Carnival, high living and salt

Carnival in La Paz was not quite what I expected, the same can be said for much of my experience of Bolivia. I anticipated 5 days of hedonistic frivolity with non-stop partying, plenty of heat and plenty of flesh.

Nestled in a river valley at 3,600 metres, La Paz is the world´s highest capital city and it has the highest airport in the world at 4,100 metres. This high altitude means it´s pretty cold during Carnival! Especially because Carnival falls in the middle of the rainy season.

Carnival is a Christian celebration which falls straight before lent although it doesn´t resemble the church activity of my youth. Over a series of days church groups, students and different ethnic groups parade down the main street performing a traditional dance. It´s more performance than party and it´s considered a great honor to be asked to perform. While there is plenty of drinking done during the procession by onlookers and dancers alike, it does not descend into an all out street party at the end. A pity I thought.

Well this was the case in La Paz but it seems that not all Carnivals are created equal and they vary widely depending on the wealth and traditions of a region. Bolivia´s most famous Carnival takes place in Oruro where huge amounts of money is spent on costumes and floats. Then there is the Rio Carnival where it sounds like much partying can be had.

Fortuitously my hostel in La Paz was located on the main street with the parade passing my door each day. On the first day, the children had their parade and on the second day it was the opportunity for students to strut their stuff. The costumes for these two days were a bit sketchy and the focus was very much on having a water fight. This was one of the more unusual aspects of Carnival – for the whole event people carry around water pistils and cans which spray foam. The holders of these weapons take great delight in aggressively spraying passing randoms. Gringos are popular targets! I found it a bit odd really. I´ve clearly spent to much time with the English and couldn´t quite cope with this assault on my personal space.

Sunday was the highlight of the festival with all of the different ethnic groups coming out to perform and some of the outfits were fantastic. Pics can be seen in the gallery below.

Over the three days I formed a good relationship with the family running my hostel and they were keen to welcome another drinking companion. I found the reaction of many of the tourists unusual. Most I spoke to found Carnival an annoyance, interrupting travel plans with many opting to buy tat in the markets rather than join in the fun. For me, Carnival was more grimy and less party-focused than imagined but it was great to experience something so different.

Following Carnival I took a horrific night bus to the Southern town of Uyuni. Horrific because the journey was meant to take 12 hours and it took closer to 20. We were either freezing because there was no heat or sweating profusely because of the heater being turned up on full. And the seats didn´t recline at all. Bolivian busses are cheap but they aren´t a patch on Argentine ones!

Uyuni is an unattractive, dusty down in the South of Bolivia. The only reason to go there is to visit the Salar de Uyuni, the world´s largest salt flat, and it´s absolutely stunning. Once upon a time it was a lake and now that all the water has evaporated, only a layer of salt remains. Because we were there in the wet season, the whole salt flat was covered by about a foot of water.

I don´t know why driving around in a foot of water on a salt base is thrilling but it really is. For one, all of the land you can see looks like a mirage and its impossible to tell where the sky ends and land begins.

Following our visit to the Salar we continued on a 4 wheel drive journey down to the Chilean boarder taking in the high mountain scenery, mineral-blue lakes and geysers. It was a spectacular 3 days, the scenery getting increasingly more stunning, and one of the highlights of my trip so far. My travel companions were 4 Canadians and we had much fun on route. Canadians are scarily similar to New Zealanders, don´t you know. Must be all that wide open space and lack of human interaction that draws us together hey!

Pictures speak better than words for this leg of the journey –

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Spanglish in Sucre

Following my salt flats excursion I felt a sudden compunction to do something productive with my time so I decided to park up in Sucre for a couple of weeks where I did 8 days of Spanish classes. I´d like to say that I´m now fluent in Espanol but that really isn´t the case. I´m developing a sort of mongrel Spanglish which must be absolutely awful to listen to but I can make myself understood, for the most part, as long as I don´t delve into anything to serious – region, life, death and the like.

The classes have actually been really helpful and I am trying very hard to keep the learning going but there have been some notable hiccups along the way. When trying to buy some tomatoes at the market I exclaimed with confidence, ´I´m a tomato´. When trying to buy a chicken breast at the butchers, I announced to the young female attendant – ´I like breasts´. Ah well, all part of the learning experience I guess.

