Monday 15 June 2015

Don't cry for me Argentina

Leaving Bolivia behind we began the final leg of our journey, heading back to Argentina felt a bit like a home coming, suddenly we were stopping at service stations with well stocked snack shops, the pace slowed down from the frantic world of Bolivia where everyone is a businessman to the laid back lifestyle of the Argentines, where shops shut for 5 hours in the middle of the day for a BBQ break. But the scenery was no less stunning as we headed South through the wild-west like canyons and multi-coloured gorges, we gulped up lungfuls of thick oxygenated air as we descended from altitude and all began to feel rather more human!

Back in Argentina

Our first stop was the city of Salta which gave everyone a chance to relax and partake of some of Argentinas favourite pass-times of sitting in the plaza drinking coffee, or sitting in the plaza drinking wine (we were happily back in wine-land again!) Soon we were on the road again and heading down through another stunning valley to the wine region of Cafeyate, set in the beautiful Calchaquies Valley. We stopped off in town to do some wine tasting, half the group (mostly the male half) seemed more excited about the bottling machine than the wine itself, which says more about them than it does the excellent wine we were offered, but they managed to force some down nonetheless!

On the wine tour at Finca Quara
Oh the excitement!
Very tasty Torrontes
Emma tries to translate 'the bouquet has an astringent quality' and realises she doesn't know what it means in English, let alone Spanish
This dog adopted us in Cafeyate and proceeded to follow us around, stopping for regular rests in the supermarket. We are all going to miss the dogs of South America very much
We were to make the area home for 3 nights up in a village called San Carlos, our base was the beautiful Vaca Tranquila Ranch, a working dairy farm owned by a Belgian couple who, alongside making their own cheese and yoghurt also ran a very successful brewery, and in traditional Belgian style the weakest of them was around 6% alcohol, and they were excellent! Add to that the wine we had stocked up on in Cafeyate and the wood fired lamb they baked for us we ate and drank rather well during our time there!

Most people also headed off on some of the ranch's stunning horses for a few hours to explore the beautiful scenery in the area.

Vaca Tranquila
Beautiful evening scenery
Moon rise
Evening light and another adopted dog
The horses
Dinner time
Simon makes sausages
Lee's dramatic potato mashing
Cooking by head torch, a common overlanding activity
Horse time
But sadly soon it was time to drag ourselves away and begin our trip back down to Buenos Aires, but we did manage to stop off at some ruins in Quilmes and have a rather exciting lunch stop complete with llamas, which everyone enjoyed immensely.

The Quilmes ruins of the town that managed to hold off the Spanish for 130 years
Simon, Emma & Gen
Final lunchstop
Friendly lunch neighbours
Recycling our organic waste
The end was approaching faster and faster and there were mixed feeling for everyone, excitement at the prospect of putting toilet paper in the toilet again (what decadence) the prospect of there being toilet paper available in the first place! Of drinking tap water, of carpets, of putting your clothes in a wardrobe, it's amazing what long-term travel will make you appreciate! But there was sadness too, 6 months have flown by and the idea of not waking up in a tent listening to the birds around you, of not crawling out of your tent to see a desert, a mountain range, a jungle and the friendly faces of your travelling companions was a hard thing to adjust to. Going back to a world of rules and order, of health and safety, of polite indifference, well, it wasn't sounding too appealing! But it came to an end, as all good things must, and we approached Buenos Aires and headed off for our final group meal and spent the night reminiscing about the trip and all that South America has given to us/thrown at us!

South America is an amazing continent, unique in its size and isolation from the rest of the world, in being one of the few places in the world where English is barely spoken (not a bad thing in the slightest, most of the group has made an impressive effort to learn Spanish over our 6 months here.) There are many things I could say about South America but I think I'll pick my favourite, and that is the complete and total insanity, passion and warmth of the place. South Americans generally wear their hearts on their sleeves and aren't scared to tell you what they think. Its reputation of being an unstable place where military coups are the only way to get things done may not be as true as it once was, but the same passion that gives them the strength of belief to overthrow their government also makes it a continent that will never EVER bore you. We have been at both sides of it, getting stuck at a roadblock in Peru on one hand, and laughing at the groups of men in Colombia who would explode in to a mess of excited waving and shouting upon seeing us in our truck on the other. You know exactly where you stand with South Americans, which can be scary if they decide they don't like you, but thoroughly heart-warming when they do. And can you blame them for being like this? In the last 50 years this continent has dealt with major natural disasters, major political upheaval, drugs lords, terrorism, border skirmishes, political kidnappings and disappearances, you name it, they've survived it. It is a continent that is changing, modernising and, dare I say it, stabilising, but the people here remember the past and have come out of it with a great sense of the importance of living for the moment, of grabbing every opportunity, of celebrating anything good, however small, of proudly holding some of the best parties in the world. It makes it an amazing place to visit, warm-hearted, passionate and, above all, fun, and I like to think we can say we've taken a leaf out of their books and made the most of our time, no matter how exciting or tumultuous, we've come out of it stronger and happier and with a great sense of living for the moment.

