Bolivia, the Inka trail and northern Chile
18.09.2015 - 21.10.2015 20 °C
I left Lima first thing and landed in Cusco bright and early. It was so great to be back in Cusco, even just for a day. I left my bags at a friend's flat and spent the day walking around a lot and enjoying the Peruvian food. It felt like going home, which was nice after travelling for so long. I then headed to the bus station for my 10pm bus to Copacabana, on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. Having only been in Peru so far, I was a little nervous to be heading to a new country but excited to be meeting Sophie there.
I was dropped off and directed to a colectivo which I (silly me) assumed would be taking me to the border, but I was told to get off in a village in the middle of nowhere. I had no choice but to get into a taxi. Luckily it wasn't too far and I found the border in the end. It's not exactly the best protected border in the world. I almost walked across without going through immigration by accident. There's no one checking and you actually have to search quite hard to find first the Peruvian office for your exit stamp, and then the Bolivian office to enter the country. After 30 minutes or so I was officially in Bolivia. I then took another colectivo the 8km to Copacabana.
Copacabana is a village on the edge of the lake, which has a couple of hills with great views over the bay, but is otherwise just a port to the popular tourist destination of Isla del Sol. I spent the morning pottering around and enjoying the sun. I then went to try and book an island tour for the next day for Sophie and me. However, I was told that no boats at all would be leaving the port that day due to 'elections'. It turned out there was a referendum the following day in Bolivia and the government had banned transport of all forms (including taxis) that day. We decided it would be better to go straight to La Paz rather than hang around in the tiny Copacabana for another day, which meant a nail-biting half an hour while I was desperately hoping for Sophie to arrive before the last bus left for La Paz. Luckily she did, with two minutes to spare!
We arrived in La Paz 4 hours later (11pm) with no clue where we were (apparently the bus terminal was too much to ask) and in torrential rain, something I haven't seen since leaving the UK. I had written down the address of a hostel but that didn't seem to exist so we ran across the road to another place. Though a hotel, we thought we'd treat ourselves at £8 a night. After a great sleep we got up early to try and find an agency to book our jungle tour with. Unfortunately, we hadn't put two and two together and hadn't realised that La Paz would be completely shut down too. Absolutely nothing was open. Luckily, a couple of hours later we found one agency open and didn't really have a choice but to book with them, leaving 2 days later. After a quick wander around the actually very charming centre we gave up and headed back to the hotel for a nap. A few hours later I started to feel unwell and a couple of hours after that I was in the throes of food poisoning. I don't think I've ever been so intensively sick. I was very lucky and after 12 hours it had stopped and I was able to start trying to regain all the fluids I'd lost (which I'm still doing now). By the time we had to catch our flight to the jungle I was weak but essentially ok. The plane was the smallest I have ever come across. There were 19 passengers, 2 pilots (with no door between us and them) and no other crew. Though only 40 minutes, I was battling not to be sick with my weak stomach and all the turbulence. It didn't help that it was around 35 degrees and incredibly humid when we landed. The "airport" was the smallest I've ever seen. It consisted of one small waiting room (the gate was a covered terrace outside) and security was a man with a hand-held metal detector. We took a bus for the 10 minute journey into "town" and checked into a hostel. We spent the rest of the day relaxing in hammocks and trying to get used to the oppressive heat.
The next day we headed to the tour agency for 8.30am and got straight into the jeep that took us to las Pampas (fertile lowlands along the river). We drove for around three hours crammed into the back of the very hot jeep and emerged at the other end already filthy due to the amount of dust on the road. Luckily the journey went quite quickly as we spent the time getting to know the rest of our group (pretty much all Brits our age, including a couple of BPP law students!). At the other end we were told to change into shorts and swimming clothes and then we got straight into our boat.
The journey to our lodge took the rest of the afternoon. We floated along the river making plenty of stops on the way to observe the incredibly abundant wildlife. Where in Peru it was relatively difficult to spot a caiman and involved a certain amount of luck, in the pampas it certainly didn't. We must have seen over a hundred on our journey, some as close as half a metre away. We had to shout to our guide at points not to drive us any closer because we didn't want to lose a limb. We also saw hundreds of turtles and a huge range of beautiful birds. We had a fright when a fish leapt into the boat like a kamikaze and it took us a good five minutes to catch it and throw it out again. We arrived at the lodge after a few hours. It is entirely built on stilts around 3 metres above the ground so that it doesn't get flooded in rainy season when the river can easily rise 5 metres. There is also a family of monkeys there which run in and out of the rooms. My crackers went missing so I presume they enjoyed a feast on me. We enjoyed popcorn and some delicious Bolivian coconut biscuits before heading off to watch the sunset, armed with the strongest insect repellent money can buy. For sunset we headed in the boat to what appeared to be the local football field / drinking establishment. The location was probably chosen for the guides' entertainment rather than ours but we still enjoyed watching the sun go down. We then got back into the boat for some night-time caiman spotting, using torches to spot the reflection of their eyes in the water. Our slightly drunk guide picked up a baby caiman to show us. It started making a noise which, as he informed the rather alarmed group, was a call for help to mummy caiman. We were rather relieved when he put it back down.
