La Paz, Bolivia
July 20, 2015
It is time to part company with Andy and Christine after 9 days together. We have certainly been through it since we first met nervously struggling through a blockade at 13,000 feet on the mountain road to Potosi. We leave Christine in pieces in her hotel room, feeling mentally and physically exhausted and struggling with food poisoning. Without our Irish friends, I am not sure how we would have got through the Potosi Siege. I am sad to say my goodbyes.
We can hear numerous loud explosions in La Paz. Some sound as loud as bombs going off and the police response sounds like rounds of plastic bullets.
We bump into Steve and Jennifer just before we leave. They seem in fine fettle considering what they have been through in Bolivia. They invite us to visit them in Hawaii and we hug and say our goodbyes.
I would love to see more of Bolivia, especially Sucre and the Amazon, but with our trip to Machu Picchu set for only a few days from now and political instability still threatening Bolivia, I feel it is time to get out.
We do have a couple more scares though before we leave La Paz. Firstly, there is a strike near the bus station and it is only because our driver is streetwise that he is able to negotiate a route to the station that avoids us getting stuck in the giant traffic jam in that part of the city.
Secondly, two Posh English muppets who we saw at the hostel last night are getting on the same cross border bus as us and they are clearly high as kites. They are acting all paranoid and dodgy with their bags and they are putting the fear of God into me that they are trying to get drugs through the border. You hear of backpackers putting drugs in fellow travellers' bags and I certainly wouldn't put it past these two clowns, especially as the driver has left the luggage compartment open for anyone who comes along to put their bags in. I find myself pacing up and down outside next to the luggage compartment keeping an eye on the English clowns. After Potosi, I wouldn't be completely surprised if a couple of idiots like this got us arrested at the border for smuggling drugs!
The bus climbs out of La Paz and up into the poor suburbs that cling to the mountains in every direction. You cannot really put into words what this city looks like. Cable cars link the lower part of the city to the higher altitude barrios. It is a macabre looking Gothic scene.
You might assume that reaching the plateau above La Paz marks the city limits but far from it. Once you reach the plateau of the Altiplano, the city begins to stretch for miles in front of you.
As well as missing out on places such as Sucre, we are also going to pass on a night on Lake Titicaca. My reasoning, quite apart from lack of time, is that we will spend much of today traversing the lake anyhow as we travel to the border.
Once we hit the shoreline of this the largest lake in South America (and the highest navigable in the world), I must say I find its scenery a little underwhelming compared to what went before in Bolivia and Chile. I've heard from reliable sources that the reed boat villages are a tourist freak show and if you visit you feel like you are participating in a reality TV show.
At one point the bus stops as we need to cross the Strait of Tiquina to the opposite shoreline. This is Bolivia all over: They are putting the bus on a ferry which is little more than two planks of wood, while the passengers pay for private boats to ferry us to the opposite shoreline. I am so tired and paranoid after what went before that this whole process gives me an almighty fear until we are safely on the other side. The mountainous backdrop is a beautiful sight though.
Back on board the bus rides the ''hills" of the 4000-metre high shoreline until we reach Copacabana - a jumping off and jumping on point for the majority of travellers passing through this part of the world. I wouldn't have minded overnighting here, especially as the town is experiencing a lovely sunset above the lake as we ride into town, but time is short and we need to drive on.
Annoyingly, the two Posh Boy Muppets are travelling all the way to Cusco it seems and whilst most of our fellow passengers jump off, they are with us to the Peruvian border.
After walking a couple hundred metres from the Bolivian to the Peruvian border posts, it is a painfully slow single file queue at the Peruvian border. One immediate new feature of Peru is garish Tuk Tuks. We stand in the dark slowly shuffling along for a good two hours before everyone is done, our passports are stamped and we are on our way.
We got through the border without the English muppets getting us all arrested and there is general relief about Katya and myself getting out of Bolivia after what went before in Potosi. Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed our Bolivian adventure in its countless colours, tastes and smells but I am more than relieved to get out of that place, haha.
I thought the trip from Chile to Bolivia, finishing up at the Salar de Uyuni was absolutely world class. If we forget the 'problems' in Potosi, I thought that city rates as one of my favourite colonial cities in the world. And La Paz was fascinating, and certainly safer and more comfortable than many Latin American cities. But Bolivia is also a shite show run by clowns. It constantly feels like something can or will go wrong.
We settle down for another 10-hour fear ride (to Cusco)....
....I wake a couple of times in the middle of the night as it feels like the bus is about to crash, questioning what the hell we are doing here at all....
....tonight I am feeling done with South America....
Sunday, July 19, 2015
La Paz, Bolivia
Is this really La Paz? Our bus has entered a heavily built up urban area in the early hours but there are no cars or people on the street. Our driver goes through every red light we come to rather than stopping. I guess this isn't exactly the best area of town then.
It is still dark so we don't get to see the Gothic cityscape of La Paz before we arrive at the bus station. This station is certainly a lot more modern and less intimidating than I'd expected. It is also very attractive which is hardly surprising when you (later) discover it was built by Gustave Eiffel. I've heard nightmares about criminal taxi drivers here so I want to play on the side of caution, asking everyone to wait a few minutes until the first shards of light brighten up the scene out on the streets.
We find a bloke who looks trustworthy and he is indeed a (very) nice, polite and helpful driver who takes us to a hotel we've got lined up. We catch our first glimpses of the city in the light. What a quite extraordinary looking place! It is difficult to think of too many cities in the world that are quite so striking in their geography...but more of that later when it is fully light!
It turns out the hotel next door is almost half the price and as well as having decent rooms, it also includes a decent buffet breakfast. I reckon 24 Pounds for a very well-located hotel room in a capital city with breakfast thrown in is a bargain by any standards.
Unfortunately, Christine appears to have food poisoning. In all likelihood she picked it up in Uyuni. If you read my previous comments about hygiene standards in that place, then her sudden illness is not a surprise.
The BBC have finally picked up the Potosi Siege story! You've got to laugh! They didn't bother touching it for a week and now we are all out safely they are reporting that we are all stuck there! Presstitutes.
Katya and I go for a stroll around La Paz. We visit the Witches Market, which is rather tamer than we had expected but with its llama fetuses hanging from its stalls, it is still grotesque in its own way. Some of the old ladies manning the stalls are very witch like and a couple of them go mental when backpackers attempt to take photos of the unborn llamas and dead frogs. Other items on sale include aphrodisiacs, herbs and seeds, as well as tiny slightly-scary-looking-figurines. The street itself is clean and feels safe giving a surprisingly commercial air. There again, there do appear to be a couple of male witch doctors shuffling around so you end up feeling safe-but-intimidated by it all.
The streets adjacent to this speak of a significant tourism industry with dozens of bars, restaurants and hotels as well as travel agencies selling trips to the ''Death Road", Lake Titicaca, and Cusco. It is all so much more 'normal' than I had expected of central La Paz.
Steep, narrow cobbled streets are lined with colourful apartment houses, some with gorgeous balconies. At the bottom of one such steep hill we come to attractive San Francisco Square, the city's major urban plaza. There's an a striking colonial Basilica here and crowds of people pacing around the square. There are also dozens of people sat in the middle of the road attempting to block the traffic. On closer inspection it appears they are protesters from Potosi!
We walk around the avenues and side streets of La Paz for a couple of hours unable to find a hotel in the downtown with a good aerial view of the capital's famous cityscape.
Eventually, we end up in Plaza Murillo, which is being guarded on all its side streets by riot police and army. These boys are seriously tooled up and ready for a fight. I'm not sure the lads from Potosi will get past this bunch without the loss of one or two lives. Clearly, the authorities are ready and waiting for a big fight. Once we manage to negotiate our way through we find a classic colonial square which is home to a number of the countries most important buildings including the residential palace and the parliament building. There are no tourists or indeed locals present but there are hundreds of police and army and thousands of pigeons. Walking downhill from here we pass another police line where the officers are irritable and rather confrontational The buildings here are not so well kept as the main square, with crumbling facades and dilapidated balconies.
Back in the more touristy area of the city we find a youth hostel that has some of the best views in the city from its top floor balcony. The hostel itself is dirty and full of backpacking kids barely out of school, most of whom seem high on one kind of drug or other.
The view here, enjoying a cold bottle of Huari, is world class. The rich live in fine town apartments in the centre, the middle class appear to live in upmarket tower blocks just off the centre, while the majority poor live in the sprawling barrios that cling to the mountains in every direction like something from a Gothic novel. One reason the poor live so high up is a practical one: it is less pleasant to live at 4200 metres when instead, if you have money, you can live down here at 3600 metres.
As the sun begins to set, the snow capped Mount Illimani towering above an already epicly high valley at 6400 metres below it, you appreciate that this is one of the world's most dramatic city views. I turn to hear a bottle smash on the floor and witness a couple of 18 year olds collapse from drunkenness. Barely one of these kids is admiring this quite sensational La Paz sunset. They are more interested in the E's and Wizz.
Back at the hotel, Christine is getting worse and is stuck in her room for the night. Katya, Andy and myself go out for dinner and a night of celebrating our escape from Potosi.
Events of the past week have clearly caught up with Andy and I as, sat alone in the hotel breakfast room in the early hours of the morning, we carefully wrap individual Skittles with coca leaves before munching our way through them with a swig of alcohol each time. The high is shall we say different but very pleasant and calming.
But the very fact that we go to bed in La Paz munching Skittles in coca leaves is something that is so silly that it will, in time, no doubt remain as one of my highlights of this South American adventure.
Saturday, July 18, 2015
We awaken in our Bolivian ice bucket. Three blankets and a plug-in-fire that doesn't seem to give off heat beyond a 20-centimetre radius only nulls the coldness slightly. Travel certainly has its highs and lows.
Andy and I are up early to try and book our way out of here. The flights out of Uyuni are all full. The chaos east of here means that many people are reaching Uyuni and getting snookered down the south west corner of Bolivia. Hence the flights are sold out for days. The decent (safe) luxury buses are also sold out. Is Uyuni purgatory? Are we destined to stay here forever? Potosi felt like purgatory but at least it was a really cool city.
Uyuni is a barely passable tourist trap. It is cold and overpriced. Standards are mediocre at best.
So many of us are stuck here that you have got to laugh. The camper van couple are driving around trying to come up with a game plan, Alexei doesn't seem to know what to do with himself, the Swiss couple made it here safely although it was a stressful escape from Potosi by all accounts and now they are knackered and just want to lie low, some of the French teenagers are looking to travel to Chile.
A rep from the Ministry of Tourism tracks us down at the hotel and gives us 200 Bolivianos to make up for the evacuation-bus-fee-that-shouldn't-have-been and to cover some of the costs of our hotel room. That was decent of them because they could have got away with never sorting us out.
