Wednesday, May 30, 2007

10th - 24th May (Mountain madness and Daz and Jamie in Brazil)

Firstly, I apologise for the fact my blog is way behind and secondly for the lack of photos - both will be rectified as soon as possible......

Back at La Paz I shared a room with Chris and Kim. I had a haircut that lasted an hour and a half as the barber was keen to learn a little English so that he could impress his daughter who was learning it at school. We found a good English type pub with decent food called 'Olivers travels'. The following day was one of the most exciting of the trip; cycling down death road!!! On superb mountain bikes with full suspension and disc brakes we cycled 64km, 61km of it downhill at up to 60kmh and mostly on winding gravel road with massive drops off the edge should you get it horribly wrong. Aaron, our English guide stopped us regularly along the way to tell us tragic tales of buses, lorries, cars and cycling tourists that had plummeted to their doom. Some of the views were amazing although there was a fair bit of cloud and mist around. I enjoyed every minute of it although the short uphill bit was a struggle (I blame the altitude). The road, though a bit hairy at times, is nowhere near as dangerous as it once was as there is now an alternative road which takes most of the vehicles leaving the cyclists to speed down the old road without much chance of meeting oncoming vehicles.

The following day I did a lot of gift shopping as there is loads of cool stuff around the La Paz shops and stalls. This got posted home a couple of days later.

I had to fly to Santiago in order to go on to Rio, this involved a stop at Iquique where we all had to get off, go through the same process of getting passports checked and bags scanned before getting back on - seemed a little stupid to me. Stayed overnight then flew on to Rio and it felt weird after once having such a huge pile of flight tickets to be down to the last one - the flight back home. After what seemed like a long flight and a long bus journey, I arrived in Copacabana where Darren and Jamie had arrived from England the previous day. I checked in to the plush hotel room they had booked, had the best shower I'd had in ages and went out on the town to catch up on everything over a few beers. Copacabana was one place I had heard quite a lot of bad stories about so I was a bit worried but the main streets were busy and well lit and soon put me at ease.

We spent a day being driven around the city sights by a good English speaking guide, including the sugarloaf mountain cable car, churches and cathedrals, the brightly coloured steps where we met the mad artist, various good viewpoints of the city and a good traditional lunch. Unfortunately the clouds never cleared from around the famous christ statue on Corcovado so we had to save that for the next day. A lot of the women like to wear very skimpy shorts which is fine by me!

Dazza went hand gliding and landed on the beach while I laid down and got a little burnt in a very short time. We took the obligatory photos of the christ statue before walking along Ipanema beach watching the super fit volleyball players as we went. There was a guy doing keepie ups with everything from a pea sized ball, an egg, to a coconut, he was very good, a few days later we saw him on MTV Brasil. In the evening we went to the MaracaƱa stadium where we watched the local team win the semi final of the Copa de Brasil 4-2. The stadium is the biggest in the world, it once held 210,000 but now it is all seating holds a meagre 130,000, very impressive but much more sedated than my experience at the away end of Colo Colo in Santiago.

The next day we took a boat to Ihla Grande where we stayed in an excellent and cheap posada (like a B&B). We spent most of the day on the beach, the sun was super hot and the sea was refreshingly cool and calm. I could get used to this, but it didn't last. In the evening we drank beer and Capriahnas, the traditional local drink, sickly sweet and very strong. The next day started clear and hot and we arranged a boat trip with a bloke at the posada; when we arrived at the port, in amongst all the lovely boats with decks where you could lie out and drink beer whilst being surrounded by beautiful chicas, we found our crappy little fishing boat and we were a little miffed at having booked up with this guy, however, it was a nice day, we snorkelled amongst some thankfully harmless jellyfish (that really gave Jamie the willies) and stopped at some pleasant beaches. It clouded over and we got back just as the rain started, we drank, played cards and 'chatted' to some local girls who spoke neither English or Spanish (they speak Portuguese here) before heading to the pretty crappy local nightclub.

I wish I had managed to get a photo of it - they have a red VW camper fire engine, it's hilarious! I've also seen them used as ambulances. It had rained on and off during the night but was now a downpour that would last all day, we watched the tedious FA cup final, played cards, and I ate jacket potato with mozzarella to which I added a big dollop of the marmite my friend Rich had sent over with Jamie. He also sent some much appreciated tetley tea bags and chocolate. There are not too many options here when the weather is bad, even the internet goes down so eventually we were left with no choice but to drink!

