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South America – the gringo trail 2008/2009

February 25th, 2009 · 5 Comments

It’s truly amazing how much ground you can cover during a five week journey on the ole Gringo trail in Peru, Bolivia and Chile… not to mention how totally exhausted your body becomes during this time.  Five weeks in South America passes very quickly yet the flood of sights, smells, sounds and emotions experienced fulfill and enrich the soul. By comparison normal life seems empty, slow and mundane, with little to mark the passage of time.

The experience began with a couple of days of hellish transit – Melbourne to Sydney, Sydney to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to the obscure San Salvador, San Salvador to the grimy Lima and finally the first destination in our adventure – the ancient Peruvian city of Cusco.

Spending 13 hours in LA was enough to bring back the memories of flying into the US back in 1996, the pilots let me into the cock-pit and even allowed me to sit next to the pilot whilst the plane landed. Unheard of post 9/11. Security had ramped up a little – make that a lot. As I queued to remove my shoes and watch along with anything else I harbored in my pockets, I was reminded of the old black and white photos of the concentration camps. The ‘enhanced’ security processes (for our safety of course) seemed uncannily like some less pleasant processes during World War 2.

As I passed through the metal detector I prayed that I had not forgotten to purge anything that was going to make me ‘beep’ – I’d heard what happens if they can’t find the cause of the beep ….the slip slap sound of the rubber gloves.

The Immigration official enquired about the purpose of our trip to South America (was he suggesting we should actually stay in the US instead?) I was tempted to tell him of our plans to smuggle cocaine out of Columbia in 14 huge rubber condoms hidden in Julian’s small intestine but I knew I shouldn’t give away ALL our travel secrets – if they asked questions I could always explain the distended bulge in Julian’s stomach as the nasty result of an upsized Big Mac combo gone bad (in the US I’m sure this would be believable). Anyway why would they bother asking these questions, if people were really planning on smuggling drugs only Forrest Gump or Rainman would spill the plan at the border.

PERU

Arriving at Cusco, I was feeling confident that the nauseating affects of 3,310 meters would pass me by – after all it was nothing compared to the lofty heights of Kilimanjaro which I had conquered last year with no altitude problems.  Julian true to form started to complain of an altitude headache as we waited for our luggage to make its way round on the carousel, feeling rather smug I whistled a merry tune of healthy happiness (though not out loud of course because that would be odd).

This merry whistling ended abruptly when our luggage didn’t make its scheduled appearance. The last thing I wanted to do was loose my luggage in Peru especially when our trek to Machu Picchu was due to start in two days and our gear for the trek was in it.  To make things worse, I had discovered I had wrapped some well chewed spearmint gum in my Peruvian visa and done the right thing and put my trash in a convenient trash can. Now I don’t consider myself a stupid woman so when you drop a flimsy looking half torn scrap of paper in my passport why would I think it’s important? (Thankfully I resolved this problem prior to arriving at the Bolivian border, as I’m not sure how large the bribe would need to have been to make the problem go away).

The grumpiness dissipated as we drove from the airport to the hostel as I surveyed the old cobbled stone narrow streets and locals wearing strange colourful costumes and hats.  Our hostel, Piccola Locanda was a delightful and welcoming place with bright coloured walls and beautifully decorated with Spanish influence. It was immediately clear that a lack of the Spanish language was going to inhibit our communication with the locals, after much gesticulating, referring to some battered photocopies of a lonely planet phrase book and Julian and myself playing tag team charades we eventually we managed to secure our reservation – an exhausting process.

Wasting no time, we decided to explore the city of Cusco – the ancient capital of the Incan Empire.  Cusco is a curious blend of charming architecture, impressive mountains and annoying touts.  After we had been offered our umpteenth alpaca Peruvian tassled hat, and massage (the nature of which I was never brave enough to enquire) we sought refuge in a small café (Café Dos X 3) and greedily devoured the world’s best cheesecake and tiramisu while the owner chain smoked some dubious cigarettes.

My earlier confidence in avoiding altitude sickness dissolved as I became convinced of impending death during lunch at a little restaurant near our hostel.  The 100 metre walk up the cobbled steps leading back to Piccola Locanda proved to be one of the most torturous experiences, heart pounding, pulse racing, thumping headache and nausea – no escape for me this time.  We had later consulted our Lonely Planet to find that the street were staying on (Resbalosa) was known for its ‘choke and grab’ muggings.  I figured I would have been an easy target as I was able to choke on my own accord.

I crawled into bed for my afternoon siesta trying to be positive about altitude sickness – at least I know what it know feels like after missing out on Kilimanjaro I was kind of curious…. It’s all about character building right!

Travelling is indeed an interesting blend of torture, fatigue and excitement.

Huffing up the stairs huffing and puffing

view of Cusco from our balcony

Machu Picchu

The Inca Trail was a mixed bag of good, bad and ugly.  The trek itself was spectacular, no question there and the arrival at the final destination – the Lost City was certainly worth it, but if you decide to trek on the standard Inca Trail route don’t expect a tranquil experience. I wonder about the traveler mentality, some travelers expect to be the only ones on the trail, and the only ones experiencing something unique for the first time – let’s face it this isn’t going to happen especially hiking the Inca Trail – one of the most famous treks in the world.  I don’t mind seeing other people and sharing my experience with hundreds of others but there was a particular vibe on the Inca Trail that annoyed the hell out of me.  Maybe I felt more annoyed because I was still jet lagged and suffering from the effects of altitude, so this amplified the experience but in addition to this something did not feel quite right and I learnt something interesting about human behaviour – more about that later.

