Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Galapagos Islands

Day 1
At 10.10pm at the end of Day 1 I’m sitting below deck in the Sagitta, the place entirely to myself gathering my thoughts from our first day. The seas are reasonably choppy, sufficiently so for everyone to have scrambled for cover in bed immediately after dinner. Our ship’s beautiful - a technical description would be beyond me but it’s a three-masted sailing ship. All 10 rooms have air-con, private bathrooms and there's a library on the bottom deck. Right now we’re cutting through the water through engine rather than wind power. Today began at the airport waiting for the group to form, sitting around trying to predict what the average age of the group would be (it’s about 50) and picking out faces from the crowds swarming around wondering if we’d be sharing space with them on the seas for 6 days. Our tour company seem to have their shit together and quickly they’d rounded us up and shepherded us to a turtle conservation centre where we walked around in a field filled with giant turtles and learned, amongst other things, that they‘re still sexually active after 100 years - well for some.
Our group’s predominantly made up of Americans - think overstatements like “This is so once in a liftetime” - and a smattering of Europeans - think understatements like “Well I just happened to be in Ecuador so…”. First days in a group are the worst, figuring out who to talk to and who to avoid but in true Big Brother fashion, by the second or third day the picture will become a lot clearer. During dinner tonight I sat beside a guy from Washington DC whose day job is to serve as an environmental attorney and whose remit is to find ways to get bills enacted into laws in spite of the best attempts of the Republicans. He’s an amateur ornithologist and literally has a list of must see birds - Darwin’s finches are at the top of his list - which he hopes to accomplish before this trip is out. He’s very serious about his birds and so I fight back the Father Dougal-esque urge to ask him if he’s excited about seeing some boobies. This place is eerily quiet tonight - think the Marie Celeste - and we have an early start in the morning.

Day 2
It’s a 7am start for breakfast and then we’re aboard a dinghy and in the water. Almost as a sign of things to come, we’ve scarcely left the side of the ship when four dolphins surface nearby and we watch them from a distance. Our first landing is a dry one but before we make land we spot our first blue-footed boobies with their comically bright blue feet doing their funny little blue-footed shuffle in order to attract a mate. Right beside them is a flightless cormorant, unique to the Galapagos. We land and explore the vast lava fields of Isabela. There are 5 volcanoes on Isabela, all of them active. Our guide tells us of a team of 8 Ecuadorian marines who in the early 1980’s decided to cross 40km of this same terrain as part of a training exercise. 7 of them made it, albeit just about, their boots torn to shreds and the one who’d decided to turn back died from dehydration. Beautiful as this landscape is, it is a brutal place and, as Darwin noted, only the fittest survive here.
Of course studying the people on the cruise can be just as fascinating - we are all animals after all. Our American Democrat representative is almost unhealthily obsessed by birds - at one stage he runs across the island with his binoculars in hand like he’s just been told that Monica Lewinksky is going down on Sarah Palin on newly formed lava rock. He’s a bright guy though and can just as easily tell you how many vowels are in the Hawaiian alphabet or how many types of finches there are in the Galapagos as he could tell you what day it is today.
In the afternoon we hit the dinghies again for another visit on to the shores of Isabela. It’s incredible what you see all around you, all the time - dive-bombing blue-footed boobies searching for food, turtles swimming past the dinghy peeking their heads above the surface occasionally for air, flightless cormorants nesting beside solitary penguins, sea lions catching 40 winks in the branches of mangroves, manta rays gliding just below the surface, marine iguanas basking in the warmth of the late afternoon sun and scavenging frigate birds circling above at all times watching the ocean and the ship below. And that’s just in the space of a few minutes. It’s a never-ending cornucopia of wildlife, one species momentarily disappears and another one quickly pops up to take its place. We go snorkelling and swim beside gigantic marine turtles their elegance underwater in complete contrast to their lumbering forms on land. As first days on the water go, it’s been pretty much flawless.

Day 3
Perhaps we should get off the boat now because it’ll be pretty difficult to top today. This place is teeming with life and all creatures great and small revealed themselves during the course of the day. We began with a land walk on the western coast of Isabela in search of land iguanas. This being the Galapagos, creatures are anything but elusive and before long we’d spotted some monstrous types. Best of all though, we stumbled across two males pumped up with aggression and facing off in a territorial battle. Xavier, our guide, told us that this was an extremely rare event to witness so we watched at close quarters as the two creatures lumbered towards each other in slow motion, made some weird head and tail movements and proceeded to butt each other with their heads. As the drama unfolded I watched it all silently, like everyone else in the group, save for the David Attenborough voiceover in my mind which narrated each blow. I’ve been hearing a lot of those in the Galapagos. The standoff lasted about ten minutes without a punch being thrown and so we wandered off leaving them to renew hostilities after our departure.
We’d no sooner arrived back on the ship for lunch when a humpback whale began breaching to the side of the boat - Christ don‘t these creatures realise we have to eat. Truly, it’s never-ending here. In the afternoon we snorkelled in a bay filled with marine turtles - huge, elegant creatures - underwater at least - seemingly oblivious to the fact that there were 16 pasty tourists swimming on their patch. I’m fascinated by the turtles and the fact that they allow you to swim within touching distance. Another land trek took us Fernandina Island, the youngest in the archipelago and home to a vast population of marine iguanas. There they lie piled on top of each other perfectly blending with the rocks upon which they spend their day. Fernandina is also home to a healthy population of sea lions, again utterly immune to human presence and who lay sprawled on the sand bothered only by the flies which occasionally caused them to flee to the water.
There’s an easiness amongst the group now that wasn’t there on Days 1 or 2. Star of the show is Tim - American, gay as hell and possessing enough one-liners to rival Tommy Cooper. Tim’s everybody’s friend and his main goal in life now is to adopt a seal pup. Birdwatching Democrat Brett is already becoming a parody of himself, asking everyone for silence when he’s filming his birdie videos and impatiently requesting that we rotate those who sit at the front of the boat so that he can get better shots. It’s not as if his fucking lens isn’t big enough. It’s a good group though and the boat’s bloody wonderful so life is great. Quite how we’ll manage to continue to be amazed after today is something to look forward to I guess.

