Part 2 covered my travels around the southern half of South America, now we cover my journey north before dropping back south and finally looping round to Rio de Janeiro.
Day 91 (Mon Jan 5, Week 13)
Wake around 6:15 as we pull into Copiapo. As we leave the misty landscape resolves to a yellow-red desert mountain range. A thin white mist clings to the ground as mountains fall away go flatlands. Soon we follow the sea as rocky scrubland predominates. Stop at Chañaral before turning inland again to mist and desert mountains. Mist drops away as the day heats up, reaching almost unbearable levels around midday just as the air con kicks in. Reading and napping until we pull into Antofagasta around 14:00 for a mandatory stop as the bus is refueled. Ice cream and a much needed walk. Back on the bus, the scenery gets more barren, with the occasional industrial outpost. After stopping at Calama shortly after 17:00, the landscape turns flat with distant but imposing mountains. Pulling into San Pedro de Atacama, I get out and find the bus ‘station’ is a small plyboard shack. Check Arequipa bus details (non-existent) and wander towards hostel. Check in then head to French star man’s place. Despite being booked up for 5 days, they have an opening tomorrow night, so I jump on it and book a spot, walking happily back to hostel via market. Cook simple meal, then have much needed shower before chilling out in the hammock. Enjoy how stunning the stars look even from the hostel courtyard then head to bed.
Wake slowly and dry mouthed. Head out for breakfast. Excellent spread. Chill out a bit while planning onward travel then head out around 10 to wander towards museum. Find the wrong museum first, but eventually find the meteorite museum in a tent on the outskirts of town. Great displays and specimens. Despite no-souvenir policy, I am tempted by meteorite pendant, but resist. Head back to hostel for a bit, then back out to pay for astro tour, buy postcards, coca leaves and lettuce, and pick up Arica bus ticket before heading back to hostel. Write postcards, book tours and chill out a bit. Chat with German roommate, shower, make food and read until heading out for stargazing tour. Standing in the bus stop as lights flicker, dogs dark into shadows and inky blackness fills doorways, I think back to my last day in Hursley. It seems like a lifetime ago. On the bus I chat with an ill Italian. At the site, the sky is dark an beautiful, the band of the Milky Way is clearly visible and for the first time I my life, I can see the Megalenic clouds with my own eyes. A lightning storm in Bolivia flashes over the mountainous horizon. Magical. Quick intro from Spanish lady then the French astronomer starts. Excellent talk in which he discusses inbreeding on colony ships and blames ETs looks on this. On the historical names of constellations, “We were much more civilized and named the Southern Cross after a torture instrument”. Get to use some incredible scopes for a while before heading into a dim, open rooved hit for hot chocolate and questions. Back at town, the driver seems to not know where Mamatierras until we (I) guide him down the roads at which point be suddenly remembers. Back at hostel by 3:30 where a roommate is preparing for the geyser tour. Sleep comes quickly.
Wake tired. Long breakfast then Liz and Raj from Santiago turn up and I head out to send postcards and buy remaining food and water. Back at hostel, wash clothes, do admin and chill out. Raj excitedly alerts everyone to a dust devil but it escapes to the air before we can get outside. We all set out for Valle de la Luna around 16:00. First stop offers an excellent mirador and the view recalls Mars or Afghanistan. Driving on, we get tickets for the national park and drive through white, precipitate covered landscapes, finally stopping at Las Tres Marias (one has fallen thanks to idiot tourists) and calcified geyser remnants. Next stop is a walk through an old mine settlement where we can stop to hear the rocks cracking as they contract. Another stop in ‘The Amphitheater’ for a walk alongside a vast sand slope. Next, onto a rain carved canyon and cave system. Fun climb around and exploring the canyon before we head the final mirador via the ticket office. Up to Coyote rock as the shadows lengthen. Share the subset with Raj and Liz then watch as the mountains behind change colour. Drive back to town, split up as R&L have stargazing tour in 15 mins, so I head back to hostel for food, shower and sleep.
Wake early to roommates getting ready and a cock crowing. Quick breakfast then wait in the courtyard for minibus. Drive along perfectly flat road to Toconau for first stop. Look around town square, a church, and small shop with llamas in the rear. Drive through more salt flats to Laguna de Chaxa. Flamingos, (400km) distant mountains and breakfast. Manuelo talks about Chilean economy and democracy. Back in the van and sleep for the drive to a small village overlooking the salt flats. Short walk to a church then off again. The urge to play Banished is fed by these villages. Bumpy road up to Lagunas Miscanti y Miñiques. Short stop at far lake (apparently can’t get too close due to angry ducks) and a walk around the other. Long and bumpy drive to Red Rocks salt flat. Frothy and windy, but a cold beauty to it. Nap on the ride back to the second village where we have lunch around 16:00. Chatting then one hour back to town where I shower, chill and read before making dinner. Read late into the night before finally turning in.
Lie in. Breakfast with Nils the German who arrived last night. Repair clothes and gear with duct tape then wash and check out. Read in hammock for most of the morning. Nils comes back after planning his trip to Uyuni and Valle de la Luna and we grab lunch. Chat travel and short time spans over a surprisingly good salad and (for him) pizza. Back at hostel, I chill, pack, eat and ultimately head off to bus station. Steal WiFi then hang around as buses leave. Start chatting with English Tom about travel and the backpacking mindset. Turns out we (and German Johannes) have the same plan, so we decide to travel together a bit. Bus eventually arrives and leaves an hour late at 21:00. Settle into a packed bus and catch a bit of Days of Future Past in Spanish as we drive into desert. Calama twinkles in the dark and a turbus guy explains that there is a problem with the engine and everyone must change buses. In Calama, I see 2 people loading a fridge into the back of a van as disco lights flash behind them. Switch buses and drift off to sleep.
Light sleep. Wake to a grey morning as we roll through low hills and flatland into Arica. Unload and group up with Tom, Johannes, American Joseph, 2 Swedish guys and 2 French girls from last night. Someones camera went missing from the bus, so bags are searched. We make it past touts to the colectivo/local-bus terminal and buy a confusing set of tickets to board the bus to Tacna. One of the French girls has lost her immigration card so has to stay behind. Cramped and sweaty bus to the Chilean border crossing, then short hop Peruvian crossing. On the Peruvian side, we drive through dusty desert and intermittent rubble until we pass small plantations and enter Tacna. Seems run down. Huge art on the nearby hill. The bus station evokes bustling Singaporean market. ATMs don’t work but we change our remaining Chilean Pesos and buy ticket to Arequipa after much faffing. Sit in a luggage room for a bit then we all (sans Joseph, who is going to Lima) get on the bus. The French girls from earlier apparently made it over the border (colectivos don’t care about immigration cards it seems and they can be sorted out at the border) and also board the bus. The guy next to me loudly plays mobile games until told to turn it down. Drive up into the hills and through flat sandy desert until a checkpoint, where we all have our bags searched. More driving through sandy desert with rolling dunes and the occasional mountain. Around 12, the bus breaks down among dunes. After some engine spluttering, set off again with a steep sided rock face on our right and a wide valley on our left. Short stop to pick up new people. Now I have large snoring men on either side yaaay. Slow climb through more desert and rocky valleys. Increasingly cloudy by 14:00 as we descend a vast, winding valley with a green oasis village at the bottom. Stop there to let sellers on board before heading off into nearly zero-visibility. Mist clears by 15:00 as we drive along a plain towards a low settlement then up to Arequipa. At the bus station, I buy a ticket to Cusco for tomorrow and the Swedish guys get theirs for today, so we say our goodbyes. French girls hook up with some French guys to find a hostel so me, Tom and Johannes grab a taxi to my hostel. Driver has terrible eyesight, but we get there in one piece. No space for the others, so they book another place. I shower, recharge and chill before heading off to meet them for food at Plaza de Armas. Pretty lights. We find each other and sit down at a fancy restaurant for Alpaca en hierbas andienes and coca sours. Slow service but tasty food. We chat about long term travel and how to make it sustainable. Head back and sleep.
Comfortable sleep. Wake slowly as German girls pack and leave. Excellent homemade pancake on the roof terrace for breakfast. Head out to meet T&J in Plaza de Armas for a walking tour. Meet them and some Argentinians from their hostel and join the tour. Split into English and Spanish groups, so the Argentinians leave us and we start walking with an American couple, a n American, an Australian and a Russian. Cathedral first, complete with devil crushed by the pulpit. Next, the Jesuit church with beautiful carvings and a little plaza before we head to the market. So much stuff. Sensory overload with smells, sound and colour everywhere. Black baby dolls adorn fruit stands as a good luck charm. The trinket section sells llama fetuses and pre-wrapped offerings. Out again and through some residential areas and churches to finish in chocolate shop where I win a free hot chocolate by (mas o menos) remembering the name of a volcano. Tom, Johannes and me head back to the market to get fresh fruit juice. Especial de Leche. Fresh and incredibly filling. We even get seconds. The woman helpfully tells us where we’ll get mugged as we leave. Find the guy who sells frog juice, who then starts flexing to show how strong it (and everything else in his store) will make us. We head out towards the centre and drop in on a puppet show of sorts. A policeman rescues a baby from a hostage situation while dangling from a chopper as ‘Paint it Black’ plays. Moments later, the nativity is played out. We leave confused. Quick pizza/salad in a diner, followed by a Queso Helado (not actually queso) and a chill in the Plaza. Me and Johannes try Inca Cola and then we part ways. I head back to the hostel and eat the Chirimoya (delicious, Twain was right) and Lucuma (less delicious) I bought at the market. Pop out to claim my free hot chocolate, then chill at the hostel until taxi to bus terminal arrives. Chat with taxi driver about how expensive Europe is. At the bus station, I buy replacement headphones and realise I still have to pay 3 sol tax before getting in the waiting room. WiFi broken but get to chill a bit before boarding. This bus is swish as fuck. TVs, blankets, WiFi and a camera documenting us before we leave. Hot dinner and Spanish Spiderman before sleep.