Sucre is a really lovely town. It´s much lower in altitude than La Paz and much warmer. It´s easy to walk around and it feels very safe for foreigners. With all the colonial architecture you could easily be somewhere in Spain. Through the language school, I formed a good group of friends and life consisted of Spanish classes in the morning followed by ´study´ at a cafe overlooking the city in the afternoons, most often assisted with a bottle of wine. One Sunday we even got ambitious and cooked a roast for 13 people. For this we bought a filet of beef which fed all of us with meat to spare and it cost 12 pounds. So cheap! I would never dream of roasting a filet for people at home.

This is one of the notable features about Bolivia – everything is super cheap. In Sucre, I had my own apartment – separate bedroom, bathroom and kitchen – for 6 pounds a night. I would buy 3 avocados, 3 tomatoes and three bread rolls (the shopkeepers only wanted to sell things in 3s for some reason) for 3 pounds. A really nice dinner out at a posh Gringo restaurant is about 3.5 pounds. As a foreigner, it´s easy to revel in how far your money goes. You can live like a King for nothing, it´s great.

And yet the reason we can do this is because poverty is so extreme here. There are beggars everywhere, often the elderly, and at one fast food restaurant I went to, kids came in with plastic bags, literally begging for the scraps off your plate. That is heart breaking. Child labour is also common place, you´ll often be served by young children at market stalls.

One night I got a chance to watch a Bolivian film, The Devils Miner, I highly recommend it if you get a chance to see it. It follows the lives of two children who work in the the silver mines at a town called Potosi. Potosi was once the world´s richest city because of the silver it produced and this funded Spanish colonialism for many years. Today, there are only scraps left but poor locals still go into the mines in the hope of finding silver. The working conditions are appalling and the life expectancy for miners is mid 30s, my age. It is estimated that 12,000 people work in the mines, almost 1000 of these are children.

All of this has got me to wondering about travel in poor countries. When you´re in your late teens and early 20s I think it´s really important to go out, see the world and experience new cultures and different ways of living. As you get older, it´s more difficult to do this kind of travel without taking on some responsibility for what you are witnessing. If you see great poverty, or injustice and just carry on through enjoying the fact that your dollar goes a long way, what does this make you? I´m not really sure what the answer is to all this but its something I´m thinking about a lot.

On a lighter note, I´d like to spend a moment on the people and, of course, the food. I´ve found it quite difficult to have any meaningful interaction with Bolivians, partly because of language barriers and partly because they can be quite reserved. Unlike in Asia or the Middle East where tourists are seen as a great business opportunity, Bolivians can often be indifferent to the potential trade that you bring. On the other hand, I´ve found some of the Bolivians I´ve met to be really welcoming and to have a great sense of humour.

In Bolivia you start to see people getting around in the traditional dress of the Andes. There is a real difference in dress, particularly for women, between those from the country and those in the cities. Country women will most often be seen in a puffy pleated skirt carrying a colourful morcilla (bag) which could hold anything from potatoes to a child and on their heads they´ll often wear a felt top hat. It´s a fantastic get up and I´d love to show you pictures but I´ve not been brave enough to take any. I guess I figure that if someone came to London and took pictures of me because my dress sense was so unusual (some of you might argue it is!), I´d be a little bit offended.

The food in Bolivia definitely beats that of Chile. They´ve got an amazing range of fresh fruit and vege and as I´m getting closer to the jungle I can get my hands on papaya, mango and other exotic fruit I´ve never tried before. They do great soups and for lunch it´s best to order the set menu where you get a soup and some sort of meat dish. The meat isn´t as good as that of Argentina, where is?! And like Chile and Argentina every main comes with rice and potatoes which I think is slight overkill but, then again, carbs are good.

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Hiking, adopting dogs and the problem with guides

I´ve been on two hikes in Bolivia. The first was in a mountain range just out of Sucre. By South American standards this range is a baby in height and I stubbornly refused to get a guide, deciding that I could instead crack out my new-found ability with Spanish if I needed to ask for directions.

My ´bus´ to the start of the hike was quite an experience. It was a truck with high sides on the back and it gradually became jam-packed with people, produce, animals and much more. I was early so I got a good standing position leaning against the truck wall – those who came later literally had to hang off the sides. Some of those who did come later were 4 Israeli lads who were doing the same walk as me. After 2 hours we were dropped off and, after a bit of searching, found the entrance to the Inca path that we were looking for. On finding the path the first thing my new friends did was light a bong and get stoned – they said it aided the walking!