Almost the whole day is spent hanging around Uyuni's main drag of half a dozen so called ''restaurants". There must be a couple hundred backpackers in town. I remembr a time when I didn't see a backpacker in days when I first went travelling. All of the 'pizzerias' have kids working in them and the hygiene standards are seriously questionable. There are dirty, stray dogs everywhere, some of them casually popping in and out of the restaurants. I have even spotted the very same little rascal who pissed on our backpacks the morning before the Potosi Siege started.
We end the day eating at an oasis of a restaurant in a hotel adjacent to the military barracks. Minuteman restaurant seems so so out of place in this town! The salad bar wouldn't be out of place in a posh European hotel. And the establishment serves as the perfect place to seek sanctuary for a few hours as it gets dark and the thermometer drops outside ahead of our escape from here.
I bump into Alexei outside taking photos and exchange man hugs as we say goodbye. The lad is a legend. I'm not sure I've ever met anybody quite like him before. I thought he was going to get us killed in Potosi but he is certainly a character who wears his heart on his sleeve. Apparently, he is planning to stay on in Bolivia and maybe live in the country for a few months! Good luck to the Russian nutter, haha!
At Uyuni Bus 'Station', where someone is munching on a guinea pig and more local punters are drunk than not, our seat numbers don't equate to our tickets and the bus is overbooked. Luckily, I was afraid of such eventualities and jumped on and bagged our seats.
The road from Uyuni north is less road and more quarry pit.
In the middle of the night they kick us off the bus out into the cold and then we jump onto a new coach bound for La Paz. As the past two weeks has felt like army training such an episode is now water off a duck's back.
Friday, July 17, 2015
Potosi, Bolivia (Siege Day 6)
There is a commotion downstairs. People are shouting and running around. We need to get to Koala Hostel urgently.
I sprint to the hostel, the altitude causing me to arrive puffing and panting. The Colonel is about to arrive.
Sure enough, Potosi's Head of Police arrives (with a photographer) and promises us today is the day. He has some kind of evacuation list and we are encouraged to add to this. He is very keen to snap a few images with the young French backpackers. Even in deep Bolivia, the powerful and influential always think about their PR machines.
Back at our hostel, the owners are not so optimistic as the Colonel about our imminent evacuation. They are apologising to me again about us getting dragged into this mess and they also suggest they think we could be here weeks.
There are cracks appearing in the solidarity of those remaining. The Swiss couple have decided to leave and try to talk their way past the various lines of siege blockades. They are leaving with their full backpacks and realise that they might have to walk twenty kilometres or more to safety, if such a thing is possible. Some of the French are also talking about making a run for it. This is not good. If the French get split up and it ends up with various foreign teenagers scattered here, there and everywhere, it could badly backfire. I think safety in numbers is our strength. But, yes, I guess we are reaching the point where we need to consider plans C and D. Increasingly, we are worried about the health of our American friends. I am also concerned for Katya's health. If she gets sick here, she could be in serious trouble with her condition. In fact, the pressure of it all finally gets too much for the two of us and our fears and frustrations with the siege provoke a huge row with Katya comically claiming she wants to get the Russian government to fly her back to Moscow and away from this nightmare. Thus far, both the Russian and American governments have ignored the plight of their citizens trapped here.
I continue tweeting, emailing and phoning anyone and everyone who might potentially get us out of this mess. I also make sure Alexei moves in with us so that if we do suddenly get the chance to escape, he won't miss the evacuation.
I speak to Radio France International: they are going to put a piece out on French national radio. That is a big one. After that I am sure the MSM will pick this up with their usual copy/paste news feed journalism. Presstitutes. I also speak to the British Vice Consul, the Bolivian Tourism Minister and, most significantly of all, I have managed to get the bloody Americans to final show an interest in our two elderly friends. The US Embassy calls and we make sure our story, which is in no need of being embellished, is embellished to such a degree that they are almost ready to send in the Marines. Steve lays it on pretty thick with the Ambassador and we share a smile as the phone conversation turns into a one-hour "you better come and save us or you are going to have to resign when this all goes badly wrong".
I am feeling absolutely mentally and physically drained from my efforts to get us all out of here. I'm trying to have phone call interviews with Argentine press and I can barely speak Spanish. I've got to go up to our room and get into bed for some peace and quiet and the chance to have a sleep.
I'm close to drifting off as there is an almighty racket downstairs. Vamos, Vamos! someone is shouting. I look over the balcony and see a handful of police telling us it is time to evacuate. The owners are scampering around knocking on doors and telling everyone we have to keave right now. Jeez, we only finished speaking to the US government ten minutes ago. Is this the effect of one phone call?
We hurriedly cram stuff into our backpacks and run out into the street. I still reckon this is gonna be another false dawn. But there are now more police in the street and many of the French are skipping towards us with their backpacks on.
Less than five minutes after I was about to fall asleep forty of us are surging through the backstreets of Potosi with all our bags and half a dozen police officers. It is so damn surreal.
We round a corner and there is a bus parked up waiting for us with the police encouraging us to dump our bags in the back immediately. You couldn't make this stuff up. The bus has got a giant image of a half naked woman on the back. Meanwhile, it is clear that some foreigners are missing. A young Brit and Irish went off to try and find some lunch despite me encouraging them to stay at the hostel in case the Colonel kept to his promise. Now they have missed their ticket out.
And there is also a Ukrainian couple who the French have apparently abandoned in the hostel, mainly because they apparently couldn't speak any French, English or Spanish and had been feeling ill. I plead with the French to make sure they come with us but they are having none of it. The police aren't willing to go back for them either. Am I willing to go back for them? No, not with Katya with me. But I do feel bad for not going back even though I've never met them. A couple of Argentines in our hostel are also staying put. They don't believe the evacuation will succeed and, besides, they want to go south to the Argentine border. There is no convincing them otherwise.
And so, with about 40 of us on the coach, we slowly set off towards the first road block. Sergei suddenly turns around and addresses everyone on the bus with some surreal speech about escape. "Oh now he thinks he is Jesus Christ," Irish Andy comments.
The young Irish and British are extremely fortunate as the police have tracked them down and managed to drive them to join us on the bus at the very last moment.
And a few hundred metres back we also spot a second bus - a double decker - which is transporting the sizeable Argentine contingent (almost certainly without our hostel friends from Salta).
At the first hardcore blockade some of the strikers get on the bus and begin pacing up and down the aisle. One of them has a wooden club with two huge nails protruding from the end. He could kill you with one blow with that. His face is grotesquely swollen, seemingly from chewing coca, with his right cheek swollen to four times its normal size. His eyes are red and I whisper to Katya to avoid making eye contact with him.
Once past that check point, we only manage another 200 metres before the bus is forced to stop again and the leaders of our convoy get out to negotiate with the seige men. There appears to be a priest, a union leader, a high ranking police officer and a couple of other civic leaders involved in trying to get us out.
Meanwhile, on the road side the reaction from the locals is a friendly one rather than the potentially violent one of stone throwing at the bus we feared. Many Potosi citizens are waving at us, giving the thumbs up, smiling or displaying expressions which seem to say: we are sorry you got caught up in all of this! The sight of them all lining the roadside as we leave is something to behold.
After an hour, we have reached one of the biggest blockades near the prison we trekked past on the way in (that seems like weeks ago.) Negotiations go on for some time here and some of us have time to get off the bus to chat and take photos of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The final blockade is the hardest of all to get past. Many of the tired and rough looking men seem completely opposed to letting us pass. I can understand why they might think their position is stronger with us stuck in the city. The Catholic priest seems to be the main man in this negotiation and what ever he has said has worked as diggers clear some of the earth, concrete and tyres from the road so that the bus can pass.
At this point, we all get off the bus and everyone exchanges handshakes and hugs. Team photos are taken and the civic leaders congratulate each other on managing to get all the foreigners out. We have made it! Well, we have escaped Potosi at least!
It is like the film credits of a spaggheti western as our bus drives on an empty mountain road into the sunet, llamas by the roadside, cacti to the left, cacti to the right, and Bolivian music blaring from the bus radio. The sense of relief is hard to explain.
One hour past the final blockade and you've got to laugh!! The driver calls me to the front and asks me to collect the bus fare from everyone. We are being charged for the evacuation bus!!! This is hillarious. It surely cannot be correct but so relieved am I that this man was willing to drive us through the blockades that I am willing to take his word for it and start collecting cash.
Back in Uyuni, the police escort us into the city, which is full of sand from a recent sandstorm. There is a welcoming committee waiting for us with hot drinks and handshakes. The hot drink is actually coffee mixed with coca cola, which seems fitting somehow. Apparently, the Bolivian Tourism Ministry and the city of Uyuni is going to put us up for the night! Wow, that is nice. I am imagining a night in the city's only four-star hotel, a hot shower and a well-earned brandy in its bar...
....turns out our "free hotel room" is a £4 hostel dorm!! It is Baltic in here and the owner knows nothing about it being ''free". You wouldn't want your worst enemy to stay in this place for a night! Many thanks to the Bolivian Tourism Ministry! You have surpassed yourselves!!
Me, Katya and the Irish couple find a three-star hotel charging £30 near the train station. Let's treat ourselves! We say. American Steve has booked into the only good hotel in town for about 100$. And who could blame him?!
It turns out our room is crap and there is no heating. I can hear screaming coming from the Irish couple's room as one of our friends is finally tipped over the edge by Bolivia. She did well to last so long haha.
Dinner in town is predictably bad. The service is slow and stupid and one of the chef's kids touches my food with his dirty fingers and helps himself to something. I nip out the back to see what is going on and spot that the kitchen is absolutely filthy.
We had dreamed of escape, imagining an evening of good food, good company, plenty of alcohol and a warm bed. In the end, all we have managed is the good company and a couple of absurdly overpriced cold beers. But we had that in Potosi!
We dodge past a pack of dogs fighting in the sand-filled dirty street outside the restaurant and retire for bed, tired, cold and pissed off .... but at least we are free ... if we can ever get out of here...
Thursday, July 16, 2015
Potosi, Bolivia (Siege day 5)
The people i have spoken to in the past 24 hours as desperation sinks in:
- The Vice Minister of the Interior
- La Nacion newspaper
- The head of the Bolivian Tourism Ministry
- The British Vice Consul
- The Times Newspaper
- Alexei (got food poisoning)
- Colonel Hinojosa, head of Potosi police
- Agence France Press
- The miserable woman who 'makes'breakfast and immediately afterwards padlocks away the salt and tea bags so we cannot get at them
- Mike Collier (legend and journalist friend)
- Rayyan Sabet-Perry (legend and journalist friend)
- A representative of the Catholic Church
- The British Ambassador
- A bloke who says he can get us more eggs and beer
- Rep from COMSIPA
- Bolivian journalists in the main square
Email to Bolivian government:
Hi (name withheld)
Here is the Carlos V Imperial Hostal Evacuation list: Northern Ireland 2, England 1, Russia 2, USA 2 (names withheld)
Due to events in Potosi, all tourist sites have been closed for a couple of weeks, with the only exception being the tours of the mines. I would assume this is because the miners still want visitors to witness the atrocious and terribly dangerous conditions they have to work in. Personally speaking, I just don't fancy going down those mines as it is genuinely unsafe. Countless men have died down there over the years, decades and centuries.
