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.