Wednesday, August 24, 2016

South America - 7th Stop: Bolivia (Lake Titicaca)

Welcome to Lake Titicaca - the world's highest navigable lake, and also the number one place name for a childish giggle. This was our last stop in Bolivia before we looped back into Peru, and the lake itself is actually split between both countries. There are a few towns on both sides of the border, but we thought it would be best to just have a solid stint in one, rather than hopping from place to place. So, we settled down for a lovely three days on the lakeside of Copacabana (not that one).

We travelled from La Paz with a company called Bolivia Hop, who I should probably talk about, seeing as we did much of the first leg of our journey with their sister company, Peru Hop. It's definitely the easiest way to travel along the main routes in these two countries, and although it's a bit more expensive than local transport, it's worth it for the ease of travel. They also give good discounts on certain accommodation and expeditions, which has saved us quite a bit. It's owned by two Irish guys as well, so another reason to give them your custom!

Just like in Sucre, we decided to splash out (by Bolivian standards) on super accommodation, and this one is well up there with the nicest places we've stayed anywhere in the world. There are two hotels, run by the same owner, on the hillside overlooking the lake - Hotel La Cupula and Hostal Las Olas - and they are absolute works of art. Each chalet is so beautifully designed, I would've happily lived there. In fact, I'd gladly live in that room now if they could somehow fly it to Dublin! There was a hot tub (which we used everyday, just because), a fireplace, an incredible view over the lake, and lovely gardens with hammocks and llamas! What more could you ask for?!

Seriously, if you're ever in Copacabana, or if you're ever in South America, make a detour and visit this place! 

It's funny how having such nice accommodation can shape your view of a town. Looking back on our time in Copacabana, we have nothing but fond memories, but if we had stayed in just a random hostel, I don't think Copacabana would have made any sort of impression on us. The town has a couple of nice spots, but doesn't really stand out besides in any major way. There's a short hike to a lookout point, a church and town square, all quite nice, but that's about it.

The biggest attraction here is the lake itself, and its central island, Isla del Sol, so named as it was believed to be the birthplace of the Inca sun god. Speaking of the Incas though, when do you think their empire was around? Well, apparently it was from between 1438 - 1533. It makes sense when you consider they were conquered by the Spanish during the age of exploration, but I just always imagined them being around hundreds of years before then.

Anyway, we spent a day on Isla del Sol, getting a morning boat to the northern town of Challapampa, before hiking the length of the island, and departing from the south that evening. Some people recommend spending the night here, but we found that we saw all that we needed to see in one day, and besides, we couldn't wait to get back to our sweet room! It was still a day well spent though.

Back in Copacabana, we twice went for breakfast in a lovely spot called El Condor and the Eagle Cafe. It's worth mentioning as it's owned by a guy from Cork, and he even imports in Barry's tea especially! The food was incredible as well; good, hearty Irish food. A great little treat where you'd least expect it.

And just to prove that the Irish can't go anywhere without bumping into someone from home - on our second visit there, we got chatting to a couple who were also from Cork. After a few minutes of conversation, we realised the guy was friends with my brother and our mothers grew up together! The owner just smiled to himself as he listened. I'm sure this kinda thing happens all the time in there.

And that was all for Copacabana, a decent town, hoisted up by incredible accommodation. We made our video diary in our front garden, and it gives you a good visual of how nice the place was inside and out.

That was also the end for Bolivia, as we jumped on a night bus to Peru. As a whole, Bolivia was very nice, with Salar de Uyuni and Death Road the highlights. The thing is though, as has happened before, it was hyped up a little too much for us beforehand. We had heard from a few people previously that Bolivia was their absolute favourite, and so we were expecting more than we ended up getting. We've had the same story with Laos and Sri Lanka in the past. Bolivia was still great and we enjoyed our time here, just don't travel anywhere with prior expectations!

For now, it was off to Cusco to put Peru properly on the map as we began our trek up to Machu Picchu! See you then!

Monday, August 22, 2016

South America - 6th Stop: Bolivia (La Paz)

And so onto La Paz - the highest capital city in the world, but not as high as our spirits or adrenaline during our two action-packed days in town. We only had a short stay here, but it was a very memorable one - from risking our lives, to watching others pretend to risk theirs - La Paz had it all!

Being so high up causes its own problems, but as we had entered from Chile, we had slowly been acclimatising for the past week, so the altitude didn't have much of an effect on us. Anyone flying in here though will feel every one of its 4,000m as soon as they step off the plane. This is why the Bolivian national football team have such a good home record. On paper, they're one of the worst teams in South America, but when opposition teams come here, they just can't hack the high altitude!

I think the headline says it all.

We arrived into La Paz on a relatively comfortable but cold night bus from Sucre. We were treated to Police Story Lockdown, starring Jackie Chan - our second time watching it in two weeks - and just like when we saw it in Peru, it was all in Mandarin, with Spanish subtitles, so we still have very little idea what was going on! 

