Day Eight – Cusco to Copacabana, Bolivia
Not too much happened today except drive, drive, drive. I think our epic road trip with equally epic music (of course) covered about 9 hours in which we got to see some of the amazing landscape of Peru, not to mention the shanty towns that most tourists would probably not get to visit. This is the great thing about Contiki, and other tour groups, is that you get to travel to some far flung places.
The downside of the day had to be seeing a dead dog in the middle of the pavement, which made us all wonder why somebody didn’t just bury the poor thing. Organised chaos seemed to rule the roads and street corners, which reminded me a little of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Easily the most shocking cultural difference I had first come across was over there.
Our guide told us that people didn’t pay taxes in Peru, which meant that many had houses without roofs. This seems absurd – a house with no roof surely defeats the purpose of a house, no?
On the way we stopped for some lunch in the middle of nowhere and Chris had a llama burger. He doesn’t like llama yet keeps eating it, to test his limits I think. On site was a small museum, randomly containing a couple of mummies and some ancient Peruvian artefacts. Honestly, if this was back home it would have been whacked in the British museum or something, not hidden away in the backroads.
We arrived at immigration, which was a relatively simple process, except that border control wasn’t the friendliest, and Ada had an issue with her visa and two passports. Luckily nobody inquired about yellow fever which was what Scotty and I were particularly worried about so that was a relief, as we haven’t had the injection.
Dinner was next to the hotel that night, where we all picked either the beef or chicken to make it easier for the staff and then it was pretty much the end of the day, finishing up at our hotel opposite the beautiful Lake Titicaca.
Day Nine – Copacabana to La Paz
We had a quick tour of Copacabana city centre this morning, which seemed to be mainly centred around a cute little square. A bizarre event was going on, where people brought along their new cars and parked up, in order to dress and bless them. They’d get right into it, adorning the front with flowers and confetti, even letting off fireworks. This contrasted with the toilets, which weren’t, let’s put it this way, in the best condition and toilet paper was confined to a few measly sheets which may or may not be handed out upon payment. This is why our tour guide advised us to always carry around our own, just incase. Endless stalls selling junk food also sold paper, so we were never short. One stall was even selling fake dollar packs, so we wouldn’t be short of money to buy paper either 😉
After this it was time to get back on the road and head to La Paz. Bustling La Paz was easily the highest altitude place that we had been in so far, higher even than Machu Picchu. The whole city is built in the gulley of mountains and staircases upwards which no doubt makes the people of the city super fit.
En route to la Paz we first hopped on a boat across Lake Titicaca while our coach travelled across on its own containing Isabella and her crutches (I think she found the journey a little bumpy)
A really interesting stop further down the road was at a boat workshop where they make the impressive boats out of reeds, and we had a group picture with a cool dragon head one.
Dinner later was included after our check in to our hotel in La Paz, and then after that a group of us headed to a “secret” bar (I’m giving away no more details) and proceeded to drink and party on into the night.
Day Ten – La Paz
It was a good decision to go out the night before, as we weren’t going anywhere the next day and had two nights in La Paz, meaning a lack of the mad rush and pack that we had been accustomed to being on the road.
There was a walking tour of La Paz in the morning, but being a bit hungover, I decided to skip it and get my laundry done, try catch up on messages and chill in the room for a bit – you have to think about these things, you know 😛
The afternoon brought in an amazing visit to the renowned Moon Valley – literally old mountains that had been formed over time and worn down into a series of spiky mounds and points, deep crevices that dropped down and rose up again. We walked for about 45 minutes among them, being careful not to step into any of the potholes.
Our guide for the day was great, definitely our favourite so far and a resident of La Paz, but also half Canadian with a cool hat. He took us on the impressive cable car system of La Paz, which was probably the best way to see the city and involved multiple coloured line changes. We were amazed at just how many people had built their houses on cliff edges and there were some that had been dubbed ‘suicide houses’.
Dinner that night was at a place recommended by our guide and had to be the most eccentric, old school restaurant we had visited, with a collection of antique everything dotted around the place alongside ancient wallpaper and objects adorning the walls. Not to mention the food was also very tasty.
Day Eleven – La Paz to Sucre
An early morning start was back on the agenda as we rose to catch two flights to Sucre. Luckily there wasn’t too much waiting around and the recent strikes didn’t affect us so we arrived safe and sound. After hopping on the bus to our hotel we were introduced to the next tour guide. He wore a leather jacket and was full of good advice on how to take ‘proper’ photos as he was a ‘professional’ photographer.