Again it rained most of the night but by morning it had slowed to drizzle. We took the boat to the mainland and a bus to Paraty, a really nice colonial town with cobbled streets, nice buildings, restaurants and shops (a bit pricey). We stayed in a nice B&B and I bought my first ever pair of flip flops (havianas) which were particularly hard work on the cobbles. We watched 'Blood Diamond', one of my pirate dvds and the quality was pretty bad. For the next few days the lads suffered a little with stomach aches and sore throats, I was fine though as I am made of stronger stuff!

The bus to Sao Paulo took five hours and a little kid threw up all over the aisle. Some of the coast, about an hour south of Paraty was stunning with expensive looking beach houses and a lot of boats. The bus on to Iguazu was nice but there was a massive fat woman with an irregular snore that lasted from the minute we got on to when we got off sixteen hours later. I watched Dukes of Hazard in Portuguese with Spanish subtitles before falling asleep with my walkman on. We stayed in a hostel on the Argie side of Iguazu but made a trip back across to the Brazil side to get some good views of the falls. Jamie was feeling quite ill that night and he spent the next morning in bed. Daz and I made the most of having lost the veggie by going to a parrilla for an all you can eat bbq meat fest. Jamie made it out to watch the champions league final on a big screen in a cafe with no atmosphere. Pizza and beer and six games of pool undefeated.

It's funny how some Argie restaurants have no concept of vegetarianism; one place where we had clearly stated in Spanish that Jamie was veggie brought out quesiladas which Jamie bit into and swallowed before realising had meat in. A bloke came out to explain that it was ok as it was only ham, not beef!!!

The sun was shining on the third day in Iguazu and we took a bus to the Argie side of the falls which was spectacular, we also went out on a jet boat where we got drenched by the spray. Some of the walkways that usually sit a little way above the water were now off limits; 6,000 cubic metres per second of water was falling instead of the usual 1,300 and as you stand on one of the walkways that overlooks the edge of a big fall it's amazing to watch, it put me in a bit of a trance so I could almost feel myself going over the edge. A quiet night in as Jamie tries to let his throat recover in time for the drinking to come in Buenos Aries, there's not too much to do in Iguazu town anyway.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

28th April - 10th May (Salar de Uyuni and Rurenabaque)

I started the day with a much needed hot shower before taking the bus to Copacabana, just inside the Bolivian border, where I had planned to stay for a day or two with a visit to Isla del Sol. This plan quickly changed when I realised there were no ATMs and I had little money. Immidiately noticed how cheap Bolivia is when I ate fajitas for lunch. Bolivia is the cheapest country in South America, especially for accomodation which costs between 20 and 40 Bolivianos (16 Bolivianos = 1 Pound). So, after lunch I got on a bus to La Paz, the capital, a four hour journey.
The road to La Paz comes in from above the city so there are good views of what looks like a brick and concrete explosion at the heart of what must once have been a beautiful green valley surrounded by mountains - the buildings have spread from the centre outwards and upwards, it is a mess but quite an impressive mess! There I found the adventure brew hostel, nice, clean and sociable but with cold showers. Met some English girls and went out for food and drink (2 pints and a risotto for 50B - bargain!). Over the next couple of weeks I would be coming and going from La Paz as it is central to all the places I want to visit. The Bolivians are not an attractive bunch of people; the babys and young kids seem cute enough with their rosey red cheeks but then it all goes wrong.
There don't seem to be any young women; they must go from schoolgirl to fat old woman in shapeless dresses and aprons overnight!

The next day I booked a ticket to Uyuni (70B for a 11 hour journey) before taking a look around the coca museum and the witches market where you can buy anything from Llama feotus' to stuffed frogs! La Paz is the highest city above sea level in the world so breathing can still be a problem, especially walking up the steep hill to the bus station carrying my increasingly heavy bag as buses go past directing their black smoke directly into my lungs - this must be how a forty-a-day habit feels!!!

The eleven hour bus ride to Uyuni is the bumpiest road ever. The journey was at night but any hopes I had of sleeping were misplaced. I was sat just above the rear axle which sounded like it could snap at any moment leaving the bus to drag it's arse like a dog with a pooey bottom! I met Becky from England and we chatted for a while between failed attempts at sleep. We arrived at 05.00 to a temperature of between -5 and -10 with no wind and me wearing my shorts! We walked around knocking on doors until a hostel eventually let us in. We slept until midday, had lunch, booked a tour for tomorrow and walked around the bright, cold and not too exciting town. In the evening I went for beer, pizza and wine with Becky, a pleasant evening that ended with a little accident which would tarnish my experience of the next few days.....

