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Lima to Rio Trip 2005 - Part 1 Lima to Buenos Aires

 

Wednesday 28th September


I rose wearily from my slumber at 3.30am. Did some final packing and wolfed down a bowl of muesli. I shoved the last of my things in and locked up. I headed up the deserted Fulham Palace Road and got a Metro paper fresh off the van. After a half hour wait, I hopped on the night bus to Heathrow Airport. Most of the passengers were asleep or on the verge of sleep, myself included. A Russian with powerful vodka breath sat behind me as I caught some Zzzzzzs.


Checked in after getting a window seat, but not for my connection from Madrid to Lima. Wandered round departures and got on the Iberia flight to Madrid. It was a fairly full flight. I looked down over Windsor, Reading and the Isle of Wight as flew south over the Bay of Biscay to Spain. All the fields were a brown/yellow tinge below. We disembarked and got a bus to the terminal. I wandered up and down the Departures shops, and settled on a baguette with fatty ham and cheese. I sat watching the airport traffic whizz about from the departure lounge, like a pre-invasion scene from Star Wars.I shuffled on the Airbus A340 to Lima, and had a fire exit seat next to a Peruvian woman who slept unhindered with the shutter down most of the flight. I watched ‘The Interpreter’ on the in-flight movie.


The time dragged slowly, I hate long haul flights as I never really get comfortable. As the Peruvian woman went to the loo, I looked out the window to get a vista of the Amazon rainforest. Endless tightly packed trees with only the odd river to break up the foliage. The last half hour saw us fly over the Andes, not as impressive as I imagined, but still majestic, with peaks visible through the clouds. A steep drop lead down to the foothills/mountains. Lots of barren rock hills spreading out divided by valleys. Eventually towns sprang up and what must have been Lima. We circled over the Pacific Ocean on Lima’s coast, then dropped over cultivated fields between chemical plants before landing. Most of the passengers burst into spontaneous applause.

 

On disembarking, I chose the wrong queue to stand in as Murphy’s Law dictates. I chatted to two Irish blokes in their late 20’s in front of me and agreed to share a taxi into town. The passport chap tried to tell me about a drink he recommended, before I left to baggage reclaim where the conveyor belt had broken down. Luckily my rucksack was just behind the flaps, next to appear on the belt. After my luggage was checked by an official to ensure it was mine, I went to an ATM and drew out s150 (s=soles) about £30 and jumped into the cab.


The roads were chock a block, and horns sounded with little reason or restriction. After half an hour/45mins we arrived at the Irish guys Hotel. We sorted out their share of the $12 bill, and I paid the remainder. However as the Irish guys left, the taxi driver charged me $10 to go 5 minutes to the Hotel Espana where I was to stay. I reluctantly agreed as my backpack was in the boot. We got to the hotel and I handed over s35.


I checked into the spacious Sparten hotel. The reception had a display with some scarily realistic skulls at the bottom. The guide who took me to my room told me they were guests who hadn’t paid. The room had a high ceiling, 6 beds and no lock on the door! There were 2 Israeli looking blokes in the corner. I dumped my stuff and went to the internet room to send an arrival email to the parents and friends.


Went down the street to find the Machu Picchu restaurant where I was to meet the two Irish guys from earlier. While I was looking for the place, I ran into them. The restaurant appeared closed down. We went to the De Cesar restaurant on the corner. The menu was all in Spanish, so we took a bit of a lucky dip. The Irish guys were accountants from the West of Ireland. They ended up with a frisbee like breaded fish and chicken respectively. I got steak and chips! We had a couple of Cristal beers and called it a night. I struggled to sleep due to traffic noise and the bloke in the corner snoring. So out came the ear plugs.


Thursday 29th September


After an omelette breakfast on the hotel roof, I hit the city. I got lost a bit, but on passing many riot police with shields, realised I was near the Plaza Bolivar and what I believe was the parliament.

GESSAP1-01

I crossed over and went to the Spanish Inquisition & constitution museum. All the exhibits were in Spanish, but I picked out various bits. The Spanish Inquisition bit was predictably grim, with drawings/paintings of vile show trials and torturing natives to become Catholics. It seemed odd to me that after independence they didn’t abandoned the religion.

I left there and wandered through the Central Market. It had lots of meats hung up, with rabbits and guinea pigs alive for the time being in cages. I walked around a bit, drew out some more cash.

GESSAP1-02

I went across the Plaza Mayor (the main square in Lima) with the Cathedral and President’s Palace. I walked along to the Plaza San Martin, scene of many demonstrations and riots.

Bored, I decided to walk to Miraflores. Probably foolhardy in retrospect, but I saw more of the city. This included some police riot vans equipped with water cannons keeping some rioters or protestors in check.

GESSAP1-05

I passed some art museums including the very ornate Museo de Arte Italiano and the main national stadium, then followed the Paseo de la Republica to Miraflores. I got a bit lost at one point, and found myself at a supermarket where I picked up some bits and bobs at a supermarket en route. This is the main highway bi-secting the city.

GESSAP1-06

Miraflores wasn’t what I expected as I’d imagined more glam as the wealthier area of the city. I walked towards the beach, and passed the now closed photography museum. Lots of private houses in the area had high gates, spikes and electric fences crackling. I found the beach at the bottom of a 30-40m cliff, which I descended by a zigzag set of stairs. The cliff was nothing but large pebbles and sand/grit, very precarious and easy for nature to erode. I crossed the busy road at the bottom and sat on the mostly deserted large pebbled beach, watching the waves crash in.

On reaching the top of the cliff again, I strolled up Avenida Larco towards Parque Kennedy. Av Larco is full of 5* hotels and Lima’s best shops. Numerous stores had their own armed guards, with bullets stuck on the outside of the holster, just to show they were for real. I got a taxi to the Historico Centro for s10. Compared to s35 for a similar distance to the airport, d’oh! Some sports cars were now parked in the Plaza Mayor.

I got back to the hotel and chatted a bit with Catherine about Colombia, and how amazing the people were. Then I got talking to Katrina, an American from Minnesota. She said that films in Peru were shown in English with Spanish subtitles. I decided to go and see Land of the Dead. I had a snooze and then a chicken in breadcrumb frizbee at De Cesar. All filled up and rested, I went to see Land of the Dead, which was good, but didn’t live up quite enough to the past films by Romero.

 

On the way back to the hotel a Peruvian woman spoke to me in English, and asked me if I knew Coldplay and various other English bands. She had a friend with her and they kept slapping their hands together when they’d had a good joke/result. Merrisa, the English speaker, said she knew of a bar and we walked off to find it. It had some dubious types outside and a s6 cover. So we left to go to a free bar nearby. I was a little wary of them and their motives, keeping my bag close to my side. We went to another upstairs bar which was cool (@ 1050 Belen). I got them a coke each and myself a beer, which turned out to be a litre bottle.


The girls sat on a stage, talking to a Peruvian with some sort of ID or pass around his neck. He introduced himself as Roberto and stole most of the girls attention. I saw the Welsh girl from the next bed to mind at the bar, and she was with Catherine and friends at the back.


Friday September 30th


Woke up around 9, and noticed Katrina sharing her single bed with another woman! Catherine and the Welsh girl were panicking as they packed, their flight home was imminent. I went to the De Cesar and had an Omelette with tea. I then nipped off for a quick look around the back of the President’s Palace. I came back and uploaded some pictures before packing my stuff and  jumping in a taxi. We rode through some poorer housing and finally along a polluted stream by the side of the airport.


I checked in and got a window seat. The plane was a small one, a 737? It was only a quarter full, and I swapped my seat over a wing to one without. The views were amazing, the rocky slopes with ravines and valleys leading to the Andes for real. The flight was over in no time, as the pilot circled the city and dropped to land.

 

As I walked off the plane into Cusco Airport, I felt the altitude immediately, feeling giddy. I grabbed my bag from the conveyor belt, and went looking to find a taxi driver to rip me off. I found one, who led me to his car away from the main taxi drivers and had no taxi decal on the car. He tried to lure me to another hotel and to use his tour firm, but I resisted. He dropped me off at Huanchau Train station, where I took a number and waited 20mins. I booked the trains I wanted towards Machu Picchu, and handed over $66!

Outside I grabbed a cab to the Loki hostel on Cuenta Santa Ana, a steep street looking down on the city. I checked in with the female Aussie receptionist, and went into the courtyard with my slightly dingy dorm. The bed was comfortable though. Outside the hostel were a few steep hairpins and then an arch that lead down a steep cobbled street into the city.

I wandered around the Plaza des Armas, looking to call Machu Picchu Pueblo. None of the receptionists spoke English, but I think I booked a place, using my weak Spanish. I sat in a restaurant and had a cup of Mate de Coco (Tea made with Coco leaves) to help the altitude adjustment. I then walked around the square to another restaurant, and had a trout meal, where the trout was in a light batter with vedge. I grabbed a taxi up to the hostel and went to bed. Some bass sounds somewhere kept me awake and I shoved in some ear plugs.