En route we stopped at the Parliament plaza for fantastic views out over the city. I also managed to pick up a bracelet with the word “Bolivia” on it. Score. Missed out in Peru. Sucre is full of white Colonial architecture and a world away from bustling La Paz. It’s much more relaxed and reminded me of a town in Spain or Portugal, especially with the sun and rise in temperature. Parque Simon Bolivar, otherwise known as “Love Park”, was our next stop. It had European influences – Greek statues in a fountain and an orange mock up of the Eiffel Tower in the centre which you could climb.
Japanese lunch was very much welcomed and the food was delicious. The city also feels quite cultural and cosmo with a mixture of different cuisines and styles. I even spotted a library and coffee place in one. Very ugh, hipster 😛 Many of us tried out the chocolates that the city is renowned for.
After lunch we climbed up to the rooftop of Felipe Neri, a monastery which had been converted from a school. “Squatting” contests also took place up here…
The afternoon was pretty exciting as another big protest was going on – a dispute over gas which led to a wider socialist protest in the streets, trying to overthrow the government. Streets, markets and at one point even the airport was blocked off. Some of us had popped into a pharmacy and the owner proceeded to lock us inside as the worst of it went past. She didn’t look impressed. Especially since fireworks were being let off.
Eventually we were let out and ended up walking alongside the march and filming it, as well as a team of noisy motorbikes going past.
That evening we went to a place called “Joyride” for dinner and three of us ended up ordering the biggest plates of Spanish/Italian tapas we had ever seen. They also had Salsa dancing classes in the next room so after food and drinks some of us got our moves on.
Day 12 – Sucre
Got to sleep in today, which was a first on tour and then a chill breakfast before hopping on the public bus to go see dinosaur footprints.
Situated in a massive valley, time had changed the landscape so much that the footprints went upwards instead of flat. We had fun taking loads of photos with a toy dinosaur as well as the footprints and the landscape. It was also very dusty and we had to wear sexy helmets as were walking amongst a construction site.
Bolivia seems to have churned out a fair few unexpected and unusual sights which we just weren’t aware existed. A very surprising country in many ways.
Once we got back we returned to the lovely Japanese place we went to the day before for lunch. Then a visit to the best chocolate shop/cafe was in order. I can honestly say that it was the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had. After our sugar fix Bec and I nipped into a restaurant to buy a couple bottles of red wine – one for the sunset on top of the monastery that we had, again, visited the day before and the other in anticipation of the salt flats. (We are all trying to come up with as many creative ideas as possible before then).
Sunset on the monastery roof was spectacular, to say the least, especially with wine. Very continental. Our trusty guide seemed to be best friends with the nuns so had no trouble whisking us in and up there. Dinner that night was booked for 8pm at a French restaurant down the road – it seemed our bodies couldn’t get enough of any cuisine that wasn’t Bolivian.
Day 13 – Sucre to Potosi
Another day, another place, which saw us rising late and travelling to Potosi. This ‘city’ is considerably smaller than Sucre and while physically pretty, seems to lack the charm of the former. The main square has some quite impressive architecture – and in the evening there was some impressive dancing going on.
When we first turned up, an orientation walk around the shops (I bought some red gloves for the salt flats) was in order and then lunch.
After refuelling we hopped back on our coach and went to pick up some gifts for the miners of the town. Strong cigarettes, dynamite, 90% alcohol and coco leaves are probably not the healthiest gifts to give – bar the leaves – but hey ho. Next stop was obviously the mines, where we got to see the workers and their lifestyle. An old woman was selling coloured minerals from a box so we bought a few and took group photos with her and her cute little granddaughter.
We had a quick walk around the town on the way back where we visited the black market and had the unfortunate experience of seeing a bunch of cow heads unloaded from a van into a wheelbarrow.
Once we’d arrived back to the hotel three of us decided to go ‘toy shopping’ and pick up some bits for the salt flats. It’s a surprise for now what I got 😉 Then it was to the recommended cafe for some strawberry cheesecake and coffee – the best in town apparently. Except we got the wrong place and ended up with lemon meringue and shit dishwater coffee.
Dinner that night was included and most of us had opted for the vegetarian option after the earlier experience – quinoa soup and vegetable lasagna.