Strangely, they have decided to open up the Casa Moneda today for an hour but we have been tipped off it is only possible to get in if you knock. For one reason or another I am the only one of the Potosi 7 who wants to pay a visit. I often skip expensive museums because budgets simply don't allow but I want to get a better understanding of the history of this remarkable city.
Casa de la moneda by Elemaki/wikimedia commons
Hundreds in a day normally visit the Casa Moneda – the Bolivian National Mint. Today it is literally only me. I am on my back at the scale of this place. And the penny has finally dropped about just how significant Potosi was to the Spanish Empire. That big mountain peak , Cerro Rico that looms over Potosi, was the difference between the Spanish remaining part of the world elite for centuries. The same applies to the Catholic Church. Literally, one mountain changed and shaped the world. No wonder that mountain is central to so much Spanish and Catholic art from that period (see main image) Without that hill of silver the Spanish would not have been able to afford to build one of the greatest empires in history. From the 1500s, Potosi and parts of Mexico provided the Spanish with unfathomable amounts of wealth. During the 16th century alone, their silver reserves were said to be worth up to $2 trillion in today's values.
The cost was tens of thousands of deaths from mercury poisoning, lung disease and sub-human conditions. More than 30,000 African slaves are said to have been brought here to work and die.
Truly, Potosi was once the world's richest city and one of its most populous (second largest in the Americas at one point with 200,000 people, many of them rich Europeans). The expression 'to be worth a fortune' comes from Potosi. Valer un Potosi – to be worth a Potosi. And the mint mark of Potosi is believed, by many, to be where the US dollar sign originated from.
Today, as the poorest city in Bolivia (population now only 240,000), oh how it has been raped and abused and left to die. Almost 500 years of digging for silver, then tin and then zinc, mean that parts of the mountain could collapse soon. Already, massive sinkholes have appeared. We Europeans must teach our children and their children about all the great atrocities committed by our rich nations over the centuries instead of celebrating our disgusting empires.
The lovely guide who has shown me around tells me she fears what will happen in the next week or two. She believes we must get out of the city soon before something really bad happens. She thinks the city has no future under Morales. Five years ago apparently, a similar general strike was held in Potosi, which ended when the government promised a number of things for the city, including a new cement factory, new hospitals and significant direct investment. None of those promises were ever kept.
Afterwards, speechless as I contemplate the scale of what took place in this city over the centuries, I wander back taking in the views of stunning Potosi.
Some images of Potosi old town:
(click on images to enlarge)
Agence France Press:
I’m (name withheld), of AFP news agency. We’d received a message from our colleague in Riga, and he told us you were in trouble in Potosi, because of a general strike in that city. Is it possible to know about your situation, and maybe can you give us a local phone number (from the hotel maybe or a person you are close there) for calling you? We were trying to reach you in your Riga’s number but it didn´t work. Also I wasn’t able to find your WhatsApp. Please, let´s us know any news, and we really hope things became better soon. Regards
British Head Consul: I understand the representative from the Tourism Ministry has been in touch with you but please let me know if you still have concerns about the evacuation arrangements. We understand the evacuation by coach will take place later today and you should be taken to La Paz (if this still is your preference).
Letter to Bolivian government: the colonel was not there as promised. the police do not have an organised evacuation plan. they are talking about us leaving in a bus organised by a hostel but there is no guarantee of safety. there is a mass demo planned here at 2 and already people are arriving from every direction
It is another mass demo day. As much as I would like to, rather than risking watching it from nearby, I think it is best to follow the live TV coverage from the safety of our hotel. Po-to-si, ley ley ley, the protesters repeat over and over again. From time to time, sticks of dynamite are thrown a few yards in front of the lead marchers, exploding with a large bang each time, a few seconds later.
It is officially confirmed that yesterday's evacuation of the Argentines was botched. The news doesn't fill any of us with confidence.
Meanwhile, the journalist from the Times doesn't think our story is newsworthy. But, when I try to contact her on Facebook and she ignores my messages, I notice she's spent half of her day in London posting photos and 'hilarious tit bits' about her bloody dogs. I despair. Now that our situation has become worryingly precarious I see what other people are emailing and tweeting about outside the bubble of Bolivia and it all seems like a complete and utter load of bollocks. Pardon my French. Nonsense about which striker is going to some Premier league club, photos of what people had for lunch, wasn't doo dah whatsit brilliant on Britain's Got Talent last night. I feel like I am living in reality and all those people are occupying some candy floss dream world.
In the evening, and seemingly out of the blue, we are suddenly told to pack and follow someone to Koala Hostel. As the news comes only from our hotel manager - and not from the police or embassies - we are a little suspicious this news is genuine. The hotel staff have become rude and nervous during the past 24 hours; as if our presence has begun to threaten their own security. And they are adamant we must leave right now, attempting to overcharge poor Alexei, who is only just recovering from his bout of food poisoning, in the process. It seems ironic that I have spent five days in such an amazing room; the poshest backpacker pad I have ever had.
The hotel boss skips through the main square and down some side streets to the hostel. As the seven of us are carrying our backpacks, we are attracting lots of attention from the locals.
Once we arrive, we stand in the street with our rucksacks in the darkness but there is no sign of the police and army. Our former hotel manager scuttles off into the shadows before we can get an answer from him about what the hell is going on.
Inside the hostel, I speak to some French teenagers who tell us the evacuation has been called off. Haha. So all they have done has corralled all the non-Argentines into one place. For the second day running, our evacuation out of Potosi has been abandoned or botched. Christine doesn't think we will get out of here at all and wants to leave early tomorrow morning. Andy is quickly talking sense into her. "Which direction are you gonna go in?" "Down there." "And then where? And where after that?"
The French are also discussing leaving as a group early doors. I am trying to convince everyone to stick together and explain to the French that I am speaking to the foreign press about their plight. They came here to volunteer and help the local poor. I think when the foreign press hears that they did this and are now trapped, there will be enormous pressure on the authorities and local civic leaders to evacuate them. The French could be every foreigner's ticket out of here.
There is actually no room for us in the hostel although there is another hostel with an almost identical name nearby called the 'Koala Den'. The owners are extremely friendly and accommodating.
We go for a walk in our new neighbourhood. Many street sellers are out and nobody is stopping them. The atmosphere has changed for some reason. It leaves me with a sense of genuine hope, even if most of the Potosi 7 are resigned to defeat after our second botched evacuation in two days.
Back at the hostel, Andy and I are using twitter to push our message. A couple of notable, well-followed people have retweeted us and More Than a Game is picking up lots and lots of new followers, many of them media people and interested parties with thousands if not tens of thousands of individual followers. I have never been a fan of twitter but I can see how it can be used by anyone to potentially push a message. An Argentine journalist contacts me after picking up some of my posts from the #potosi hashtag. Better still, a reputable French journalist is in touch. I feel Andy and I are gaining momentum in our push to use the media to get us out of here.
Near the Koala Den, there is a little convenience shop where you can bang on the corrugated iron and mutter some passwords to the lady hidden in the shadows. More beer, eggs and noodles!
After an evening of twitter and emails, Andy and I sit over a couple of beers discussing our predicament.
What happens after a city has been raped and abused for centuries? This is what happens. The two of us are in total solidarity with the people of Potosi and believe in their struggle. We don't blame them for this general strike and siege. If I were one of them, I would join them. But I am not and I would just like them to let me and my friends leave in peace as this is not our fight.
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Potosi, Bolivia (Seige day four)
It's day 4 in the Big Brother house...
It is certainly starting to feel like that.
Early doors, I renegotiate the price of all of our hotel rooms with the boss. My reasoning is that with only one functioning bank machine in town and most of us hoarding what little cash we could access from our accounts, once all the Bolivianos are gone, they are gone, and we won't be able to pay up anyway. I mean, we could be staying at the Hotel California for weeks or even a couple of months. The hotel boss agrees to a 20% discount for the #Potosi7. Our amazing suite is now costing me a bit less than 20 quid per night, haha.
There are rumours all 'extranjeros' will be evacuated tomorrow in a one-hour window of opportunity during some protest that is due to take place.
There are no sounds of explosions until 10am. And more good news: those three crucifixions we heard about that put the fear of God into us, were self-imposed (in protest) rather than imposed! Those involved are said to be in decent health.
Andy, Christine and I are now busy speaking to anyone and everyone we can online, who might be able to help us in some way. We also plan to try our luck with the police and the unions today. I've also sent out an SOS to a couple of journalist mates – Mike and Rayyan - in the hope they can pull some strings with the UK press.
I must confess, I am worried about the health of our elderly American friends. They are in their mid-60s and both have apparently had cancer in the past as well as having dodgy tickers. Imagine the stress on their bodies up here at 14,000 feet! I know Steve is really concerned about Jennifer. Yes, Steve is a chilled ex-hippie, with a happy-go-lucky outlook on life, but he is 65 not 25 and he knows we are all in a tight spot here. The US Embassy has totally blanked him so he knows, as it stands, he is personally responsible for getting him and his missus out of here.
British Embassy: (14 July)
Thank you for your email. We would advise you to stay in Potosi for now. To leave, you would have to cross blockades and it is not even certain you will find transport. I spoke to our contacts in Potosi today and we understand most hotels and some restaurants are operating, but you may have to knock on the door and ask.We are closely monitoring the situation and working with other EU Embassies on how we can best support our citizens, especially if the situation continues or deteriorates. If our advice to British Nationals changes, we will update travel advice accordingly. Please do get in touch if you require support in getting medical attention for you or your partner.
Reply: (14 July)
I appreciate your rapid response to my email. I would like to update you with some information:
I appreciate that problems persist in Bolivia on a weekly basis, but I suspect the British Embassy is underestimating the gravity of this situation. The Bolivian state has lost total control of the city of Potosi. Is there any dialogue about the possibility of evacuating all foreign nationals from Potosi?
My suggestion: dialogue with the strike leaders, the local municipality and the police about evacuating all foreign nationals in a bus convey escorted out of the city to Sucre by security forces. All foreign nationals are registered at local hotels so this could be coordinated without too many complications. I also suggest that bus companies are prevented from transporting unsuspecting foreign nationals from the cities of Uyuni and Sucre and dumped on the edge of the city as we were. It should also be agreed that no more foreign nationals be allowed into the city on foot through the barricades. Less foreigners have arrived today but to our knowledge at least five more got through and are now trapped here.
For your information, I have drafted a letter to the British press informing them of our dire situation. I am considering sending this out in the late afternoon today if I see no hope of our circumstances improving. In the space of a few hours, media interest in Argentina about the plight of their nationals here has gone from one story to dozens. It seems to me, those Argentines now have more chance of getting out of here because of this. I feel the same might happen if the British press take this story. I am going to bed now and will check my email account again tomorrow morning. Thanks once again for your rapid response to my first email. I dearly hope that we will find some hope of getting out of this frightening situation in the next 24 hours.
