Adiós Bolivia, ¡fue bien!

Sucre, Bolivia’s white city, was lovely to explore at a ‘slower’ pace with fours days there. Even though a lower altitude than Potosi, I really noticed the pollution from cars and found myself wheezing walking the streets, laced with exhaust smoke.

While there, the country celebrated St Juan – the coldest and shortest day of the year. Gaël and I ate out at a local street party with bands, firecrackers and a hair-raising twist on mulled wine. We’d installed ourselves on benches at a local lady BBQing, and were salivating over the delicious meat piled high. Just before ordering, we were encouraged to enjoy the “corazon” – nodding away, we were poised to order when a guy translated that it was heart, and that it was great for lovers 😂 We both baulked at eating heart, and happily ordered meat skewers with salad and potatoes instead, which we ate with our hands which the BBQ spat fat over us!

I studied Spanish in Sucre for three days – unfortunately all i could fit in. Bolivians have a neutral accent, which makes it perfect to learn and private lessons were cheap at 58Bs an hour (£6.35). And mine were expensive compared to others. I felt I made good progress with Claudia and was fiercely proud of having been able to write up a recipe in Spanish for pavlova, in the simple past ☺️

Despite swearing off early mornings after the Uyni tour and 8:30am Spanish lessons, I was convinced to get up early to head out to Tarabuco Markets, an 1.5hr bus ride. We breakfasted on brown quinoa with potato stew – slightly horsey 🐴 tasting! – and explored the stalls. I loved the Bolivian accordion pleat traditional skirts and tried on a few, much to the amusement of the locals. One size fits all, and needs an underskirt and an apron to cover the pop button closure. I decided instead to buy two bright rugs, to become the bane of my backpack until I could post them back to Australia cheaply – ie not from Bolivia!

The travel route I had initially planned was Buenos Aires up to Rio, then work it out overland to Bogota to meet Beth. The more I researched from London, the more I realised there weren’t that many options and that I was massively underestimating the size of Brazil. Even with two months to cover this.

It turned out that flights from Nairobi to BA all stopped in Brazil (either SP or Rio) or were a triple jump with long waits. Plus they were double the price to fly into Brazil. I decided to take the cheaper option to Rio and work out the change on the fly. Having enjoyed years of cheap intra-Europe flights, I was stunned at the prices to fly with South America, and how much cris-crossing was involved. I spent a good fortnight tabulating every departure option to get me to Bogota, settling on the cheapest from Santa Cruz – an eye watering £370!

Up early to get to the airport for 6am, I spent some of my remaining Bolivianos on breakfast only to realise I was meant to be at the gate in 5minutes and hadn’t yet gone through security etc. Security were surprisingly relaxed about me going through w a coffee and pastry. I was ready for my flight. Nope! Next stop – a desk to complete an exit form, show my passport and check what I was taking out of the country. I couldn’t give the form there but had to keep hold of it. I then waited to be checked by the special drug squad – they wanted to know where I had been, how long, what I was doing, who I was travelling with, and so on. I was then directed to a lady who emptied my bag, and checked each and every single item to see if I had hidden anything anywhere.

My mind went back to a conversation from the previous night with a French girl also flying to Colombia who wanted to know if she could bring her coca leaves. Another girl suggested hiding them well in her bag. I did mention X-rays would show them up and dogs being able to smell them… I had left mine in Sucre, and said that I wasn’t sure but just didn’t think it was worth trying to bring them. So when I saw this same girl heading back to the first desk, I was on high alert. I found her later at the gates – she had overstayed her visa and had to pay a fine. Phew!

I really enjoyed Bolivia and highly recommend it! Amazing landscapes, great people plus the prices made it more enjoyable than Argentina which was sometimes a bit stressful with two tiered prices with foreigners paying more. Most things in ARG were billed in USD due to inflation (45% last year!), so it was a pleasure travelling in Bolivia where the local currency was it, there no (exorbitant) ATM withdrawal or exchange fees, or black market cambio touts to bargain with (different x/ch to the govt one, as well as depending on the value of your greenback – $100 bills get best rate, then decrease). Plus although it’s been cold – like super cold at times: -10C stargazing on the Uyni salt flats- I’ve had more sun here in two weeks than the month in Brazil and Argentina!

¡Vamos a Colombia 🇨🇴 !

Breathtaking Potosi, in more ways than one!

IMG_7748Arriving into the dusty town of Uyni after our final lunch together, the bus touts were calling for business. With three spaces to Potosi, Jean-Marie, Samuel and I jumped onboard, with Johnny squeezing upfront in the co-pilot seat.

Clambering off the bus in Potosi two hours later and jumping a cab, I checked into Hotel Casa Blanca and cackled like a witch, delirious with joy at being able to shower (with hot water!) and wash my hair for the first time in 4days. Ahh the simple things in life!

Potosi is highest city in the world at 4,050m in the Bolivian Andes – I was lucky I had 5days of acclimatisation on the Uyni tour, although walking the hilly streets would still have me huffing and puffing. Famous for the silver and gold discovered in Cerro Rico, the mountain towering over the city, it was a jewel in the crown of the Spanish empire in the C16-17th as a huge source of wealth. Once the richest city in the world, it is now one of the poorest in Bolivia.

The Spanish brought African slaves to work the mines along with indigenous subjected to working hideous hours (literally working them to death) in terrible conditions. Some estimate up to 8m men died working there – giving it the name the ‘mountain that eats men’.

Local men continue to mine the mountain today -independently- as the amount they can earn outweighs the risks, like health problems and unsafe conditions. There are little precious minerals left, and the mountain is compared to Swiss cheese – holes everywhere. It’s possible to tour the mines although having read up on this, it sounded like visiting a zoo, gawping at the miners in the tunnels with little (if any) of the proceeds going back to the workers and gave it a miss.

