Hostels of Buenos Aires

I am now in Bolivia, which, despite its charms, lacks decent internet, which means no images I’m afraid. However it does mean that I can pick a topic that doesn’t really require pictures, hostels of Buenos Aires. Now of course this isn’t TripAdvisor, HostelWorld, or Bookings.com (incidentally the best websites to book hostels on)  and I’m not going to list out a load of hostels and their merits and faults. In fact I stayed in 4 or 5 different ones in Palermo in my first 4 or 5 days in BA and don’t really recall the names or differences between them. No, I’ll just try to explain the differences between staying in Palermo and Central, and between a party hostel and a more relaxed one.

When I arrived late at night in Buenos Aires I actually stayed at a really grimy, rubbish place that felt more European than all the others put together, but the next morning I quickly checked out and moved to Palermo. As I said before, I don’t particularly remember the difference between the hostels in Palermo. I’m sure they’re great, especially for visiting the bars, restaurants and clubs or Palermo, but unfortunately I found them pretty bad for meeting people. When you’re travelling, I’d say what’s worse than bad buses, getting ill etc is loneliness.  You don’t see that on the Facebook timelines or photos, and most of the time people won’t talk about it when they get home, but for a solo traveller its  n inevitability. Dinners alone, drinking a beer alone, bus rides alone, all kind of suck, and done for too long leads to homesickness and maybe even depression. So meeting other people is a necessity, and being able to do this quickly is a useful skill also very helpful for wider life. This is why I don’t have amazing memories of the Palermo hostels, while the Central ones still call me back!

The first hostel in Central BA was Hostel Estoril. This is located on Avenida de Mayo (May is an important month for Argentinians due to independence from the Spanish declared on the 25th 1810, and for me because it was my first month in the country!), a street that runs between congress and the presidential building. Its not got a huge amount of great restaurants or bars, but has the money changing street, Florida, running off it, and is between San Telmo and Palermo and near to the sea, bus and ferry station, and has loads of subte (subway) stops running down it. My hostel was great because it was near the central subway stations (meaning changing lines was easy), right beside an amazing pizza place, and was really well run. The receptionists are all students or working to pay accommodation, so are all pretty young and helpful, and I actually made friends with a couple of them. There’s also a great lounge containing a big TV with a hundred mostly English channels, good internet and a nice relaxed atmosphere. The rooms are all not too cramped, and I found most of the people willing to chat, a few of whom became great friends. The breakfast is especially good. I haven’t covered food yet, but the breakfast was primarily made up of medialunas (half moons), effectively small glazed croissants, and tubs of Dulce de Leche. Fattening but it filled me up and saved money for the rest of the day. There’s also a top floor terrace where a barbeque is held every Thursday evening.
So Estoril was a great place to come back after a night out, or just chill out, and also allowed for a great platform for tours it activities.

Once I returned from Iguazu Falls (covered later), I had four nights left, and as it was a weekend, decided to go to the party hostel, Milhouse. This was my first experience of a South American party hostel (located in all the big cities. The chains are Loki- La Paz, Cusco, Lima, Mancora. Wild Rover- La Paz, Cusco. Milhouse- Buenos Aires, Cusco) and what an experience. As soon as I arrived I was met by an incredibly friendly and flirty receptionist (evidently part of the job) who gave me a massive list of the activities and of course parties held by the hostel. What also strikes you is the organisation, cleanliness and pleasantness of the place. Based in an old apartment building, it has an army of receptionists, bartenders, cooks, security guards and cleaners on hand, as we’ll as a pool table, incredibly fast computers, a laundry service and a great breakfast. What more could you want? Well, sleep I suppose.
The people in my room were all really great as well. A guy from Luxembourg, two guys from Germany (who got an incredible steak with me), a couple from Southampton and a guy from Denmark. Each day and night I did something different with them, as well as meet people from my previous hostel and my friend from back home, including a walk in Palermo’s parks, Argentine ale with the Danish guy’s Buenos Airen girlfriend, a steak dinner and a tango class and show. This of course doesn’t include a couple of great nights out. Maybe I just got lucky, but my experience at Milhouse was nothing but positive.

So there are my two recommended hostels in Buenos Aires. Estoril for chilling (and sleep!), Milhouse for partying and getting out there, although maybe sacrificing some touristy stuff.

Chau (note this is how South Americans spell it).

 

Me at a Milhouse pre-drinks with some of my roommates.

 

Advertisements

Districts of Buenos Aires

This is based solely on what I have done in the city, and so I‘m not going to list out every barrio there, as that would defeat the purpose of this.

Of the barrios I have been in, I will talk about Palermo, Recoleta, Retiro, Puerto Madero, San Nicholàs, San Telmo and La Boca.