After following the incredible Inca path steeply into a valley below we came across our first township where this small dog started to follow us. At first we thought nothing of it, stray dogs are a dime a dozen here. However, after 2 hours he was still with us and when we came to a deep river crossing, the dog was carried across. So that was it, he was stuck with us and, full credit to the dog, he walked 18km a day for the next 2 days surviving on bananas and rice – it was all we had spare. A dog that eats bananas and rice?! I was amazed, English and Kiwi dogs are clearly spoilt rotten, they don´t know they´re born. We named the dog Shy because he was, clearly having had a few beatings in his time and because ´shy´ means ´gift´ in Hebrew. By the end of the trip we were all thoroughly attached to Shy and the Israelis decided to adopt him. They took him on the bus back to Sucre and last I heard they were going to give him a good scrub and take him on their South American trip north. He´d be a hit with the ladies I reckon, a cunning plan on the part of my friends.

I´m pretty pleased that I found the Israelis because their Spanish was a darn sight better than mine and we spent a huge amount of time on the second day getting lost. Much of the problem in the Andes is that there are no clear paths, just multiple paths used by the villagers for farming. We got stuck in one ridiculously heavy downpour and managed to convince some local teachers to let us stay in a classroom on the second night because all the other accommodation in the village was booked.

I´m currently in what is described by the Lonely Planet as Bolivia´s hiking and backpacking mecca. More like hippy mecca. It´s full of unwashed Gringos all mooching around and looking a bit dirty. One bloke asked me if I wanted to buy some marijuana this morning. I politely declined but he spoke perfect English so I asked where he was from. ´The Kingdom of God´he replied. I was a tad taken aback by this so I replied, ´yes, quite, but which country in his fine Kingdom?´. To this I got some spiel about the chap not believing in the boundary of countries etc. At this point I gave up and moved on.

Hippies aside, Sorata is an amazing place. Its perched on the side of a valley and the Andes rise up above the town. You´re surrounded by beautiful lush green ranges on every side and my hostel has a deck looking out on all of this. It´s really difficult to take in just how beautiful it is and it is very relaxed.

There is a trekking guide cooperative in Sorata and from here I engaged a guide to take me on one of Bolivia´s premier walks, the Illampu Circuit. A 7 day hike around Mount Illampu with most days involving 1000m plus ascents and all taking place at between 3500m – 5000m. Brutal, I was totally up for this.

I waited for about 3 hours at the guide office until a chap turned up. Maybe he was official, maybe he spotted an opportunity, but soon enough through much broken Spanglish we struck a deal. Remauldo seemed like a decent enough chap but I, wrongly, assumed he was the office man because he had a pretty serious belly. I was a little surprised when he said he would be my guide. My concern grew on Monday when he turned up at the appointed time and said that we should take a taxi up the hill! I made it clear this wouldn´t do and so he said he´d take a taxi and I could walk with his son! So my first day finds me slogging up the side of the Andes with a full pack of food while Remauldo drove his car to his house. It conveniently happens that his house is right by the first night´s camp. Even more conveniently he got to sleep in his house. And I was paying for all this, who´s the mug??

To add insult to injury, the whole family turned up to watch the Gringo cook dinner. When this was done I spent a humbling hour or so getting Spanish lessons from Remauldo´s 6 year old daughter who was brutal in remonstrating me for my poor Spanish.

All of this aside, the next 6 days took me on an amazing hike crossing multiple ranges and dropping into high valleys, all of which were inhabited and farmed. We crossed the highest pass of 5000m during a full on thunder-storm, the sound of which was terrifying. During the storm it dropped half a foot of hail and I was utterly broken by the end of the day. Remauldo did all of this clad in a pair of sandals made from old car tyres and his raincoat was a piece of plastic tarpaulin. Madness. The night of the storm we slept at 4,300m and I awoke to find a layer of ice between my sleeping bag and the inside of my bivvie bag. I have to say, I´m over the bivvie bag, I want a tent. On our last night it rained constantly and Remauldo took pity on me, inviting me to share his tent. I think he was pretty keen to see Sorata again, he made the point of telling me daily that it was usual to have mules to carry the food and that we weren´t mules! While he struggled on a few of the uphills, I reckon we both worked off a few kg by the time we got back to Sorata, not a bad thing.

The scenery of the Illampu circuit was some of the most spectacular I´ve seen and the walking was really challenging, I loved it and am keen to do more but I really need to get to Peru. Not before I spend a few days relaxing in the yungas, the valley region which leads into the jungle. I´m even considering going to an Ashram for a yoga retreat. Better watch out, I might turn into a hippy.

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Going nowhere fast in Chile

Crossing over to the border town of Futaleufu, in the lake district of Chile, was like stepping back in time. The roads are gravel, gauchos (cowboys) ride down the high street on horseback wearing Berets (what´s up with that, I thought they were French??) and you have to chase the chickens out of the way to go into the supermarket. All of this surprised me as Chile has one of the strongest economies in South American and I assumed it would feel much more advanced than neighbouring Argentina where their economy has been on the brink for years.