British Embassy (15 July):
Thank you for your information. Is there any update today on what you are seeing? The reports we have received from our contacts do not suggest the security of tourists is at risk but please send us further information if this is not your experience. We are in contact with the government, along with other Embassies, and pushing hard for them to come up for options to help tourists affected. We are not aware that more tourists are entering the city – is this still happening and how are they doing so? We are also gathering information about the number of British tourists affected. If you are aware of other British Nationals there could you encourage them to get in touch with us via this email address or by phone on (number withheld)
British Embassy (15 July) :
The Bolivian government are asking us for all your contact details , so that they can assist you and organise an evacuation. Please could you send us the details and ask any other British Nationals to do the same.
British Embassy (15 July) :
(name withheld) is the person in the government organising the evacuation. Could you please email him as they are trying to find out how many people need to leave.
Mike and Rayyan are in touch. There is potentially interest from the Times, Telegraph and the BBC.
Alexei is sick in his room. I am also starting to think Alexei has been putting on a bit of an act and that he is actually scared by our predicament. Don't get me wrong – this boy can look after himself - but with him trying to get help from the Russian embassy and getting blanked I sense he is a little worried about how the hell we are gonna get out of here safely.
The British Embassy advised me to come to the police station and meet the head of the police, Colonel Hinojosa, who is apparently making a list of all nationals to be evacuated. Once inside the station, it is quickly apparent that no such list exists. The colonel is nowhere to be seen. If my Spanish serves me correctly they seem to be suggesting he is busy having coffee somewhere else in town. It becomes apparent the police have no concrete plan and no lists but do suggest we speak with the people at Koala Hostel, who they say are trying to formulate an escape plan.
There is a press report that a French national has been attacked in Potosi.
For a couple of hours, the front doors of the hotel are locked and we are told we must stay indoors as nobody can guarantee our safety during the latest march. There are a lot of explosions in the streets. I don't even feel safe enough to stand on the hotel balcony in case someone lobs a dynamite stick our way.
A lady from the Times calls me and says she might cover the story, although she sounds disappointed when I tell her none of the foreigners in the city have been murdered. She says she will do her best to get something published but complains it is 'hard to get any space in the newspaper because it is all about the Greek Crisis at the moment'. 'Surely four lines about British nationals being forcefully trapped in a foreign city has some appeal for your readers?'I suggest. 'Ah, I am not sure. Everyone is focusing on Greece. Perhaps if things get more serious I can help you.'
Up at the COMCIPO offices there has been a big meeting of the unions and community leaders where, among many issues, the subject of the trapped foreigners was brought up. We arrive shortly after it finishes to find out where we stand. Stressed officials are handing out special vouchers that can be stuck in the front of cars to enable them to officially get past the blockades. They have nothing to offer us, they say. They are not willing to stick us in any of said cars to evacuate us.
Briefly, we speak to an affable Swiss couple, who came here in a camper van.
We continue to press our case with COMCIPO and after half an hour of various broken Spanish conversations we are told to follow one bloke to our hotel who will apparently lead us to an evacuation bus. Ive no confidence in any of this.
Walking back from the top of the old town, with its beautiful red-roofed houses that put one in mind of Romania, suddenly someone throws a brick through the window of a camper van (must belong to the Swiss) parked up in the street. Whoever did it, quickly disappears off down a side street, while locals call the police. At the same time we can hear the loud noise of a marching band nearby and the distant sounds of explosions.
Andy and I race back to the hostel and tell Jennifer, Steve, Alexei, Christine and Katya to pack so we can run for the 'evacuation bus'. But, hang on! The hotel staff are telling us we shouldn't trust the bloke who is offering to evacuate us and that we shouldn't go with him.
The seven of us deliberate about whether to go down to the alleged bus. I am against it. I don't believe any evacuation would be attempted just as it gets dark. Surely the bus would end up getting stoned? After discussing it we agree that it is better to sit tight and not risk the bus. The very fact that the hotel staff don't trust the bloke who is taking us is enough to put me off.
Very soon, news filters in that the evacuation has been botched. A crowd of youths surrounded the bus (which was full of Argentines) and the decision was made to not attempt to leave the city.
Email to British embassy:
can you please call the hotel? we have no credit/mobiles and internet keeps going down. the union evacuation seems to have gone wrong with youths near the buses waiting for people to leave for sucre. we have stayed in our hotel, it is the hotel you called earlier this week with the northern ireland couple
In the evening, we all decide to stay in the hotel and not venture out, as we don't feel safe. There is a sinister feel out on the streets today. All I've eaten today is jam and crackers and a bag of salted crisps.
The situation in Potosi has now become very worrisome. We are not sure we can trust those who are said to be organising the evacuation but, at the same time, Potosi suddenly feels genuinely dangerous. Do we try to stick or twist if another 'evacuation offer' presents itself tomorrow?
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night
There she stood in the doorway;
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself,
"This could be Heaven or this could be Hell"
Then she lit up a candle and she showed me the way
There were voices down the corridor,
I thought I heard them say...
Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place (Such a lovely place)
Such a lovely face
Plenty of room at the Hotel California
Any time of year (Any time of year)
You can find it here
Andy hums the tune to the Hotel California. He has me in tears of laughter for a second or two.
Bread has run out so it is now crackers and jam for breakfast. Incredibly, the miserable woman who serves us our meager breakfast padlocks the cupboard that contains the salt and tea bags so we cannot help ourselves during the day. It comes to something when someone thinks you are going to steal salt.
Yesterday's dust storm has gone and it is sunny and considerably less boistrous today. A few more tourists have 'made it in' to Potosi but, as the final verse of the song says: “You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave! "
Eight out of nine bank machines we've tried now have no cash. We do at least bump into the elderly american couple I met on the first day, who've been staying at a Christian hostel nearby. I've convinced them to come and move into our hotel so they are more comfortable, warm and we are all in the same place. The American lady, Jennifer, who is in her mid sixties, has fortunately got over her altitude sickness, which had confined her to bed. The only other foreigner we have met today during our time out on the streets is a German bloke here on a motorbike who had no problems getting through the blockades until the last one where he was surrounded by people shouting and acting quite aggressively towards him. And our number in the hotel has grown to seven as a Russian bloke called Alexei has just checked in downstairs. Alexei says he is in Bolivia buying silver and precious stones to help finance his travels.
By mid-afternoon the atmosphere in town has changed drastically again and there is a riot in the main square only 100 metres away from us. We are not sure of the scale of the fighting with the police because we are all trying to be sensible and not attend any mass demonstrations where there could be explosions and gunfire. And as if the sound of explosions, smashing glass and crowds shouting weren't intimidating enough a huge dust storm has begun engulfing the city, giving the sky a menacing orange glow and obscuring the distant mountains.
I've been in more regular contact with the British Embassy. The Vice Consul has now put me in charge with the Ambassador but they are both saying they can do almost nothing to get us out of our predicament. If anything, I am more use to them, as they have no reliable information about events from on the ground in Potosi. My journalist background suddenly makes me a trusted source of information. That's fine because I will play the journalist card to our advantage if things worsen here.
We, 'the Potosi seven', are not the only foreigners stuck in Potosi. According to one of Argentina's leading newspapers there are an estimated 80 Argentines – most of them elderly – trapped here. They had been heading home after attending the Pope's visit to La Paz a few days ago. Many of them are said to be too scared to leave their hotels and they are calling upon President Kirchner to step in and negotiate their evacuation. There are rumours that an Argentine army Hercules might be brought in to airlift them out.
We return to the 'secret restaurant' for dinner for more tasty rosti and quinoa soup washed down with Johnny Walker. There is even another couple dining here, eating rather repulsive smelling llama meat. Alexei has joined us. On first meeting him I got the impression he was a rather cool adventurer but this evening he is acting like the whole Potosi Seige is one big funny game. He was way too loud for my liking as we walked here through the half deserted streets; drawing more attention to us all than I would have wished. Now, in the restaurant, he is booming so loudly that I am sure passers by in the street can hear him, and he also seems to think that our predicament is hilarious rather than worrisome.
Case in point, some balaclava-clad motorbike riders pass along our street looking for strike breakers and Alexei has to be told twice to shut the **** up. Our host turns the lights off, gesticulates for all of us to be quiet and even seems to suggest it might be better if we hide by sitting on the floor. The motorbike rider in question has cut his engine so he can glide silently down the hill and catch people unawares. It is one of those moments when you realise the situation you find yourself in might be far more dangerous than you ever appreciated. What would happen if he forced his way in here? Would we be arrested and detained? At the end of the day, these people are not police, army or part of the municipality but thugs appointed by the strikers. I would imagine some of them are not nice people.
Back at the hotel, Andy and I sit up until late drinking Bolivian beer and discussing what the hell we should do. Today's riot and general bad vibe is troubling us both. I guess it has dawned on us both that we are well and truly marooned here. The plan tomorrow is to step it up with the embassies, the press and with our own tweets and online postings.
As if to emphasise the need for action, a drunken mob passes by the hotel at 2am. They sing and shout,chuck a couple of firecrackers and bang on the doors of buildings they pass. It causes my heart to pound in fear. They likely know half a dozen foreigners are staying here. What if they suddenly decide to attack the hotel now? Surely they would have no problem breaking in!
Eventually, the mob passes. But it is another hour or two before the fear abates and I can finally drift off to sleep.
Monday, July 13, 2015
It feels like revolution is in the air.
While Sunday evening Potosi felt safe and laid back, Monday morning feels rather dangerous and threatening. The city doesn't feel particularly safe as the general rule we are being told is: stay away from demonstrations (which are constant and numerous). This is all very well but the problem here being you walk down a couple of quiet, narrow streets and then, just like that, a demonstration suddenly appears from nowhere coming in your direction. At one point, during a stroll, we actually seem to be comically leading one particular demo that appears out of a side street with a band playing, and follows on 5 yards behind us up one hill. The majority of the demos are peaceful and friendly but we've no idea if the police or army are about to show up.
Since noon time a dusty wind has been blowing in giving the town a rougher air to it as the sun is blocked out by a sandy smog.
Most of the day is spent holed up in the hotel. I am not happy about taking Katya around the streets and putting her in danger.
As we go into the afternoon, firecrackers keep going off and dust is engulfing the town, giving it a sinister feel. All the time, we can hear the sound of distant explosions and locals shouting and screaming.
We do venture out for dinner. There is, apparently, only one place in the whole of Potosi, which is open, and we need to do a secret knock to get in. Outside it, the windows are covered with corrugated iron and after several failed attempts to get someone to open the front door, we begin walking away, until a man appears at the door, checks in both directions, and gesticulates that we should get inside as quickly as possible.
Once inside the elderly Bolivian owner and his wife are offering a full menu minus the products that are no longer available due to 'the seige' - such as bread. He does though have quinoa soup and Johnny Walker Red Label, so we're not exactly slumming it.