Palermo:

The biggest barrio of central Buenos Aires, and probably the most upmarket, it is split into plenty of sub-barrios, including Palermo Hollywood, Palermo Queens, Palermo Viejo (old), Palermo Alto and Palermo Soho. Palermo Hollywood was named for its radio and TV stations located in the area, but is also a great district for bars, clubs and restaurants. Palermo Queens, otherwise known as Villa Crespo, isn‘t actually in Palermo, but just outside, I suppose like Queens is to Manhattan in New York, and I believe is an up and coming area in the city. While Hollywood and Soho contain most of the happening places in Palermo, Viejo is quieter, and has more of a Spanish feel. Palermo Alto is in the northeastern area, bordering on Recoleta, and contains a huge shopping mall that I believe is the biggest in the city. Last but not least, Soho is, similar to Hollywood, a trendy, hipster area, containing well dressed, possibly up-themselves people, nice cafes, clothing stores and yoga-yogurt bars. OK screw that they are up-themselves.

I actually stayed most of my first week in the city in various hostels in Palermo, and despite it being the party central, the hostels were more focused on chilling out, so I didn‘t really meet anyone or go out when I was there. I enjoyed being there though, and had this Bife de Chorizo (steak) at one of the restaurants.

mmmmm

Having been back to Palermo Alto, which contains the great MALBA (museo Americano Latino de Buenos Aires) and other attractions, I‘ve rekindled a bit of day time love for Palermo.

Law School in Palermo Alto.

Recoleta:

Pretty much the most affluent and arguably best looking area of the city. Parts look incredibly European (so maybe it truly represents the European feeling Buenos Aires), and its main tourist attraction, the Cemetery, is pretty incredible. A huge walled area, it is free to enter and walk around in, and surprisingly isn‘t packed with people most of the time. This means you can achieve complete peace away from the hustle and bustle of a big city like BA, and also enjoy looking at graves! It may seem weird but is actually quite nice, as many of the mausoleums are beautifully designed in Gothic styles. Sometimes a former famous face peers out at you, sometimes it’s an Angel or Greek adonis of some kind, either way it’s very tempting to peer through the glass and see the coffin’s lying inside.

There is as well the grave of Eva Peron, former actress and heroic first lady of Argentina (Madonna made a movie about her), who still is revered in these parts.

It was in Recoleta that I also saw the incredible Fuerza Bruta show, but I‘ll get to that at a later date.

Retiro:

Hmm, I don‘t quite know why I included this area in this, as there’s nothing to do here. Effectively it is where the bus station is, and you get a taxi to here and from here whenever you need to get a bus to somewhere in Argentina. Maybe because it’s next to…

Puerto Madero:

I kind of feel like this place is like the Isle of Dogs in London, where Canary Wharf is. This is where the big high rise offices and apartments are, and juts out into the Rio de La Plata (River Plate- body of water outside BA and between Argentina and Uruguay).

There‘s also an area between the city on the mainland and the island which contains some nice restaurants and old ships to look at.

San Nicholàs:

One of the central barrios of BA (I mean really central, where governmental stuff goes on), it contains some of the bigger avenidas in the city, and therefore is a decently big shopping and eating area, as well as where most of the big hostels are at, shared with Montserrat, the barrio right next to it. One of the streets inside it is Calle Florida, Florida Street, where money changing takes place. A walk down here will take about 25 minutes, and within that time you‘ll hear at least 100 ‘cambio’s, from people offering to change you dollars to the weak Argentinian peso. I have actually done this a couple of times, but it feels kind of dirty and shady, and I prefer using an online system, Azimo, where you just pick up money you send here from a bank. It does kind of get annoying getting shouted at multiple times by the same person, despite the fact you clearly don’t want to change money, but fortunately there’s not much pulling me to Florida Street.

San Telmo:

This barrio feels like it should be really expensive to live in, but I‘ve heard its not. It has a kind of understated Palermo feel, which is nice, and has a really big art museum and huge market on Sundays, as well as loads of cafes and little book stores. So there’s enough to do. Don’t think I have a picture of this on Facebook yet (as this is where I draw my pictures for this) but I’ll be heading there on Sunday for the market, so I’ll get some then.

La Boca:

Well I certainly had an experience here. Recommended by a friend, I decided to take my camera and just walk around. I was immediately struck by the roughness of the area. High council estates and run down shops populate much of La Boca, and judging by the dirty looks I was getting from people, I quickly realized I may have made a mistake coming here. At one point I saw a guy riding his bike with a handgun stuck in the back of his shorts, and by the time I was stopped by a police man telling me to get out, I had got the point. I managed to get into Caminito (little walk), a touristy street where you can eat and watch a tango show, and from there made my way to the Bombadera, the stadium of Boca Juniors, one of the two favourite teams in BA (including River Plate). Everywhere in the east of the city, especially in La Boca, are murals and graffiti depicting people‘s love for Boca, and I hope to catch a match the next time I’m in the city, as while many of the fans are undoubtedly criminals, their reputation for passion for their team precedes them.

