April 2006

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.