A final word on Bolivia

Bolivia’s geography is one of extremes and it is this more than anything that defines the country and its people. On the country´s western border the Andes are at their most spectacular, forming one huge, dominating mountain range of snow and ice. To the east these peaks give way to the high, freezing altiplano before plunging down into the sticky rainforest of the Amazon Basin.

I witnessed this massive transition in a spectacular fashion when I did a mountain bike ride on “the world’s most dangerous road” just outside of La Paz. It involves dropping from 4850m to 1100m over 64 stunning kilometres. The drop is so steep that you basically don’t need to pedal for the entire ride.

As with any good travelling adventure, much lore and myth has built up around “Death Road”. It involves speeding down a gravel road with a sheer drop on your left hand side while trying desperately to keep your balance as you negotiate rocks and waterfalls. The road developed its current reputation when it was a major transport route and the scene of many fatal accidents – as much to do with the mad Bolivian driving as the dodgy road I reckon.

Today vehicles no longer drive on the road meaning cyclists have it to themselves and I am skeptical as to how dangerous death road actually is. On our bike ride we did have one chap wipe out but that was more because we were being boys and competitive rather than any problem with the road. Still, I met a girl who said that on her tour one guy went straight off the edge but fortunately managed to grab some foliage while falling. The tour operators threw him a rope, pulled him up and everyone carried on! 22 cyclists have died on the route over the last 10 years so there is definitely some danger associated with it. That aside, it really is a spectacular bike ride where you start in the snow all wrapped up against the cold and finish sweating profusely in the jungle.

A Kiwi bloke was the first to see the potential appeal of the road to mountain bike enthusiasts and set up a company offering rides down it. There are now more mountain bike companies than tourists and it’s a core part of the Bolivian backpacker circuit so he has done an excellent job marketing the experience. There is a cool video on his site: http://www.gravitybolivia.com.

The final stop before Peru is Lake Titicaca – at 3800m it’s the highest navigable lake in the world and also the largest in all of South America. From the very peaceful lakeside town of Copacabana you can see the Andes stretch out on the other side of the lake in Peru. From here it’s possible to catch a ferry across to Isla del Sol, the place where the Incas developed their taste for worshipping the sun.

My plan was to get to the island, hike around a bit and check out the Inca ruins but this was scuppered by a very enthusiastic and charming Dutch chap I met at the bus stop. Ines convinced me that he was a master sailor and questioned why anyone would want to catch a ferry to the island when you could sail. Why indeed? After some good sales patter I was convinced. We roped in a German girl as third mate and arrangements were set for the following morning.

When we commandeered a vessel off one of the local chaps at the harbor, I did have some reservations but at this point things were moving along nicely and I didn’t want to kick up a fuss. Our ship had a very rustic look to it – the mast was constructed of carved tree branches and she looked pretty handmade. For instruction, we carried a very rudimentary map (picture below) drawn on a piece of paper the size of my hand and we were told to seek out Tomas on arrival at the island. Full of enthusiasm the three of us set off on what turned out to be a grueling journey to Isla del Sol.

We spent 8 hours sailing, and doing rather a lot of rowing, into a side wind. On the ferry the journey takes half an hour. We persisted through freezing temperatures, a thunderstorm and I was decidedly grumpy by the time of arrival but it did feel like an achievement. We found Tomas, moored our boat and got digs in a village high up on the Island. It is such a beautiful and tranquil spot. We had no time, and less inclination, to walk around, however, we did see a spectacular sunset with a beer in hand. Our return the next day could not have been more different – the sun was shining, the wind was at our backs and we returned in 3 hours with minimal effort on our part.

A novel way to have our bus cross lake Titicaca.

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Eating In Peru

At the border crossing from Bolivia to Peru I realised, a little late in the piece, that I was an over stayer. Apparently my visa was valid only for a month and I had been in the country 7 weeks. Fortunately Ines was still with me because, as well as being a lovely bloke, he had spare Boliviano and he spoke much better Spanish than me. We haggled over the fine, got it down and bit, only to discover that our other travelling companion, Flori, was having a few problems of her own. When she entered Bolivia an official had forgotten to give her an appropriate stamp and this was creating an issue. Eventually, the officer in charge said he could fix everything if Flori first bought him an Inca Kola. This is a level of bribery I can work with although why you would want to drink the stuff beats me – its radioactive yellow, super sweet but very popular in Peru and Bolivia. Depressingly it’s owned by Coco Cola.

My first stop in Peru was Arequipa and it could not have been more different from Lake Titicaca.  The biting cold of the altiplano is replaced by a desert environment. When I visited it was hot, sunny, dry and the architecture could not feel more Spanish. After spending a few days walking in a canyon deeper than the Grand Canyon I headed to Lima  to indulge in food.