Thursday 4 June 2015

Ruins, Roadblocks and Refugios

Another day, another road and another stop on our epic, albeit somewhat wonky, figure eight of South America. This time, however, our destination was not unfamiliar to us as we wound our way back to Cusco, a place that had already put most of us under its spell on our way north. Full of tourists, packed with more souvenirs than you could need in a lifetime, situated at a slightly challenging altitude of 3400m above sea level and possessed of many roads of suboptimal size for Ithaca, Cusco could be a place that we would love to avoid. Somehow, however, its combination of cobbled, rambling streets, abundant knitwear, excellent museums, beautiful colonial architecture and just its unapologetic Cusco-ness tend to make fans out of most visitors. We were all excited to be going back and get another chance to perfect the “I've Been to Cusco” look. This time shopping was the order of the day for a lot of the group as they utilised their improved altitude tolerance to roam the streets and find things to fill the last spare spots in Ithaca's baggage locker.

Of course, our return to the Inca capital was not just planned in order to enable us to buy more llama motif hats. For most of the group this was their long awaited chance to hike through the mountains on the way to that fabled Inca city of Machu Picchu. Most of the group chose to do the lesser known and much less crowded Lares walk that led them through stunning mountain scenery and between remote Andean villages. Some unexpected snow and mule-based incidents provided extra entertainment for the group but most agreed that the beautiful scenery was the highlight of their time in the wilds. A couple of the group were tempted by the trail-side ruins and the lure of the Sun Gate at dawn to brave the crowds and walk the traditional Inca Trail instead.

Team Lares

Chris & Steve
Trusty mule
Camping on the hike
Coca tea in the morning
A bit chilly at times
Meeting the locals on the hike

Sorting the coca leaves
Incan steps are pretty slippery when wet

However they got there, once arrived, the whole group had a wonderful time exploring the fairytale city of Machu Picchu. The picture perfect location, amazing Inca stonework and funny resident llamas all serve to make this a place that has to be seen to be believed, even if you think you've seen it a thousand times in photographs beforehand.

Worth every step

Lawn mowers
Amazing Inca stonework

Llama friend
Llama selfie
Slightly exhausted and footsore, our intrepid walkers reassembled in Cusco for a final night before we departed for our last Peruvian stop – Puno on Lake Titicaca. It was a long day's drive across the  Peruvian highlands but we found time to squeeze in a quick stop at the interesting ruins of the Sillustani Funerary towers. The information signs there were so poorly translated as to be almost nonsensical but the view over the nearby lake was straightforwardly gorgeous.

One of the towers

Crawling out the grave

From the ruins it was a short hop to Puno where we stayed in a comfortable hotel and got ready for our included boat trip to the Uros floating islands the following day.

The Uros floating islands are the traditional homes of the Uros Indians, who initially created these unique reed-based islands as a defence against attack by the Incas and, later, the Spanish. We took a boat ride out to two of the islands to learn about their construction and see how the inhabitants there lived. On the way we took our opportunity to practice the correct pronunciation of Titicaca (much more guttural than you might think!) and enjoy the calm sunshine. Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world and despite the good weather we could definitely tell we were still at altitude. The rest of the day in Puno was the group's to enjoy at their leisure and a few of us whiled this time away enjoying tasty local food and a few drinks in a local bar. 

Leaving Puno behind
The floating islands
A lecture on reeds
Tapestry making
Dolls tell the history of the islands
A boat trip on a reed boat

There's always a cat, who says they don't like water?
Everyone here is born knowing their way around boats and the lake
Iain with one of the local ladies
The following day was to be our last in Peru as we made our way to the Bolivian border and on to the backpacker favourite city of La Paz.

Or so we thought.

Somehow border crossing days always have the potential to throw major spanners in the works, or in this case, rocks in your path. Having set off in good time, and rolling along merrily on the shores of Lake Titicaca, we soon came to an obstruction which appeared to be a bunch of locals standing in the road with a nice line of boulders in front of them. After some discussion we learnt that the hold up was due to a protest against a proposed mine in the area. The local people were very opposed to this development, concerned, probably rightly, about the associated environmental impact of this project. Feeling unheard by the government they had resorted to a blockade of the road past Lake Titicaca for a planned 48 hours.

Roads in this area are unfortunately not abundant and, potential detours were not obviously available to us at this stage. A suggestion that we could skirt around the roadblock soon wound up in failure as we decided that perseverance along this road would probably just end up with a wedged Ithaca! Fortunately, as we returned to the roadblock to try to negotiate with the locals a van full of police arrived to clear the roadblock – success! Following the police along the now open road we had soon passed through two dismantled roadblocks and were feeling optimistic about our chances of escaping from the protest and getting on our merry way to Bolivia.