Day 98 (Mon Jan 11, Week 14)
Light sleep thanks to snoring across the aisle. Wake to wooded valleys and grey skies. We pull into Cusco around 6:30. I hop out and grab a taxi to my hostel with another guy (going to a different hostel). No room yet, but chill in common room and have tea for a bit. Shower, change, drop of laundry then head out for a quick wander. Overcast, huge queue at the Machu Picchu ticket place. Pretty Plaza de Armas (no Arequipa, though). Back at hostel, I sort out Salkantay trek details, head out to get money, then back to pay. Move stuff into room, then out for a while to unsuccessfully search for decent hiking pants. Pop back to hostel for a bit, then out to a dungeonesque fast food place off San Fran Plaza to have Salfritas. Wander through a market, seeing a redhead wandering a similar route. Grab an ice cream then look at some art stands. Redhead from earlier turns up “so you’re following me?”. We start chatting. She’s Rachel from Melbourne and studying biodiversity here for one month. We look through some markets, Rachel buys some woolen clothes and we find a room full of shoes, guarded by a cat with a kneckerchief and different coloured eyes. We wander around town, following increasingly winding passages tending uphill, driven mostly by how pretty a given path looks. Near the treeline, Rachel suggests heading for the “Monkey Temple”. I ask a passing woman, but she says it is far away and the trail is “muy peligroso”, so we head down. Walk through dog-town, but they only bark. At the bottom, we head to Organicos for trucha ceviche and alpaca medallions. Tasty. We walk back via an artisanal market where Rachel buys a sugar holder “I don’t even have sugar in my tea…”. We part ways and I head back to chill out before sleep.
Day 99 (Mon Jan 11, Week 14)
Not a great sleep. Wake slowly, wash, head out to buy trek supplies and cereal, then back to hostel for breakfast. Wander around town for a bit. Armando approaches me asking if I want to buy his art, I decline “how about some weed then?”. Join walking tour with a majority Canadian group. Explore the Plaza San Francisco, learn about the catacombs, then on to San Pedro market. Advised of what to avoid - salad, water and ceviche. Along to a llama paddock where we learn then difference between alpacas and llamas, then onto an Incan palace (ruin) to learn about architecture. Through some markets to end in a restaurant with pisco sours. I pop back to the hostel then out to Green Point to meet Rachel and others on her course. Just miss the menu del dia, but have rocoto relleno. Delicious. We chat, make stone piles on the table, a few peel off and 4 of us head to San Pedro market and then supermarket to get food. We part ways and I head back to hostel. I repack bag for Salkantay hike, shower and head downstairs for chat with the guide. Back in room, chat with 2 Canadian girls also starting Salkantay tomorrow, then head out for Cuy. Flavourful (chicken-esque) but somewhat disturbing presentation. Back in room again, continue chatting with the Canadians as an Irish guy who just finished Salkantay arrives. We compare and interrogate. I put my bag in storage, then chill before turning in.
Holy shit, day 100. Wake up far to early. Quickest of washes, then picked up by Jesús. Canadian girls join as well and we walk to Plaza San Francisco to wait. Joined by a German girl and we wait a while for the bus “I thought this was German time…”. Intro by Alex on the bus then nap. Wake up to a missed call as we drive through cloudy valleys. Stop at a village for breakfast. Chat with Canadian Alex (National Park worker), Lucy (Ecotourism worker in Vancouver) and American Lynn (Sous Chef on Nat Geo voyages). Get a walking stick and we head off. Another hour driving up to drop off point. Introductions (“Singles group!”) and we set off. Learn about native plants and pick up some menthol en route. Steep walk as I chat with American John the accountant. Alex takes a bag and becomes garbage girl. I talk with John about American Politics until we stop at a homestead for snacks around cute puppies. Steep climb, then following an aqueduct for a while as I chat with Jesús. Apparently, I know enough Spanish to explain ‘Touching the Void’. We stop at a small stand for corn juice and chat about Inca history just as the clouds clear and we get a perfect view of Humantay glacier. Final downhill walk to camp as I chat with Lynn about adventurous sex. Drop our stuff in the tents and have lunch. After lunch, a smaller group heads up to the glacial lake. Alex warns us not to have sex up there or we will disrespect the mountain and cause rain tomorrow. He also tells us to get a rock from the lake and bring it all the way down for a weather ceremony tomorrow. Steep climb and precarious hopping over rivers as John pulls away. Brief dip in the lake and group photos before a smaller grow climbs the ridge. At the top, we take photos, then John asks if we would like to partake, then lights up. At that exact moment, an avalanche crashes down the glacier. “Did we anger the mountain?” “ We are so high right now”. On the way back we find a rock, name it Maria and take turns carrying it. Chatting before dinner, then food, introduction to the cooks and plans for tomorrow. Back in tents to turn in. Pop out to the toilet in the dark and stunned by the stars. LMCs again clearly visible. Pretty good day 100.
Wake early in the dark. Oscar wakes everyone up with mate at 5:00 and we pack up our tents. Marco drops and breaks his torch. We all head to breakfast, have a post-breakfast mountain rave before starting off up the valley to Salkantay at 6:30. Quiet start, with a couple photo stops until we get to a base camp and stop for snacks and a group photo once Lynn catches up on her horse. A short flat bit then steep climb with plenty of switchbacks. Short Maria shifts are the way to go here. Well deserved rest at a mirador overlooking the valley at 8:30. Relatively flat bit to another snack stop where Lucy hands out chorizo and becomes everyone’s new best friend. Final gruelling push to Salkantay pass, where we snack, take photos and chill a bit. Alex talks about his religion and makes an offering go the mountains (Maria et al.). We head down an easy descent to chill in a field a while before pressing into the descending clouds. After an hour of discussing food, lunch, hunger and the concept of hangry with Nacho, we make it to a camp for lunch. Odd tuber thing in sauce, but much needed and everyone grateful. Short siesta then resume the downhill trek. Long trek, chat with Fabian en español for a while. Struggle to communicate with deaf Peruvian farmer. Make it to camp ahead of horses. Have beer/wine with John, Tom, Alex et al. Go FOR A WALK with John. More drinking, then dinner and pig throwing game. I become hombre de muchos riesgos. “UNO MAS! UNO MAS!” I win, but can’t drink beer so continue with wine. Sleep.
Woken by cocks crowing at 5:00, then Jesús with tea at 5:30. Quick wash then sit down for breakfast. Collection for the cowboy then hear about Angel Bells from Alex “they will make you like a zombie”. We set off into cloud forest valley. Plenty of precarious shortcuts. Stop at the bottom of a ravine to be warned about snakes. Continue along colourful jungle path, enjoying the flora and butterflies, stopping to eat wild strawberries. Photo shop at Pacchi waterfall then through thicker jungle until we stop alongside a river at 10:15. Continue on to small camp site for brief sit. Chat with Lucy for most of the remainder of the walk. Need to shimmy along a precarious ledge in the wake of a recent landslide. Find a centipede and dead snake near the end. Picked up by bus at the end of the trail. Short, bumpy ride with intermittent tunes as we enter a decent sized village and stop for lunch. A very friendly kitten sits on everyone’s lap and purrs (and eats ceviche). We say goodbye to Micah then head off ourselves to the camping spot. Drop our stuff and head off the hot-springs. Quick shower then straight in. John gets told off for bombing from a rock. “We should play Marco Polo!” “Marco!” “Hola?”. Marco later dislocates his shoulder. Out of the water, we drink and people buy snacks. The cloudy mountains make an excellent backdrop to beer and crisps. Bus ride back becomes rave bus as Fabian dances and flashes his light to loud music. Bus rave. Back at camp, we settle down for dinner, make screwdrivers and thank our chefs. After food we drink Inca Tequila, smoke, and dance topless around the fire. Alex leaps the fire. “Holy shit, it’s raining!”. We proceed to dance like animals in the rain into the early hours. More Inca tequila. Peru is pretty cool.
