Into the Jungle! Iquitos,Leticia & The Amazon: 28th April-2nd May 2012

An easy flight (if a little delayed) took us north from Lima in Peru up to the stunning scenery of the Amazon Basin: our first glimpse of the mighty Rio Amazonas, and more trees than we have ever seen in our lives PUT TOGETHER!!  We exited plane left onto the tarmac at Iquitos were met smack in the face by the chungle heat: this is gonna be a warm one!

We arrived at Charapas Hostel in Iquitos and signed our sweaty names on the registry book.  Tom was struggling already – he had forgotten what the tropics were like and after basking in the luxury of altitude for the past two months, the reality of the area of the world we were in was taking its toll already!

We had planned around a week’s worth of time in the Amazon basin – spread over Iquitos in Peru and Leticia in the south-east corner of Columbia – their part of the three adjacent towns straddling the tri-border between Peru, Brasil and Columbia.

Our budget only allowed a short jungle trip to see what we could of the famed wildlife, trees and the scenery. This didn’t deter the jungle trip vendors who persistently followed us around (our taxi driver from the airport mysteriously managed to turn up at every turn we made).   We even had a guest for dinner as no sooner had our food turned up then an independent guide called Pedro turned up, introduced himself, sat down, and proceeded to impart upon us all the details of the kind of trip he was going to take us on!!

We were getting a bit miffed by the persistence and consistency of the jungle tour touts in Iquitos, so we decided to high-tail it out of Iquitos and head for the less touristy Leticia, on the Colombian border. We got ourselves a seat on the 5am boat down the river the next morning.

Eleven hot and sweaty hours later we drew up at Santa Rosa – Peru’s tri-border town and clambered from our boat into a tiny water-logged immigration hut to get our exit stamps from Peru.

After solving another no-cash-from-the-cash machine problem by yet another phone call to the bank (luckily we had a small amount on another card which meant we could at least have a snack and buy water the previous evening) we signed up for a boat trip into the Amazon backwaters,  sold to us a local fellow by the name of Jorge – who’d also been following us around various ATM’s, our hostel, out for dinner, to the local shop… etc etc!

It was a full day out and we were promised sightings of many animals and birds and, most gloriously, as the waters of the Amazon at present are over two metres higher than ever recorded – there would be NO TREKKING involved: SOLD!!!

We set off early down the river with the captain, the guide, and an Aussie bloke who jumped in at the last-minute. Throughout the day we saw sloths, monkeys, pink and gray river dolphins and many, many types of birds.

Our guide was a great guy, he spoke English very well (thankfully!) and was full of knowledge and passion about the area in which he worked.

He also told us lots about the indigenous people who live along the river and the dreadful conditions they have to live in at this time of year when the waters are so high – that’s the lucky ones who still have their houses to live in. Sadly many homes are washed away each year, with many families displaced for months on end.

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Huacachina: 25th-27th April 2012

We arrived earlyish in the morning after another – and possibly the last for a good long while (HOORAY!) – overnight long-distance bus journey to Huacachina; the desert oasis once populated by the rich and maybe famous from the region but now predominantly backpackers.

We checked into the Bananas hostel, with its little swimming pool (luxury!) and crashed out for a few hours in our timber hut.

Mid-afternoon we woke up and had a look round.  This took all of 15 minutes as the place is miniscule. The oasis is about 60 metres long by around 30 across, with buildings around three sides.

That afternoon, we headed out into the desert to do some sand-boarding, which also came with a dune buggy trip. Approximately seven of us were strapped into one of the weirdest looking vehicles we have ever laid eyes on (that is up against some pretty stiff competition, believe us!).

We set off round the town at a rate of knots: anything that got in our way would have been bounced over and after paying our 65p ‘sand tax’ (one of the most imaginative gringo-squeezing taxes we had encountered so far) we roared off up a large dune and out into the desert.

The driving obviously requires skill to keep the things going on the sand. Taking corners involves sliding and swooping, often aided by the driver aiming the thing at the side of a massive sand dune and heading at it full tilt!

