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Lake Titikaka

October 16th, 2009
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Lake Titikaka is the worlds largest lake above 2000 metres and sits on the border between Peru and Bolivia. It’s home to a variety of different cultures and languages with both Incan and Pre-Incan sites.It’s also an absolute treat for your eyes. It’s quite literally stunning backdrop after stunning backdrop.

Our first two nights were to be spent in home stays with the local people, something I was slightly apprehensive about given my neglible amount of Spanish. Our first stop was the community of Luquina on the mainland overlooking the lake. We were split up in to twos and so, me and Rav, headed off with our “new family” to their home. Luckily the family had three children, Felix, Benjamin and Melissa who were more than keen to sit with us and play cards prettyPlaying Cards much all day. Our first task was to eat lunch with the two boys and were quite happy when they brought out a lovely bowl of vegetable and rice soup. We were less happy when they then followed that with a plate of rice and two different types of potatoes. We ate as much as we could before going with the children up to the school football pitch for a game with the local kids. We’d felt slightly breathless walking up the hills in La Paz but it’s amazing what a 10 yard sprint at 4000m can do to you. After that we headed back to the house for more cards and a dinner consisting of more soup, rice and, this time, pasta. It was at about this point that Ravi started to realise his body wasn’t exactly agreeing with the altitude and so pretty much just crashed for the night.

With nothing to do I was asleep by half 9 and, sleeping on my barbie pillow, had a really great nights sleep. We woke up early and were greeted by a breakfast consisting of yet more rice, a fried egg and some things that resembled bran in taste. With Ravi unable to eat I began my day of eating for two and so gallantly made it through my rice and egg, half of Ravs plus quite a few of the bran cakes. After that it was off to the port to head to Isla Taquile.

Taquile Island is a fairly big island on Lake Titikaka with around 2000 people living on it. It’s a fairly touristy place with quite a few restaurants and a cooperative shop selling high quality (more expensive) Alpaca goods. Our main reason for being there was to get some lunchView from lunch on Lake Taquile. Yet again another awesome location for lunch, on the back of the island overlooking the lake. While the lake is home to around 7 local species it’s also home to trout (introduced from Canada) and Kingfish (introduced from Argentina) and with only two choices for lunch everyone went for the trout which was really really excellent. I also had a try of Inka Cola, which tastes a lot like Vimto in my opinion, and also some Coca Tea. Coca leaves are the leaves responsible for Cocaine and are chewed widely in the Andes as well as being used in tea.

After Taquile we headed to Isla Amantani to meet our second families. Me and Rav were not quite so lucky this time with us barely speaking any spanish and very quickly using our quick introduction to Quecha, the local language.Lake Amantani Fiesta Having a bit of a rest we then headed up to play football again. We played for far too long but it was great fun and definitely a good way of aclimatising. We just won’t mention the wall that I knocked down. After that we headed back where we had dinner, yet more soup and rice which by now I was eating far more of Ravi’s than he was. After dinner Ravi called it a day so on my own I headed to the fiesta. I, and everyone else, was given an Alpaca hat and poncho to wear and then walked down to a hall for some local music and dancing. Thankfully they put on a bit of a demonstation showing some “local dancing” based around agricultural practices. My cynical side would suspect that this was in fact a bit of a show purely for the tourists and as a result I didn’t really stay too long. I did, however, buy the hat. It turns out that while GAP like to believe they practice sustainable tourism they actually barely, if at all, give enough money for the families to cover the costs of having us stay.The following morning we had an early breakfast of pancakes and then headed off for the three hour boat trip to Puno via the floating islands of Uros.

