A plane flight from the Caribbean to Australia takes forty two hours with transfers. That's way longer than anyone should spend bottled up in what is really a large coke can. I've got a few days before I have to get home and the can stops in Miami. I get off, while my friends scramble for their bags to make their next connection. Last time I was here Scarface had just been filmed, both the Space Shuttle, and the Apple Mac had just been launched, Miami was the coke capital of the world, which gave Don Johnson a hit TV show.
I get some local advice from some friends, and end up staying in the Ponce de Leon Hotel in Coral Gables. It's a original art deco 1920's hotel with no lift but a great location. I start checking in in English but by the end it's in Spanish. Easier for both of us. This is pretty much the theme for the next couple of days. There is a huge Latino population here, so talking to the bus driver, or asking directions is easier even in my bad Spanish. I head out to "the bar" for a quick wings and basket ball lunch, and get home 7 hours later.
I'm not a natural golfer. The thought of playing golf five times in six days sounds like torture to me. The trip was organized, paid for, and unfortunately someone had to drop out. Duty called, what could I do.
Still beats working. Queenstown here we come.
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The whole of South America seems like one big beach.There is always somewhere else to go, and another resort to descover.
Two Dollar Lunches
Chicken Soup or Ceviche, Main, and a drink. A cheap lunch is the national pass time here.
There everywhere offering good cheap places to stay
Need a snack, chips with a sav on top, not health food, but for a dollar who cares.
Freshly squeezed juice right in front of you. Go to the market for some of the more exotic varieties. Less than a buck.
Piles of Rocks.
There everywhere, Machu Picchu, Pisac, Ollayantatambo, built in the spectacular Andes, commonly known as Inca Ruins , what you come here for, apart from the beaches
Whales, Seals, Funny looking birds, Exotic animals
Plenty of them to see and get up close to here.
Lots of countrys with a common language. Helps if you speak a bit of it.
Barbecue is the other national sport here, besides football, and Fiesta.
Cheap Beer, and Cute Girls
What more can I say.
We got to La Paz which is a experience in Its self, so why not go all the way. Down in the south of Bolivia is arid area of mountain and lakes that's meant to be pretty interesting. Whats another night on a Bus anyhow. We leave our poky hotel and lug our packs half an hour to the bus station. Normally I would catch a taxi but there is a parade on that has basically cut La Paz in half. As we cross the walkway above it we see, marching bands, giant bleeding Jesus's, acrobats, and fire breathers for as far as the eye can see. Looks like a good show but we have a bus to catch. Now I must say, I hate night busses. Unfortunately if you want to go to Uyuni there is no other option. This one is known as a full cama, which means bed, I hope it's not a marketing gimmick. The bus station is kaos which is pretty much situation normal in La Paz, I grab some drinks, pay the bus terminal tax, and wave my tickets in front of someone who looks vaguely interested. He grunts so I assume we must be in the right place. Buses come and go at our allotted time, none of them say Uyuni. There are a lot of people standing around including some other gringos, like Panteene, it won't happen straight away, but it will happen. Eventually our bus turns up, dump the bags, and get on board. The beds aren't flat, but there a bit like a business class airline seat, that's almost flat. Before the bus is out of La Paz I'm out of it.
The lights come on and it's the morning, well sort of. Uyuni is located on a plane 3700 meters asl, and at 5.30 am in the morning it's cold, the only thing missing are tumble weeds rolling down the main street. This pretty much set the tone for the rest of the trip. Morning expect ice and sub zero temps. The bus dumps us in the middle of the main street, there is not much open but there are plenty of touts about. I have actually done a bit of research on trips, and the 3 day one seems the go. They recommend checking out the vehicle, driver, getting a English speaking guide, and several other thing I have forgotten. Of course we did none of this, we found some one who looked as cold as we did and asked where the nearest coffee shop was. Turns out she was another tout but she took us a couple of blocks to the main square. Over coffee we had a look at her brochure, which basically said we can do any thing you want, warmed up we piled in to a 4wd back to the dodgy office to check things out. A quick trip description in Spanish, sounded good to me , but what would I know. A question about accommodation, no tents. Price Haggle, about $120US . Off to the ATM for some Bol's. Listo. Trip Starts at 11AM.
