Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Meandering in Mendoza

DSC_0177Our next stop was one of our most anticipated. Ever since I had begun really appreciating red wine properly and discovering that one of my favourite grapes was the Argentinean Malbec, I had wanted to visit Mendoza. And just to make the trip a little more interesting, people had been telling us about a rather unique wine tour there.
 Yes! For a small price you could visit the famed vineyards of Mendoza not on foot but on bike. Yes! Thanks to the lax nature of health and safety in South America (well pretty much anywhere but the UK and North America), you are welcome to ride a bicycle round the glorious countryside as you get progressively more trollied.  We decided to take advantage of the tour the very next day with our Bolivian mates Paddy and Aisleyne who were also in Mendoza and having another couple with us made it even more fun and a little more dangerous as there was definitely more wine quaffed in company.

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We started off in style visiting a very modern vineyard which exported almost all of it's product to Europe. Next we headed to a much more traditional vineyard where we had a furtive picnic of cheese, fruit and bread before sampling 4 different vintages of the same malbec.
Another two or three vineyards followed and then came the dreaded bike ride back to the starting point.

Now it was a little hairy on the outward journey with buses passing almost a hair's width from us but luckily (or unluckily depending on your outlook) we were each treated to a police escort on the way home. Every two or three bikes had a slow moving police car behind them ensuring that there were no potential or actual accidents or rowdy behaviour! I have to say I for one welcomed them as some of you may know that my balance on wheeled objects is not my strong point when sober!

Once back at the start point, the owner of the bikes invited us to his courtyard with the other members of the tour and cracked open the 3 litre jugs of red table wine and offered us absolutely delicious empanadas in a bid to try and mop up some of the copious amounts of red wine

DSC_0146The bus back to the town centre where our hostels were reminded me of a friday night on a London tube - people old enough to know better talking at the top of their voices, trying to dance on a moving bus and    leching on various members of the public. Once off the bus, we had a few more drinks near our hostel before finally admitting defeat and collapsing into our beds. Needless to say the red wine headache the next morning reached new and terrifying proportions.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Salty Goodness

Salta, ahhh Salta. Not only the name of my favourite seasoning, but a very beautiful city as well. Travelling from Bolivia to Argentina the differences in wealth are obvious. It's like travelling into Italy from Afghanistan. This is also made doubly true as there is a huge Italian population in Argentina, who seem to have made it their life's work to make it as similar to their home country as possible and let's face it who'd blame them. It makes for a pretty bloody nice place to stay, with lots of olive groves, vineyards, gelato shops, cheese shops, bakeries, cafes and bars and all of which is done with pride.

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We crossed the border with our friends from the Salt Flat tour: Adam, Rhona and Natalya and stayed with them during our stay in Salta. It felt like time to celebrate and what better time to celebrate than Halloween. Not that we had any costumes, but we didn't care. We grabbed a load of booze, partied with the rest of the hostel and went out for some more fun. After a few hours, we ended up in a pool hall where the lady owner had a huge problem with us, but had the sweetest husband who would always apologise for her rudeness. We asked her for some empanadas, and she told us she had none, yet her long-suffering husband came over and offered us some to eat. The only thing she did offer us was a massive slice of dirty looks... it was quite comical really.

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And, on the way home we saw a totally naked transvestite prostitute, so there!

Everything about this place felt like a breath of fresh air. After a month of spending time in pretty poor towns and cities, it was great to be back to European style civilisation again. It felt like coming home. I wouldn't say that Salta has a real draw to it for tourists, apart from the cable car ride to a park that overlooks the city. Salta is a charming place, with a warmth about it that makes you want to sit, relax, perhaps grab a coffee or a beer and contemplate nothing but the thought of having another one.

Having said that we did manage to drag ourselves away from our very comfortable surroundings to the elevated park I just mentioned, which again was very quaint. A few water features, some statues and a man selling ice-creams were all that greeted us, other than the misty view of a city I was becoming extremely fond of that is. Again it had a calmness about it that made you feel happy to sit and relax.