The two passions in La Boca: Tango and Football.

 

Well I hope that was an interesting look at some of the main barrios of Buenos Aires. I don‘t think that I have a favorite, as each has their merits and drawbacks. Saying that, I’d say living in Palermo, maybe in Alto, or maybe in San Telmo, wouldn’t be such a bad life.

Chau

Buenos Aires

I’ve been in BA for about 2 weeks now, and all I can say is I freaking love it. It’s just incredible. There’s a lot to do in the city itself, and plenty of places in Argentina within a day’s bus ride, plus the nightlife is incredible!

Because there’s so much to talk about, I’m going to split up my blogs on BA into a few sections, each one detailing a different aspect of life in BA.

I’d also recommend my friend Frances’s blog, Livin’ La Vida Local, which is a more specific look at what she likes about living in BA:  http://buenosaireslocal.wordpress.com/

Sucre and a return to La Paz

After a 4 hour bus ride to Sucre, I booked into a hotel of European design near the centre of town and spent the evening walking around and getting dinner. The first thing you notice about Sucre is the altitude. It´s much lower than most other places in Bolivia, and so is hotter and less tiring to walk around. It´s also far prettier to look at than Potosi, or even La Paz, due to a UNESCO declaration that its architecture cannot be altered, and building is strictly regulated nearer the centre. The result of this is that the colonial houses, hotels, restaurants, plazas and churches all remain, meaning Sucre is just a pleasant place to be. Its got large palm trees around the main plaza, and all the restaurants and cafes feel kind of like they´re designed for tourists without there being a tourist feel.

Despite my hotel having some cool architecture, it was a bit antique and my room tiny, so I decided to move to a hostel for the rest of my 3 day stay there. The best one I could find on HostelWorld (great website/app) was The Celtic Cross, one run by an Irish guy. It´s a really well run place. They emphasise space over quantity of people, so there are 2 large bathrooms and 2 kitchens and an open courtyard in the middle where people chill out and work on their Spanish homework. Incidentally pretty much everyone there was in the process of doing a Spanish course, and I quickly learnt that this was because there was little to do in Sucre unless you wanted to leave the city and do some adventure activities (expensive and time consuming for me) or learn Spanish.

Starting to think about the time I had left on my trip, I began to feel I´d already prolonged my stay away from La Paz and Argentina for long enough, so booked a flight back to La Paz the following day for $80. To put it in perspective, the plane takes 50 minutes, the bus takes 18 hours (although is a lot cheaper). Such is a decision you have to make when travelling through a country like Bolivia.

While I visited some cool restaurants in Sucre (they do really good crepes there, really cheaply), my favourite place to go, and probably the place where most tourists there go, is Florins, a gastro bar a block away from the main square. It was there I headed on my last day to get one of their famous burgers and watch some of the Champions League that was on with the two French guys from Potosi. I stayed there for a couple of hours before heading back to the Hostel to pack up my things and head to the airport.

If I ever return to Sucre I´d be surprised, but I can see why some Bolivians use it for Romantic escapades, as it´s just a nice place, if a little boring.

 

When I arrived back in La Paz at about 6pm, I was met with a really great view of the sun going down on the city, as well as a previously unseen perspective on the size difference between El Alto and La Paz. While the latter is confined in a gorge (although it can stretch out downtown), the former spreads out for miles around the edge of the cliff overlooking La Paz, a sea of tiny houses, occasional churches and weirdly what look like mosques, and large open spaces, presumably for weekend markets. When I´d picked up my bag, I returned to the Ortega-Mendoza´s house by taxi to pick up my other bag and try to find a room for the night. When I arrived it was such a relief to be in an actual house again. For so long I´d been in sometimes uncomfortable beds, occasionally lonely (an unavoidable truth about travelling alone) and without some of the general home comforts you get when you´re in an owned house! For example, when I got there only Mariana was home, so we ordered food and watched TV, then the movie Magnolia (good film). By the time it had finished, it was midnight, the others in the family had come home and gone to bed, and there was no chance of getting a hostel, so they kindly allowed me to stay in their spare room until I´d found space.

Somehow that managed to turn into a week´s stay (although I won´t talk too much about this to respect their privacy, it was a lot of fun)! This enabled me to see La Paz the way Bolivians see it, and with Mariana as my guide also managed to see some more of the city. On my first day back I went to University with her, in her design and film classes, and although I didn´t learn much (the classes were in Spanish), it was cool, if a little surreal, being back at University! Over the next few days we also got through a lot of Netflix episodes of Orange is the New Black and Weeds, as well as trips into the city. On Thursday evening I went to see a friend who was working at Oliver´s English Tavern in the centre of La Paz, and the next day did the Death Road. As you can tell, I survived, but despite this it was cool.