Thankfully the Spanish have left their stamp on the city in other ways – through  old colonial buildings with enclosed wooden balconies, intricately carved doors with knockers fit for giants, and beautiful facades with mesmerising details of flora and fauna. The mines, monuments and designs have earnt the city UNESCO protection.

Bolivia passed a new constitution in 2009, guaranteeing respect for the cultures and lifestyles of each of the 36 ethnic groups. It’s a recent occurrence for the country to celebrate Aymaran New Year on 21 June, which closed Potosi’s streets and all businesses. Having this celebration imposed on the non-Aymara population (8m in a 10m country) was being hotly discussed online.

The streets burst with a riot of marching bands, colour, traditional Amyara dress and dancers. It was fascinating to watch the parade around the city, and amazing to see it was still going 5hours later.

We breakfasted every day at the markets, each day improving on the last: dry cake and coffee; a local dish of salad, rice and fried eggplant with spices; and then bñuelos (a fried pastry with icing sugar 1Bs / 11p) and pastels (same with fromage blanc inside 3Bs / 35p).

We visited the Convento de Santa Teresa and luckily were invited to join a private tour around the still working convent, visiting room upon room of tapestries, gold, porcelain dinner sets and books which were donated by families along with their second daughter to demonstrate their adherence to the Catholic Church.

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Suddenly the wooden lattice grills separating the sisters’ choral seating and public made sense – many of them had not chosen this life.

The Convent of San Francisco gave fantastic views out over the city and rooftops, plus the opportunity to marvel at the roof tiles which had been moulded by miners’ thighs, taken in by the convent saving them from silicosis, other health conditions and accidents. The Casa Nacional de Moneda is one of the world’s first mints and was a great guided tour around the heart of the boom and bust of the city.

I then headed to Sucre to brush up my Spanish…

And into Bolivia I head…

Having read stories of waiting hours to cross the border, I chose the option to arrive La Quiaca (ARG) at 7:00am when the border opened. This meant a 2:20am bus, and not being able to order a taxi for 1:00am, I left Eva at 11:30pm in our room, taxiing to the Nueva Terminal just outside Jujuy to wait there in the chilly night, along with the other northern travellers and their bundled wares, and stray dogs roaming between the plastic seats.

Waking bleary eyed in La Quiaca, i asked for directions to la frontera which was a 10min walk along dusty roads. There wasn’t another backpacker or gringo in sight, and I was beginning to wonder whether I was headed in the right direction. A row of cabins then came into sight along with a ‘Migracións’ sign, indicating for people on foot to cross into Bolivia. There was no one in the queue ahead of me, and I was quickly stamped out of Argentina. I walked straight past the Bolivian border control, doubling back a few steps as it was right next door, and had then entered Bolivia.

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Crossing a brook, there were Argentina/Bolivia signs and as I walked up the street in Villazon (BOL), the change was immediate: women dressed in bowler hats, and puffed skirts, men rugged up in winter coats laden with heavy bags, cute rosy cheeked kids in beanies tied tight with pom-poms and the border stalls setting up their wares.

I was glad to have settled for a cheap taxi to the (new) bus station (5Bs; 70p), a lot further out of town then the guides listed: 24 blocks v 6 mentioned! As soon as I stepped out, I had my pick of destinations with bus touts shouting for trade. The Bolivians were friendly, helpful and patient (with my ‘Spanish’), directing me to an earlier bus to Tupiza on a competing company, rather than selling me their ticket.

I’d missed out of horse riding in Argentina, having not planned well enough and not wanting to return 3hrs south to be able to join a ranch offering a tour. So was happy to be able to explore the red, dusty mountains of Tupiza on horseback. I chose a quick nap after my long journey (11hr total including waiting time, two buses, two borders) rather than exploring the town and awoke slightly fresher.

My guide took me out into Cordillera de Chicas, real Butch Cassidy country, and it truly felt like the Wild West. We rode through huge canyons and vast, arid expanses of shrubs and cacti, encircled by coloured layers of mountains. The red rock landscapes are mesmerising as they creep up on you step by step; most impressive was the Puerta del Diablo (Devil’s Door/Gate), and galloping (only for a few minutes) through Valle de los Machos with the sun rays shining on the ‘men’ standing rock tall. I walked back to town feeling very Wild West, complete with bow legs from the 3hr ride. My butt and legs would be sore for days afterwards!

Back in town, I shopped for supplies ready for my 4 days Uyni tour: it’s BYO toilet paper in Bolivia, never a nice surprise if you forget, and I also stocked up on coca leaves to prep for the altitude. I booked through Tupiza Tours who seemed to have a French following, and sent thanks across the seas to Dad for having taken us to Lyon and being able to speak French. My fellow companions were Samuel and his father Jean-Marie, and Gaël (travelling the world for 8months), plus a second Land Cruiser Chloe, Ben and Robin, and Jonny from Barca.

Our driver Santos was great: not the crazy reckless we’d heard of on the Uyni operators. Given the numerous accidents over the years (and even tourist deaths), the government closed down several of the more unsafe operators. He kept his cheek well-stocked with coca leaves like a chipmunk, taking small bites of a chalky square – turns out this activate the coca. Our soundtrack to the dusty, wild, vast landscapes was a loop of 80s Euro muzak and Bolivian flute bands, forever etched in my memory! Sonia, our cook for the two vehicles, was also upfront in our car, and meant we got some extra goodies like yoghurtas (lolly pops) and juice pyramids.

Most tours do a loop back to Uyni, one benefit of ours was that we were one of only four 4WDs on the route which thinned out as companies went to their different ways. Another is that you visit several lagoons, thermal waters and volcanoes – unfortunately the same snow drift that had closed Atacama off for me closed the national park and we were able to enter.