I had no preconception of the floating islands of Uros but have to say that the community as a whole is probably the most amazing community I have ever seen. Floating Islands of UrosThe islands are completely man made, being about two metres deep and almost completely made out of reeds. There are about 40 islands and the one that we visited housed 9 families and 30 people. It’s truly amazing, they have little fish farms within the islands, kitchens and homes which they have to replace every six months. My first contact with the island was jumping from the top of the boat on to the island at which point I realised that it’s basically like living on a giant cushion. It’s probably best to have a look at all of the photos. The one unfortunate, and I guess inevitable, thing is that with the youth going to the mainland for education it’s only a matter of time before the islands are not inhabited anymore.

After that, and a £13 original Uros rug later, we headed off to the mainland and the town of Puno. We also had some much needed meat and vegetables on the boat. Having eaten for two the past two days as well as basically being a carb fest I was feeling a little unhealthy to say the least.

We stayed in Puno one night before heading off to Cusco in the morning. Puno is a fairly nice town but nothing amazing to write about so I won’t!

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Bolivia

October 16th, 2009
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We’d heard some horror stories regarding the border crossing at La Quiaca and Villazon with some people describing how it took three hours to cross the border and a further three hours to queue for the train ticket onwards out of Villazon. With that in mind we headed to the border fairly early expecting a similar amount of pain. While we did experience some pain it was not of the same sort. I mentioned earlier that on the way in to Buenos Aires we’d had a few problems, one of them being the fact that there had been no immigration control at all. This had been playing on my mind all night and meant I’d gotten very little sleep. Unfortunately my fears came true and on showing our passports they looked for the entry stamp and obviously could not find it. Some hand waving, complete miscomprehension (our spanish not being great), a return trip to an ATM, and about an hour later we were through the Argentinian side, albeit £50 poorer. The Bolivian side, on the other hand, was easy. There was no queue, quickly filled in the form and the guy stamped our passports with barely a glance at either the forms or our, now large number of, passport stamps.

Once we were in to Villazon we quickly realised that, actually, Villazon was probably the busier of the two border towns, contrary to what the Lonely Planet had said. Anyway, I got a few Pesos changed which gave me about 360 Boliviianos and we set off towards the train station hoping to spot an ATM on the way. As others have mentioned the ATM was out of service and so, with Steve skint, we walked the 30-40 minutes to the train station and then spent 304 Bolivianos on the tickets to Uyuni; they were apparently all sold out of the second class! Having had no breakfast and with several hours until the train we decided to find somewhere to grab some food. With Steve still feeling seriously worse for wear and the temperature at least 30 degrees we were not in the mood for walking far with our backpacks. On a side note there was a sign in the station stating that white type 2 people (guess that’s us) should not stay in the sun for more than eight minutes at noon due to the high altitude and resulting lack of UV protection from the atmosphere. Anyway we managed to find a little restaurant which sold only one thing and grabbed a burger, rice and salad each with a two litre bottle of water for 40 Bolivianos, about £3.80. That left me with 16 Bolivianos left, ten of which went on a bottle of water and some biscuits, and no guarantee at all that we’d be able to get any money in Uyuni.

The train ride to Uyuni was actually a good, albeit slow, journey. While we’d been annoyed that we couldn’t get second class (as we were skint) you couldn’t really complain as we were travelling nine hours for £13. Not sure you can do that in many countries. The ticket included a meal, which was chicken with gravy and chips and a coke! The main reason for taking the train had been the fact that the buses are described as not only uncomfortable but more importantly down right dangerous. I’d also read that the train goes through some wonderful scenery but that, at night, it’s best to just shut the curtain. How wrong can you be? While the scenery during the day was indeed superb the scenery at night, once the inner lights are off (and you can see outside), is simply stunning. There’s terrific canyon landscapes, mountains, flats and at one point a very real feeling that you’re on a completely different planet. If you’ve seen Total Recall it’s very similar to the train that goes between colonies and overlooks the martian landscape. I only wish I had a camera good enough to record the views.