Often you worry about landing an annoying person in your expedition, however we were lucky, our group was great (although I might have been that annoying person for someone!) Our porters clapped with enthusiasm every time we reached camp at the end of each day’s trek which while sweet was very cringe making, and probably in the most part engineered to result in a good tip on the final day.  It should have been us hikers giving a standing ovation to the porters, they work so much harder than us on less food, less sleep, and without a nice warm bed like us. Of course ‘hard’ is a relative word as I as found myself absolutely exhausted at the end of each day and overall I found the trail surprisingly difficult.  You would often find me at the back of our group, huffing and puffing and feeling grumpy.  I told Julian not to wait for me and he even took my day pack which he strapped on his chest in addition to his own heavy load!  I was grateful for purchasing the wooden walking stick from a local tout just prior to trek – not only was it useful to support my wobbly legs but I would often use it to trip energetic and jovial trekkers passing me by….

The scenery over the four days was incredible and although it rained at times, this did not make a difference to the spectacular views comprising of beautiful cloud forests, mountains, subtropical jungle and ancient temple ruins. The second day involved crawling our way to the highest pass ironically called Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,200m.  I reached the summit, soaked and sore on my hands and knees (nearly), praying for death so the Incas must have known I was coming and named it after me – it was an enduring 1.5 hours climb in the wind and rain.

The Inca trail delivers all kinds of weather, one minute you will be freezing cold and the next moment you will be peeling off layers in the stinking heat – don’t be too fussed by this it’s all part of the adventure!
So let’s get back to my story of human behaviour.

On the last day of the trek, the camp was packed with over 100 hikers.  We were forced to wake up at 3:30 am in preparation for a two hour walk to the Sun Gate in time for sun rise -it’s supposed to be a spectacular sight.  Unfortunately five minutes into our walk we became stuck at one of the many bureaucratic checkpoints and were forced to wait an additional hour while the official enjoyed his beauty sleep. After finally starting out I knew we were not going to make it before sun rise (the sun was already up!) so I didn’t care about making haste but the hundreds of impatient people behind me certainly did  – the trail was crowded with anxious hikers, running, sprinting, shoving, all trying to make it to the Sun Gate first.  No one told me this was a race? Did they know something I didn’t, perhaps the Sun Gate was somehow going to magically disappear if they didn’t get their first?  Ah yes of course silly me, it’s called the lost city because if you don’t get there first the city will disappear forever!

A young girl Caroline was not used to hiking in difficult terrain and found it tricky maneuvering down-hill, on the day of the ‘race’ her friends whizzed past her with obvious impatience.  I overheard their conversation:

‘Are you in a rush?, asked Caroline with a friendly smile on her face.

‘Nope, we are just faster than you’, came the intentially smart ass reply.

Nice friends hu.

An elderly woman pushed past me to get to her precious Sun Gate, her white hair flapping as she extended her arms and used her walking poles to keep her momentum. She was red faced and tight lipped and muttering some incantation manically to herself – clearly disgruntled with the fact that slower trekkers were holding her up. She reminded me of some kind of creature out of a horror movie, her walking poles like mechanical arm extensions rhythmically clawing at the trail and threatening the slow hikers to move out of the way.

Ironically when we arrived at the Sun Gate those that had desperately battled to get there first (including spider walking pole woman) were squashed up like sweaty sardines trying to take photos. We waited patiently until the sardines had swum off in their shoal down they valley towards Machu Picchu.  Spider walking pole woman extended her mechanical arms demanding clearance of the path and joined the quest to make first ranked sardine.

A small group of us remained and silently took in our surroundings.  The sun beamed down onto the lush green terraced valley with its impressive ancient stone structures, I marveled at the purpose of this mystical place which is still not fully understood – had I stepped out of a time machine?
My mystical thoughts were interrupted when Karyn from our group exclaimed, ‘in thousands of years people will wonder about the mystical purpose of the Sydney Opera House, why do we have to assume Machu Picchu served some mystical purpose?  I had to laugh.

Whilst I am not quite sure about the Sydney Opera House, there is no doubt Machu Picchu is an architectural gem. Some of the stone structures weigh over 50, 000 kilos and are so perfectly carved and fitted without mortar that a blade could not be inserted into their joints.

Walking down the valley towards Machu Picchu was incredible with its impressive citadels, temples and llama’s grazing on agricultural terraces.  I felt like Lara Croft from Tomb Raider.  Our guide attempted to delight us in a 2 hour tour of the ruins but I was so tired from the four day journey that I could hardly concentrate on what he was saying.  In addition I had no hat so my scalp was burning and my thigh muscles were aching with every step.

When the train arrived to take us back to Cusco I noticed the ‘dual’ transport system. Local trains vs gringo trains.  Our guide traveled back to Cusco on his local train whilst we went to the gringo platform and waited for our gringo train.  No doubt his trip was only a few dollars compared to our $US50 ticket – I wonder what would happen if I wanted to catch the local train?
I was beyond exhausted and looking forward to catching forty winks on the four hour journey back…. unfortunately we had a carriage filled with Irish drunk singing at the top of their voices… for FOUR hours.

My anger eventually gave way to amusement and finally I was impressed that a bunch of drunks could sustain singing for that amount of time without stopping and without recycling songs – it was like listening to a CD called ‘Machu Picchu train ride classics.’  Their repertoire included the ever popular Neighbours theme song, the Flying Doctor’s theme song, Changes by David Bowie, and various U2 songs…. Don’t expect the album any time soon.