We bounced and bumped and roared and lost our bellies over the dunes with screams coming from all corners of the car as we hurtled down yet another seemingly vertical dune – how the drivers of these things know that another buggy isn’t approaching the same dune from the other side at the same time we’ll never know…

We eventually came to a stop at the top of one of the dunes for some sand boarding.  We waxed down our sand-boards and took instructions on how to execute the perfect sand-board swish!

The dunes got progressively bigger the more we did, and we watched  the sunset over the strange and beautiful setting.

We stopped for an aerial overview of the town on the way back and then it was into the shower for some serious sand removal exercises!

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Arequipa and the Colca Canyon: 20th-24th April 2012

Fortunately the bus journey was only a relatively short one (nine hours), which ended up taking 10.5 as the taxi driver from the bus depot to Arequipay Packpackers Hostel was so keen to get the fare that dispite nodding his head when we asked him if he knew where the hostel was, actually had no flipping idea whatsoever..

With us crammed into the back of his tiny cab, for the next hour and a half, he proceeded to pull over ask everyone we passed on the street for directions. Patience was wearing thinner than ice and Tom’s mood was not improving…!

Some knowledgeable police officers eventually put a stop to the mad merry-go-round, and we arrived at the hostel.  The next morning, we woke up to sunbeams streaming through our window and a day that seemed not unlike a beautiful spring morning back in good ol’ Blighty.

We made our way into the town for a nosey round and to make some enquiries about the main reason for coming to this area – the Canyon del Colca: the world’s second deepest (the one next door is 163m deeper), and the main spotting place for the world’s biggest flying bird; the Condor.

After talking with a few operators, it seemed that the best – or most ‘rewarding’ way of experiencing the Canyon and the Condors was to do a two-day trek into the Canyon, spend the night at the bottom and hike out early the next morning.  Well, we thought, we don’t really want to do any more trekking, but you do get to see the Condors and the scenery properly…and it’s only two days.. and it’s all over by breakfast time on the second day, with a trip to some hot spring baths afterwards.  What could be so difficult about that?

The alarm went off at 2.30 am, for a pick up at 3.00am (late at 3.50am).

A three hour bus bumpy bus ride took us over a freezing cold pass at 4200m near the Caynon where we stopped for a  ‘breakfast’ of hard bread, something which vaguely resembles butter, stale cheese and olives with a few dead-moths for a dressing (accidental, we hoped)!

Mid-morning until just before lunchtime was a steep and continuous downhill trek in the blazing sunshine, to the bottom of the canyon, descending 1000m.  Then an impossibly steep 30 minute clamber  up to the lunch spot.

A  further four hours of steep uphill trekking along the other side of canyon. Storm clouds were brewing, and before long we were running for shelter (into a hut, which turned out to be the village hospital – crouching inside to hide from the downpour with several locals and a stray dog).

It was starting to get dark, so we risked the weather and descended yet again down a slippery gravel slope to the bottom of canyon to what is known as ‘the oasis’ – a assembly of hostels for tourists and a few local houses.   Total of 18kms walked.

Accommodation for the night was a straw hut with gaps through the walls, earth floor, rickety wooden beds, no light, a door which didn’t fit it’s frame and therefore impossible to shut, showers with no water in them and a howling dog which woke us up 4.45am, and persisted until we set off again at 6am.

Then came the 1000m vertical ascent to top, three hours continuous clambering up and out of the canyon – trying to reach somewhere near the top before the sun rises over the mountains. It took us three hours.

Then a further 2km walk to Cabanaconde, a little village where breakfast and Nirvana disguised as a minibus (which only broke down once on the way home) awaited us.  Total of 6kms walked.

Jen will be the first to tell you how much it was all worth it to see the Condors!!  Also it instilled in us a great sense of achievement, as we climbed the equivalent of Snowdon before breakfast after walking all that way the day before and the fact that we now hate trekking; we did ourselves proud as there were no less than four sets of other ‘trekkers’ (or cheaters) who had elected to pay for a mule at the bottom of the canyon to take them out – splitters!

We were dog tired by the time we got back to the hostel – just about right then for a severe bout of food poisoning to hit Tom.

Scenery = Incredible.

