Cartagena

The city of Cartagena, where I flew to celebrate both my 22nd birthday and start of the Brazil World Cup, is in the Northern tip of Colombia, and is everything you’d imagine of a city that is both Caribbean and South American in flavor. White beaches, mostly Afro-Caribbean populated, and with year round temperatures that average 31 degrees and 75% humidity, the city was the perfect place to end my stay in South America.

A bit of Carta-techture. Get it? ­čśÇ

The whole reason I went to Colombia, elongating my trip by a month, was based on the recommendations of other travellers, and the reason I went to Carta was because a volunteer I had met in Cusco, an Aussie called Jade, was working there. I figured there was going to be sun, friends and it’d be a good place to party it up on my birthday, so I booked a ticket from Medellin (plane- darling I gave up using buses in Peru. So primitive) a couple of days before my birthday and set off for my final stop.

The days preceding it, and the start of the World Cup, were spent mostly finding the best bar to watch it and various items in preparation, such as an England shirt for me and 2 other English people I was with (vital importance) and some face paints. Those two English people were a couple, Nick and Eve from London (if you’re from London and travelling together that’s enough), and every morning Nick would wake up to ‘Football’s Coming Home’ by Frank Skinner and David Baddiel (Euro 96′ version). We’re talking serious supporter here. Eve secretly informed me that she was relieved she didn’t have to keep discussing football with him 24/7.

After much searching and asking around, we found a pretty good bar with air-con, lots of people (and a few Brazilians) and a big screen to watch the opening match of the World Cup in. The search for an England shirt was a lot harder however. We met one guy, who happened to speak perfect English as he used to be a dope dealer in New Orleans, called Josephus, who took us around pretty much every shirt seller in Cartagena Old Town, each one promising so much but delivering so little. Eventually Nick settled for a red one from 2013 for about 10 quid. He wasn’t happy, but as the Rolling Stones said, you can’t always get what you wa-unt.

The next day was my 22nd birthday. Hooray. In the morning we beached it up. I thought putting on factor 30 sunscreen on my arms and face would be enough, but I ended up looking like a bit of a lobster. A sexy lobster mind. I have a picture that I sent my brother that’s far too compromising to put on here, but shows much of the extent of the burn. We then had a huuuge sandwich of avocado, tuna, mayo, salad, and tomato and watched the epic Spain Netherlands game, where the Netherlands put 5 past the World Champions. After this was the Australia Chile game, and as Jade was on shift, we decided to stay at the hostel, and felt her paid as the Aussies fought bravely but fell to the impressive Chilean organisation and lost 3-1. Then came some prinking (pre-drinking) of some tasty rum and coke (o cola) while we waited for another friend from Cusco, a Belgian named Pierre (top guy) and some of his friends to arrive from Medellin. Out in the outdoors seating area of the hostel I was then given a birthday cupcake, completely unexpected, and sung happy birthday to. Maybe you don’t care about this but it’s the little things that make stuff like this, and even now, a week later, I’m still smiling while I remember it.

Great sandwich. This is the stuff you come to this blog for.

The night out consisted of a trip to a salsa bar, where I was offered coke (caine) by a dwarf, we saw some pretty unconvincing transvestites and split off. Most of the Belgians went off with another group, so we went into town to look for a club. After passing some dodgy looking places, we went into a completely empty place on the promise of some cheap drinks. There epicness ensued, as the lack of people meant we could control the playlist, meaning not only did a lot of old favourites get played, but so did Football’s Coming Home!!! 5 of us were English, and we belted it out at the top of our voices, while the others just sat back and laughed. As this was happening, various other drunk English people came in and joined in, so the club filled up for the 3 minute duration of the song. But what a 3 minutes.

The three Cusque├▒an amigos, reunited.

“It’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming!!!”