The Inca Trail was a mixed bag for me, on the one hand the scenery was incredible but on the other I was annoyed by some of the people.  I understand that people who travel have different interests, expectations and are at different stages in life, but I did feel disappointed that many hikers were there to ‘tick a box’ or get blind drunk afterwards.

smiling on the outside, altitude sickness on the inside!

a camp dog

happy little vegemites

yet another steep ascent

Dead  Woman’s Pass – named after me??!!

Making our way to Machu Picchu

grazing llamas

Machu Picchu… at last

cool terraces

Every time I touched a stone a guard would tell me off!

A sleepy stall market cat

Polly the restaurant mascot

BOLIVIA

Bolivia was like visiting another planet.  It was decided the night before (we’re so organized) that sunny Copacabana on the shores of lake Titicaca would be our first stop, trust me this very much not the Copacabana from the “Copa Copacabana” song).  It enjoys the reputation of being one of the highest and deepest lakes in the world, in fact it’s at a dizzying 4300 meters.

The 12 hour overnight bus journey was quite the adventure, While we waited to board our bus a small child tripped and ‘fell’ into Julian, a predictable cliché for a pickpocket.  Fortunately for Julian, feeling a hand slide into his pocket returned the favor with an elbow.

After this incident, I was reluctant to try sleep on the bus – there was a suspiciously high ratio of locals to gringos on board. Feeling rather nervous that I would wake to find my day pack slashed and my camera missing, I secured my day pack over my stomach, slung my arms through the straps and then wrapped my sarong over it just for good measure.  At about 3.00 pm I woke to find a young local girl hovering over me.  I thought she was planning to breach my security perimeter but then realized she was bus sick and would probably throw up all over me. Great. Fortunately her boyfriend encouraged her to keep moving to the toilet – something I had been avoiding all night due to unsavory smell leaching from its door.

At 4.00 am we were sleepily disembarked from our bus to endure a 3 hour transit wait. It was cold and the seats were hard and uncomfortable and I quickly grew grumpy at waiting for so long. At around 5.00 am my stomach was churning and I realized I had to make a run for the public toilets. The toilet attendant charged me and handed over one small sheet of paper, thankfully I was well stocked with my own toilet roll.  Previous trips had taught me the value of providing your own toilet paper, this is right up there with carrying your passport at all times – really can imagine how useless one sheet of paper was going to be in a time of bowel crisis!

Speaking of passports and toilets, I marveled at how often you had to show your passport in Bolivia, it was a must for everything, purchasing bus tickets, getting on busses, boats – anything and everything I was actually quite surprised that I didn’t need to show it for purchasing a ticket for the use of the public toilet.

A Bolivian family sat in front of us at the terminal and I couldn’t help but stare at the wife’s traditional clothing, strange puffy skirt, 1920’s bowler hat and a colourful woven blanket carefully tied to carry her bundle of whatever.

This all-purpose blanket is used to carrying children, food, baby llamas, weapons (probably not) and also serves as a comfy place to sit!  The little bowler hats are quite ridiculous, and a hangover from British railway workers 100 years ago.  I later found out that wearing a bowler hat tilted at a jaunty angle meant the woman in question was single and available, whilst a hat placed straight on the women’s head indicated she was married and not to be messed with (you never know what type of defenses she has in the blanket).

By the time our bus arrived at the Bolivian border I was exhausted and my stomach was cramping and making noises that sounded quite demonic.  Our bus driver explained (thankfully in English) that we had to make our way into two buildings, one before the border and one after to arrange for the stamping of the passports, he also mentioned we had to pay one boliviano, (about 20c) to cross the border.  Later we found out this payment was not necessary and the bus driver and taken us for a ride of a different kind – admittedly I was quite impressed at how he had worked that little number into his speech, informing us that it was town tax, he was quite convincing.

The effects of altitude were still obvious, as Copacobana is around 4,000 metres.  My demon possessed stomach protested as Julian slung my heavy back pack on (as well as his own) and made the pilgrimage from the bus stop to the hostel.  A 20 minute walk felt like a 20 hour walk, as I huffed and puffed and yet again found myself having to do battle with steep coble stone stairs – perhaps they are attracted to me, drawn to me like bees drawn to nectar?  The arrival at our cozy little hostel made it all worthwhile – La Capula, with its Arabic style architecture and great views. Although La Capula was budget accommodation, I felt like I had arrived at five star resort.

We explored the small village of Copacobana, like Peru the streets were lined with merchants selling a range of colourful textiles but thankfully we were left alone to look around at our leisure. Our complete lack of any Spanish frustrated some of the sellers as we were forced to use fingers to try and work out how much money something cost. Julian was tempted to make everything cost two fingers, and that was more fun… At least the local dogs had no problem with our lack of Spanish, the local dogs were friendly and demanded pats in exchange for frenzied tail wags.

Isla Del Sol

In the early hours of the morning, we walked down to the jetty and climbed aboard a rusty old boat heading out to the Isla Del Sol – the birthplace of the sun according to Incan legend.  We met a few other Aussies who had been travelling around the continent and listened to some of their stories.  Adam had volunteered at a jaguar (the cat not the car) shelter a few months back.  On his first day a jaguar ran towards Adam and in one leap hurtled him to the ground… Adam thought the jag was going to attack him until he realized the Jag was lying on top of him humping forcibly away at this leg… one of the other workers wasn’t overly concerned at this but did warn Adam not to move otherwise this would interrupt the concentration of the Jag and was liable to make the jag violently angry… Poor Adam had to lie very still and endure this for half an hour – he was going to need some expensive therapy when he got back to the real world.