Trekking and Peruvian ‘Burgers’ = Never again.

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Cusco: Los Nogales and volunteering at San Gabriel: 5th-19th April 2012

The time came where we had exhausted our “recovering after the Inca Trail” excuse for lazing around Cuzco and not doing much with our days. We said goodbye to the Ecopackers Hostel and Echo the cat and we were met outside by Rhodri – a Welsh chap who had been working at the San Gabriel for a number of weeks already.

We crammed into one of the shopping trolley size taxis that buzz around Cusco´s centre and eventually drew up outside a small flat in Los Nogalas – a little suburb about 30 mins from Cuzco – that would be home for the next couple of weeks.

We met John, Myra and Connor – volunteers from Holland and the US.  Rosa and her husband Mario, who founded the Helping Hands Project took us up to see the school the next morning (sans kids at this stage as it was Easter Monday).

The walk to the school involved crossing the main train tracks (dodging the black widows  on the way) and hiking up a large hill (as if we hadn´t had enough of those on the Inca Trail!).

We had heard that there were approximately fifty children in residence and upon discovery that the tiny compound we had just entered held all of them, we were more than a little shocked!  They somehow manage to squeeze fifty 3, 4 and 5 year olds in two tiny classrooms.

We were soon put to work doing some building and decoration works around the compound. Jen was painting the recently constructed two-storey classroom and ‘living accommodation’ at first floor level, where Sonja, the new teacher was living.

The work was good fun and it was satisfying to see results at the end of each day – which rolled around at around (nothing is ever too specific out here) 12.30 – 1.30pm when the kids were finished for the day.

Over the course of the two weeks we did a fair amount of plastering, cementing, painting, door planing, frame fixing and bottle-filling (don´t ask!), supervising the kids and the removal of paint and other building materials from their hair, clothes and skin!

Jen also painted the surrounding wall white, which will help the kids and teachers more readily spot the Black Widows and other nasties more easily in future.

The afternoons/evenings were spent wandering round Cusco, and on  Thursday evening Tom and Rhodri  went to play football with Mario and a few of his chums.  Surprisingly, since the altitude, lack of fitness and the large lunch Tom had before departing, the two-hour footy sesh went well!

Our two weeks here were up far too quickly and before long we were saying our final ´Ciaos´to the kids and the teachers.

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The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – 25th March – 2nd April 2012

At the briefing the night before we were due to set off – our guides for the trek from SAS travel – Victor and Fred made a fine job of scaring us silly about how hard this was going to be!!

The group all met up in the office, sat round for an hour or so and were given the run-down on what was we had let ourselves in for!  It was really nice to meet the group we would be experiencing the trail with – we were issued our sleeping bags, roll mats, walking sticks (for wimps such as Jen) and other hired paraphernalia.  Fred and Victor gave us our respective pick-up times (5.15am) for the next morning and we said goodnight.

Far too early the next morning, Tom budged Echo the furry toe-warmer off his duvet and we got ready for the off.   We were met ‘promptly’ at 6.05am by a bright and breezy Victor and then walked with him a couple of blocks to the waiting minibus. We got seats just in front of James and Adriana who we had sat next to at the briefing the night before and who, despite being Australian(!), seemed a really nice couple.

After stopping for a quick breakfast on the way, our bus reached its destination and we were ejected at the beginning of the trail about 20 mins past Ollantaytambo – a tiny village somewhere in the sacred valley.  We crossed the train tracks (a recurring method of access in Peru) and posed for a group pic underneath the sign marking the start of the famous trail.

As we were to discover over the course of the trek the guides´knowledge of the Incas and other tribes of indigenous peoples, the history, the archaeology, the geography and geology, the flora and fauna of the area was simply inexhaustible: there is nothing these fellows don´t know about the area we were walking through and we found out that it takes around 5 years of studying and training to become an Inca Trail guide in Peru – the country takes it very seriously.

