A Travellerspoint blog

To Bolivia...and beyond!!

Part V - Changing countries...

Well, we're one month in, still in Peru and still on page one of our itinerary...we've gone a long way!? Looking back however, we discovered how much we have already seen and done - some major trips such as the Amazon Jungle, Arequipa, the Colca Canyon and the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, and it seems a very long time since Big Al dropped us off at Bromley-by-Bow tube station to head to the airport, only to realise there were no tubes running (and only after Al had set the Jazz in motion on the A12).

Following the amazing Inca Trek, our next destination was Puno - gateway to Lake Titicaca and the Uros Islands, or the "reed islands". We had heard plenty of things about Puno from fellow travellers and all recommended the same thing...skip it and carry on straight through to Copacabana! Despite their top recommendation, we were determined to see it for ourselves.

Opting for a lesser class bus for our relatively short overnight journey (6.5hrs) from Cusco, we thought a little sleep would rejuvenate us for the next day. Alas, our efforts were thwarted by 2hrs of a Danish TV drama playing full blast throughout the bus. Trying to understand any word other than "Tak" didn't prove a problem however, with the assistance of Spanish subtitles!?

We finally arrived in Puno at 5am. It immediately became apparent the advice given by our fellow travellers was...ahem...accurate. Have to say, not the prettiest. Maybe a nice hot shower in our hotel would change everything, oh hang on, no check-in til 1:30pm!! Argh! We therefore decided to dump our bags at the hotel and head straight to the Uros Islands.

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The Uros Islands are a group of 80+ small islands just off the coast of Puno that are made of reeds and float on Lake Titicaca. Their origin stems from the Spanish conquest who forced the inhabitants of Puno into hard labour. Wanting to avoid this, they built boats from the reeds and set sail on the lake. The eventually turned their boats into Islands by cutting and tying blocks of reeds together and then building huts and kitchens on them. The Islands are then anchored down to prevent them floating away (or accidentally into Bolivia!). Thereafter, they have lived tax-free on the lake, only heading to land in order to obtain supplies or medical assistance. Many of the islands today are built specifically for tourists but some still house families who have to replace the reed blocks every 35 years, and replace the top reed layer every 15 days. Despite the touristic nature of the area, we found it interesting to see how they are built (and knowing that they were once built for a purpose other than tourism) and truly amazing that this was how they once lived. Uros Islands - tick.

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Before catching our next bus over the border to Bolivia, we were pleasantly surprised to run into our hilarious Swiss trekking buddies Vince and Michael from the Inca Trail on the main high street. Deciding to meet later for dinner, when we arrived we had yet another pleasant surprise...more of our trekking buddies from the Inca trail had happened to bump into Vince and Michael on their way to meeting us and we had a great little reunion dinner.

The next morning we caught our bus from Puno to Copacabana (our first stop in Bolivia) with one border crossing en route. By sheer coincidence, Vince and Michael happened to be on the same bus so time was spent laughing and joking with them which made the bus journey so much more pleasant. Well, this was before Vince told us that Copacabana had no ATM's. (Thanks Vince! ;-) Ignorance would have been bliss) and with very few Peruvian Soles to exchange and even less US dollars, panic set in. With no option but to chance it, we arrived in Copacabana to find one cashpoint (yay!) but one only - naturally we bled it dry!

We said our farewells to the Swiss contingent and boarded a boat to our next stop Isla del Sol. Our hostel was at the southern end of the island at the top of another set of giant Inca steps! The recommendation to leave your main 'mochilas' on the mainland and only take day packs was well-founded!

The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent drinking cervezas, listening to Christmas carols on our iPod, eating pizza and watching an amazing sunset on the west side off the Island followed by a lightening storm. For the first time, it actually felt like we were on holiday - no horrible smells, no cars, no horns - silence. Pure relaxation.

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The storm made for an interesting nights sleeping only because our ensuite bathroom (check us out) was basically a shed attached to our room which was part of the main building, with a plastic corrugated roof on top. In the middle of the night, the rain and winds were so hard I was half expecting to open the bathroom door in the morning and see a scene out of the movie 2012, bathroom completely removed and just the plumbed toilet still standing!

The next day involved an early start in order to take the 3-4 hour hike from Yumani, through the Challe Communidad to the north end of the island to Chincana (a set of Inca ruins) and Challe'pampa (a small fishing town). This was an amazing day. For the entire duration, we saw no other people ahead or behind us. It was so peaceful and scenic - walking along the top of the hills, beautiful sunshine, the azure blue waters of the east and west coasts on each side of the path and no signs of any modern technology.

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At the end of the island were some ruins where we chilled out for a while with a bottle of agua and some gummy bears. Sitting there above a pristine beach below with a little stone jetty and turquoise waters, we couldn't help but think how much it reminded us of Orapiu on Waiheke Island in New Zealand. When we get back, there will be even more pressure exerted by the Round/Lacey/Round-Lacey household to build on that land Al and Marilyn!

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After our walk we caught a boat back to Copacabana and enjoyed just chilling out on the roof, soaking up the great weather.