Into the Nissan Patrol, it's in reasonable nick, about 15 years old. Off to the train grave yard which is just out of town. Here we pick up another couple, so the count is 6 Spanish speakers, and Ted. Our driver, a bloke in his 30's, A young couple from Barcelona, and another young couple from Argentina. Ted and I go close to doubling the average age. The trains are left over from the mining bust in the 40's, lots of turistas, and old steam trains that have been stripped for scrap. It's then off to the Salt flats. The Salar de Uyuni is one of the flattest bit of land in the world, 10,000 kms2 and so flat they use it to calibrate satellite altimeters. It's a weird place, no animals, and white in every direction. There is the odd mountain top that pokes through covered with cactus every 30,km or so. It's not actually dry, It has a wet season in summer, and in places their is water on top of the salt, or just below. We do all the usual things. take selfies, get out the Godzilla models an use the perspective to make it look huge, head to the salt hotel for lunch. Our Driver is also our chef, and he brings a packed lunch for us every day. We take off across the flat and eventually come to one of the islands. It's very different to the salt flats, and covered in cactus. From the top you can get a perspective how big the place actually is.Our guide is great giving us all the stories, and history of the place. I generally condense this down to a couple of words and pass it on to Ted, if I think its relevant. Ted doesn't get much. Another couple of hours till our night spot across the lake.
I do remember our first night is Luxury and our second night is Basic. We have our own Yert, complete with hot shower, and beds with extra thick blankets on them. Dinner is the Bolivian favourite chicken and rice, in the comunal hall. Even better still it comes with a bottle of red, I order another, and Ted gets a beer. Our companions aren't big drinkers so I have to drink most of the other. Our Catalan couple have quite good English so even Ted feels included.
The next morning early start, freezing cold. We have finished the salt flat so from here on in I don't really know what to expect. From here we head into the mountains. Ted wants to see the flamingos, but he doesn't want to see the american tourists who keep on chasing them off before he can get a good photo.We stop at an Inca grave yard, then on to some lakes where we have lunch. Ted gets his photos. We are high here, somewhere between 4200 an 5000 meters. The white stuff in the pics is not salt it's ice. Other stuff is the Árbol de Piedra (Tree of Stone) which has been carved out of a boulder by the frigid wind. The scenery is wild and barren, great unending vistas of planes, lakes, and mountains. We get a flat tyre, and pitch in to change it as it's getting cold. By the time we get to our basic camp it's dark. The temp is way below zero. We eat a basic dinner of spag and retire to our dorm beds, lights out by 8.30.
Minus 6 on the car dash. No breakfast, and no daylight. We are off to the hottest joint around. First stop the geysers, nothing like a bit of steam to warm you up then on to the hot springs and breakfast. I have a bit of a love hate relationship with hot springs here. All the ones I have been to so far aren't really hot. It's still freezing but I get changed and jump in. It's hot, now all I have to do is get out. Thankfully breakfast is hot too and in a cafe. We stop by another couple of coloured lakes, get another flat, and stop for lunch below the tree line. We spend the rest of the day driving back to Uyuini. Somewhere along the line we stop at a church a mining company have moved brick by brick from the old town site. I've seen better and it's closed. I get phone reception and footy results. We have dinner with our new friends, and discuss the revolution. Back on to the Cama bus, for an overnighter to La Paz, followed buy an all day trip to Arequipa Peru. We get in at midnight after another two hour detour around another teachers strike No rest for the wicked.
The Death Road
When I die I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather. I don't want to die like his passengers, screaming as they went over the cliff. No buses on Sunday, so a bunch of Irish girls found a simple solution. Hitch a lift with a local veggie truck driver returning from the market. The driver had only been on the road for 14 hours straight. He fell asleep and took the express route 300 meters to the bottom of the canyon. In 1983 a bus crash got more than 100 in one go. The death road as it is known, is estimated to have killed more than 20,000 people in its lifetime. It has now been bypassed by a safer route but still remains in use, and is a favourite destination of mountain bikers because of it's 60km of steep downhill. Though much less fatal now it still gets a few every year. An Israeli tourist was GoProing her boyfriend racing down the hill when she decided that corners were for beginners, she didn't stick the landing. And so with these stories Ted and I headed off for our day of biking.