Wake early, enjoy the cloud covered mountains. Head downstairs in time for a slow breakfast. Carla has a reaction to mosquito bites, so heads to the centro de salud and we pick her up in the bus. We all lament the loss of Fabians short pants at the pool yesterday. We head to the ziplining place and hang around to watch Nacho and Carla go. We play fetch the stone with a dog. We play the telescope game, Molly’s world et al as Lynn, Nacho and Carla zipline. Back in the bus for a quick nap/bus ride to hydroelectrica. Short walk to a packed restaurant with kittens that play with John. “Tiene una opción sin gluten?” sigh “Tres vegeterianos”. After dessert, we congregate outside and head off. Hot and sweaty walk along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes. Have to back up when we walk into a train. Shortly after entering town a dog dressed in dungarees and a shirt walks by “I guess that settles the dog-pant problem”. Eventually make it to the hostel. Room with Bram and Lynn. Best shower. Chill and recharge downstairs for a bit. Wander around town with Lucy and Alex for a bit. Find some sexual artwork. Check out the home-made hot-pools in the river. They aren’t hot and smell of garbage. “Aguas Calientes. No son. Cero estrellas.” Back to the hostel then out for food at MachuPiscos. Best steak. Tickets are hilariously misprinted. I am Lynn and Alex is a 56 year old Brazilian. Wander through streets looking for cheap ice cream before ultimately turning in.
Wake slightly before alarm. Head downstairs by 4:15 and wait with Bram for the others. Slow dark walk to the bridge gate where we wait for opening as dogs chase the first of the buses. Get on my poncho as we cross the bridge and start the rain slick climb up the stairs in the darkness. The poncho is useless and I am soon soaked to the skin. By the end, I cannot distinguish between rain and sweat. We queue at the top and join up with Alex before starting our tour. Rainy but we get to see the filtration system working. Eventually part ways with Alex after tipping him. We all head out of the gate to coffee/breakfast/toilet. Some head to Huayna Picchu and me, John, Tom and Lynn head to the Sun Gate. As we climb, I chat with John about science. By the time we arrive the fog is still thick with zero visibility of Machu Picchu. We sit and chat about school systems and Star Wars hoping for the clouds to clear. The clouds open so briefly Tom doesn’t even have time to move to see it. Suddenly, the clouds clear around 11:00 and we have a perfect view. Enjoy it before walking back down. Make a burnt offering to Machu Picchu at a quiet point on the trail. Meet Anette and Bram at a ruin on the way back. Photo and lunch stop at the guardhouse before walking the Inka Bridge. Precarious. Walk a circuit around the city, stopping at a group of llamas, including one that smiles. We see small rabbit esque animales then head out via Templo del Condor. Almost get smashed against the wall by a bus outside. Driver just laughs. We set off downhill on the stairs at first, but then on the road as Lynn’s legs need a break. We bump into Lucy, Adam, Marco and Alexandre as they cross the road. Alex and Fabian catch up (they quickly did the Inka Bridge) by the time we are on the riverside path to Aguas Calientes. Meet Adam’s sister at the fountain. Head immediately to get food. Lomo saltado and happy hour is exactly what my body needs right now. Marco gets into an argument with the waiter because his burger doesn’t look like the picture (he already ate it) and walks off without paying. The waiter follows him and we head to the station with Fabian. After getting through the gate, Fabian decides to search for Marco et al and leaves his bag with us. We have to board but luckily, Fabian, Marco and Alexandre arrive just before we leave. Chat with Inca trail finishers and the girls who took the horses with Lynn on day 2 for a bit. Swap seats then chill for remainder of the trip.
Day 105 (Mon Jan 18, Week 15)
Wake 1 minute before alarm and slowly make my way to breakfast. Chat with Alex over breakfast then head out for a quick walk. Bump into Fabian then pop back to the hostel to head back out with Lucy and Alex. Meet everyone at the Plaza de las Armas fountain and join a Spanish speaking architecture tour. Understand most of it. Tour ending is cancelled as rain pours and a museum is closed. We head to Plaza de Armas to look for food but find a huge protest about Spanish cultural destruction and police presence. Alexandre holds onto me as he slides along the wet courtyard. We pick a restaurant and Marco is very careful to check that the food looks like the pictures. We sit down, order, get free salads and enjoy panpipe band. Run back to the hostel to get my injection. By the time I get back, music is still going. Food arrives and Marco is overjoyed that it matches the picture. Excellent meal and Spanglish conversation. We head out to investigate Ayahuasca retreats then find a (very specific) massage parlor. Massage is obviously untrained, but relaxing all the same. Wander around the market with Alex and Lu in a massage dazed state, resisting the urge to buy a gnome hat. Head back to hostel via supermarket to chill. Cheap Rice Chaufa for dinner then out to meet the others at The Point hostel. A long and heated game of pool followed by beer/wine/pisco pong. Lu and Alex head back and the rest of us continue to Paddy’s bar, which we find is closed, so we go to another bar across the street to play darts and drink. I get very drunk and remember nothing.
Wake in the wrong room. It seems I found an empty private room in the hostel. I also appear to have lost my phone. Bugger. I run to the last bar to search but have no luck. Back at hostel I do damage control. A few trips around town to look for international phones. Can ring phone by early afternoon but no answer. Frustrating dealing with HSBC to sort out Internet banking. Search the room I slept in to no avail. Location history reveals that phone made it back to hostel around 02:30 and dropped off the grid around 4:30. Spend most of the afternoon alternately searching for phone and trying to call it. Head out for a light meal, then reading back at the hostel before turning in.
Wake fitfully. Have breakfast with Alex then head out to suspend phone/sim. Line busy and phone shop closed, but I head to market to buy ticket to La Paz. See a dog in a batman costume but of course, don’t have a phone. Chill back at the hostel for a bit. Meet a couple who had their GoPro stolen with no backups of travel photos. Don’t feel so bad now. Head out again, successfully block phone/sim then buy a temporary phone. Spend most of the afternoon setting it up. I had forgotten how awful skinned Android can be. Chat with Alex and Lu upon their return and watch bad cop shows on TV as we compare gun culture in the UK and Americas. Head out to get food. Nice, but oversold Aji de Galleta with panpipes as an accompaniment. Back via supermarket where stray cats roam and have sex in the cereal aisle. At the hostel, the dog plays with another dog, knocking open the door and smashing a table. Catching up on errands before sleep.
Wake tired. Crawl out of bed, quick breakfast before phone interview. I think it went well. Try making hot chocolate with the cacao I bought last week. That did not go well. Pack away bags and put in storage, plan follow up interviews then head out. Wander around town before grabbing Menu del Dia at Green point. Back into Plaza de Armas to buy replacement socks, then call to confirm sim deactivation. Fail, but reactivate internet banking after long wait. Back to hostel, repack, recharge and chill. Taxi to bus station, confusion about my details but walk around a bit before boarding bus. Comfortable, but no Cruz del Sur. Read a bit, but sleep comes quickly. Small child starts crying at midnight. My plan to ban travel for under 21s is vindicated.
Wake to sunrise over Titicaca as we drive through the ramshackle town of Juli. Continue on until some leave the bus for Copacabana. Immigration forms handed out as we pull into Desaguadero. Park then have to talk 10 minutes through bustling streets to Peruvain border. Reminds me of Mos Eisley. Simple enough border, but then have to wait at a bridge for 30 mins as a ceremony completes. Get chatting to German and French girls from the bus. Eventually cross the bridge along with hundreds of others to join the single file immigration line. Find out we need another long, double sided form. Entirely repeated data. Long dusty queue. Worst border ever. On the other side, chill with bus people in the shade and eat nuts. Cross the street and have to jump on the bus as it is still moving. Bus waits for everyone else on the outskirts of town before heading off into rolling hills with distant mountains. Slow start as we are caught in a traffic jam of vehicles being inspected. Easy going after that, with broadly flat farmland. Outskirts of La Paz are dusty and run down. Quickly turns colourful and busy before we crest the hill and look down into the valley. Stunning. Circle down to the bus station where I get a poor sighted taxi driver to the hostel. Check in, charge and shower. Head downstairs to chill when over taken by nausea, and find myself hunched over a toilet, sweating for about 30 mins. It passes though, and after a short recovery nap, I resolve to research what tropical diseases I might have come into contact with. Back downstairs, I bump into Johannes from San Pedro/Arequipa and we chat a bit before I head out for food. Streets are filled with open fire grills, tents and people drinking (and pissing) in the street. I stop for a meal of rice and chicken before enjoying the revelry a bit and heading back. Meet new roommate, then Tom. We catch up. He’s doing death road tomorrow. Chilling, then early night as tiredness overtakes me.
Wake tired. Read a bit then head downstairs for breakfast. Look at walking tour, but end up wandering aimlessly around. Find Plaza Murillo and see guards sleeping inside the doorway. Explore a gallery with some vivid art and excellent sculptures. Seems Bolivia is still angry at Chile for the whole lack of a port thing. Enter commercial street and buy a Bolivian sim card. Pass a guy dancing furiously to music for money. Explore the city, grab lunch, change money and head back. Back at the hostel I find one of my Australian roommates asleep on the floor with his hand down his pants. Of course. Video conference into housewarming for a bit. Great to catch up but reception breaks up after a bit. Head out to get money for Death Road biking then back to hostel to pay and rejoin virtual housewarming. After goodbyes I head out to the Teleferico. Pass the dancing guy, still furiously going at it. Cross a bustling market bridge, then up a hill to the station. Hop on enjoy and the views. Pass over a vast, town sized graveyard and inventive ads painted on rooftops. The light is perfect as the sun sets behind the hill we are ascending. Wind howls at the apex. Straight back down and leisurely walk back. Stop off on the way back to have charque for dinner. No idea what I just ate, but it was alright. Bump into Johannes and Tom before settling down to email. Bump into French Anne from Pucón who also did Death Road with Tom today. Back to room to chat with USA Sam (a death road survivor) and Swedish Lisa (doing DR with me tomorrow). Downstairs to recharge, then sleep.