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Although I obviously had a lovely time in Salta I wouldn't recommend it to anyone as a holiday destination, but perhaps if someone was looking into moving abroad I can't think of many better places. It's calm, relaxed, warm in Summer and has a homely feeling about it. Yeah, I guess you could say it was just what the doctor ordered.

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Saturday, 28 August 2010

Ready Salted

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Exciting times! We were travelling, but not on a bus, not a coach even, but a train! Sad isn't it, but after four months of buses, sitting on a train was very exhilarating... honestly. In fact it was doubly exciting as we were about embark on one of the number one adventures in South America, the Bolivian Salt Flats. The view from the train was of a stark landscape with nothing much but the occasional tree to break up views of dusty hills silhouetted by the setting sun.

We arrive at Uyuni station, grab our bags and head off for dinner and a hostel. Making quite a lot of noise whilst dragging our bags on the bumpy pavement Priya stops dead in front of me and in turn almost creating a luggage pile up. I'm not angry as I can see something's up, she looks petrified! I look around to see what could be the matter when I see something with it's head in the bin. Something BIG... and black. In the darkness I can't quite make out what it could be. All I can think is panther! It stops rummaging it's head in the bin and looks at us. It's not a panther, but a dog The biggest bloody dog we've ever seen! We decide it's ok to carry on, but due to the jack hammer style noise coming from our wheels this mammoth canine shadows us almost until we get to the hostel. It goes without saying we were more than pleased to get indoors, limbs intact and attached.

After the coldest, most uncomfortable nights sleep ever we made our way to our tour guide for the start of our two day tour of the Salt Flats. I won't go into detail about the previous night but to say that we were sleeping on squeaky beds was like saying that Conchord used to make a bit of a noise! Although possibly a little less than the beds we were lying on. When we arrived we were greeted by a very enthusiastic young man who as it turned out didn't speak any English. He was to be our guide. To accompany us were an Irish couple and an Aussie, who although were all very friendly, didn't speak any Spanish at all. This meant to get the full experience of the tour, thus to understand what was going on, the whole party of six were relying on mine and Priya's very basic knowledge of Spanish to get by. This was going to be a long two days...

DSC_0364The itinerary for the tour was as follows:
• Train graveyard
• Visit a salt village
• Walk on a coral island
• Sleep in a salt hotel.

The next day:
• Walk up a volcano
• Leisurely drive home.


DSC_0371I love a good bit of adventure, so this sounded amazing, I mean a train graveyard! To be honest if you put any word before graveyard i'd be up for it... tank graveyard, wrestler graveyard, cheese graveyard. They all sound worth a look i'm sure you agree. As it happens it was as good as I hoped. Lots of rusting, rotting trains in dusty dessert, we could have spent hours taking photos, but only had ten minutes unfortunately. Still there was plenty good stuff ahead and it was a great drive. There was nothing around, but the occational Alpaca family and dozens of dust tornados. Not dangerous of course, but still an awesome sight to behold.

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After a quick stop off at the salt village, which I think was only added so tourists could buy souvenirs, we arrived at the coral island, Fish Island. A bizarre sight in a world of nothingness. A huge mound of land covered in the tallest cacti you will find anywhere in the world. Even stranger are the rocks, they are fossilized coral from when it was a sea. We stopped here for lunch and enjoyed basking in the glorious sunshine on this prehistoric freak of nature.

The salt flats themselves are very eerie and blindingly white as far as you can see. We all posed for the requisite weird photos and felt very parched in the baking heat.

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All that was left for the day was the inevitable sunset and our first ever night's sleep in a room made from salt. Frisbee in hand we all left the hotel early for the sunset and we played as the sun burnt out in the distance and the stars began to come out. We felt like we'd found something very special, with only the flamingos in the nearby sulphur lake to share our secret.

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The next day we woke up early and took a short ride to the Tunupa volcano. This volcano was sold to us without warning or concern, so we understandingly presumed that it would be a relatively easyish climb. As it turned out it was the toughest this I have ever done. If you combine all four days of the Inca Trail and the chuck in the Three Peaks Challenge and fit them into half a day you'd be somewhere close to how difficult this climb was. It was mainly the altitude that was the problem. The air was so thin that it was difficult to get your breath and thus claimed two casualties within half an hour. The second thing was after three hours of hiking you get to the last part, a steady half mile of sliding rock at 45 degrees. Imagine walk the travelator on Gladiators for half a mile! Every time I put my foot for my next step it would slide back almost to the beginning again. The views from the top were incredible though and it's an fantastic feeling when you finish something so vast. Would I do it again though? No, but I can say I did it and feel pretty bloody proud, I think!