The days were long day drives through arid, dusty, seemingly never-ending plains and snow-capped mountains in the distance. Then in the blink of an eye, there were new formations and scenery to marvel at. This (ever/never) changing landscape was sparse: vegetation, animal and people-wise, and you could see how harsh it was to live and survive at such a altitude (4,000-5,000m).

We stayed in local villages of mud huts or squat concrete houses in basic rooms: no heating despite the overnight sub-zero temperatures, which never seemed to warm up during the day; limited electricity and lighting; cold showers or if lucky, a timed ‘warm’ shower for an extra fee.

I slept every night in my clothes from the day as the thought of changing in the cold was overwhelming, and only changed once in the four days under the covers of my quilt, still warm from sleep.

We spent many hours stopping off at rock formations, creatively named like the camel and the condor. Inspired by Jonny who has summited them before you could whip out your phone, we all joined in scrambling up the rocks – even our guides.

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The lagoons were incredible and called for wistfully sitting, looking out over nature and contemplating life at Laguna Negra (black lagoon).

IMG_7536Laguna Hedionda provided an incredible setting to marvel at the flamingoes up close: clicking and creaking away to each other, with the reflection of snowy mountain peaks behind and below, framed by grass tufts and frozen shores.

The best was saved for last. El Salar de Uyni (the Uyni salt flats) is the biggest salt desert in the world measuring 10,500 sq m. They have about 11 layers of salt, from 2m-10m in depth. In addition to the 25,000 tonnes of salt extracted annually, the brine underneath the salt crust also contains other minerals including lithium, potassium, magnesium, sodium sulfate and boron. It is mind blowing to see flatness as far as the eye can see, and realise you’ve never seen anything like that before.

We got up at 4:00am and were the first cars to head out to Uyni. Stopping on the salt flats in the pitch dark, we spent almost an hour star gazing: they were truly phenomenal. I really miss the stars and night sky in London and despite the morning’s cold (sub-zero), wandered and stared at the Milky Way, Southern Cross and ‘caught’ a few falling stars.

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Then it was on to the Isla Incahuasi (aka cactus island), where we climb atop enjoying the intimacy of it being just ‘us’ before the lights of other 4WDs tours pierced the darkness, signalling their arrival.

The sun’s halo appeared long before it burst on the horizon, changing the darkness to yellows, pinks and oranges, then contrasting purples with the lightest of blues. The salt plains truly looked like water lapping at the edges of the island, with the cacti popping up across the slopes and amongst the boulders of old coral.

After a hearty breakfast, we headed out into the salt flats for hours of fun taking tricky photos where the distance is distorted due to the sheer flatness.

And then, it was done – Chloe, Ben and Romain headed off to Peru via La Paz, and the rest of us to Potosi for the next stop in our adventures. Although we all only spent a few days together, it was a truly magical adventure, heightened by sharing it with new friends and companions.

The stunning colours of Salta & Jujuy

Even though I had prepped well for a 23hr bus ride from BA to Salta, I was meeting Eva (who I met in Ilha Grande) in Northern Argentina and travelling together for a week, and needed to catch her up. I happily paid for a flight – definitely worth it as it cost about the same!

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Given the distance to BA (1,500km) and proximity to the Andes and Bolivia, the European influence is swapped for that of indigenous and rural cultures. There’s lots to see in the Salta and Jujuy provinces, and long distances to cover.

IMG_7123Up here it’s pitch black at 7:00am, when we clamber on the buses for our outings. Cold in the mornings (c.2C) and at night (6-7C), and hot during the day (20-22C), you’ll do entire wardrobe change from hiking jackets, gloves and beanies, through to caps, tee shirts, sunnies and suncream to survive the bright sun and stunning blue skies.

I had a dull headache in Salta and Cafayte, which I wasn’t sure if it was the remnants from the farewell night out with Jono, my broken sleep, dehydration or the altitude. Hoping not the latter as we hadn’t ascended that high as yet.

We explored the Cafayte Valley with a tour which has amazing rock formations, beautiful vistas and countryside: the road winds through like Mars-like valleys with red oche rock cliffs and white sandstone chimney formations. The region grows the Torrontés grape, producing a delicious sweet white wine and has many wineries and bodegas to visit – the wine is second in importance only to Mendoza. Sadly despite my recent Marie Kondo-ing of my backpack, I didn’t have any space for any 45 peso bottles (<£2!) but did enjoy a Malbec and Torrontes helados (ice cream) for lunch!

IMG_7142Happily on the second outing to Las Salinas Grandes and Purmamarca, the guide was bilingual so I could understand a lot more than Cafayte! I drifted in and out of listening to the Spanish version – I can understand small parts, but it can be hard to piece together what it means when you only catch glimpses of comprehension. I did understand him saying that ‘you have to take coca leaves to go on the tour.’ In English this became, we ‘recommend’ as it helps with the altitude: we will be ascending to c.4,200m.

You can buy a baggie of coca leaves for 25 pesos (c.£1), which is ~1g of cocaine – “impossible to get addicted!” Take 6-7 leaves, make into a wad and insert on the side of your mouth. Don’t chew as I was about to -thinking back to my beetlenut experience in Myanmar- just suck up the juices and leave the leaves to soak into your mouth and gums.

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Coca leaves are legal in Argentina – you can carry up to 500gm; above this is considered trafficking. The guide preached its many medicinal purposes which for us are to maintain your balance and produce red blood cells to help with oxygen delivery. It’s also good for the prostate, cleaning the urinary tract, high blood pressure, and even capillary benefits for the follicly challenged as it stops loosing your hair!

As we climbed the winding roads and hairpin bends of Cuesta del Lipan, with some parts of the road washed away from floods and landslides, the landscape changed from semi desert to desert: poquito y poquito of scrub to then dirt and dusty slopes, and the cacti which spotted the hills only popped up less and less frequently to then become a surprise – like finding a 50 Brazialian Reais note hidden in your jacket (damn! C.£12 but practically worthless outside BR as exchange rate is terrible due to volatility of currency).