Saturday 1st October


Woke up with a headache and having to breach deeply every now and again. Took a Neurofen and packed up my stuff and got a taxi to the run down bus station. I worked out I needed a bus to Urubamba, and then another to Ollantaytambo. The train takes forever to get to Machu Picchu, but you have to get it at Ollantaytambo, as there are no roads to Machu Picchu Pueblo, the town at the base of the hill where Machu Picchu is.


I got on the modern minibus and sat with my backpack on my knees, it didn’t take long for the pain to set in. A smelly old Peruvian man in a traditional hat sat next to me until about halfway. I watched loads of houses built or being built from mud bricks, with others making the mud bricks by the side of the road.

 

At Urumbamba, I walked through the terminal and out the other side to a lesser vehicle, a collectivo or mini-van with seats. My bag went on the roof, and I sat between two people at the back. After five or so minutes, the driver filled the vehicle and we were off. The train tracks were visible now and again as we whizzed along the Urubamba valley. Within half an hour we were climbing a cobbled road to a square in Ollantaytambo.

I alighted and walked in the direction of the Inca fort, which glared down over the small town.

I paid a hefty s70 for a Cusco ticket that gave me entry to a number of sights. I climbed the steep terraces complete with full backpack and two day bags in a fairly fierce sun. Sun tan lotion would have been a good idea here, as my badly burnt neck later testified too. The fort wasn’t much to shout about other being a considerable achievement to build. They also had lots of drainage ditches, maximising the use of water.

I walked back to the square where I arrived, thinking this is where the train was, how wrong I was. Tired and hot, I walked halfway back to the fort, and then down a half kilometre or so road to the actual station. I off-loaded my bags on the platform, and got chatting to Bridgette and Frank, a Canadian couple. They’d forked over C$300 on lodging in Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo). A train came from Aguas, off loaded its passengers, and reversed back to us.

 

As the train pulled away, the two staff pushed an airline style trolley up the carriage. I got a small chocolate eclair, a bap roll and a cup of orange juice. The train chugged up the valley lined with planted fields full of vegetation. Along side us ran the Urubamba river gaining speed all the way. Gradually the mountains closed in and nature took over, the wild Urubamaba river bouncing and crashing over rocks until it reached a HEP station which tamed it. We waited at one point, as a long train came past filled with tourists.

 

On arriving at Agua Calientes, the haphazard town stretched up a tributery in a small valley. Lots of the houses looked unfinished.

 

On leaving the station, there was a market full of tourist goods of every description to wade through. I walked up the steep path, beside the restaurants and grocery shops, finally finding the Neusta Wassi Hotel. Amazingly they had my name noted down. I had a room with bathroom and two beds for s20. I walked off into town to look into bus tickets and got a ticket for Machu Picchu itself.

 

There was some sort of celebration going on in the town square, with a small stage and everything. I sent an email, and went to a restaurant. The restaurant was blasting out Tom Petty and I ate Alpaca and veg, plus a soup.

 

Sunday 2nd October


Although I set the alarm, I was woken by numerous other people shunting around, as well as the pain of rain on a metal roof. I got up at 5.30am, and walked down the quiet streets to the bus stop. I handed over the hefty $12 for a return trip up the hill, and jumped on the first bus. It left, as usual, when it was full, just before 6am. The bus cruised past the town and into fairly dense forest. On crossing a small river, we began to zig-zag up the hill. The rain was pouring down, and water shot out of pre-prepared channels with great force. As we got higher, the clouds were low and random in spacing and altitude.


We arrived at the summit next to a hotel for the wealthy, and I alighted in the rain. I put my new gore-tex jacket to the test as I walked past a group of people cowering under tarpaulin to the entrance. On checking my passport against the ticket, I was let in.

 

I climbed the zig-zag stairs just after the entrance, to get to the small hut that looks over Machu Picchu. There was an Inca Trail group already there, and one or two people, but mostly it was empty with clouds flowing across the ruins and the rain pouring down. The actual ruins were impressive in their complete state, and it looked like a small hamlet with a long green strip in the middle. I managed to get a clear-ish picture without anyone in it, and one of the Inca Trail blokes took a picture of me.

I climbed up to the next level for a better view. The clouds were still wisping over, but I managed to get another photo before wandering down to the ruins. I went around the east side and got a bit stuck on the terraces of agriculture (but now grass) as they ended in a steep drop.


I returned to the top of the hill, and went to the gate for Huayna Picchu. It was 7.30am, but the gate was closed. Presumably too dangerous, although the rain had stopped now. I wandered about, and the sun came out. So I hot footed it back to the caretaker of the funerary rock to get the ‘classic’ picture of the ruins in the sun. There were still a few clouds about though, sheesh, such a perfectionist.


I walked off following the signs to the inca bridge. The path was an Inca trail in itself. It was thin, with the odd low protective wall and low vegetation forming a half canopy. I had to bend a lot to avoid the overhead canopy dripping with rain droplets. The Inca bridge wasn’t as spectacular as I imagined, but was impressive as a feat of engineering. It was a couple of planks across a wall of stones on a cliff face. On the way back I passed Bridget & Frank for a brief chat as they were with their guide. The sun was out in full now and the clouds gone. I got Frank to take a picture of me. I jumped down to a lower level, and a was told off by a guard. Luckily Frank got the picture, which was great. I took a few more pictures before noticing people climbing Huayna Picchu (the highest point in this picture).

I nipped through the ruins and signed in at the gate, I was #57. I then went off down the trail and succeeded in climbing the smaller hill. I back-tracked and caught up with two mid-20s Americans called Chris and erm, Monk! Chris played in a band, Balista Rocks, and organised music events. We climbed Huayna Picchu laughing, joking and collapsing out of breath! Monk was scared of heights, and had to be coaxed a bit. At the top were a few Inca buildings forming terraces. We climbed to the rocks at the very top for staggering views of the ruins and surrounding hills and valleys.

On descending we decided to go to the Grand Cavern. Apart from a few steep bits the descent was okay. We found the Moon Temple which was a sculpted cave. Then a bit further we found the Grand Cavern which was crap. We thought we could walk round to the ruins, but realised we had descended below the village. We now had to go back up the trail, a 45min climb. We were all in pain and had to stop for regular breaks to get our breath. Finally we got to the trail, and staggered back to the ruins. Signing out at the trail gate as we did. I bought a bottle of water at five times the normal price, drinking most of it in one go, I was so dehydrated.


After recuperating we had a look at the Intihualana, and old sun worship dial that points perfectly North/South etc. We took a picture, and then left the ruins. It was pretty staggering how they cut and placed all the rocks, most perfectly slotting into gaps.


The others didn’t have enough cash and walked down, I used my return ticket and got the bus. Back at the hotel I crashed out for half an hour, exhausted. I then got my stuff together, and checked out. Waiting at the train station, I saw Chris & Monk, as well as Bridget & Frank go to catch the slightly earlier train. I eventually got on the 16.20 train that only goes to Ollantaytambo. The carriage was full of Inca trailers, most of whom dropped off to sleep within an hour.


At Ollantaytambo I searched for a bus to Cusco, but there wasn’t any. A taxi driver tried to charge me s50, but I declined. A kid got me on a tour bus to Cusco for s10. The bus was full of Inca trailers returning and I chatted to a few of them. The bus pulled off with me on board, I dropped back in the seat relieved. Brilliantly, halfway we got a puncture that the driver fixed at the roadside.


The car dropped us on a street near the Plaza des Armes, and I got a taxi to the Loki Hostel. I wound up in the same room as before on a single bed. I went to an Italian Restaurant in town and had an omelette, pizza and coca tea. I wandered around the Plaza afterwards, before retiring.

 

Monday 3rd October


Lazed in a bit, and listened to two English blokes going on about their exploits including cocaine use and quasi racist remarks. I was informed that I had to move rooms to an upstairs dorm, and moved my stuff. I saw Chris from the previous day and we chatted a bit. After an omelette, I went to get a taxi to Sacsayhuaman. It was on a hill overlooking Cusco. There was an impressive zigzag wall made of huge blocks, with little more than an earth mound on top with a few stones here and there.

 

I came across a small group of buildings, but they were off limits due to building work. Crossing to the other side, a large mound with some sort of circular arena at the top. There were a few other Inca relics and stones with carved out seats. Also two local couples making out on some relics. I saw some lightening and a storm approaching, so opted to leave.


I walked down the road I’d come up in a taxi, and then some steps to a steep road. I followed the road down to the Plaza des Armas and then down Avenue Sol to the post office. I sent some postcards to friends and family. On the way back-up I popped into an art museum that had a couple of gratuitous topless women pieces. And in another room lots of dolls in traditional attire in set scenes. I left and went via the Plaza des Armas and Plaza Regocijo, then walked for the first time back up to the hostel. Although I had acclimatised, it was still a struggle. I passed Monk on his way to the bus station, and said farewell.

 

After collapsing on the bunk for a bit, I went on the Internet. And after that I wandered down to the Plaza des Armas where some sort of parade was in progress. Then up the hill to San Blas. The original restaurant I was going to looked empty, so I went to the Cafe Andino, which was nearby. It was a rather trendy cafe. I had a traditional meat and veg soup, followed by some sort of chicken dish. I was full! I wandered back through the Plaza des Armas and up the hill to the hostel and bed.