Wake early and gather my things. Wait in the courtyard with Lisa and others for pickup. Cleaning of last night’s carnage is happening. Board the bus with German Daniel and a group of Australians join. Ride up to start point with a decent soundtrack. Snacks, tea, introductions and gear up before starting off along a tarmac road. View quickly opens up to a stunning, jagged mist shrouded valley. Easy downhill with excellent views. A few short stops and manage to grab some shots as we pile up behind a truck. Mostly smooth, with the occasional bumpy section. Off-road around a tunnel then stop for a bite to eat before busing uphill to the start of death road proper. Strip out of overalls and set off down much bumpier road with gorgeous jungle hillsides all around us. A few photo stops, drive through a waterfall and get very muddy. Precarious, but survivable if following the rules. Watch a guy from another group wipeout in front of me. Tarzan somehow manges to get 2 punctures in a row. Stop for water as a waterfall tumbles down the rockface above us. Ride gets a lot hotter and dustier as we descend into the jungle. Everyone gradually builds up confidence and speed as the road gets wider and further from sheer drops. One of the girls takes a fall near the end and shreds her shirt. T-shirts handed out, photos then we bus to a nearby hostel. Buffet lunch and chat about diabetes, followed by shower and pool. Chatting and ice cream before heading off. We drop off Daniel in a village where he’s planning to volunteer at an animal sanctuary. Long drive back with a less good playlist. Drive through a tunnel and emerge in the cloudline. Pass the starting lake, shrouded in mist now. Back at hostel, I shower, grab a quick meal and head to the hostel bar. I am co-opted into 2 quiz teams (team Australia and team Europe). Quiz is canceled because of a broken mic, so Nils does his own quiz “How many people have I heard having sex in the hostel today?” (3). English guy is very drunk and sipping white Russians as we ramble about seizing the day. Later a group of us grab taxis to a seedy underground bar in a residential neighborhood. We order drinks “…and how about some coke with that?”. Everyone agrees it has been cut with speed and crystal meth. Compare body hair with an Australian and Irish. One of the Australians has a minor panic attack but recovers. A man screams at a urinal in the dark. A little mamacita makes lines for people. A wave on eunni hits later on. When it comes time to leave, they order us a taxi and usher us in quickly to avoid attention. Sleep comes surprisingly quickly upon return at 4am.
Day 112 (Mon 25 Jan, Week 16)
Wake tired and thirsty. Pack a bit then head downstairs for tea. Chat with Xiang and one of the Australians. Book bus ticket to Sucre and figure out walking tour details. Recharge, chat with Anne and finish packing before heading off to Plaza San Pedro. Walk through bustling streets and after a false start, find guide with the correct red hat. Told about the prison, cholitas and the witches market. Stop off at main square/church before. Snack of papa rellena in a market before we head to the parliament square. Yungueño shots at an Irish pub to finish then off to a crowded restaurant for Pique Macho (Bolivian Churillana). Wander back to hostel, chat with Australians, pick up bag and recharge outside. Rainstorm starts, so I chill in the TV room where star wars 3 and 6 are playing. Finally head off for walk across town to the bus station. Bump into Anne as I leave “See you in another life”. Along the way, ennui grips me again. Confusion as to which bus to board (3 separate Trans Copacabana companies with different suffixes) but get on and settle down. We pull away into the night as La Paz twinkles in the darkness. We wait a while for a passengers on the outskirts of La Paz. Other passengers angry that we waited almost 2 hours when they board “No es mi culpa!”. We drive into the dark desert as I drift away.
Wake around 6:30 to hills as the sun rises. We pull into Sucre around 7:30. Bus driver’s seat is surrounded with coca leaves. I don’t think he slept. Debate walking but grab a taxi to the hostel. Breakfast, shower and chat with Canadian Sam and Cardiffian Leanna. Head off the Florin’s bar for WiFi. Sam and Leanna join in a bit. We chat and have lunch before heading back in time for walking tour. Tour guide Moises leads us off. We meet his girlfriend from Brompton. It’s surreal to hear her speak Spanish in a Northern accent. Buy some chocolate at fancy artisanal place, which immediately melts upon leaving. We get to the park and are threateningly encircled by youths. “We need to go” says Moises as they start hurling water balloons. We buy our own and fight back. One kid stalks towards us with a malicious grin and a bag of balloons as we back away. Moises’ next explanation is cut short as 2 large groups start circling around us. We sprint from park and into the lawyer street. Near the market a car drive by waterbombs us but we get a balloon in their window. Elation. Explore the colours and smells of the market, chicken heads, severed snouts, free samples of excellent chorizo, chirimoya and fruit. “I love this place, the food, the colours, the people are all so beautiful” Oshan: “…where the men-folk at?” Part ways with Moises and walk home. Back in the hostel, we have maracuya and find a third guy from Cardiff, moments after finding out that Sucre is twinned with Cardiff. What the fuck. We (walking tour people) head out to have food at The Condor. Papa rellena and riddles. An Argentinian band plays the Mos Eisley cantina music. We eventually head back to the hostel to chill. Head back out again with Robin from Cardiff and Leanna to buy drinks from supermarket. Drink and play cards with the hostel crew. Eventually, we head out to a bar, which initially turns us away buy relents and lets us in. More drinks, chatty bar staff give Cass way too many free shots. Rainstorm starts. So heavy we decide to sit it out, but at 4am we steal a poster to use as multi person umbrella and run for it. Bar staff steals the poster back but we make it to the hostel not too soaked. Everyone passes out.
Wake tired and thirsty. Stumble downstairs for tea and breakfast. Pop out to pick up food from the supermarket, then back to the hostel for a hammock interview. Bump into Rich from Pucón (November edition) who is about to start a month of Spanish school. Second interview is intense, but also seems to go well. Chat with Rich a bit then head off up the hill to the mirador with Sam. A man openly pisses in the center of a square. Nice view otherwise. We wander back down into town, checking out a Spanish school en route. Sam buys a vocab book at Condors and we have food at a small restaurant off the main plaza. Ice cream follows, then an easy walk back (a strike/protest has closed some roads. Siesta in a hammock, emails, catch up with Leanne. Eventually head out for food with Sam, Leanne and Leanna’s friend. Long detour but decide to eat at Joyride cafe. Over food we discuss harassment and horny dwarves. Walk back, chill out and sleep.
Wake tired to an alarm (mine, it turns out). Consider traveling much later but ultimately pull myself out of bed. Partially pack, breakfast with Sam then finish packing. Goodbyes, then taxi to bus station but dropped a few blocks away on dog corner. Walk to station and buy a ticket to leave in 10 minutes. A protest has closed the roads, so walked out by ticket man to the bus “allí” he says, gesturing towards a row of buses before wandering back. Settle down for the ride. Winding road through craggy hills, climbing up into a plateau, followed by more mountains. We stop at a dusty town to pick someone up then continue onto Potosí. Arrive at a round, new bus terminal. Wander through to find the exit as mournful chanting echoes through the chamber. Grab a taxi to the central Plaza with a Dutch couple and look into mine tours with them. First one sounds crap, but second is sold well and has one of their friends on it, so we throw down money and leave immediately. Stop off at the miners market to buy gifts and get a look at dynamite/nitroglycerin. We drive off to suit up in baggy overalls, hard-hats, lamps and masks. Another stop at a processing facility to gape at the machinery smashing, then extracting the ore. Drive up to the entrance of the mine, discussion of llama sacrifice (only in even numbers) before entering the watery tunnel. Discussion of seams, career prospects and dangers as we descend. Join a small ceremony asking for good ore and safety. Pure alcohol is poured on an offering, then taken away to be burned. Varied tunnels, from high ceilings to almost crawlspaces as we progress to a series of cramped ladders. I’m the last up. At the top, we stop at a shrine to the God of the Earth (Dio de pachamama) who looks a lot like the Catholic devil. Many misunderstandings. Drink pure alcohol to ask for safety. It burns. Turn off all lights and light a cigarette in the dark to appease El Dio. Continue on to some beautiful (but toxic) stalagmite formation. Stop off at a family of miners. A drunken miner berates me for invading Las Malvinas “mi culpa”. Short walk to the exit. Fresh air. Wilson warns us to avoid the drunken miners (today is a celebration day) as we walk to the minibus. Quiet drive back. Pick up bag, walk to hostel and chill. Head out for cash and food. Back to hostel, read a bit but sleep comes quickly.