The next day, exhausted and hungover, we all dragged ourselves out of bed to be ready for the Colombia game that would begin at 11am. In the course of the evening I had been informed that there would be public televisions, so Nick and I did a reccie to go and find them. After being misdirected by 10 different people, including policemen (this is common in South America), we eventually found the perfect place, so ran back to get the others. At 11am, in front of a 40″ plasma, Colombia’s World Cup kicked off for about 300 people and 10 gringos. They won their first match against Greece 3-0, with each goal being celebrated wildly by all the supporters. Our┬ágroup┬áhad newscasters and cameramen filming us, and at one point I was told to repeat the phrase ‘Viva Colombia’ about 5 times into a microphone. The atmosphere there was something else.

Vamos Colombia! Selfie had to be done.

For Nick, however, it was all build up to the big event, the England game at 5pm. After an afternoon’s rest, we and around 50 other England fans, and 1 Italian woman, crowded into a nearby bar with the best television in Cartagena, and an ITV feed! We were completely pumped, and when Raheem Sterling hit the side netting 3 minutes in the whole place erupted, beer in the air, chairs flying backwards, hugging and screaming, until someone pointed out that he’d missed, when everyone calmly sat back down pretending they hadn’t just kissed the person next to them. We did get an opportunity to celebrate, when Daniel Sturridge struck an equalizer, but the delirium couldn’t last, and we left completely deflated.

The disappointment in my eyes still cuts me to my core

Regardless, despite England’s defeat, I had an amazing time in Cartagena with some amazing people, and I will never forget it. The next day I was up early to board a plane to Miami, prepared for whatever cavity search they had in store for me for coming from Colombia.

 

Goodbye South America, Gracias por todo. it’s been fun. Pura Vida x

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A return to Peru

After flying back from Argentina, I spent three days back in La Paz, Bolivia, not doing a whole lot, before getting a night bus back to Cusco, Peru. There I again stayed at the orphanage (or casa de mi padre) that I had been volunteering at for a little less than 2 months before I left to go travelling.

Cusco, and that place, will always have a special place in my heart. I had some amazing times there, and the work that is done on kids who were drug addicts, lived on the streets, were members of gangs and often were abused, is amazing. When I arrived back I was given a really warm welcome, and immediately asked where my tablet was. I didn’t see it for the next two days. Apart from going out to watch the Champions League Final at our old favorite hang-out, Paddy’s Pub, I mostly spent my two days in Cusco at the orphanage hanging out with the kids. It was strange because when I had left there were about 20 volunteers, a large tight-knit group of friends. When I arrived I was the only volunteer at the boys’ house, and there were just three (English) girls working at the girls’ house.

On the Saturday evening, it was a girl’s birthday, so everyone came to the boys’ house to have a party. I’d attended plenty of these in my previous stint, but this was nice because I was given an official ‘thank you’ by Jeremy, the founder, and a round of applause. We had cake, the kids did some (choreographed) dances and then I led a Macarena, not particularly well, but I still did it.

The next day, we did a World Cup sweepstake, where each boy took a piece of paper out of a hat that had the name of a team on it, and that would be their team for the World Cup. The one that had the winner would get a prize. Watching the most cocky of them, Steven, getting Japan (Japan won’t win it), and the quietest, Lucio, get Brazil, was pretty sweet.

In the evening we continued a Sunday tradition of going to a local pitch to play football, which was a great way to say goodbye. In La Paz, I had got them a sticker book and each boy a pack of Panini World Cup stickers each, so I gave them this, said my goodbyes, and headed for a bus to Ica.

My final post on Facebook about the orphanage: “My final day in Cusco with the boys of Elim, an organisation that takes in children from the street, broken homes, and orphans. It is hard to put into words the job that┬áJeremy┬áand┬áNilda┬áare doing, with the help of people like┬áYeicob, but the effect is evident as soon as you step through the door. These are some of the most happy, thoughtful, and inspiring children you can find, and it┬┤s safe to say the effect they’ve had on me has been far greater than any material gift or entertainment I could bring to them in my 6 weeks. I would recommend anyone visiting Cusco to spend some time there if possible.”

While the bus from La Paz to Cusco wasn’t┬áso bad for a Bolivian bus, it was a welcome return to be back with a good bus company in Cruz Del Sur, which effectively had the ‘cama’ treatment. Pretty much business class.