Tuesday 4th October


Got up around 7am. Most of the others had already left. I had an intense itching, and decided to shave for the first time since arrival in Lima. On doing so I revealed several insect bites and more on my arms. They were the same as on numerous calves of the Inca Trail hikers. I’ve no idea when I was bitten or by what. They certainly weren’t insect bites, and itched like crazy.


I packed up and left, getting a taxi down to the Terminal Terreste for Puno. At the bus station I was swapped over for Cial Bus Lines. After a wait I boarded the bus, which was departing 20mins late. I had two seats to myself so couldn’t really complain.


After Cusco, the bus mainly followed a wide flat valley, where the train tracks often came into view. There were hills on each side of the valley. Lots of shepherds, or mainly shepherdesses, with their flocks of sheep, a few cows and maybe the odd donkey. Small villages passed were nearly all built from mudbrick. I lay my head against the window absorbing all this Andean life, listening to episodes of Yes Prime Minister and The Goon Show on my MP3 player.




As we came close to Puno, I got my first glimpse of Lago (Lake) Titicaca. The deep blue waters stretching to hills on the horizon. Puno was a dirty, unkept town, with dusty streets and unfinished buildings. I was planning to stay the night here, but it was awful, so decided to head further around the lake. As we got near the bus station I noticed large clusters of cyclo taxi’s, sigh. I alighted at the bus station, and batted away a few touts on the way to the tourist information booth. There they said I’d make it to the border if I got a collectivo from the collectivo depot, a kilometre down the road. I hopped in a taxi, and got off outside the collectivo in a bay marked for the border town of Yunguyo. I then got the bus for the 2 hour journey. I chatted to Will, a large chap who was Peruvian and in the Navy. He had been everywhere, including London and the Baltic. After 20 mins or so, the bus was full and we left.



The bus followed the shores of Lago Titicaca nearly all the way to Yunguyo, dropping off passengers here and there. We pulled into Hunguyo after about 2 hours in the speedy, if cramped collectivo. A Bolivian woman became my guide, and we shared a cyclo taxi, until he ran out of puff, and the last 1km of the 2kms to the border we did in a slow moto-taxi. At the border  I visited immigration, which was quick, and we walked through an arch into Bolivia.


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I visited immigration and filled out their form. The border closes at 7.30pm Bolivia time, so I wasn’t far off closing time. I then went next door to change my Peruvian Soles into Bolivanos. The exchange rate was pretty good. The Bolivian woman checked the notes were okay, and changed some herself. We got into a waiting taxi. She explained it was B$4 each and was a collectivo taxi. I offered to pay the other B$4 for her, and we left. She asked whether I was Catholic, and I said No. I didn’t say I was atheist. We drove quickly the 8kms to Copacabana, where she got out. The opportunist driver charged me B$5 to go to the Hotel Culpa, above the town.


The hotel had a spare room  at B$10 a night. I accepted it and sat in the lounge, I got talking to a woman from Leeds, then an Irish couple. They and an Englishman told me of their exploits in Rio, and how dangerous it was. I joined the Irish couple for dinner. We all agreed the food wasn’t good. My chips were barely cooked. I retired for the evening, it had been a long day from Cusco.


Tuesday 5th October


I got up early and set off up the Cerro Calvario, where numerous pilgrims climb to a row of shrines at the top. At 3966m, it tested my altitude adjustment somewhat. The views from the top were astounding, looking down on picturesque Copacabana and Lago Titicaca.

 


 



After a breather, I stumbled down the steep path, realising that I hadn’t moved my watch on an hour, and would miss the departures to the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun). I checked out and wandered down to the beach. One of the small boat outfits showed a 9am departure, but no one around. A group of Bolivians came over and a boat owner appeared. Some negotiations took place and I offered to cover any remainder. I paid the old guy $25, and an English speaking Bolivian from Santa Cruz game me B$120 ($15). We got on the boat and it slowly chugged off. I sat on the roof and chatted briefly with the guy from Santa Cruz, who’d been to America.  He turned to talk mainly to his wife after. I zipped up my coat as it was cold on the lake.


The blue water stretched out in front of us, as the boat slowly rocked along the surface. After an hour and a half, we came around the bottom end of the Isla del Sol, and rounded into a small harbour at Yumani. I was told I’d be picked up in an hour and a quarter at the Pilko Kaima Ruins. I climbed the Inca staircase to the top, and was out of breath. There were a few hostels and food/drink outlets etc. I asked for directions of the Pilko Kaima Ruins, and stumbled off down a track with no one else around. I couldn’t see any ruins on either side of a ridge, and climbed to the top of the hill at 4000m. The views were great from up there.

 

I tried to work my way down, and passed a farmer who pointed at what looked like a big house. This was the Inca ruins I’d passed on the boat earlier. I got down to the ruins. I couldn’t be bothered to go in, so worked my way round to the jetty, chased by a dog! As soon as I’d sat down, the boat came into view and picked me up for the long bum numbing journey back.


Back at Copacabana, I hopped off the boat, and walked through the town to take a pic of the cathedral. It was then back to the hotel to get my bags, and a quick swat of the Lonely Planet Bolivia. I then rushed down to the main square for a bus, which I only just caught.


There were odd glimpses of Titicata from the road, mud brick buildings formed the odd settlement with obligatory football fields. After roughly an hour, we reached San Pedro de Tiquina. We got off at the main square and a town parade was in progress. A band played as they marched around the square, women followed in full dress. Men in one attire, and women in another dancing around together. I got a ticket and hopped on a boat across the mile wide straight to San Pablo de Tiquina.

 



When I got off the boat, I watched the bus come bobbing across on a flat wooden ferry, looking rather precarious. I watched among the sleeping dogs and turds as the ferry came over and unloaded the bus.

 


Everyone got back on the bus and we pushed on to La Paz, with little change in scenery. The odd mountain/volcano popping up on the far horizon, otherwise mostly flat wild grassland.



A couple of hours later the poorer housing seemed not to end and things became more city-like, including a coca-cola factory. This was El Alto, once a slum on a hill overlooking La Paz, now  a city in it’s own right (but still mostly a slum). There was a protest and all the traffic had to divert around the side streets. The protest took the form of a line of people stood around gas cannisters. I found out later that the protest was about gas prices.

 


The bus dropped people here and there, and after a turn of the corner we were looking out over the city of La Paz which sits in a cauldron. We descend down various streets into La Paz, and ended up in the cemetery district. I got off and looked around for a taxi, but there weren’t any. A tourist police officer helped me find a taxi, and I went to my first choice of hostel, only to find it was closed. I ended up at the Hotel Alem, on Sagarnaga, a tourist street in La Paz.

The friendly receptionist showed me to the twin bedroom at B$70 with en-suite. I collapsed on the comfy bed. A bit later I went downstairs, and ventured around. I found an internet place and sent an email, tried to upload a few photos. It was then off to a restaurant which had some friendly staff and owner (he seemed to run the place), Manolo. I had a mushroom soup and neopolitana meat dish. The later being the most expensive on the menu, at B$31 or £2! The place emptied by half when the football game ended on the TV set above my head. I finished up and after a friendly goodbye from the staff, went back to my hotel and bed.

Thursday 6th October

 

Got up and showered, then took a taxi to the train booking office. After laughing off the first driver who wanted B$20, I got one for half the price. The train booking office was in the side of a house like building in a wealthy area of the city. I had to nip off to the bank, before paying for the ticket (B$81) on my return. My ticket was a travel executive ticket (aka first class)  on the Express del Sur service from Oruro to Uyuni.

I then got another taxi to the bottom end of the ‘El Prado,’ and hopped out from the friendly taxi driver’s car, and went to the Tourist Info Office where I bought a pricey street map (B$18) that seemed to have missed off some of the places. I strolled up El Prado, and drifted into ‘Alexander’s Cafe’ where I spotted a huge cheesecake slice for B$16. I ordered a slice and had a hot chocolate as well. The upmarket cafe had some attractive women in, as well as wealthy looking business types.


I continued up El Prado, past another demonstration where loud firecracker type fireworks were being let off.

I went up a side street, and observed the infamous San Pedro Prison. Here prisoners have to buy accommodation, or live in squalor. Crossing the Prado and walking up Socabayo, I came into Plaza Murillo. This is where the legislative palace is, the Presidential Palace and the cities main cathedral. There was a subtle riot police presence around the square and the area in general. I walked up to Sucre Street, and down Calle Jaen, home to old mansions, now museums. The musical Instrument museum was sadly closed for awhile.

A few streets down were a collection of plazas, Plaza Perez Velasco and the larger Plaza San Francisco with a large church on it. A man was preaching to a two or three deep ring of people just below the upper level of Plaza San Francisco. I also wandered around the Mercado Lanza (Market), which seemed to be mainly everyday goods and food.


I returned to Calle Jaen and the musical instrument museum which had now opened. Although it had lots of displays of musical instruments, not enough of them were available for playing in my view! I then went into the Museo Nacional de Arte, which apart from one picture was disappointing. It had the ground and 2nd floor open only, and two small rooms in each. I came back to Saganaga via the Colque tours office. I went around the ‘Witches Market,’ which was basically a tourist market with the rather repugnant llama foetuses on display. I bought a few trinkets, a blanket and two scarves as presents.