Day 4
It isn’t every day that you wake up in the southern hemisphere and go to sleep in the northern hemisphere but that’s the case today. Winter at dawn and summer by dusk. We crossed the equatorial divide at around 5pm and the occasion was marked with glasses of champagne - I have quickly accustomed myself to such things on this ship, accepting the champagne with the air of a man who would normally be having a glass at this time of the afternoon anyway. Today was an inevitable and predictable comedown after the highs of yesterday and yet any day in which you spot a blue whale surfacing - albeit from a distance - could scarcely been considered unremarkable. There’s also the fact that just one hour before we crossed the equator, we’d been snorkelling with penguins. Yes, penguins on the equator - who knew?
Each night on the ship we receive our briefing for the following day’s activities just after dinner. Tonight Xavier has informed us - somewhat cryptically - that tomorrow’s planned activities are slightly up in the air because of a warning issued to them by the marine authorities. He was a little vague with regard to what this means but explained that in case of high seas, for example, it may be impossible to disembark from the boat. Because of the lack of clarity this has led to inevitable speculation as to what this might mean - severe storm, tsunami etc. I have exactly 3 days of travel left in my trip and I’d rather not spend a third of that time stuck on a boat in stomach-churning seas within sight of the wildlife which is everywhere on this place.

Day 5
Well, no tsunami this morning then and, puzzlingly enough, no big swell either. Last night’s mystery announcement regarding this morning’s activities remained just that - a mystery. No waves but no activities this morning either and so we sailed around the coast of Santiago on to our snorkelling site at China Hat. With perfect visibility and a multitude of indifferent (to our presence that is) fish, an hour here passed in a blur. We also spotted a white-tipped shark, a couple of panicked and fast moving penguins and - bizarrely - what seemed like a chicken skeleton in our time there. Snorkelling’s been absolute highlight here - a slow moving 3-D cartoon, a smorgasbord of aquatic delights. The real world seems acutely pale once you’ve spent an hour peering into the depths around the Galapagos.
It’s hard to believe that it all ends tomorrow. I’d fretted a little in advance that the cruise might sniff of retirement home outing but everyone’s been fantastic. Tim continues to entertain though, organising classroom games - he’s a teacher - as much to give free rein his competitive side as to help the evenings on the boat to pass a little quicker. In the morning we visit North Seymour at 6am and then it’ll be over. Life on the road will come to an end. Christ. Am I ready for that?

Day 6
Last but not least North Seymour. We had less than an hour on the island due to the need to get us all to the airport on time but in its own way Seymour was one of the most spectacular islands we've visited. Each time we land on an island you're guaranteed to be greeted ashore by a posse of sea lions, mostly pups, waiting for their mothers to return with some fish from the sea. Before we'd even landed on Seymour this morning we saw a Galapagos shark swimming by the boat. North Seymour is home to an incredible variety of birds. As we walked we watched the strange blue-footed booby mating ritual. She honks and he whistles, shuffles off to do a dance and returns - repeat several times. We walked right beside some blue-footed booby females standing guard over their chicks and to our right was the only time we saw a male frigate bird with its incredible inflated pouch. Normally this is inflated only during mating season - April - but here was a frigate bird, pouch fully inflated, enormous wings fully extended (over 2 metres) squawking at passing females in the hope of getting laid.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

And finally......The Galapagos

So this is where it will end then. 13 months of travel have led me to the Galapagos Islands, a destination I wasn’t sure that I could afford to visit but those nights spent in shitty overnight buses, overcrowded Indian trains, that hideous Malian cuisine, the strange nuclear bunker I stayed in when in Burkina Faso amongst others have all helped to fund this visit. It took 27 hours in a bus from Lima to Guayaquil although this time I travelled with Cruz Del Sur which meant a little extra leg room, blankets and pillows, wi-fi (!) three meals and an overworked attendant keeping everyone happy by changing the DVD selection from one moronic Disney movie to the next. Still, it made a change from fucking Roxette.
It's a little ironic that my worst border crossing of all has been reserved till last as Ecuadorian border officials (the Peruvians were quick to have us on our way again) display Keystone Cops' incompetence at passing us through. Their computer system is down and there they sit pulling faces behind each other - no really - as they take calls whilst we stand for an hour in the heat waiting for someone to remember to plug the fucking computer in. On arrival in Baltra airport on Santa Cruz the officials are thorough but swift in checking that we're not bringing anything in here that may harm the fragile ecosystem.
Getting to the Galapagos is easy, choosing who you’ll do a cruise with is the hard part. For the past 6 weeks I’ve been sending emails enquiring as to prices/itineraries etc for a 6 or 8 day cruise and some of the agencies have been like a dog in heat constantly sniffing around my arse ever since. I lost count of the number of times the agent I was corresponding with told me that “I’ve just returned from a cruise on the Princess and it was magnificent.” Don’t these people work? Anyway, skirting around the bullshit is a challenge but you can generally see through most of the spin and then you just need to choose a ship which has an itinerary you like the sound of, is reasonably affordable (nothing’s cheap here but I‘m disposing of whatever money I have left before I return and have the Irish government do it for me) and which looks sufficiently buoyant for 6 days on the water. There are many different classes of boat to choose from - Economy, Tourist, Tourist Superior, First and Luxury - it all depends on how much you wish to splurge. Economy boats are a case of getting what you pay for i.e. fuck all. I paid $1,600 for a 6 day/5 night cruise on the Sagitta - a First Class sailing boat - but bearing in mind that this included return air fare from Ecuador ($400), all meals on board, a top class guide and an awesome itinerary alleviated the pain somewhat. All a far cry from DVT inducing rides in dust-filled 4WDs to Timbuktu. Travelling isn’t always about the pain.
Puerto Ayora is my base before the cruise begins on Monday (8th) and there are endless opportunities to explore some of the outlying islands on day tours and so I head off to neighbouring Isabela where we're promised sightings of penguins, sea lions, marine iguanas (they're everywhere), white-tipped sharks and flamingos. And this being The Galapagos, we see each and every one of them. We go snorkelling and get up close and personal with a fearless penguin and are joined for a swim by a sea lion - all apparently par for the course in these parts. As an introduction to life on the islands here it's wonderful. On our ramble across one of the islands we reach a sign which alerts us to the fact that white-tipped sharks may be resting nearby and there they are - exactly where the sign suggests they might well be found, about 8 of them. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Urban Peru: Cuzco to Lima