The Isla Del Sol was a fascinating place – at least I am sure it would have been if I had understood what our guide was saying.  Ah well that is what Google is for, but we did enjoy spending the day exploring and walking around the island with its incredible views.

By the end of the day, I clearly understood why the Incan’s thought this was the birthplace of the sun – my face was truly fried and I had suffered intense sunstroke.  If you visit this island make sure you don’t forget your two best friends – your hat and your sunscreen.

taking in the island sights and sounds

this island has no cars.. the residents get around on sheep instead!

La Paz

While waiting for our bus from Copacabana to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, I watched three local girls playing a game on the streets, they each had an orange and they were rolling their oranges down the slope of the street trying to beat the other’s orange.  They would laugh hysterically when their oranges came to a stop, run down the hill, fetch the oranges and start over again. This lasted for ages.  I couldn’t visualize any children playing this game back at home in Australia, unless of course it involved shooting demon oranges on the PS3.

It was a bit of a shock arriving into La Paz after spending time in the quiet town of Copacabana.  This busy city is nestled in a mountain basin which makes for a spectacular view driving in.  Our hotel, Hotel Rosario had many rooms and didn’t look overly busy, yet for some unknown reason we were given the room on the top floor naturally there were no elevators which meant I had to endure more steps,…with luggage – La Paz is the highest city in the world, at 4,200 metres above sea level so you can imagine how I felt about trudging up stairs in this altitude yet again!

Apparently you should never fly directly into La Paz without acclimatizing first, we had been acclimatizing for two weeks now and I still felt quite unwell, often tired, out of breath and dizzy, We met a woman who had flown in a few days earlier, she told us she had spent days in bed and felt like she had been hit by a truck.

Nevertheless I was keen to explore the city and the witches market where you can purchase llama fetuses… apparently you are supposed to bury them under your new house for good luck- just what I had been looking for!  Like everywhere else, La Paz was filled with colourful markets, but by this stage I was over handicrafts so the llama fetuses were quite the novelty.  Feeling rather daring Julian (or Hoolian as the South American’s pronounced) decided to try the llama for dinner; personally I can’t eat anything that vaguely resembles a cute and fluffy pet so I stuck with the regular type of meat.

In the lobby of our hotel; I had been speaking to front reception asking about the laundry services, thankfully they spoke English.  A Sweedish tourist who had overhead me approached me and asked,

‘what type of English are you speaking, I have never heard that that English before?’

I was quite amused but instead of telling him I was from Australia, I replied, ‘I am speaking Australian’.

I thought everyone had heard an Aussie accent these days but obviously my accent was hard to identify….and I had just invented a new English language – Australian.

Julian had been struggling with his mobile phone.  Since arriving in Bolivia his SIM card and pre-paid credit had not been working. In the mobile phone shop, our lack of Spanish prevented any form of progress so back at the hotel we hoped that sheer luck would get it working again.

The automated female voice began her spiel of instructions in Spanish, and Julian punched away at the key pad.

‘Ah, I believe the phone is now going to work’, Julian announced.

‘Why is that?’ I asked.

‘Well, her voice had quite a positive tone; I think her voice would have sounded more negative if there was a problem,’ came his response.

He was wrong…the phone still didn’t work.

La Paz and me!

Sucre

Given our short time in South America we decided that planes might be more efficient as a means of travel not to mention we were growing tired of buses so we booked a flight from La Paz to Sucre.  Take off from La Paz airport was quite interesting.  At high altitude a plane takes a long time to take off so the runway at La Paz was extraordinarily long and take off was shaky and daunting.  However the landing at Sucre was quite the opposite in that the runway was short and I became extremely alarmed when the old ratty plane screeched to a halt a few meters from the end of the runway. I tried to gain comfort in the fact that the pilots do this many times.

Sucre was a clean, tidy and pretty but felt like the South American version of the Stepford Wives.  In some way it was nice to have relief from some of the poorer parts of Bolivia but still I yearned for underdeveloped and patchy buildings rather than Sucre’s perfect-whitewashed walls.

One of the most memorable experiences in Sucre was the visit to the chocolate shops; it’s a chocoholic’s delight with many fine dirt cheap chocolates to be sampled.  During our two day stay in Sucre, we visited the chocolate shop five times with the aim of trying most of the chocolates in the shop!

white washed or Stepford Wives Sucre

Potosi

Continuing on with the trend of avoiding buses, we decided to travel to our next destination Potosi by taxi. 300 years ago Potosi was one of the richest city in the world because of its largest deposits of silver known to man.  It was once said that you could build a bridge from Boliva to Spain with all the silver and still continue mining.

For a mere $20, our taxi driver Hans drove for 2.5 hours entertaining us with his 1980s cassette tape collection and complimenting mullet hairstyle.  The tape deck pumped out groovy 80s tunes like ‘Just an illusion’ by Imagination, and ‘One way ticket’ by Boney M, but somehow this did not match up with the striking Bolivian landscapes. When rap from the movie ‘Beat Street’ filled my ears it felt like we should have been driving down the streets of the Bronx with my tracksuit pants and spray can in hand.  Nevertheless Hans the 80s Grandmaster rapper was able to drive as smoothly as his music, the ‘road’ from Sucre to Potosi was unsealed and rough but Hans knew where all the potholes and bumps were and maneuvered his vehicle beautifully.  I took the opportunity to review the condition of my scalp which had been fried from the visit to the Isle Del Sol – it was flaking chunks, as though there had been a blizzard in my hair – very attractive.