The plan to buy some alcohol after and take it to the hotel was thwarted when we discovered all the shops had shut – bit of a dead town this one, bless. A bar was open though so we ordered the worst mojito we had ever had, then went back and tried to watch An Idiot Abroad. However with the lack of decent WiFi, eventually gave up and went to sleep, with nothing else to do. Tomorrow would see us travelling to Uyuni in the afternoon to visit the train graveyard!
Day 14 – Potosi to Uyuni
Two weeks on tour now! This morning we ate the tedious breakfast on offer then had a run of the mint building with an eccentric guide. He was fun but hard to understand and many of us spent a good time trying to avoid the cracks in the floorboards and not fall through.
We had some time to kill before getting on the bus to begin our five hour ride to Uyuni so considering a lack of activities we decided to try our luck and get the right cafe this time. With success most of us ordered coffees and churros. No WiFi though, so here I am catching up on this diary 😛
(Later) It wasn’t a bloody success as the churros turned up one and a half hours after the coffee which meant we were nearly late getting back to the hotel. Poor Jess didn’t even get her food! Killed time successfully though 😉
(Much later) We arrived, somewhat excitable, into Uyuni and the train graveyard. It’s safe to say we spent a good amount of time there and got dozens of amazing pics, as our visit had been timed perfectly with sunset. It’s an incredible place, as well as highly unusual. Not only that but I don’t think most of us had practised our gymnastics skills that much since we were about 5.
It’s madness how quickly the temperature turns cold in the desert, as it was a mere ten minute drive back to the hotel and already we were shuddering. Our rooms were freezing even with a radiator and one of our curtains was missing – however the fast WiFi made up for it – a good start 😉
Pizza and hot chocolate was for dinner as we prepare ourselves for the great salt flats tomorrow!!
Day 15 – Salar de Uyuni
Bolivia continued to churn out mind blowing scenery as we hopped in our 4x4s (Hola Chicaaaaaaaaaas) and began to make our way to the salt flats.
Wow. What can I say? It was spectacular, driving through an icy looking landscape that seemed to go on forever, and even charging through large puddles of crystal clear water. To say we were visiting the Arctic or Antarctic wouldn’t have been far off appearance wise.
We stopped at a couple of kick off points on the salt flats to gear up for the main parade, where we would be showcasing our photo skills (both the taking and posing with toys) All the flags of the world were stuck into a raised mound, and as we posed with our respective countries, I thought how coincidental it was that this was the day of the wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and how patriotic I was unintentionally being. The Daily Mail would’ve loved me.
I could’ve easily spent all day there, it wasn’t easy though getting the right angles, and we found lying down on the salt to be quite painful, but we had so much fun coming up with creative ideas.
Lunch was a fairly elaborate affair, as our guides had very kindly set up an entire table for a mini feast, and I confess it was here I was finally “forced” to eat llama. It’s actually quite nice…(still refuse to ever eat guinea pig)
If you thought it was impossible to see cacti amongst the Salt Flats, then you would be mistaken, as there were hundreds upon thousands of them. We even climbed to the top of the hill and posed with the Bolivian flag – a sign of victory, obviously.
Driving through sunset after was beautiful with all the different lights and colours, and we froze our hands off trying to get a decent jumping shot.
Our first night was at basic accommodation in a hostel (as we expected) BUT all the rooms were made out of salt which was pretty awesome, and considering we were in the middle of nowhere it felt reasonably clean and comfortable. Dinner was an interesting mix of sausage and onions with chips at the bottom served in a casserole dish, and some of us accompanied it with red wine 😉
After food we gathered around a large fire pole inside the main dining area, as it was absolutely freezing (still being in the desert and all) talked, drank and played Kings and Arseholes – there was no WiFi, of course.
The water was turned on between 8-10pm so most of us crammed in showers and half of us had issues with our bathrooms flooding after, but considering we had candles by our beds and salt flamingoes carved into the walls to look at, couldn’t really complain.
Day 16 – Salar de Uyuni to Avaroa National Reserve
Breakfast was short and sweet – a roll with margarine in some sort of cup and shit coffee (as usual)
After this it was time to get back on the road in our 4x4s (some of us girls decided we needed a break from “Chicaaaaaas, quinoaaaaaa, Pachamamaaaaaaaa” and hopped in a different car. We got to play our music via Bluetooth and it was great alongside such a surreal landscape.