I chose the company ´Gravity´, known to be the most expensive, but also have the best safety record and the best bikes. You meet at Oliver´s pub for a 7:30am kick off, and load into a bus with two guides. My primary one was called Marcus, an Aussie who had come here for a few months off from work, and stayed. In the bus we were briefed on what we would be doing, how to use the bikes etc. and then told to introduce ourselves and give the rest of the group an embarrasing story. As is to be expected when put on the spot in front of a group of strangers, pretty much everyone couldn´t think of one, so I stepped up with the great comedic tale of my disasterous bus ride to Uyuni. At the starting point, high in some mountains about an hour from La Paz, we tested out our bikes and kitted up in some baggy red and black overalls and helmets, then set off. When you have Israelis in your group doing some kind of extreme activity (and this isn´t a generalisation, it´s the truth), they will attempt to be the fastest and do the most stunts. The Death Road was no exception. However their speed was checked at points when we would stop to be given information on the road. At one point, a great vista overlooking a valley, we were told to look directly downwards, and saw the wreckage of a bus smashed by the rocks below. The drop was at least 200ft, and so inevitably there had been no survivors. It is estimated that around 200 to 300 travellers are killed every year on the road, although only 19 riders have been killed in about 25 years (12 Israeli). However I think that total figure must be less now, as regular traffic has been diverted onto a better, newer road since 2006, and the last death I´d heard of had been 2 months ago, a motorcyclist backing up against the edge to pose for a picture.

It´s called the Death Road for a reason, but it isn´t a particularly hard ride if you´re sensible. Most accidents results in broken or fractured bones, not deaths, and it´s more just a thrill to speed down a bumpy mountain bike track, knowing that if you wanted to, you could kill yourself. Of course, I´m not trying to belittle those who have died. I heard of one British guy, my age, who passed out due to altitude sickness and careered off the edge. Half of the charm of the road is to get the T-shirt, say you´ve done it, and big it up to those who have yet to complete it. As you can see from the picture below, our visibility at the top was also pretty poor, so unfortunately we missed most of the great views which may have made it more scary. But if you´re in La Paz for a few days, it´s a great day out and when conducted with Gravity, you end in a cool monkey rehabilitation centre with an all-you-can-eat pasta buffet, which I took advantage of.

On the weekend I was taken out for some steak, which included large appetisers of bread and traditional sauce, salad, empanadas, and cheese melts. Then came a huge Argentinian Bife de Chorizo (medium-rare) steak, which was incredible, with a side of chips. Then Mariana didn´t eat much of hers, so I ended up eating that as well. Then we had kind of creme caramel desert. I think it´s fair to say it was the most I´ve ever eaten, and we all stumbled slowly out of the restaurant, clutching our stomachs, but satisfied.

I had eaten so much I´d almost forgotten that we were supposed to be going out that night, so shortly the meal Mariana got a call that her friends were at a local bar, with requests that she and I join them. We met her friends at a kind of English themed bar (as in the music was all English, usually what it means), who are all really cool people with varying levels of English, although my Spanish was good enough to communicate with them, and soon afterwards headed off for the main event of the evening, a dub-rave party hosted by more of her DJ friends. Although I won´t go through the entire rest of the evening, it was a really really fun night, by the end of which I didn´t feel too bad, probably because the sheer amount of food inside me had absorbed all of the alcohol.

The next day was my last day in La Paz before my flight out to Buenos Aires (I was very excited) on Monday, so we got up at the ungodly out of 12pm to go get some lunch at a really fancy, but great restaurant nearby, and had some great pork stew, which is apparently a speciality here. The deserts were also recommended, but there was no way I could handle that. No way. Well I tried some of Mariana´s brother´s tart and it was really good, but I physically couldn´t eat anymore. Afterwards, for the second time in 24 hours, we stumbled out of a restaurant holding our stomachs and vowing that we wouldn´t eat that much ever again. Instead of driving straight back we decided to take a walk around downtown La Paz, partly because it was a nice day, partly to walk off the food. However the pace was slow, mainly because Mariana´s brother continually had to sit down anywhere he could find to avoid a stomach explosion. I deducted that he had eaten too much.

That evening we went out to the movies and saw Spiderman 2, paying a little extra (it´s Bolivia so emphasise the little) to get reclining seats and food brought to us (we opted against this as apparently the portions were too small. Seriously). I actually really enjoyed the movie, and Mariana and her brother are huge comic fans so they of course enjoyed it.

Basically it was a really relaxing and fun week. Their maid made some really good meals and even a milkshake for me early in the morning before doing the Death Road, which I really appreciated, and I was made to feel incredibly welcome by the whole family, despite such a tenuous link between us! So if you´re reading this Viviana, thank you again so much!