After twelve hours on a bus, we were ready to eat, and we only had one thing on our minds - Subway! (The funny thing is, we actually don't eat it at all in Ireland!). It opened at 10am, so we were at the doors at 9:55, raring to go. Unfortunately, the staff weren't as eager. If they say they're open at ten, you'd think that would mean they're ready to go at ten! Not so, and we had to wait another half hour for them to get everything set up. Still, at least it would be worth the wait and fresh from the oven, right? Wrong. Everything about it was atrocious! I don't know what they were doing for that 30 minutes but it wasn't baking bread and cookies, as we had to make do with yesterday's leftovers. There wasn't even Coke in the machines! It was just a shit show from start to finish. We took two bites and dumped the rest. Abysmal.

When we were in Arica, we walked for 45 minutes to find a Subway and were left empty handed. That was a better Subway experience than this one.

Thankfully, the rest of our stay in La Paz was a lot more positive, and what better way to kick off our time in town than going to see Bolivia's version of WWE - Cholita Wrestling.

It was really, really bad, but so bad that it was actually kinda good!

Even though there are both male and female wrestlers on show, the Cholitas are certainly the main attraction; dressed in their traditional Bolivian clothing, with braided hair, pleated skirts and bowler hats (which I find hilarious!). 

The hats look so out of place! And it's not just an eccentric part of the costume either, this is the traditional dress that you'll see all over the country. They sit so precisely on their heads too. I don't know how they stay on!

The whole thing plays out as your typical wrestling show does - there's a bad guy being all sneaky and underhanded, and a good guy who eventually triumphs. The local crowd really get into it as well, even throwing food and drink at the wrestlers. As all of the tourists are up in the front row, we even got showered ourselves (whether accidentally or not). It was all part of the experience though. Tickets aren't that expensive either, and include transport there and back, popcorn, coke and a free little souvenir. All in all, a few hours well spent!

On our second, and last, day in town, we took the excitement to the next level, taking on the infamous Yungas Road, more popularly known as Death Road. We've done a bit of cycling in the past and never randomly crashed into ditches or walls or fences, so that was my logic for us not careering over the edge and falling to our deaths on this, the most dangerous road in the world.

We did our homework beforehand and went with a highly rated company in Altitude Adventures. It ended up costing us about €80 each for the day's activities, which is one of the higher prices you'll pay (more like Debt Road, am I right?!), but for something like this, I think it's worth taking a pricier option. You get what you pay for, and I didn't want our brakes to fail or tyres blow at the wrong moment, just so I could have a slightly fancier funeral. This covered all the transport, bikes, gear, food, drink etc. during the day, so it actually wasn't bad value for money. And we got a free t-shirt too!

That was our group for the day, and actually, after that picture was taken, they got us to take a jumping picture, which the two of us nailed (obviously), unlike the others.

Fucking amateurs!

The day started with a 90 minute drive from La Paz up into the mountains where we got kitted out and began the first leg of our descent, along the much safer, wider and well-paved main road. This was just to get us used to cycling downhill, and was loads of fun! Cycling downhill is the best and here we didn't have to worry about falling over the edge or hitting rough terrain. It was a great way to start the day.

After a short break for lunch, we then started Death Road proper. This was everything the first road was not - single lane, rocky terrain, with a sheer drop over the edge. The road used to be the only passage for all traffic, where 200 to 300 people would die annually, but a new highway means that we didn't have to deal with scenes like this:

Nowadays, most of traffic is cyclists, but there have still been 18 deaths since 1998. We weren't among them though, which is the most important thing, and the 64km descent was actually very enjoyable, and not really nerve-wracking at all. Once you start cycling, you kinda get into a groove and don't really notice the drop anymore. You can go at your own pace too, so there's no pressure to go out of your comfort zone. We came out the other end in one piece, my only injuries were two big blisters on the palms of my hands from spending the day riding over such bumpy terrain. Even now, over a month later, it's still not fully healed. It's like the stigmata!

Christ on a bike!

Besides being a really fun day, it's also a cool one to brag about, and another for our accidental list of danger. We've now cycled down the world's most dangerous road, as well as flying into the world's most dangerous airport (Lukla, Nepal), and flown with the world's most dangerous airline, (Air Koryo in North Korea). Christmas in Syria, maybe...?

Here's our video diary from the end of the day. It's a lot more dangerous than the video suggests!

And that was that for La Paz! Even though we had a great time here, we actually didn't see much at all of the city itself, though from the little we did see, that might be a good thing. For now it was off to Lake Titicaca and our final stop in Bolivia - Copacabana!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

South America - 5th Stop: Bolivia (Potosi & Sucre)

Welcome to my 100th ever post! Such a milestone calls for an equally noteworthy destination, or pair of destinations in this case. Unfortunately, while I wouldn't say Potosi and Sucre were underwhelming (as we didn't expect much from them in the first place), we weren't exactly overwhelmed either. So, just a couple of whelming, Bolivian cities it is then!