We had heard about the porters or Chaskis (“men of speed”) that were doing all the carrying of the equipment for us for our trip.  Our first encounter with them and what they were capable of was at the spot chosen for the first lunch.  We arrived down a valley to see that some tents had been erected.  “Brill” Tom thought, as the notion of a sandwich or three had been crossing his mind for the past hour or two. However, a sandwich of whatever number turned out to be far from the minds of our resident chef…who sat us down in dining tent, complete with table cloths, napkins, knifes and forks and condiments – more akin to a nice restaurant than half the way up a valley in the countryside.

This set the tone for the rest of the trips meals, which were amazing. Chef extraordinaire and the men of speed provided us with the best food, and a more balance diet in the mountains of Peru, than we’ve eaten in the entire of South America!

Day 1..

Sunshine all the way from Chilca Village, across the Rio Urubama to Llactapata (the first Inca site). then onto Wayllambamba where we saw snowy mountains in the distance.
The first of the showers arrived just in time for the last 7km hike to the campsite!
We passed cactus’, wildflowers and  hummingbirds that attracted to the huge lupin plants.
Hot popcorn and chocolate from the Chaskis and our Chef as we arrived at camp!

Day 2 (The tough bit!)

6am start for a tricky and endless hike up to Warmiwanusca (aka Dead Woman’s Pass) at 4215m.
Rain started about ten minutes into the ascent, with thankfully a few breaks and glimpses of blue sky on the way up, past orchids and more hummingbirds.
A little pause at the top for hot tea in the drizzle, before going down the other side on a steep slippery path to lunch. Then back up another steep pass, from the jungle into the cloud forest and more ruins at Sayaqmarka.
Poor Victoria got very sick and had to be put on oxygen. Damn altitude!
Another huge dinner at 7pm. Bed for 8.30!

Day 3

Another very early start, up and down through rain and cloud forests, through an Inca rock tunnel and up another pass to the Inca site of Phuyupatamarka.
Then up countless huge Inca steps  and back down again to Winay Wayna.
We opted for baby-wipe showers, rather than risking the dreaded campsite facilities. Difficult to tell the shower from the loo at times!

Day 4

Before the 3.45am start (in yet more rain), we said goodbye to Chef and the Chaskis and headed up again through more cloud forest to Intipunka (Sun Gate), where we sat for a while desperately hoping for the rain to cease, so we could get a glimpst of Machu Picchu from afar.
The sun didn’t rise through the clouds, and the rain didn’t cease – so we made our way down to the site.. where we had a few hours of.. sunshine!

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Lake Titicaca, Copacabana & The Isla del Sol: 21st-24th March 2012

On the way to Peru, we decided to break the trip by visiting Lake Titicaca: the world’s largest high altitude lake.

The staff at Arthy’s told us that most of the region was due to be demonstrating against the government over the next few days – possibly longer…meaning that all transport in the area would grind to a halt. So, we either had to leave that night, or wait for news that the roads were open again. Unfortunately for us, that meant that the bigger more touristy buses had already left for the day, and our only option was the small public buses – affectionately known to the gringo’s as the chicken bus.

We choose the ‘better’ of two rusty old chickens, for our trip to Copacabana on Lake Titicaca, on the basis that this one had a limited amount of peeling on its tyres, marginally more tread on those tyres, a driver that seemed semi-conscious and less of stink coming from the inside.

We soon doubted our choice, as our chicken creaked and groaned its way out of the city, and across the landscape for 5 1/2 hours, on what felt like square wheels.

About 4 hours in, the chicken squawked to a halt for the one hundredth time near the water’s edge, and on got a customs official, who proceeded to order everyone off the bus (apart from one family with two small kids) and pointed us towards a small hut.

We gringos queued up outside the hut, and promptly parted with some cash (it is unclear where all the other passengers went), and were then ordered onto a boat in the pitch-darkness, which took us across from one side of the tip of the lake to the other. None of us had any real idea of where exactly we were going, and how we were going to reunited with our belongings which were still on the bus.

As our eyes adjusted to the dark, we realised that another larger vessel (our bus) was also floating on the lake, by means of a dodgy looking wooden raft, being pushed across the lake by some sort of motorised craft. Miraculously, the bus, the family on it and the gringo’s all made it across, with the rest of the passengers turning up at the lake-side sometime later, by some sort of invisible craft (we still don’t know how they got there!).