On arriving in to Uyuni (an hour late) we were latched on to by various locals offering us accommodation. At 1am in the morning we were not too bothered with quality and followed a local women to a twin room in a hotel and were charged 30 Bolivianos each for the privelege (about £2.80!) That morning Steve managed to get to the ATM and, having paid, we made for the tour companies office to begin our Salf Flats tour. The receipt said that the tour would start between 9 and 10 but on arrival we were told 10.30. That sat quite well as we’d had no breakfast and found a little restaurant and several eggs to eat.

The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at about 10,500km2
and is 3,650m above sea level. It’s the result of the evaporation of a prehistoric lake around 40,000 years ago and contains around 10 billion tons of salt. The Bolivians do not actually export any of the salt, using it solely for domestic purposes. The salt flat, however, does contain around half of the worlds lithium reserves but are not currently mined.

We booked our one day tour through Kanoo Tours mainly because they had a good looking website and so obviously put a bit of effort in. In all honesty I thoughtSalar de Uyuni they were pretty damn good. We’d been told the driver would speak English and act as a basic guide. Sadly that wasn’t really the case but he did help as much as he could. Our tour consisted of a travel agent, a Brazilian couple, a German and Argentinian couple and Me and Steve. We were packed in to a landcruiser and driven off for the day. Our first stop was the train cemetary, the remnants of the steam era and a large collection of old steam engines. After that we spent most of the day on the salt plains and looked at the Salt Hotel before going to an “island” full of cacti where we had some steak for lunch.

Due to time constraints we’d booked a bus to La Paz ahead of time to ensure that we’d get there with plenty of time to spare for the start of our GAP tour through Peru. Horror stories abound on the internet convinced us to book the “tourist” bus which turned out to be decent. Sadly even the worlds greatest suspension can not save you from the journey from Uyuni to La Paz. You’re given a warning beforehand but nothing can prepare you for the 180kms of unpaved road. It’s like receiving a massage chair from the devil and then being made to sit in it for 5 hours. Anyway, somehow we turned up an hour and a bit early so, it being early, we headed straight for the hostel to get some well needed sleep. Unforunately a lot of sunlight and multitude of alarms prevented me getting much sleep so at 9 I got up and grabbed a shower. On that note I have to recommend the hostel, Wild Rover Backpackers, as the beds are great, the bathrooms spotless and the food in the bar good.

La Paz is the economic capital of Bolivia and, I think, a pretty nice city. It’s absolutely packed with people, cars, markets but has some really gorgeous architecture and a great feel to it. The Plaza MurrielPlaza de Murriel is a favourite with some lovely buildings while the Church of San Francisco was interesting mostly due to the fact that it was holding a World Press 09 exhibition with some truly excellent photography. That first night we decided to head to a Thai restaurant, that was recommended, for dinner. However, on arrival, it didn’t really look all that special so we went in search of something else. While there’s plenty of fast food chicken joints there’s not that much in the way of “cuisine”. About an hour later, feeling slightly dejected, we started making our way back towards the Thai but managed to stumble upon an arabic restaurant serving mainly Turkish food. It was brilliant. I had a tomato soup (large), a shish kebab, some tzatsiki and a litre of coke for about £2.80. I was full.

The following day we met back up with Ravi in our hostel and watched Man Utd draw with Sunderland. After that we headed over to the hotel for our initial GAP tour meeting at 6.30. That first night we met the rest of the group, a whole other two people (Linville from England and Christian (or Indy) from Germany), and the tour leader before grabbing some food someway out of town.

The following morning we got on a bus and headed off to Lake Titikaka and the Peruvian border.

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Salta and on to the border

October 16th, 2009
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We left Puerto Iguazu at 11am and were confronted with a 23 hour bus trip to Salta. We did this in two stages and this time used Flecha Bus. Pretty good but not really at the same standard as Andesmar. During the day was horribly hot on the bus with the night being uncomfortably cold. You couldn’t win. We were also stopped three times with the bus searched, by dogs, for drugs on each occasion.