Wake tired in the dark (no windows). Wash, head downstairs for surprisingly decent breakfast. Back upstairs to pack, then downstairs to pay and get a taxi to the bus station. Buy a ticket for 13:00 then wander around the station for a bit. I realize that the “chanting” from yesterday is in fact ticket sellers shouting destinations in the acoustics of the hall. I also realise that it is extremely grating, so head outside. A growling match between two dogs is cut short by one of them sneezing. Board bus where a boy sings terribly “for our amusement”. We drove through slag heaps as rain starts. Barren, rocky hills, criss-crossed with trails and tunnels until we reach Vitichi at 15:00. Disgusting bathroom break at Santiago de Cotogaita then hilly scrubland. Final stretch in a canyon, passing many memorial shrines before pulling into Tupiza. Walk to hostel, checking (unsuccessfully) for Salar tours along the way. Book a tour at my hostel, check-in, transfer money then out to withdraw and buy supplies. Pay for tour then back out for cheap fried chicken. Shower at hostel then chat with new Spanish roommate. Sleep.
Wake before alarm, wash and head downstairs with roommates for breakfast. Joined by a Portuguese couple and we chat in Spanish. Pay for room (discount because I had to change, plus get paid back because I’m now in a 5 person group, so end up 30Bs in the green). Turns out I’m in the same group I had breakfast with. Ride shotgun in the jeep as we drive off through red hills to a mirador overlooking the rain cut gullies of Palala Tupiza. Continue on through rolling hills, dried riverbeds and llamas. Stop near an old mine for a close-up with llamas. Dusty drive around a trio of mountains, followed by exploration of a dusty village as distant thunder rolls across wasteland. Lunch, then set off for long drive to ruins next to a settlement, followed by pueblo fantasma ruinas. Explanation and exploration before we set off again. Bruno tells us about a place in Sao Paulo where you can eat meat for 3 hours. We stop at the highest point of the trip (4855m) as we overlook a white lake and volcano. Drive on through the afternoon sun to national park entrance, where we pay entry. A little further to our accommodation for the night. Pile into a large dorm with the other jeep retinue, then tea around a table for hours. Chat extensively about language. Eventually food turns up (soup and milanesa). Outside, we stargaze a little, then to bed.
Wake to a cacophony of alarms then head to breakfast. No one slept well it seems (I was awake 3-4). We eat hop in the jeep. My music selection today. Stop at a llama paddock. Llama poop everywhere. Shortly afterwards, we spot an old man with a zoom lens stalking among rocks. We see a vicuña hopping among rocks in a low marsh. Stop at a lake to flamingo spot for a bit when something goes wrong with the other jeep’s driver’s son and we have to pile the other group in with up. 8 passengers drive onwards to a ‘soap lake’ where those of us not wearing sunglasses are momentarily blinded. Other jeep returns and we drive off separately. Drive for a while until we enter the Martian landscape of Desierto de Dali and continue to Laguna Verde, which isn’t at all verde “el agua ha evaporado… lo siento”. As we explore the lake turns green before our eyes. Perfect timing. Double back on ourselves to aguas termicos for a dip in hot springs. Enjoy the view with Flavia and Michelle in extremely buoyant water. We have to exit after 20 mins “or we’ll pass out and drown”. Filling lunch follows, then we drive to geysers and bubbling mud pools. Pontificate on the nature of the mud amid familiar sulphur smells. Drive on, off-road towards an imposing volcano. On the other side, we drop our bags at our accommodation and hop back into the jeep and drive to Lago Colorado. Very windy. Head down to the pink water and observe flamingos. Bump into Tom and Johannes who are half way through their tour heading the other way. Walk around the bluff and get some very close up time with a young flamingo. Continue around to a marshy area where Joana looses her shoe and Michelle runs after a blown away tissue. Back in the jeep and back to hostel. Chat about death road over tea, read a bit then sit down for dinner. Chat about passports, doctor who (no one knows about it) then turn in as the power cuts out.
Day 119 (Mon Feb 1, week 17)
Everyone wakes to alarms. Breakfast (I get GF pancakes!) then hop on the jeep. 10 minutes later, we have a ticket checkpoint before driving onto Arbol de Piedra. The tree itself is nice, but we spend most of our time climbing a veritable rock playground. I am climbing rocks to impress girls. I am 12 again. Onto a large open mirador surrounded by desert and mountains. Short drive to a pee break, then onwards to Laguna Hondo which isn’t so deep. Michelle is cold so stays in the jeep. Another lake stop and walk to view flamingos. Final, very brief lake stop then onto lava flows overlooked by a volcano. We explore the alien landscape of ancient lava flows and grey clouds gather. Silence, but for the wind. Lunch is served out of the back of a jeep and we eat in the twisted cavities of a flow. Nap on the long post-lunch drive to small, disused llama paddock made of fossilized coral. Drive onto a short stop at a small village for supplies and beer. Drive on along a straight desert road. Bob Dylan (Rolling Stone) blares and we speak in Spanish as the desert landscape rolls by. This night be the most emotionally distant I’ve ever been from home. Emails will be waiting for me when I return, but I enjoy being off the grid. We skirt the Salar along a rocky road as light rain starts. An hour from the final hostel, we get word that it is full, so we have to turn back to the nearest village. Arrive alongside another group and find that hostel is full also. Seriously put sleeping in the jeeps on the table. Italian from the other jeep hands out Salar salt chocolate as we wait. Luckily, another hostel is found so we move to it and wait (other options are jeep sleeping and returning to San Jose (not enough fuel). “En vida, todo es posible… pero nada es cierto”. In the jeep, Antonio tells us about Bolivian military service. We enter the salt hostel (everything is made of salt) and pay for showers. Me and Flavia lick the walls as we wait. Shower then tea as we talk about meditation retreats. Food arrives as we talk about university systems across Europe. We get wine, clear up and drink. Me, Alex and Michelle finish off the bottle while taking about Europe, then dash back to the dorms through the rain. Prepare for bed by candlelight.
Woken by alarms at 4:00. Pack by candlelight and get in the jeep. Set off through the rain to the Chillis. After a quick stop, we enter the flat, grey Salar. Otherworldly as we follow pinpricks of tail lights in the misty, thinning darkness. Distance is hard to judge and Antonio is careful not to lose the other jeeps. One minute they are there, the next, they are gone. Surreal. Drive towards the isla for a while, seems small, but as we pull up it is huge. Short walk up to top for stunning views and huge cacti. Talk with Michelle about futures as we descend for breakfast on salt tables. Drive a short distance from the island for a photo stop. Those perspective shots are more difficult than they look. The surface is a near perfect mirror and the distance fades to nothingness. Many photos later, we drive off along featureless salt flats to salt hotel and flag podium. Onto artisanal craft market, where I bump into 2 of the Australians from Bariloche Christmas Eve - seems they’re doing the opposite circuit to me. We all sit down for a final lunch and exchange details. Drive (along a real road!) to the Uyuni train graveyard to explore. Me and Alex find that one of the trains was built in Germany in 1914. Huh. Drive into Uyuni bus station to drop everyone off. Long goodbyes and I leave with Antonio for the long drive back to Tupiza. Seemingly constant road and construction works for hours as a beautiful mountain looms closer. Its snow capped peak is engulfed by clouds as the light turns golden, but is released shortly after. Continue on through rugged valleys and pass Antocha glinting in the last of the light. We drive from one unreality to another. Slower going in the darkness, but after a short stop at a checkpoint, we reach Tupiza. Check into hostel, eat, shower and crash. I get a rejection email re the interview. I don’t know how I feel about that. Sleep follows.
Wake early and pack. Head downstairs for breakfast and hear a group describing the border crossing I’ve got coming up and the Salar tour they have coming up. Pay and head off towards bus station. Hop in a colectivo to Vililazón with a bunch of Bolivians. After a short wait, we drive off. As we pull out of town, the guy next to me crosses himself several times. As we pick up speed, I see why and strap in. Drive through beautiful red valleys which gives way to rolling scrubland. Colectivo drops us on the outskirts of Villazón. I walk a little way, briefly get locked in a toilet, then take a taxi to the border. Short-ish wait at the Bolivian border, then wander into Argentina. Find out that the Argentine border control is actually opposite the Bolivian control, so backtrack and enter a long uncovered queue. After about 40 mins queueing in the baking sun, I find out I’m in the wrong queue. Hop to a much faster queue then into town to find the bus station. After some gastronomic distress, I buy a ticket, change my Bolivianos and sit down for a light lunch. While browsing the internet, I realise my phone has not updated to Argentine time (+1 hour). I run to the bus station and just miss my bus. Shit. Quickly buy another ticket and board. Not a great start. As we pull out of La Quiaca, the landscape is flat and scrubby, with distant mountains. After a short military checkpoint with baggage checks, we pass a beautiful range of patterned mountains. Stop a while at Humanhuaca then continue in a deep, wide valley, the soft mountaintops shrouded in cloud. As we head south, the ground turns from red to green in the dying light. Pull into Jujuy shortly after sunset, where it is suddenly apparent how much more developed Argentina is. Pull into Salta around 23:00 and take a balmy walk to the hostel. Check in and head out back for BBQ. Turns out Tom and Johannes are here and had quite the adventure getting here (digging a truck out of a snowdrift, almost sliding off a cliff in a bus and Tom taking Bolivian sleeping pills that make him think he was a marshmallow man). We drink and eat for a bit before turning in. I shower and recharge before crashing.