There was a hell of a lot of stopping and starting and getting in and out of the vehicles to take photos, but it was worth braving the freezing cold for the views, which covered coloured lakes, mountains, geysers, volcanoes and hot springs. Our first stops were to cover the last part of the salt flats before going onto Avaroa National Reserve, which to be honest felt even more remote than the salt flats.
The first of these was the archeological Necropolis of San Juan – pretty eerie but also fascinating, little caves with curled up mummies that once belonged to nobility. Skulls of infants had cruelly been cracked and moulded to make a certain shape that defined their ranking. Joel gave us a blessing with three of the best coco leaves that we had picked out of a bunch, and then stood in a semi circle while he spoke and kissed the leaves. The last step was then placing the leaves under a chosen rock as a dedication/blessing to “Pachamama” which would guarantee our protection for life wherever we went.
The second stop was the “Coral desert” or “Valley de los Corales” which was basically volcanic lava that had immediately frozen into impressive patterned mounds due to the extreme cold, before becoming coral. Strange to think we were standing on what was once ocean, and equally strange to think we were 4,500 odd feet up now too.
Our next stop was for lunch at the first beautiful lake with flamingoes “Laguna Canapa” containing a sign telling people to keep off the grass (they didn’t) and also where we had a chat about how we’d survive in such remote conditions.
The second lake was “Laguna Hedionda” and this also had flamingoes.
“Stone park” was our last port of call before reaching Avaroa National Park and most of my memories of this place were the “stone tree” and having to run up the hill with Rikki to find a decent enough large rock to pee behind, as the free public toilets were disgusting and if we weren’t up high enough half the park would have seen.
The seven coloured mountains marked the beginning of Avaroa National Park as well as the red coloured “Laguna Colorado” shortly afterwards – so many lakes!!! It was a trouble remembering them all especially as we stopped approximately every half an hour. I reckon this was most people’s favourite lake. Tomorrow we would be visiting the famous large green lake, “Laguna Verde”.
Eventually we parked up at our accommodation for the night, Polques Piedras, which was literally a poky little hotel with a couple of shacks next door. A hot spring was a fairly long walk away (it wasn’t really, but just seemed like it due to it being so cold) so after we had dumped our stuff in the room and got changed it was a hurried run down to the huts to pay and undress. Bec and I came equipped with bottles of red (of course) and the whole group spent a good couple of hours in there before reluctantly getting out for dinner in the hotel. The hot springs were very welcomed after our long day and watching the sunset and stars appear was pretty spectacular – again, I was reminded of Iceland.
However we didn’t realise just how much the drink and altitude affected us until we hopped out, tried to change in the dark and made our way back up the hill. To speak for myself I was pretty far gone, only just made it through food before having to go and collapse 😛 Our last bottle of red had disappeared before one of the guides discovered it in the men’s changing rooms (not sure what happened there, and neither did we dare drink it)
The rooms had no hot water but at least this time they didn’t flood and we got given sleeping bags for extra warmth.
Day 17 – Avaroa National Reserve to San Pedro de Atacama
Pancakes for breakfast this morning before Rikki and I hopped in 4×4 No 1 (our favourite) with one of the guides and we blasted out 90s music before continuing along the reserve to reach the geysers. They were spectacular despite smelling very much of sulphur and someone pretended to fall in (naming no names).
The Dali Desert was our second stop and I couldn’t really believe I was there. It was where he set his surreal famous melting clocks painting that everyone knows him for, and it didn’t disappoint.
Finally it was time for the glittering Colorado Verde lake before lunch (as well as the usual animalistic crap toilets) and the small faff of crossing over the Bolivian border and through into Chile. The former was a piece of piss and didn’t even look like border control – one semi falling apart hut where the guy barely blinked as he flicked through our passports in a bored manner and gave out the large, deciding stamp in a matter of seconds.
Chile wasn’t hard either, although they muck around for a while going through all your luggage to check you haven’t smuggled through any Coca leaves. The contrast between the two was striking and you immediately noticed the country’s monetary difference due to no real road (Bolivia) and a marked road with lines (Chile) right next to each other. Bizarre.
Over the other side we got introduced to our new guide. The weather had warmed up considerably to the early 20s which was most welcomed and we marvelled at San Pedro, our new Atacama desert home for the next two days. It’s also the driest in the world which explains the nose blowing, however the altitude had dropped considerably (to around 2,400) so we started feeling a fair bit livelier again.