Just as he brings out our soups, motorbike thugs drive past checking for strike breakers and the host hits the lights and tells us to be absolutely silent. This is truly absurd.
Leaving 'the secret restaurant' at 7.30 the streets are calm (aside from the motorbike squads) and people are scurrying about in the darkness trying to buy resources from two or three hole-in-the-wall shops that have suddenly opened up. Being Irish, English and Russian we buy eggs and beer. Jeez this feels like some kind of war film with people out scurrying around, breaking curfew buying a few eggs and water.
All jokes aside though, how the hell are we going to get out of here?
Earlier today, I wrote to the British embassy in La Paz telling them of our situation. They have replied, telling us: under no circumstances try to cross the blockades.
That is easy for them to say when there are no shops open selling products, half of the bank machines have stopped working, and we are not allowed to leave the city. This is a pretty unique situation as even when war breaks out you can at least attempt to evacuate through part of a city. Here though, a night time run could end with us being attacked by the motorbike squads, while a pre-dawn, early morning 3-hour hike with 30 kilos at 4100 metres could kill us, if we don't get attacked by a protest march. WTF?!
At 10pm a loud boistrous march goes past our hotel. Andy and I nervously peer out through the curtains of the balcony, half cut from our beer and eggs diet. We just don't really understand how dangerous the situation is. Are they likely to turn on the few foreigners marooned in the city or couldn't they give a damn about us?
Just before bed, trawling the Internet for any news we can find about the general strike, I discover a local paper is running a story about three people being crucified just outside of Potosi!! It is not clear whether they elected to be crucified in protest or if they were nailed to a cross for some misdemeanour or other.
It is fair to say I don't sleep very well on Monday night.
Sunday, July 12, 2015
Uyuni - Potosi, Bolivia
When a wet, scraggy-haired street dog trots into the sub-zero cafe you are enjoying a crack-of-dawn breakfast in and casually urinates all over your backpacks, you know it is going to be one of those days.
Fast forward six hours later and our very local bus - seating 25, standing 10, lying on the floor 2, dogs 3 - has come to a screeching halt. Up on the dusty hill above there is a rudimentary roadblock and the driver says he is too worried about our safety to risk continuing. He suggests the bus might get attacked. And so, after five hours in this sardine tin of a bus from Uyuni we get off and ponder what the bloody hell to do next. It is suggested that Potosi is only a two-hour walk away. That is a two-hour walk with 20 kilo backpacks at 4000 metres above sea level.
We walk to the first blockade to see whether they are aggressive about us crossing but there is no problem, although I certainly wouldn't describe the striking miners as being particularly pleased to see us. Meanwhile, every car, bus or motorbike which reaches the first blockade is told they cannot go any further, regardless of how many young babies or pregnant women there might be present.
Coming from the opposite direction, an old man, with quite a pace on him, tells me it is 4km to Potosi. A Northern Irish couple - Andy and Christine - have decided to press ahead with us and see whether we can all make it to Potosi. After all, it is 2pm and we have more than four hours of light left. I reason that if we turn back now, the bus may have gone and we might get stuck in the middle of nowhere, five hours away from safety.
So we press ahead and with every step uphill the stress of high altitude can be felt upon our bodies. 20 metres uphill and you soon feel out of breath.
We run into the three Brasilian girls who were on the three-day Salt Lake tour with us. They set off on a bus 90 minutes before us this morning. However, they are now walking back very slowly in our direction. Turns out one of the girls only made it to the top of the second hill with her backpacks before a bout of altitude sickness kicked in. She is struggling to breath, has been vomiting, and doesn't look in a good way. The girls think it best they turn back and hope one of the buses that didn't make it through the blockade will take them back to Uyuni before dark. We discuss turning back and going with them as the girls also think it is two hours to Potosi. A passing stranger assures me it is 4km tops.
So we perservere and continue walking on. I am carrying Katya's travel bag - fearful she might get altitude sickness - and have around 35 kilos on my back and shoulders. That is a hell of a weight at 4000 metres, let me tell you.
We pass a pair of very dodgy 20-something blokes, one gripping a wooden club. They look like they are off their heads on something, and I don't like the way they look at the two women as they pass us, menacingly. There are more blockades full of striking miners. At one such blockage, sizable rocks cover the entire road, while dumper trucks block the whole width a few metres beyond. It would take an army to get through here.
After an hour we reach the top of a hill and can see Potosi in the distance, high on the next hill. The lower reaches of the city look poor while, higher up, church spires dot the landscape below the conical-shaped mountain, which towers above the silver city.
Everyone travelling by foot in this direction is now cutting across wasteland rather than continuing to follow the main road. One local I ask in my broken Spanish reassures me we will apparently save a couple of kilometres by abandoning the main road.
Because of the altitude and the need to conserve energy and air I have spoken very little to our new Northern Irish friends. I can sense that Andy, like me, is really worried about the peril he is putting his partner in with this foolhardy trek. The two of us jokingly make reference to the black and white film Ice Cold in Alex, where two army officers promise themselves a cold beer when they reach the safety of the city of Alexandria. Yes, a cold beer will certainly be called for when we get out of this tight spot.
We've reached the perimeter of a high security prison with eight guard towers. Beyond it lies waste ground full of overgrown bushes. To reach Potosi we need to walk across around 800 metres of this wasteland. Problem is some lads are hanging around in said waste ground and all of them have bandarnas covering their faces, suggesting they are up to no good. I don't trust the situation and ask the Irish not to continue on.
Plan C, we walk slowly up the side of the prison and try to cross near one of the prison guard towers, hoping that if things go Pete Tong, the guard might at least contact the authorities … wherever they might be. But after we throw our bags across from the road to the waste ground, which has a five foot drop to a ditch in the middle, we spot another tracksuited local lad acting conspiculously dodgy nearby. How the hell have we got ourselves into this situation? I keep asking myself. This is not good, not good at all. I suggest we let said lad walk on and see what he does. And, hey presto! he disappears behind the undergrowth before finally walking back in our direction all shifty a few minutes later.
All of us still hanging around on the edge of the waste ground, Katya spots one lone car drop off people near the far end of the prison, before driving back down the hill, where she tries to stop it. The old man driving it says he is willing to try and take us over the bumpy waste ground and on up the hill ... but not into the centre of the city as there is a really big road block there. So, this elderly life saver (and his wife) has the four of us crammed in his back seats and all of our things stuffed in the boot. The weight almost writes off his aging motor as he struggles to manouvre it over the rocky ground.
On past the waste ground, some poor suburbs and further on to the silver mines we go. Potosi looks rough with the slag heaps of the mine the first thing you see but, the suburbs don't look terribly dodgy as one might expect of Bolivia's poorest city.
Our driver drops us a few metres back from the blockade and we give him $7, which he seems very happy with considering he didn't ask for any money. But as soon as we step out he is accosted by locals suggesting he has broken the strike by giving a taxi service; his is only the second car we have seen since we got off the bus and, aside from one ambulance and a couple of bicycles, no other vehicles have been seen. I suggest to one of the men questioning him that we didn't give him any money and he was just helping us out in a tight spot.
Close by is a hardcore blockade where we are fearful of crossing. Rocks are scattered all over the streets as if there was previously some riot with the police or army. Those manning the checkpoint actually take the piss out of us when I ask in which direction we should go for the tourist area of Potosi. They clearly don't want us here.
Marching on in the direction of some church spires we end up on a deserted street where an old woman, who looks like a fairytale witch, is shouting aloud and muttering to herself about 'Potosi', “people' and 'Bolivia'. She is actually so scary looking that in the context of the day we have had she manages to make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck in some kind of fear of her. All of this is like a very, very bad dream.
Onwards we go, forever uphill, and finally we reach what looks like European streets. We all collapse with our bags in the main plaza, which is full of poker-faced Bolivian ladies in their strange looking bowler hats, all of them sat on the pavement eating or chatting. Already the sense of relief is massive.
I leave the others and go for a wander. Absolutely everything seems to be closed either because it is Sunday or for the strike. But fortuitously I chance upon a pizzeria in a building with an attractive balcony that wouldnt be out of place in Tbilisi. Excitedly I go back and fetch the others.
Once everyone is safely inside and beers have been ordered, I can see both girls are massively relieved; Katya suddenly cries from relief. The girls did well to keep it all inside because clearly they were both very scared.
According to the Lonely Planet, there is a gorgeous hostel fifty yards up the road. While we are waiting for the food I nip out to see if it is open so I can book us some overnight accommodation before we try to escape early tomorrow. After today's tribulations and the testing time that Bolivia has been these past few days, I unashamedly book the very best room in the hostel – the beautiful suite (25 quid), which wouldn't be out of place in a 200 quid per night heritage hotel in England. I feel slightly guilty for grabbing this before Andy and Christine but I think this room might help Katya keep her sanity.
Before crashing for the night we go for a thirty minute wander of the nearby streets. This city is absolutely stunning. The architecture – much of it hundreds of years old – is incredible and would put most cities (anywhere in the world) to shame. There are elements of Seville, Tiblisi, Lisbon and other great cities about Potosi, which was, once upon a time, the richest city not only in the Americas but in the whole world.
It is a chilled and enjoyable ending to an otherwise extremely testing day. But we made it through the blockades and each of us feels a sense of achievement and great adventure.
Saturday, July 11, 2015
Salar de Uyuni - Uyuni, Bolivia
Life is an illusion. Almost nothing is how it really seems. That is partly why absurdly strange places such as Salar de Uyuni feel completely real and unreal at the very same time. It doesn't get much more 'real' than this stunning place.
Whiteness and blueness envelope everything: the brilliant white of the world's largest salt flats and the blue of the endless azure sky. An endless patchwork of hexagonal-shaped tiles stretches away in every direction; millions upon millions upon millions of them filling 10,000 square kilometres of whiteness. The only time this whiteness is broken is by an island of cacti in the middle of the salt flats. Apologies for the over use of the word 'surreal' but...some cactus are several metres high and date back hundreds of years, I am told. There were once prehistoric lakes here. Now the water is gone and only 10 billion tonnes of salt remains; several metres deep. The crazy thing is that the altitude here only varies by up to a metre across the entire flats! And partly for this reason, the Salar creates incredible tricks of the light. We all take turns attempting to create surreal photographic images: I stand 20 metres behind Katya, who has her right hand outstretched. In the lens it appears that a tiny, miniature version of me – only a few centimetres high - is stood on top of her hand. In other images we are stood upon an orange or a book, or flying through the air as if parachuting in from above.
Truly, Salar de Uyuni is one of the greatest sights on Earth. But, be warned! The majority of the world’s lithium lies here, and so, sadly, we all know what is going to happen to this place eventually!
Perhaps if you have lived in North-Eastern Europe, where you are used to seeing great blankets of white during snowy winters, then the shock of it all won’t be quite so intense. However, there is no denying that driving by 4WD through this great salt flat is an unforgettable experience that will never be forgotten.
