Tag Archives: 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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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…..

Travelling to Ecuador.

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In 2005 I arranged six weeks off work to travel to Miami to meet a friend.   The Australian (as I refer to him,) had planned a back packing trek across South America and I was joining him for some of the journey.   As a child I often dreamed of visiting far off places so I was very excited as part of the trip was to visit Peru and Machu Picchu one of those magical places so remote from me and my childhood, I didn`t imagine that in real life I would ever get to see it.

I have to say Miami airport is one of the most hostile airports I have ever transited through with steely faced security guards, armed with guns, hustling the queues.  I waited for nearly two hours to get my eyes and finger tips scanned and it was pretty miserable but never mind, I was on my way to Ecuador.  I finally got through to the transit lounge and spotted The Australian already waiting for me, looking every bit the old hippy with a red bandeau round his head, his long beard plaited and sun specs that hid his eyes giving him an air of mystery which I know he liked to cultivate.

When we arrived in Ecaudor it was still only afternoon so we had plenty of time to explore.  The capital city Quito, is split into the old town and the new town and we stayed in the new town because Lonely Planet told us that the old town could be a bit dodgy for newcomers.  Quito is very pretty with wonderful, white and imposing European style architecture everywhere, strongly influenced by 300 years of Spanish colonisation.  Independence from Spain came to Ecuador in 1820.

It was quite modern in lots of ways with plenty of interesting shops to mill around and lots of decent places to eat, the main diet being fish soup, fish or meat, most notably guinea pig although I didn`t try that, it made me think of my guinea pig Buttercup and I simply couldn`t do it.

When you start to explore in South America, one of the first things you notice is the wiring.  It`s horrendous, outside in the streets and on the walls, there are so many telephone wires and other bits and pieces of electrical wiring it adorns the buildings hanging down in festoons like complicated spiders` webs.  The showers often don`t work or if you try to get them to work you risk being electrocuted so it`s easier just to take a cold one.  The other thing is the noise of car horns.  It is incessant and you have to get used to it because it will go on right through the night without abating and all through the day.

We arrived at a time of fiesta although having said that, much of South America parties a lot of the time mainly because of celebrations relating to Roman Catholicism.  While I was travelling I witnessed some fantastic street parties and parades.

We walked out one evening to find somewhere to eat and came into a square where, set up in the centre was a huge construction a bit like the Whicker Man.  There were hundreds of people and children gathered in a tight circle around it, a brass band playing to one side of the square so we stopped to see what would happen.  A man lit the base of the construction and it soon became evident that the whole thing was one massive firework display which would never have got through health and safety in the UK.  It was pretty scary as rockets and bangers fired off in rapid succession and crackerjacks shot along the ground into the screaming crowd.  So we scarpered and went for a meal.  It was dark when we came out and we became lost for a brief time.  That was scary too as we were definitely being followed through the labyrinth of alley ways by a man who may have intended to steal from us but happily we found our way quickly back to the main square and the little hotel where we had a room.

The following day we went to explore the old town.  We found a shop where we could book tickets to visit the Galapagos Islands.  I didn`t have ebough money to do this but while in England, I had generally kept an eye on The Australian`s aged pa until he peacefully passed away. It was a pleasure, I loved the old fellow and so the ticket for the Galapagos was purchased for me as a thank you.  I was absolutely thrilled.  Just over one hour`s flight to some of the most fascinating islands in the world.  We travelled to the largest city in Ecuador, Guayaquil on our way to the Galapagos and took in more ancient history relating to when the region became part of the Inca Empire in the 1400`s.

It was with huge anticipation I boarded the plane and with some fascination also as I observed two of the most beautiful black women coming on board.  I had watched them sashaying along the path to the plane, hips swinging, shiny black hair bouncing around their shoulders, perfect makeup, glossy red lipstick, dressed in teeny tiny black mini skirts, skin tight white blouses and wearing very high black patent leather heels.  Carrying themselves before them so to speak, I was pretty sure they were visiting the islands to (ahem) explore the wild life…..  just not the kind of wild life I was about to discover!