Wake early. Quick wash, tea and recharge. Drop clothes at laundrette then head to the main Plaza for a walking tour which I just miss. Buy an Argentine sim, explore the town a bit then head back to hostel for planning. Chat with Tom and Johannes a bit then head out to get money and lunch. Revuelto gramajo is nice. Walk back then straight out again to supermarket/mall for supplies. Short rest back at hostel then walk to bus station for tickets. Clouds are gathering and the air is humid. Andesmar offers 3 connections and Veloz del Norte offers direct. No-brainer. Take the Teleferico up to the mirador park. Kid on board is very scared, but calms down eventually. Quick wander around the hilltop. None of the toilet doors match. Head down and slow walk back in the increasingly stuffy afternoon. Chill and hostel book upon return then head to pick up my laundry before heading out again to get food. Back at hostel, shower, wash shoes and read before sleep takes me.
Wake slowly in a sweaty room. Out for coffee then pack and walk to HSBC to call about travel plans, which goes surprisingly well. Miss walking tour again, so wander around city center instead. Lots of appliance shops. Buy some tamales and eat them messily on a bench. Explore a museum of African art, then San Francisco church. Walk to the supermarket for water, reading and ice-cream on the walk back. Chill at hostel. Apply for some jobs, shower and eventually head out for a salad. Slow, meandering walk to bus station and chill until bus arrives. Bus company is different to what was advertised, but find my seat and settle down to read. The lights of Salta shine yellow as we climb out of the valley. Tall white cumulus clouds flash with lighting in the distance as we leave Salta - by the 21:30, lightning is flashing all around us. Heavy rain starts crashing around, reducing visibility. There is a leak on the window next to me so I move my bags off the floor where a pool is forming. Drift away to rainfall.
Wake around 7 to low greenery, puddles and overcast skies. I could be in England. Detour down some side roads for a bit, but eventually pull into Córdoba around 10:30. Humid walk to hostel. Most built up city I’ve been to for a while. Check-in, shower and chill until my bed is available. Recharge a little then head out for lunch. Wander around the student neighbourhood for a bit before sitting down for a salad. Ice cream and further wandering follows, then back to hostel and back out to look for museums. They are mostly closed because it’s the afternoon. Also find a closed gluten free shop. Wander towards a supermarket for dinner supplies, then back to read a while. Cook food, chat with other guests. Lot of topless Argentine men here. Chill, read and apply for jobs in the courtyard until late night. Turn in.
Wake to snoring. Head downstairs for breakfast then to bus station to buy Rosario ticket. Back to hostel for a bit then off to Plaza San Martin for walking tour, but no one turns up so I abandon that idea. I am not having the best luck with walking tours. Wander around, museums still closed (Sunday) so I head back to the bus station to change my bus time (would originally have got me to Rosario ~1am) - surprisingly easy. Wander south to Plaza España via a park. Ridiculously humid - haven’t felt this sweaty since SE Asia. Grab an excellent GF milanesa in a mercifully air conditioned restaurant. Walk down main street then have the best milkshake I’ve ever had. Nice one Caseratto. Shelter inside during heavy rain before walking North. Still humid. Walk to river through rougher neighbourhoods, but quiet streets. Muddy river and run down parks. Rain starts again on my walk back, but abates quickly. Read and shower back at hostel, then cook dinner. Rain and thunder reach extreme levels so everyone shelters inside.
Day 126 (Mon Feb 8, Week 18)
Wake and head down for breakfast. Still damp outside, but cool at least. Wander to Museums. Still closed. WTF Córdoba. Walk down main street and enter what appears to be a large, museum-esque building. Turns out it’s a shopping center. Jarring. Shelter from the rain inside for a bit then take extended walk back. Chill out and cook lunch with remaining supplies, then send emails and wander into town with bags. Stop at heladeria for a less good milkshake. Read in the cafe for a while then walk to the bus station. Bus confusion, but board and settle down to read. Scenery is flat green farmland as soon as we leave the city limits. Take on more passengers at Oncativo and pass a Malvinas war memorial in Olivia. Nap a bit and wake to more flat green fields. Pass through a number of small farming towns as the sun sets. Pull into Rosario after dark at 22:30. Two people outside the bus station in skull makeup. Walk wrong way at first and into a bad neighbourhood before realizing my mistake. Double back and walk along run down, deserted streets. Cockroaches just inside the door of hostel and a dog stares me down as I climb the stairs, but it turns out to be a really cool place. Free wine upon check-in. Shower and recharge. Chill on the roof briefly, then downstairs. Owner hands me fernet and coke, then chat with Argentinian Ellie in Spanish. Smoke with one of the owners on the balcony. Somehow I am now involved in a hen do. Everyone is dancing in the courtyard. More drinking and smoking with the owners. Owners egg on the desk guy to drink by throwing things at him. Drunken sleep follows much later.
Wake tired. Breakfast slowly, then recharge and chill a bit before heading out. Long walk to centro. Stop in Plaza San Martin. A few unsuccessful attempts to withdraw money. At centro, despite being midday on a Tuesday, almost everything is closed. WTF Argentina. Enter an art museum. Little stuffy for my taste, with a smell that reminds me uncannily of a vestry. Wander down an unmarked stairway and find a quite excellent collection of modern sculptures. Walk to Monumento de LA Bandera and take photos around the flame. Walk to the edge of the fast flowing river then arc back towards central square, which turns out to be disappointing. Salad for lunch in a mercifully quiet shopping center, then walk to park via milkshake. Quick explore of the park and lake, then back to hostel via supermarket. Carrefour here has a ridiculous pre-queueing system that wastes time. Very un-British. Chill back at hostel for a bit then out to buy bus tickets to BA. Buy supplies on the way back and make dinner before heading back out to Bandera Monumento for sunset. As the sun goes down, mozzies and crickets abound, fluttering in a visible cloud around every light source. Flashbacks to SE Asia from the temperature/humidity gradient between a cool gas station and the close night air. Long walk back, shower, then chilling in the path of a fan to escape the sweltering heat. Sleep.
Wake slowly then breakfast. Pack and chill before heading off. Goodbyes from the staff. Friendly bunch. Hot walk to the bus station, stopping for a milkshake to cool down. Board the bus and enjoy air conditioning for a while as I read and more flat green farmland rolls by. Long stop in San Nicolás de los Arroyos during which air con is turned off and the temperatures briefly become unbearable. Cool again as we pull away. Quiet bus and quiet drive until we arrive at the largest bus station I’ve ever seen in Buenos Aires. Despite lack of signage, I eventually find the subte station, which is closed for repair. Shit. After asking around, I retrace my steps to Estsción San Martin and board a crowded train to Palermo. A large group drinks coke out of a half melon and openly sells something out of a baggie pulled from a pair of boxers. It’s weed. At Palermo station, I decide to walk the rest of the way as it’s not that far. Bustling streets. Check in at hostel, basic room but the hostel seems nice. Back out to buy food then cook in the tiny kitchen. Largest selection of herbs I’ve ever seen in a hostel, but no can opener. Between 5 pans there are 2 functional handles. Chat with British Cat and Nicole over dinner, then downstairs to chill and recharge.
Wake from a terrible dream that my trip was over. Read in bed a bit, wash then head downstairs for a surprisingly good breakfast. Gather clothes and drop them off at a lavanderia around the corner. Back at hostel, say goodbye to Cat and Nicole then off on long walk across town. Stop off at North Face, then continue though crowded streets to buy tickets to Montevideo at the Seacat offices. Walk north to a park by the station I arrived at yesterday, then south to the docks and arc back to the main thoroughfares. Street performer Jose Argentinaaa starts by demanding money and drilling his eyes socket with a drill and ends with quasi religious blessing giving. A woman ends in tears thanking him for his blessing. Hat Fair it ain’t. Continue walking to casa rosada then turn down road until Plaza de los dos congresos. Impressive. Continue through the shambolic markets of Monserrat and Balvanera. Feet start to hurt by the time I make it back to Palermo. Suddenly realise I’ve forgotten where the laundromat is. After a short search, I remember the address is on my ticket and successfully retrieve clothes. Bump into girl from Pucón and La Paz. Shower, cook food and prepare for interview tomorrow. Sleep.
Wake early and head downstairs for a call, which turns out to be a no-show. Oh well. Back to bed for a bit then breakfast. Walk south to Villa Crespo then east to Teatro Colón for a walking tour. Arrive just in time. Huge group. Explore the mismatched architecture of BA, then retrace my steps from a few days ago. Get talking with Izabela from from Berlin. Short drink stop near Retiro then off past the (ex) Israeli embassy, some mansions and finally to the graveyard. Explore the graveyard with Iza, then grab Parrallida for lunch. Spend ages chatting over wine with Izabella before finally parting ways. Stop off at the Museo de Belle Artes, which I enjoy greatly. Walk back in the head of the day and after quick bank stop, get back to hostel. Shower and food. Heavy rain starts outside and the kitchen gets so humid I’m drenched after leaving dinner. Chill downstairs and on a very comfortable sofa before turning in.