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A 3hr bus journey then took us to La Paz, our destination for Christmas. The scenery along the way was breath-taking and involved at one point, getting off of the bus, so it could then be transported on a flat-bed barge across a short stretch of water, whilst we took a boat. As a Christmas present to each other, we had decided to treat ourselves to a little bit of luxury and 2 nights at the Stannum Boutique Hotel in downtown La Paz. For Christmas Day, we planned a duvet day, consisting of watching DVD's in bed with room service throughout the day. A bottle of bubbly and a couple of cocktails on the swanky bar in the evening made for a great Christmas as did catching up with family via Skype.

Boxing Day brought around a day I had been looking forward to and which Han had been dreading - the North Yungas Road Bike Ride. For those that have seen Top Gear's Bolivia Special, this road is more aptly known as 'The Worlds Most Dangerous Road' or even better, The Death Road! Leaving at 6:30am, I said my farewells to Han. If I was going to die, there couldn't have been a better day for it, the weather was amazing, with even better vistas. It The first 22km of the 62km was on asphalt, giving everyone time to get used to their full suspension Kona mountain bikes. Before starting the 40km stretch of narrow dirt track, with waterfalls eroding it even thinner, falling rocks and vertical drops ranging from 500m to over 1km (it looked like a scene out of Avatar) our Aussie guide (Marcus) made sure we made an offering to Pachamama - 96% alcohol. To the tire, to Mother Earth, to our lips!! It still burns now! But if you were asleep before, you were definitely awake now!

Arriving at the North Yungas Road, it was a little disconcerting to see several graves on the road side as well as burnt out cars and buses at the bottom of some of the drops when I looked over the edge. With instructions to go slow and stay near the back, I did exactly as I was told. Sitting directly behind the guide at the front, going pretty quick (I had a GoPro on, it was only fair) I safely made my way to the bottom where an ice cold, refreshing beer was waiting for me. This was followed by a short trip to a monkey rescue centre for a hot shower and a tour of centre. Getting up close and personal with squirrel, spider and howler monkeys was pretty cool as well as the colourful macaws.

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I made the mistake of thinking I was safe but then I was told we were taking the bus back up the death road. I thought a bike was wide enough but a bus!!?! This was a hell of a lot more scary. We stopped at the thinnest part of the road and the gap between the bus wheel and the edge was about 10cm with a 1.1km vertical drop just the other side. Marcus thought it would be funny to open the bus doors right at that point and hang off the edge! The road then got worse as the cloud cover came in - no idea how the bus driver could see the road, and even more so the edge of the drop! With 35 years experience of driving it however, he got us to the top safely. With Han a little nervous about me riding the Death Road, I had strict instructions to text/call her as soon as I had made it to the bottom (or not) as the case may be. So I did what all good husbands would - failed to do either. In my defence I had no signal for most of the day and when I did, I had no credit on my phone. She had to instead settle for a hug back at our new digs when I arrived at 9pm at night, some 13hrs after leaving.

We did think about visiting La Paz's San Pedro prison, famous for it being (in effect) run by its inmates, who live inside with their families and who have jobs. Having found that tourism in the prison is illegal (despite there being hundreds of stories of tourists visiting the place) and getting in requires the (increasingly difficult and expensive) bribing of a guard and their trust to release you once you're ready to go (having been branded with a number so they know who to release and who should rightly be there), we thought it best that it remain something we only read in 'Marching Powder'!

The next day brought our next stop - Sucre, Bolivia's "white city" and their judicial capital. Getting here was not without incident however - a 14hr bus journey with no toilet on board (I rephrase, there was a toilet but the assistants just refused to open it). If we needed to go, it involved telling the bus drivers' assistant who then told the bus driver to pull over. When he pulled over, we asked where the baño was, he just gesticulated in a circular motion next to the bus, as if to say, "anywhere here." This was fine for me but not so dignified for Han. To signal their displeasure at the inconvenience of us having stop for us (because of course it's a ludicrous notion that someone would need the toilet even once in 14 hours!), they even tried to drive off! It meant that we had to take it in turns to hang out of the bus door to prevent it from closing and driving off without either one of us!!

But it was all worth it. We finally arrived in Sucre, where we were due to spend a couple of days, and it is a gorgeous place. Our hostel CasArte Takubamba is amazing. It's like a little Spanish villa complex with a small courtyard for sunbathing and chilling in a hammock (which is where I am right now!).

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Another colonial city, it had a completely different feel to it to any other part of Bolivia we had seen so far (clean, polite folk and no smell of urine, well once we left the bus station anyway!). On our second day here we happily bumped into a couple of Aussies Luke and Hannah, who Han made the mistake of calling Kiwis (sorry NZ family!) who we first met on Isla del Sol, with whom we spent a great evening of dinner and drinks, chatting about anything and nothing as well as reminiscing about the same horrendous bus journey we had both endured only one night apart. It seems our trip is very similar to theirs and so our paths are sure to cross again in the future.

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It's a shame we cannot stay here longer but the new year, the salt flats and hopefully plenty of funny photos await!!

Feliz Navidad y prospero Nuevo Años to all our family and friends.

Posted by shaunandhan 18:57 Archived in Bolivia

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