We arrived in to Salta two hours early and made straight for the hostel that we’d found on hostelbookers.com. Thankfully they had a couple of beds free, albeit in different dorms, and we took them. It has to be said, at this point, that neither Steve nor me have/had a guide to South America or a Spanish phrase book with barely a word of Spanish between us. Anyway Salta is quite a nice town, with some lovely European looking architectureSalta Cathedral (see photos) but in all honesty not much else going on. It did, however, have an excellent buffet restaurant where we ate a lot (really loads) for no more than a fiver each. I can’t remember the name but it’s located diagonally opposite the New Cafe (which I didn’t go in??) behind the Cabildo.

Our next port of call was to get to Uyuni in Bolivia to see the salt plains. Unfortunately it’s just not that easy. Using the internet we discovered that we needed to get to the border at La Quiaca before crossing the border (just a short walk) to Villazon, Bolivia, before getting a train to Uyuni.

The buffet meal had seemed like a perfect opportunity for Steve to start his malaria drugs but when I woke up in the morning it turned out that it had not been. Steve had been sick most of the night and was barely able to stand up let alone carry his bag. We’d booked the bus so jumped in a taxi to get to the bus station for an eight hour bus journey to La Quiaca. This bus, Balut, was pretty crap, basically a run down version of the others. It also stops at every single town on the way adding at least two hours to the journey.

La Quiaca is a tiny little town but the guide books had said that it would be better to stay there than go over the border to Villazon for the night. We walked down the main street and hopped in to the first hotel paying AR$60 (about £9) for a twin room which was actually pretty good. Steve was not too good so I ventured out for a table for one and went in to a little place where I had an absolutely delicious steak, with tomato, onions and a fried egg on top. Not only was it good, it filled the plate and another plate was required for the chips. With a bit of bread and a coke it came to a staggering £4. Brilliant.

We then crashed and in the morning headed for the border.

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Iguazu Falls

October 14th, 2009
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Having decided to finally leave Buenos Aires we got an overnight bus to Puerto Iguazu in the North East of Argentina. As far as I can tell there is absolutely no reason to go there other than to see the magnificent Iguazu Falls.

The bus journey did not, on the face of it, look like the greatest of ideas. Only half the price of the flight and taking 17 hours didn’t exactly fill us with enthusiasm. However, reports from other people suggested that Argentinian buses were, in fact, fairly good with one guy going so far as to say that it was his best nights sleep during his entire 8month trip. We got the bus with Andesmar and went First Class, which is not quite Full Cama (ie beds) but is pretty damn close. It was pretty good; we were given dinner, breakfast and lunch and the seats were comfy with pillows, blankets and films provided. I wouldn’t say it was the best sleep of my entire trip (far from it in fact) but it could have been a whole lot worse.

The Iguazu falls are situated literally on the border between Argentina and Brazil with Paraguay just a few miles away. On the Argentinian side you have Puerto Iguazu while on the Brazilian side you have Foz du Iguazu. The town itself is nothing special, purely built up due to the tourism but it provides you with everything you’d want. We arrived at about half 4 and quickly checked ourselves in to a little hostel, where I got some much needed laundry done, before heading out for dinner. Our first night of dinner was pretty horrific. Still not fully aquainted with spanish food vocabulary I went for a pepper steak and potatoes while Steve went for milanesa with chips. We ended up with the same awful croquette-like potatoes while Steve’s milanesa barely contained chicken at all. Being fairly shattered we decided to call it a night in preperation for our visit to the falls the next day.

Having seen the tourist information guy the day before and been given a full run down of the options we decided to simply take the cheap bus (AR$4) to the entry point before paying the current entrance charge (AR$60.) We’d spent some time checking out various blogs and guides all mentioning that you should see the falls from both sides but to be honest I’d say that it’s far better to go to the Argentinian side. Especially when there’s been a lot of rain.

