Category Archives: Travel in South America

Beautiful Bolivia.

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I`ve been to lots of places around the world but I have to say one of the loveliest is Bolivia.  I don`t know what it is about the place but in spite of its chequered and often violent past, Bolivia now has an ambience which is so laid back it chills you out from the moment you arrive, I loved it.

The El Alto airport sits up above Bolivia`s capital city of La Paz. La Paz is the second highest city in the world and after you have landed, a coach takes you winding down the mountainside where the views of the buildings stretching up from it`s base are truly breathtaking, in fact the coach stops to allow everyone to take pictures, it`s absolutely stunning it`s like a gigantic pudding basin filled with all kinds of life.

One of the things that struck me while I was travelling across south America is that wherever you go, there are thousands of buildings that have unfinished stories or no roof and it gave me an odd feeling which I can only describe as like being on the set of a movie which hasn`t quite been completed.   I later discovered that the reason for this unfinished state is that when you put a roof on your building you have to pay taxes, so many people don`t bother.  Some towns look almost derelict as a result. La Paz ofcourse is a beautiful, vibrant, bustling and impressive city with some wonderful architecture and some pretty far out places to eat but you have to remember not to rush as the high altitude will make you giddy.

Lake Titicaca runs alongside one of Bolivia`s borders and is a huge tourist attraction.  I visited the lake to meet the people of the floating Uros islands who have made a living out of their squelchy homes.  The islands are made of totora reeds which lie about three feet deep in the water and people originally began to live in this way to avoid paying any taxes, but also because they were a defense as the islands could be moved.  It is remarkable to walk about and discover families of ten or more living in reed houses on the islands, with domesticated animals, making a living from tourism.  The reed from which they are made also makes boats for fishing, provides food and tea and has lots of healing properties.  Unfortunately, the lake suffers from pollution and part of the problem is that up in the shanty towns there are no lavatories.  During the winter time families dispose of their waste as best they can and much of it freezes, only to thaw out in the spring and run down the mountainsides and into the lake. 

Evo Morales who is a marvellous person, a political activist and the first indigenous man to be elected president in 2005, made a pledge to the people that he would ensure every house would have an inside toilet with a flush and to his credit he is keeping his word.  No doubt it will eventually make a tremendous difference to the quality of the water in the lake and it is currently a work in progress.

We stayed at a lovely town called Copcabana which sits on the shores of the lake.  The town is renowned for being quaint and has an air of peace and love about it.  It was full of hippies practicing aromatherapy and other types of healing massage and it suited me down to the ground, if I had lots of money I would buy a house in Copacabana. A white house on a hill, overlooking the lake.  The Bolivian people are warm and friendly and often extremely beautiful and I honestly could have just stayed there forever.

One of the places we also visited has such a strange landscape, it felt like we had landed on another planet.  The place is called The Valley of the Moon I can`t really describe it here, it is exactly like visiting how you imagine the moon would be like and made all the more special for me because while I was clambering around the weird landscape I looked up to see and hear a man way up above me standing on a peak, playing panpipes, it was great.  We also took a boat to the beautiful  island of Isla de la Luna.  The boat drops its passengers at the base of the island and then you have to climb up hundreds of steps carved into the rock, to reach the town at the top where you can sit down in the pretty square and have a delicious Bolivian feast.

When you drive around the mountainsides of south America, you cannot fail to notice the many mansions which are scattered across the country, very high up so there is good all round surveillance, heavily guarded and with massive electronic gates to stall any of the more curious visitors.  It`s a pity that many of the poorest people in the world are exploited by drug barons but there`s no getting away from the fact that cocaine is a major industry in Bolivia, supplying around forty percent of the drug worldwide and putting food on the table for many families who would otherwise starve.   Unfortunately the recent huge increase in the production of the coca leaf is having a massive impact on the environment which is pretty bad news for this incredibly beautiful country but obviously the billions of pounds in profit avaialable from cocaine is corrupting governments worldwide so I don`t see an end to the production of the coca leaf any time soon.  In spite of this, Bolivia remains my favourite destination and I would go back there again in a heartbeat.