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Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Lapping it up in La Paz (not)

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Our first venture into Bolivia had been nothing but pleasant, sipping cold beers in a lovely lakeside town and visiting the Isla del Sol...however as soon as it was time to leave this idyll and go to La Paz, we got a taste of the real Bolivia.

Having booked ourselves onto a nice comfortable bus, we trundled to the bus stop and tried to board only to be told there was no record of us having bought a ticket. No matter how much we argued with the driver and the travel agent, it seemed we were not getting on the bus we had paid for. The driver did take pity on us however and spoke to his mate who allowed us onto the last bus with available seats - it was CRAP.
There was literally no suspension and as we were sitting at the back, we literally felt every stone and rock that the bouncy bus passed over. We finally were on our way to La Paz and the landscape was pretty unforgiving.

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Little did we know that we would soon miss this arid and stony landscape - La Paz and it's outlying areas have one overarching feature. They are GREY. Grey buildings, grey road, grey shops, grey mountains and most of all the grey sky. It was dirty, noisy and horrible and absolutely massive - our first glimpse of the city was when we were still high in the mountains. it's sitauted in a huge basin and is quite an astonishing sight as you drive around the mountain and in towards it.


We hurried to our accommodation, feeling a little bit worried about what we would find. We had been recommended the place by a few people but having seen La Paz, weren't holding our breath. You should have seen the look on our faces when we entered our hostel only to find a buzzy, fun, loud Irish Pub! We probably should have guessed from the name, Wild Rover. This was bliss - good food, a huge bar, loads of stuff going on and crazy parties.

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We pretty much completely relaxed and forgot about travelling for a little while. Amazing what a pint of cider and a portion of sheperd's pie can do! We had not had a taste of home for a long time and a few creature comforts really make a difference. And who should we meet up with with Paddy and Aislene - good craic.

We did decide to venture around La Paz (we thought we probably should as we'd come all that way)and went to find the witch market. This was a collection of eerie shops that sold superstitious memorobilia, idols, items used for praying to the gods and various herbs and potions. A key ingredient in these shops were mummfied llama foetuses. In a word, yum (!) Most of the stall holders were also witchdoctors and read plams and fortunes for a small fee. I bought some protective stone idols for the family back home and also one for wealth and fortune - I'll let you know if we win the lottery when we get back home.


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The only redeeming feature of La Paz was the enormous amount of works in progress around the town - they were in the middle of building loads of parks and recreation areas, and were updating lots of buildings. The city itself has all the mod-cons, but just needs a huge injection of cash to get it up and running properly. Strangely there was an abundance of brand new football pitches - nice to see they had they're priorities right!

La Paz is a strange place and there are only a couple of reasons that most travellers head there (everyone nose about this!) but i think in a few years time and with a bit more thought for tourism, La Paz may actually be on par with it's other neigbouring capitals.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Copa Copacabaaaana

If Lake Titicaca was a jewellery shop Puno would be the cheap nasty gold plated diamonique ring that only Elizabeth Duke would find appealing. On the other hand Copacabana would be the sparkling 24 carat knuckle duster complete with rubies, jade, sapphires and diamonds in the display cabinet by the window. If I'm honest we were surprised. We hadn't expected very much from this tiny town, especially as Puno had been so awful and we were entering Peru's poor sister, Bolivia.

DSC_0124Copacabana, the first town you arrive in after passing through customs, situated on the quite stunning Lake Titicaca is a small, but lively town with a buzzing yet relaxed atmosphere. When I say small, I mean it. There are only about four roads worth talking about and only one of which will you get in this blog post. The road in question is a sloping road only about 50 meters long, in which the locals and some ex-pat travellers have crammed in lots of little bars, restaurants and shops. If you walk down to the end you meet the banks of the great lake and on the way you are blessed with awesome views, particularly at dusk.