On arrival we were told that it would be best to do the upper and lower circuits first before going to the Devil’s Throat as most of the guided tours go to the Devil’s Throat first. I’d say this was probably a great idea as the Devil’s Throat is really the best bit. The first view of the falls is pretty sensationalIguazu Falls, seemingly going on forever and falling a quite ridiculous height. I can’t really mention much more, you’ll simply have to look at the photos or go view them for yourself. The Devil’s Throat sectionDevil's Throat is a little train ride (included) and a 600m walk away but is truly awesome. With the heavy rainfall the bottom of the falls was not visible but it didn’t matter. Other highlights include the crazy monkey-racoons which ate everything, a big Iguana, thousands of butterflies and Steve’s sighting of a brown snake next to the track.

Having finished with the falls we headed back to Puerto Iguazu for the evening. As it wasn’t really all the late we decided to go for a little walk down to the river. Not much to see there really but quite cool to stand at the intersection of two rivers with Argentina on one side, Brazil on another and Paraguay on the other! We then chilled out at the hotel for a bit before deciding to see what the town had to offer.

I’d had a look for restaurants on google maps (given the previous nights dreadful experience) and found one called Aqva not too far away from our hotel. It looked fairly swanky but the food was absolutely tip top. The chef was obviously well trained and the sort that likes to experiment with flavours. Steve had the lamb which looked fantastic while I went for the Pork in honey and dried fruit with potatoes. My only problem was the lack of quantity but thankfully the bread and fantastic white chocolate mousse covered brownie more than made up for it.

Once we’d finished we decided to hit a bar (or two) and check out the local scene. Our first problem was finding where all the locals were (literally all of them) and realising it was a ticketed event. Ignoring that we popped in for a drink in an outdoor bar and, having stuff ourselves, Steve had a whiskey and coke while I had a Caipirinha. We had a couple of those but were mostly entertained by the table next door. One couple had left while the other couple and a man were attempting to get through an entire bottle of whiskey. At about 11.30 the woman was asleep, her partner had his head in his hands and the other (very fat) guy had just ordered a meal and was still drinking. About 20 minutes later the guy threw up all over a nearby tree before heading home. We left and made our way up to another bar where it was considerably more expensive and I switched to whiskey with Steve. We stayed for a bit before heading to the club, Cuba Libre, but with a AR$20 entrance fee decided to call it a night, which was probably wise as I was not too good the next day.

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Buenos Aires

October 14th, 2009
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Buenos Aires is the capital of Argentina and the “Paris of South America” or so quite a few guidebooks say. In fairness, they’re not far off; take some of the architecture of Paris, add a heavy dash of spanish culture and you’ve pretty much got Buenos Aires. It’s really rather very nice.

Our arrival in to Buenos Aires, on the other hand, could have been better. Having nearly slept through our flight in Sao Paulo we were greeted by a late departure from Sao Paulo airport which meant that our one hour to connect in Montevideo (Uruquay) was looking optimistic at best. Once we arrived in Montevideo, about an hour late, we obviously legged it through to the departure lounge and were greeted by way too many people in far too small an area. Unfortunately it looked like no flights had left the airport in sometime which meant a serious backlog of Pluna flights out of the airport. With, seemingly, a flight almost every hour to Buenos Aires we thought it would be easy to bump up the queue but unfortunately we had to wait another two hours before getting on our original flight. On arrival in to Aeroparque, the domestic (and Uruquay!!) airport we had to walk a fair distance from the plane to the terminal before strolling through an empty passport control. We then had to wait somewhere near 90 minutes for our bags to come through. No idea what was going on but the airport was dead. Have yet to leave Argentina so having no entry stamp in the passport may make things interesting….we’ll see. Also, don’t bother with the taxi booths, they’re expensive, just grab a meter taxi out the front.