Felix knocks us up lunch on the salt flats. It is just seven of us, a car and a few plates of food in a sea of white. Happy-to-be-alive rating: 10/10.
At the far edge of the salt lake, dozens of different national flags flutter in the wind like Tibetan prayer flags. There is a massive structure close by which simply reads: Dakar Rally. This part of Bolivia and some wilderness areas of Chile, Peru and Argentina are now the location for the Dakar Rally after the original Paris-Dakar Rally was moved away from Western Africa due to security issues. It is the first sense we have had of the commercial world since we arrived in this country three days ago.
Leaving the unforgettable salt flats behind we enter something of a dustbowl as we near the town of Uyuni. Out on the outskirts of town there is an antique ‘train cemetery’; the place where ageing trains come to die. When the mining industry in this area collapsed in the 1940s, the majority of the rolling stock was abandoned. As the dust blows in, the trains begin to rust away into nothing. But for now the old locomotives serve as a surreal and fun playground for visitors here.
Uyuni itself is an ugly dust ball of a town reminiscent of the dying towns of the Ubek Aral Sea region. After a month in Chile this truly looks Third World. The centre of the town is seeing some investment ,however ,and there are a couple of pleasant streets that sport a promenade or two and plenty of garish statues devoted to trains and miners.
It is time to say farewell to our driver FelixX. Of all the long road trips I’ve ever endured around the world, Felix would be my shout as the best driver I’ve ever had. He didn’t make a single mistake in 520 kilometres of off road driving across a myriad of different terrains. He never drove too fast or lost his concentration. And he also had to put up with the whims of four vegetarians in one vehicle; something that must seem very odd to a carnivorous Bolivian man in his forties. If you read this blog and you plan to cross the Bolivian salt flats, search for Felix and his company World White Travel!
We check into the Hotel Avenida just across from the train station. It ain’t as cold as it was up there in the middle of the wilderness but it is still very uncomfortably chilly. It seems like the Bolivians don’t believe in the concept of heating.
Uyuni is a transit town for tourists. Hundreds arrive and depart from here every day as they come and go from the salt flats. For that reason, the main drag in town is home to more than a dozen restaurants catering to said tourists. From the outside most appear attractive with their food boards offering pizza, spaghetti and rosti. But step inside and most of these places are ridiculously overpriced dives serving up sub-standard food, very often from filthy kitchens manned by kids, cats and not-very-bright ‘cooks’.
We enjoy beers with our Aussie couple friends – Ravinesh and Nakita - and the three top lads from Chile who were also on our tour. The Aussies are on the overnight train out of here while the lads are travelling back to Chile.
I nip down to the bus station to try and book tickets to Potosi for tomorrow on a decent local bus. Rumour has it that buses here are shockingly dangerous so I want to book up the best and safest option possible. As soon as the sun goes down the temperature drops like a stone in a lake. It immediately heads for zero and below. Down by the bus station the vibe is dodgy. Everywhere I look there are drunks and junkies – many of them dressed in traditional clothing – staggering around or slumped in shop entrances. Three blokes are all taking it in turns to snog one drunken woman in the entrance to the bus ticket agency where I want to buy a ticket for tomorrow. And she is the one who is supposed to be selling the tickets! Bolivia looks downtrodden and very rough around the edges. The welcoming smiles of Chile have been replaced by poker faced stares.
I abandon the bus-ticket-buying idea and return to the Avenida. It is desperately cold in the room. Katya is already hidden under three layers of blankets, the only warmth in the room an imaginary one, coming from listening to my transistor radio.
The three-day 520-kilometre trip across the wild Bolivian wilderness was world-class but first impressions of urban Bolivia are that this country is an absolute dive.
Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, Bolivia
Friday July 10, 2015
I accidentally get up at 6 not knowing there is a time change in Bolivia after Chile. It is absurdly cold. There is ice on the inside of the windows. Two of our travel companions tell me last night was the worst night of their lives. Drama queens, haha. I cannot face breakfast as my altitude-induced headache has worsened considerably. Felix encourages me to neck a giant mug of coca leaves tea. It is strangely pleasant.
Our 4WD passes Lake Colarado again but instead of appearing red it shimmers like a giant white mirage in the distance.
The national park check point operates as a second border post for Bolivia as this porous border is used for trafficking of drugs and people and almost anything else.
My head is getting worse. I feel sick and exhausted. I don't want to let on to Katya quite how dodgy I'm beginning to feel.
Today's weird and wonderful delights include a stone forest and three lagoons. It is almost as if God got stoned when he was creating this part of the world. Now there are vicuna and llama regularly dotting the terrain.
We stop for an amazing lunch beside the jeep in the middle of one particularly epic setting. There is a heavily smoking volcano in the distance above another oddly beautiful lake. We meet a gorgeous wild fox, who clearly has never seen human kind before. The pink flamingos are now so common that there are no longer gasps of appreciation each time we see them.
And late in the day we see the first stretch of Salar de Uyuni salt lake shimmering in distance. This is just a taster of the world's greatest salt lake which is brilliantly white. A simple two-track train line connecting the Chilean coast passes through here. It makes me think of Butch and Sundance.
All in all this is incredibly tough driving terrain. It constantly changes and thank heavens Felix is a fantastic driver.
This whole 520-kilometre journey is all so absurdly unreal and off the scale. It is primeval. You half expect dinosaurs to pop up. It is truly epic and hard to compare to anything or anywhere that most of us have seen or know in our lives. Up here in the heavens there are just so many different weird and wonderful landscapes.
I have thought a lot about life today. It is futile. Pointless. None of it; none of this makes sense. And yet the exhilaration I have felt today makes that same futile, pointless life we all have seem boundless.
Tonight we are staying in a salt hotel on the edge of Salar de Uyuni. The walls are made from salt, salt covering the floors like Santa's grotto filled with pretend snow. It is silly mixed with brilliant.
Tanned, pink chubby cheeked kids that look almost Mongolian occasionally run into the chilly dining area. My altitude sickness was cured by the coca leaves and to celebrate most of us are drinking far more red wine than we should at altitude.
I stumble outside into the freezing darkness and stare up at the brilliantly clear Milky Way stretching across the heavens. It makes me feel incredibly minute and reminds me of my earlier thoughts of futility and pointlessness. I feel a long long long way from home. I feel a universe away from anywhere. And it comforts me.
Thursday, July 9, 2015
We've climbed from 2500 metres to 4000 metres in an hour. The Chilean/Bolivian border is full of 4 wheel drives. Customs is surprisingly straightforward but we are stung for $60 for Katya's visa as Russian citizens need to cough up for the privilege of spending a couple of weeks in South America's poorest country (ranked 113th in the UN's Human Development index). However, there is none of the Yellow Fever certificate and passport photos need-to-be-provided malarkey we were told about before we flew out to the continent.
There is a tangible sense of an adventure about to begin. A temporary camping table has been set up with breakfast laid out as formalities are finished and we transfer all our stuff from the minivan to the 4wd. Cheese sandwiches and coffee at 4000 metres at the crack of dawn on a Thursday morning. You've got to love it.
There are 14 of us and we are divided up into three jeeps. A couple of Brummie English ladies coming the other way warn us they have just spent the two coldest nights of their lives in Bolivia. I think I'm just about prepared for what high altitude Bolivia has to throw at me but I'm not sure about some of my travel mates.
Our crew is Felix, our driver, plus me, Katya, 3 Brazilian girls plus one of their teenage brothers. In the other cars are three Chilean 20-something lads, fresh from Copa victory, another three Brazilian girls and an affable Aussie couple.
High altitude Bolivia is quite a place. In fact, I'm rather stuck for adjectives and metaphors to describe its roar beauty and 'strangeness'. As you might well expect, nobody really resides up here at the roof of South America. Our first stop at Laguna Blanco allows all of us to walk on a frozen high altitude lake, noticeably out of breath and giggling like excited school kids at the majesty of it all.
Countless volcanoes dot the altaplana including 6000 metre Volcan Licanabur. Mind you by the time we reach the greenish blue Laguna Verde we ourselves have hit 4960 metres. That is an astounding 16, 273 feet above sea level. And yet there is no headache.
Our 4WD speeds off through the high altitude wilderness and as if to emphasise to us what we all are feeling at that moment, Felix sticks on his jeep stereo and Coldplay's 'We live in a beautiful world' plays. Goosebumps aplenty, I feel consumed by the moment. I don't feel like we are away from it all in South America; it's more like we are on Mars or one of Saturn's weird moons. Or I am simply having a rather nice, weird dream, which I will shortly be sad to have awoken from.
We visit scarily strange geysers, wonderfully soothing thermal springs and also pass a bizarre otherworldly landscape which puts one in mind of Estonian surrealist Navitrolla.
And as if the terrain couldn't feel anymore alien, a blood red lake suddenly comes into view on the horizon. It goes by the rather unimaginative name of Lake Colarado yet everything else about it is off the scale. This is the stuff of science fiction novels as a red tide washes up on a bright white shoreline, surrounded by volcanoes and strange mountainous rock formations. And, by the way, there are also flocks of pink flamingos chilling here. My head is spinning but, it is from the surreal beauty of it all, not the altitude sickness. I lose everyone in sight, including Katya, and stroll off to a desolate flamingo-filled spot, muttering to myself the whole time like a madman.
Our 'hotel' is the only sign of life we have seen all day aside from the other 4wds. Even before the sun sets on an absurdly azure sky it is already Baltic. Starry skies appear almost instantly, so clear as to make one think this is all one big cartoon; some sort of 'the Matrix' for kids.
Think of the coldest place you have ever slept in your life...then times it by 23. It is something like minus 20 up here at 4000 metres. It wouldn't be so bad of course if there were decent heating but in fact there is absolutely no heating at all! Mental. No wonder the family living here have cheeks redder than Father Christmas.
It is a group dinner but nobody lingers long after the pasta and eggs and mini sausages have gone.
I've put two blankets under Katya and my bed. We both have a sleeping bag, bed sheets, a duvet and four blankets over us...and I, for example, am wearing base layers, three pairs of socks, jeans, a t-shirt, two jumpers, gloves, a hat, a hoodie....and... it is still stupidly cold.
I wake up short of breath struggling to breathe, panicking for a moment or two as I try to suck in CO2 from the sub-zero air. I've got a headache which feels a little akin to someone constantly giving you a low level electrical shock.
Wednesday, July 8, 2015
San Pedro de Atacama - El Tatio, Chile
We are in the Tropics and it is Minus 15 degrees Celsius. My god it feels shockingly cold up here at 4300 metres. This is the world's third largest geyser field and the highest on the planet.
We set off at 4am to make it here for the apocalyptic looking sunrise; steam spiralling up into the thin air from dozens and dozens of bubbling geysers. I've spent plenty of years living in and visiting some extremely cold places but strolling around this geyser field at 6am with the temperature still only pushing towards minus ten, feels particularly testing.