The Lonely Planet described our hotel in Potosi as needing a cosmetic update. A gross gross understatement – it was room out of cold war Russia.  However we enjoyed Potosi more than Sucre because it was more raw and alive.

By now my Spanish vocabulary had increased (or so I thought) so at dinner I decided to be a little spontaneous and ordered something called ‘special beef with locoto’. When my dish arrived, I greedily took a large bite, paused for a second and then began to wildly cough and splutter – it turned out locoto was a red hot pepper. But despite my earlier ordering failure I was quite proud of myself when I was able to avoid the usual charades and asked for the ‘la quenta’ (the bill).

our cold war Russia room

Uyuni

The purpose of making our way though to Sucre and Potosi was too ultimately reach Uyuni in order to book our jeep tour around the Salar de Uyuni (Salt flats).  Unfortunately this meant a return to the bus as a means of transportation and what an adventure it was.  We arrived at the typically busy and chaotic terminal to purchase a ticket for the midday departure but again our lack of Spanish got us into a spot of bother, it took a while to understand the ticket women and eventually we figured there were no more tickets to Uyuni available at midday.  This was unfortunate because there were only two buses leaving for Uyuni, one was midday the other was 7.00 pm and we weren’t keen on a 7 hour journey on a bumpy and notoriously dangerous road in the dark. By sheer luck we found ourselves on the 12.00am bus, apparently two people had failed to turn up so it was a last minute ‘right place, right time’ situation. The bus was a dreadful and ancient clunker, our luggage was tied to the top of the rusty roof and we were the only tourists on board the smelly hot bus.  I guess there are no safety rules in Bolivia, and the driver allowed passengers to fill the aisles and a women sitting on a bucket kept nodding off on my shoulder whilst her small child’s head lay on my foot.  Things weren’t that bad though, we had the pleasure of listening to awful looped Spanish love songs on a skipping CD for seven hours.

Uyuni reminded me of one of those Mexican towns you see in an old Western with rolling tumble weeds and dusty roads.  After we dumped our luggage in our hostel, we wandered down the streets to scout for a tour company to take us out onto the salt flats the next day in a 4wd.  We didn’t have to search for long as we were swamped by sprukers a-plenty.  We were due to meet up with a couple of friends Liam and Anna and we had promised them that we would do our research very carefully and would ask all of the appropriate questions.  Top on our list of priorities was to ensure that the tour group would not exceed more six – the 4wd’s only hold six plus a driver comfortably.  We had heard stories of groups trying to bargain the cost of their tour with operators then finding out the operators had cut costs by cramming more people into the jeep – this is last thing you want when you are driving in a small jeep for hours on end over three days.  So we made the tour operator promise that there would be no more than 6 people in our group tomorrow and I was convinced we had found the best tour operators for our group -Expendiciones Lipez, but as we found out the next day, I was so wrong!

Uyuni aka Mexican town


The Salt flats (Salar de Uyuni)

We arrived at the tour operator at 10.00 am as instructed after being told we were going to be leaving no later than 10.30 am.  It was a particularly hot day and we had to hang around in the sun waiting for the jeep preparation.  This did not impress me as my scalp was finally recovering from its chunking problem.  By 11.30 am we were wondering why all the other groups had left and our driver was still running around doing last minute things.  Finally we all bundled into the jeep feeling relieved there were only 6 of us.  Our driver Franco (who didn’t speak a word of English – no surprise there) was a round, jovial kind of fellow who kept making jokes, well I assumed he was joking because he would also crack up laughing at the end of his own sentences.  Franco drove for a few minutes before stopping in front of a house. Before we knew what was going on, a woman (Franco’s wife) approached the jeep holding a baby.  We assumed he was making a quick pit stop to pick up some supplies but when she tried to climb into the jeep with the baby we knew something was not quite right.  Thankfully, Anna (another member of our group) was able to speak some Spanish and translated the situation for us.  Apparently we didn’t have a cook and Franco’s wife was coming with us to cook our food, and the baby had to come along because he was still breastfeeding!  Thank God, another member of our group, Liam, took charge. He insisted we drive back to the tour operator and clear this up, there was not way we were going to have an extra person and a baby in the jeep over the next 3 days!

After the operator confirmed that Franco’s wife was not coming with us we finally started the tour.  Unfortunately things were different with Franco and he was no longer jovial or laughing at the end of his sentences, in fact he was not even speaking to us at all. I could see his glaring eyes in the revision mirror and I wondered if he was planning on dumping us in the middle of the salt flats to die….

It wasn’t long before we realised Franco was a coca leaf addict.  Coca leaves come from the coca plant and from the coca plant cocaine is made. Taken orally the leaves are known to be a stimulant and Franco frequently dipped into his stash of leaves over the three days.  This curious ritual involved Franco inserting a few leaves into the side of his mouth for a couple of hours leaving them to brew, he would then proceed to spit out a huge maturated globule of leaves – real classy stuff!  He reminded us of a Koala eating gum leaves!

It wasn’t long before we reached one of the most stunning and curious sights I had ever seen – the salt flats.  Some 40, 000 years ago, the area was part of an ocean, after it dried out over 10 billion tons of salt were left behind. You can only drive over the salt flats when they are dry – during this time they are a blinding white surface of desert like nothingness that go for miles and miles when wet the surface is a perfect reflection of the blue sky and clouds.