Wake exactly in time for breakfast, eat and recharge then walk south to the Museo Cientifico. Being Argentina, it turns out it’s only open 14:00 to 19:00. On a Saturday. Walk around nearby park and enjoy some scientifically themed street art before wandering back. Short stop in hostel, then North to a call center, then Subte to Congreso de Tucmán, then walk through park to interesting neighbourhood. Hip restaurants next to slums and giant shopping center. Have lunch and get hiking pants in shopping center where there appears to be a hammed up Chinese New Year event. Different route back to subte then stop off at hostel before walking back south to the Museo. Much busier market around it now. Lots of taxidermy, dinosaurs and rocks. Not bad, but not great. Long walk back and collapse into sofa at the hostel. Shower, food then chatting with new roommate for a while. Argentinian man who is very eager to tell me about his company (health drink of some description) that is distributed in more than 90 countries. Read and chill our before turning in.
Wake and head downstairs for a quick breakfast. Back upstairs to wash and pack. Goodbye to British/Canadian roommate, then pay for final night and head off to Palermo station. Short train ride to Retiro where I buy a bus ticket to Puerto Iguzú for Thursday. Walk south to ferry terminal, check-in (Uruguayan border control is next to Argentine window) and chill in the waiting lounge. Some confusion as to which boat to board (somehow the 12:15 and 12:45 are the same boat), but eventually settle in a window seat as we make the hour long crossing of the silty bay to Colonia. Slowly pull into port and after letting off the car people walk through quick bag check and board a bus. Set off from Colonia at 14:15 and pass through low rolling hills, rustic farmland and palm trees. Seems nice. Pull into Montevideo around 17:00. Bus station seems upmarket. After some confusion, find the local bus I need to take, buy a ticket from a fully tattooed girl and hop off a few blocks from hostel, which appears closed at first but is actually just extremely chill. Check in and chill with the owner for a bit before heading out for a walk. I just booked a hostel and I suddenly realize that 5 months of not knowing where I’ll be sleeping in 2 days is soon coming to and end. I want to rage, rage at the dying of the [sabbatical]. I also realise that this is marks my 2 weeks left moment, making this basically a ‘normal’ holiday from this point out. Shit. Wander and muse before grabbing a salad for dinner. Wander back via supermarket and find I have been moved to the other, slightly warmer room. Join the group outside. It’s the birthday of one of the owners friends so we gather for a BBQ outside. Chat with Andy, Johan and Rolling Stones fan Ian. Andy sells vitamins and travels with a suitcase of pills, Ian is following the Stones around South America and Johan lucked out and got a Stones ticket for Tuesday. Morgan the dog plays with scraps. Ian has bought cream cheese, pepper and mustard because [he has] “needs”. Talk physics with Andy and Johan before retreating inside to escape mosquitoes. Andy becomes briefly super high while asking us where we’d open a hostel “what were we talking about again?”. Chat with Brazilian girl about the state of Brazil and the recent dam burst. We eventually crash around 3. Other room has a loud snorer and I am suddenly glad I got moved.
Day 133 (Mon 15 Feb, week 19)
Wake slowly and head downstairs for breakfast. Chat with Ian for a bit (he’s going cycling) before Johan comes blinking into the light. I head out and walk towards old town. Stop off at a cemetery then continue to Plaza Independencia. Have lunch of Arroz a la Cubana nearby then down into the Artigas memorial where I bump into Ian and Johan. Well done memorial. Drop in to an IBM office to ask what they do here (consulting) then continue into old town and visit and pre-colombian mueseo before making it to the waterfront. Explore a food hall that reminds me of Jemaa el-Fnaa but more upmarket. On the way back, I stop off at the museo Andes 1972 (about the plane crash). Very well done. Stop off at 2 small art galleries on the long walk back. Have been moved beds again upon return. Catch up with Johan, Ian and Andy then shower, dinner and chill. Chat with owner about planning Irish visas then head out to join the new BBQ. Chat about Andy’s former palm tree selling business in South France. Ian found a delicatessen and fine steaks are had by all. We throw bones and scraps to “JP” Morgan who is terrible at finding them, which we attribute to him being around weed all day. Smoke inside as the mozzies descend, then turn in.
Wake tired and breakfast. Goodbye to owner as I head out for a walk. Make it to the Montevideo sign then walk back. Repack and start walking to bus station. Chill out before checking in, boarding the wrong bus and switching to the right one. Guy sitting next to me cleans his sax as we pull out of Montevideo. Read and nap for most of the ride to Colonia where long queues precede another efficient border control. Board the boat and settle in for the crossing. Disembark quickly at the other side, queuing briefly between a hassid and a dude in a bitcoin t-shirt. Shelter from the last gasps of the setting sun by getting a stirfry, then continue on. Get splashed with some foul smelling liquid but a guy ‘conveniently’ has tissues. Scam sense tingles when he insists I take off my bag to clean it, so I clear off. Drenched with sweat upon arriving at hostel thanks to humidity. Check-in, have much needed shower, then read and chill until turning in.
Wake from a good sleep and head downstairs for breakfast. Walk North and make an arduous call to order a new sim card, then east to casa rosada and excellent underground museum where I learn a lot about Argentine history and an impressive mural. Head south and towards the docks to have a buffet lunch, then onto the President Sarmiento boat museum. A lot of the guns seem to be pointing at the LG building. Cross a fancy bridge into Puerto Madero proper. Just like London docklands. Meander back via a short explore of the Engineering university and an old San Sebastian market. Chill for a bit, then head out and buy supplies for bus day tomorrow. Chill and read back at hostel.
Wake early and have breakfast, then pack, pay and check-out. Brief chill before walking North. Change remaining Uruguayan money for a bad rate then have a salad and continue on to bus station. Arrive early so sit and read until bus arrives. Drive north through docks and the airport (and Santa Tierra, which I suddenly realise I forgot to visit). Turn north at Zarate and start through marshes that get gradually more watery as the afternoon draws on. By late afternoon, the water is gone and woody farmland rolls by. As the sun sets, a distant Uruguayan border town catches the fading light. As we leave an Argentine town, the Western sky has clear orange gradient that fades to a ruddy brown.
Wake at 6:30 after a broken sleep to thick mist as we pull into Eldorado. Mist is quickly burned away by the rising sun as we drive north, passing a lake before arriving at Puerto Iguazu around 8:00. Get out cash, buy ticket to Curitiba the check-in to hostel. Brief chill, change clothes then head out to bus station and hop on a bus to the cataratas. In the park, I walk along Sendero Verde to the train station, then around Circuito Major and back to board the train. Vivid yellow butterflies flutter alongside the train and congregate in great swarms. At the far side, cross extensive wooden walkways to Garganta del Diablo. Stunning. A butterfly lands on my finger as water crashes all around us. Back at Central, I chill briefly before setting off along the slippery paths of Circuito Inferior. Closeups with waterfalls before beginning the long walk back to the bus. Get my return ticket sorted then board a mercifully cool bus. Drop stuff at hostel, head out for a surprisingly good salad then back for a much needed shower. Chat with London (?) roommate for a while, then read and chill before finally turning in.
Wake and breakfast then head out to the three countries viewpoint and walk slowly back. Cool down briefly at the hostel then walk to the boat dock for a quick ferry to Paraguay. Absolutely sweltering on the boat. On the crossing French student types sing along to Daft Punk. 0. Quick border control at the other side and a confused bus driver drives off. One of the French students finds a rusty machete in a rotting boat down at the shore. Decide to hop on a bus to who-knows-where with the French. Once I realise that the bus is not actually going to Ciudad del Este, I hop off in a random suburb. Long walk though some dodgy areas until I make it to the city center, which doesn’t look much better. Explore a bit, quickly realise that a) there is nothing for me here and b) all the cambios are closed. Bugger. Change money at the bus station then hop on a bus to tres frontieres. Pleasantly, the bus is free. Unpleasantly, the doors don’t open and I have to walk an extra stop to the dock. Oh well. Guy at passport control gapes at all my stamps and visas “Mongolia!” and berates me for not staying in Paraguay longer before stamping me out. On the boat, a pleasant breeze blows as we pull away from the landing. And so my short Paraguayan adventure comes to an end. On the other side, I grab a salad as I haven’t eaten since breakfast. While eating the sky turns dark and wind gusts. Follow up with an ice-cream that I eat while pressing through the spattering rain as a distant alarm rings across the city. Shower and chill.
Wake and rise early as unable to sleep. Breakfast, apply for some jobs, pack up and head over to the bus station. Short ride to Argentine border and easy crossing. Y’know, Argentinan borders have always been really efficient. 10/10 would visit again. Wait for next bus then ride into center of Foz do Iguazu. Short explore of city, change some money and hop on a bus to the Brazilian falls. Another bus takes us further to the walkway itself. Shorter and more directed, but I enjoyed it. Better overview of Garganta del Diablo, if further away than the Argentine side. Bus back into town, wait for another bus to the long-distance terminal (good thing I didn’t walk because the map I had was more of an artist’s impression). Get ticket, buy sim card (with difficulty; one shop wouldn’t sell without a Brazilian ID and another asked for ID but ignored it. Filling meal at a cafe then chill until bus arrives. Lightning flashes in distant clouds as the bus pulls away into the night and I quickly drift to sleep as the rain starts.