After a very sweaty night of very little sleep, we got up to a delicious breakfast of pancakes and fruit before heading out for some anaconda spotting. We wandered round the grassy flatlands for around an hour before the guide spotted one and brought it to show us. We had to cover our hands in mud so that the chemicals from our sun cream and repellent didn't harm the snake but then we all had a chance to hold it and take pictures. In the afternoon we went piranha fishing. This mostly consisted of us feeding the piranhas different types of bait as, no matter how well you attached it to the rod, they always seemed to be able to get the food off unscathed. In the end we all managed to catch something and Sophie even caught three. We had a full rack of fish to eat for dinner later that day. There really isn't much meat on a piranha but it was an experience to eat something I'd caught myself. Other highlights of the day included seeing flamingos in flight and crashing into a caiman when Sophie was right at the front of the boat and watching it almost jump out of the way.
On the final day we woke up early to go and watch the sunrise. It's amazing that close to the equator. You can see the sun moving because it happens so quickly. In the morning we had the chance to swim in the river with the friendly pink Dolphins that live there. They look very strange but it was a wonderful experience to be in the (very very dirty) water with them. Then it was time to head back to Rurrenabaque on the jeep. We relaxed in the pool in the hostel and had an early night.
Having woken up before 5am to catch our flight, we were annoyed when we found out it was delayed by an hour and a half. As you can imagine from my description above, entertainment is thin on the ground in Rurrenabaque airport so it was a long wait. We were then told that the plane had broken down in la Paz. They couldn't even assure us that we would be able to leave Rurrenabaque that day. We had been looking forward to escaping the heat and getting to Cusco to acclimatise for our Inka trail so this wasn't good news. We reached a new low when the best entertainment we could think of was trying to work our way through the combinations on Sophie's padlock to which she has forgotten the code. After more than 6 hours in the airport we were ecstatic to get on the plane (everyone cheered when we took off). We spent a couple of hours in la Paz then got straight on a bus to Cusco where we arrived at 5.30 the next morning.
I really enjoyed being back in Cusco, showing Sophie around and seeing friends when she was exploring the sacred valley. We went to a salsa class and had a brilliant night out too. The night before the Inka trail we went to the language school for our briefing. Unfortunately the man from the agency was one of the most unpleasant people I've ever met and informed us completely unapologetically that we would not be climbing Huayna Picchu (a peak above Machu Picchu with great views) though we'd booked in March, as he'd messed up the reservation. After much discussion he refunded us the money and booked Machu Picchu mountain for us instead. We didn't really have a choice but to accept and try to remain positive. Thankfully, our experience was much better than we had expected given this introduction. We were relieved to meet our two fantastic guides the next morning and we were lucky to be a group of only 5 people, the two of us with three lovely Brits.
The first day was relatively easy. We walked for around six hours after reaching the start of the trail by minivan. The terrain was undulating and not too difficult though Sophie and I, as the only two people without porters, were getting used to our heavy bags with all our clothes, snacks, sleeping bags and mats for the trail. As on the Santa Cruz trek, the food was absolutely fantastic. I couldn't cook things that complicated in a kitchen, let alone a tent. It was also luxurious compared to the other trek. While they were disgusting, there were at least flushing toilets and taps with running water the whole way. The staff brought tea to our tents when we woke up and bowls of warm water for washing in the afternoon. Sophie and I were also sharing a huge tent, which made getting dressed and packing a lot easier.