We arrived late at night to the Hotel Utama, grabbed some free bananas and imitation Werthers Originals and waited another hour in reception while the staff rearranged the whole room, after realising there was two of us, not one.

We spent a day wandering around the small town, and booked a trip on the boat across the lake to Isla del Sol, the birthplace of the Inca legend the following morning, which dropped us at the north end of the island where we trekked a short distance to the tip where the sacred Inca stone, where Inca legend holds that the Inca God first rose, to create the sun, moon and stars.

We had a look around the ruins of a Inca town, then set off on a 7km trek to the south to Yumani, where we spent the night. This was our first taste of the Incas and their annoying habit of trekking up and over hills, rather than what is obviously the more sensible option (at crazy altitude of 4,000m above sea level) of going around them!

Just before we reached the town, two local lads appeared and offered cheap accommodation, quick food (we were hungry!) and hot showers at their family owned lodging. A few minutes later, we arrived to meet their mother – offering us the same deal for around twice the price.. so after much debate over a reasonable cost for her services, we came to a deal, ditched our backpacks in our room and sat down to eat.

Around two hours later, having placed the order with two seperate people, we were still waiting for dinner – which seemed a bit strange given the fact there were no other customers. We resorted to beer to pass the time waiting for our dinner and the heating to be fired up, and eventually after sending one plate back to the kitchen (Tom got fish despite explanations that he’s allergic to it), dinner arrived!

Despite the fibs told about the speediest of dinner services, and the availability of hot water (colder than your average polar penguin), the place turned out to be rather special.

The heating came on, the beer got better and we watched the incredible sunset over the mountains that surround the lake and after seven and a half years Tom decided that Jen “had finally played all her cards right” and asked her a special question.. “grand ceverza o pequena (big beer or small?)”…

Only joking readers..!

She said yes!

To the marriage proposal (and the large beer). Happy times and fond memories of this particular place.

Posted in Copacabana, Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca | 2 Comments

La Paz: 14th-21st March 2012

Our first sight of La Paz was at 7am, fresh off an overnight bus trip from Sucre…what a place! The bus descends from the Altiplano (high plain), and drops into the crazy city which is stuck to the sides and the bottom of a huge valley.

Having been completely fleeced by a taxi man, we wondered how people actually get around the city, as the streets are so steep (and the taxis too expensive!), it takes about an hour to walk from the bottom of the hill to the residential districts on the top.  The question was answered the first time we witnessed ‘rush hour’ when hundreds upon hundreds of Toyota minivans appear on the streets each with a sliding door operator/conductor hanging out the side shouting – presumably – the destination of each one.  Each one is crammed full of La Paz-ites on their way home from work: bedlam!!

Running out of breath is a common and odd occurrence, due to the combination of steep streets and high altitude.

We spent way longer here than expected, watching the street entertainers, wandering about the whirling witches market and it’s dried Llama fetuses, sampling the saltenas (sort of spicy, runny, Cornish-pasty type things) and joining the everyday hustle and bustle of the city.

We’d read a lot of bad things about the place, in terms of safety and scams that go on, but were pleasantly surprised. We wouldn’t say it exactly lives up to its name “The Peace” but La Paz is a nice place to spend a few days. The people were great, it has a nice atmosphere, and we felt safe at night time..even when wobbling home covered in green and gold glitter after a twelve-hour drinking marathon with Irish (and other) friends for the combined Paddy’s Day / Six Nations Final!

We stayed at Arthy’s Guesthouse, which was a little oasis behind a dodgy looking door on the main street. The staff were incredible – even helping us register to become official Bolivian importers, to receive one small package from home..a process which took around three days and many pieces of paper to sort out!

The main reason we had come to La Paz, was to look into cycling down Yungas Road – aka ‘The Worlds Most Dangerous Road’ or ‘Death Road’. After some searching around the city for a reputable company (one that do not re-cover dodgy break-pads, and re-branded bikes), we booked with Vertigo tours and set off for the 61 kilometre roller-coaster trip.

