South America


Maoi in the groundI’ve finally uploaded my Galápagos photos! It only took me two months. It feels like ages ago that I was actually there. You can see the Galápagos photos here, and photos from Easter Island here. I’m back in Quito for a few days before Meghan and I head off to Peru. I have just three weeks left in South America! I can’t believe almost 5 months have gone by already.

I came back from Easter Island last week. My time there was awesome, it felt like a proper holiday. After a couple of days of cycling and hitch-hiking, I met a Swiss guy in my hostel and we rode around on his moped for two days. It was so much fun that on the last day I had to break my budget and hire one myself to whiz around the island on it. They don’t have helmets on Easter Island (it’s South America after all) and these things go over 50mph! It was my first moped experience and at first I didn’t know how to steer, and within two minutes I drove off the road into a bush! Other people drove past and witnessed the event. A few hours later I tipped the bike and myself into a giant muddy puddle. A few people saw me do it too. It should’ve been embarrassing but it was too funny.

Last weekend Meghan and I went to Mindo, a village in the cloudforest a few hours from Quito. We didn’t do much besides sleeping in hammocks, although we did go horse-riding (my first time). I put a few photos from Mindo up here.

Me and a maoiHello from Easter Island! I’m on the world’s most isolated inhabited island (or so I’m told), which is famous for maoi (pronounced mwhy) statues built by the indigenous people before the Spanish arrived. Kurt’s description of it is, “it was like the cold war arms race except with statues and trees.” I like it.

When I arrived I was greeted by a sign at the airport that read “Welcome to Eastern Island”, and a native band playing in the airport carpark. The band chanted and played bongos in a tribal style, and danced around in nothing but home-made underwear and fur boots. Just as I was thinking, “wow, what a nice way to welcome visitors to the island”, when one of the band member’s handed me a flyer for their show in a couple of days… with a $16 cover charge! Everything was expensive there. $15 for the cheapest meal and $25 to wash my clothes. I washed my clothes in the shower and lived off packet soup, pasta, and bread all week!

On the first day I hired a bike and cycled around on the unpaved, muddy “roads” trying to find the statues. I found the first statues in a few minutes, but afterwards the map I had was useless – there would be one road on the map but 5 in reality, so I got hopelessly lost. After about 5 hours I finally made it to the statues. I hadn’t seen anyone for hours on the way there, and when I arrived there were 3 minivans of tourists. And they’re all the tourists who can afford to hire minivans and go on tours: American golf players with their yellow polo shirts and their wives with their annoying accents. And Japanese tourists documenting every moment. It was disappointing since I had gone to such effort to get there! It was nice though, and the statues were impressive.

Maoi statues, Easter IslandAs I left the site, the sun was starting to set, so I went back to the first statues to watch the sunset over the ocean (and over the statues). I sat on a hill and relaxed at last (my legs were falling off from all the cycling!) to watch the sunset. It was so beautiful and peaceful. But then, just before sunset, the same 3 minivans of tourists showed up and suddenly the place was swarming with tourists! Hmm, what a pretty sunset. I was starting to think everything was going to be a disappointment. But then, I didn’t know what was going to happen next.

I left the site after dark and made my way back to the hostel. The bike had been squeaking for the last few hours and I knew it hadn’t been doing this in the morning. I didn’t want to give the kid back a broken bike, so I went into a car garage on the way home to see if they could fix it. I was sure it only needed some oil to grease it up, but I wasn’t sure if they were going to charge Easter Island prices and charge $20 for a drop of oil. I thought I might as well ask, and walked in with the bike and asked them what they could do. It was then that I knew good things can happen on Easter Island, as forty-five minutes later I walked out, completely drunk, with a fixed bike and carrier bag full of mangoes!

They fixed the bike in 30 seconds and sat me down with a carton of Chilean wine and kept topping it up every 2 minutes telling me I needed more! The 3 guys in there had finished work for the day and were getting ready to the start the night. Two guys from Santiago and one native taxi driver. One guy gave me a mango from his tree, and after I said I loved it, he came back with a carrier bag full!

Later that night I met up with some German girls and a Scottish guy and saw a Rapa Nui band play at this cheesy club (surprisingly, Easter Island has quite a few). The band were great – it was good to see a bit of culture – and for free too. On the way home, I looked up at the sky and could see the Milky Way. I wanted to lie down and look at the stars all night.

Palm trees, maoi and myselfToday I hitch-hiked to the other side of the island and went to the island’s only sandy beach. It was surprisingly easy – not a single car passed without picking me up! I was glad I didn’t pay $60 for a tour of the beach and the surrounding maoi. The beach was perfect: white sand, palm trees, and hardly anyone on it. Plus there were maoi statues right on the beach too! I sat on the beach, stared out to sea, and wondered how on earth anyone found this tiny lone island all those years ago.