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Cuzco and Macchu Picchu

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We left Lima and flew to Cuzco on the first leg of our journey.

Cuzco was quite a culture shock to me.  When we left the airport we were driven by taxi and arrived at the most lovely and clean town featuring a beautiful square with steps leading to a magnificent church at one end and flowers all around in tubs.  It really reminded me of somewhere in England, Stratford Upon Avon or Worcester, it is very pretty with lots of expansive and rather majestic white architecture.  When we first arrived, we noticed that many people were moving around quite slowly but it didn`t register with us initially, why this was.  After just a day though the high altitude really hits home and I began to feel extremely unwell.  This is why it is sensible to move slowly in Cuzco, it helps to conserve energy.

Coca tea is a mild stimulant and is from the same plant that we obtain cocaine from.  It`s given to visitors to Cuzco and some other parts of south America, to help to stem altitude sickness.  It didn`t do a thing for me and it tastes bitter, like green tea but my companion drank it in huge amounts until he was absolutely wired.   By day two, I was so pukey I took myself to the chemist who suggested I take anti-allergy medicine and that did work, thank goodness.   Altitude sickness is horrible and relentless and sadly coca tea is being discouraged now, because of it`s potentially harmful effects.  I think it`s a shame because it is an ancient tradition and it isn`t as if we are all going to come home and become cocaine addicts!

Around the square in Cuzco you will find lots of shoe-shine boys.  Many of them wear balaclavas to hide their identity as it is considered shameful to be in such a lowly position.  Most of them are street children who are simply earning money to stay alive but as in Lima, the police often raid them and take away their shoe shine boxes and their means of earning enough to eat.  It`s a cruel world for so many children.

We took the train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes which is the small town that sits at the foot of the mountain where Maccu Picchu is situated.  I have to say, the train journey was spectacular running alongside the jungle and the fast flowing, white water Vilcanota river, also known as the Urubamba river if you happen to be Spanish.   It`s a thrilling journey with many twists and turns and you can lean out of the window and see the whole length of the train ahead of you on the wide curves of train track.   Machu Picchu lay hidden from the world for a long time because its location is so remote and hard to get to. It was discovered by an American explorer, Hiram Bingham in 1911.  It`s located high up on a mountainside and Aguas Calientes is down in the valley beside the river.  It takes a bus about 20 minutes to climb the narrow, steep zig-zagging dirt track that connects the two.  I found the journey absolutely terrifying.  By the time we got to where Maccu Picchu sits, the river looked like a thread of cotton hundreds of feet below us but the back drop of the jungle clambering up the mountains which were all around us was well worth the trip, I was staggered at the beauty of it, it is totally awe inspiring and breath taking and I will never forget that journey.

Maccu Picchu is an ancient Inca site built in the fourteen hundreds and is probably a sacred and religious site although this has not been proven.  It`s thought that several hundred people lived there and it is visited by so many tourists now, there are serious concerns about preserving the site so I am glad I was lucky enough to go when I did.  I was stunned to find scrillions of mossies so high up the mountain and got loads of bites there.  I wondered how the Inca`s coped and was amazed to witness how developed a people they were, with clever channels built all around the site providing fresh running water.  It reminded me a bit of Pompei in how advanced the culture was all those centuries ago.

When we went back down to Aguas Calientes, we visited the famous hot springs there for a dip but there were a lot of people already in the water and it looked so murky and uninviting, we decided to skip that idea!   We went for something to eat, more fish stew but very nice and stayed for a day before returning by train to Cuzco, ready to move on to Bolivia.

It was dark as we travelled back.  At one point I looked up and saw a huge forest fire burning all across the mountainside…..

Peru and its capital, Lima.

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The sign on the border stretches across a gateway into the city, “Welcome to Peru.”  We arrived at night and were immediately accosted by people trying to sell us money, US dollars to be precise but we had already been warned about counterfiet money from street traders so we waited until the following day and bought dollars from a hotel.  We had landed in the capital, Lima and had planned to stop a few days before travelling to Cusco and on to Machu Picchu.

