19/02/05 Buenos Aires

Posted: February 22nd, 2005 | Tags: | Comments Off on 19/02/05 Buenos Aires

The arrival in Buenos Aires was a tad less stressful that the last town, as we had the smartness to call and reserve a hotel room a couple of days before. Yes, a “hotel” not a hostel, seeing as we can splash out now that we have to use up the rest of our cash.

It’s a great city: absolutely ginormous, but it works. Everywhere seems to have the right balance of apartment blocks, offices, shops and parks and a good metro linking them all. The architecture, old and new, is delightful and all works well together.

We spent a couple of days wandering the city and had some good meals and generally wound up the whole 3 months. Tomorrow we’re heading home to the chilly European winter and so are soaking up the oppressive heat and humidity with gusto.

I’ve resigned myself to having eventually to come home and, as I’ve said, we’ve been winding up for a while now, so I’m not exactly dreading the return. In fact, I’m looking forward to Irish breakfasts, Guinness, kebabs, music and seeing friends and family again.

17/02/05 Mendoza

Posted: February 17th, 2005 | Tags: | 4 Comments »

First stop in Argentina is the pleasant city of Mendoza. It wasn’t so much a pleasant start when we realised that most hotels where full and that taxis seem are pretty rare and we ended up wandering the night streets heavy backpacks and all. Once settled and fed, though, we were able to enjoy the town and its good, cheap restaurants, tree-lined avenues and generous parkland.

one complaint is the state of the Internet cafes: universally the worse so far on the continent. Every computer is broken, old or slow and half the web seems blocked. To do something not involving Internet Explorer we had to try at least 4 or 5 before finding something half decent behind a sweetshop.Even the cafe where this is being written has had “Start Me Up” by the Stones on repeat for the last hour.

Argentina is famous for its great steaks and, after 3 months of eating a red-meat free diet, I started on a strict diet of 2 fat steaks a day. This lasted about 2 days before I had enough of the constant bloatedness and stomach pains and changed to salad. Neither will I ever get used to eating so late. I don’t understand how you can eat a big dinner at midnight and then go to bed on a full stomach. So, although I think I could definitely live here, I’d have to forego certain local customs. Siestas, on the other hand, are great and almost mandatory in this heat.

We also spent a day wine tasting. Very fine wines indeed and very cheap too ever since Argentina’s economy when poot. I’ll attempt to bring a couple of bottles home, seeing as we don’t have too much more travelling left to do. The tours of the vineyards and olive groves were interesting too, but not as much fun as in California.

12/02/05 Chile

Posted: February 16th, 2005 | Tags: | Comments Off on 12/02/05 Chile

Chile! Land of tarmac roads, sushi bars and dreadlocks. I can’t imagine a sharper contrast between two countries than crossing the border between Bolivia to Chile. The people here are basically European and far more “individual”. Everything is more expensive (2 grand for a beer!) but, amazingly, things seem to run properly and on time.

We spent a couple of days in the laid-back northern border town of San Pedro de Atacama, mostly spent recovering from the nasty dose I picked up in Bolivia. I grew slightly worried when I released that I had just left the jungle and that most tropical diseases have “cold and flu” symptoms. But it has cleared up since, so nothing to worry about.

A mammoth 17-and-a-half hour bus journey (Chile is a long, long place) brought us about third way down the coast to the beach town of Tongoy where we seriously took it easy for a day or two, catching rays, staying in an expensive cheap hotel and eating fishy treats.

The people here speak English back when you speak what was previously perfect Spanish to them. This is both incredibly irritating (more so if you weren’t an English speaker, I suppose) and quite useful, seeing as their accent is so messed up that neither of us can understand a word. It’s so incomprehensible that we didn’t bother even trying to talk to anyone. It reminds me of the noise you make when you stick your fingers in your ears when you don’t want to hear someone.

Leaving Tongoy slightly browner, we arrived in Santiago for a brief stopover. Staying in a cheap hotel in a cheap part of town we saw mostly the grimm rundown side of Santiago, but on the whole, through the smog, it seems like a nice town of 6 million people. We spent a half day wandering through parks and markets and took a ride on the metro before leaving for Argentina.

More photos uploaded here.

09/02/05 Salar de Uyuni

Posted: February 16th, 2005 | Tags: | Comments Off on 09/02/05 Salar de Uyuni

The Salar de Uyuni is what they call the “largest and highest salt flat in the world”. A three day 4×4 jeep trip takes in the Salar and some interesting surrounding sights before dropping you at the Chilean border. Despite hearing several horror stories over breakfast about jeeps breaking down and people being stranded in the cold saltiness all night, we took a deep breath and booked a tour with a hopefully reputable company.

The first day crosses the Salar itself, which at this time of year is under about 5cm of water that the jeeps have to splash through (hence the breaking down). The salt flats are an amazing sight. The perfectly flat reflective water gives an eery feeling of floating in the sky complete with surrounding double images of volcanoes and clouds completing the horizon. We stopped at a small “island” for lunch, itself a bizarre landscape full of small squirrelly rodents and thousand year old cactus trees. We drove through some more salty strangeness and watched the sun set and meet its identical reflection.

The second day, after leaving the salt flats, we crossed the high desert at about 5000 metres passing smoking volcanoes, lakes full of flamingoes and some famous rock shaped like a tree. We slept beside the “Red Lagoon”, another bizarre landscape with brilliant red water under perfect cone-shaped mountains. As the southern stars came out it was like being on a different planet. Trying to shake off a bad cold I was advised by a Portugeso-German to drink far too much rum. It didn’t work, but it did make the amazingly clear night sky all the more impressive for the number of shooting stars that could be seen.