The next morning I said my goodbyes and got to the airport ready for a 15 hour journey and 4 flights, but on my way to Argentina´s colourful and flamboyant capital, Buenos Aires!

 

Church in Sucre. Even the cars are antique!

I love these people so much. I´ve only seen them in La Paz and Sucre, but I´m sure they´re in every major Bolivian city. Effectively they´re there to escort people across the road, kind of like lolli pop ladies for everyone. They´ll walk in the middle of the road when a red light shows and basically dance about, joke with people, high five, wave, shake kids´ hands, basically cheer everyones´ days up. They´re obviously just cool people. I asked Mariana about this afterwards and she said you can actually sign up to be one of these people for the day, although the waiting list is about 5 months long, and everyone wants to do it. What makes it even better is they also get street kids involved (in the suits) to give them some money and get them off some of the more shady activities that must go on. Just a brilliant scheme that could be applied back home as well!

Little courtyard in Sucre.

Easter day in Sucre. People are making palm leave crosses for others to take in.

20 boliviano ($2) pancakes for breakfast one day.

My favourite cocktail in South America, the Caiprinha

Back at University in La Paz!

Bit of Fifa at the Mendoza-Ortega´s. Beat Argentina with Bolivia on Penalties after a great game. If that doesn´t mean much to you, Argentina have one of the best teams in the world, and the best/second best player. Bolivia just don´t. They suck. Although teams never come to play them as the altitude makes it almost impossible! Argentina lost 6-1 the last time they came here, and both teams from La Paz are in the quarter finals of the Copa Liberdatores (the South American equivalent of the Champions League) because of this!

A minion maid adorned on the wall of a street in downtown La Paz. Perhaps a tribute to the maid who do such good work here? Perhaps a subtle social commentary? Either way it´s cute.

 

Potosi

After leaving the salt flats it was a 1 hour drive to Uyuni, where we discovered there was a bus leaving for a city Id been wondering about visiting as a way of avoiding the bus from Uyuni back to La Paz. In the end only Carol and I took that bus, so made quick goodbyes to the others and set off on a 4 hour journey to the mining city of Potosi.

I slept about an hour of the journey due to an unnaturally smooth road for Bolivia, but it‘s incredibly hard to sleep with so much great scenery to admire, so I dozed the rest of the way. We made it in at about 5:30 and checked into a pretty nice hostel, but much to my dismay were given a double room. I sucked it up and decided I‘d been sleeping in the same room as her for the past three nights so it wasn’t so bad, if a little weird. While Carol went off to do something I chilled out at the hostel, eventually getting chatting to a guy who had been in Utila, Honduras, where I had done my first bit of volunteering all that time ago. It was a strange coincidence, and I only noticed because he was wearing one of the tank tops you get from doing drinking challenges at the Utilian bars. It turns out he was a bit of a hardcore traveller, having completed 10 months of an 11 month trip, and was now on the final leg. Generally the people you meet will either be doing 2 or 3 week trips, 4 to 6 month ones, or epic worldwide year adventures. Basically if they’re over 28 or so, and are pretty clean cut, still in work mode, they’re probably just on holiday. If they’re younger than that then they’re more likely to be doing the mid-range trip, and if they’re any age but have a big beard, are pretty tanned, have tonnes of bracelets and have stopped caring about their appearance, they’re more hardcore people. This is obviously a general statement, and doesn’t apply to everyone, and obviously you’d hope most of the hardcore women don’t have big beards. Plus in South America it’s also mostly an older crowd, so it varys, but the rules still apply I think.

Anyway after this Carol returned and we went out to eat. The choice near our hostel was pretty limited, there being two pizza joints, probably owned by the same people, with the same name and same advertising outside. We picked one and by coincidence inside were two of the French girls from the other car in the Salt Flats tour. As their food took longer to arrive (our pasta took half an hour, their pizza an hour and a half) the other French girl and Kelly, the Dutch girl from our tour, arrived. We chatted to them and I tested out some French for a bit, but as there isn‘t really much going on in Potosi at the best of times, we decided to turn in and get some sleep after what had been a long day.