Day 140 (Mon 22 Feb, Week 20)
Wake to a grey misty morning. Didn’t sleep well as bus was cold and no blanket provided. Pull into Curitiba and buy Rio ticket for Wednesday. Board extremely crowded bus then short walk to hostel. Pleasantly overcast weather. Check in, shower, sort out sim and breakfast. Brief chill before heading out again back to bus station to buy train tickets for tomorrow, easy. Walk along to giant shopping center where I have lunch then take shelter as the rain starts. Realising that the rain won’t be letting up any time soon I set off. A surprising dearth of food shops, but I eventually find a market to pick up supplies. The brutal skyline is ugly against a grey sky. Chill back at hostel, then make lunch and chat with roommate. On Rio (where he used to live) “…in my opinion… it is a shit city”. Pack and chill before turning in early.
Wake early, prepare and have a quick breakfast before heading out into the rain. Catch a bus to the train station and board the train shortly after. We set off slowly, through run down suburbs that quickly give way to low, overgrown farmland. We pass through a tunnel and emerge into thick rainforest, winding our way around a stunning mist filled valley along a cliffside track. Muse that this is my last week and have brief terrible visions of British countryside. Pull into Morretes and disembark. Walk to bus station to get ticket, then wander around town for a bit. Pretty church and bridge by a river. Town seems small, but very colourful. Grab some food (chicken kiev-esqe things) and hop on the bus back to Curitiba. Bumpy start but make it back to in less than 2 hours. Walk to botanical gardens, then long walk back to hostel. Shower, quick rest then cooking food. Chilling and chatting with Columbian for a bit (he compliments my Spanish and tells me about the time his father worked in Hull) before turning in.
Wake slowly and breakfast. Pack up and read a while before heading south and wandering around the city center, grabbing a snacky lunch en route. South to shopping center then West once I realise how close Praça Jãpao that my German roommate recommended a few days back. Plaza is small and very faux-oroental, but it a nice juxtaposition to the towering skyscrapers surrounding it. Walk back via a shopping center when I grab some fruit, then onto the bus station to check in and chill before boarding my last long distance bus journey of the trip. Shit. Uneventful trip as we drive through the dark hills and the guy next to me starts snoring. Read and drift away in the dark.
Pull into São Paulo around 2:30 but quickly go back to sleep. Wake to a gray and misty morning around 6. Mist quickly lifts as we start down winding roads. Pull into the sprawling Rio De Jinero around 9 and I hop in a taxi. Observe favelas creeping up steep-sided walls as I reflect that this is my final stop and a wave of ennui grips me. Check-in to hostel, shower, sort out laundry, then head out along the Botafogo Beach and cut inland to get lunch and shopping for dinner. Drop food back at hostel, chill a bit then head east around the peninsula where I sit and enjoy the cool sea breeze by a monument as fishermen chat on the shore. I set off back as rain starts to fall and lightning flashes on the far shore to the east. Make it back before the rain gets heavy, pick up laundry and chat with new roommates. One group is starting their 5 month trip here and a French guy is finishing his 5 months here, just like me. Make food and chill out for the rest of the evening.
Wake tired and head downstairs for breakfast. Clean up then head out to the bus stop, picking up some water along the way. Short bus ride to park, then set off uphill. Stop at some artificial caves the sign in for the trail. The canopy above shakes as monkeys leap around. Easy going with some waterfalls (more sustained trickles, especially after Iguazu) before getting steep. Pass a Russian group and hook up with 2 German girls for a bit as we play with monkeys that arrive to eat their bananas. Climb up a rock face with the aid of chains then a short walk to train tracks and roadway where a German cheerfully tells us that entering the unsheltered sun is the hardest part. Wind our way up to the statue and take the requisite pictures. So many selfies going on, but the views are really incredible. Sneak onto a bus for the downward journey, getting off at Largo do Machado before meandering my way back to hostel via supermarket. Shower, catch up with roommates then read in hammock before making food. French Romain starts gathering a group and we all head out to centro and bars. Hop in a taxi with Romain and German Anni and get dropped off near the carioca aqueducts. One of the other taxis doesn’t turn up so we grab drinks at stalls in the square. Others turn up and we head to our first bar, next to a burst sewer. Tiny square of peanuts is served. Head to an off-license/bar thing where I get a cheap bottle of overly sweet wine and ramble about travel with newly arrived British guys who are just starting their travels. Onto a club with live music where a dreadlocked guy twirls all of us and I somehow end up in a conga line. Head back, happily drunk with the others in a taxi.
Wake tired and thirsty. Slow breakfast with Romain, then head out and start walking North. Retrace some of my route from yesterday, pressing on through changing neighbourhoods until I stop in a small cafe for an omelette/tortilla thing. Tasty. As it happens, I was right round the corner from the aqueducts and Selaron Steps. Way too many people for a good picture, but I climb and descend before heading north as the midday sun beats down. Explore the CBD a bit, buy replacement headphones, then head south to the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes. Interesting war vistas. Continue south to museum of modern art. Interesting. Man walks through a sculpture of hanging bricks and gets told off. Watch a docu on skyjacking. Walk a little way south then catch a bus to Botafogo and bump into Romain and Anni returning from the beach. Shower, chat with everyone then make dinner. Socialise then read but tiredness overtakes me and I have an early night.
Wake tired and have a slow breakfast with Anni where we decide to head to the hippie market. Roman, Anni and Nika head out to get money then we set off. Short metro ride to the market, then spend a while exploring the stalls. Don’t get anything but there are some decent crafts. Beautiful wood carvings celebrating the favelas. Roman heads back to the hostel and I sit down as Nika and Anni do another circuit. Nika gets back first and we chat with a Brazilian lady as an old man sings excellently while delivering coffee. We set off and Anni gets scammed into a flip flop cleaning. We head to a really good pseudo-buffet that Nika was recommended. Best food I’ve had in days. We split as the girls head to the beach and I walk North to Copacabana beach, which is predictably busy. Continue on via a longer than expected route to base of the Pão do Açucar to take the Teleferico up in time for sunset. Stand an take in the impressive panorama as I reflect on the scale of the journey and the ending of this chapter. Sadness, even rage at the dying light, but a plan to return brings things back to the real. Back down, then walk through lamplit streets to the hostel. Bump into Nika and Anni on their way back then shower and chat with Roman and co. Omelette, snacks and chatting before watching the Oscars for a bit. Turn in around 1:30. Hear cheering below as I drift away. I guess Leo won.
Day 147 (Mon 29 Feb, Week 21)
Wake slowly then have breakfast with Roman and Anni. Heavy rain means everyone chills out in the hostel for the morning. Eventually head out when the rain lightens and buy/send a postcard. Grab a salad then walk towards the natural science museum I saw yesterday. It’s closed. Start walking back but have to take shelter in an IBM office as the rain gets ridiculous. Make a run for it as the rain lightens slightly but still get soaked to the skin. People wade knee deep across roads and shimmy across ledges. Eventually make it back, shower and resolve to not go outside again today. Make food then head out to a bar with everyone else. Caipirinhas and chats about language before heading back and drinking in the garden with Tom, Fred, Argentinan girl and Irish Conner and Emma. Card games, drinks and chatting. “The Spanish conquest of America was a bit like making toast”. Discuss cyber-ethics, geopolitics and putting the world to rights until the early hours.
Wake slowly. Breakfast with Anni and Nika. Repair sandals and chat with Emma a bit. Head out for a quick bite then back to repack (I reflect that this is my final pack) and sit downstairs with Connor and Emma until our taxi turns up. Long, grey ride though industrial districts as we all quietly reflect on our journeys. A numbness, almost a floating feeling as I drift back to reality, despite the emotion bubbling underneath. Goodbyes at the airport (they’re T1 and I’m T2) then sit and wait. Reflect that this trip was a huge part of my life and now I need to look towards the next adventure. Get boarding pass, easy security then read until boarding. Listen to Sound of Silence as we pull up into the dark clouds, leaving the glittering favelas and sweeping beaches of Rio far below. My old life is left behind as well. After a shorter than advertised flight, we descend into a cloudy São Paulo and disembark. Switch terminals and wander until boarding. Pull up into the darkness. No emotion this time. São Paulo holds no attachment for me. Watch Spectre over food, then read and drift away.
Wake tired. I think I’ve been spoiled by South American buses. Read for most of the reminder of the journey as we descend to an overcast Heathrow. Extra security check, but easy border control. Weather report talks about snowstorms and the End Times. Oh Britain. Dim memories of my first day as I walk through the underground passages to the bus station. Icy wind around the station. Everything still seems unreal as I board a bus to Winchester (big step down from the America buses). Drunk Irish guy talks loudly to himself on the bus “Where’s all this water coming from… You look nice…” A tannoy alerts us that alcohol cannot be drunk on board “UH OH”. Sleet as we pull out of Heathrow. Weather clears and we pass leafless trees with a cold winter sun hanging low in the sky. More recognition as we get closer, but still nothing seems real. Finally we pull into Winchester. I’m back, but it doesn’t feel like it.