There probably aren't many travellers who've made it their business to make their way across to Cuzco and decided to give Machu Picchu a miss but that's what's happened here. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to but a combination of time constraints and an aversion to the tourist scrum that would surely exist there especially now at the beginning of August given that it's the 100th anniversary of the 'discovery' of the place, it wasn't a place that I felt as if I had to see. Two days to see Cuzco then, itself a historical hotspot made me feel as if I wasn't completely turning my back on Inca culture. And yeah, Cuzco was fine - pretty, historic, truly impressive plaza, cobblestone streets, blah, blah, blah but at this stage most of this is washing over me in all honesty. Where I should be oohing and sighing, of late I've been looking at my watch a little too much, trying not to be but becoming someone who's making a mental checklist of what needs to be seen in a city, seeing what needs to be seen and then moving on. It makes for an emptier experience and Cuzco was pretty much that unfortunately.
Lima, by contrast to Cuzco is all hard edges. What the city needs more than anything though is a good press officer. Just a few days previous at the Cruz Del Condor I’d heard a loud American girl proclaim that Lima “was the most depressing fucking city I’ve ever been in.” I‘m assuming she's not a resident of Saint Louis. And she was merely the latest in a long line of travellers heading south from this nation's capital bearing tales of misery and woe from the streets of Lima. And as is often the case, it isn’t all that bad in reality though it does try. You know that sense of danger or menace you get around train stations in large cities? Well, Lima has that sense throughout the city, especially in and around the city centre. It's a city of two parts - there’s the historic centre with the Plaza de Armas and Plaza San Martin and there’s the more tourist ready region of Miraflores by the coast. Most travellers decamp to Miraflores to bed down only visiting the city centre to take some pictures by daylight before scurrying off to be lit up by Miraflores' magical McDonald's neon. I spend 3 days there - this is more out of necessity than choice as the earliest direct bus to Ecuador was some 3 days' wait - and not once during the 3 days is there even a beam of sunlight which doesn't exactly add to the feeling.
Peru is stuck in something of a musical timewarp though and who'd have guessed that it'd be a 1980's gay disco fixation. Erasure are everywhere here and for those of you who lost track of the band in the early 1990's, I can report that the band are alive and well and touring in Peru. And Andy Bell is still wearing that fucking white t-shirt and no doubt dances that very same way too. Ah, nostalgia. It doesn't end there either. There’s a Groundhog Day feeling to travelling by bus in Peru. Every single bus ride I take I hear 'It Must Have Been Love’ by Roxette at least 4 times. This situation is compounded by the fact that I then have to endure the aforementioned in Spanish, a Eurovision-esque taste of Roxette, just what you need when there's still another 16 hours to go until Lima. The ups and downs of life on the road.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

On To Peru - Arequipa

After two days lost in the Copacabana sideshow, Peru can’t come fast enough and, conveniently enough, the border is a mere 40 minute drive from the city. With two and a half weeks left I know that I can never do Peru justice and so I’ve decided to visit Arequipa, Cuzco and Lima on my way north to Ecuador. I’m going to Arequipa to climb a volcano, to Cuzco, well, because it’s Cuzco and to Lima - probably the most unpopular of all South American capitals - just because it’s the capital and because I can’t believe that it’s as bad as people say. Or it surely can’t be as bad as, say, Copacabana. Arequipa promises spectacular volcanoes, one of the deepest canyons in the world and Peru’s second largest city. The city is filled with beautiful colonial buildings built with volcanic rock. I’d half-expected the Peruvian equivalent of Dubrovnik, but a hundred years or so on from their construction, the glow from the rocks has dulled somewhat leaving the buildings looking a pasty grey rather than possessing a dazzling glow.
The city’s Plaza De Armas though is spectacular with its beautiful cathedral in the foreground and all 5,822m of El Misti to the background. It’s a classically shaped volcano and there are a harem - it’s the most appropriate collective noun - of tourist agencies around the city determined to sell you the opportunity to scale its peak. Most of the agencies have no idea what’s involved in climbing a volcano - few ask if I’m sufficiently acclimatised and one lady tells me that 2 litres of water will be more than enough for the two days it takes to climb to the top. In the end I decide to go with Vikinka Travel but they cancel on me the night before we’re due to climb. It proves impossible to find an agency with sufficient numbers to climb Misti, instead everyone wants to climb the nearby Chachani (6,075m) where you get dropped off at over 5,000m, climb to the top and come back having bagged an easy peak. And so I abandon the plan to climb the volcano and head out to Colca Canyon instead - at 3,191m, one of the world’s deepest.
There simply isn’t time enough to do an independent trek there and so I put my deeply held reservations to one side and join a trekking group for a 2 day/1 night tour to the canyon. The drive there is spectacular apparently but not that you’d notice as we drive by night to begin trekking in the early morning sun. We stop at a place called Cruz Del Condor where we join the throng to watch condors fly, unsurprisingly enough, around a cross at the top of the canyon. It’s a beautiful sight which is completely negated by the fact that you have to push or be pushed in order to find a prime spot from where to take photos. The canyon itself though is magnificent and our group of 8 begin a two hour descent to the bottom just as the day begins to warm up. As spectacular as it all is, I snap photos more out of habit than awe. We overnight in a hideous ‘village’ - constructed solely for tourists - at the bottom of the valley, the name of which translates as ‘Paradise Lost’. The following morning at 5.15am en punto and still under the cover of darkness, we begin the 1,100m climb back to the rim of the valley. It’s bloody hard work but it’s the best part of the entire trek. The road home passes though the altiplano where we spot llamas, alpacas and vicuñas aplenty and we drive over a 4,800m pass from where I can see perfect views of the volcano I didn’t get to climb.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Copacabana & Isla Del Sol

You know that feeling when suddenly realise that the exams are just around the corner, you haven’t lifted a finger, there’s just a week left and you know that you’ll need to cram like hell? Well, that‘s pretty similar to the travelling conundrum I face right now. Where to next? What do I prioritize? What do I miss out on? Machu Picchu? Cuzco? Lima? I’ve been on the road now for more than a year and I have approximately 3 weeks left - allowing a day or two for a blockade in the interim - so now I need to choose where I go to next very carefully. In doing so, I immediately fuck up. Royally. Drawn to Copacabana because it sounds exotic and is found on the shores of Lake Titicaca - the highest altitude lake in the world - I figure on spending two nights there drinking in the ambience and character of this lake front bohemia.
But of course Copacabana is nothing of the sort. It’s one giant travel agency masquerading as a city and is populated almost exclusively by herds of shaggy, gap-year westerners who, having seemingly tired of seeking Nirvana in India or wherever, have set up camp in droves on the streets of Copacabana selling pointlessly tatty trinkets. Vile, vile place. The Lonely Planet describes it as “a little tourist-ready” when the truth is that the place has whored itself so completely to tourism that it’s difficult to believe that this place existed prior to the gringo trail. Even sunset is shit there, as if it too has smoked a big fat one and disappears limply below the horizon. It is against the law, it seems, to sell anything but rainbow trout freshly caught from Lake Titicaca in the innumerable lakefront restaurants who practically try to lasso you into their establishments. Oh, and the trout is shit too.
But I have, at least, the consolation of knowing that Copacabana is merely the gateway to the fabled Isla Del Sol, birthplace of the Inca civilization. I’m excited about visiting the island because I assume it’ll have many ruins to visit and it means that I won’t be in Copacabana anymore. It’s two and a half hours from the city in a boat and I’ve decided to spend one full day there as I have so little time left overall. And wouldn’t you know it - beautiful setting apart - Isla Del Sol is an island trekking exercise in monotony. A walk along the island’s 7km length involves passing through several “toll booths” where a fee must be paid for no other purpose than using a well-trodden trail which does nothing but lead to the next toll booth where you‘ll need to pay again. Truly, a walk down the M50 at midnight would have been just as enlightening. The ‘ruins’, such as they are, are about as impressive as a visit to Paddy Flanagan’s cow shed - there are a couple of dilapidated old buildings but nothing which marks them out as classically Incaesque. There’s a sacred rock at the northern end of the island where the Inca creation legend began but the truth is that I walked right past it without noticing, only recognising it later from a leaflet I was given at one of the toll booths. And that was it - my first Inca experience and most probably my last as I’m giving Machu Picchu a miss. Next up Peru. Tick, tick, tick, tick.

Curva to Pelechuco trek

It's nigh on impossible choosing a trek to do near La Paz such are the options available close to the city but I'm sold on the remoteness of trekking in the Apolobamba region and the thought of seeing more condors than I would trekkers. Curva is a bleak little village built at an altitude of almost 3,800m. The locals are shy, the plaza is populated by children only and on arrival there at 6pm the night before the trek begins there isn't another trekker in sight. July is perfect trekking season though - dry and clear - and we're up at dawn trying to haggle with our guide to try arrange us a guide/muleteer instead of one of both. We'll need a mule on the trek as we're going for 5 days and it's down to us to cook for our guide so we have a muchilla filled with food and snacks for 5 days and this is where the mule comes in.
Within half an hour of starting the trek though, in spite of promises made, it seems that there are 4 of us on the trek. There's our guide - who, it transpires is 19 - and our muleteer, lagging behind with the mules, who's a mere 15 years old and is our guide's brother. So that'll be another mouth to feed for the 5 days. We reach Camp 1 - in a stunning valley setting - in two and a half hours. Our guide tells us that we won't have time to make it to Camp 2 before nightfall and so we set up camp there. Well, we set our tent up - it turns out that our guide and his brother haven't been supplied with a tent and have to spend the next 3 nights in the freezing cold. It's ridiculous - we're 4,000m up and the temperature drops below freezing on night 1. We do what we can by supplying the 'kids' (as they become known) with warm fleeces and jackets but it's pretty criminal that they have to weather the elements, though they are experts at digging out shelters for themselves. They've brought along some blankets and a tarp to keep the rain out but nobody sleeps well on night 1.
We're up and off early on Day 2 - it's instant noodles for breakfast each morning but no-one's complaining as they're warm and filling. We're straight into a climb on Day 2 which brings us to about 4,400m and after another two and a half hour's trekking we reach Camp 2. It's not yet midday and so we decide to march on to Camp 3 before nightfall, heading immediately in to what looks like an almost vertical climb behind Camp 2. In spite of freezing their nuts off the previous night, the kids are in great cheer and race up the slope leaving us, panting and gasping behind, cursing yet another false summit. The views are magnificent all around - 6 and 7 house pueblitos, and hardy cholitas herding llamas. No condors yet though.
The cooking's going pretty well too, though by the time we arrive at camp each night there's only about an hour of light in which to pitch the tent and get the stove working. By this stage we've chatted to our guide and convinced him that we're perfectly capable of finishing the trek in 4 days which means one less night in the cold for the kids and more food for everyone. On Day 3 we climb to the highest point on the trek, the 5,100m Sunchulli Pass. Slow going but no ill effects from the altitude. We'd slept at 4,700m the previous night but the kids managed to light a fire with llama dung so it made us sleep easier because it was fucking cold outside.
Day 4 begins with a scramble to a 4,900m Pass and ends with a gentle amble downhill into Pelechuco but not before we've had one wonderful condor sighting, soaring just below us as we trek. We say goodbye to the kids and they make their way all the way back to Curva - it'll take them a mere 2 days. Meanwhile in Pelechuco, weirdness abounds. Fuck it's grim. I once attended a Dylan Moran gig where he talked about Sligo and how there's a factory there where they manufacture despair. Well, now I've found where we export it to. Two thirds of the adult male population are pleasantly pissed, moving obliviously through the mist which descends an hour after our arrival and which never lifts. Originally we were to spend the night here but mercifully there's a bus back to La Paz at 7pm. Only 7 hours to kill here then. An hour of this is spent watching a less than merry troupe of schoolkids marching into the village plaza rehearsing for an anniversary celebration - perhaps someone once escaped from here and they're marking the occasion. The kids are armed with drums and - frighteningly - pan pipes, easily the most evil musical invention in the history of man. Pan pipes were not made out of love, but revenge.