We started to see more ‘South American camel’, llamas (pronounced “zh-yamas” in Argentinian Spanish – their “ll”‘s are said as “zje”). They’re a precious resource with seven uses: meat, milk, wool, leather, transport (they can carry 40kg each), bones for utensils, arrows and knives, and the 7th -by the Spanish (conquerors) only – as “women”, confided our guide Martín 😅. I ate grilled llama steak for lunch one day – it tasted a little like veal… I wonder if I should feel bad eating ‘him’?!

Walking on las Salinas Grandes (big salt flats) felt like quartz, no crunch underneath as the salt was packed solid in 10cm+ layers. Mining it is considered one of the worst jobs as the UV reflection is worse than snow and without the correct protection can make you blind in 3yrs. They cut troughs in the salt and scrape out the salt from the bottom of the water, piling the salt in pyramids for collection

IMG_7350The further north we ventured, the greater the influence of Andean culture and Incan tribes. Lots of sites had a pyramid of stones and corn husks; when I asked our guide Edu about these he explained that traditionally people would take a stone or rock from their home town, and upon arriving at their destination or where they encountered trouble, they would leave the rock for Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) for safe passage and blessings for the journey. (Slightly adulterated now by tourists..!).

We visited and stayed in Purmamarca, a small town famous for the Cerro de los Siete Colores (The Seven Colored Hill) – the surrounding mountain ranges entrance you with colours of reds, pinks, whites, yellow and even blues and greens.

The plaza has dozens of stalls selling colourful wares like (Bolivian) woven blankets, alpaca wool jumpers and scarves, cacti wood plates and bowls, and other knick-knacks: the Argentinians were shopping up a storm as it was cheap compared to Buenos Aires and the south, and I scouted a few things I wanted to buy in Bolivia where they should be cheaper.

We made a quick stop in Tilcara to visit pre-Incan settlement ruins and the lovely botanical garden, mostly filled with huge cacti. Interesting to see a recent monument to the students and people detained by the military dictatorship between 1976-83. Then onto Humahuaca, another small town surrounded by rolling coloured mountains, surprising rock formations and fields of cacti. There’s a huge monument dedicated to the Argentinian soldiers who fought in the wars of independence looking out over the plaza.

The plan had been to cross to San Pedro de Atacama, however the national police site was showing it was closed and temps were -16C. One of the guides told us that the route had been closed for a week due to landslides on the Chilean side which had iced over. Despite having bought bus tickets online, Eva and I had to change our plans – she was flying back to BA from Salta and couldn’t risk getting stuck at the border for days. It was great having another travel buddy for a few days.

And so, Eva headed back south, and me north to cross into Bolivia.

Feeling buenos in Buenos Aires

Jono and I wasted no time in kicking off Buenos Aires with good food and great times: local beers and a big night of parrilla – neither disappointed. We managed to try three different grills and different cuts of meat. Our favourite -Bife de chorizo, a sirloin cut- has nothing to do with chorizo (disappointingly), except for the similarity in appearance when raw.

Also on the food trail, we tasted different chimichurri, a sauce typically made with vinegar, parsley, garlic and other ingredients with each restaurant makes their own to taste. Savoured a few bottles of Malbec and misordered a Tortontes, thinking it was a red wine and to be surprised by a sweet, full white. Conquered ordering pizza and empanadas at Güerrin, where we were the only gringos and pigged out (mostly me!) on the cheesy cheesy pizza. Gulped down a submarino, which is hot milk and a side of chocolate to melt for a liquid hot chocolate. And relaxed with a Saturday afternoon brunch at Hierbabuena in historic San Telmo.

The “free” BA walking was a great introduction to the city named by the Spanish sailors to thank the lady of the Good Winds, patron saint of sailors, for arriving on dry land after months of sailing. I found it unusual that for a city on the Atlantic sea, it didn’t make a bigger deal out of the water – I mean, Sydney is all about the harbour darling ☺️

Everything in Argentina is measured from the Plaza del Congreso at the ‘Monolito Kimolmetro Cero’ (0km monolith) which has been caged to protect it from “public expression” aka graffiti usually of a political nature, which seems to be everywhere. There’s also visible signs of protest about, with heavy police and blockade fencing on hand to respond quickly to the 20-30 strikes, protests or demonstrations that happen each week.

Every Thursday, the remaining Mothers of Plaza de Mayo silently protest, demanding to know what happened to their children – mostly students who “disappeared” (-aka were imprisoned by and) during the military government; since starting their protest in 1977, only three are now alive to continue. The white headscarf stencilled around town also represents their struggle.

Recoleta cemetery is a city within a city, hosting departed souls, intricate, breathtaking sculptures and grand mausoleums.

We headed back there to the Recoleta cultural centre which hosts, amongst other events, Fuerza Bruta. Running for more than 12years, it’s part circus, part nightclub, part visual feast, and was an incredible night out. Highly recommended.

The city has a relaxed approach to street art, with no restrictions as long as the artists has the property owner’s consent. We headed out on a street art tour to a district where the military government demolished houses to make way for a highway… that never got built. It’s a haven for large murals, breathing life into previously abandoned buildings and the neighbourhood is also going through a regeneration. It was really interesting to be talked through the meaning, process and history of the pieces.

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We booked free tickets online for an English speaking tour of the Casa Rosada, the seat of Argentinian presidents – who needs a White House, when it can be pink?!! Legend has it that the Casa Rosada was painted pink as that they used cow blood and fat mixed with limestone to make waterproof paint and protect from the harbour and elements. It was amazing to be given access to the internal workings of the house, and be able to walk through one of the most important buildings in Argentina.