Our first night in Buenos Aires didn’t really get much better after that. We’d checked out hostelbookers.com a few days before and found a good hostel with a quality safety record in the Palermo neighborhood. We assumed we could just turn up and get a room…….no no no. So, we managed to rock up at the right place, a feat given that they have no markings to suggest they’re a hostel. We rang the buzzer and asked if they had any rooms. We got a swift reply, no. We then saw the pizza place next door and they took a bit of pity on us once we asked if they knew of another hostel/hotel in the area. In the end the guy said that they only took reservations online and it had to be through hostelbookers.com. It being just past midnight we were in a bit of trouble. He suggested we try the pizza restaurant round the corner as they had wifi. They were shut. We mentioned this to him, and asked if we could borrow his computer. Hell No, but there was a bar round the corner. We went round to the bar and managed to use the wifi, with Steve buying a brownie from them. At that point we couldn’t book for that night but thankfully they didn’t mind when we finally got back and crashed.

In total we ended up spending six days in Buenos Aires basically checking out the different tourist sites as well as trying to check out quite a few of the different neighbourhoods. As we didn’t have a guide book we started off by asking the guy in the hotel what we should see and, as he’d been asked this a few times, he gave us a list of his top 30 things to do/see in the city.

For our first day we decided to head towards the centre of Buenos Aires to the Obelisk. At this point I’ve got to point out that the underground system in Buenos Aires is excellent; it can, at times, be as crowded as the tube but it costs about 20p to go anywhere on the network. From the Obelisk, which is just that and nothing more, we walked down Diagonal Norte to the Cathedral, Cabildo and Palace. The CathedralThe Cathedral is fairly interesting, resembling most cathedrals on the inside, but looking more like a greek temple from the outside. Having had a quick look at both of those we decided to walk up Calle Florida, which is a main, pedestrianised, shopping street catering for almost anything. Nothing particularly special down here but it leads quite nicely to Plaza San Martin which is quite a peaceful little park area.

Our second day was a Sunday, and still feeling a little jetlagged, we only managed to get up at midday (this became a bit of a pattern) but made our way to the San Telmo neighbourhood to check out the Sunday antiques market. It’s a really excellent market along calle Defensa which sells many things, not just antiques. It’s an absolute must, in my opinion, if you’re in Buenos Aires on a Sunday. The atmosphere in the place is just brilliant with musicians along the length of the street playing various kinds of music to keep people entertained.San Telmo Street Music With the market dying down we eventually decided to just relax in the main San Telmo square and sat on the street with a couple of jugs of Quilmes while we watched the world go by. Eventually the market disappeared and was replaced by restaurant seating as well as a dance floor where people danced tango while others looked on. We finished off the night with a cracking meal overlooking the square before heading back to the hostel.

On our third day I was feeling considerably worse for wear, possibly the result of the previous nights beers (although we didn’t have that much) or I was actually coming down with something. It was probably the latter as I didn’t feel too great the day after either. Anyway, we decided to have an easy(ish) day and went to look at the district of Recoleta in the north of the city. This area contains a lot of green open spaces as well as some of the most expensive parts of Buenos Aires. Unbeknown to us it was also the first day of spring and, coupled with the stunning weather, it meant that a lot of people were out in the parks enjoying the sun and generally having a good time. Unfortunately for us the reknowned cemetary, with exquisite tombs, was not open at the time of visiting. We did have a really great day though, just chilling out in a cafe and watching the world go by.

The rest of our time in Buenos Aires was done at a seriously slower pace. We spent another three days, one of which we spent walking the whole bloody city, just chilling out. We visited Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood with it’s more trendy feel and designer shops which was cool but a tad annoying when you’re on a budget. We also, eventually, got round to walking down to the Hall of CongressEl Congresso Nacional on Avenida de Mayo 5 and couldn’t believe we hadn’t done it sooner. The avenue itself, we knew, was full of impressive architecture but the Hall of Congress is a real treat. Our final day we spent going down to the Boca neighbourhood which is seriously deprived but has the famous Boca Juniors football stadium. It’s also home to a spectacularly touristy couple of blocks, the name of which I can’t remember, but it’s not really worth going to in my opinion. We pretty much just turned straight round.

Author: Mark Jerzykowski Categories: Uncategorized Tags: