Tuesday, March 22, 2016

South America (Bolivia) - Day 104 - 107: La Paz inc. Death Road (part one)

We said goodbye to Tania and Ñeca in the morning after another huge breakfast. Tania told us that although she could get work outside, she much preferred running Al Tronco as she got to live with her children and grandson. It's big enough to keep the money coming in but small enough to be manageable and she can take a siesta in the afternoon. Better still, the people she hosts are invariably nice (por supuesto!), likely due not only to her hospitality but also the feel of the place. It has a much different, quieter vibe to a hostel and it was nice to have some downtime before we hit the craziness of Loki hostel.

After a half hour taxi to the airport (Para Ti chocolates were purchased...well why not?) and a thirty-five minute flight, we got into a taxi at La Paz airport and somehow spent almost an hour crawling through traffic and breathing in fumes whilst the taxi driver played the same song five times, before arriving at the hostel. Parts of the city are at over 4000 meters high, so we decided to take it easy in the afternoon and acclimatise to the thinner air. We were quite surprised by Loki, since it is more like a converted hotel than a hostel. It's set over seven floors, with the bar and social area on the top floor. I'd asked for a room on the lower floor so we'd be away from the music which goes on till 3am, and was given a comfortable double with en suite on floor 2.  

I'd done a bit of research and found a street called Eloy Salmon which apparently sold all manner of camera equipment, so we took a walk into the centre to see if we could find Gilly a replacement battery. La Paz reminds me of many Vietnam cities: crowded streets filled with market stalls, narrow alleys where the awnings are so rammed with clothes and shoes that they blot out the daylight and it feels like you're actually indoors, and rows of merchants all selling the same things. Eloy Salmon was no different, and we bagged an authentic-looking new battery for a bargain price, hoping that it won't make Gilly's camera explode. Gilly immediately celebrated by chucking her camera on the floor. Fortunately the only damage was to the fascia....lucky girl. I've never got my head around the shop layouts in some cities; there will be twenty to thirty shops selling Nike trainers, then around the corner another twenty selling electronics, and around the next will be an entire street of hairdressers. It certainly makes it easy for you to find things, but you have to wonder how they cope with so much competition in the same area. Unlike Hanoi though, we didn't stumble across "shop mannequin" street which was possibly the creepiest thing we saw there. Speaking of Vietnam, Gilly had found a restaurant called Vinapho which looked like an ideal dinner spot. We'd not had Vietnamese food for years, so this was too good an opportunity to pass up. It didn't disappoint, the fresh spring rolls were almost as good as the ones we had in Hue, and the main of kung pow chicken (more Chinese than Vietnamese, but hey), was delicious. We could have eaten pretty much anything off the menu. It set us up nicely for the prohibition night at Loki where Bolivians were not allowed entry, in order to bypass the law banning people from drinking during the referendum. They still had to serve drinks in plastic cups though, just in case the police decided to raid the place. They didn't. We played pool, kicked ass at beer pong (again), and called it a night.    





After some pancakes the next morning, we felt obliged to visit the national art museum since our location was close to pretty much all the main attractions. Well, we tried to. What we didn't realise was how much the referendum would affect everything. There was almost nothing open. Attractions, restaurants, even a last resort attempt to get to the cinema was met with a closed door. The only things moving on the street were the pigeons. Resigned to a quiet day, we headed back to Loki where Gilly got to work catching up with photo processing while I entered tournaments for poker, pool and table tennis, and came third, second and sixth respectively. For dinner we decided to take a chance that some restaurants would be open after the voting, and were rewarded by finding Star of India serving "British curry" in the world's highest Indian restaurant. As a spice fiend, I had high hopes that our first Indian since leaving the UK would be great. Unfortunately I'd not had chance to check TripAdvisor before arriving...the starters were reasonable: onion bhaji in particular was nice, but the samosa was cold in the middle, the naan was naff, and the curries themselves were nothing special. It wouldn't have been so bad if it hasn't cost more than the superb meal we'd had the previous evening. I guess we shouldn't have expected much, South America is never going to compete with England for curries. The tikka masala is basically our national dish, after all.        




We got an early night, as we were booked in to ride down the Death Road the next morning. Dubbed the world's most dangerous road, it has become a huge tourist attraction and multiple companies have been set up offering half day bike rides down it. After reading reviews, we couldn't see any difference between Gravity who charged £75 per person and Ride On, a company formed late last year who charged £45. Safety is paramount, and we wondered if the difference in price was because their bikes were worse, but after talking to some people in the hostel, they'd had a great time and felt completely safe, so we decided to go with Ride On. The road isn't named lightly - people die each year falling or riding off the edge, and this happened a couple of months ago when a Norwegian tourist from a different company (Altitude) who was showing off, mistimed a jump on a slippery area under a waterfall and plunged to his death. Basically, you just need to be sensible. We were picked up at 8:00, given a breakfast of cake, a ham sandwich, yoghurt tea and a chocolate bar, and got kitted out with our gear: arm and kneepads, trousers, rainproof jacket and helmet. Stylish AND practical. After a safety briefing, we were off.









Bearing in mind that I am a non-cyclist, the prospect of a 64km ride was a bit daunting but it was pretty much all downhill so the most exercise I did was with my hands, gripping the brakes to slow my descent. We had three Aussies in our group, Kieran, Brayden and Aiden, who were all good fun. Given the number of companies doing this trip, we chose well. Ride On were all about safety, having three guides for our party of eleven, one in the front, middle, and back. Conversely, another company (No Fear Adventures) had one guide at the front, leading a group of thirty, and clearly hadn't been shown how to pass people safely. I got cut up twice by idiots overtaking me from their group, and their guide tried to high-five Aiden as he went past but succeeded only in pulling him off his bike. That aside, the entire ride went flawlessly (for us). The other guys all fell off at least once - Kieran cut his hand enough to need stitches, but the guides had plenty of medical kit. Playing it cautiously definitely helped us, and the guides were happy for us to stop and take photos along the way, as well as having breaks every twenty minutes anyway to give us a bit of history about the road.





The road used to be the only method of connecting La Paz to Coroico until a new road was built just under a decade ago. In 1983 a bus carrying a hundred people fell off the cliff, killing everyone on board both. Apparently it was trying to avoid another bus coming in the other direction; neither bus had their lights on, to conserve battery. These days Death Road is mainly used for tourism, which is a good thing for all concerned. The altitude difference from top to bottom is immense, starting at 4700m in the Andes and ending at 1230m in the Amazon. Needless to say, we were layered up with fleeces and raincoats at the beginning but by the end we were down to t-shirts and shorts. The first hour was a little crazy as we were travelling through clouds and the cold air and rain whipped tears from my eyes, even behind sunglasses. I'm not sure how the guys without eyewear coped, it was bad enough seeing through watery glass. I felt bad for the guys from Gravity who didn't have full face helmets, but worse still didn't have high-vis jackets. At points we could barely see ten metres in front of us; for an extra thirty quid I'd have expected them to be able to be seen in the rain, but apparently not. As for the views, well, the photos speak for themselves. Bolivia might not be as well-known for its scenery as, say, Peru, but the vistas and valleys we saw were simply stunning. There was another photo op around every corner, whether it was a waterfall, a misty mountain or a sunlit canyon. In short, you could treat the ride as a combination of thrills and sightseeing, and it was tremendous. We were given a late lunch at a hotel, had a swim on their pretty murky swimming pool, and got back to our hostel at around 8pm. It was late, and we were hungry, so we tracked down a recommended Mexican - Kalakitas - and shared fantastic nachos, chicken and craft beer. We also met an Israeli chap called Remy who was heading the same way as us, and was very keen to learn about the referendum on Europe and our views on the queen (answer: total ambivalence).










We had booked a flight to Rurrenabaque for 13:55 the following day, but a sign had been left on our door saying that the flights had been delayed due to bad weather. We were heading into the Amazon for a tour of the Pampas, so after packing our small bags and storing our big ones at Loki, we set off to watch Deadpool at the cinema. Except we couldn't, because despite the time being advertised on both the website and outside the damn cinema, they told us it wasn't being shown until midday. Instead, we decided to go to the national art museum which had been closed on election day. Arriving at the door, we were told it was closed for renovations. In despair, we went to a mall and tried to buy socks to protect my feet from the inevitable mosquito swarm in the jungle...but half the shops were closed and the ones that weren't didn't have them. La Paz is a very odd city. I finally managed to track some down at a market stall along with a new pair of sunglasses  - after a combination of sandboarding and forcing them through the visor on my cycle helmet, mine weren't in a good shape - and once we polished off a huge pizza at Mozzarella, we headed back to Loki and I chucked my original pair of sunglasses.

Sunglasses Wars:

Gilly - 1
Rob - 1

Our run of bad luck continued there: the flights for the day were cancelled, and they were going to try and get us on the 7am replacement the next morning. This meant we had another night in Loki, so we booked another room - unfortunately at a higher level, slightly less comfortable and a bit noisier - and I went out and found a long-sleeved shirt for four quid at a stall, to try and offer some protection from the inevitable mosquitoes in the jungle. We pottered around for the rest of the day before heading up to the Loki bar to partake in some awful karaoke, but were also treated to the best Spanish song ever. We were told to head to the airport the next morning - there was no guarantee that the plane would actually leave, but we had to give it a go anyway. We packed a small bag each to last us for the three days of the trip, and crossed our fingers.

Friday, March 18, 2016

South America (Bolivia) - Day 97 - 103: Sucre

We didn't really do a whole lot in Sucre. It was really refreshing. Sometimes you just need to wind down a bit, rather than rushing from tour to tour, and city to city. Our main goal in Sucre was to learn Spanish and enjoy the surroundings. After arriving at around 6am, we made a beeline for Casa Al Tronco, a place where our good friends Paul and Fi spent almost a month when they visited the city 4 years ago. They had raved about it, and Tripadvisor certainly backed them up, so we had no doubt it'd
be a great place to stay. It was. Ten minutes from the centre up a steep hill - necessary to burn off all the food we'd end up eating - it was a family-run hostel, and Tonia was a wonderful host. She had a dog named Ñeca who was super cute, and she cooked a mean breakfast which we made full use of on that first morning.



We headed to Sucre Spanish School soon after to sign up for a few days of Spanish. We booked in two hours that afternoon, and then a further three hours for the following five days. My exposure to Spanish was far less than Gilly's, as she'd been on a beginner's course before we left the UK. As such, we opted for private 1-to-1 lessons which were crazy cheap in comparison to back home at £4.50 per hour. After some meat and veg skewers at Cosmo Cafe, we were ready to begin in the afternoon. My teacher - at least for the first day - was Carolina, who made me feel at ease immediately. We went through the basics of one part of the verb "to be" (Spanish has two different versions depending if the subject is temporary or not...very confusing) and I left feeling like I needed a lie down. Unfortunately, she wasn't able to continue lessons with me as she only worked in the afternoons and we were keen to have morning schooling so we could make use of the rest of the day. It wasn't an issue since her replacement was Veronica, who turned out to be very good too. Gilly really liked her teacher who, confusingly, was also called Veronica.




Sunday is market day at a nearby town called Tarabuco. Apparently it's one of the biggest markets in the region, but in truth it's a bit rubbish. We spent the day wandering around in the pouring rain looking at pretty much the same stuff that can be found on sale in almost every tourist shop in Bolivia. Still, it was fun to go people-watching even if we were sopping wet and freezing. An odd highlight is the statue in the central plaza depicting an indigenous man ripping the heart out of a Spaniard and eating it. Not your everyday park installation. I liked it. At the end of lunch we were treated to some traditional dance.







Sucre is known as the White City of Bolivia, and it lives up to its name with colonial buildings assailing your senses at every turn. When the sun is out - which it was for around half the time we were there - the blue sky lights up the centre beautifully. We spent our days hopping from restaurant to restaurant, as well as mooching around the town and visiting a couple of museums. The best of these was the Museo del Tesoro (Museum of Treasure), a new museum which showcased the various mines around Bolivia and the different materials obtained therein - silver, gold, iron and bolivianite, a gem specific to Bolivia (also known as ametrine). There were dioramas of the mines as well as examples of their crafting in ornate filigree and other techniques. It was well worth the visit, especially since we'd decided early on not to visit the Potosi mines. It's possible to do a day trip there to see the conditions the miners work in and also go inside the mines, but things have changed a lot in the last few years and we were told by locals that the amount of blasting that has been done within the mines has made them incredibly unstable, and liable to collapse at any point. There's also a tinge of misery tourism about Potosi, since the miners get paid a pittance and work long hours under incredibly dangerous conditions to satisfy the country's need for sparkling metal. It's pretty grim, and aside from the obvious danger, we didn't want to contribute to the exploitation of their livelihood just to take a few pictures. I don't begrudge those that do, and I'm sure it's an eye-opening and humbling experience, but it just wasn't for us.








We ate really well in Sucre. As well as cooking in the excellent kitchen at our accommodation, our breakfasts prior to Spanish each day were split between Abis Cafe (fantastic omelettes) and Condor Cafe (amazing pancakes). We had great food at Tentaciones, La Taverne, and on one evening we met up with Tanja and Jacqueline at Abis Patio for a game of cards and some burgers. More mediocre was Cafe Mirador which offered the great scenery you'd expect, tempered with cold, overpriced food. A Mexican evening at Kultur Berlin Hostel included mojitos, burritos and a salsa lesson - albeit, less of a lesson and more of a "watch what the guy is doing and then fail to copy him" event. We even found time to fit in a game of Wallyball with other Spanish students, which is like volleyball except it's played on a squash court and you're also allowed to use the wall to get the ball back over. It was great fun.





Bolivia was going through a referendum process whilst we were there. The decision the people had to make was whether to allow Evo Morales, the current president, to alter the constitution to allow him to run for another five years. By law, a president should only have two terms, and Morales had been in power since 2005, having sidestepped the maximum term rule by renaming the country "The Plurinational State of Bolivia", and claiming that he'd not had two terms under the new name. There were two opposing factions in the country - the "Si" vote that loved Morales and wanted him to continue, and the "No" vote which wanted him to step down in 2020 as per the constitution. Generally, the poorer people were on Morales' side as he promised jobs left, right and centre for them, whilst the white-collar folks saw it as a potential dictatorship if they let him continue. While we were there, the vote took place. An unfortunate side effect of this was the prohibition of alcohol for 48 hours prior to the voting period: the general populace needed to be sober when they voted, which meant that restaurants and bars could only serve soft drinks. Allegedly, anyway; we still managed to track down a local restaurant that was happy to sell beer to gringos - probably because we obviously not going to be involved in the country's fate. There were marches all through the city with the "Si" groups followed by the "No", accompanied by lots of drums and music. 


After seventeen hours of Spanish, I felt pretty happy with my progress and even confident that I could have a basic chat with a native speaker, so long as they spoke slowly, clearly, repeated things to me several times, and ideally also spoke English when I looked at them blankly. A mild success, then. We said goodbye to our teachers on the Friday but still have them on WhatsApp in case we need to bug them about how to use tenses in different scenarios. 

The view from the hostel was fantastic, and got even better when we moved to the suite for our last two nights in the city, which had a panoramic view from the bedroom. It wasn't as good as hiking up to the roof for pictures, but it came pretty close.




We also took a trip up to Cerro Churuquella on our last full day which had some steep steps and a statue of Jesus at the top. We sat and played cards in his shadow, just like he would have wanted, while local people came by to have water flicked at their backs by a guy in a hat. Also visiting were hardcore mountain bikers who packed taxis full of their equipment, and then pelted down the hill at speeds which would give their parents palpitations. We also tried and failed to track down a mythical singing fountain in a park, which Gilly had spotted online. Unfortunately the last article about it was around five years ago and when we got there we found a sorry looking installation, devoid of water. Still, the park was nice at night.








After almost a week, it was time to move on from Sucre. I could have easily spent a month there, learning more Spanish and exploring the surroundings. Unfortunately, we don't have unlimited time out here, and at times you have to move on even if you don't want to. It was one of my favourite towns on our trip to date, mostly because it was a welcome respite from hard travel and a chance to kick back for a while. A flight to La Paz was next - a bus was obviously an option, but we decided we wanted to save a bit of time and plane travel seemed fairly reasonable. La Paz was one of the highest places we'd be visiting, and we hoped that altitude sickness wouldn't affect us too much.