 

I continued up Sagarnaga, along Hampu and then up to the huge Mercado Negro, which had a steepish clothes section, food stuffs section etc. I came back to the hotel for a lie down. Hard work travelling and walking large distances all the time.

 

In the evening I went out to Manolo’s again, and had a chicken meal followed by a banana split. I went looking for a gringo bar, but didn’t find any other than a rather cliquey one. Came back to hotel and bed.


Friday 7th October


Got up early, and went to Alexander’s Cafe, for another cheesecake and hot chocolate, plus an omelette and take away brownie! Drew out some cash, and went back to the hotel, packed and checked out. I got a taxi up to the terminal and got a 11.30 bus to Oruro. A bit tight for a 15.30 train, but fingers were crossed.

 

We climbed up out of the city, and headed past the poorer housing of El Alto, looking down on La Paz.

 

 

 

As we joined the motorway (ie big Bolivian Road) out of La Paz, a number of Bolivians had gathered with gas bottles for another blockade. Thankfully it was to start after we’d passed. The bus ride was similar to most on the altiplano, desolate landscape and mud brick homes in small towns and hamlets.

 

Pulling into Oruro was a roundabout with an interesting piece of metalwork art on top. The bus pulled into a terminal of sorts, and I hopped into a taxi with 40 minutes until the train was due to leave.


At the station, I got out of the taxi and went back up the road a hundred metres to a cluster of street stalls, and bought a small ukulele type instrument, a Charango (as I found out later) for B$40 (about $25). It came with a cool ‘Inca’ style bag. Back at the train station I called up the HI at Uyuni, and in limited Spanish got a bed for the night. I put my bag in the luggage section of the train (at the back), and then walked to the front of the train for the executive section. The train left 5 mins early by my watch at 3.30pm. I had booked a window seat, but a Spaniard chap was sat in it, so I had to sit beside him. The seats were comfy but nothing special.

A quarter of an hour after we left Oruro, we passed by a wide lake, Lago Uru Uru. There were lots of birds, and the light played on it to pleasing effect.

 

Later we watched the sun set over the hills, and darkness fell as ‘Dodgeball’ played on the TV, dubbed into Spanish. I read ‘Word’ magazine and then looked at future destinations. While passing through a village, people waved at us on a passing truck. On the other side, kids threw stones!

The train pulled into Uyuni roughly on time, and as I walked up the platform I fought off a few touts. Most of the train had to watch as the luggage compartment was unloaded into a separate room. Then the barrier was removed, and we had to get our bags and show the baggage claim ticket. I left the station and walked around to the HI (Hostel International). Inside the door a man had a cosy gas heater going. I checked in, and was shown to my twin bed room. I dumped my stuff and being wrapped up warm against the cold outside, wandered around Uyuni. I went past a  large gym hall where a concert was in place, then past numerous tour firms and into an internet place. I was joined briefly by the Spanish seat thief bloke from the train.

Saturday 8th October


I rose at 7am, and went off around town to find everything shut. I went back to bed for an hour. After getting up again, I went to Tunupa Tours, where I paid $65 for a 3 day tour ending in San Pedro de Atacama. I was told to come back at 10.30am. I walked off to minuteman pizza, where I met a friendly American bloke from Boston. He’d married a Bolivian and lived out here to avoid George Bush Jr and be with his wife. I had an Omelette and take away sandwich.

I went back to the HI, picking up supplies as I went. I packed the bags and checked out, handing over B$30. I sat outside Tunupa tours on a bench in the square, soaking up the warm sun. The woman I’d paid went off with a clipboard, and was talking with other agencies. About 10.45am, she returned and pointed at a 4x4 and said to get on. A couple I’d seen earlier were also on board, Joanne & Andrew. They were married and had quit their jobs in marketing as well as their home. Jo had been Andrew’s boss and was three years older at 31. There was also a Japanese guy whose name sounded like Single. He looked early 20’s, with his hair in a sort of beehive mohican. The driver was short, young (24) and spoke no English. His name was Valerio. We put our bags on the roof, and were driven a couple of hundred yards down the road, where an Australian couple in their mid to late 50’s got on. The Aussie bloke, Marcus, smoked and reeked of fags. His wife, Jenny, sat on the other side.


We went off to the outskirts of town and a train graveyard with slowly rusting trains in roughly two rows. After a few photos, it was back in the white Toyota 4x4, and into Uyuni again. The driver seemed to drive round and round looking for something. It turned out he was looking for a cook. Eventually he found one, a mid 20’s woman (and mother) called Candida.

We whizzed off to the outskirts of town and after a bit came to a smaller town which was built of salt. A number of stalls were set up. On the far side, piles of salt being refined. It was a crap, and we got back in the 4x4. Next stop on the fringe of the Solar de Uyuni (Salt desert), was the Hotel de Sal. A hotel where everything was made of salt, walls, seats and tables etc. We had to buy something to take a photo.

Back in the 4x4, we headed onto the Salar de Uyuni, and I had to put my shades on, as the white salt was blinding. There were quite a few islands here and there on the horizon, and pointed mountains in the distance. After a bit we came to Isla Pescado.

The island in the flat white salt desert, was covered in tall thin cactuses. Some of the cactuses were over 10m tall. We had to buy a ticket for B$10, and then could use the toilets and walk to the top of the island. I climbed to the top for great views over the salt desert. I then descended and went past an arch of coral, which was somewhat out of place.

 

Back at the 4x4, Candida had whipped up a meal, and we sat around a concrete table with green table cloth. The dinner was llama steaks with couscous, cucumber and tomato. It was then washed down with Coca Cola, bleurrghh! The meal was great though. I tried to take some photos using distance, to show me on Single’s hand. Marcus took the photos, which didn't really work.

 

 

We drove for miles and miles across the salt flats, West towards Chile. After a while a raised track divided the salt flats, and the other side seemed a bit dirtier in colour. We roared off again, Jenny was concerned Valerio was falling asleep, but he wasn’t. It’s not unknown for drivers to fall asleep on this drive. The salt desert disappeared completely as we seemed to follow various seemingly random paths through desert-ish scenery, with little other than scrub grasses.

 

Towards late afternoon, we arrived at an adobe pueblo called San Juan. We were assigned rooms and I shared with Single. The rooms were ok, but the toilets and the wash room weren’t. I wandered off around the pueblo and back. We had dinner of chicken, chips, fried banana and the customary cucumber and tomato. I skipped the chicken. We chatted a fair bit, and went to bed. The lights went off at 9, before I’d done my teeth, so I had to borrow Single’s torch. The room was very warm and I slept pretty soundly.


Sunday 9th October


We were up around 7.30ish for breakfast, almost stale rolls and tea. Packed and ready, the bags were put on the roof and we all climbed in. Jo, Andrew & Candida sat in the back seat. The middle row folded forward to get them in, then set upright to fit Jenny & Marcus plus me in. And Single rode shotgun at the front.

As we set off, there seemed to be a bit of racing between drivers, as the vehicles rounded the hamlet, and set off along a barren trail. Valerio kept checking down from time to time by his window, I assume checking on the rear wheel. The fairly bland altiplano gave way to a steep and rocky ridge we crossed, the Toyota bouncing everyone around.

 

Shortly after the ridge, we stopped at a fairly barren spot with small valleys and brown rock. A couple of boulders were covered in some sort of green plant, that made them stand out in the rocky, barren terrain. Valerio stopped fixing or maintaining the 4x4, and we were off again. In the distance a volcano with a puff of smoke on the side. Bolivia’s only active volcano, Volcan Ollague, shared with Chile on the border.

 

We came to a lagoon, Laguna Canapa, which had a few flamingoes in it, but we carried on another quarter of an hour to Laguna Hedionoa (aka the White Lagoon). There were a lot more flamingoes here, and we parked up for lunch. It was fairly windy and cold up here. We had another great meal, consisting of some kinda meatball/burger made of Llama we guessed. This was along with chips and the standard of cucumber and tomato. Very good food considering the location and circumstances.

 

After Laguna Hedionda, we began to climb for ages. The odd bit of scrub vegetation died off, and the landscape was filled with small stones on reddish land. The odd boulder here and there. We were in Volcano country well and truly now. We stopped at an odd area of rabbit like creatures with long tails. They’d turned out to see what the tourist groups were going to feed them.


 

Continuing on up the small stones and reddish land, we came to an open area with a few outcrops. One of these, a tall singular weathered rock is known as ‘Stone Tree.’ After a few pictures, it was back in the 4x4.

 

We climbed higher and higher until we came to the coloured lake (Laguna Colorado). It was a large lake and had rusty brown/red areas and white areas. At the coloured lake we had to pay B$30 for entrance to the National Park.

 

After, we skipped the first lodging option, in favour of the second. The second was half an hour from the first, and seemed little different. It was very basic, with the option of a room with stone beds or bowed shaped metal mattresses. We chose the stone beds. We all unwrapped our sleeping bags and tucked into the blankets. I went for a walk over to a ridge, passing a stream and some Llamas on the way. There was little to see so I came back. Walking up the stream I found a rake. I took it up to the top of the bank and put rocks around it, creating a sundial with stones making 4 equal points. I definitely wasn’t bored.