Early start, a couple of hours up the hill to a cold 4600 meter pass, stack hat, gloves, and a well used mountain bike. As they say it's all down hill from here. Just as well as I wouldn't like to try an ride this bike up hill anywhere. The first bit plunges off the pass about 30 km down a relatively modern sealed highway. Even the old mountain bike boogies down this, as we pass the odd truck creeping down the hillside. We stop every now and again to keep the group together and take a couple of photos. Snacks and drinks are handed out, our guide tells us stories. Eventually we get to the old road. This part was bypassed in mid 90's after the world bank christened it the most dangerous road in the world. It's the only road in Bolivia that they drive on the left so the driver can see how close his wheels are to the edge. It's dirt, and is carved to the cliff side like a scar. We spend a few hours riding under waterfalls, looking down bottomless chasms, and avoiding the odd road washout. Every hundred meters is another pile of crosses, on the edge of the emptiness. The landscape quickly changes from high mountain pass to rain forest, and we shed another layer of clothing every 15 minutes. We start to get closer to the bottom of the valley and , I have to peddle to keep the old girl moving even though it's still down hill. Hard to believe I was struggling to keep it under 60 km/h on the earlier bit. Someone in another group loses it in the dirt, bit of bark off but seems like nothing mejor. They strap her to the stretcher and take her off to get checked out. We hit the bottom, only 1200 meters above sea level, high fives all around.
Off to lunch, and a swim, pollo e arroz, just for a change. Hate to be a chicken here. A few beers chatting with the other's, and it's back on the rickety bus. We crawl the 80km back up the hill. How ironic I never felt scared on the way down but on each outward corner I hope the groaning steering holds. We make the pass, and the "I survived the death road tee shirts" are handed out. We only slightly winged one, all in all not a bad result.
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There are three trains here, It's a one lane track and a train seems to arrive depart about every 20 minutes. Across the road is the Belmond-Hiram-Hingham Service, Linen Table cloths, Silver service, 5 star luxury all for $447 us, that's only $5 per minute. There are people every where, guides running around caring little flags leading los turistas off to their hotels. The valley here is so tight that the river, train line and main street all share the same bit of turf. Lucy finds us and we march out through the cramped market, 500 stalls selling your gringo favorites. We pound up the hill take a left and get to our hotel. The hot springs are an option, but I haven't found any really hot, hot springs in South America yet. I wimp it and decide on the shower. It's been a long day, and we have an early start. Refreshed, It' dinner time. Lucy leads us through the maze of restaurants and sprukers, offering Cuey ( Guinea Pig) Pizza, as well as the more normal fair. We get our briefing over a couple of beers and a meal, Ted and I choose Pizza, though not the Cuey. Should have gone Cuey. Instructions for meeting points, etc are given, none of which we take notice of. We hustle off back to the hotel, It's a 4 AM start, I try to crash while Ted reads Emails from work for what seems like hours.
BUZZZZZZZZZZZZ, wasn't that restful, not. Quick shower, chuck the stuff in our G Adventures duffle bags. Then down to breaky. Ted and I even beat the hotel staff by ten minutes. Eventually hot coffee, and rolls appear, I'm not much of an early morning eater. We head off to the famous Queue. The bus ride up to MP takes about 45 minutes on a one lane track. God knows how many people want to get up there for sunrise, but the government have just introduced a quota system that allocates two sessions a day. One early and one after lunch. At five the queue is already 4 wide, 800 meters long , and growing buy the second. We settle into our position and wait. Buy Six we are a lot closer to the front. We haven't moved but the back is a lot further away. Finally about Six thirty we start to move. Lucy gives us our tickets, we show our passports and get a stamp. Almost there. Buy seven we are on the bus. The ride up the switchbacks, over the cobbled road is pretty rough but the views are spectacular. The mountains soar out of the valleys through the early morning gloom. Now and again we have to stop and back up to let another bus pass. Every one holds their breath, while we peer out of the window at the 1000 meter drop over the edge.