DSC_0169Here, sat sipping on a couple of cervezas, basking in the setting sun we met a lovely Irish couple called Paddy and Aisling who became very good friends of ours. Being a very small town, we were all staying in the same hostel and quite often were drinking in the same bars and eventually eating in the same restaurants together! The truth is we all got on instantly and it was great to have met some like minded people after a long time on the road and many, many introductory conversations... Where you from? Where you going? Wanna a jager bomb?! In fact we seemed to pass those conversations all together, it felt like we'd known each other for years.

The main reason for travellers visiting Copacabana is it's proximity to Isla del Sol. It's the most sacred island to the Incas as it was believed that the sun god was born here. This is obviously a very different story to Superman 3, so you can believe whoever you want! Being such a sacred place there are many ruins to be seen, including the sacred rock that is supposed to look like a panther. The panther is one of a few sacred animals to the Incas. I imagine that it probably looked more pantherlike back in the day, but due to erosion I had to use some serious imagination to see it in the same light. Having said that we were blessed with an absolute ripper of a day and honestly I can't think of a place I'd rather have been that day. Isla del Sol is a beautiful place with spectacular views from practically anywhere on the island and an even better view of the sunset than back in Copacabana.

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Copacabana is a massive traveller trap, in fact such a trap that many decided to stay. I think that this adds to the calming atmosphere. Nobody is in a rush to do anything and as I'm sure this is probably a little detrimental to the day to day life of the average Bolivian, but it makes for a pretty damn good place to visit.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Floating around in Arequipa and Puno...

You know those days when you really can't be bothered, when not even the promise of a free drink or a free meal would get you off the sofa and out of the house? When you'd rather watch 'The Bill' on the telly than venture outside and explore the town? When the thought of walking, climbing or hiking made your legs want to retract inside your body?
That's pretty much how we felt in the next few days afer walking the Inca Trail. We wanted to curl up into a ball and surround ourselves with creature comforts. However, we were travelling; it was onwards and upwards to new towns, new sights and new sounds.

DSC_0008It was unfortunate for Arequipa that it was next on our route. Arequipa is apparently nicknamed 'The White City' because of the white volcanic rock which most of the buildings are made out of.

The city is surrounded by volcanoes, the most beautiful called El Misti, the snow capped peak which apparently overlooks the city (actually you couldn't miss it, even from the comfort of our own room). In fact the buildings are so beautiful, it's a Unesco World Heritage site ... whoops.

DSC03183We did venture out to have a look at the city but ended up going to a Mummy musuem and eating ice-cream, perhaps not even in that order.The only remotely interesting thing that we did was eat a guinea pig. Rob had his a la KFC and I had mine deep fried - whole. It was like eating fried chicken skin full of every bone in the graveyard. What we thought was a local delicacy was actually pretty gross.

So I apologise to Arequipa, the sunniest, second largest, and second most beautiful city in Peru...but we just couldn't be arsed.

By the time, we could be bothered to do stuff again, we had travelled to Puno.
Ah Puno, the name describes it perfectly. For those who can't read between the lines, it smelt like poo. Puno is the port city bordering Lake Titicaca on the Peruvian side. It was rather bare and I guess the weather didn't help - but it looked grey, miserable and as I mentioned, smelly. We only went there to venture onto Lake Titicaca (you can stop giggling now) and visit the floating islands.

DSC_0044So, we got up early and joined a tour from our hostel to the islands - the day was gloriously sunny so we were happy to sit on the top deck of the boat taking us out to the islands and take some shots. The floating islands are home to the Uros - a pre-Incan people that decided to live on the lake. They use a reed called totora as the basis for their islands, literally building them up layer after layer. Walking on these reed islands is a strange feeling; like walking on a large spongy raft made of hay bales.

There are about 42 islands, one containing a primary school, another the general store. Each island has about one immediate family living on it, However nowadays, most islands are only home to the grandparents and very small children, with those of working age on the mainland earning a living and those of school age at schools and universities on dry land.