Monday, July 25, 2011

La Paz

La Paz fairly takes the breath away and it’s not down to the fact that I’ve walked 10km through a blockade carrying 20kg+ of net backpack weight with me. Nor is it down to the fact that it’s at a jarring altitude of some 3,600m. No, it’s the city’s setting which causes a sharp intake of breath - houses everywhere dotted on the hills surrounding the city like hundreds and thousands sprinkled on a trifle. The city's altitude actually stretches from about 3,200m at its lowest (all the richer folk of the city live here as the air's better) to over 4,000m encompassing the city of El Alto ('The Heights'), home to most of Bolivia's poorer indigenous population, predominantly Aymaras.
It seems like the last place you’d choose to build a city of just over 800,000 people but here it is. Whilst you're more likely to see well-heeled fashionistas strolling the streets of Santiago than a member of the indigenous population of Chile, La Paz is a complete reversal. Bowler-hatted cholitas are legion, sitting by each and every street side selling everything for almost nothing. The streets are clogged with micros (minibuses), their windscreens emblazoned with glittered signs declaring “Jesús es mi pastor”. On the day I get to La Paz, the city is gearing up for their Independence Day celebrations on July 16th. So keen are they for the party to begin, they seem to collectively decide “Fuck it, let’s celebrate now” and so they start on the evening of July 15th instead and debauch themselves in a way that makes Saint Paddy’s Day seem the equivalent of a bunch of teenagers knackering some alcopops. Walking through the streets on this evening, it’s barely exaggerating things to say that everyone’s smashed on a delicious but dangerous liqueur that looks like Bailey's and comes from a blender. There are long tables dragged onto the streets for the sole purpose of downing glasses of the aforementioned brew - as if the altitude itself wouldn't give enough cause for headache.
But I’m not here to party, I’m here to trek and La Paz has innumerable top quality treks in the mountain ranges a stone’s throw (well, if Fionn McCumhaill threw a stone, say) from the city. Of course there are countless agencies promising to whisk you away and ensure you a ravishing time as you lose your Andean virginity but in the end, I decide to go on a 5 day/4 night trek in the Apolobamba region from the villages of Curva to Pelechuco. It’s a trek which features some 5,000m+ passes, many traditional villages, few other trekkers, potential condor sightings and, well, it’s the Andes isn’t it? What could possibly go wrong?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Back to Bolivia, blockades, bad movies and buses

Once in a lifetime trips out of the way, it’s time for more mundane matters such as negotiating the near 2,000km journey from Santiago north to La Paz via Arica. Bus journeys in Chile are a pleasure though, and I travel north with Pullman buses, and enjoy their idiosyncratic selection of movies ranging from a modern take on The Exorcist to the second half of Schindler’s List. The journey to Arica takes 30 hours but it passes in a blur of the aforementioned movies and endless quantities of saccharine heavy snacks. It’s never good to make snap judgements on cities or towns that you spend a mere two hours in whilst awaiting a connecting bus, but I specialise in snap judgements and so, based on this, Arica is a shithole. To me it’s like Blackpool on downers, all ugly seafront views and putrid ocean smells. The bus station also doubles as the meeting point for the city’s many panhandlers hustling you to change currency, buy weed or buy ludicrously overpriced bus tickets to La Paz. The fact that this is Chile means that ridiculously overpriced tickets are a given anyway and two hours after the 30 hour ride from Santiago, I’m off on the 9 hour journey back to Bolivia.
Apart from the fact that returning to Bolivia from Chile means that I automatically become relatively wealthy once more, it’s great to be back here again for many reasons. I’m returning to Bolivia and La Paz in order to trek and there are an abundance of trails in and around the city. But, this being Bolivia, getting there is the hardest part. What I haven’t made mention of as yet is Bolivia’s penchant for blockades. As Bolivian an experience as eating a salteña, you haven’t fully experienced life as it is in Bolivia unless you’ve sat in one of their many blockades. Simply put, when Bolivians get pissed off about something - and it’s almost always with the government - they simply decide to close off the roads, resulting in traffic chaos. So it is, one hour’s drive from La Paz our bus driver announces that there’s a blockade and what he wants from us more than anything is patience. I, in return, for a split second want to be back in blockade free Chile. His announcement is met with a collective shrug of the shoulders from the passengers - this is Bolivia after all, so this is an almost daily occurrence. The only frustration on show is when the driver shuts down the DVD - featuring Adam Sandler preparing for a prisoners vs guards footie match - in order to save battery power. For my part, I feel like applauding him but we might be here for a while so I sit quietly.
And we are there for a while. The hours pass and people start to walk towards the city which, we’re informed, is still 50km away. As it turns out, we spend the night on the bus about 4,000m up and it’s unsurprisingly Arctic. By the next morning, I too decide to make a move on foot as there are whispers of the blockade lasting days instead of hours more. It’s a community blockade - yes, they’re pissed with the government - and there are several mini blockades of piles of rocks scattered across the motorway, each of them proudly flying the Bolivian flag. If the intent is to cause maximum disruption then it’s an overwhelming success as there are people from all walks of life flocking towards the city on foot, with nary a sign of disgruntlement. I try to do the same until, blinded by my day pack to the front, I almost do a somersault over an infirm dog in the middle of the road. As ever when these things happen, I feign a smile whilst aiming an internalised Tourette’s stream of invective at the half dead pooch.