 

When I got back, pretty frozen. I had some hot chocolate and a chat with those assembled. I rushed up the nearby bank of stone and dark earth to get a picture of sunset. After I came down and chatted more with those at the table. Our last dinner was served by Candida. It was started with a vegetable soup.

 

After we agreed with Valerio to leave at 5am the next morning, and I did my ablutions. I went outside where the wind chill had dropped off, and admired the stars in the perfect clear night sky. I went to bed, with everyone worried about how cold it would get at night, with guidebooks foretelling -20c.


Monday 10th October


Got up at 4.30am, and we were in the 4x4 at 5am, heading off along various trails in the dark. We could see other 4x4s lights in the distance, as well as behind us in the dark. Dawn slowly rose in the distance. We climbed even higher and before us a mist or patchy fog lay in front of us. We finally reached the geyser field as first light had broken. We parked up before it at a geyser by itself. The geyser was blowing steam into the air in a single forceful jet. The noise was fairly deafening.


We drove on a few metres to park up so we could visit the geyser field. Jo & Andrew stayed in the 4x4. It was cold out, but not hypothermia cold. The air stank of sulphur, as steam blew up from the ground all over the place. Some of the shallow pits bubbled water, some boiling mud, and the others steam. Some of the pits were bigger and a metre or so deep. Some splattered water everywhere and others gushed up steam. It was very interesting and somewhat fascinating to watch. The others were all in the 4x4, and had driven up to where I was, honking for me to join them. I took one more mini-video on my camera, and joined them.

 

We drove off in the volcanic area, volcanoes formed a sort of large ring around us. We were probably in the caldera, the epicentre of a supervolcano. We came across a lagoon (Laguna Polques) looking gorgeous in the morning light of dawn. Lots of little streams of 30c water merged with the twinkling morning rays from the sun. There were lots of small pools among the hot springs, but none I could see that were suitable for a bath.


Single appeared to have found one near where the road began to angle to a parking spot for our 4x4. He was stripping off to his shorts. Somehow the scene seemed more reminiscent of his homeland in Japan. I went over to where he was, and stripped to the swim shorts I already had on. I got in, and it was (cliche alert) like a bath, it was a bit stinging around the ankles. Eventually I sat then lay down in the hot spring pool. The water was very buoyant, and it was lined by tiny volcanic gravel. I posed for some photos that Jo took with my camera, then rested my head against the mud bank and rested. The view was glorious in the morning air, which was crisp and cold, around 5c I would say.

Some Germans joined Single and I, and after they left, I faced up to getting out after half an hour or so. I got dressed on the bank, and then went back to the others by the 4x4. I grabbed some sort of fried bread and spread a caramel type spread (used in Banoffee pie) on it. Jo made me a hot chocolate.


Driving off we gained in altitude over trails of red/brown small stones. We came to a bit with lots of large stones lying by themselves. The driver called them the Salvador Dali stones, which they looked a bit like.

 

After this we next came upon the Laguna Verde, lying at the base of a perfectly conical Volcano, Volcan Lincacabur. At 5930m, the highest in the region. After a few pics of the Laguna Verde and volcano, we were joined by two arrogant climbing types, and Candida was bustled off to another 4x4. None of us were happy about this. We drove around the Laguna Verde, a sort of china green lake for 10mins or so. It was green due to the arsenic content.  We came to a small cluster of buildings, a sort of bus terminal. A flag waved with a sign ‘Welcome to Bolivia’ (only it was obviously in Spanish). After 5 mins or so, a 4x4 turned up with Candida in. We gave her a B$100 tip and then everyone clustered by the jeep for a last photo, taken by a guy who was to in the 4x4 to Uyuni with the Aussie Couple and Single. We gave Valerio a B$100 tip as well, and shook hands, as I did with the Aussies and Single.


The 4x4 left, and Jo, Andrew and I boarded a small bus to go to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. The driver explained we would be descending about 2 miles down to San Pedro de Atacama (referred to as ‘San Pedro’). We passed through the Bolivian National Park check. I couldn’t find my ticket, and the chap gave up, and stood outside plugging his walkman back in. We continued on a gravel trail, and stopped at the Bolivian border checkpoint. Here we dropped off the piece of paper given to us on entry to Boliva, and a few metres the other side was a post stating Chile. We continued along a gravel trail for a bit, before pulling onto a sparkling asphalt road. A smart Japanese car drove by. Chile is a lot wealthier than Bolivia, four times so by GDP.


The road ahead dipped in front of us, and the slope must have gone on forever as we began a serious descent down to San Pedro. San Pedro lay in front and a long way below us. Also visible for miles and miles, was the Atacama desert. Various shades of brown, grey and white lay before us, mostly flat looking.


After about an hour or so from the pick-up, we arrived at the Chilean border post, outside San Pedro. It was a slow moving and some buses were ahead of us. We had to go through a foot sponge, as they were worried about foot ‘n mouth. I got my passport stamped and then joined a row of others to have our bags inspected on a long table. A woman poked and felt around all my bags, and then strummed my Charango!


Back in the mini-bus, we drove into town. The driver pointing out where the Tur-bus office is, and finally where Colque Tour office was. As we got out, Jo & Andrew announced they were going to get a bus to Antofagasta. So we said our goodbyes, and I gave Jo my email address and a ‘meeja’ kiss goodbye. I walked off in a different direction, and realised it was the wrong direction. I went back the right way and booked into the Hotel Takha Takha. Bit of a shock price wise, as it was P9000 per night for a single without bath. Roughly $18 or £12. The room I was lead to was like a cell. Very narrow with a barred window at the end above the bed. I took the key to room 7, and was given a guided tour of the shower & toilet block by the cute Chilean receptionist.


I dumped my stuff and went for a walk around the gringo ghetto of San Pedro. I changed $30 into Peso’s at a bad rate. Then looked around at the various tours on offer. The El Altio geysers and moon valley looked interesting, as did renting a mountain bike. Hot, I came back to the hotel, and wrote up my diary. Over the fence were three Brits, camping out. They were riding around on a Yamaha motorbike each, with UK license plates. They’d taken five days to do the Salar de Uyuni trip. Must have been awesome and I was very jealous.


After a rest on my bed, I went out to a restaurant. It turned out to be pretty upmarket. I ordered a mustard chicken dish with a beer. The food came professionally arranged on the plate, and tasted really really good. The bill with tip came to P6500, about £6.50. I went back to the hotel and gladly slept after the 4.30am start today.


Tuesday 11th October


My alarm went off at 7am, but as breakfast wasn’t until 8.30am, I slept in a bit. After breakfast was out the way, I left the hotel and went to hire a mountain bike for P3500 for half a day. I had to leave my passport and was given a fairly random photocopy map. I rode back to the hotel to park my bike, and at the cashpoint next door, withdrew P40,000.


Back on my bike, I tried a couple of streets, until I found the river, and followed the path that ran alongside it, crossing here and there. I then entered a valley with fairly steep angled sides, and a gravel road up the middle. I detoured around a small man made reservoir, and into a small dead end canyon with steep sides. I kept thinking ‘snakes’, from here until I returned to the hire shop.


I went back to the gravel road and followed it until it came to a river. I didn’t feel like I’d be able to cross it without getting soaked. I lugged the bike up to a level on one of the sides of the valley, not seeing a way forward. I climbed precariously up to another level and noticed a path up to the tunnel marked on the map.


I descended to where I’d left the bike, and carried it down to the beginning of a small canyon. I clambered along the dried stream bed, pushing and carrying my bike. Eventually a zig-zagging path started up the large hill behind. I struggled up, and sat at the top, on a trail/road that led 100m to the tunnel I’d seen before. Lower down the track I saw two other mountain bikers. I went through the long thin tunnel, and came out in a desolate barren area, made up of low banks and the odd high mound. It was so empty and devoid of life, that in a way was beautiful.


I cycled down and hopped off a few banks, rode up some higher banks until I ran out of energy. The other two mountain bikers rode past and I caught up with them. They were off to the moon valley. I rode back to the tunnel, but went up the hill it went through carrying the mountain bike most of the way. The views from the top were great, all the different permutations of the desert landscape.


I carefully descended with the bike to near the tunnel entrance and rode down the track, enjoying not having to pedal. I passed where I joined the track, and kept going down, and through another small canyon with pointy peaks. Eventually I joined the main track/road in the valley, and cycled back to San Pedro.


After dropping off the bike, I went to the Colque Tours office, and handed over P3000 for the Moon Valley tour starting at 4pm. Until then I went to an internet place and uploaded some photos, read a few emails.


At 4pm, I waited around with a few others, and eventually a mini-bus turned up driven by Juan, a shorter haired version of Otto from the Simpsons. We drove out of town, and after a few kilometres, stopped at a viewpoint. Before us lay outstretched the flat Atacama desert and to one side the Valley of Sorrow (Vale La Pena). It was beautiful. I bumped into the Spanish bloke who was in my window seat on the train from Oruro (I don’t like people nicking my window seat!). He wasn’t keen to talk. After tumbling back in the van, we drove off, passing a Porsche commercial being shot. The car was under wraps and one side of the road was closed off.