The scenery also changes dramatically. The predominant westerly winds means Chile gets loads more rain than Argentina and everything is a lot greener. Surrounded by beach forest, it reminds me loads of the lower North Island of NZ. Despite the chickens, I discovered a lemon meringue pie to rival my sisters (sorry Charlotte). This was to be a theme down here, while the mains are a bit bland, the cakes and pastries are excellent, a nod to the original European settlers I presume.

I arrived at 11am and was slightly irritated to discover the next bus out of town was not until the following morning but as it was nice enough place, I was happy to chill out for the afternoon. The daily bus to La Junta, about 130km away, which I was to catch, broke the day I wanted to leave and as no other buses left town for a week or so, I thought I´d try my hand at hitching. Problem was, everyone else had the same idea so at one point there were 9 of us at the side of the road which is not at all conducive to getting picked up. I eventually got a lift 30km down the road late in the day and was dropped in the middle of nowhere. After 3 hours of waiting for another ride, and close to evening, I decided I didn´t want to sleep rough, bottled it, and got a lift back to town. On day 3 I worked out there was one other bus going in a slightly different direction to where I wanted but at least it was a bus out of town!  I caught this and then my hitching luck changed. I got two lifts pretty quickly, one on the back of a cattle truck with 7 other people, and then I hit the jack pot: a bus came past going to Coyhaique, the destination of my next walk, which I flagged down (common practice here). Result. It turned out the bus took this trip once a week.

It’s really strange to be put in a position where it’s very difficult to leave somewhere, I was looking at cyclists with envy. Come back transport for London, all is forgiven! Still, my crash course in hitching reminded me of three important things: a) it’s always better if you`re a girl, or have one with you 2) Many people hitching from the same place = bad c) there is a hitching pecking order; if you arrive as the third person at a junction, you can`t walk to a better position on the road in hope of getting a lift first, you`ve got to wait your turn.

Here is a video I took right before catching my first lift for the day:

It turns out that region 11, which is where I crossed over, is the slightly forgotten part of Chile and it definitely becomes more connected in the south where more tourists congregate. From Coyhaique I walked Cerro Castillo with two Spanish and Ecuadorian guys that I met, more on this in the next post. Having been slightly traumatized by the bus links, the three of us flew down to Punta Arenas, the last stopping-off point before Cape Horn and Antarctica. Punta Arenas felt like the first proper Chilean city that I visited. It has loads of art deco buildings, great pubs and it is from here that you can go to a local penguin colony. They are so cool, check out some pics:

The one slight problem with the penguin colony was that we turned up in a mini sand blizzard which made it very difficult to move and actually see the little blighters. Further more, I got sand in my camera and it broke, right before I was to visit one of the most beautiful parts of the world. Pesky penguins!

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Walking Southern Patagonia

One of the most striking things about moving further South is that it gets quite a lot colder, quite a lot wetter and massively more windy. All of which is fine but it definitely adds a challenge to the tramping experience.

I did three walks in the South, the first of which was supposed to be a 4 dayer to look at Cerro Castillo glacier just out of Coyhaique. For this I was joined by two guys who were keen on the walk but had never been tramping before. I was happy to have the company but their gear was a little ropey to say the least – Jose 1 walked in jeans and Jose 2 didnt have a rain coat which was unfortunate cause it rained constantly. Our first day took us into a lovely river valley which seemed to collect the cloud and rain. At camp we managed to light a fire and not get too cold initially but then the rain got heavier and didn`t stop all night. The bivvie was pretty miserable and the two Jose`s woke with completely wet gear in a puddle of water. On day 2 we climbed higher and the weather detriorated further. The views were stunning but on arrival at our camp it was really exposed and looked very uninviting! I was a bit concerned with all our wet gear and in the end we made a call to carry on and take an alternative route out – made for a 10 hour day but a hostel bed has never felt so good! I later met an Israeli chap who had done the walk and the wind on the same pass we crossed had knocked a fellow walker down who cracked her head open and they had to put in place a rescue mission. Yikes! Glad that didn’t happen to us! Fair play to the 2 Jose`s who weren`t put off by their first hiking experience. They stocked up on more gear, including a pair of gardening gloves for warmth, beats socks on the hands I guess and walked Torres del Paine.