The next morning Carol went off while I went off and sorted through some of my phone photos of the trip, and after she‘d left for Sucre in the afternoon, I went to take a tour of the mines. Potosi, actually a UNESCO World Heritage City, was founded by the Spanish in 1545, although the hill under which the town was based (Cerro de Potosi) had been known about for many years by the Incans. When the Spanish arrived however, they realized its potential in and quickly began exploiting its seemingly never ending Silver reserves. As a testament to this, mining still goes on in Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) extensively today, only now, after a turmoiled history with the government, the miners run things. This doesn’t mean it’s a good life. The average miner is lucky if he makes it past 45, as the air, injuries and cramped conditions make life hard. However, as our guide, a funny bilingual ex-miner called Pedro, told us, the miners accept their lives, and are actually happy with it. They seem to have a strange guide of gallows humor, as well as the obvious comradeship involved (although they are meant to start at 18, most start from between 8 to 14, so will have worked with their friends almost their entire lives in there). If someone complains about being tired, they‘ll say, “Tired? You’re tired? I’m not tired. I could work for the rest of the week in here and still not be tired,” or, “you’re hot? Boy I could really do with putting on some more clothes, I’m freezing!” I guess it’s a way of keeping spirits high and remaining optimistic about your work. They generally arrive between 8 and 10, and leave when they feel like it, as some of them may have other jobs, or have a target of an amount of money they want to make in a month. The way he described it made it feel like they did enjoy their work, and maybe many of them accepted it it as a neccessary evil, but it’s most definitely not the kind of work conditions you’d say would be ideal for working such a strenuous job. Firstly it’s at a very high altitude. Potosi is the second highest city in the world with over 100,000 inhabitants at 4,050m (El Alto, the barrio/city beside La Paz is number 1), and Cerro Rico towers above it. I don’t know how much it affects the miners, but we were huffing doing very minimal exercise up there, and they pack coca leaves in their mouths throughout their whole work session. Coca leaves may taste bad, but they are pretty incredible, and help so much whether you’re doing Machu Picchu or just on a coach going through the mountains. They also eradicate feelings of hunger or thirst, so the miners don’t need to eat while working. Probably therefore a good way to diet as well.

Before we were taken to the mine entrance, our group, mostly made up of Argentinians, but with one other Brit, who had actually also been to Utila, and two French guys who had been on one of the other Tupiza to Uyuni tours, was taken to a shop. There we were told to buy a small gift for the miners and were given a choice between coca leaves, Coca Cola (used to be made from coca leaves, now it‘s synthetic) and dynamite. For some reason everyone else chose to buy the two coca products, but of course I was always going to buy the dynamite. When you have an opportunity to buy dynamite, you should always take it, is what I’ll say to my grandkids.

Once we were kitted up, we were taken inside the mines. They‘ve got pretty low ceilings (most Bolivians are pretty small people), and a vast network of tunnels of varying sizes and widths that without light would probably end up like the film The DescentAll I was thinking about when I was in there.

Eventually, after squeezing through holes and climbing ladders, we reached an enclave where a strange statue greeted us. It was a large man who seemed to be Spanish origin, with wild hair matted with streamers and two horns poking from his head. One hand was resting on his knee, open for coca leaves, the other clasped round his giant fallus, meant to represent masculinity, apparently. His mouth was open in a kind of a snarl, but the miners used it to place cigarettes in as an offering. See below for a picture. Apparently some miners have said that, while working late, or lost deep in the mines, El Tio (the devil) has visited them and guided them out. Although they‘re catholic there, and very devout, some elements of the old religions can never be lost when it comes to superstition, and El Tio, a God that will protect you if you give him fags, booze and coca, is one of those elements, and seems to be a pretty cool guy.

As it was the day before Easter there were no miners working, so I couldn‘t give away my dynamite. However once I got back to my hostel room I realized that trying to get dynamite on an eventual plane journey home wasn‘t going to be easy, so when Kristian the Norwegian arrived, I gave them to him. It would come to good use after all.

That evening I went for dinner with Kristian and the two French guys are we reminisced about the tour, then of course the conversation came to football, as it almost always does when guys get together.

The next day I made my way by bus to Sucre, Bolivia‘s official capital, and one of its most beautiful cities.

Potosi and Cerro Rico in a rare moment of sunshine. Ominously there always seem to be storms there.

Pedro, our guide, leading us through the mines.

A tight fit through one of the smaller tunnels.

And here you are. What you’ve been waiting for. El Tio:

 

And of course the dynamite.

Uyuni, Tupiza, and the Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni)

Again, apologies for lack of posts…

Where I left off last time, I had just boarded a bus to Uyuni, a 10 hour or so overnight journey on quite possibly one of the worst roads in South America. I hadn’t really realized this, so I was happily chatting to the guy next to me, a French guy who was also meeting someone in Uyuni to leave the next day. About an hour in, after I’d finished my dinner of banana sandwiches, a wave of sickness hit me, and I had to go to the toilet for the first time that night. Those feeling squeamish can skip the rest of the paragraph if they’d like. To my horror, when I got to the toilet I found it was for number ones only, and so there was no flush function, and the sink was blocked… But at least there was a toilet. After that first bout I returned to my seat, but 10 minutes later decided to relocate my bags to the 2 seats right at the back of the bus, next to the toilet for easy access. I can’t quite fully remember the next 8 hours or so, but effectively I was a flush being pulled every thirty minutes, from both ends. By light the next day, having scared off everyone else who had tried to go that night, I went in and saw carnage. I won’t describe it… But it was carnage.