The town of San Pedro de Atacama is gorgeous, a cute sandy little town where no doubt hipsters would feel at home, as it has plenty of trendy cafes with WiFi, pizza joints, rent-a-bike companies and wandering dogs. We even spotted two poodles attempting to hump a large dog from both ends but didn’t get a picture in time. The things you see travelling eh.
Our hotel comes with a pool (!) a bar (!) and fast WiFi (!!) A world away from where we had just come from. The bathrooms also have paper and soap – shock horror!
Day 18 – San Pedro de Atacama
A much needed chill morning today until the afternoon when we would visit the second moon valley of our trip (this one is reportedly bigger and better)
Most of the boys went sand boarding in the AM while most of us girls had a long breakfast and sunbathing time by the pool. Being in the desert it still felt pretty cold even in the sun, despite the temperature being around the early 20s.
Lunch was more hang out time in the cafe where we went yesterday for coffee and WiFi – how predictable – but this time we ordered panini’s and crepes. It’s extraordinary how we seem to be hungry and nearly constantly eating crap on this tour, yet still losing weight. Guess it’s all the exercise, excessive moving around and stomach bugs.
The second Moon Valley was indeed impressive and we climbed through some fairly treacherous caves, before uphill hiking it through sand for views out over huge sand dunes. Luckily we had a small van as our last stop for the day was right at the top and this was where we perched for sunset – so apparently, had everyone else, as there were countless tripods set up and even a guitar going. The views looked a little like a miniature Grand Canyon.
We all fancied pizza again for dinner that night so off we went through the maze of dog laden streets to a cute little joint that made its own from scratch. Beers in hot chocolate mugs may have accompanied that and a few beers more were consumed back at the hotel where some of us played (more) Kings and Arseholes.
Day 19 – San Pedro de Atacama to Salta (Argentina)
A long day of travel was ahead of us – 9 hours of driving to be precise – as we geared up to go to Argentina. Another day, another country, more boring border control, you know how it is. Except we were quite sad to note, that despite finally escaping the freezing desert and reasonably high altitude, it was to be our last stop on tour. At least we had a day and two nights here to explore the city, which was great.
En route we stopped in a small town to get money out, use facilities, get drinks etc, however the owner of a cafe wasn’t very impressed we used the bathrooms and attempted to barricade Joel in until we’d all bought something. Some of us refused because he was very rude to Bec, so you know, principles and all…
Dinner was paella and red wine, and it was yet another night of drinking and playing cards despite attempting not to 😉
Day 20 – Salta (the last day)
We kicked off this auspicious day with a walking tour of the city with our local guide. It’s very pretty and definitely seems to have colonial and European influences. Not only that but it’s also another city of dogs. Dogs in onesies, literally everywhere, following you about all over.
Our excitement reached fever pitch when we finally discovered a cafe that did decent coffee and so hung there for a good 45 minutes. Afterwards a group of us popped into the Mummy Museum. It was fascinating but also disturbing as the mummies were all child sacrifices from the 16th century. I couldn’t believe how well preserved they were, and neither could I believe that the parade of children earlier in the square, dressed to the nines, were imitating this ancient practice.
As we had a free half day until our wine tour later, and with not much else to do, we hung out at a different cafe for lunch and ordered a bunch of beers and empanadas. Then it was onto another coffee shop/chocolatier for a dessert of sorts. I finally washed my hair back at the hotel before joining Bec and Jacob in the courtyard for wine. You have to kick start a wine tour with wine, you know.
The wine tour itself was good, three wines only one of which I didn’t like, and we got to sample the fifth best white wine in the world, apparently. Cheese, meat and olives also accompanied this and on our second stop – after a 20 minute walk – we were offered more food. Unfortunately most of us weren’t hungry and it was a repeat of lunch so only sampled a little.
By the time dinner came round we still weren’t hungry and it was yet another repeat of empanadas and meat. Phew. I managed to break my shoe on the walk to the restaurant, so Bec was my trusty arm hold on the way there and it was taxi back. Our last night was pretty chilled as we drew rude objects and memoirs of our trip on paper left on the tables, and I thought just how much I would miss this group. They really have been one of my favourites and I’m honoured to meet them all. Until we meet again…