I also took a video just before heading out on day 2:

The two most famous Patagonian walks are around Torres del Paine in Chile and to Mount Fitzroy in Argentina. Down in the south the scenery is defined by huge wide-open spaces of rolling brown farmland with mountains framing the skyline. It’s really beautiful and, if possible, even more windy. Peurto Natalas is the starting point for the Paine circuit and it is a really cool little town set on the Sound of Last Hope, a slightly ominous name I thought. The Paine circuit takes you around the whole of the mountain range taking in river valleys, a massive glacier and the Torres towering over everything. It was great fun and incredibly beautiful. While the walking wasn`t particularly challenging, I was covering long distances (113km over 5 days) and the weather was pretty variable to say the least. fortunately I got one perfect day for one of the most picturesque sections but it rained every night – I was mighty sick of the bivvie in the end!

I was much more lucky with my Fitzroy experience as I had three days of perfect weather. In some ways the park is more accessible cause you can see loads of the best views on day walks but it also has less tourists on the paths and there are no amenities on route, just basic camping. The scenery was stunning and Fitzroy itself is incredible – a sheer piece of granite rising 3375m into the sky. On one day I did a 1500m ascent up into climbing territory which was incredible and I met some climbers up there. One chap had spent 2 weeks climbing one peak, sleeping off ropes and stuff. That’s a step too far for me, when that Patagonian wind picks up, I’d be a very unhappy bunny.

Here are some pics of both Fitzroy and Paine:

Patagonia has been amazing, I´ve loved the walking, its raw beauty is incredibly captivating and I’ll definitely be back for more. It has also been the ideal way to burn off a few pies!

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Chile I like but maybe not as much as Argentina

I´ve had an amazing 7 weeks working my way south and crisscrossing between Argentina and Chile. I´ve loved both countries but I think I´ve liked Argentina a little bit more. I´ve found the Argentinians more open and approachable, the transport links are better and, of course, there is the steak! Actually, the food in both countries is not particularly varied with a focus on fried meat and potatoes which gets a bit samey after a while. Still the cakes and pastries are fantastic in both countries, as are empanadas – small pastries filled with meat or cheese and ham. They´re kind of similar to a Cornish pasties and very tasty.

Both countries are really beautiful but in Argentina you are able to enjoy it all a bit more because it rains a little less!

From Peurto Natalas in southern Chile, I flew to Santiago for 2 days and then I flew up to La Paz, Bolivia yesterday, arriving in time for Carnival. I really liked Santiago, it has a reputation for being a bit dull which I think is unfair. It has a thriving arts culture and where I was staying was very gritty, and trendy, and the night life is great fun.

Nestled at 3600m, La Paz is breathtaking and I now feel like I´m in the South America of my imaginings. The carnival parade is coming through town shortly, more on this later.

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And so it begins…

Hi Everyone

It’s taken a bit of time but this is the first of, what I hope, will be regular updates on my South American trip. I`m making leaps an bounds on the new media front – I’ve joined Facebook (boo!) and have started a blog.

I`ve been on the road for just over a month, having left London  on a beautiful winter’s day with really mixed emotions . I`ve done a lot of growing up in London and seen the world from there. I know it better now than I know NZ and I’ve been so fortunate to form life-long relationships with such special people.

Enough of the emotional bit! On arriving in Buenos Aires, a mate of mine, Guy, and I hired a car and drove to the coastal town of Mar del Plata for the wedding of Leo and Romina. It was awesome to experience a Latin wedding – dancing (of which I partook begrudgingly at first but warmed up to the idea) was compulsory. We had bbq, Latin style, for the wedding breakfast and the celebrations spanned 4 days. It was all really fun, I made a speech in English and Romina’s brother translated. I think/hope I didn’t offend anyone, although as many of the guests didn’t speak English, they wouldn’t have been able to tell me if I did!

Next, Guy, another mate, Jeoffrey, and I headed to Mendoza. It was hot, the steak was perfect and we were in the heart of Malbec country. A drunken wine tasting tour on bike was followed by white water rafting and then Jeoffrey peeled off back to London. Guy and I were off to Bariloche in the lake district at the top of Patagonia.

Bariloche is very cool. It`s set on a lake and surrounded by them. It attracts loads of backpackers to tramp (hiking for the English amongst you) and hangout. It`s all very laid back and here we had a healthy combo of climbing very high mountains and getting very drunk – all part of a balanced life. Was totally blown away by the scale of the Andes and the beauty of the place.

The tramping served a duel purpose – to explore the utter beauty of the place and, on a more practical level, to halt the growth of my belly which expanded at an alarming rate in November and December.






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