Friday, July 15, 2011

To the Bellybutton Of The World

Rapa Nui. Isla Pascua. The Navel Of The World. Easter Island. How many names can a place have? Easily the most remote spot of my trip - it's claimed that Easter Island is the most remote inhabited island in the world and it feels every bit of it. The island is 3,500km west of Chile which translates as 4 and a half hours in a plane. Though technically speaking it's part of Chile, it's more Polynesian than South American. Called 'Easter Island' due to the fact that it was 'discovered' on Easter Sunday back in 1722, the island is tiny - 25km in length and just over 12km in width at its widest point. It's eminently possible to walk the length and breadth of the island and this is what I do in my 6 days here.
If you've heard of Easter Island it's most likely because you've seen photos of those magnificent statues which litter the island. And that's why I'm here - to see as many of the maois as possible and to learn a lot more about their history. Turns out that the maois are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the history of the place and that this is a place with many stories to tell - there are caves, ahu, petroglyphs and a long tradition of wood carving. Of course the locals are only too happy to tell you that story, if only you could understand them. This may be Easter Island but it’s still part of Chile and attempting to converse with the locals means labouring under the same fog of incomprehension as you would with their counterparts on the mainland. The friendliness of the locals however is undeniable. They’re thrilled that someone has spent so much money - and it costs a hefty whack to get here - to come to their remote part of the world. All of my explorations on the island take place on foot but I lost count of the number of lifts I was offered to various historic sites. It appears that the recession is hitting hard here as many of the locals recounted tales of empty hotels and deserted restaurants.
That said, I thought that Chile was expensive, but it was a mere cornershop in comparison to the Harrod's that is Easter Island. You'll pay the same for a tomato here as you would a truffle. If you wanted a truffle that is. It is frighteningly expensive and so the only way to survive here is to bring supplies from the mainland and self-cater. I’ve also decided to camp here as, though it’s winter, the temperature rarely drops below 16 degrees at night, warm enough for the Irishman in me to want to run screaming to the beach, prostrating myself under the sun. Or the moon for that matter.
On arrival at midday on Day 1, I can’t wait to set off exploring in search of maois, and they’re easy to find. The first I see under an hour’s walk from the only settlement on the island, the town of Hanga Roa. They’re smaller than I’d imagined - varying from about 4 to 8m in height - and all are in various stages of disrepair. In fact many of them are exhibiting clear signs of cosmetic makeovers - The Swan for maois as it were. The island’s biggest draw, Ahu Tongariki, features 15 maois of various dimensions standing, their backs set to the ocean. Clearly a bad idea as back in 1960, in the aftermath of an earthquake, a tsunami skittled them. In 1992 they were placed back upon their original pedestal or ahu with the help of the Japanese.
Never thought that I'd ever write anything like this, but the island hums with an unseen energy. I feel unclean having written that but it's as indescribable as it is undeniable. 6 days here barely scratch the surface of what the island has to offer but it's a once in a lifetime trip and so I try and see as much as I can in that time. Most fascinating of all on the island is the quarry of Rano Raraku, once a volcano, from where the maois were chiseled. Each maoi took a team of 5 or 6 men a year to complete and the scale of the place is staggering. Many of the maois never made it from this 'factory' and lie there, many of them with the head only visible above the earth - it's completely surreal. Like the pyramids at Giza, much mystery surrounds the erection of the maois at various sites around the island. Ultimately though it's unimportant as just gazing at these monoliths with the sun setting behind is worth all of the time, energy and expense of getting here.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Valparaiso & Santiago

Back to suburbia then, but not before a sobering reminder of just how fucking long Chile is by way of a 24 hour bus ride from San Pedro to Valparaiso. The bus ride, however, despite my misgivings due to the distance, was a joy. Roomy seats, perfectly heated during the cold winter night, a sane driver who’s forbidden to drive for more than 5 hours and occasional snack bags handed out during the journey make it feel more like a train journey. There’s also a little clock where you can see the speed of the bus and, if you notice the driver is travelling above the 100km/h limit, you’re helpfully provided with his name and driver number on the same screen and encouraged to rat on him. Bizarre. Lacking a suitable rail infrastructure - now, if they’d been colonised by the Brits - Chile takes the bus industry very seriously indeed. The landscape is bleak yet absolutely beautiful, particularly by the light of the late evening sun. It’s the kind of setting where my mind can easily imagine Bono dragging a grumbling U2 behind him saying “Lads, heads up, there has to be a fucking Joshua Tree here somewhere.”
24 hours later, nary a Joshua Tree in sight and I’m in the country’s second city. Valparaiso is wonderful, managing simultaneously to be Chile’s capital of culture and menace. The city is a living, breathing art gallery - urban art gallery that is. There's clearly something in the water here as there's scarcely a wall unadorned with some type of graffiti. Then there are the hundreds of multi-coloured houses, piled high as far as the eye can see like some poorly assembled Lego set. They’re built on hills in a seemingly haphazard fashion, piled atop one another high into the hills which pour down into the Pacific. It isn’t a pretty city but it has character in spades. On arrival, the lady at the hostal seems to spend as much time telling me where not to go at night than she does telling me where to go during the day. The graffiti, though, takes the breath away - it’s everywhere and it’s impeccable. Banksy could well be mayor here.
Santiago is a mere two hours away and on the day I’m due to go there I have to wade my way through protesting students, riot police and not a little tear gas. The students are up in arms in Chile because the high cost of university education renders it impossible for many of them to pursue further education. They’ve been on strike for the past 2 months but the government stubbornly refuses to buckle. The protest I witnessed was utterly peaceful, wonderfully well organised yet still ended with police intervention. Democracies eh?
Santiago lacks the rough edges of Valparaiso, or so it seems in the three days I spend there, but it’s the most European city I’ve seen to date in South America. Bolivian cities are too poor to be European, San Pedro is too shit to be European, Valparaiso is too cool to be European, so it’s left to Santiago and it does it effortlessly well. Typing this now, I’m trying to think of an angle to take on Santiago, or to recount something interesting or unusual that happened there, but my mind’s a blank. It’s just another city; a big, elegant and ultra-modern city for sure, but not one that will live long in the memory.
One thing that should be noted about Chile, however, is the impenetrability of the language they speak. Yes, it’s Spanish, but in name only. It’s slurred, incoherent and completely ignores the pronunciation of certain letters, rendering it impossible to understand even the most basic responses. It’s frustrating, sure, especially coming so soon after the Bolivian drawl which was slow enough to allow you to take out your dictionary mid-sentence to figure out what they were saying.