Lima is situated in a valley so as you explore the city, which is very beautiful with wide boulevards everywhere which initially feel very European,  you can look up the slopes of the mountainsides to see shanty towns stretching up and around, on every side.  The divisions between rich and poor are shocking to say the least and quite literally all around you.  Poverty in the shanty towns is unbelievable and there are many hundreds of street children in Lima.  They have been abandoned by their families who cannot afford to feed them and lots of them live in the sewers of Lima and come up to street level in the day to beg for money.  Street children are referred to locally as pirhana and they are considered the lowest of the low.  They are often exploited, abused and killed by all sorts of people including, (it is well documented,) the police.  This is the downside of travel, when you get to the nitty gritty and understand how harsh and cruel life can be for many people and children who share this world.  I just wanted to take all of them home with me and maybe when I retire I can do something constructive to help a few.

The infra structure of Peru and indeed lots of south America is still very underdeveloped so the sewage systems can`t cope with toilet paper.  The first thing you notice is that all of the toilets, even in the hotels have bins for you to dispose of your toilet tissue and it is considered highly irresponsible to flush it down the loo.  Whilst this may be manageable in the larger hotels, in street toilets it definitely isn`t and without going into detail, it can be pretty off putting.

It isn`t all doom and gloom though. Lima`s architecture is influenced by a lot of European styles and also African, Andean and Asian culture so the buildings are large and colourful and very varied.  Peru was invaded by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500`s.  This piece of ancient history facilitated the Monty Python team in creating that now famous sketch about the Spanish inquisition.  Prior to the invasion, Peru had been Inca and it is possible to visit Catholic churches which have been built on top of Inca temples and view the amazing art work.  In one church I saw a centuries old painting of The Last Supper where Jesus, surrounded by his disciples is just about to tuck into a plate of roast guinea pig.

Peru`s food is delicious, we ate lots of fresh fish stews and fresh vegetables but beware of drinking bottled water from street sellers as it is often tap water just being put in to used bottles and you will get a stomach bug for sure.

It is in Peru you first notice the head gear worn by many women.  Little bowler hats which announce that they are married, they are a status symbol.  You can pay a dollar and have your picture taken with women in national costume, they are everywhere, clutching the reins on llamas waiting to be photographed, their brown and crinkly faces smiling at their visitors.  The women sell brightly coloured blankets, knitted hats and scarves.  You know the hats, all the kids here wear them in winter, they have long knitted plaits hanging from just beneath the ear

We only spent three days in Lima, the pollution was so overwhelming it was making us feel sick so we decided to move on to Cusco to start our journey to the legendary Maccu Picchu.  Cusco was to be a challenge as it is very high up and we knew we would most likely suffer from altitude sickness.  Nothing really prepares you for the physical effects of being so elevated though, more of that in my next blog.

My most enduring memory of visiting Lima, I had gone out walking with my camera on my own.  I wanted to photograph some of the shanty towns sprawling up the mountainside.  I was crossing over a large bridge which spanned a dry river bed on my way up a hillside and suddenly a man in a suit literally ran up to me, dragging me back across the bridge in the direction I`d come from, shouting at me in Spanish.  My Spanish isn`t all that good but I did manage to get the gist of it, he was shouting,

“Go back to your hotel, are you mad?  You will get robbed or killed if you stray over here, –  go back!!”

Sorry Lima, but you aren`t a city I would hurry to return to…..

The Galapagos Islands.

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The plane touched down on the runway of one of the main Islands called Isla Baltra.  The airport was built by the US army and airforce during World War 2.   It was a beautiful day, sunny but it was a dry heat and good for walking.  We left the airport which is situated very close to the Pacific Ocean and walked down to the harbour where we were picking up our boat to visit five islands over a period of five days.  Because the Galapagos is a National Park and an area of conservation, only so many parties of human beings are allowed to tramp around each day so you have to book well in advance or you will be disappointed.   Although there are 15 main islands in the geographical area and 3 smaller ones, the islands we were to visit were:  Hispaniola, Darwin, Espanola, Floreana and Santa Cruz.  Each island had something spectacular to offer us and I had to pinch myself to believe I was really there.