When you visit the salt flats you cannot resist the temptation along with other tourists to line your camera up for a false perspective shot.  With no horizon and miles and miles of nothingness, this creates a lack of perspective and is an ideal place to partner up and take some pretty cool shots, word of warning – the salt surface is incredibly sharp and you will get cut if you are not careful.

Visiting the salt flats is like visiting another planet…. we came across a massive island of dried up coral covered in huge cacti surrounded by an ocean of white salt, walking on the trails I felt like I had been transported into a Salvador Dali painting.

Being so long on the road, you get an opportunity to get to know your group and like Machu Picchu we were fortunate enough to have great bunch of people.  We already knew Liam and Anna from the UK so it was two other Aussies -Charlotte and Steve that we met and took an instant liking to.  Charlotte had an interesting phobia, one that I had never come across before – a fear of bananas.  Charlotte could not explain how this phobia came about but I knew she was deadly serious when I saw her reaction to the fried banana that was served to us during the course of the trip.   Along with phobia conversations, it’s also natural to exchange horror toilet travelling stories with people you have just met – it’s also quite normal to discuss these topics over dinner.

Speaking of dinner, don’t expect to dine well while you on this expedition, after being promised pancakes for breakfast one morning, we just received dry vinegary bread – dinner wasn’t much better.  One evening I skipped dinner altogether, choosing to opt for my stash of chips and chocolate instead.  On a brighter note, I discovered the most delicious spread by the name of Dulce de leche – a milky based caramel spread which I pretty much lived on for the rest of my time in South America.

During one night, we stayed in a hotel made completely from salt, walls, and floors, even the beds. We were entertained by a bunch of local children who performed a traditional dance with some strange music that involved a drum and various other sorts of percussion instruments.  I couldn’t work out why the music was supposed to be out of rhythm, it actually sounded quite awful, nevertheless we had fun clapping along out of rhythm of course!  The kids also pulled me up for a dance which involved an awkward and yes out of rhythm backwards and forwards shuffling maneuver.  All the kicking caused the salt from the ground to loosen into the air like dust which eventually filled the room with choking salt dust.

Over the three days, I was constantly amazed at the changing landscapes of rugged and raw mountain beauty, eerie windy deserts and icy mineral lagoons with strutting flamingoes. Franco eventually chilled out a little but we were concerned he was going to fall asleep at the wheel.  We decided to go on ‘Franco watch’, whoever sat at the front would be responsible for ensuring Franco did not nod off, we all got a turn as we rotated seats.  Sometimes we would catch glimpses of Franco’s red bleary eyes through the revision mirror – the more he chewed on coca leaves the worse he became bleary eyed.

Day 2 was one of the most spectacular of scenic days, Laguna Colorada is indeed a incredible and unexpected sight – its a huge red fiery lake lined with flamingos, the Bolivian’s are trying to secure this as one of the seven wonders of the world.  We arrived at our camp and our group of 6 shared one room, I was amused at the bedspread covers – bright and velvety 1980s style with large animal prints (where was Hans our taxi driver).  I took the bed with the bright blue cover and horse head located next to the window that was covered by a shower curtain!   That night Franco told us we must leave at 4.00 am the next day in order to have enough time to visit the Geyser Basin and make our way to the bus at the Chilean border so I sank my tired body under my horsey bedspread to get some shut eye.  Our heads had hardly touched the pillow, when we were rudely awoken by the cook at 3.50 am, it was indeed an effective wake up call, he simply marched into the room, switched on the overhead lights and told us to get moving. Nice.

We were rewarded when we reached the geysers around 6am – the steaming and bubbling geothermal wonders.  We were told not to get too close given the toxic fumes and potential to get seriously burnt, I had no problem with these instructions, particularly because the eggish like sulphur fumes made me nauseas. What a raw country this was, with the absence of danger signs and safety barriers, you could easily trip and fall into a boiling pool of mud and have the flesh striped off your bones in seconds.

On our way to some natural hot springs where we could swim (or at least soak) we noticed the large number of jeeps from the other tour operators that were breaking down, clearly by the third day the harsh terrain had taken its toll. We all felt a little nervous what might happen to our scheduled border crossing if we had a breakdown.

Franco dropped us off at the springs and returned to help the broken down jeeps whilst some of us sank into the delightfully warm hot mineral springs.  There was no time for a sit down breakfast by the time Franco got back so we quickly guzzled down some dry bread and Dulce de leche and looked to our stash of chocolate bars for some further relief.

The last leg of the trip involved passing through barren country with stunning rock formations known as the Salvador Dali desert, unfortunately our breakdown fears came true as we felt the jeep pull to the side and heard Franco deliver a groan – a flat tyre.  Franco hurried to fix the tyre along with the help from the guys in our group.  The one good thing about the flat tyre was that it forced us outside and I really got an appreciation of the vast and desolate country.

having fun with perspective shots in the Salt Flats

Julian has me eating out of the palm of his hand!

this island of cacti was like being in a Salvadore Dali painting

cactus hugging hippie!

too much salt makes you serious!

kicking up a salt storm with the local children

when Harry met Sally

the desert is full of suprises

Laguna Colarada

our 1980s animal print bedspreads

Kicking back in the hot springs

you feel quite insignificant in the expansive nothingness..

waiting whilst the flat tyre was changed

CHILE

San Pedro

Arriving at the Bolivian/Chilean border was like arriving in no man’s land.  Nothing to see but a very small building, a burnt out bus and a couple of optimistic foxes surrounded by the vast and barren desert. But a brand new Mercedes bus was waiting for us, and after leaving the Bolivian ranges wide paved roads, street signs and strict road rules. What a contrast.