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The remaining Uros are trying to maintain the islands and also keep up with their traditional arts and crafts for us nosy tourists, although they can't stop the march of time.
In some ways this is good, with most of the islands now solar powered rather than the Uros having to rely on rusty generators, but also bad as they have been reduced to a living musuem. As you will often find in a musuem or gallery, some of our tour group were rude and were openly making fun of the generosity of the Uros and their way of life.
It made us sad that these wonderful people with their incredible way of life, had to rely on making money from groups of generally ill-behaved tourists who didn't seem to care that these people weren't just there for amusement and did not give them the respect they deserved.

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Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Trails and tribulations

Inserting the spoon into my mouth with an extremely shaky hand, I was not feeling good. I was nervous and barely in control of my bodily functions. It'd been 3 hours since we'd been woken and we were all busily and very quietly shovelling as much grub from the breakfast buffet as possible. We were all concerned about storing energy for a very hard days work. Within what seemed like 5 minutes and 2 toilet visits, the call came; it was time to begin the Inca Trail.

DSC03029We had a very mixed group of people, with ages ranging from 22 to 65. There were four Australians, two Americans, two Kiwis, a couple from Denmark and six adventurers from probably the best city in the world, London! That counted 16 in total, including us, and none of us looked mentally prepared for what was in store.
                                         
We began at a good pace, stopping only for our native guide Cesar to tell us stories of the sacred trail and about the culture of his people. He was so passionate and enthusiastic, it was a joy to be learning so much from him. He had a sidekick called Juan who would stay behind and make sure that no-one got left behind. These two were loads of fun and kept us going throughout the four days with their constant optimism and good humour.

DSC03149As promised, the first day was relatively easy. Of course there were some ups and some downs, literally, but it was pretty much as advertised. The second day was the real concern. A whole six hours of walking... uphill! It was tough to say the least, but Cesar and Juan were very insistent that we should take it at our own pace and enjoy ourselves. I think Priya and I possibly took this a little too literally and strolled up with only the retired couple and another couple that had serious altitude sickness nipping at our heels! In truth we took it easy enough to really enjoy the experience and made sure that we took all the photos we wanted.


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During the past two days, we'd seen some awesome sights, but perhaps none of them compared with the strength and stamina of our porters. They were all Quechua speaking Peruvians, mostly coming from the surrounding areas around Cuzco. Again, similar to our group, their ages ranged from 20 to 60 years old, except each porter carried two or three massive bags on their back and would run to our next meeting point to set up camp. They were incredible and possibly invincible!

DSC03113At one point, halfway up the mountain on the second day, a 55 year old porter walked past us, oozing sweat from under his woolly hat. He looked up and said three words to us: 'Sesenta y cinco kilos'. For those of you who don't speak Spanish, that's 65kgs. He was carrying two backpacks and a very big Calor Gas canister on his back! He kept going and the next time we saw him, he was at camp chewing Cocao leaves. He passed us everyday of the hike carrying the same load on his back, always with a smile on his face.

Next was 'The Gringo Killer' - a mile stretch of tiny Incan sized steps on an angle of roughly 60 degrees, which as we were informed, can be very dangerous when slippery. Being attached to a mountain, surrounded by mist and clouds it was unsurprisingly a little moist. Adding to this Priya's phobia of heights and more specifically falling, we took our time and made it to base camp just before sundown. On the way down however I enjoyed an hour long nose bleed from the altitude. This did not help our predicament too much and what with helping Priya down the Killer as well it made the day doubly difficult.

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At last, at 8.30am after already 3 hours walking, we had made it. Glimpsing Machu Picchu through the thick cloud, I couldn't believe how huge it was. It was an awe inspiring sight to behold and made us a little emotional. By the time we made it into Machu Picchu the clouds had parted and we were gifted a beautiful day, which set the scene perfectly for Cesar to give us the full tour of the sacred 'Lost City of the Incas'.

Walking the full four day Inca Trail was a life long dream of mine and to complete it with Priya really was the icing on the cake, so I would like to dedicate this post to her. She hiked hard and never let the hard work, heights and stinky clothes (and boyfriend) get her down. She's simply the best!

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