Such confidence was, sadly, misplaced however, as we arrived at a roadblock that had been immediately reinstated after the departure of the police and that was now looking fairly impassable. We cooled our heels by eating an improvised lunch on the side of the road while seeing if we could negotiate with the very determined local road blockers. Unfortunately, as the afternoon wore on it became apparent that the police were no longer succeeding in removing any roadblocks (or perhaps they had stopped trying) and that we were going nowhere fast. An attempt at retreating the way we had come soon came unstuck when we found our way back obstructed by another rebuilt road block. We were now firmly wedged in the midst of the anti-miners and it seemed that we were in it for the duration.

It is incidents like this that bring out the adventurous spirit of the seasoned overlander and that make for the best stories (once you've got out of them that is!) Therefore we made the best of our lot and pitched our tents in the nearby field, lit a fire and whipped up a warm dinner out of the bits and pieces we could find in the truck. Yes, it was a little chilly, but the stars were excellent and we still had a fridge full of beer.

In the morning, finding that nothing seemed to have changed, we packed our bags and launched the inaugural Odyssey Peruvian refugee march along the deserted road, stepping over tree trunks and piles of stone as we looked for a way around the protest. Ithaca, being a bit big, had to stay behind for now but the rest of us made our way along the road, feeling grateful that it was sunny and that we were now altitude veterans. To cut a long story short, after a morning of walking, failed negotiations and frustration we met our new guardian angel Elena who was a local woman apparently willing to help us make our way out of the mine protest. Soon we were all in a van and on a cross country mission to find our way out of the blockades while Mama Elena rode along with us, negotiating our way past the odd straggler blockade and smoothing our passage out of the protest. We finally reached the border in the mid afternoon, very relieved to conclude our blockade running escapade! A border crossing and taxi ride later we finally arrived, with gratitude, at our La Paz hotel and celebrated with a much needed drink and hot dinner.

No to the mine!
The police roll in - that will make everything better!
Or maybe it won't!
We were treated to a very beautiful view of the milky way on our impromptu bushcamp however
In the morning, the trucks are still stuck
Time to go hiking
A few obstacles
Steve is taking his sun protection seriously
Our emergency transport
A bit squishy
The next morning most of the group went out on a very entertaining and informative city tour with guide Julius. When they returned at lunchtime it was to the welcome sight of Ithaca and Simon waiting at the hotel – the two of whom having finally escaped the protest late the previous night. We celebrated our reunion with a lovely group meal on the top floor of our hotel where we enjoyed included wine and great views over the lights of La Paz.

In lovely La Paz

In the main plaza
The Valley of the Moon, the combination of rain and altitude has created a strange landscape with peaks and enormous deep drops in to the rock below
One of the deep drops into nothing
Louisa tests her bravery over one of the chasms
The city tour allowed us to try Saltenas, a tasty Bolivian version of the empanada
And a trip on the new cable car
Ready for our lovely meal at our hotel
Si, Em & Gen
Our second day in La Paz was a chance for many of the group to test their cycling metal by taking on the famous Death Road that winds its way down from La Cumbre to Coroico, losing an impressive 3600m in altitude as it goes. The scenery along the route is extremely beautiful and, obviously riding downhill is good fun as it mostly avoids all that pesky pedalling business. Most of the group went along for the ride and, pleasingly, no one fell off the edge of the road or had more than a momentary stumble off their bike.

Death Road!
Ready to cycle
A bit deathy really
Everyone survived!
After La Paz it was time to head onwards to our next stop, the mining town of Potosi. Potosi is a city whose fortunes are entirely bound up in its association with silver, which has been mined from the local Cerro Rico mountain since the 1500s. At one time Potosi was the largest and wealthiest city in the Americas but, since the silver supply has more or less dried up, the city has begun to slide into poverty. It is estimated that there may only be another five or ten years of work left in the mine and the future of the city after this point is not optimistic. For now, it is possible to attend a mine tour with some of the remaining miners and get a glimpse into the difficult and sometimes brutal conditions that these men work in.

While warned to expect narrow passageways and dusty, dark conditions, our group were faced as well with the additional challenge of climbing up a near vertical pile of slippery rocks and then stepping across a series of boards spanning a scary mine shaft. They came back a little pale and shocked looking but said that it was a rewarding and eye opening experience. It certainly puts any normal job into perspective – we'll never complain about Monday mornings again!