I especially liked the president bust gallery where the tour finished and the humour of the sculpture who produced Kirchner’s: see if you can spot the bandaid on his forehead. (Apparently the portrait for the sculptor was taken just after a journalist had thrown something at K hitting him in the head, and the sculptor stayed true to the picture!).

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Jono and I mostly concentrated on BA by day – it’s a tale of two cities, with a whole new side being revealed at night. Only catch is that their evenings start at 2-3am! We wanted to see tango at a milonga (dance club) but weren’t keen on doing the lessons which started at 8pm, leaving on the option to go and see the social dancing which started from 11:30pm or 1:30am depending on the club. We chickened out and had a final fling with great cocktails at Doppelgänger. Upon hearing my poison of choice was a French martini, our mixologist said he would make me a drink full of body (said with a hip thrust gesture) and surprise (eye brows popping). I nearly fell off my chair after a sip – golly, it was strong!

Jono’s alarm woke us both early – he off to the airport, and me to wander the streets of San Telmo and its Sunday market.

I was happy to meet a group of Peronistas who were in BA to attend their political congress ahead of general elections in August and befriended me, chatting in Spanglish and French with some Google translate help. They shared their Yerba mate which was my first introduction to the green tea drink. It’s traditionally not sold in cafes as is seen as a communal drink: a person makes up a gourd-like cup with the herbs and hot water from their thermos, and is drunk through a metal straw, a bombilla. Once finished, it’s handed back, topped up with hot water and given to the next person, doing the rounds of the group. The mate paraphernalia business runs hot in afternoons – keep your eyes open for decorated gourds, matching thermos and carry bag kits, and even stylised bombillas. A great end to BA!

Muchas gracias y hasta luego Jono!

 

OVERVIEW & LINKS

Güerrin pizza

Hierbabuena

Free tour of Casa Rosada

Fuerza Bruta

Street art walking tour

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Iguaçu y Iguazu: fog, humidity, rain – ain’t gonna stop us!

After defrosting from my glacial overnight bus trip from São Paulo, I went into auto pilot to get myself from bus terminal in Iguaçu (note: PT spelling) to cross into Argentina to Puerto Iguazu (ES spelling).

The 20km took me about 2 hours to cover with a local bus to the bus hub, hopping on an international bus to cross the border, being pushed off the bus at the Brazilian check point to be stamped out, waiting for another bus to then come along, stop off to cross into Argentina then drop off in PI town.

Brazilian customs for me was quite straightforward and I was in and out, and waiting for the next bus in about 5mins. Jonathan, an Israeli-Australian who I met on the bus, took quite a bit longer as he had overstayed his visa by about 2wks. I think his relaxed approach got him through with only a 60R fine (c.£15)!

It was good to have company at the border, and we chatted away sharing travel stories and tips waiting for next bus in a bus shelter opposite the long line of immigration drive-through booths for cars. After about 20mins, the next bus came trundling through. And straight past. It was rammed – no room for two backpackers!

Back to our chatter, and after another 15mins the next bus arrived, slows, but wasn’t intent on stopping until we ran along with it, banging on the side. Screeching brakes and the driver stopped, shouted something in Portuguese and drove on. A slight catch was there were two different bus companies doing the border crossing route, and our tickets for the competitor. I later found out we could have pressed to buy another ticket which would have been 10R (£2.50!) and worth it.

Chatting. Waiting. Talking. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

(I was seriously lucky with my border pal – Jonathan had been travelling for 13mths after his 3yr military service, and was celebrating his birthday later that week – the day before me.)

More waiting. Waiting. Waiting. At which point, I had used up all my patience and was practically starting to itch.

“Perhaps we could walk across the border”, I suggested. If the police didn’t like it, they could stop up and hopefully drive us across!! Checked the maps. It was a good 1-2km walk with backpacks, and across river. It would have been stunning. And also a little stupid.

“Hitchhiking?” – my next idea. So there we stood thumb waving at the stream of cars heading through. Most were friendly and pointed to a full car, some waved to wish us luck, taxis ignored us as did some people with four luxuriously empty seats that we stared at with lustful eyes. Then a guy stopped – black car, music pounding, sub-woofers thundering – he could take us to the Argentinian border where he was picking up a friend. We ran to grab our packs, shoved them in then boot and back seat, apologising with waves to the build up of traffic behind us. And we were off, jumped out in a car park just before the ARG border and walked into the Argentinian customs office to officially arrive in Puerto Iguazu.

We then had to wait for another bus to take us into Puerto Iguazu town, finally arriving about 1:00pm. Phew!

Lesson: adventure and friendships can be found in the unlikeliest of places, but sometimes a taxi is worth the money!

It was then a short taxi to the lodge Jono and I were staying in, and I had one of the top 10 showers of my life, having been in my clothes for about 30hr!

Straight_hairIt got even better once Jono arrived – he brought travel adaptors, which meant I could use my hair straightens. Really silly I know, and totally a flash-packing and first world problem moment, but it made me feel so good to be able to do my hair. As my friend Cara wisely declared, a girl’s hair is her mane. 🦁Roar!

On our first afternoon together, I was like a cassette on fast forward: overwhelmed with joy to have a friend with me, spilling my stories from the last 3 weeks with Jono listening, nodding, laughing and letting me rambled it all out.

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The weather gods unleashed almighty rain that evening, hammering the roof and waking us both. The morning was foggy with dense clouds that felt like they stuck to you as you walked through. Given my lengthy crossing, we taxied to Foz do Iguaçu the next morning to take in the Brazilian views of the falls.

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The Brazilian side is ‘further away’, giving a good perspective of the falls. There are boardwalks and viewing platforms built over the gushing waters, which are quite an engineering feat when you stop to think about the volume and power of the water pouring through. Iguazu holds the claim for being the biggest waterfalls (note plural) made up of 275 waterfalls spanning 2.7km (as an aside, Victoria Falls are the longest at 108m v 80m for Iguazu)

When I say ‘further away’, you can venture out onto the walkways and face the spray and heavy mists from the Devil’s Throat (Garganta del Diablo in Spanish or Garganta do Diabo in Portuguese), which is quite fun until you realise how soaked you get! Can you tell that both Jono and I were both covering from colds when we visited?!