And that was my bus journey to Uyuni. It may have been down to bumps every few meters that propelled you 30cm out of your seat, it may have been the fact I was sitting at the back of the bus, and it may have been the bananas or bread I’d eaten that evening (somehow), but it was the worst experience of my life, quite comfortably.

Needless to say, I didn’t go on my tour the next day, and instead booked into a nice hotel in Uyuni and slept/threw up that Saturday. On the Sunday, having recovered sufficiently, I took a last minute jeep to Tupiza, 5 hours south of Uyuni, where I’d heard the tours were better. Tupiza is infinitely better than Uyuni, which is completely dead on account of having little actual tourist activity (they get there, get a tour, and get out). Tupiza is a town in and of itself, so feels a lot more alive, and in a way, because it’s in a desert of sorts, feels kind of like a sleepy wild west town. To fit in, I decided to become a cowboy and went on a horse tour of the surrounding area the next day. It was a 3 hour tour with my young guide, a pretty quiet guy (the people in Southern Bolivia all seem pretty soft spoken and polite) where we toured the incredible scenery surrounding Tupiza. It did feel very like the American West, i.e shrubs and cacti on light brown, sunbaked rock, with large hills and interesting rock formations dotting the landscape.

But the primary purpose of my visit was to get a high quality, if a little expensive, tour to the salt flats, the Salar de Uyuni, possibly Bolivia’s most stunning natural phenomenon, and probably in the top 3 in all of South America. The Salar (salt flat in Spanish) is about 10.5 thousand square km or 4 thousand square miles, and, to put it simply, is effectively a completely flat desert made of salt. As in the sort of salt you can eat. It’s also so flat and large that it is used for calibrating the altimeters of orbiting satellites. However before reaching the flats there are 3 days of driving. On the map below you can see the route.

So on the Tuesday, at 8 am those of us taking our tour (from La Torre Tours, would highly recommend this company) all congregated outside the three jeeps that would be departing that morning. Although the people in our jeep would be who we’d be spending most of our time with, we would also see the other two groups at every stop we made and while we were travelling. In my group there was a French couple in their early thirties- Jerome and Benedicte, a 24 year old Dutch woman- Kelly and a 65 year old English woman from Twickenham- Carol. By strange coincidence, the guy I’d played pool with in La Paz, Kristian, was in one of the other jeeps, with 3 French girls. The final two members of the jeep were our driver, Frau (don’t know the spelling, or even how to pronounce it properly), and our cook Marta, both of them no more than thirty and again, soft and slow speaking, helpful traits when driving through the scenery we were going to be seeing.

https://i0.wp.com/www.latorretours-tupiza.com/images/tours/mapa_option1.jpg This is a pretty small map of the route, but hopefully it gives an idea of where it is in Bolivia, in relation to Argentina, Chile and La Paz.

The first day was the longest, a 12 hour drive with relatively regular stops for use of the toilet, views of the landscape and lunch. But 12 hours in Bolivia means it’s hard to fall asleep. The reason I love the country so much is it seems to have everything: snow capped mountains and strange rock formations, modern cities, old cities, huge cities and crumbling ones. Tiny, remote villages, and 32 different indigenous cultures. The Andes and the Amazon, Lake Titicaca, the Salar, llamas, alpacas, and flamingos. One trip is never enough.

The first stop we made looked over a vast canyon, quite similar to the Grand Canyon in Nevada actually, whereas the second was a prairie, inhabited by a herd of llamas and donkeys. As we were driving we were also getting higher and higher in altitude, and as such it was getting progressively colder, and the air thinner. I think the altitude is something that, as always, will affect some people more than others, but it’s definitely worth acclimatising for a few days somewhere in the Andes, whether it’s in La Paz or elsewhere, beforehand, as it really helps.

For lunch that day we stopped off in a small local village and wandered around, pretty much just stretching our legs and admiring the scenery. Eventually we were called into a small dining area, and we all sat around a small table as both a meat and vegetarian lunch were brought in front of us by Marta, the cook, along with coke, water, rice and salad. The food was incredible, and set the tone for really some of the best food I’ve had in South America, apart from maybe some really good restaurants. How she did that just from her equipment and ingredients in the jeep is beyond me. Once we arrived at our accommodation for the night, a rather basic hostel set up especially for our groups, we again gathered round the table as dinner was being prepared. Tensions began to rise due to a delay in the arrival of dinner, as no information had been given as to whether it would be provided (although I was one of those assuring others it was coming) and so for about 2 hours we made do with biscuits, coca tea and dulce de leche. The dulce de leche, if you haven’t had it before, is basically caramelised milk, what you use in banofee pie. Here though, it was a tub of it, and so for each breakfast and before dinner we would guzzle it down, trying to enjoy it without ruining our appetite. Eventually dinner did arrive, always in the form of a quinua soup first, then the main, generally for the meat eaters, a piece of chicken or beef, rice and salad. When I said the food was some of the best I’d eat over here, I meant that some of the food was. Some was just food that you appreciated but didn’t make you weak at the knees or anything.