But it is well worth the discomfort. There is something intangibly primeval about El Tatio. Americans terribly overuse the word 'awesome' but that is certainly an apt seven-letter description of these geyser fields.
On the route back we pass an active volcano, smoke billowing into the azure sky. We also spot our first vicuna - an alpha male and five females. Sounds brilliant but can you imagine what it would be like living with five women?
Other memorable tit bits on the road back to SPDA include some weird wetlands, and a green rabbit, almost perfectly camouflaged from us in the desert terrain.
Back in SPDA, an afternoon of chilling turns into a day of preparing for tomorrow's 4WD three-day trip to Bolivia. Withdrawing money, changing currencies and getting ripped off by the locals, organising meals, buying water and toilet paper, Bolivian currency for permits, USD for Katya's visa, packing warm stuff and before you know it the chill part of the day has gone.
Late on, we wander around SPDA's cool streets. It's pricey, a gringo trap and a bit faux-naff but somehow it is still a cool and enjoyable place to hang out for a day or two, particularly as at 2500 metres it does allow for some minimal acclimatisation. Well, it cannot fail to be a decent place to base yourself, with the world-class backdrop and a dozen or more epic adventures that can be had from here.
Street dogs are chilling by the fire place in the town's only beer bar. I have really enjoyed my month in Chile but I won't miss its dogs when we depart tomorrow.
Tuesday, July 7, 2015
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Already the Copa America seems like a distant memory, so removed is the terrain and environment of the Atacama Desert from what went before.
We take a half-day tour to the Valley of the Moon, Death Valley and salt caves. Incredible sunset, absurd scenery....I will probably do all of this more justice with a photo montage rather than words....
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Monday, July 6, 2015
I have awoken to sunrise in the Atacama Desert. It is one of those disorientating but very special moments when, in the space of one journey, the terrain and weather has so drastically changed as to make one feel like one has just been beamed down here like a character from Star Trek. Except Star Trek characters don't wake up on double-decker buses with blankets over their heads and dribble running down their chin of course. To the east, the sun light just breaks above the Andes, while to the west it turns the sand a strange colour of red I don't recall seeing before.
The first place of note we stop off at is Antofagusta, the road dropping several hundred metres from the desert down to the Pacific. It is a rough looking place with nothing apart from perhaps its location on the shores of the Pacific to give it any plus marks. This far north in Chile it is all about heavy industry, especially the extremely profitable copper mines that have been so vital to Chile's break neck economic development in the past couple of decades. Consequently the towns and cities up here are more geared up for miners than anything with dive bars, overpriced restaurants, three-hour-hotels, and touch-the-walls-and-they-might-fall-down-shopping-malls the most common sight.
Further north and we pass several large industrial sites, smoke billowing into the atmosphere, as well as a number of industrial cemeteries, some stretching for miles, full of rusting truck parts and mega tyres.
It seems like an eternity before we reach Calama, the largest city in this area of the Atacama and home for many of the thousands of hard-working miners who work at the world's largest open cast mine at Chuquicamata. Che Guevara detested those mines and the sub-human way in which the men and their families who worked there worked and lived. Many Chileans have told me Calama is the most god forsaken city in Chile but with a change of bus needed here I must confess its town centre has a decent amount of character and it is also apparent that a lot of new money is going into the city in an attempt to improve its quality of life.
90 minutes to the south east and we reach San Pedro de Atacama, having driven through some quite incredible desert terrain, which resembles NASA images of the surface of Mars. This is one of the driest places on Earth but storm clouds fill the sky and obscure many of the volcanic peaks it is possible to see in this region.
The streets adjacent to San Pedro de Atacama bus station resemble a Mexican spaghetti western. On first impressions and with dust blowing down the streets this does not look very inviting. Katya is suffering from culture shock. She has never been anywhere like this before. Four days out of Europe for the first time in her life, everywhere to her looks dirty, dusty and cold. The dozens of barking wild dogs wandering the streets doesn't exactly help. In fact, so shocked by it all is Katya that she breaks down in tears.
A couple of hours later, blue skies have replaced dusty ones as we sit next to a roaring courtyard fire. Katya has come through the other side of her culture shock. We have found a basic room for the night nearby and enjoy empanadas and tea before turning in for the night. Curiously, the darker it gets in San Pedro, the more inviting it seems to become, as courtyard and restaurant fires give the town a new warmth and cosiness. It is quite amusing how somewhere can appear at first like an absolute shite hole but end up feeling like a cosy little escape from civilisation.
Sunday July 5, 2015
Santiago - San Pedro, Chile
It is fair to say I have rarely seen a place where so many people are suffering from shocking hangovers - New Year's Eve and summer festivals included. The streets are almost deserted, shops are closed and many of those either making their way home or venturing back out are clutching at cans of Red Bull. Chile, Campeones de America! Each time we pass a restaurant or cafe we see them replaying Alexis Sanchez decisive penalty in the shoot-out, or we hear golllllllllllllllllllllll, Chile, Chile, Alexis, Chile campeonas!!! coming from some half open window or side street. As predicted there were deaths last night. At least three people died during the wild celebrations.
Unbelievably i manage to bump into German Charles in downtown Santiago, a couple of hours before leaving the city for good. Charles, veteran of five Copa Americas is the meister blagger and managed to get into the final yesterday despite having no ticket in advance of the game. The head honcho who knocked me back yesterday two hours before kick off, took sympathy on Charles and gave him stadium access one hour before kick off. I am really happy for Charles. He certainly deserved it more than me. He is so devoted he even went to the third place play off in Concepcion. I mean who in their right mind goes to the bronze medal game? Haha. Anyway, like i said I am really chuffed for Charles, who I exchange a man hug with before promising to meet up with him at Copa America 2019 in Brasil.
Anybody who knows me knows what i am going to say next: I spend the whole of the day extremely pissed with myself that I gave up so easily trying to get into the final yesterday. I have been to several World Cup, European Championships and two Copas but i have only ever managed to get into one cup final: Copa 2011 at the River Plate in Argentina. Had I stuck around for an hour longer yesterday, I would no doubt have bumped into Charles and also managed to blag-beg my way in. Yesterday was still amazing: the unforgettable atmosphere in the city before and after the match, and being with Chileanos for the game. And of course attending eight matches during the Copa, seeing 11 of the 12 teams play, including the champions three times. But if only I'd managed to get into that final yesterday!!!
With the Copa over it is clearly time to boost out of Santiago and start heading for Bolivia. The weather is crap today; pollution levels extremely high as a thick smog hangs over the Chilean capital. I had planned to head back to Valparaiso for a day but the end of Copa America 2015 feels like the end of a chapter in this adventure.
Now it is time to begin chapter two, starting with a 23-hour bus journey north into the Atacama desert.
Thursday, July 2, 2015
Castro, Chiloe Island, Chile
With dawn breaking over Castro, it is a morning breakfast of scrambled egg and coffee by a burning wooden fire, admiring the class views from the water's edge. This £13 hostel feels like a cosy five-star hotel and despite the temptation to try and run around the island this afternoon and explore some wooden churches and virgin forest before my overnight bus leaves for Santiago, it would be madness with my current near-zero energy levels to not take advantage of this chill pad for a few hours.
In town it is quite apparent that the good folk of Chiloe are rather more rough and ready working class than in those parts of Chile i previously visited. Many people here, judging by their weathered faces, look like they've had pretty hard lives, not helped I am sure by the stormy climate of this archipelago. The majority of blokes work out at sea and aside from a few drunken rioters in Santiago, it is the first time I have felt a little wary of the locals. No, there is nothing threatening about the place but I wouldn't fancy being in a bar near kick out time.
It's not a bad town. It is even sunny today! It has got plenty of character and streets that resemble San Francisco as they drop down to the water at perilously steep angles. The central church - bright yellow and huge - looks like it has been dropped here from Belarus or Russia, while many of the houses are built using wood shingles, which also have an almost Belarusian vibe to them.
Pride of place are definitely the palafitos (houses on stilts), and as well as the Gamboa district where i am staying, there is another long stretch of palafitos in the Costanera area, close to the port. Years ago this is the kind of town i would have had romantic ideas about staying and living in for six months; far away from it all and with lots of character. These days I see these kinds of places as great places to visit and explore, but also places I am happy to get on the bus out from a day or two later.
Wednesday, July 1, 2015
Villa la Angostura, Argentina - Castro, Chile
There is a thick, wintry frost as the sun breaks through and causes the top of the mountains to glow pink. Some peaks reflect in the still lakes below. Not a creature stirs. It is world-class scenery all the way from Villa la Angostura to the Argentina border post. This is unquestionably one of the world's most scenically stunning border crossings.
After getting our passports stamped, we soon pass a petrified forest, behind it a sheer granite peak soaring to the heavens. In places there is what must be very old virgin forest; wild in a way that other forests somehow are not. I guess as this national park is technically 'no man's land', this wilderness is practically devoid of human settlement. Yes, I missed that 6-1 in Concepcion last night, but this is pretty damn special.
As we climb higher we reach thick snow and deciduous trees. At Chilean customs, the drug dog has made a bee line for my rucksack and tapped it with his small and annoying, manicured paw. Little bastard. I know I am innocent of any crime but it isn't impossible for someone to stick stuff in your bag and remove it later, rather than risk it themself. And while i queue to get my entry visa to Chile, I cannot believe it but said dog has also given my hand luggage the paws down. I must admit my heart is pounding as I unpack everything. 'My doggy smells something in your bag'. I cannot believe he just said 'doggy'. And i am impressed that i managed not to burst out laughing.
The stress builds, and builds...turns out shep sniffed a small bag of salted nuts i forgot i had. James Bond i'm not.
I am going loopy with these long bus rides now. I feel absolutely done in, all in the name of exploring stuff; wanting to see what is around that next brow in the hill.
The next highlight is witnessing not one, not two, but three volcanic peaks above Puerto Varas. Suddenly the lakeside town looks amazing rather than slightly dull. Further on and Puerto Montt is a mess of a town with few redeeming qualities aside from the weird collection of wooden houses near the ferry terminal which look like fairy tale witches' houses.
After a change of buses and a ferry ride we reach Chiloe Island, the second largest island in South America, and home to fiercely independent islanders. Right on cue the weather has turned shockingly wet and windy. It is like being out in the middle of the North Atlantic in November.
Ancud is a big town with a decent amount of development, including a free municipal gym on the seafront very much in the style of a kids' playground. But the weather is truly shocking. I feel like I am in the Faroe Islands during an Atlantic storm.
Crosscountry from Ancud we pass through a fair amount of wilderness and witness the bizarre spectacle of very-thick-and-strange, perfectly white clouds edging slowly across forests, wooden churches and small settlements as if consuming them in some Warlock's fog. I can't quite put it into words but this is a rolling land fog quite unlike any I've seen anywhere else before.