There were some cute coatis (raccoon-esque animals) running around, which are very boisterous chasing down the slightest sniff of food, pulling at coats and bags, even grabbing packets from your hands. Not so cute is when they turn vicious as they can bite and scratch you; this along with warnings of rabies made me run away squealing if they got too close!

And yes, the waterfalls were brown. Like red mud brown. I discovered that due to the storms as well as deforestation, the soils are unprotected and washed away. More problematic than a good travel snap are the ecological problems this causes like fish being unable to find each other to court and spawn, and birds and mammals not being able to see their prey.

We headed out to explore the Argentinian side the following day, and nailed it: 32k steps across the four different walking trails in fog then sun, mostly at 100% humidity. It was a blessing that the temp was a ‘pleasant’ 20C 😂 I discovered new places to sweat from, like the back of your hands and fingers – ewwww- and managed to get used to my clingfilm tee-shirt!

This side was all about getting up close and personal – you could walk out into, along, through, and across the falls, each trail getting you a little closer to the top, until you were walking ‘on’ the water.

We left Iguazu feeling happy that the weather stormed mostly when we weren’t visiting the falls, glad to be out of the mud, and content with our many snaps, which just can’t do the Foz justice.

Transport options to BA: an 18hr bus trip (I mean I had practiced for it, right?!) OR a 2hr flight. Jono’s declaration that he’s “too old” for that sh!t, saw us jump a short flight to say buenos días BA!

Bon dia São Paulo, and surviving my first all nighters bus ride

I skipped São Paulo (SP) on arrival, but in travelling south there was no way to avoid it. With c.19m inhabitants, SP is the largest city in Latin America and 7th biggest in the world; quite simply it is huge. Having heard good things from others, I stopped in for a few days (not enough to even scratch the surface) before an 18hr bus trip to Iguaçu to meet Jono.

I did a free walking tour around Avenida Paulista, the main road in SP which runs through its modern city centre. Previously the government mandated that a ‘skyscrapers’ needed a cultural centre, which today provide free entry to a wide range of exhibitions, concerts and talks. I can recommend the Itaú Cultural which hosts a permanent exhibition of art and artefacts telling Brazil’s history from indigenous tribes through to Portuguese settlement and their use of African slaves, to independence and modern day times.

The military dictatorship banished this cultural centre rule which saw the mushrooming of skyscrapers in the 80s that now dominate the city. Only a handful of the old mansions still exist, as many families were prevented by the government from selling these to construction firms to protect the cultural heritage. To overcome this hurdle, many set fire to them or stealthily demolished with a wreaking ball during the night.

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To prepare for my overnight bus trip, I decided to explore Vila Madelena on foot and tire myself for the ride, searching out street art and great food. The renowned Beco do Batman (Batman Alley) is a good starting place which is covered by pieces from Brazilian and international artists, from there I wandered through the leafy streets of the bohemian-cum-hipster neighbourhood.

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Despite being told that the SP mayor recently outlawed street art, it can be found everywhere: adding splashes of colour to the prevailing grey concrete and towering buildings, bringing light along the shady overpasses.

I braved a small luncheonette, which looked like it catered to local blue collar workers and managed to order in Portuguese with some ‘hands’ added. My steak was amazing accompanied -as most mains in BR- with rice, salad and black beans for real Brazilian prices – a steal at R13 (£3) washed down by a coke (R4 /£1 – go figure!). I also found a fabulous seafood place which I was really gutted that I didn’t understand the menu at Peixaria Bar as the fish looked amazing!

And finished it with a visit to Coffee Lab, a hip cafe with waiters in overalls who perform one of nine coffee rituals on the menu, like why coffee and cheese go well together, and a comparison of Italian v Brazilian cappuccino. I’m now on the hunt for a recipe to make my own version of their coffee sago pudding – divine 😋

 

Bonus – Top tips for surviving an 18hr bus trip

1. Charge your devices and external battery
– I started with less than 30% on my phone, tablet AND external battery 😩
– Good news is that the cafeteria stops all have plugs which you can charge at during comfort breaks.
2. Don’t smile or make eye contact too long or too early w the guy across the aisle.
– Eik he passed me a note with his name and phone number to chat on whatsapp – (no) thanks Gilberto..
3. Think of the Never Ending Story and pack supplies
– Try and find fruit that travels well (apples, coconut pieces, carrots) – you’ll be glad to be eating something other than pure sugar
– lots of water
4. Rug up warm
– Goodness they pump that aircon like they were protected by the last icebergs
– Being your jacket(s), beanie and scarf, plus ear plugs and eye mask to guarantee some sleep

On to Iguaçu / Iguazu and a week travelling with Jono – hurrah!

Links
Ô de Casa – SP hostel >> http://odecasahostel.com/en/
Coffee Lab >> http://coffeelab.com.br/
Peixaria Bar e Venda >> https://m.facebook.com/peixariabarevenda/

 

 

Hot footing it south to Iguaçu: the Ilhas and Paraty

Leaving Rio on the Easy Transfer, I had a huge smile on my dial. Whether it was the sun peaking through the 5 days of clouds (and some heavy rain) or the excitement to be on the move, I was feeling better and happy to be heading for the beach.

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We arrived at the jetty at dusk and clambered on board the longboat which would speed the crammed group of travellers and locals with suitcases, backpacks, prams and groceries across to Ilha Grande.