Our next destination – San Pedro was another curious place, a little oasis in the middle of the desert where the heat was intense and immediately felt.  It was difficult to breath and the dizziness kicked in so walking around with packs on looking for accommodation was not enjoyable. Chile is an expensive country and even the basic of accommodation was quite pricey, coming from Bolivia it was a quite a shock but we managed to find something just in time to avoid my grumpy levels getting out of control.

Besides the intense heat, I also noticed that Chilean men were not shy in their advancements, I referred to them as ‘charming perverts’, it was hard to get annoyed at them because of their charming and subtle ways, they were even bold enough to flirt whilst Julian stood next to me… and yes I was flattered!

To help keep cool in the heat of the day, we adopted the local ways and had our afternoon siestas to avoid the heat of the day.  In addition, a delicious drink called a ‘mojito’ containing rum, and lime and fresh mint was a refreshing and tasty beverage and a perfect way of cooling down.

It was going to be a hot Christmas in San Pedro, we thought it would be nice to meet up with Liam, Anna, Charlotte and Steve and cook a Christmas lunch, so on Christmas eve we went shopping to prepare for our feast the next day.  It wasn’t an easy chore to find fresh and quality produce in the middle of the desert, most produce was limp or too ripened from the heat.  One store owner had decided to leave their
rotting and moldy fruit as is and just dump newer ones on top… hmm we were determined to conquer still.

We also had another challenge, the kitchen and available equipment in our hostel was less than desirable, nevertheless we managed to cook up a feast of baked chicken pieces that had been marinated over night with limes, coriander olive oil and garlic, a mixed pumpkin and potato mash, Greek salad, and some fresh bread.   We even managed to buy a somewhat traditional looking Christmas fruit cake – unfortunately it was very dry but we easily got around this problem by dousing it in brandy and ice-cream.  What’s Christmas without Santa and presents?  I volunteered to be Santa Katherine and passed out the Christmas presents… all the kids must have been good this year because Santa Katherine had delivered some quality presents.  Julian was rewarded with a fine green pair of alpaca socks and a wooden batman toy that could do acrobatic tricks along with a packet of coca leaves.  Liam too had been rewarded with a packet of coca leaves so we spent the afternoon watching Liam and Julian ‘do a Franco’ and laugh at their attempts to chew on the vile tasting leaves.

It was an indeed a Christmas to remember!

Julian’s alpaca socks

coca leaf muncher

coca leaves don’t quite agree with Liam

Charlotte and Steve… and Julian’s Batman toy!

It’s certainly a dog’s life!

Santiago

Travelling from San Pedro to Santiago involved another bus ride, this time however we decided to travel in style and upgraded to ‘full cama’ seats which meant we could recline all the way back during the 24 hour journey.  We also had the pleasure of air-conditioning to keep us cool during the day and warm blankets to snuggle under at night.

Santiago, the capital of Chile was a real pleasure to visit, the first thing I saw was a street vendor selling large, juicy looking strawberries and cherries. After the struggles of finding fresh produce in San Pedro, it was fantastic to taste a fresh piece of fruit!  Amongst civilization, we made the most of dining and staying in some decent accommodation.  Our hotel, Hotel Vegas was quite charming compared to its name.  Its architecture was quirky and our room had gorgeous bay windows that opened up to a view of the old cobble streets below.  The streets of Santiago were clean and safe and it felt like a walk through a post-card, we headed down a little alley way and found a little local café where we were given the friendliest service imaginable.  I was in need of a caffeine fix, but there was no coffee machine so the waiter went next door and asked them to make the cappuccino for me.  Our waiter was not only friendly but he was quite comical and theatrical and we laughed all the way through lunch.

the best waiter in the world!

Punta Arenas

We had our sights on heading down South through Chile towards Patagonia for some hiking in the famous Torres del Paine National Park.  So after spending one night in Santiago we headed off to the airport the next morning to catch a plane to Punta Arenas – the gateway to Patagonia.  By now we had realised there was life outside of the Lonely Planet – we were staying at places not mentioned in the lonely planet and had stopped booking accommodation in advance which once upon a time would have made me extremely nervous.

Two things about Punta Arenas, it’s boring and it’s extremely cold!  We had spent the last few days burning to death in San Pedro and feeling pleasantly warm in Santiago but Punta Arenas was freezing!  Who said hell was supposed to be hot?  We found some accommodation which thankfully had wall heating and decided that it was best to move onto the next town the very next day – Puerto Natales. We booked a bus ticket and headed back to our hostel out of the cold for some afternoon reading.  By 11.30 pm I was surprised that I was still reading in the light!  We were so close to Antarctica that it didn’t get dark until late which was very strange and something that I could not really get used to.

Puerto Natales

The three hour bus journey to Puerto Natales was easy compared to our previous longer bus journey – we were now officially bus travelling professionals.  The landscape and views reminded me of New Zealand with its snowy-capped mountains, blue lakes and green fields but when we stepped off the bus into the icy wind I felt like I was hell again!  Like San Pedro we walked around looking for accommodation except this time we were battling the cold, eventually we decided on a place with an original name called the Puerto Natales Hotel.  For $100 a night we were given a dark and dingy prison cell like room but at least we were warm and that was all that mattered!

We spent the first day exploring the town.  It’s no surprise that Puerto Natales is a town full of tourists holding Lonely Planet guides wearing gortex jackets and hiking boots – this was the standard attire in restaurants.  Scouting for a decent place to eat was also a priority.  After weeks of travelling we had discovered that salads and vegetables were not very popular in South America – it was a protein and carbohydrate love affair.