That night we were fully prepared for the cold, and cold it does get, often down to below freezing. We had been given sleeping bags, and 3 layers of duvets, and I also slept in a jumper, so it was no surprise that I woke up at 3 in the morning covered in sweat and having to shed some layers.

Over the next two days we became a really tight-knit group. Kelly was interesting because of how naive and innocent she was about everything. Everything you told her she believed, even if it was a joke or sarcasm, but it was endearing. The French couple, Jerome and Benedicte, were both incredibly nice people who became the group’s photographers, as for some stupid reason I left my camera battery charger in La Paz, and have agreed to UPS everyone a DVD with all their photos on them. Carol was a very unique woman. Divorced some years ago, she now travels to India and Bolivia and Columbia every year; India because her daughter runs a hotel in Mumbai, and Bolivia and Columbia because she loves the countries. She does have some incredible stories of her intrepid travels deep in FARC territory in Columbia, coming across villages and beaches untouched by Western eyes, travelling by boat, bus, bike and military plane to the site of Che Guevara’ś death, and living with indigenous groups deep in the Amazon. For a single woman in her sixties I was impressed.

So it was with this group that I was couped up in a 4×4 with until the Salt flats, arriving at some incredible scenery, including both green and red lakes, flocks of flamingos, steaming sulfer geysers, hot springs, volcanoes, moon like rock formations and never ending rolling hills. Unfortunately all the photos are at my house in a DVD, but the ones I took on my phone are on Facebook! They’re in my album ‘Bolivia’. As soon as I have access to the ones on the DVD I will upload them here, as I’m sure there’s some amazing photos there.

For the last night we stayed in the most modern hostel of the tour, one whose novelty was that it was made of salt. The walls, floor, tables, bar, beds, duvets, everything was made of salt. Ok fine the duvets weren’t, but that would be ridiculous. It also had the first shower of the trip, and so the group took it in turns to have our 8 minutes under the beautifully hot water before dinner. Dinner was also a nice surprise. After our dulce (sweet) appetiser, we were served an amazing vegetarian lasagne, one which the vegetarians in our group declared was the best they’d ever had. We also had some wine and beer, and played pool afterwards, a game of terrible quality where Kristian (my partner in La Paz) and I, barely beat two novices, taking over an hour to do it. We blamed it on the altitude.

The next day was an early start, waking at 5:30 and leaving at 6 for the sunrise on the flats. As we boarded our jeep the excitement grew, and by the time we hit the salt, we’d completely forgotten the time and were just staring in wonderment at the first rays of sunlight reflecting off the pure white salt crystals. Eventually we stopped and we let out onto it for the first time. Kelly immediately began planning the photos while the rest of us watched the sunrise over the distant mountains. After about 20 minutes we loaded back into the jeep and headed to the isla del pescado (fish island), an actual island in the middle of the Salar, covered in giant cacti, which can be up to a hundred years old and over 12m high. We never actually found out why it was named that, and there’s no chance any fish could be found anywhere near it, but I guess it’s there for the imagination to think up.

From here we were allowed to climb it and then take some photos, as its elevation makes it the perfect way to survey the entire area. After we returned we found a tablecloths laid on some more salt tables, and Marta laying out a sponge cake, cereal, and more dulce de leche for our breakfast! This was one of the best surprises of the trip for me (I love cake), and I can now tell you that dulce de leche and sponge cake go really well together (there’s a photo of Kelly really happy about this on Facebook).

After this came the photos. We drove for about 15 minutes further into the salar, mostly to escape all the other jeeps that were there, and then the car was stopped and we were told we’d have an hour and a half for photos. Frau switched off the engine, pulled his cap over his face, and fell asleep. He’d evidently seen this too many times.

One of the coolest things about the flats is it reduces your sense of perspective, making it easy to create cool photos. It’s kind of hard to describe, so here’s an example:

 

Jerome is the big guy. From Left: Kelly, me, Carol

I’m sure there are plenty more on the DVD, so that ones just a taster of some of the cool stuff that can be done, although creating the photos can be pretty funny yet frustrating at times.

Anyway, that’s probably enough words. Here are some photos that I’ve taken off the French couple’s facebooks!

Our group. From left: Marta, Carol, Kelly, Frau, me, Jerome, Benedikt.

Salt Hotel

Isla del Pescado

Among the geysers

Breakfast on the final day

y finalmente…

The Salar de Uyuni, at sunrise. The shapes in the salt are from when the water evaporates. Water covers it for about a month every year when it rains. Purely spectacular.