I met a pair of French girls who’s pousada (lodge) was near mine, which was lucky as we traipsed along the main beach together in the dark. Coming to theirs, I then had to continue solo. Laughing to myself I made a mental note to ensure that I arrived during daylight so at least I could see where I was heading. Thank goodness this wasn’t Río – the moonlight over the sea calmed me as I walked along the beach in otherwise darkness.

My hostel, the chain Che Lagarto, was perched on the end of bay, with my shared room opening onto the sea, and downstairs a verandah built over the rocks to drink, eat and chat at. If it weren’t for the swarms of bees hovering around your jam on your breakfast toast, I could have lingered there all morning.

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The island has no cars and as a national park, has a dozen hiking trails offering unspoilt rainforest and secluded beaches around the island. I met some great people there including Steffi and Robbie from Zug, CHF who were Matterhorn mountain goats setting a cracking pace and awesome company to hike to Lopes Mendes with. We shared stories and tips, plus a few boosts up over rocks on the way back – it could have been a Bear Grylls moment for me otherwise trying to work out how to scale it solo.

Rated in the Guardian’s Top 10 beaches in the world, Lopes Mendes was 3km of white, squeaky sand and chilly yet enticing blue waters. The views along the way were stunning, and glistening sun rays through the jungle canopy prompting deep breaths and deep thoughts into the travels behind and ahead of me. Such a contrast to the days prior, and thankfully so!

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I joined Alise and Juliette, some lovely Frenchies from my room, for a boat trip around the island snorkelling and swimming, as well as French and Spanish lessons thrown in!

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I could have stayed a few more days – what’s not to like about sun, swimming, relaxing, and even sweaty hikes to hidden waterfalls and secluded beaches, but decided to head on to Paraty as I had a rendezvous w Jono in Iguazu in 10 days and 1,347 km to get there.

Paraty was a quick stay in Leo’s Beach (bustling) hostel – the benefit of smaller places is that you meet more people than in the larger cities. Once a thriving gold port, Paraty is a now an artist refuge with lots of galleries and lovely cobble stoned streets to wander around admiring the Portuguese colonial architecture and bright coloured doorways of the pristine white buildings.

After chatting w Rache (sis) and lamenting the clouds, I pulled myself out of a funk and headed to the Poco de Penha ‘waterfalls’. At the local bus station, I bumped into a group from the hostel and together waited and headed there. The main attraction is a rocky slide where you push yourself down over the alguied rocks into the dive polls below. After one of the guys went, I plucked up the courage to head down – lots of fun, not too scary and not too cold. If you want an extra buzz, grab an empty bottle and sit on it like a pony – a crazy Dutch girl did and zipped down at 4x our speed! We then stopped off at a local cachaça (‘cash-ha-sa’) distillery for a tour and tasting. It definitely tastes better in a caipirinha!

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Paraty was hosting la Festa do Divino Espírito Santo and a group of us headed to the town square to soak up the festivities, including trying our dance moves. A few of guys had met Diego before, and he explained that bolero is slower than samba, graciously ‘teaching’ us the steps.

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I had my own Penny / Baby Dirty Dancing moment where I asked one of the locals to teach the guys to dance, and giving up, Andressa instead taught me by getting me to mirror her steps, right down to a should shimmy and “riki-ki-ki” – the R$10 caipirinhas certainly embolden me here. I then tripped all along the cobbled stones back to the hostel to bed 😅

Lots more to do in Paraty, and again I could have stayed another few days. The hostel had a chilled vibe and a great group of travellers to hang out with.  A good friend Kate M-B had regaled me with her Brazil stories from her 7wk travels, and had put Ilhabela at the top of places to visit, so I headed there for a few more days beach before the Terra da Garoa (Land of Drizzle) – aka São Paulo.

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I stayed at the most magical hostel I’ve ever been in – Hostel da Vila. Its luscious gardens hosted a pool and bar with chilled beach tunes (Jack Johnson and Bob Marley on high rotation!), hammocks on the verandah overlooking the beach views and bright. fresh, clean rooms. I used the cloudy skies as a ‘rest day’, lounging in my pjs on the hammock, doing washing and catching up w friends.

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With the sun out the next day, I enjoyed more beach time (in between waiting for the bus ticketing office to reopen after lunch and a circuitous local bus into town) and a walk from the northern beaches to Vila town. At one stage this included a different kind of rock climbing around the Pedro do Silo, huge boulders along the coast which I clambered up and down.. after a few hairy moments where I pushed on, I realised maybe I should take the road for some of it back!

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Ilhabela offers great wreck diving, stunning beaches and also great shopping – had the island not been on its winter break, definitely a place to spend a good week or so soaking up the atmosphere.

Stay tuned for the next stop: São Paulo… (which I’ll try and catch up!)

Links
Easy Transfer to Ilha Grande and Paraty R$145 – the name says it all for collection and drop off to your accommodation. Worth every Reais!
http://easytransferbrazil.com/en/

Leo’s Beach Hostel – Paraty
https://www.leosclan.com/

Hostel da Vila – Ilhabela
http://www.hosteldavilailhabela.com.br/

Rio, you fair weather city, you!

I arrived in Rio in high spirits after booking my flight for the wrong day, and getting ripped off at the ATM (paying a £8 withdrawal fee and terrible exchange rate which charged me £50 more than xe.com), having negotiated the airport bus to Ipanema and finding my hostel.

I walked along Ipanema beach, watched the surfers from Aproador rock and the clouds roll in over the Dos Irmanos (two brothers) mountain

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then wandered further up to Forte de Copacabana to enjoy the sun set with a ridiculously priced and overly frothy beer. I almost blurted out, “ich habe kein Schnitt bestellt!”! Obviously German is no use in Brazil, but it did make me laugh that in Germany (or Munich at least), it would be against the law to serve beers like that unless specifically ordered as a “schnitt” (a 50:50 or 25:75 ratio of foam to beer). Apparently this is a standard serve for BR – ie. lots of foam.