After a quick safety briefing and loading of thermal layers, we set off from a high point at a lake under some snow-capped mountains, and made our way (slowly for some.. Jen in the geriatric department near the back, with Tom whizzing off like a maniac and promising Jen that he wouldn’t go over the edge) down a nice, smooth tarmac-covered surface, before stopping briefly for some snacks and to wait for the rain and fog to clear.

Next came the ‘off roading’ section, where the tarmac turned to stones, rocks and mud…thankfully for our behinds we’d paid for the full suspension. We followed the bumpy track down through the mountain, through amazing scenery (taking care not to gawk at it too much, being conscious of the sheer drop on the left hand side).

The temperature quickly got warmer as we descended into the rainforest and off came the layers quick as a flash!  We had regular stops along the way where the speedies at the front had to wait for the Grannys at the back to catch up and we all had time for a drink and to look around at the stunning scenery.

The guides were great as at these stages they told us about the section coming up and what to look out for – it was a comforting thing for those of us who weren’t as steady on the bikes as others.

The final descent had us switching back and forth on a dry dirt trail and ended suddenly with a 90 degree bend that dropped sharply down to the road. There weren’t many accidents throughout the day – except at this point!! Those who got down towards the front of the group were entertained by this final twist, out-foxing many riders who ended up in the bushes!!  After we had all made it down and those of us out-foxed had dusted themselves off it was back in the minibuses and we were dropped off at a hotel in the valley for some well-earned lunch and most importantly some beer.  As luck would have it, this place had a lovely pool and we spent the next hour and a half soaking away the bruises!!  A great day was had by all and one definitely to remember – especially as we survived to tell this tale!

While wandering the market streets of the city, Tom couldn’t help himself walking into a music shop that sold all kinds of instruments: guitars, guitarrons, mandalinas and charangos and after “speaking” with the owner for what seemed to Jen to be an eternity, came out with his very own recently re-strung to be left-handed charango!!  Now all he has to do is hold on to it for the next two months – here’s hoping!!!

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Sucre: 9th – 13th March 2012

Having being dropped off by the bus company on a random road in the city outskirts,  (all passengers, not just the gringos!) we managed to hail a taxi after wandering around a few streets with only the limited – and useless, as it turned out – Lonely Planet map for assistance – we concluded that a taxi would be best!!

We eventually found the Forastero hostel. Beatrice – the owner of the place turned out to be one of the nicest people we have met so far – nothing was too much trouble – she made our stay and doubtless that of many other guests very enjoyable and that much easier!!

We spent a few days taking in the city, and visited Tarabuco – a small rural village 60 or so k’s away into the hills, for its sunday market (for more Llama wear), where it is absolutely impossible to leave empty handed.

We watched a lunchtime traditional Bolivian dancing show by Keity – a local resident with good English skills who had done a very good job of scooping up tourists at the market –  and were were treated to some authentic cuisine – including bizzarely, cheese soup with french fries on top, before realising that the bus we’d paid a return fare for had buggered off early, leaving us and a german couple stranded until another driver from the same company offered to take us back for the cost of another return ticket!

Tom took a trip on the dino bus to Cal Orck’o, a region just oustide of the city centre next to a cement works where over 5,000 dinosaur footprints, from eight different species of dinosaurs can be seen.  The prints are encased in a now huge vertical vertical wall (which 68 million years ago was the floor), which has been pushed up due to tectonic plate movement.

The footprints were discovered by the removal of the limestone for use in the cement factory and unfortunately, as the material they are fossilised in is so unstable, many sets have already been lost due to erosion.  Teams of experts from many countries are working to stabilise and permanently preserve the prints, but they are struggling to find a method that works for any length of time.  The best that they can hope for at the moment is that as one layer falls away it reveals another with different footprints in it!

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Potosi & The Cerro Rico Mines: 6th-8th March 2012

We left Tupiza on the ‘MegaBus’ (..nothing mega about it) and headed north over more Andean mountains to chilly Potosi – one of the highest cities in the world at 4,090 m.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city of Potosi is the mining centre of Bolivia. The city is surrounded by the Cerro Richo (rich hill, or mountain) where silver and other minerals have been mined extensively since the 1500’s.