The weather in the Galapagos is often drizzly however, there is not sufficient rain to produce many lakes or drinking water.  As a result the land is extremely arid which is one of the reasons why not many people have chosen to settle there.  The most common form of vegetation you will see is the prickly pear which grows in abundance but is threatened because it comprises the main diet of sea lizards, or iguanas.  More of that later. . .

The first thing you notice as you approach the islands are lots and lots of boulders, or at least that is what they look like from a distance but as you draw closer you realise they are seals.  Hundreds of them litter the shores and they are pretty indifferent to humans.  We are not allowed to touch, especially the babies as their mothers reject them once they smell human being on them.  This doesn`t stop some irresponsible people from stroking them so we encountered a number of tiny seal corpses as we were travelling which made us angry and sad.

Seal pooh is incredibly smelly by the way, so visitors are made to remove their shoes before boarding boats to try and keep down the pungent odour of rotting fish.

I made the mistake of swimming with some seals one day.   I was on my own as my companion The Australian had gone out with our party snorkelling which I didn`t fancy.  The sea was quite cold and choppy that day with strong currents so I didn`t have the confidence to snorkel.  After a few minutes of playing around in the water I heard a roar of rage as a bull seal who was about the size of half a grown elephant, came lumbering along the beach towards the ocean to shoo me away from his harem.  Fortunately I could move faster than him on land so scrambling out of the sea, I scarpered pretty sharpish!  Just imagine being on your own, on a white beach, surrounded by seals and no humans, it was absolutely one of the most magical moments of my life.  I will never forget it.

The boat was made of wood which is no longer allowed now as in the harbours, wood is considered a fire hazard.  The chef was apallingly bad serving us fish soup which was bland and had the consistency of snot, it was vile and made me sick.  The nights were the worst, we had a tiny cabin below deck with a very small port hole and as we sped along to the next island, we dipped and dove over the waves and all I could see was a wall of ocean towering above us.  I was quite convinced I was going to die but slept anyway thinking, “Well, it`s out of my hands that`s for sure!”

It didn`t matter in the morning though for the islands offer you something so amazing you soon forget the nights.   Pelicans bob around on the sea waiting for a catch.  One morning I saw a manta ray swimming in slow motion through the ocean.  It was enormous, it would have stretched the length of two rooms of my house and it was absolutely stunning to see something so elegant and so beautiful, in real life.  I saw lots of turtles moseying along in the waves without a care in the world.  I saw cormorants and was amused to notice how they put the brakes on in mid air, prior to landing, you have to see it to understand how funny it is.  When they do land, their colours are so gorgeous, beige bodies, pale blue heads and very bright primrose eyes.  Beautiful.  I saw scores of bright pink flamingo standing on one leg in a lake, hundreds of Galapagos penguins, everywhere on the rocks and beaches.  I saw tiny hooded mockingbirds, totally unafraid to try and steal water from bottles in your back pack which you have to hide or they dive bomb you to get their beaks into it.  I saw spitting iguanas who do so, usually in your direction to rid their bodies of accumulated sea salt.  They pile up at the bottom of prickly pears until there are enough of them to knock a tree down which they then eat.  I saw the famous Darwin giant tortoises, reaching the height of my waist, you could easily use them as small dining tables on moving legs they are wonderful.  The breeding programme has been so successful after they were nearly wiped out in the last century, it`s a problem now knowing how to feed them all.

I didn`t want to go, it was my great privilege to visit the islands.  None of the animals or birdlife show any fear of humans whatsoever and I do so hope it remains that way.  On our way back to the airport to leave I noticed a rubbish truck driving along the main road.  Written along the sides were:  “Donated by the European Union,” and I thought well at least we know some of the dosh is being put to good use!