I am bussed out. I am totally sick of the things. Thanks be that the place I wanted to stay at - a palafito (waterfront house on stilts) - has beds and it is unbelievably cosy and homely . Log fire, sea view, warm inside, interior made from wood. Thanks very much. Malbec, dinner, classical music, relax by the fireplace watching the rain lash down outside, (very comfy) bed. Good night.
Wednesday, June 30, 2015
Puerto Varas, Chile - Bariloche - Villa la Angostura, Argentina
Four years ago at the last Copa, which was held in Argentina, I travelled around Argentina for a couple of weeks (just as I was dumped by my girlfriend of six years). That dumping meant that trip to one of the loneliest places on Earth was...well, lonely. Miserable at times admittedly, but then there were incredible high points like witnessing the almost unmatched splendour of Torres Del Paine, the bottom-of-the-world vibe of Tierra del Fuego, and the truly awe inspiring sight of ancient ice collapsing into the glacial lake at Perito Moreno. Four years on, with my soul well and truly cleansed from what went before some 1,500 days ago, I return to Argentina to visit the bit of northern Patagonia I couldn't visit before due to the blizzards that cut off that part of the world in July 2011.
I suppose I am also exorcising a demon or two as the moment I am back on Argentine soil, it feels a little like I am back in 2011. The route between Chilean customs and Argentine customs, separated by a national park, is truly epic.
I booked my ticket to Villa la Angostura on the advice of Huayupe who told me the area around the town is the most beautiful place he has ever been. I decide though to venture further to visit Bariloche, located in an incredible setting surrounded by sheer snow-capped mountains, some with bizarre pinnacles that resemble Buddhist statues.
But Bariloche itself is a massive disappointment. Firstly, it feels damn unfriendly compared to Chile. Secondly, the town is an urban commercial sprawl. Yes, the buildings are fine, but where is the lakeside promenade or the pedestrianized streets? I just don't like the vibe of the place at all. From street level you cannot even see the mountains.
And so I change dollars in town getting 12.85 to the peso because I have cash instead of the official market rate of 9 I would get if I took cash out of an ATM. I know inflation is bad in Argentina, but I am impressed that a sandwich I buy goes up in cost from 30 to 35 in the time it takes to make it and eat it. It feels downtrodden around the edges here, even in this affluent town.
Back in gorgeous Villa la Angostura, the youth hostel costs 200 instead of the 95 it was two years ago, according to the Lonely Planet. This place is like Twin Peaks, surrounded by mountains, thick forests; its spotless streets full of boutiques and chocolate shops.
I could have been in Concepcion tonight for Argentina v Paraguay but instead it is pizza, Argentine red and a bar full of passionate Argentine football fans as Argentina tear a tired Paraguay to pieces. Even at 1-0 you could see Argentina would end up scoring five or six.
Population 5,000 but the main street is rammed with cars and motorbikes all beeping their horns, teenagers doing hand-brake turns, fireworks going off.
Of course, I am gutted I missed the game in the stadium but, hey, I have been to eight games and by skipping the semis, it has given me four days in beautiful southern Argentina and Chile. Oh, and the demons of 2011 - they are well and truly buried.
Puerto Varas - Parque Nacional Vicente Perez Rosales
Tuesday, June 29, 2015
I have travelled this far south to be faced with an English November style day and almost no visibility. The Orono volcano, which famously towers above the lake, is nowhere to be seen and I am questioning my own sanity for not being in Santiago instead for tonight's Copa semi final. I had a choice: watch all of the Copa games and spend almost all of my time in and around Santiago or instead sacrifice some matches and see the south of Chile.
There are no tourist trips this time of year so I just jump on a bus out to Petrohue. It is absolutely miserable out here, rain lashing against the windows of the bus, almost everything outside covered in ash from the volcano that erupted earlier this year.
But suddenly the gloom lifts as we hit amazing forests and wonderful mountain scenery. Parque Nacional Vicente Perez Rosales is a quarter of a million hectare park full of snow capped volcanoes, lakes, forests and waterfalls. The 60-kilometre bus here has cost just two pounds and as this is the low season they are allowing tourists into the wild and dramatic Saltos del Petrohue waterfalls for free!
I decide to walk from here to the lake, which is 6 kilometres of stunning forest scenery. It is reminiscent of the scenery in the 2015 film Ex-machina, set in Alaska but actually filmed in Norway. Aside from the occasional passing 4WD, I have the whole walk entirely to myself. When I reach attractive Petrohue at the very end of the road, there are beaches and a small dock with boatsmen offering trips out on the lake. This is the starting point of the epic Cruce de Lagos but at $200, I've been priced out of that one. Instead, I bite the hand of a local man who takes me out on the lake for half an hour for three quid. It is wild and simply stunning; the inclement weather adding to the vistas. The volcano even pops out from behind the clouds as I head back to Puerto Varas. My whole make-it-up-as-I-go-along day trip has cost less than £10 but has been absolutely brilliant.
I feel so exhausted that I can't even venture as far as the pub for tonight's semi between Chile and Peru. Instead, I cook dinner in the cosy warm hostel and watch it on the plasma. Tonight's hero is Varas, who scores both goals including the stunning winner. I am chuffed for Chile that they are in Saturday's final. They were my pre-tournament favourites and are clearly the best team in the tournament. I just hope I can get in.
Monday, June 28, 2015
Concepcion - Puerto Varas, Chile
There is a shocking, shocking smog hanging over Concepcion. I only have about thirty minutes for a wander around before I need to get back to the central bus station, but frankly the air is so acrid that half an hour would be all I could manage anyhow. The smog is so intense up near the stadium that the sunlight diffuses objects and strange reflections such as telegraph poles hang like ghosts in the sky. This pollution is like China at its very worst, most of it caused by chimney smoke from the tens of thousands of households trying to stay warm on this bitterly cold Monday morning, frost covering the ground all around.
Concepcion is typical of many host cities at major football tournaments: they've built a super expensive new stadium and built roads and all kinds of infrastructure around it. I say typical, because as was the case in Ukraine, for example, the roads remain unfinished and tens of millions of dollars of infrastructure cash has magically gone missing. I am told that only three weeks ago they were still building this stadium!
It is another stupidly long coach journey and I've got Giant Haystacks sat next to me for several hours. When he alights at Valdivia, I'm praying for an empty seat for the remainder of my marathon journey south to Puerto Varas. So, I am cursing my luck when a young Chilean lad comes and sits next to me...funny how life works...just a few minutes later and I have made a new friend. Huayupe is a really decent lad and makes brilliant company until he departs in Osorno. He is returning home from Uni as all the students are striking and there is little point him hanging around. And you know with Huayupe he is one of those people you will stay in contact with and meet again some day in another far flung corner of the world.
In Puerto Varas I manage to find a super warm hostel, which is a fantastic home-from-home. Completely by accident I find myself being a shoulder to cry on for someone who is at a very low point in their life. His story is tragic and hard to take in. I won't go into the details, but I hope the person in question has a happy ending because he clearly doesn't deserve the absolute shite that has befallen him.
You could write today off as being a totally meaningless, knackering and generally crap day, and yet, from it I have made a new friend who I am sure I will stay in contact with, and I have also been a shoulder to cry on for someone who needed a stranger to listen to his story. Today I have found meaning in the meaningless.
Sunday, June 27, 2015
Pucon - Concepcion, Chile
The sweet Michigan girl wakes me as promised at 7.30 (my phone and alarm clock are both done for) for the best breakfast I've been given on the whole tour. Volcan Villarrica towers above Pucon in all its magnificent glory, its peak turning red in the early morning light, not a cloud in sight.
It is a two-hour bus back to Temuco where I nip into a local working man's cafe for breakfast before my next bus leaves. This could be Rotherham. The food is pure British cafe and the downtrodden streets outside look every bit run down British working class town. The caf is called La Churisco VIP and the ladies doing the early morning rounds of tea and Nescafe are super friendly. Like I said before, Temuco seems like an unusually friendly town and there are a lot of pretty girls here too, some Mapuche.
An eternity later, the bus reaches Concepcion, a city that sits on one of the most dangerous earthquake fault lines in the world. The 1960 earthquake that centred near here measured a world record 9.5 magnitude. Most of us will remember the 8.8 that hit near here in 2010. You might argue that when it comes to earthquakes, this is one of the most dangerous cities on Earth. There is some damn beautiful forest scenery on the road in, as well as a couple of snow-capped volcanoes. And, once again, by the time I've reached my destination there is barely time to do anything except go straight to the stadium. Tonight it is the last of the four quarter finals with Brasil playing Paraguay. There is not enough time to travel into the centre and check into my hotel so I end up having to go to the stadium with my backpack.
In the terminal, right on the edge of the city, next to the motorway, I just have time to book my long-distance bus tickets for the following day.
'Where are you from?' a rather bimboish Brasilian girl in a tight top that shows of some rather obvious assets asks me.
'Oh my God, England, I love England. I am not really Brasilian, I'm German.'
Before i know it, she is showing me mobile phone photos of her pouting with David Luiz and hugging Neymar and is asking me to meet her after the game.
The stadium is a beauty: steep tiered, close to the pitch and surrounded by lush forests. The local fans are in good voice. There aren't many travelling fans from either Brasil or Paraguay but there is no doubt who the good people of Concepcion want to win.
I have no sooner settled into my seat when I look up at the stadium giant screen and there is the German-Brasilian girl smiling and waving at the cameras. You've got to laugh.
Brasil take the lead through their best player - Robinho - and look comfortable for the win until they begin to run out of ideas. Paraguay start to boss it and equalize from the spot after a blatant handball. At 1-1 there is only one team likely to win this and Brasil are fortunate to survive until penalties. Where is the Brasilian hunger?
'FIFA is such a mafia that players miss penalties on purpose' someone suggested to me the other day. I don't quite buy into that but some of the penalties are so bad that you start to wonder.
Paraguay win the shootout and their players as well as the Chilean 'neutrals' are going mad. I have been to two Copa Americas and each time Brasil have failed to get past the quarters.
The press bus doesn't leave Alcaldesa Ester Rosa for almost two hours after the final whistle as we have to wait for the Paraguay and Brasil team coaches to leave first. Robinho and co drive past us, most of the players with their heads down looking at their mobiles, seemingly oblivious to the Brasilian fans waiting to boo them as they depart the scene of their latest humiliation.
As for me, I must confess to feeling slightly scared as I wander through the only slightly lit streets of downtown Concepcion on my tod. I'm carrying my rucksack and day bag and don't really know where exactly my hotel is. The streets are almost deserted and it's way past midnight.
Safely inside the Concepcion Plaza which is more like a travel tavern than the flash name suggests, the only place nearby I can venture to for food is a Chinese.
Jeez, I feel like Alan Partridge as I lie in bed in my business style hotel eating a Chinese takeaway at 2 in the morning. As brilliant as it is to be at the Chile Copa America, there are times when the 10-hour bus journeys, crap food, bitterly cold nights and six hours' sleep all become a bit testing.