San Pedro De Atacama

Moving on from Salar De Uyuni you’re left with that feeling you have when your hand scrambles around the box of Quality Streets late on Christmas Day, hoping to pull out a purple one but knowing that you’re probably going to snare a Turkish delight instead. Which probably does San Pedro De Atacama no justice whatsoever, but it's probably not far from the truth. There’s trouble getting here in the first place as we’re informed that our original route across the border is closed due to heavy snowfall. Javier, without pissing and moaning in the slightest, takes it upon himself to drive us to the border further north at Avaroa, convenient for us but ensuring a full day’s driving for him in a circuitous route back to Tupiza. Hugs and a heavy tip are exchanged as we wave goodbye at the Chilean border.
And the second we’re in Chile, everything’s different - impressive roads, not so impressive bus drivers, well-heeled folk strolling the streets with an insouciance absent in Bolivia and extortionate prices. Jesus wept. In short, take any item you’d find in Bolivia and in order to figure out the equivalent Chilean price, simply multiply it by four. Or five. Initially it’s impossible to get used to. After a month of eating copious amounts of food for absolutely nothing, it’s looking like the next three weeks will work in reverse. And the early signs are that it doesn’t look as if chicken is the staple food of the nation either which is nice, if you’re a vegetarian and you've just come from a month in Bolivia. Or a chicken of course.
The town of San Pedro De Atacama is built within an oasis - we’re up close and personal with the Atacama in these parts and the town was established by cattle herders driving their herds across the Andes. If they were to know what it would become they probably wouldn’t have been arsed. Though its setting is flawless - all volcanic lunar landscapes and snow-capped volcanoes - San Pedro itself is an IKEAn flat-pack town that’s been hastily assembled to cater to the hordes of tourists there to gorge themselves on the surreal and psychedelic landscape. On arrival by twilight, it seems as if the place is populated solely by the type of people who I imagine would attend the Burning Man festival, and who tuck the kids into bed before wandering off into the desert to drop some LSD and gaze at the skies. It’s a retirement home for dropouts from the Jim Rose circus. Yes, I’m a professional cynic but my heart is in it.
The purpose of San Pedro today, ironically, is to help people spend as little time there as possible which suits me fine. There are hiking trails aplenty nearby but if you wish to climb some of the 6,000m plus volcanoes in the vicinity you’ll have to join a group of about 25, be dropped off just below the summit, scale the 500m or so to the surface, have a quick lunch with your new friends and come back down again. Jesus, I hated San Pedro. I did spend one fantastic day though at the neighbouring lunar wonderland of Valle De La Luna. If apes bearing weapons, speaking English and sporting Star Trek like uniforms were to descend from the heights, I wouldn’t be slightly surprised - this is classic Planet of the Apes territory. I rent a bike for the day and cycle deep into the heart of it all. The furthest point from the entrance to the park is some 12km in at a rock formation called ‘Las Tres Marias’ and it’s there that my tyre decides to explode spectacularly. In short, this leaves me fucked and facing an 12km hike just to get to the entrance and a further 5km hike to San Pedro. But I’m not really expecting to have to walk all the way there - there’ll surely be several offers of lifts from friendly Chileanos seeing a guy down on his luck. With each passing car - and there were many - my faith in Chilean generosity fades. I meet the buses ferrying the tourist hordes eager to see the sun set in the park and I eat their dust as they ferry them back to San Pedro once more, leaving me and my bike limping home back into San Pedro long after darkness. It’s time to move south.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Salar De Uyuni