Finally we get to the top. More tickets, more showing passports, Queue, I get to the gate. Beep, computer says "NO". Some one Stuffed up, I have an afternoon ticket. There is another gringo trying to bluff his way in, jumping up and down, and getting nowhere. I'm lucky, I have a secret weapon. "LUCY" time to earn your money girl. I chill, I'm expecting the circus. Ted and I are on an earlier train, due to our late booking, it's not even possible for me to get back in the afternoon, and catch my train. The trains are booked out in advance too. Ten minuets later Lucy reappears looking stressed. A bit more negotiation goes on, She cruses off to see the head Honcho. Finally they take my ticket and I head in the back way. Typical, they will let me in once but I'm not allowed to return. Story of my life. We run up the hill, not easy at altitude with a cold, and there it is. The tick photo at golden hour. It's all worth it. Spectacular does not go close. These Kings certainly know how to build a holiday resort. We spend half an hour, just staring and giving the place a good dose of Kodak poisoning, before Lucy leads us off to a quite spot for a bit of history about the place. We check out the Sun temple, The Condor Temple, The concubines houses, gotta have plenty of them if your a King. Have a bit more of a wander around, then head back down for our early train. There were a few more walks we could have done, but we don't have time, and to tell you the truth I'm walked, out and stuffed from the early start. More queuing but not quite as bad, then we are back in town. That rendezvous stuff could have been important.
We wander up and down the street looking for our easy to find Hot Springs 1 restaurant. Eventually we bump into one of the organized group, they know where it is. Lunch, we catch up with Lucy, I have very average nachos, shoulda gone the cuey. She escorts us to our train, we get a fashion show on the way back. The train is full of older women, and the shy male conductor is the model. They cheer every time he loosens his shirt. The things a guy has to do to make a living. We sit with a English family with three kids under six. The dad is in his mid 40's,and its their fourth day in a six week trip. Ted tells him he should just kill himself now. Back at the station we have a couple of hours to kill so we wander into town for a beer. We get back just as the others train is arriving, jump on the bus and wait. Then at the last minute we have to change buses, we are on the organized bus, it's ruining their karma. A three hour trip back to Cusco, our last night together. We arrive at the hotel and say a sad goodby to Lucy with a gift. It takes a while for every one to shower. So we meet an hour later. Some sections take longer than others. Ted and I lead them to the Norton Pub, on the square. Good Grub, beer and enough space for all of us. I'm over being lead, time to take my life back. After dinner the younger cohort head off to go clubbing. I'm stuffed, three hours sleep in 36 hours, a killer cold, full of antihistamines. I look at Ted, he starts off towards the hotel. Who want to bounce around in a hot crowded club full of smelly people, listening to music in another language, sculling shots of rocket fuel. "FUCK YER ME". The place is full, happy hour goes from 7.30 till 11 then it starts again. The crowd goes nuts for Despacito, and Ed Sheeran. "Mañana no siento bien!".
No hordes of Gringos queuing up in front of us, the Lars valley is a ancient pathway over a 4800 meter mountain pass. Untouched by time it is still home to the local Quechua people living their mountain lifestyle, barley touched by the odd group of trekkers passing through. It involves lots of walking, a bit of camping, and I suspect a bit of pain. I get a sleeping bag and a mat issued to me. Ted must have missed the bit about nothing below five star.
Very early the next morning we pile on to three buses. The first day both groups are headed to the same place so we get mixed up with the organized people. They tend to be Scandinavians, or people in upper management. Our trip is going to take most of the day, with a few stops to look at some ruinas (Pisac), a local community run market, and a posh lunch. Our last stop Ollantaytambo, is a great little trekking town that reminds me a lot of a few places in Nepal. Last stop for espresso coffee, and a good nights sleep. It's also the main place to start the Inca Trail.