The outskirts of the town are very poor, with the center being the complete opposite – the churches and cathedral built by the Spanish at the height of the silver mining boom are everywhere.

During the conquest, the Spaniards put to work hundreds of thousands of indigenous and imported slaves here. Incredibly, these mines have seen around nine-million deaths from hard labour and mineral poisoning…amongst other awful things.

We had heard about the mine tours that are offered by various companies in the city, and were originally going to skip Potosi as it seemed a bit wrong to show up, get kitted out in protective clothing which the miners don’t have, and head down to watch the men slogging it out in hellish conditions before heading back off to our hostel.

But, we had also heard from others that had been, and with a bit of research we understood that in choosing the right tour company – the income from the tours helps support the miners in ways that they wouldn’t be otherwise -a miners hospital and family accommodation  is currently being built, and each tour brings supplies that the guys need.

We decided to go.

The day started with a trip to the miners market to buy water, cocoa leaves, 95% alcohol and other supplies as gifts to the miners – we skipped the dynamite explosion demonstration – as the our guide Pedro, an ex-miner recommended against it. Then we headed off for a look around the outdoor refinery plant before entering the tunnel entrance of the mine.

Just inside each entrance, offerings of bright paper garlands, Llama blood, and occasionally Llama fetuses are made to a figurine of El Tio, a devil type underworld-creature whom the Bolivians believe that the mines belong to. Offerings are made for protection, and for high quality ore during each days work.

As we headed deeper into the lower levels of the mine, the passageways got shorter, until we were crouched down to about 4ft, sometimes shuffling on our bellies under tiny openings and clambering on rickety make-shift ladders. The temperature increased to 40 degrees and the bandanas were little help in the thick dusty air.

From time to time, we would hear the rumble of a oncoming mining cart and pinned ourselves to the side of the passage as we waited for the it to pass. These heavy trucks are manually run along the tracks by the miners, who hump them forward with their bodies, up and down tracks which have been there for centuries.

The miners usually begin work around the age of 14, with most tragically ending around the ages of 40 and 50, as they contract silicosis.

Pedro told us that the youngest miner is 10, and later on we met the elder of the mines – still miraculously going at 70…having spent 52 years of his life down there.

They miners work a minimum of eight hours per day, seven days per week.  Many often work through 24 hour periods at a time, as being a cooperative, they paid on the quality and quantity of the stuff they extract. They survive only on water, alcohol, and chewing huge wads of cocoa leaves which provide nutrients and energy.

After an hour and a half, we made our way back up to the top-level, and out into the fresh air and sunshine.

How lucky we are.

The visit to the mines was probably the most eye-opening experience we’ve had in the whole of South America. It was dangerous, uncomfortable, massively outside of our comfort zones, deeply saddening, but very educating. 

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Tupiza, Two Pizza: 3rd – 5th March 2012

another post with limited pics..    :O(

We opted to remove ourselves from Uyuni at the earliest opportunity and this came in the form of the 06:30 public bus to Tupiza.  Fortunately for us, Elaine and Jen our two travelling chums who occupied the back seats of the 4×4 tour were also on this one!

Reputed to take “around eight hours” – you can work it out for yourselves when we were scheduled to arrive…

We opted for a slight detour on our path northwards to Tupiza, the place where Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid reputedly met their end. One of us, (it’s still being hotly contended who) made the mistake of reading the narrative about the place in the Lonely Planet book which talks about the town being “nice”, “relaxing”, “pretty” etc etc…

We thought we would go for a slightly nicer level of accommodation after all the moving about recently: our own room with its own bathroom.  We also thought we would be spending a good few days here relaxing in the pretty environment, soaking up some of the culture that is unique to this town and the south-eastern location of Bolivia.