Travelling has made me appreciate some of the things I take for granted back home, take for example my current predicament which has made me appreciate the basic human neccesity of having a good fart without ruining a pair of pants. When things return to normal I will make sure I fully appreciate letting rip with confidence!

The Salar de Uyuni trip is three days and two nights. It's an amazing place with great scenery but the roads are very bumpy in our four wheel drive and I spent a lot of time clenching my buttocks. Also, the nights are very cold and my one pair of trousers are currently out of commission; the others in the group just think I am mental for wearing shorts every evening. There are seven of us in the group and they are a good young bunch; the Belgian couple speak good Spanish and English which is lucky as they translate everything the driver says. The driver is not a tour guide, which means there are no useful explanations of how the salt lakes and other interesting features are formed, other than that it was a very worthwhile trip with great scenery.The first place of interest along the journey is the train cemetry - I believe these are British trains once used for transporting valuable minerals.

The salt flats are 12,000 square km of salt, there are buildings made from salt bricks, and coral islands with loads of cactii, there are lakes with flamingoes (if only the zoom were working on my camera), geysers and bubbling mud pools, hot spas and lovely sunsets and sunrises.
The accomodation on the second night was freezing cold and very basic with grim toilets with no seats - just what I need! During these few days, the food provided has been ok but again I have no appetite and have eaten very little.
I decided against the hellish road back to La Paz and opted for a 01.45 train which goes halfway (slept all the way), followed by a coach on a toll road arriving at La Paz at 13.20. I felt like my stomach was starting to improve so planned my next trip for the next few days; the wetlands of Rurenabaque. Unfortunately I spoke too soon and much of the evening was spent on the toilet, however, thankfully the situation did improve for Rurenabaque.

The small plane left from the La Paz military base at 07.40, a patchwork of fields below as we headed north. The skies were perfectly clear until we reached mountains that held back a flood of unbroken thick white cloud for miles and miles until there were more mountains, beyond which the skies were clear again and miles of jungle and river could be seen below. We landed on a gravel track runway of a tiny airport surrounded by jungle before being transported to the small town of Rurenabaque where there were lots of travel agencies for the pampas (wetlands) and jungle tours. I had been told the wetlands were good so I went for that and checked into a nice cheap room. Skyped Mum, Dad and Carly before spending most of the Saturday afternoon trying to change dollars into bolivianos, finally succeeding in a pharmacy. I ate most of a huge lasagne with my appetite returning. In the evening I went to an excellent bar where I met Aussie Chris, chatted to him for a while and it turns out he is in my group tomorrow.

I managed to get away from the bar at a reasonably sensible time. At the Indigena tours office Chris looked like death, he didn't enjoy the bumpy three hour journey to the boat. A nice canadian family of five and dutch girl Kim made up the rest of the group. Over the next three days we saw black monkeys, howler monkeys and the inquisitive squirrel monkeys (remember my zoom doesn't work),
an anteater up a tree, a capiberra (huge rodent), pink fresh water dolphins, turtles, a cayman (like a croc), bats, tucans, mcaws, an owl, hawks, condors, kingfishers, storks, hummingbirds, cormorants and other smaller colorful birds. On the first evening we took the motor boat to the sunset bar; as soon as the sun went down the mozzys attacked and we whizzed back on the boat amid the swarm, it was horrible but we got surprisingly few bites - there was worse to come though.

The next morning, we walked in borrowed wellies through the muddy swampy marshland looking for anacondas with no success. My wellies had holes in so my feet were soaked and I really didn't enjoy the walk as I spent the whole time trying to swat the mozzys that were all over me and biting through my clothes. My fifty percent deet wasn't as strong as the others' and I suffered the worst of it with bites absolutely everywhere. More mozzys were waiting for me under my net at the dorm so my feet and ankles took a pasting! Also in the night, something brushed against me which scared the bjesus out of me, I leapt out of bed shouting obscenities, waking everyone. I thought it was a rat or something but it was more likely the resident cat. By the time I found my torch it was gone.

I went fishing for the very first time. In the rain, we went out in the boat and dangled tiny chunks of meat on the end of some fishing wire in the water. Everyone on the boat other than Chris and I were catching pirahnas and catfish and I soon realised why I had never had the urge to try this so called sport before. The journey back to Rurenabaque was interesting as the road had become very boggy with all the rain and several buses were stuck. At several of the worst bits we had to get out and walk as the 4x4 ploughed through. Back at Rurenabaque all flights were cancelled and we tried to arrange a 4x4 to get us back to La Paz which would have been another hellish journey but we failed in that quest, the rain stopped and the flights started again.