The last day was an early one; we got up at before sunrise to witness some nearby geysers blowing steam. After oohing and aahing at the bubbling mud and heeding warnings not to get too close, we all decided to take a dip in some hot springs at the side of the road. They were nice and toasty and, because they were naturally formed, were more enjoyable than other hot baths we’ve been in and very good for the sore jeep legs. After a quick look at the “Green Lagoon” we changed vehicles and crossed into Chile.

05/02/05 Oruro / Potosi

Posted: February 14th, 2005 | Tags: | Comments Off on 05/02/05 Oruro / Potosi

Heading ever southwards and hearing bad stories about the state of southern Bolivian roads, we decided to go all out and get the train (such a novelty here!) to Uyuni. The train journey, although still slow, is slightly more comfortable and goes through some amazing countryside. This necessated a stop off in Oruro in the full swings of Carnival, which although fun, is reflected in the hotel and other prices. Alas and predictably, the train came off the rails before we even got on. With the hotels and buses full, we found ourselves making a forced, but entirely enjoyable diversion to the mining town of Potosi.

Within hours of arriving we were donning boots and hard hats and heading down pit. The Spanish mined all the silver from the hills here so now small, desperate co-operatives of locals scrape our meagre amounts of tin and zinc. Halfway into the mountain watching them work in medieval conditions, they were glad of the gifts we brought of whisky and cigarettes and coca leaves. The mines are claustrophic and dirty and rumble with the sound of dynamite exploding. It’s shocking to learn of these people working here all day every day for barely anything and huge risks. It’s also encouraging to hear how the workers organise themselves with social benefits and life insurance and that the profits aren’t going to any fatcat management.

Caked in soot and dirt and heading back to the hotel for a shower, we made the mistake of walking through the plaza whilst Carnival was in full swing. Carnival here means water fight and at the sight of two gringos the war was against us. Needless to say, we didn’t need that shower after all. People here know how to party. Random all-day street dancing, bands and parades just wandering about the street with no apparant pattern.

Perhaps it’s just Carnival, but, despite being poorer than their neighbours, Bolivians seem happier and friendlier than other peoples. It’s a nightmare trying to get anyway on a bus or otherwise, but it’s a great country to visit and it’s a shame to leave, but with so little time left, we have to get going.

30/01/05 The Jungle

Posted: February 4th, 2005 | Tags: | 1 Comment »

Rurrenabaque is a pleasant town set in the Bolivian jungle. It’s hard to get to: a couple of days on a bus or an hour on the plane. We chose the later, but had to wait around La Paz airport for the grass airstrip to dry out so we could land. It was worth the wait, for the flight was thrilling. Squeezed into a tiny 12 seater Caravan (this was the model of airplane), soaring over the Andies and down to the rainforest canopy, sitting behind the pilot for the best views and trying hard not to tickle his ears.

After the wobbley grassy landing, the doors opened to a wave of heat. In the mountains, we’d forgotten what hot meant. Situated beside the Rio Beni, the town is home to a few hundred locals and almost the same number of jungle tour operators. We picked a good one and retired to the town’s swimming pool for the day, surrounded by parrots, diving pool birds and, surreally, a small white rabbit. Despite the multitude of agencies, this part of the jungle is more off the beaten track than most and attracts more “alternative” tourists, leading to a nice relaxed vibe about the place. We met some people and spent the even in “Moskkito’s” drinking a delightful cocktail by the name of “Jungle Juice”.

Early the next morning, we headed to the “Pampas”, a kind of tropical grassland area, with reportedly more wildlife than the jungle proper. A jarring jeep ride brought us to our boat. It’s the wet season, and it’s no joke, everthing is wet: there’s barely a scrap of dry land for miles around. The boat, our main carraige for the next few days, would give us views of mostly the tops of trees, which is good as this is where the monkeys live. We saw three types in the first day: cheeky chinchilos jumping onto the boat to steal bananas; angry howler monkeys glaring at us and shy capochinos scratching and staring.

Plenty of birds abound the trees: eagles, vultures, cormorants, parrots, macaws an toucans all live here. Turtles float around on branches and alligators are not shy to be seen. The camp was a few beds , some hammocks, good food and a pet cat that really didn’t like the rainy season.

Night time activities were searching for alligator eyes and watching the amazing jungle sunsets. Other fun activities were wading through swamps in wellies looking for anacondas (didn’t find any, but a large nest of hornets found me), fishing for pirahnas and, the highlight of the trip, swimming with pink river dolphins. Although not as tame as their salty cousins, they still circled us and generally let us know they were there. We didn’t swim for too long, as the same river is home to pirahnas and caimans. On another boat ride, well further up the river, we found a small herd of capybaras (justifiably called the largest rodent in the world) and a sloth or two.

We also spent a couple of days in the jungle proper. Not as many animals to be seen as the pampas, but lots and lots of insects: giant spiders and millipedes and colonies of busy ants carrying leaves about and building hills under our beds. Our local guide knew everything about the place and introduced us to all manner of medicinal and generally strange trees and plants. We trekked jungle pigs and tapirs and got very wet indeed. Wading through waist deep muddy rivers is all part of the rainy season experience.

Photos for the jungle and Lake Titicaca.