The route the bus took was not the best in terms of road quality.  That being that there wasn’t any quality to it.  There wasn’t a road. We spent the first half of the journey being bounced and jiggled (and not in the nice way) across a rutted sand/dirt pathway through a kind of deserty-scrub type terrain.  How the bus managed to remain together is a matter of engineering miraculousness.  However, it evidently wasn’t infallible as during one of the “stops” to let passengers escape the four-wheeled hell, the driver came down the aisle to our location, reached into the storage compartment over our heads and proceeded to remove several huge pieces of broken glass that had at one time been a window in the bus! Not only were we shocked that this had been bouncing around our heads for the past couple of hours (completely unrestrained), he then leaned across the folks on the other side of the bus, slid their window back and slung each piece out of it! “That’s going to be task for someone to pick up” said Jen, full of concern for the environment and the poor old litter-picker.  “Hmmmm…” I said, “I’m not entirely convinced that anything is going to be picked up!”.  Sure enough, once the driver had finished he calmly disappeared down the front, left the window to be closed by the disinterested passengers and we went on our way…

I’ll bet you a luxury bus journey those pieces are still there…

We rattled and rolled our way to the half-way point which was some half-horse town we can’t even begin to remember the name of and we got out to stretch our legs, let our double vision return to normal and keep an eye on our bags.

Not soon enough we were on our way again only to return to our seats to find one of them had been taken.  Jen triumphantly produced our tickets with our seat numbers on only to be trumped by the fact that the woman now sitting in our seat, also had a ticket with the same number on – bugger!!  Not for the last time we were flummoxed by the language barrier, so  Jen took the remaining seat with our number on it, and I  wedged myself in next to rather large chap in front.

We soon discovered that a full bus in Bolivia means – by no means full when all the seats are taken.  Oh no…it’s not a full rustbucket until the aisle and the steps down to the door are occupied too. The bus stops at random places along the way and picks up……just about anyone and anything that wants a lift and is up for squidging in, with no regard who they are sitting on and getting in the way of…  already penned in on one side by Mr Portly and now completely trapped by Mrs Many Items of Belongings who plonked herself and her bags, food, blankets and other stuff into the aisle, wedged her elbow into my side and promptly fell fast asleep on my shoulder.

This combined with the fact that I was wearing three layers due to the temperature at the journey’s chilly beginning – two of which were now no longer required as we were now back down in desert territory.. meant that upon arrival, I disembarked the stinking rustbucket, chicken, bouncing, non-fun- bus in just the tiniest smidge of a bad mood.

But, we were both in one piece and the scenery along the way had been truly stunning.  And, we were in…Tupiza – place of relaxing, nothing much to do for the next few days – ahhhhh….!!!

QUITE LITERALLY!!!!  There is absolutely nadder to do here, other than explore the scenery around the somewhat dingy town and wait a very time for each meal to arrive. We had three days in the town and must have spent approximately one-third of that time waiting for our meals to be served.  Slow is not the word.

Having renamed the place Two-pizza in honour of the only dish available – that or frozen lasagna (we soon learnt our lesson and stuck to the speciality), we decided to go on a horse ride to see the stunning countryside.  We booked a 3 hour trip (with option to increase to 5 while out there) with a reputable company and were all set to go the next morning.  We resisted the kind offer to change our option to 5 hours (with opt to increase to 7) on the morning we arrived as we weren’t sure whether this would be Tom’s cup of tea.  Jen was quite keen, but I put my hoof down.

This turned out to be a good move, as my nag wasn’t the most obedient horse in the world and obviously liked to be at the front of the group, which it took the opportunity of doing most unexpectedly!  It would just suddenly turn out of line (like an overtaking manoeuvre) but then accelerate past the others (like a Ferrari). Walking to full gallop in 2 seconds!

Having not been on horse since the age of ten and having no clue on what to do, I wasn´t exactly keen on these outbursts. Nor was my bottom which got mighty bruised from all the upping and downing it got throughout the outing. Jen tried to explain to our ¨guide¨, that my stirrups were too short, which meant I couldn’t stand up to avoid the battering, but this was only met with a shrug of the shoulders and him rushing off, encouraging my horse to go even faster. Oh the pain!!!

Jen and the guide however thoroughly enjoyed their three hours  and looked genuinely surprised when I uttered a string of expletives when asked if I would like to increase the journey to 5 hours!  Another 2 hours of torture?  No.  Thank.  You.  Bring back the rust-bucket and get me out of here!

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