Lima, or more precisely the posh bit of Lima, Miraflores, was the first modern city I had been in since Santiago, Chile, and I got very excited by the eating opportunities. I was fortunate to meet a fellow gourmand, Candy Azote, at the bus stop and the first thing we did was head to one of Lima’s top ceviche restaurants. As you’d expect the ceviche was spectacular and the dish we had was prepared in 4 different styles. I’m keen to learn how to make it, there is quite an art to it me thinks.

For my money, Peruvian cuisine is significantly better than the food from any other country I’ve visited on this trip. I was fortunate to be taken out to Lima’s best Don Mario (beef heart) restaurant by a local, Fiorella Conterno. Unlike other offal, beef heart is very mild in flavor. We had it grilled on skewers and it was beautiful – tender, juicy and tasting of strong beef.

Other delicious things I tried in Peru were chicha morata, a soft drink made of black corn. It;s the colour of raspberry juice, sweet and wonderfully refreshing. Paltas rellenas is decadent comfort food. It consists of half an avocado stuffed with a filling of potatoes, peas and shredded chicken – delicious.

The North of Peru is famous for its seafood and it was in the tiny seaside resort of Mancora that I discovered the most amazing restaurant tucked away off the tourist circuit.  They serve probably the best parihuela (seafood soup) I have eaten in my life. It overflowed with crab, scallops, fish, octopus and was drawn together in a rich, red creamy sauce. It was so good I went back for more the following day.

No culinary tour of Peru would be complete without eating their most famous, and to westerners, controversial dish – guinea pig. While we might consider them furry pets they are a serious delicacy in Peru and bred to eat. The slightly disconcerting thing is that they are served whole, heads and claws attached. You can either have them roasted or kind of squished flat and fried. I opted for the latter and while I’m pleased I ate my furry friend, I think I will pass next time around. It was fatty, the meat was quite strong, there were too many bones for my likely and frankly, the claws were just disconcerting.

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Plan C to Machu Picchu

The series of seven bangs which ricocheted around the valley sounded decidedly like gun shots and put me on edge. Others in the group were less concerned and thought they were fire crackers let off to celebrate May Day. Our very affable and charming Scottish guide, Dougie, clearly had some concern as he got us to sit down on the ground.

It´s day one of an eight-day trek to the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu and what has already turned into a complicated hike for Dougie just got a little more challenging. After a brief pause we continue our walk to the ruins of Vitcos, the last stand of the Incas. We later find out that we had heard gun shots fired by police stationed in the valley as a warning – about what is anyone’s guess! The police are based in the valley to deter drug trafficking which is very reassuring. What is less reassuring is how we in any way resembled drug traffickers. Half our group were in their 60s, we were decked out in colorful gortex rain coats and ambling slowly towards Inca ruins in the middle of the day. Maybe the cops were just bored and thought it might be fun to put the wind up some gringos!

Plan A was to trek to Choquequirao, the site of some significant Inca ruins but we had to scrap this because flooding had wiped out a key bridge. Plan B also had to be changed due to bad flooding and Plan C was a bit unknown. Dougie took it all in his stride and did a very good job of convincing us all was in hand. He had a pretty tough audience – the retirees of our group were east coast women from well-to-do families. They were great fun, and their hiking ambitions impressive, but they had high standards and were not ones to mince their words. We also had two honeymooners and four of us travelling alone. The 10 of us were supported by two guides, 16 mules, two horses and at least six others who looked after the mules, put up camp and cooked meals. It was quite the expedition and we travelled in a style that I was not accustomed too. Each meal involved multiple courses and was taken in large dining tent, we had a tent housing a sit down toilet with a flush and each morning we were greeted with tea in bed. And we were given pillows. Luxury!

The Andes are at their most majestic in Bolivia and Peru. Our hike took us from stunning mountain valleys, over high passes, before plunging us into valleys very different from those that we had just left. The steep, high terrain means very different microclimates exist from valley to valley. The highest peak we crossed was 4500m and just before reaching Machu Picchu we descended through lush cloud forest overflowing with fruit. Rotting avocado littered our path and we gorged on wild strawberries and a fruit similar to passion fruit but better.

One day we bought a whole lamb and were treated to Peruvian hangie called Pacha Manca. For those of you who aren’t kiwis, a hangi is a traditional Maori way of preparing food for large groups and the process is remarkably similar to that used in Peru. For a Pacha Manca you build an oven made of stones and light a fire in it until the stones are red-hot. You then break up the oven and mix the stones with lamb wrapped in tin foil and shed loads of potatoes. Next you cover the mound in straw, then tarpaulin and finally earth. After 45 minutes you are good to go – the lamb comes out beautifully tender with a smoky, earthy flavor. Yum.