Map for reference. Ica is south of Lima

When I arrived in Ica I met my American friend Rick, who’d I’d actually met the last time I was in Cusco through two guys I met on my trek to Machu Picchu, and then had met again in La Paz. We took a 15 minute taxi to the town of Huacachina, effectively an ‘oasis’ build in some sand dunes just outside of Ica that has become a tourist trap. It’s a pretty cool place, but don’t stay there more than a day or two. Huacachina, being in a desert, has become the prime location for trying out sandboarding and dune-buggying in Peru. For about 35┬ásoles, or around 15 pounds, you can have a 4 hour experience doing both these activities, although my hostel, Banana hostel (very nice), gave me a room and included activities for 55.

The dune buggy ride is seriously awesome. The buggy can do pretty much anything without flipping over, so the driver tests this principle to the limit, taking you up and down pretty tall and steep dunes at speed. Really fun.

You get about 6 or 7 tries at sandboarding, but after my first, shocking attempt, I decided to do what pretty much everyone else in my group was doing: stomach boarding. As the name suggests, this is where you lay on your stomach and rocket down the dunes until you fall off or come to a halt. Definitely do this if you can, although if you see other people bumping up and down near the bottom, you’re probably going to wake up with some bruises the next day, but it’s so worth it.

While I was in Huacachina I actually managed to meet up with one of my best friends from Utila, Honduras, the first place I did volunteering on this trip, which was cool.

That evening Rick (the American) and I boarded a bus to Nazca, the location of mysterious line patterns carved into the earth by ancient Peruvian people. I opted not to take a flight over the lines, as it was about $75, and gave my camera to Rick instead.

The day after this (don’t spend more than a day there if you wish to do it), we headed back up north to the town of Pisco, where you can get a taxi to nearby Paracas. Here is a national park and also, just off the coast, the islands that are named the ‘Little Galapagos’, due to similar geography, flora and fauna. I took the boat ride and saw a variety of sea birds, penguins, and sea lions, which was cool, although if you’re short on time you can skip this stop off.

While the hostel I stayed in was really cool (Kokopelli), I booked a flight for Cali in Colombia for two days from then, and decided to head back to Pisco and on to Lima to catch the flight. I said goodbye to Rick, and set off for Pisco.

There I decided to take a cheaper bus (National Peru or something), as it was only a 4 hour journey. This would be my downfall. I’d been on cheap buses before, but usually with friends, or at least other gringos on board. This bus had neither. About 15 minutes into the journey, with my bag next to me, I was beginning to drift off, listening to music, when a guy sat next to me, putting my bag in the overhead storage. I stood up and took it from him and put it between my legs, thinking that would quell his attempts to take it. It didn’t. While I was again looking out the window, he must have got his water bottle, uncapped it and soaked the bottom of my bag with it, as he suddenly tapped me, exclaiming “mojado!!!“, ‘wet’. Bewildered, I allowed him to pick it up and dry it off with a towel he’d produced. Watching him the whole time to prevent him from running off with it, he managed to remove both my passport bag and camera from inside and place them in his bag. About 5 minutes later he got off the bus, and that was the last I saw of him. I checked my bag, tried to run after him, and was blocked off by people trying to get on. Not knowing what to do, or if I could trust anyone (no one apart from the ticket inspector was making any kind of attempt to help, especially not the driver), I got him to take me to the nearest station, where I got off with my remaining things, left them at the ticket office (a risk in itself) and headed to the police station.

Using a bit of Google translate, I managed to explain what had happened and describe the guy who did it, but I was informed there was no hope. I was staying calm, but when I remembered that I hadn’t backed up all my recent stuff as my back-up USB had become corrupted, I began to grow more and more despondent. At last I got on a bus up to Lima, in which another man attempted to take my ticket for my larger bag in the bus’s lower hold, and arrived late at night. Much to my chagrin, the idiotic hostel worker who greeted me asked me for my passport after I had just told him it had been stolen, then claimed he couldn’t check me in without it, or my immigration proof. I gave him the photocopy and managed to convince him it would be enough.

A trip to the Embassy the next day revealed the fact that I would be missing my flight on that Saturday as my passport wouldn’t be ready, so I would be staying in Lima at least until the following Monday.

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.