We went up a gravel track and stopped at the top of a small valley, the Valley of Death (Valle de la Muerte). We were told no life is here (apart from ourselves). We had 40mins to get to the bottom where Juan would be waiting. As we descended the path, a huge dune rose far above our left side. Below the path a desolate valley with a couple of exposed rock strata. Near the van were a few English blokes with bikes and sandboards, about to take on the sand dune.


The van drove off along the road, past the Porsche commercial again, with nothing happening. We drove some way along the asphalt road, and turned off on another gravel track. Eventually we came to a building that was the entrance to the Moon Valley (Valle De La Luna). We all got out  and gladly handed over P1500. It was then a drive up a flat area of grey land and ridges of rock. There were a few outcrops of rock, weathered over time. One was called ‘The Three Movies.’ and twenty metres or so behind was a salt cave, where in the past people had dug for salt. It wasn’t very impressive. Back in the van, we stopped at a steep cliff called, ‘The Auditorium.’ I didn’t get out.


Another short drive and we came to a car park. Above it rose some rocky hills and a massive sand dune. Already people were climbing up one side, and some were walking across the top of the dune. I climbed up the sandy trail to the top of the dune, and then strode quickly along the top of the dune, as the sun was already sinking. On top of the dune was a narrow path, wide enough for two feet. The dune went steeply down from the path on either side. The temptation to resist sliding down was tough.


Eventually I climbed off the dune onto a rocky outcrop where numerous other people had gathered. The sun was just about to sink behind a cliff. The rocky, dry desert below was in its best light with the setting sun.

 

As the sun disappeared, the wind became colder. In the distance the mountains and volcanoes, including the ever present Volcan Lincacabur, glowed a deep shade of light red. I climbed down from the rock outcrop, and walked quickly along the top of the sand dunes, as it was swirling sand around my bare legs.


I was first back to the van, and waited for everyone else. I saw a group of cyclists face the 9 mile ride home in the darkening light. I didn’t see the two French guys. The mini-buses raced each other along the track leading to San Pedro. I got off and got a cold orange drink, then went to La Carona for dinner.


La Carona was empty when I came in, with a house band playing to only a handful of tables. By the time I’d finished it was full and people were waiting. I had the set menu, which was a corn hash starter, a steak and a dessert slice. It was certainly filling, if not the best meal I’d ever had. During the band’s interval, I queried a middle aged man playing a stringed instrument similar to mine. He told me it was a Charango, and game me a few chords to be going on with. I paid up and left for bed, exhausted.


Wednesday 12th October


Got up late, a bit too late, as I had an hour to get up and check out, as well as have breakfast. I got my priorities straight, and had my free breakfast, while a large party seemed to be being prepared for. After a shower, I checked out, bought a few things for the trip and then left for the bus stop. I’d lost my ticket, so had to buy another for P1000. The bus arrived about 10mins late, and wasn’t the pride of the pullman fleet.


The bus left San Pedro, past the Porsche commercial (car still covered) and climbed painfully slowly for most of the journey. The landscape was barren between San Pedro and Calama, with rarely many features. As we came to Calama, trees and greenery appeared. There were lots of identical houses, but all painted different bright colours.


After various stops into town, we were dropped at a side street, from where I wandered around the commercial area, getting a drink and ice popsicle. It was damn hot! I went back to where I was dropped off, but the buses didn’t go to the airport. I hailed a taxi, driven by a guy firmly stuck in the 1970s. I handed over P4000 for the trip. Most of the road to the airport was unpaved and being reconstructed.


At the airport, I sat alone, as apart from a few other people, the small airport was empty. I wrote up my diary, and went into the toilets to clean up my shoes a bit. They were left filthy by the sands at San Pedro and the Salar de Uyuni trip. When dry I superglued up the fronts, hobo style. After a couple of hours, my check-in for Sky Airlines opened, and I was free of my back for awhile. I drew some cash, and booked a bed over the phone for the HI in Santiago.


After going through security, I sat in departures for half an hour before being called for the plane. Everyone walked across the tarmac and ambled up the stairs onto the Boeing 737. From my window seat I watched the desert below, which wasn’t really broken until we were about to land in Santiago. Mostly small red hills, row after endless row. Watching sunset over the Atacama was mind-blowingly amazing. Huge open cast mining craters reflecting the sun’s colours as it descended on the horizon. Magical and a life highlight right there.

 

As we came nearer to Santiago, lots had snow on. A couple of small towns appeared lit up in the darkness as we began our descent into Santiago Airport.


After getting my things, I bought an Aeropuerto bus ticket, and went outside where I just caught the blue bus to Los Heroes Metro stop. From my window things seemed very modern. Getting towards the centre we drove up a long Avenue, Av. Libertador Bernado O’ Higgings. Up the centre were clipped lawns and avenues of trees. After getting off the bus at Los Heroes, I walked up Cienfuego. A gorgeous street filled with impressive period buildings.


I checked into the HI, and dumped my stuff in a room with seemingly one other occupied bunk. I went to a chinese restaurant on Brazil Plaza, and had Conger Eel with rice. It wasn’t that good to be honest. The Royal beer was though. I walked back, passing some bars that reminded me of New York. I dabbled in a net cafe for a bit, and printed off some chords for the Charango, and left. Back at the HI I went to bed. A bloke came in late and slept on my bunk (lower bunk) and proceeded to snore loudly. I had to put my ear plugs in in order to sleep.


Thursday 13th October


Went to a net cafe nearby the HI, and rang another hostel that had a bed. A quick surf of the net, and I went back to the HI to check out. Got on the Metro at Los Heroes, and travelled up to Baquedano. After working out where Av. O’Higgins was, with the aid of a stallholder who had perfect bouquets of nasal hair in each nostril. I crossed it and into a backstreet. There I went into the Hostal Forestal and was given a bunk in a 4 bed empty dorm.


I left the hostel with shades on and suntan lotion suitably smeared all over, heading in the direction of the Plaza des Armas, along Merced. The Parque Forestal, a wooded park, was a pleasant sight in the morning. The centre wasn’t overly busy with traffic, pollution woes were not a problem. I popped into the tourist office, and picked up a city map. I sat on a wooden bench, part of a very long line of benches, and drank a soft drink while people watching.

Refreshed, I wandered up 21 de Mayo, looking at the odd shop etc and crossed the very fast flowing River Mapocho. On the other side was the Feria Municipal, a market selling mainly everyday cheap goods. I crossed back over the river, noticing that the snow capped Andes were visible in the distance.

 

I walked through the British made Mercado Central, which was upmarket and full of restaurants with waiters keen to fill them. One waiter I spoke to was German, who sadly ended by trying to convince me to eat at his restaurant. I wandered fairly aimlessly around the busy commercial pedestrian streets. Mainly looking for a pair of trainers. I made my way along Huerfanos from the centre, until the road ended at Cerro Santa Lucia. I then climbed to the top of the hill, through wandering backwards and forwards, zig-zagging my way up to the top. The very top involved a staircase up to a turret like platform. The views were great. To the south the suburbs stretched off into the distance. To the east, the Andes rose to snow covered peaks. On the west side the office blocks and Centro buildings. Finally to the north was the larger hill, Cerro San Cristobel. I descended, and lay on a concrete bench in the sun, writing and resting. Finally I went back to the hostel to chill out a bit.

 

After dark and chatting to a few people in the hostel, I went up Pio Nono, north of the river and the hostel. It was a studenty/drinkers street with lots of neon bars and pavement seating. I walked to the end, failing to find the restaurant I wanted, and went into a restaurant that looked okay. I had a pasta dish and a beer.


Back at the hostel I got chatting with some English people and played pool as a tag team with Dominic, a 20 year old Brit. We played two late twenties London women. One of them was an archive researcher for ITV’s breakfast program, and had also worked with Richard & Judy. She said  Richard was like Alan Partridge, and Judy could be bitchy. After I went to bed.


Friday 14th October


Awoke and got up pretty lazily, then headed to the Metro for a trip down to the Bus station at the other end of the centre. The Metro in Santiago is fast and efficient. Trains are in sky blue and have tyres rather than steel wheels. I got out of my hard plastic seat at Uni. de Santiago, and came above ground in the bus terminal. Tur Bus seemed the only firm to go to Mendoza, so I booked a trip for 08.40 the next day.


I then walked up Av. O’ Higgins, passing via the large static market at the Estacian Central. Later I sauntered around some side streets, taking in one of the neighbourhoods. I chuckled at one of the street names, ‘Gay Street.’ Somewhat ironic in a country that is predominantly Catholic, although the city does have an annual Gay Parade. I ended up back on Av. O’Higgins (Bernardo O’Higgins by the way, was an Spaniard of Irish descent who helped liberate Chile from the Spanish colonial power) and crossed over at Los Heroes. From there I walked up Cienfuegos past the HI and onto Plaza Brazil, where I sat and chilled for a bit in the warm sun.


Walking back to the centre along Huerfanos, I passed what appeared to be the Supreme Court. Outside was a statue of Salvador Allende, Chile's first freely elected Marxist President, murdered in a CIA (American agency from the Land of the Free?!?) backed coup. I wandered into a couple of sports shops near the Plaza Des Armas. I ended up buying some Adidas trainers that had size 11 UK on the label, even if they did pinch a little. Most Chileans aren’t that tall, and thus no giant feet.