All ready for the mine
Dynamite in hand
The silver processing plant
96% alcohol mmmm
The entrance to the mine, the red over the door is llama blood, sacrificed the day before for good luck 
Not exactly EU regulation health and safety
Workers in the mine
Difficult even just to walk around on a tour, let alone work in
Gen with her dynamite
Miners chewing coca leaves to ward off tiredness and altitude
Tio, the god of the mine
Very glad to see the daylight again
From Potosi we trundled on to the little “Wild West” town of Tupiza which was to be our gateway into the spectacular Altiplano. This area of high altitude wilderness is home to only a handful of small communities who make their living farming llamas and working in the small local mines. For us it was opportunity to pile into a series of four wheel drive vehicles and set out into the wilds, complete with mobile cooks and a friendly guide called Oscar. We were soon having a vicuna of a time, winding our way through dusty, zigzagging roads and stopping for multiple photo opportunities and discussions about the local flora and fauna.

In the manner of all good Odyssey adventures, or perhaps because we had failed to donate enough firewater alcohol to Mother Earth Pachamama, it soon started to snow. This was a bit of a surprise to all of us - despite expecting it to be cold we had somehow decided it would definitely be dry! - but it was impossible not to appreciate the extra beauty that the snow lent to the surrounding countryside. Once the initial snowstorm settled we were left with frosted mountainsides, snow tipped llamas and plenty of powdery snow to pose with, tiptoe through or throw at each other. Not that we would because we are extremely mature.

Heading to the Altiplano, that sky doesn't look threatening at all!
Well maybe a bit threatening...
Winter wonderland
Extreme toilet queuing
Cosy at lunch
Mike, Simon & Steve
Far too mature for this sort of behaviour

Winter vicunas, the llama's wild cousin and the finest, warmest wool in the world
Claire in the snow
An abandoned town in the snow
A viscacha, its lovely winter coat coming in to good use in the freezing conditions
The snow made one of the most beautiful parts of South America even more beautiful

There's a llama, and another little llama
Yes it's strong enough to walk on, luckily, or Mike would have had very cold feet
Our trusty steeds
Hot pools, the perfect way to get feeling back in your toes!
Accommodations in the Altiplano are best described as rustic and are not big on heating or insulation. Most of us went to bed wearing a lot of clothes - hat and gloves optional. However, once in bed and underneath a mammoth pile of blankets, most of us had a good night's sleep and woke up ready to go for another day of arctic wilderness exploring. Bonus time saving points for already being partially dressed when we woke up!

Inside one of our refugios
Salt hotel on our last night
Our onboard cooks also worked tirelessly to make us tasty, warm food at mealtimes. The fried eggs, sausages and chips went down a treat on the second night and we also enjoyed an impromptu Pringles and rum party after finding a handy local shop in the middle of nowhere. All good fuel for enjoying some more stunning scenery!

Thermal mud pools
"Stop, danger don't access" Based on our experience with Bolivian healthy and safety we felt this was more of a suggestion
The altiplano is also home to lots of flamingos, who brighten it up no end, even though we were very concerned for their skinny cold little legs

A juvenile who hasn't got his colour yet
Laguna Colorada
"Colorada" meaning coloured
Home to many more flamingoes

Such elegant creatures in a harsh landscape
Lee gets a better view
The Stone Tree - can you guess where the name came from?
Simon gets some climbing in
Gen, Louisa, Sarah & Roberta at one of the "jewel" lakes
Andean fox
Wifi gets everywhere these days!
Your trusty Odyssey crew hanging out on some moss
A lonely train makes its way through the high plains from the mines
Our ultimate destination on our Altiplano trip was the Salar de Uyuni - the world's largest salt flat at 12,000 sq km. The group got up very early on our final morning of the trip and set off before dawn to speed across the salt in the darkness on the way to see the sun rise over the salt. Later on there was an opportunity to take tricky, false perspective photos on the deceptively flat expanses of the salt flat. If you would like to pretend to stomp on your friends, stand on an enormous bottle of water or fight a huge dinosaur then this is the place to come. Bonus entertainment comes from watching other people try to take their photos which looks very funny too.

Heading to the salt at dawn


Crazy cyclists
Time for some silly perspective photos
Gen & tiny Sarah

Once sufficiently salt flatted, the group set off for their final stop on the Altiplano trip, the train graveyard. Here you can visit a collection of unwanted and rusting trains which lie idle in the desert, perhaps awaiting the time when metal recycling in Bolivia has advanced sufficiently to reuse their large supplies of iron. For now they provide an enticing playground for climbing over and taking photos. Bolivian health and safety is more of an imaginary concept so no one minds if you want to clamber on top of an engine or explore inside an empty carriage. If you fall through something it's your own fault, obviously.

The train graveyard

A rather bumpy and dusty ride took us back to Tupiza where we all appreciated the relatively low altitude of 2950m (it's all relative when you have recently visited 5000m above sea level!) Hot showers and soft hotel beds were also welcome but no one could regret the challenges of the Altiplano for a second when taken into account how amazingly beautiful our time there was. Gracias Bolivia!