Torres del Paine National Park

There are many different ways to hike in the National Park, and lots of things that need to be booked so it can be a little overwhelming. There are buses and catamarans to arrange, decisions to make about whether you would like to stay in refugio (shared lodge) versus a tent and the many different routes you can take – including a tour of the grey glacier – one of the most impressive glaciers in the world.  In the end we opted for a short version of the famous ‘W’ route spending two nights in a ‘refugio’ and one night in a tent.

Our trek commenced on New Year ’s Day so we went to sleep at 9.00 pm on New Year’s Eve – I think I would have gone to bed this time regardless!

The first day involved a 7.5 hour walk to the Mirador Las Torres, the trail was long and relatively easy however the last hour involved a boulder scramble to the top which I found quite tough, it was steep, windy and cold and the sheer effort to get to the top coupled with my anxiety caused me to sweat inside my warm clothes – really uncomfortable.  I had no idea what to expect at the top and what I found totally blew me away….

Mirador Las Torres was is so impressive; its beauty is difficult to explain in words because its so far removed from our day-to-day lives it’s almost not real.  I didn’t care that other people were there, I still felt the solitude and beauty and it was so nice to share it with other people who were equally amazed and with the tranquil green water nestled amongst the giant granite boulders.

After a long day, I was looking forward to dinner back at the refugio, I was a little shocked when they served up half a sheep and some rice on my plate – no veggies of course.  The refugios were a source of mystery and confusion, I couldn’t work out if I liked them or not.  Refugios are fully catered hostels complete with showers, and flush toilets. You can even buy soap, shampoo and conditioner as well as various snacks.  It was the first time I had experienced such luxury on a trek and it didn’t feel quite right to have this available in the middle of such beautiful and wild terrain, admittedly though it was nice to have a warm shower at the end of a long and cold day!

Unfortunately we didn’t get to walk on the grey glacier as we had planned to on the third and last day, it was such a shame because we spent hours walking in the rain to stay at Refugio Grey overnight, a rather dark and dingy place only to be told the next morning that the boat had broken down and the tour had been cancelled.  This meant our plans for exiting the park had changed as we had to walk back to the previous camp site and wait five long hours for the catamaran to take us back to civilization.

From a scenic perspective I have to say that hiking in Patagonia has been my favourite trek to date, the views were breathtaking and the low altitude meant I could breathe easily. Not to mention I kept wanting to break into song with the ‘Hills are alive with the sound of music.’  The trails are not particularly difficult either, the only challenge is the weather – it’s completely unpredictable and incredibly harsh.    We met a group of people who were complaining that the weather was too cold and wet and had decided to leave the park.  I couldn’t believe my ears!  We would all love to have the perfect weather on a trek but as all hikers know, this usually never happens – so you just have to get on with it and get wet, it’s not pleasant but hey you don’t stay wet forever.  Unfortunately we didn’t have time to make it all the way to the Vallle Frances (apparently one of the most stunning of views of the W circuit ) but needless to say spending time in the Torres del Paine National Park was the perfect way to end our trip in South America.

Torres del Paine National Park

I wanted to burst into song with  ‘The Hills are alive’

The majestic Mirador Las Torres

it was so beautiful I wanted to swim… but Julian reminded me that I would probably freeze!

This glacier looked like  a globule of shaving cream!

10 Tips for Travelling in South America

  1. Always take toilet paper with you… even on first class buses you wont always find toilet paper (notice how this tip was first).
  2. Learn Spanish – for the love of god learn Spanish!
  3. 85% of people we met had their camera stolen – always protect your camera (I am not really sure where I plucked 85% from but it sounds good).
  4. Never leave stuff in your pocket.
  5. Never leave money lying around in your hostel/hotel room.  I usually never do but on one occasion I got lazy and trusted the hostel staff… we had money stolen by the cleaner.
  6. On public buses guard your belongings, especially when you fall asleep – thieves will do anything to get to your stuff.
  7. Lower your hygiene standards, you can’t afford to be germaphobe –  just get over it.
  8. Negotiate but don’t negotiate too hard – these people are poor and it’s not worth it.
  9. Take fibre supplements because you will find no vegetables.
  10. You have probably read this a million times before but its SO true, take a few days to time acclimatize to the altitude before you begin the Inca Trail.

One of my little furry friends

Tags: South America · travel

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anonymous // Apr 24, 2009 at 9:49 am

    Fantastic report as per!!!!!!! love it, love it, love it!!!!!!!!! xox

  • 2 Anonymous // Apr 24, 2009 at 9:49 am

    I truly enjoyed ready your blog! You are a very talented writer. I’m flattered I got quoted about the Sydney Opera House. I’ll have to tell you about my theory on Stonehenge someday :) I’m part of your stats on the stolen cameras unfortunately. You motivated me to write better travel stories and come out of my typical travel log shell. Thanks for sharing!

  • 3 Anonymous // Apr 24, 2009 at 9:50 am

    thanks so much for the feedback guys! Karyne I thought your comment about the Opera House was very funny – how could I not include it! I would love to hear about your stonehenge theory! K

  • 4 Kamal thakur // Sep 15, 2010 at 8:36 am

    awesome pictures i must say :) for a moment I thought if those pictures were from India :)

  • 5 Caroline // Aug 23, 2011 at 3:18 am

    Kath, this sounds like the most amazing adventure. Thank you for sharing it, I only hope that I will be get the opportunity to do half of what you have experienced in South America. Loved it. x

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