I went down to Plaza de la Constitucion, where the square had a row of photos. The main congress building lay on the south side. I passed around the building and on to Av. O’ Higgins. I was stopped by some students that spoke English. One said he had family in Manchester. After a chat about life in Chile and Pinochet. The male student gave me some recommendations. He wrote it on a poem they were selling to raise money. I gave them £2.50 and 55¢. The two women seemed upset I didn’t offer any notes. ( I was later told this was a probably a scam, which pissed me off). I walked up Av. O’Higgins, and turned up a leafy street with a small antique/curios/book market on a cobbled pedestrian stretch. There were a few interesting Art Deco buildings about as well.

 

Around the corner was Parque Forestal. I found a stretch and laid out in the sun, reading and writing. A few gypsies floated into the park, and one grabbed my hand attempting to read my palm or something. I said I had no money, only a credit card. She kept prodding my wallet until she gave up and left.ltrBack at the hostel I got chatting with some English people and played pool as a tag team with Dominic, a 20 year old Brit. We played two late twenties London women. One of them was an archive researcher for ITV’s breakfast program, and had also worked with Richard Tired of the park and the sun dropping, I went back to the hostel.


I surfed the net, and chatted to a few people in the hostel. Hungry, I went over the road to a cafe/restaurant on Av. Mackenna. Some slightly dodgy types started talking to me for a few minutes in broken English. The waitress gesticulated for me to sit on a couch table against a wall,so I moved and ordered a pizza and omelette. The man with his back to me on the table ahead, turned round to talk. He was in his forties with a beard, and was an English teacher. We did the formal where are you from, what are you doing here etc. And talked about the economy, he seemed peeved when I implied that Argentina was a bit stronger than Chile, and said it was the other way around. I guess like Britain and France, America and Canada, there’s the usual rivalry with the neighbours.


After paying the bill, I stopped at a shop and got two cans of Royal beer. Back at the hostel a collection of English, Irish, Belgian and Australians were sat around a BBQ they’d just eaten. I sat and chatted until late, then hit the sack.


Saturday 15th October


Up early and showered. Then had to creep about packing as the others were asleep. Handed in my key, but there was no one on the desk. Got the nearby metro down to the bus station like the previous morning. At Bay 22, my bus for Mendoza was supposed to be waiting, but it wasn’t. It was running late. Loads of Tur Buses came in and out of the busy terminal, but not mine. A group of four young american woman (students) were stood talking, using the word ‘like’ at least twice in every sentence.


After a half hour wait, the bus turned up, and I clambered on board. The bus went out of Santiago, and headed up into the hills. The sky was fairly overcast, bus as we went higher and began to ascend the hills it cleared. The road rose quite quickly, following numerous hairpin bends as it climbed higher up to around 4-5000m above sea level. At one point it was possible to look down upon numerous hairpins in rows below. Bits of snow lined the route and at the top large areas had snow on. Ski lifts ran here and there, and numerous jagged peaks were visible in the clear blue sky. One of these was Mt Aconcagua, at just shy of 7000m, the highest mountain in North and South America.


The border was at the highest point of the journey, but the customs point was a few miles down the Argentinian side. I’d heard it takes awhile to pass through the customs and the hearsay wasn’t wrong. When the bus was finally unloaded, we had to queue up for the exit stamp for Chile. 10m ahead was a booth for Argentina where we headed next. All of this was inside a huge customs hangar with numerous bays for traffic. After getting the Argentine entry stamp, we had to put our bags on a long table for inspection. Some bloke gave a few prods to mine and joked as to whether I had a bomb. Finally, back in the bus, and we were off.


In Argentina, we descended down a long barren rocky valley with a river in the middle. Alongside us from time to time were some disused narrow gauge rail tracks. We left the valley and followed a modern road through agricultural areas into Mendoza. It was noticeable that Mendozans drove lots of old mainly American cars, as well as other makes.


At the bus terminal I asked for a map of Mendoza at the Information desk while there. I was overheard by a young Argentine bloke, who offered me a lift across town in his car. They were looking for a Canadian who may of gone there. The bloke spoke pretty good English, and we got into a car outside the bus terminal. Another bloke drove, and I sat in the back with his sister. They were all atheist and we talked a bit about Charango’s, as there was a concert that night.


We pulled up on Av. Aristides Villanueva, and I nipped over to the Breakpoint Hostel. The student bloke behind the desk seemed a bit unsure of himself as he booked me in. He explained it was a party place, with an all night (‘til 5am) bar. I booked in and dumped my stuff in the 5 bed dorm, which looked like a large bedroom. I dumped my backpack and left to look around the town.


I went down the street the hostel was on, which became Av. Colon. The street was practically empty, with businesses looking closed up. I got to a busy intersection opposite the bus terminal, and worked my way back via the side streets. I came across Av. San Martin, and suddenly the place was alive with people. There were numerous types of shops open everywhere. I walked around and stopped off in an internet place for a bit. I then went to Av. Sarmiento which is pedestrianised with lots of street bars/restaurants etc.


I chose a restaurant and sat out in the square, a group of teenage looking women at the next table, giggling and gossiping. As I was flicking through the dictionary to translate the menu, an Argentinian bloke came over and offered to translate. I asked what was a good Argentinian dish, and he pointed at what I ordered. Essentially it was a big slab of meat with a few extras. THe meat was beef but not solid like steak, it was sort of stringy. Not impressed. I did like the Andes lager though. I gave the remains of the meat to a street dog.


I walked back to the hostel via Plaza Italia, and met a Spanish guy who spoke English and lived with his French girlfriend in Bristol. He said the place was noisy and it was difficult to sleep. I then met two Chilean brothers, who’d emigrated to Australia under Pinochet’s rule, but one now lived in Santiago. They invited me out later to a club. I got some sleep after a chat with them.


Sunday 16th October


I woke about 1am, and everyone was ready to go as I put on my new Adidas trainers. The Chilean brothers were spiffed up and ready to pull. We walked a few blocks, then one of the Chilean’s asked for his car from a car storage place. We climbed in and he drove through the streets looking for a club. He seemed to give up and drove out of town and into the countryside, looking for a club in Chacras (de Coria).


After asking the way, we eventually came to a bit of the road with cars parked down both sides and a nightclub, Alquina. We paid P15 to get in, and had the first drink free. Most of the place was filled with tables, but they were quickly cleared. A live 3 piece band lead by a bloke on bongos kept the main floor entertained. I went upstairs to a smaller dancefloor that was playing house type music, instead of a glitter ball, they had a glitter camel. The club was mainly full of couples. The Spanish/French couple danced around on the basement/lower floor, the two Chileans seemed to spend most of their time stood around on the ground floor, drinking cocktails.

 

We left not long after 6am. Dawn was starting to rise. The Chilean drove like a loony, skipping red lights, swerving around cars. The French woman pleaded with him to slow down, and he did. He dropped us off at the hostel. I went to bed with my clothes on, and took off my new trainers which were killing my toes!


A couple of hours later, I got up, grabbed my bags and checked out. I went a bit across town, passing the four American girls. The cute blonde said ‘Good Morning’ in a chirpy British accent. I went to the Wincas Hostel on Sarmiento. It didn’t appear to be open, so I rang from round the corner, and an odd British bloke let me in. I got a dorm bed, and went up to it, and slept ‘til 1pm ish.


After a welcome shower, I set off for a look at Independencia Plaza, and had a ‘meaty’ snack at a cafe nearby. I then walked to Parque General San Martin in the warm sunshine. I went along the leafy suburban back streets to get to it. The entrance on Av. Del Liberator was very impressive. Big entrance gate, flower beds, a long avenue of trees etc. All the roads in the park were tree lined. I went south to the lake, which had some nice bits and bobs set up around it. And then I went west past lots of green spaces lined with trees. Mendozan families were everywhere picnicking and playing. A number were near their cars, blasting out the commentary of a football game.


I came to a somewhat desolate area, and two hills. I climbed up Cerro de la Gloria, which was tricky as it’s steep paths were mostly loose stones. The views from the top were great. I could see Mendoza and it’s rich greenery, the other direction showed the Andes. After a bit of contemplation at the top. I worked my way down and back through the park. As I came near the end, I lied down on the grass for a few moments shut eye.


I walked back into town, and burnt a load of photos to CD at a net shop. I wandered back through town. Independencia Plaza was covered with street stalls and some entertainers were putting on a show for a crowd. I went to the hostel and after watching an ep of Family Guy, bed.


 

Monday 17th October

 

Got up early around 7am, and packed up. The Taxi I’d ordered came 10 minutes early, So I ended up rushing around and grabbed everything and headed off to the airport. There wasn’t much traffic about for what would be rush hour in most cities.


At the airport, I checked in and then had to sit around for ages until 9.30am, when I could go through departures. The airport was very busy, but was less so as I went to departures. Lots of business people getting early flights. A tall slim beautiful woman walked in wearing burgundy red leather trousers and matching jacket. A fancy looking handbag over her shoulder met by her wavy hair. She was very hot, so hot that pretty much every man and woman followed her to the check-in desk and then off down the main hall. Out of sight, peoples eyes returned to where they should be, and some embarrassed looks floated about. I went to departures which was an area just for my flight. We crossed the tarmac to the waiting plane, where I sat in my window seat.