In a country blessed with an abundance of natural beauty, Bolivia’s southwest walks away with the plaudits for the most beautiful region in the country. The Salar De Uyuni which is the stellar attraction here is found in Bolivia's Altiplano region, a high plateau formed by uplift of the Andes mountains. (Thanks Wikipedia.) This entire region looks like a landscape that‘s been photoshopped in advance before you've taken your camera out of your pocket. Photographs can only diminish its beauty. It’s a wishlist of nature’s most stunning natural occurrences; volcanoes both active and dormant, impossible rock formations, spurting geysers, snow-capped peaks, multi-coloured lakes dotted with shocking pink flamingos, traditional Aymara rituals and celebrations, the glorious Salar De Uyuni, a cemetery for trains and overly excited camera toting Germans determined to get the best shot at your expense. Phew.
Getting there is easy but choosing the right company to do the trip with is the tricky part. There's little to choose between the tour companies with regard to price but it’s the service factor where your choice can leave you either helpless and shivering beside a rusted 4WD some 4,000m up or being driven around in comfort in a heated jeep by a driver/guide who knows where to lose the crowds. In the end I go with Tupiza Tours and on the morning of Day 1, our group (there’s a maximum of 5 per group) meet with Javier, our driver, and Celia, our chef and pile into the 4WD which will get us through the rugged landscape over the coming days. I’ve opted for 4 days and 3 nights, at the end of which I’ll be transferred to San Pedro De Atacama in Chile.
Day 1 is easily the least compelling of our 4 days and yet still offers up some incredible views as we make our way slowly, climbing all the way to the city of Uyuni. We pass by the scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s last hold-up and soon after, they met their maker in a neighbouring village. As the light drains from the day we make our last stop at Uyuni’s train cemetery, an oddly beautiful place where decades old steam engines lie to rust out their last days. We spend the night in a nowhere village, a tantalising 5km from the Salar.
Day 2 begins before sunrise and Javier drives us onto the Salar just in time for sunrise. As we make our way in the darkness we can already see the blinding whiteness of the Salar outside. At 10,500 sq km in area, finding a spot to ourselves is easy. Once the sun rises, the magnitude of the place becomes apparent but nothing prepares you for just how beautiful it is. Two colours dominate - the blinding white of the Salar with its hexagonal shaped salt crystal formations stretching as far as the eye can see where it meets the softer blue of the sky. Javier, it turns out, is not only our driver but also specialises in capturing those cheesy tourist photo moments on the Salar. His props include a toothbrush, cracked egg shells and us. Our two friends from Hong Kong willingly accede to each and every one of Javier’s photo requests.
I’m pretty certain that the Salar De Uyuni is the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited. Right in the heart of it there’s the Isla Del Pescado, home to gigantic cactii, incredible views of the Salar but otherwise uninhabited. In the early morning light the place is awash with epic vistas in all directions. Our luck’s in too as on the day we arrive on the day that the Aymara people are on the island’s highest point celebrating their New Year. As we make our way to the peak there’s a group of about 60 gathered together, two llamas lying to the side their throats cut offered up as a sacrifice. There’s no tiring of the views of the Salar even after 5 or 6 hours driving and stopping, emptying out of the jeep to take the same photos over and over again. Everything after this is bound to be an anti-climax.
Except it isn’t. Day 3 brings us higher, above the 4,000m mark to a region where still active volcanoes smoke and where the lava from previous eruptions has hardened into comically shaped rock formations. None moreso than the Arbole De Piedra - a tree shaped rock seen above - which is just one of several remnants of past volcanic eruptions combined with the effects of the elements this high up. From there we drive across the treeless landscape making our way to the Laguna Colorado but not before our first encounter with some of the region’s flamingos on one of the many other lagunas which litter the place. On arrival there’s a flock of about 15 but by the time we leave there are maybe 50 or more, tantalisingly out of reach for a decent photo on a shit camera.
Our last stop of the day is also the most breathtaking - the Laguna Colorado. It isn’t the size which beggars belief but the colour - huge bright red patches caused by the sun’s reflection on the algae which infest the place. It too is peppered with flamingos, the whole place a photographer’s wet dream. Normally picking the 5 photos Google allow me to use above each post is pretty straightforward but for this one I could have included 50. I think I took almost 200 photos on Day 2 and am finding it impossible to reduce that number. Not sure anything can top these 3 days for natural beauty.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Getting high in Potosí

And so my travels have come to something of a sprint finish. With notions of dipping my toe into the waters of Chile, Peru and Ecuador before I depart for home, travelling has begun in earnest once more and having spent two days exploring Sucre, Potosí is next on the list. It’s a remarkable city in that it’s found at a lung-bursting 4,070m above sea level, quite a jump from Sucre’s more bearable 2,700m. From now on in Bolivia it’s all going to be about getting high. Potosí is probably most famous for its co-operative mine in which miners work in Victorian-era conditions; its gnarly ladders, unventilated shafts and wildly fluctuating temperatures adding up to a miserable existence to the hundreds who try to make a living there. There’s a tour to the mines which is aggressively sold but which I steer clear of mostly to avoid coming across as a day-tripping western coming to mix it amongst the filthy masses struggling daily to make a living in life-threatening conditions. The fact that I’m claustrophobic and afraid of the dark has absolutely nothing to do with. Whatsoever.
Besides, there’s much to see and do in and around Potosí. The city itself is as undersold as the miners’ tour is oversold. In common with Sucre it has an old world charm, a beautiful, if gaudy, central plaza and some of Bolivia’s finest budget accommodation in refurbished colonial-era houses. There’s also some wonderful trekking in the vicinity so I trek up to the Lagunas de Kari Kari, in themselves unspectacular, but set amongst the rolling hills above the city and offering perfect views of the urban sprawl below. The trek also gives me my first close encounter with llamas. Dublin zoo probably has some llamas but in common with most of the animals there, they were probably ‘asleep’ on the day I visited as a youngster. Llamas are weird, having all the characteristics necessary to be a sheep but it’s that downright weird fucking neck which makes them stand out. I take some photos, self-consciously peering over my shoulder as I do for fear that some locals will laugh at me for taking snaps of what are, after all, the South American equivalent of sheep.
During my time in Potosí I was also encouraged by none other than Hugo, my Spanish teacher, to visit the city’s National Mint museum which was reason enough to give it a miss but I decided to check it out regardless. There’s a tour in English which is ideal because unless our guide wants to repeat instructions about how to order a hotel room or how to buy a kilo of oranges in Spanish during the course of the hour the tour lasts then I’d be completely lost. She turns out to be Bolivia’s most cantankerous woman. Having shown us a display featuring some of Bolivia’s coins from the past and having encouraged us to ask questions if we had any, I meekly enquire as to why - as she previously had alluded to - Bolivia doesn’t mint its own coins any more, she curtly responds “Because it’s cheaper in Chile.” Right. Thanks for that.