Next morning we divide again. Los desorganizados are finally together. Most of our group is in their 20's to 30's, then there is Ted and I, along with Jacqui who is traveling with her daughter. We are a bit of a "UN'. Aussie's, Kiwi's, Swiss, Canadian, Welsh, and a Yank. Into the bus we head for the hills. First stop is the market to buy some stuff to give to the kids we see in the villages on the trek. I take a photo of one of the fruit stalls then everyone else wants one too. Finally we arrive in Lares, to our ensemble. Eight horses, Ten Lamas, 2 Chefs, 5 caballistas, and 2 Guides, Lucy and Pamela. The guy's load up our stuff, tents, food, etc, a quick group chat and we head up the hill. The start winds up along a valley, passing little farms, and houses. The teachers are on strike at the moment, so the little kids are all out to ambush us. They all have guilty smiles. We stop and ask them their names in Quechua the local lingo. They giggle at the Gringos and for their trouble get a bread roll, toy , bit of fruit, or all of the above. Life looks pretty hard here, and food is appreciated. There a not a lot of trips through here and we provide a bit of work, and currency for the locals. We are pretty high here (3800m) and a few of us are starting to feel the effects, did i mention it was cold. After a couple more hours we get to our camp. Here the guides have done a wonderful job. Tents set up, Hot water, cups of coca tea, ( good for the altitude sickness), and a bowl of hot water each to have a wash in. There are three local women selling locally made gloves, scarfs and other handicrafts for a couple of bucks each, unfortunately they are not big sellers, their beer is a winner, and gives them a couple of sales for their trouble. Dinner is a produced, Cake and jam, honey, more drinks, main chicken rice, veggies. Afterwards the group sit around playing some sort of drinking game. It's to much for me, there is an early start I go to bed looking at the southern sky.
Up before dawn, who organized this again. Long day to day over the Huacawasi pass, (4800m). Coca tea in the tent with another washing bowl to help us wake up. Porridge and bread for breaky we are "listo" for a long day. Lucy gives us our itinerary for the day and a snack pack each. The local dogs trot along beside us knowing they will get something eventually when we take a break. They seem to hang around about an hour then wander back home. Lunch is on the other side of the pass about seven hours away. Unfortunately our Mother and Daughter team are non starters, they are down with existing illnesses they had before they started. Pamela our other guide takes them down the hill to see a doc and spend a couple of nights in a warm hotel. We look on enviously. We walk and rest, walk and rest. We see, Llamas, Chinchillas, and Hawks. Lucy tells us about the locals and their lives up here in the hills. Fortunately the weather is great, no wind and lots of sun. As we advance up the valley the views just get better. There are still snow covered peaks way above us. Lucy urges us on, after about 5 hours we can see the pass, only another hour to go. Most of us are suffering from the altitude now. We have our emergency horse following us just in case any one can't make it, lead by one of the guides 14 year old sons. He's romping it in, and probably wishing the teachers would stay on strike a bit longer. Lauren say her lungs feel like they're on fire. I'm feeling pretty good, I shouldn't be. I've got the worst chest cold I've had for ten years, lungs full of crap, but my big advantage is I have been above 3000m for 4 weeks. I'm acclimatized. As we get to the pass I have a little bit of a headache but it goes away when I stop for 30 seconds. High fives we all make it. Photo stop, after all it didn't happen if you don't have the picture, from here It's all down hill. A lot of down hill. Two hours, and a couple of hundred meters lower, we can see our lunch stop. Just five exactly minutes more say's Lucy, of course she lied. The guys have set up the lunch tent, the sun is out, people pass out for a power nap on a couple of tarps. Whats not to love. Lunch is chicken, rice, pasta, cakes, coffee and more. The altitude has killed Teds hunger. Just as well he's got me as backup. Lucy herds us off telling us it's not far to the camp, I feel a bit skeptical.
We get there at five, to find the the usual setup. How easy is this camping. It's been a long day, and the down hill has taken it's toll on some feet and knees. Paola has found a sick puppy and has it wrapped up in a towel, feeding it biscuits, and snacks. It spends all night in the mess tent with us, then gets snuck back into her tent that night without the knowledge of her friend. All's fine till it throws up in the middle of the night, one too many biscuits. It looked much happier at breakfast. After breakfast the chefs presented us with a cake with icing congratulating us on our walk. These guys where great. We only have a couple more hours to walk till the bus. Paola hands the puppy back complete with new towel to the next family down the hill. Puppy smiles like its done it's job. Meanwhile while we get rid of the last of our stuff we bought for the kids from the market. The track gets less steep, then it's a road, then there is a bus parked on the side. The end is a bit anticlimactic really. We go to our lunch Spot and meetup with Jacqui, and her daughter. They look much better after a couple of nights in a hotel. Los desorganizados are reunited. Here we have to say goodby to our local porters chefs and second guide Pamela. The guys did a great job. We give them a tip and our thanks. But It's not the end for us. Tomorrow Lucy leads us to a much bigger challenge. Battling the hordes to Machu Picchu.
Thanks to G Adventures, the guys did a great job. The also work hard to help the communties they pass through. Keep it up Guys.
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