If we didn't expect much from these two, it then begs the question why we bothered to come here in the first place. Well, our first introduction to Bolivia was the wonderfully unique Salar de Uyuni, which was more otherworldly than traditionally Bolivian. Our final stops then will be an action-packed couple of days around La Paz, before heading on to Lake Titicaca, so, much of our time in Bolivia isn't very Bolivian at all. We only really had a day each in Potosi and Sucre, but at least it gave us a taste of what daily life is like in the country. And although they were both so-so, they were still journeys worth making.

Another reason for their inclusion was their proximity, both to Uyuni and each other. When we finished the Salt Flats tour, the last thing we wanted was to hop on a 12 hour night bus to La Paz, so 4 hours to Potosi suited us down to the ground. Just a note for those travelling around Bolivia - there's very little information online regarding bus timetables and prices, but you'll find a lot more in the city itself. Buses from Uyuni to Potosi (and Sucre, La Paz etc.) leave pretty much every hour, so there's plenty of options.

So, first up was Potosi, a town most famous for its silver mines. They also seem to be the biggest tourist attraction here, but we really had no interest in going underground, and from what we had read, the mines themselves didn't seem to be in the best condition either. So, we thought it best to avoid any major risks, and any miner disasters!

We could just admire the outside from our roof instead.

There isn't a whole lot to do and see in Potosi besides, so our day in town was more than enough. Luckily, we were staying right by the main square, so at least we could walk around and see some nice buildings. I'd imagine if you were staying in the outskirts, you'd have a pretty shitty time. 

Later that afternoon, another short bus ride took us from Potosi to Sucre in little more than 3 hours. We've travelled a fair bit overland so far on this holiday, but the journeys haven't been a chore, mostly because we've been listening to podcasts along the way. It was season 2 of Serial in Peru, and as Aisling had never heard season 1, we went back and listened to it together in Bolivia.

(If you have no interest, or plan on tuning in, you should probably skip the next few paragraphs)

I had listened to it myself a couple of years back when it first came out and, like most people presumably, thought Adnan was innocent and quite hard done by. Second time around though, I'm not so sure, and in fact, I'd say he actually did it. Here's what I think: Adnan and Jay committed the murder together. When questioned by the police from the very start, Adnan said he had nothing to do with it, while Jay said he only had a minor involvement. This is why Jay changes his story throughout, to minimise his part as much as possible, and as Adnan had already proclaimed his innocence, he couldn't poke holes in Jay's ever-changing story, as it would reveal his involvement too.

There are three real possibilities:

1) Adnan did it (with help in some small or large part by Jay).
2) Jay did it, and tried (successfully) to frame Adnan
3) Someone else did it.

Of these three scenarios, I think the first is by far the most likely. If the second is true, Jay would have had to be extremely lucky, or extremely clever, to come up with a story that Adnan could not disprove, and that happens to fit in (to some degree at least) with other external evidence. What motive would Jay have had for the murder in the first place anyway?

If the third scenario is true, why would Jay go out of his way to make up a story accusing Adnan, that partially incriminates himself too?

Regardless of all this anyway, there wasn't nearly enough evidence to convict him, and in fact, he's having a retrial later this year, after 17 years in prison.

If you haven't listened to Serial, you should!

Anyway, back to Bolivia! Sucre was a nicer version of Potosi - a classy, colonial style city - but similarly, there wasn't a whole lot to do. We again strolled about and had a pleasant enough time, but it was our accommodation that stole the show. Bolivia in general is cheaper than most in South America, so we could either take this opportunity to save a bit of money, or splash out and let our money go a lot further. We obviously did the latter (there are no good stories about being frugal!), and stayed in our first ever five star hotel! We had the works - a four poster bed, a writing desk (for all that writing we'd be doing), a fancy terrace with a view over the city - it was unreal, and all for less than €60!

The room itself was bigger than our apartment in Hong Kong (which seems to be our standard unit for measuring area). We made our video diary up on the terrace, and I've just now realised that you can embed videos in the blog itself, rather than just pasting a link:

And that was the end of our pleasant few days of nice, short bus journeys, as we embarked upon a bumper 12 hour night bus to La Paz. Bus stations are always amongst the most stressful places when travelling, especially at night, and Sucre station was no different. It was mayhem! People everywhere, buses everywhere, and nothing where it should be! 

This was our first time actively learning a language for our travels as, in the past, English plus a few token native words (and plenty of hand gestures) has been enough in 99% of the places we've visited. Here though, I don't know if we'd have gone very far without our bit of Spanish. Having the basics is a must. In fairness, Aisling has been carrying the team in that respect, whereas I've mostly been speaking French in a Spanish accent. We've both loved learning and speaking it though, and will be keeping it up when we get back to Ireland.

And I made my first Spanish/English pun! Although I don't think it was well received, or received at all in fact. When we were in Arica, we went into a McDonald's to use the toilets, but the door was locked. So, I explained this to the attendant, pointed to the locked door and said "aquĆ­"! A great joke wasted...

On that note, the end! See you in La Paz!