Me and a bright red lake¡Hola everyone! I arrived in Chile two days ago, after spending three days in a jeep in south-west Bolivia. I went on a tour of the Salar de Uyuni and the surrounding national parks; the weirdest terrain I’ve ever seen.

On the first day we drove across the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. It’s 12000 sq km of blindingly white emptiness, over 2 miles above sea level (see photos here and here). We had our lunch on a table made of salt, on island full of cactuses.

The second day we drove through the valleys of the mountains and volcanoes to a bright red lake (see the photo on the left). We had lunch outside again, this time with flamingos and llamas around us. That night we were 4900m (over 16000 ft) above sea level, the highest I’ve ever been. It was cold! When the sun went down the temperature dropped to 10°C below zero, so I had to pile on all the clothes I have – I didn’t think I’d have to do it in South America!

The next morning we stood amongst volcanic geysers spurting hot steam and bubbling craters. I felt like I was on the moon. Afterwards we went to a hot volcanic spring, which was pretty bad getting undressed outside in sub-zero temperatures, but well worth it to get into 30°C water and have a wash for the first time in 3 days! We had our breakfast outside again before going to another lake, this time a green one, and leaving Bolivia one last time and heading to Chile.

The tour was the best thing I’ve done in South America so far. The whole trip, with red and green lakes, vast amounts of white emptiness, and bubbling craters, made it feel like another planet. It alone is worth the visit to Bolivia (maybe even South America), and has definitely sealed Bolivia as my favourite country here!

I’ve put more photos up from the tour which you can see here.

The moon rising over a mountain, ChileI’m in La Serena now, and heading to Santiago tomorrow. Last night I went to the space observatory nearby and spent 2 hours on a tour, looking at the stars and planets through giant telescopes. Afterwards I got talking to the guide and he showed me around for another couple of hours, showing me the moon, Jupiter, and different constellations, and we hooked up my camera to the telescope. The photo on the left is of the moon rising above a mountain.

SucreI’m back in La Paz now, waiting for a few days for my Visa card to arrive at the embassy. The buses here were adventurous as they always are in Bolivia: flat tyres and aisles crammed with people. There was no need to run off the bus with everyone else as smoke poured out from underneath and people shouted “agua! agua!” this time though, as was the case on the 18-hour bus journey from Rurre to Trinidad a few weeks ago!

On the way up to La Paz, I stopped off at Potosí (the world’s highest city), and Sucre, Bolivia’s official capital. Just outside Sucre I saw the world’s largest dinosaur footprints. The tourist site was in true Bolivian style: it was also a construction site, and at one point we had to wait half an hour for an explosion to go off before we could walk any further!

It’s actually nice to be somewhere familiar and settled for a few days, a place where I know where the good restaurants are and I can completely unpack my bag; and La Paz is my favourite city in South America. It’s completely hectic and crazy, the roads are packed full of buses, the streets are lined with market stalls and you can buy everything on the markets here. One street will be full of stalls selling nothing but electric drills, and the next street will have nothing but silverware. Yesterday, I unknowingly entered the abattoir section, and saw entire sheep being gutted on the streets, with sheep heads lying around on the pavement. There are also those people who don’t have stalls and sell junk from their bag or their hands. Today I saw people offering their mobile phones to use; men holding up soft toys and llama fetuses (a great combination); a man walking around selling multi-coloured brooms, shouting “1 for $1!”; and just two minutes later, an old man walked down the street selling car aerials! It’s just a constant reminder of Del Boy and his suitcase.

I’ve finally updated my photo website, with photos of waterfalls, 7-coloured rocks, and me waving meat in front of aligators.

A 7 coloured rockI spent about a week in the north of Argentina, on the way back to Bolivia from Brazil. The north reminds me more of Bolivia and the other Andean countries than the rest of Argentina, which is more like Europe than how I picture South America. The north has little villages throughout the Andes, some which can only be reached by foot or donkey, and there are cactus forests eveywhere as the landscape is so dry. I spent a few days hiking to different villages and visiting multi-coloured rocks. The photo here is of a rock with seven different colours.

Everyone I’ve met in Argentina so far has been so friendly. I’ve met many travellers from Buenos Aires and they’re all keen to talk to everyone, as is everyone I sit next to on the bus. One thing I’ve noticed is how proud Argentines are of their country. One woman who sat next to me on the bus, telling me how I have to try the steak, the wine, the empañadas, as they’re all the best in the world in Argentina! Everytime we drove past another mountain or even a hill, she would point out how beautiful it is. I’ve never met such patriotic people.

I manage to lose my second bank card in Argentina so now I have to return to La Paz in Bolivia and hang around for about a week for it to arrive at the embassy. It’ll take a few days on buses to get there – and on Bolivian buses too, which means guaranteed delays, flat tyres, and packing in more people onto the bus than there are seats. I can’t wait.

