomad store. The staff here are equally as informative and helpful in making sure that you have all the essentials for your trip. With my trip all sorted all that was left was to raise the cash to pay for it all…one long summer later and I was on my way to Buenos Aires!