On our second to last day we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu from a far. It is perched on a jagged ridge in a stunningly beautiful valley, completely different to others we had walked through. The setting for the site is absolutely spectacular. The first thing you think on seeing the ruins is “How?” shortly followed by “Why?” It looks like the most impossible location to build such a huge settlement and its remoteness, while certainly beautiful, doesn’t seem practical.

The visit to Machu Picchu was incredible. As with all great sites such as the Great Wall or Taj Mahal, the reality is not diminished by having seen pictures of the ruins many times over before arriving. It’s huge and we had to really motor to get round all the parts we wanted to visit. Over the course of our hike Dougie had talked a lot about the Incas, their culture and demise, making our visit  so much richer. The Incas had such a sophisticated society and it’s incomprehensible to me that their entire empire was brought down by 157 Spaniards. What’s even more galling is that aside from being exceptional soldiers it’s not like the Spaniards who invaded matched the Inca in class – they were adventurers and soldiers who came to steal gold, women and land. If you want to read a riveting book on the fall of the Incas I recommend The Conquest of the Incas by John Hemming. It’s tragic but a rollicking read full of bravery, deceit, betrayal, gore and lust. The Incas weapons and fighting tactics were never going to beat the sophistication of the Spanish but I can’t help concluding that they were undone so quickly by sheer naivety.

On a lighter note, it got out in our group after a heavy night of drinking amongst the boys that the honeymooners with us were trying to conceive. As the new husband so eloquently put it – “Why conceive in a hotel room when you can make a Spirit God baby at Machu Picchu?!” We were all supportive of the cause and the couple were given a wide berth on our visit to the ruins. It’s a pretty busy place but rumour has it sufficient solitude was found. More on this in nine months time.

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Volcanoes and the Equator

Of all of the Andean countries, Ecuador feels like the most sensible. Never how you want to be described is it? Here the Andes lose their grandeur and turn into green rolling ranges making it pleasant and fertile farming country.  The people are lovely, helpful and friendly but more subdued than the Argentinians, certainly than the Colombians. Quito is full of US chains, they use the US dollar and the roads are well maintained. It´s all very, well, sensible.

One thing Ecuador does have in abundance is a huge array of volcanoes and some of them are pretty large. In fact, their highest volcano, Chimborazo, is 6310m and because of the equatorial bulge its peak is the furthest point in the world from the earth´s centre into the atmosphere. This makes it higher than Mount Everest by that measure, certainly a good line to use if you’ve climbed it!

In my endeavor to do at least one decent walk in each country I visit, I decided to have a crack at Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s second highest peak at 5897m, three metres higher than Kilimanjaro. I’ve climbed Kili, it was pretty full on and took six days to summit. What’s unusual about most of the peaks in Ecuador is that they are really easy to access. For Cotopaxi, you drive up to 4600m and then it is only a short climb to base camp at 4800m. This just leaves a 12 hour hike of pain to the summit.

The route to the top involves a glacial traverse. Because of this you need to wear crampons, use ropes and a carry a pick axe. It is not technically difficult so with a good guide you don’t need to have had prior experience, which was good for me. It was shaping up for a grand adventure and I even managed to rope in a fellow traveller, Maria Sykes, who also had never used crampons. In fact, Maria had only done her first hike a month before on the Inca trail in Peru.

We had to hire lots of mountaineering equipment before leaving Quito and I grumbled about having to get special mountain boots and snow pants – I thought my hiking trainers and long johns would do the trick. We approached the mountain in bad weather so we were not able to get a sense of its size. The first day was very straightforward – a 200m climb to base camp. We had a bite to eat, went to bed at 6pm and woke at 11.30pm for breakfast so that we could walk through the night and summit at day break.

To say I underestimated the scale of the venture would be quite an understatement. Crampons really enhance your ability to negotiate very steep terrain which was helpful because our path took us straight up! On exposed ridges the wind was unrelentingly ferocious and icicles formed on any exposed facial hair. The most beautiful part of the climb took us through an ice valley of massive stalactites and we had to jump across two crevasses before scaling a snow wall.

If I had underestimated the difficulty of the climb for myself, I had most definitely underestimated it for Maria. After much solid climbing and a valiant effort on her part we turned back at 5500m, 397m from the top. It would be fair to say that I was disappointed and got into a bit of a strop. Maria was exhausted and felt awful and our guide who had employed an aggressive manner from the start became even more dictatorial on our descent. We were not happy party on arriving at camp! It’s a shame really because the descent was absolutely stunning. The stalactite valley was beautiful at daybreak, we had Quito in plain sight below us and views stretching across to most of Ecuador’s major peaks.

After a bit of breakfast and a cup of coffee we all managed to get out of our moods in order (more correctly, I got out of my strop) and we had a laugh about the experience. As testament to how challenging the climb is, only two of the nine parties that tried to summit at the same time as us were successful and most of them had a lot more mountaineering experience than us.