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After a stressy day, I was pretty chilled and after a volley of whatsapp messages, Chris (an ex-colleague living in Rio for 7yrs) called to brief me. He advised against heading out into Centro that night due to political demonstrations and heightened tensions from leaked undercover footage of the president demanding bribes.

Reading the silent signals – the Cariocas (Rio locals) carrying bags and backpacks on their fronts, the women-only metro carriages, visible police presence, high security fences around apartment blocks, banks boarded up downtown – along with quiet streets and warnings of robbing and muggings, planted a grain of doubt about where I could, and should visit. (See my previous post)

I’ll visit São Paulo with a different mindset: taking on board advice while looking for the light amongst the dark, the good amongst the unknown. Plus nothing ventured, nothing gained – while my French and German don’t seem to help w Portuguese at all, I’m going to bumble way through what I can to experience and eat what I can!

Rio feels like a tropical Spanish New York: bustling streets shaded by palms and trees with orchids and ferns trailing the branches, packed with juice bars, eateries and shops, and street vendors selling wares from massive pottery piggy banks to mini packs of gum.

The city is bursting with street art that was too good not to flaunt the advice to avoid using my phone on the street. (I’ll do a separate post on this as have lots of great pics.) The Sélaron steps (Escadaria de Sélaron) were a riot of colour: the blue, green and yellow of the Brazil flag, with the ‘happiness of red’ added at a later date. Jorge Sélaron began renovating the steps outside his home in 1990, starting a project of 215 steps, 2000+ tiles over 23 years.

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I visited Parque de Lago for a delicious brunch with Anna and Therese, friendly Swedish girls who I was lucky to hang out with for a few days, and loved the peaceful tropical gardens and grounds. It stands at the bottom of Corcovado hill, looking up to Christ, when the clouds aren’t rolling through the city.

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Cariocas seemed to love it too, mostly as a place to stage your own photo shoot: from selfies, to engagement pics, to celebrating your pregnancy (bare bellies and floral brassieres), people had tripods, photography teams, bags of accessories and outfit changes, and an encyclopaedia full of mind-boggling poses. Stay tuned for me mastering these…!

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On our last night in Rio, we headed out to dinner in Lapa then onto a street party at Pedra do Sol, which is what I had imagined Rio to be like. Bands jamming on the street, samba for all and plenty (beware the requests for a Rio kiss, unless you’re interested!), street vendors mixing up deliciously lethal caipirinhas for R$10 (c.£2.50), all combining in a great vibe and awesome high to close Rio out (and yes still keep your wits about you and your bags).

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I thought we’d found a rebel taxi driver who decided to skip the red lights and drive on through, as he already had five of us in the car – who cares for authority?! Turns out not stopping at red lights is legal after 10pm due to the security risks of doing so 😯 Ah well, I guess our next taxi driver thought watching videos on Facebook was also ok!

Having booked to head to the beach as a cure for my travel wobbles and with the sun peaking through the clouds on my last day in Rio, I headed up to Christ the Redeemer on a very circuitous bus, then funicular (sit RHS for best views when there’s not cloud) and finally steps. Arms out stretched to the city, Christo is open and welcoming. Religious or not, there’s benefit to reflect on the message of peace and unity.

IMG_6023Don’t doubt the warnings of limited visibility from the ticketing team below – I’d definitely recommend heading up to Christo Redentor only in clear skies. Unfortunately I missed the breathtaking views of the city: beaches and the city, contrasting with the towering rocky mountains and tropical forest of Tijuca.

I caught Rio in the midst of a bad weather front rolling through: these normally take 4-5 days to clear to sunny skies, approximately the length of my stay! Rio is a different city in the sun – I caught glimpses of it on my last day before heading to Ilha Grande.

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Chris is determined to show off Rio’s beauty, encouraging me to head back. My path is leading south, destination Iguazu, to meet Jono and then into Argentina. (hurrrah! I cried tears of joy and relief when he messaged to say he’d be coming to meet me).

I’ll be back in ‘maravilhosa’ Rio in the near future, hopefully with a travel partner.

Rio: attençao! It’s the travel wobble

Rio. Such a beautiful city. And so terribly lonely in the wet, winter days I’ve spent here.

 

*note – this is a Wanderlust TRIALS post, check back for a more rosy post soon 😯*

From the highs of arriving and excitement of exploring, I’ve had major travel wobbles and am struggling to snap myself out of my doldrums. I wasn’t sure I should write this up – it’s scary to be this vulnerable – but I figured this is what I’m going through and should share it: life isn’t just Facebook fun and Insta highs. Hopefully it will also provide a contrast for the better times ahead.

As a good friend pointed out to me, I’m going through a big change: leaving my job of 7 years, and moving back home. Plus it’s the first time I’ve been alone in quite a while – lots of time to think, which is never my forte or place I like to be. (Give me action and momentum!)

The day I arrived in Brazil, undercover footage of the current president demanding a bribe of US$150m was leaked by the police or media, and brought demonstrators out to the streets. I was advised to avoid downtown, and be extra aware.. Advice that continued – don’t hike up to Christ the Redeemer, there’s been muggings; don’t go to Lapa (bar district), it can be dangerous in the daytime as there’s less police presence.

Crediting myself for being street wise, and acknowledging that I can also be optimistically friendly bordering on naive, I’m frozen in my steps from exploring and getting out there for fear of anything.

It’s not all been a downer, just these feelings keep bubbling to the surface. I have been lucky to meet a few girls in my hostel and spend the day with them, enjoying brunch then exploring the beautiful Parque Lague. And also having Chris, an ex-colleague, take me out on the rainiest of my days so far and showing me the town, plus ordering the most delicious steak with Antarctica Original beer. Yum.

I’ll write up my Rio exploring so far and promise a more positive post. Feels good to write this down and hopefully set it free.