I slept like a log and so felt surprisingly fresh when we woke up at 5.30 to start trekking on the second day. We had been told this would be the toughest day so we were all a little nervous when we set off. It became clear as soon as we started ascending just how important acclimatisation is. Though I had my heavy bag I found the three-hour ascent up dead woman's pass relatively straight forward. Sophie coped well too though she was slightly behind me, as she'd only had a few days to get used to the altitude. However, one guy in our group really struggled. We later found out that their agency had allowed them to book a flight to Cusco from sea level the day before starting the trail. As soon as he started going downhill again, he seemed to recover but woke up in the night vomiting and had a splitting headache. We were all pretty worried but the guide seemed calm about the situation and sure enough he was able to walk with us the next day.
The third day was probably the toughest for me as it was long and involved a lot of going down so my legs felt pretty battered by the end of the day. However, it was the day with the best views of the trek. Until that point the landscape had been very similar to that in Cusco - high but a little barren and dry. But that day just before lunch it seemed as if we had suddenly stepped into the rainforest. We were suddenly surrounded by luscious vegetation, the mountains were green and much more as we had imagined the trail to be. The air was muggy and it rained on and off all day. We finally reached our camp just before dark and enjoyed our last dinner together.
The next day we woke up at 3am and packed up as quickly as we could before heading to the control point for Machu Picchu. We were one of the first groups in the queue and so didn't mind waiting the two hours before the gate finally opened at 5.30. Fuelled by adrenaline we then almost ran the final stretch for an hour up to Machu Picchu's famous sun gate. It was worth it as there were only around five people there when we arrived and we were able to take in the spectacular view of the ruins below before it got too busy. A lot of people say they didn't enjoy Machu Picchu as it's too touristy. It's true that the place is absolutely swamped with tourists but I expected that and still found it magical to arrive there, particularly with the achievement of completing the Inka trail behind us.
We headed down to the ruins and the guide gave us a tour. We then had time to wander round ourselves and get more pictures. Sophie and I then decided to walk down to the nearest town to save money on the outrageously priced bus. The trail said it would take an hour so we assumed it would be less, as we generally walk fairly fast. We power-walked despite very tired legs all the way down the very steep steps but it still took us 1 hour 15. Perhaps the hour was 'porter time'. They carry up to 35kg yet race ahead on the trail to set up the tents and get cooking before the tourists get there...
We finally arrived in the town and enjoyed a well-earned beer (which went straight to my head) then headed to the thermal springs to ease the muscles before getting on the train back to Cusco. We arrived exhausted at 11pm but just couldn't resist one last night out in Cusco with the group from the trek. We finally got to bed at 5am when it was already getting light.
I had a relaxed day in Cusco and then slept very well on the night bus back to la Paz. The queues at the border were horrendous and it didn't help that they didn't want to allow the American girl from our bus to enter the country. The Americans are unlucky in that they get charged extortionate amounts to enter a lot of the countries in South America (for us it's free). They refused to accept her dollars, first saying they were fake (they weren't) then admitting they didn't want folded dollars! We managed in the end as Sophie had some pristine dollars to swap. It was another quick stop there before we boarded a second night bus to Uyuni. We hadn't been looking forward to this bus as we'd read that the roads were largely unpaved. Either they were better than expected or we were just too exhausted to notice. Anyway, we were pleasantly surprised when we were woken up in Uyuni having slept pretty well.
We checked into our hotel and slept even more then got up to go and book a tour for the salt flats. Uyuni really doesn't have much going for it and as everything is closed at lunch time, it was like walking round a ghost town. We had to wait but finally found an open agency and organised our tour for the next day. We then headed to the train graveyard just outside the town where we made the most of the fact that we were the only people there to climb on the trains and take lots of pictures. There's something very eerie about the place as it truly feels like it's in the middle of nowhere. Stuck for anything else to do, we celebrated Sophie's birthday with a bottle of wine and a sleepover in our room with the heater on full blast (Uyuni gets very very cold at night).
The next day we were picked up around 10am to start our tour of the salt flats. We were in a group with two Italians, a guy from Switzerland and a girl from France. Our guide was very good and drove more carefully than I've ever seen anyone drive in South America! The first day was all about seeing the salt flats. They begin just outside Uyuni and stretch for miles and miles. The ground is a brilliant white and you can't look at it without sunglasses. Parts are completely flat and others are marked by strange hexagonal shapes like honeycomb. We stopped at an island which the Inkas used to use as a refuge when crossing that stretch of the desert. The contrast of the brown earth with huge (3-4m) cacti against the white desert was really striking. We made a few other short stops on the way but mostly we just drove and stared out of the jeep at the almost alien landscape. The first night we spent in a salt hotel. The walls were made of salt bricks, the tables, chairs and beds too and the floor was covered in salt. We were worried it would be cold but it was actually very insulated so we slept well.