From Quito it’s a short ride to the Equator. It’s a dusty, unpleasant sort of place but the Equator is a big draw especially in a country named after it. The official monument built in 1979 is actually 300m shy of the Equator but this hasn’t dampened a steady stream of visitors.

It’s possible to visit another site right on the Equator which is very gimmicky but good fun. Here I balanced an egg on a nail,
if you’ve never tried, it’s difficult. Apparently, because there is less
gravity on the Equator, it should be easier. This was one of many “scientific” experiments carried out. Our guide had a kitchen sink to hand with which to carry out three tests. First water was poured into the sink right on the on the Equator and it didn’t swirl when going down the plug hole, it went straight down. The same test was carried out in the Northern Hemisphere where the water swirled counterclockwise and it went down clockwise in the southern hemisphere. I was amazed but skeptics argue, and a quick google search reveals, it’s probably all a hoax and that the Coriolis force – which does exist and is attributed to causing this phenomena – does not impact how water drains. Dammit! But hey, I work in PR, why let the truth get in the way of a good story.

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The Galapagos

My visit to the Galapagos Islands was undisputedly one of the highlights of the trip. It is such a unusual place, the scenery is breathtaking and the wildlife incredibly endearing.

I’m not going to write about it here as I’ve got an article coming out in the New Zealand Herald on Sunday which I’ll post when published.

In the meantime, check out some of these pictures:

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On the hustle in Columbia

The Caribbean Coast of Columbia is an assault on the senses. Temperatures sit in the mid 30s, humidity is in the mid 90s and its cities, while rough around the edges, pulsate with energy. Everyone is trying to sell something to everyone, posturing is part of any exchange and people are always quick to laugh. If a little disconcerting at first, it´s brilliant fun once you get into the swing of it and its impossible to leave the country without falling in love with the people.

To carry on an analogy used in my last post: if you think back to your childhood classroom, the Colombians would be the cool naughty kids, always in trouble with the teacher but great fun. The Argentinians would be the rich kids, good-looking, well-bred and attracting the respect that comes with wealth. The Ecuadorians would be the quiet studious ones, probably the teacher’s pet and very good people to know during exam time.

After a brilliant night of drinking rum and attempting, badly, to salsa at a Cuban club in Cartagena I headed for one of the most beautiful beaches in the area, Playa Blanca. This is not a straightforward journey and proved challenging on a hangover. First I had to take a local bus out of town for an hour and a half, next I had to cross a canal on a barge and the final leg involved a half hour ride on the back of a motorbike. It was here I experienced the Columbian humour in full swing. First my driver swapped my hat with his because he took a liking to it. Then, when seated behind my driver, I took hold of his fairly ample sides for balance. Well, it was as if I had just propositioned the man. It caused great hilarity amongst the other drivers, there was much back slapping and a firm indication by my driver that I should hold onto the back of the seat, not him.

I spent majority of my time on the coast in Taganga, a ramshackle fishing village which attracts loads of tourists who come to dive in the nearby national park of Tayrona. It is a very chilled out place and I hardly put on a shirt the whole time I was there. I had fresh fruit for breakfast, dived during the day and in the evenings I would buy some of the day´s catch from fisherman off the beach. A small tuna cost 6 quid or 12 kiwi! It was all very idyllic but it’s also the sort of place you don’t want to stay too long. For a start it is tiny and there is a disproportionately high number of crazy people kicking around, some of them tourists, who have become hooked on a cheap and highly addictive drug that is a byproduct of cocaine production.

Check out these dive pics:

Tayrona is a skinny national park that stretches along the Caribbean Coast and is home to the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. The sort of beaches that you use as a computer screen saver, in fact, I have one as a screen saver! You enter the park through thick jungle and I was fortunate enough to see some howler monkeys on the way in. You then hike along various beaches, find a campsite that takes your fancy, park up and lie in the sun for a few days. Bliss.

Pictures speak louder then words:

It was at Tayrona that I had my first experience of sleeping in a hammock – it’s not as straightforward as you might think. Personally, I like to go to sleep on my stomach which is just not possible in a hammock even though I gave it a very good shot. I also think they are better suited to small people but it was pretty cool going to sleep in the ocean breeze with the sound of the sea in the background.

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The banks of the Amazon

Having failed to make it to the Amazon Basin in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador,  Columbia was my last chance before leaving South America. To this end I flew from the coast down to Leticia at the bottom tip of Columbia.

It is a very cool little town where everyone gets around on scooters and it is only accessible to the rest of Columbia via air. From Leticia it´s possible to cross into Brazil without going through a border checkpoint and from the banks of the Amazon river you look over into Peru. It´s pretty mad. The chap who arranged my tour said that on weekends all the young Columbians cross over to Brazil to party because the beer is better and women easier!

I’m writing an article on my time in the jungle so I will post this when it  is published. In the meantime check out these pictures:

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