A Brazilian fishI arrived in Argentina yesterday, after spending a week in Brazil. I spent 5 days in Bonito, which was needed after 3 days and nights on buses and trains in Bolivia. I got food poisoning along the way and spend most of the 21 hour train ride to Brazil being sick out of the window, and spent the first 2 days in Brazil with the worst diarrhea of my life! Well, it had to happen sometime…

The rivers in Bonito are amazingly clear; you can see fish swimming around like it’s tap water. We went snorkeling and swimming a few times in the rivers, but Brazil was too expensive to stay any longer, so I’m working my way back to Bolivia. Brazil was so different to Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. It’s all so clean, modern and well-organised, I could have been in Portugal. Definitely no chance of seeing chickens on buses in Brazil!

Foz do Igauçu, BrazilAfter Bonito, I said goodbye to my German friend and caught a bus to Foz do Iguaçu, the Brazilian side of the Iguaçu waterfalls – the widest falls in the world – which lie on the border of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Today I went to the Argentine side of the falls. I can’t find the words to describe the waterfalls, but hopefully this photo will. I’m waiting now for a 26 hour bus to Salta, in the north of Argentina, where I’ll visit the mountains for a few days before returning to Bolivia.

Me, Isla del SolI’ve been in Bolivia for about two weeks now; it’s become my favourite country in South America. There’s good weather, friendly people and it’s cheap – less than £1 for a room or a meal. I spent two days on Isla del Sol, an island on Lake Titicaca, 3800m above sea level. It feels isolated from the rest of the world – it’s without roads or flushing toilets, and there’s no electricty for 18 hours a day. There’s only mountains, Incan ruins, cobbled paths, and lots of donkeys, llamas and sheep, hanging out in the sun.

La Paz

I left the island with an Australian girl I met there and we headed to La Paz, the world’s highest capital (except that it’s not quite the capital). It couldn’t have been more different than Isla del Sol. People are everywhere, pushing past each other, and traffic is a constant standstill with people shouting out their windows and using their horns constantly. The hundreds of shoe-shine boys in the streets of La Paz all wear balaclavas and look like terrorists (it looks very intimidating, but apparently it’s shameful to be a shoe-shine boy in La Paz). Frequent protests paraded down the streets, with riot police on standby; I saw a police truck speeding past, the back of which was full with army soldiers with and their huge guns, like a scene out of a war film. Despite the appeance, I had no problems, and visited the coca museum, a musical instruments museum and some pre-Incan ruins.

Bolivian jungle

In a canoe, BoliviaAfter 3 days in La Paz I travelled 16 hours north by bus, down the world’s most dangerous road (it descends 3000m in 80km on edge-of-the-mountain roads), to a village called Rurre, and went on a 3 day tour of the jungle. I saw sloths and parrots, fed bananas to monkeys, meat to aligators (I almost lost an arm), and swam in the river with pink dolphins. They swam around us and played with our football. On the way back to Rurre, there was terrential rain and our jeep got stuck in the mud, so we all had to strip down to our shorts, get out of the jeep and into the mud and push!

Off to Brazil… 

I’m now in Santa Cruz, 28 hours by bus south-east of Rurre. We stopped off twice along the way, in little towns where people still use cattle and horse & cart to get around and dress like cowboys. The buses were like school buses and the roads unpaved, which made an interesting (and uncomfortable!) journey here. I’m waiting for a train to Brazil now. It’s called the “death train” for some reason and is another 21 hour journey; it’ll be my third consecutive night without a bed, so I’ll be glad to finally arrive in Brazil and not take any buses for a while! I met a 69 year old guy in Rurre who spent his whole life travelling, and he said there’s a place called Bonito in Brazil near the Bolivian border that has the clearest rivers he’s ever seen. So I’m heading there with a German guy I met in Rurre who liked the sound of the place too.

Yesterday, after 18 hours on a bus and shortly before getting on another overnight bus, we were desperate for a shower. We ordered a meal in a cheap local restaurant and when the owner asked if we wanted anything else, I said, “And a shower, too,” as a joke, and she said yes and let us use her shower while she cooked our meal!

A giant cactusI’ve just left the Galápagos islands after spending a week there, and arrived back in Guayaquil. I spent four days on a boat with 10 other people, spending each day on a different island and travelling to the next at night. It was a last minute decision, and was incredible. Each day we went snorkeling from the boat, and I swam with sea lions, sharks, and many colourful and weird coral fish. Snorkeling with sharks isn’t scary as they mind their own business, but the sea lions come right up to people inquisitively and look huge in the water! Most beaches were full of hundreds of sea lions sun-bathing and making strange noises, as well as crabs, iguanas, and cactii. I saw flamingos, sea turtles, one penguin, blue-footed boobies, and of course, giant tortoises.