The flight was fairly uneventful, the view being mostly fields of varying colours.

 

The flight was over quickly, and we were soon over the huge metropolis of Buenos Aires. The city seemed to stretch forever. As the plane came into land we flew parallel to a busy road and watched buildings get closer as we landed at Aeroparque Jorge Newbery.


I called up the Sandanzas hostel in arrivals, and got a bed for 2 nights. I then got the 33 bus from outside the terminal into town. The bus drove along the port and docks, which wasn’t the nicest area of the city. Then it went past the train station and down a busy street of tall buildings as well as important looking public buildings. I saw the flyover ahead, and got read to get off on the other side. As I did I went up a sidestreet (literally), and passed a great mural on the wall of a building. The area didn’t look too great, and after walking the wrong way down the street the hostel was on, I finally arrived and rang the buzzer to gain access.


A slightly geeky woman with specs booked me in, speaking fairly good English. I paid upfront, and was shown my bed in a four bed dorm. I ended up on the top bunk of a bunk bed, and I slept on top. I had a quick look around at the hostels facilities, including checking email on their PC. I then headed off into town, walking along the route the bus had gone, down Av. Paseo Colon.


I passed Plaza AP Justo, which I had to cross over to visit, and it had an old tank and a few artillery guns around it. It also had a plaque about the Malvinas! In a nutshell it says "This is  a monument to those brave soldiers that died defending a piece of rock owned by a foreign power. We were trying to hide our failing economy by launching a war against another country as a destraction. However we didn't reckon on a lady with a handbag called Margaret."

 

I eventually came to the Casa Rosada, where the President lives. To the east of it were some laid out gardens and a statue of Columbus. Around the front on the west side was the Plaza de Mayo, with lots of statues and police stood about. There was also a Greek/Egyptian looking temple that was the Metropolitan Cathedral.


I walked up a street and found the Information booth, and acquired a map. I sadly found out there were no football games because of elections this weekend. I went to a nearby restaurant and had lunch while writing up numerous postcards. After my second very delicious banana & dulche de leche milkshake, I left and walked up Av. de Mayo. I posted the postcards at a post office on the way up. Most of the buildings, although grand, seemed to have an impressive grey appearance and few really stood out.


Eventually I reached the Plaza del Congresso, which had lots of gardens laid out where dog owners were exercising their dogs, barely 50m from the Congress building. A monument in front of congress was plastered in graffiti about various causes. Walking around the building itself, it had graffiti daubed all over it.  It wasn’t an overly impressive sight for the centre of Argentine government.


I walked north along various streets, and down Av. Corrientes, popping in the odd shop. I crossed over the city's main thoroughfare, Av.9 de Julio, the world’s widest Avenue.

 

And then down a tacky narrow pedestrian street, Lavalle, with little of interest apart from a couple of cinemas. I continued down to the road where the 33 bus went, and caught it back to the hostel.


I couldn’t find anyone of interest or interested to go out drinking with, so resigned myself to an evening in. I talkspan style=ed with an Argie bloke who was on reception about the Malvinas, and he got quite angry saying they should be Argentine. I went to a local shop and got some crap, devouring it while watching TV. I chatted to an Irish guy for a bit, then his girlfriend came and distracted him.


Tuesday 18th October


Got up, and began walking south east in the direction of Boca barrio. I passed through the small Parque Lezama, with an odd monument on the south side, pointing down Av Alte Brown where I walked next. The area was a bit rough, but not too bad. I saw the Boca Juniors Stadium as I got into the Barrio.

 

Eventually I got to a harbour type area, with an old metal bridge and numerous large boats of varying, mostly old age. After a few pictures, I then sauntered up to the main tourist area, the hot sun beating down from a clear sky.


The area around the small pedestrian street of Caminito was crammed with tour bus tourists and locals looking to fleece them. The houses were painted bright yellows and blues, like the original house of the area. Caminito was full of artists displaying their work and other stall holders with various objects. Two couples were dressed in traditional Tango outfits, one better than the other. They must have been making a fortune as they lured tourists to pay for poses with the male or female. I went up one of the few traditional houses with metal on the outside painted bright colours, and wood lining the inside. It was a gallery building now, with an artist in each room. A group of young teenagers were at the top, one of whom was shouting out obscenities in English, until she noticed I’d recognised what she was saying. I bought some fridge magnets and left.


I caught a bus back to Plaza de Mayo, and then got a subway train to Pueyrredon stop in Recoleta Barrio. I walked down Av. Pueyrredon which had a more upmarket feel about it. Eventually I got to the Recoleta Cemetery, and having walked the wrong way round, went in. The entry was free surprisingly. Inside it was very clean and tidy, and the mausoleums very grand. It almost seemed like there was a competition as to who could build the grandest (sarcasm). Lots were stacked in blocks like an office block or something. I eventually found Evita’s resting place, as had a German tour group.


I left the cemetery and ate a sandwich I’d bought and drank some fizzy orange on one of the neat lawns just outside. After I crossed a couple of busy roads, and went into the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, which was also free. I checked my bag, after being reminded to by a security guard. Then I explored the ground floor which was mostly European painters. There was a Van Gogh, Monet etc. A couple of British artists had snuck in too. The upper floor was full of Argentine painters. There were lots of paintings I liked. They even had a surrealist and modern art section, the later being a bit shite. Security guards were warning of closing time, but I managed to see everything with 15mins to spare.


I left and walked down Av. del Liberator, which was a busy street. The high buildings were mostly residential with porters looking bored through glass doors. The rich lived here and the odd woman would emerge with a small dog, or a businessman walk in etc.


I walked up Suipacha, looking for a restaurant from a guide, but it had gone, it mostly seemed to be leather shops. I walked down past Plaza de Mayo, and on down Defense. Eventually I found an area with a few restaurants, around Av. Independencia. I had a sirloin steak with mushrooms, which was gorgeous. As the steak was a bit small, I decided to have a Postre (dessert). I went for a banana split. I then had what looked like a mini theme park put on my table. It was fricking huge! There was lots of gelatine mixed in with the ice cream which wasn’t too great. I couldn’t finish it, and got the bill. I wobbled back to the hostel and bed.


Wednesday 19th October


I checked out of the Sandanza’s and went across town a bit to the V&S hostel on Viamonte (which led to down to the ferry port). I checked in and put my stuff in a room full of people sleeping. I walked down to the Buquebus ferry port, and bought a 3hr ferry ticket to Colonia in Uruguay.


After I walked along Av. Antartida Argentina, which had underused rail tracks and a few wagons here and there. I put my nose into Estacion Retiro (trains) and bought an ice cream. I then walked up beside Plaza San Martin. At the top I was approached by another AIDs campaigner, this time the bloke was a Liverpool FC fan, as well as a Boca fan.


I got the subway to Diag. Norte, and changed to the green line to Palermo.

I walked down Av. Santa Fe, and bought a bap sandwich and fizzy drink, which I drank on a lawn in Plaza Italia’s wooded enclave. Later I crossed Santa Fe, and walked up Av. J.C. Borge, named after the author who used to live there. The area around Plaza Cortazar was very nice, a bit like Chelsea in London. Back to Santa De, I walked further until I got the subway at Agúero down to Tribunales. I crossed Av. 9 de Julio, and walked down to Av. Florida, a pedestrianised shopping street, and looked around a mall and a few shops, before crashing out at the hostel. I love walking around cities, and it’s not unknown to do 15 or miles a day when travelling.


I got chatting with some Irish guys, and slept for an hour or so. The Irish guys were going on an all-nighter. I got up after they left, and got an empty subway train to Scalabrini Ortiz. On Av. Santa De in Palermo. Arriving around 11pm, I was clearly too early for anything lively, so I sat outside a restaurant and had a pasta meal, watching a bloke close down his newstand. After I caught a bus back to Plaza de Mayo. I walked to the docks area, which was a bit like St. Katherines dock, all rejuvenated. The Irish guys had spoken of a club called ‘Operasud,’ that was here and looked like Sydney Opera House. I found it, and it looked little like the Sydney Opera House. It had lots of triangles arranged to form the roof of the building. Outside lots of young attractive Posteños men in cool shirts, ties and shoes stood with very smartly attired women. I was well out of my depth, I quietly walked back to my hostel and sleep.


Thursday 20th October


Got up before everyone else and showered. The two Irish guys got in and were packing, as one of them flew home today. I waited until 8am and reception finally opened so I could check out. The breakfast was crap, so i grabbed a croissant and left for the Buquebus ferry port.


At the port I checked in, only to pass through security where they found my swiss army knife, and I had to check-in my backpack. Back through security and Argentine, then Uruguay’s customs I went. I finally walked along some corridors to the ferry. I chose a fairly plush seat at the front of the boat. However under the glass front, it was a greenhouse, so I left for another seat where I wrote up my diary.


Continued in Part 2...

A google map exists of this trip here. It can be used to give perspective as well as start planning your own trip!

All photos taken on Canon A80 (a rather good camera, now sadly dead)

Flights sorted by Journey Latin America

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