The second day we headed into a different section of the desert - no longer salty but full of different colours, browns and reds and lots of volcanoes. We passed several beautiful lakes with flamingos including the lago colorado with terracotta-coloured water. The wind was biting and at times unbearable. At a few of the stops we jumped out to take pictures then ran for the safety of the jeep as soon as we could. The second night was very cold. As the sun went down I progressively put on more and more layers until I had no more clothes to wear. I was very glad I had asked the agency to include a sleeping bag in the price, so I at least managed to get some sleep.
On the final day we got up and left the shelter before sunrise and headed to the geysers. These are vents of boiling hot steam from the ground. These ones are at around 5,000m so we certainly felt the altitude and the cold when we got out of the jeep. We were warned to keep well away and to be honest the sulphur smell meant we didn't want to get much closer. We only found out later that a woman had fallen into one and suffered 80% burns the week before on the Chilean side of the desert. After the geysers we headed to a beautiful thermal spring. Unlike some of the others I have visited, the water was crystal clear and very warm. It was worth getting changed in the cold to enjoy the water.
Then it was straight to the border to head into Chile. In typical Bolivian fashion the border was slow and they also tried to charge us an unofficial exit fee. We argued a bit and because the queue was long they just let us get away without paying. We hopped on a bus and that took us to San Pedro de Atacama, our first destination in Chile.
San Pedro is a pretty little town but it is essentially just a slightly more European extension of Peru and Bolivia - the food served was the same and the landscape hadn't really changed much. We spent a few relaxing days in San Pedro making the most of the beautiful sunshine and enjoying cheap Chilean wine by the hostel fire before we headed further south. On the first evening we went to the 'moon valley'. I could see why it was called this as the landscape certainly looks very lunar but the reddish colour made it seem a bit more like Mars than the moon. Unfortunately we had been told shorts would be fine and then suffered when the wind blew mounds of sharp sand against our legs and faces, but the views were worth it. We also hired bikes while we were there and had a great day exploring the caves and winding paths of the 'devil's canyon'. While we enjoyed San Pedro, we were ready to move on to the bigger and more exciting Santiago and that helped motivate us to get on the 24-hour bus which took us there. It was thankfully very comfortable and I slept a lot as well as reading two books to pass the time.
Santiago is a completely different world to everywhere else I've seen in South America so far. For a start, they have a metro system so we didn't have to rely on taxis, colectivos or unlabelled buses to find our hostel. The hostel also had reliable running water and fully functioning wifi. It was like landing in a European city and it was a shock, but a pleasant one. It was also European in other ways - our first day there was my first experience of proper rain outside the jungle of the whole trip. We took refuge in the human rights museum (on Pinochet's dictatorship), which was excellent. It was all in Spanish so my dictionary got a fair bit of use but the exhibits were very good and we learnt a lot about this scarily recent period of Chile's history. The weather was much better the next day and we made the most of the spring sunshine with a four-hour walking tour, followed by climbing Santiago's two hills. All in all we walked almost 20 miles that day. We also tried the local terremoto (earthquake) cocktail for the first time which is delicious but very strong. The next day we relaxed and took in another museum - the history museum, where we learned about Chilean independence among other things.
Next stop was Valparaiso, a very pretty town on the coast less than two hours from Santiago. The whole town is full of character and colour. It's a unesco world heritage site for its beautiful and unique painted facades and it's also the home to congress. It was an attempt to try and move some importance to cities other than Santiago (where over a third of the population live) but didn't really work, as most members still commute from the capital! Valparaiso is wonderful for wandering around on a sunny afternoon. It has so many little art shops and cafes, and the winding steep streets give you amazing views at so many different angles. There is art everywhere - everything is painted and it's almost impossible to take it all in, but we did our best in between many empanadas and more terremotos...
After two nights there we headed back to Santiago for a night and did a tour of a local winery (accessible by metro!) that afternoon. The wines were really good quality and incredibly good value and we learnt a little about Chilean wine production too!
We just arrived in Pucón in the Chilean Lake District after a night bus from Santiago. This will be our gateway to Patagonia so plenty of hiking and stunning landscapes to come! The original plan was to head to Mendoza in Argentina but unfortunately the border has been closed a lot due to unseasonably late snow (probably due to el niño). What a year to come to South America! Anyway, that's all for now. I have less than 7 weeks left before my flight back home so it's a race through Patagonia to the southernmost tip of the continent before we head back up to Buenos Aires.