It was almost surreal to see the fearlessness of the animals. None of the animals are afraid of people. Birds, crabs, sea lions and iguanas will come right up to a group of tourists on the beach to see what’s going on. The islands themselves are a paradise. The sea is transparent and the beaches have the finest, whitest sand I have ever seen. It was amazing to be there even before we saw any animals!

I have many photos of the Galápagos islands, which I hope to upload as soon as I can. Now though, I am back on the mainland, and tonight I’m finally leaving Ecuador after two months and heading to Bolivia by bus.

Me and my hammockAfter ten hours on a bus from Quito, I arrived at the coast of Ecuador – an entirely different world to the capital. No more shopping malls, high-rise apartments, and spring-like weather. Most people’s homes are single-room wooden huts set upon wooden stilts, farm animals are everywhere (even on the buses), and public transport (which almost everyone uses) means being piled into a rusty old bus or the back of a pickup truck. “Now,” I thought, “I feel like I’m in South America!” The heat and humidity there is so intense that it’s necessary to jump into the sea 4 or 5 times a day just to cool off. It’s strange to think this, but the Ecuadorians don’t go to the coast from January to April because it’s too hot!

I stayed in a tent on the beach for a week. I had a hammock next to my tent supported by palm trees (so free coconut juice…after some effort), a tap in the ground to wash myself and clothes, and there was a bar/restaurant on the beach nearby. I spent most of the time walking along the beaches and visiting nearby villages, went to the national park and twice to a fish market right on the beach. Photos are here.

It was sad to leave on the last day. While waiting for the bus, I sat on the street watching the world go by, and realised how beautiful Ecuador is. The streets may be dirty with litter and stray dogs, the pollution is bad and flies are everywhere, yet the people of Ecuador make the place beautiful. People go about their lives with such dignity, grace, and – especially – a smile; something I rarely see in the western world.

I’m leaving Quito tomorrow, and heading for the coast. I’ve been here for over a month now, and have grown to like the city. When I first arrived, I couldn’t understand a word of Spanish (the customs officer in the airport asked me, “¿Vive en Inglaterra?” and I had no idea what she said), but now after 3 weeks of lessons, I can get by, and just about have a conversation with people if they speak slowly enough.

Ecuadorian llama In the past month I’ve been to Otovalo, a famous Indian market; sat in hot volcanic springs in Papallacta; worked on a fungus farm; climbed Cotopaxi – the highest active volcano in the world (in a bus, and we didn’t go very far up); saw a ballet at the national theatre in Quito, followed by a horse & carriage tour of the old city; had my bag knifed on a bus (nothing was stolen, but one t-shirt needed emergency surgery); went in a boat around a lake in the crater of the Cotocacti volcano; cycled 20km through the Andes from Baños to a waterfall near Puyo; got tear gas in my eyes and lungs; and stood with both feet in two hemispheres at el mitad del mundo. Now though, it’s time for some tropical weather. Time for the malaria pills, insect repellent, and plenty of sunscreen.

I arrived in Quito a few days ago. I’m living with a family (well, a 65 year old woman, her 35 year old son, and her very happy dog, who sleeps in the same bed as her!), and I’m taking Spanish lessons everyday for 3 weeks. It costs $9/day to stay with the family, including food and a laundry service, and $6/hour for one-on-one tuition for Spanish lessons. I can’t imagine how expensive this would be in England. The Spanish lessons are definitely needed, as no one speaks English here, I can’t understand Spanish, and all I can do is say, “¡lo siento, soy inglés!”

Quito street vendorsI love noticing the differences here compared to home or the US. Not the little changes I have to make myself, like using bottled water to brush my teeth and putting toilet paper in a bin, but the differences in the streets. The people enthusiastically selling everything from fruit to CD-writing pens on the buses and streets, shouting endlessly in rapid Spanish; the bus drivers’ friends who literally hang off the buses as they’re speeding down the streets, trying to get more people onboard; the kids performing circus acts at red lights trying to make a few cents; the live music in bars, in the streets, and sometimes on the buses; the taxi drivers who stop for no one, even on zebra crossings; the view of mountains from anywhere in Quito; the security guards who protect every shop and building, all equipped with guns and bullets on their belts; and the near-weekly protests in the streets against increasing bus prices, student fees and the ‘free trade agreement’ with the US, which are always broken up with tear gas released by the police.

Yesterday, Meghan’s host family took us to their fungus farm in the countryside. We helped pick and package mushrooms ready to take them to the supermarket. Now I know why you must always wash fruit & vegetables before eating them! There was a little girl on the farm, teaching us how to say the different animals surrounding us on the farm. There were pigs, chickens, dogs, hens, and most farmyard animals. The girl thought it was so funny that her Spanish was better than ours. I just found it funny watching dogs understand Spanish.