Tarija

Onto my final destination in Bolivia, a town called Tarija. Perhaps to the suprise of many of you Bolivia has a wine region, certainly this was a suprise to me! Tarija is the main town of this region. It is a popular holiday destination for Bolivians and Argentines, due to its proximity to the border. There is not a huge amount to Tarija itself, there are a couple of nice plazas with nice restaurants, cafes, etc. However, the main attraction is the nearby vineyards which offer tours to show you about the processing of the wine.
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I decided that a couple of wine tours was the way forward, especially since so far south America had proved rather poor on the wine front. Tarijas unique selling point is the altitude at which the wine is grown, apparently the highest in the world. The vineyards, or bodegas as they are known here, are set in stunning locations with beautiful mountains all around. For some reason the wine that we tasted was by the far the worse wine the vineyard offered. In terms of business sense this seemed confusing, until I realised that the bolivians on the tour were all buying multiple bottles. The more premium wines are for the more discerning Europeans and North Americans!
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We were also given to taste some of the local spirit, called singani. Our guide kindly told me it was just water, perhaps more stupidly I believed him, and took a massive gulp. Needless to say I did not enjoy this experience! The tour was typically bolivian in organisation, in that we toured a vineyard called Kohlberg, but were only able to buy other branded wine at a wine shop we stopped at! I did however manage to get a couple of bottles subsequently and they were actually very good. A lovely surprise!
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After 3 days in Tarija tasting a multitude of drinks, some good others not so much, I took yet another night bus into Argentina to Salta my next stop.

Potosi and Sucre

Fiona and my final destination together was a place called Potosi. The town itself isn’t particularly of interest, however just outside the town are numerous mines which was the reason for the town existing at all. We had been told that a tour of the mines was a great insight into how tough life is working there.
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We booked ourselves onto the tour and headed to the mines. We needed to get kitted up in boots, overalls and a hard hat and light, then we headed to the processing plant. When the mines were first opened silver was mined from here at around 95% purity, which was obviously very lucrative. Today the purity is much lower and a number of other minerals are extracted as well.
We then spent 2hrs in the mine itself at times walking bent double in absolute darkness except for our headlamps. Just walking around felt like hard work (to make it even harder the altitude is over 4000m), so I cannot imagine being able to work in there. The miners will often carry around 50kg of ore on their backs.
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After 2hrs in the mine I was desperate to get out. I don’t think mining is a likely second career for me!
We finished our gruelling tour and treated ourselves to a lovely lunch and had a nice chilled out afternoon. Then it was time to go our separate ways. Fiona to la paz for a flight home and me onto Sucre.
After arriving late in the evening to Sucre I set out to explore Bolivia’s capital city, often called the white city due to its numerous white colonial buildings. Sucre certainly is a beautiful city and has an almost European feel about it. By far my highlight of the city was the food market. My breakfast everyday was an enormous fruit salad with creamy yogurt, which cost around 50p. I would have been happy to have had this for every meal! There are lots of great restaurants, cafes and street vendors in Sucre, so eating here was an absolute pleasure.
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There was some sort of national holiday on one if the days I was there, which meant I was treated to lots of live music, dancing and general celebration. The day after this (as if the ensure I remembered I was in Bolivia) the centre of Sucre came to a stand still as a group of people decided to block streets in protest of something. As a bolivian I met earlier in the trip told me, bolivians see protesting, in particular blocking roads, as the way to get change. I certainly sww this in action!
After 3 lovely, relaxing days in Sucre I got on yet another night bus to head further south to Tarija.

Tupiza

After pizza and a well earned good nights sleep we set off bright and early for the next destination. An 8hour bus ride later and we had arrived. We met a guy called Ollie on the bus, a fellow English traveller, turns out he works for Deloitte so Fi was in her element having accounting chat!
we all headed to a hostel we had decided upon, solely because we got use of a swimming pool. The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to sunbathing with the odd dip in the pool. After the freezing cold of the salt flats it was the most amazing feeling!
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We decided that we needed to do some sort of exercise and it seemed an obvious choice of doing the triathlon the following day! This involved riding around in a 4×4 sightseeing, followed by horse riding and then cycling. A massive lunch was also included. This seemed a better idea than the last triathlon…
The day was a great success. The weather absolutely perfect and the views around Tupiza are all stunning. It is a mass of red rock and canyons, with the most fantastic rock formations. Whenever we went anywhere I seemed to find myself asking the same question about how on earth this was formed. Again, this is when listening better in geography would have helped!
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The riding was slightly sedate for me, but since Ollie had never ridden before he was not keen on increasing the pace. The final phase of cycling was my favourite. We were driven up to the top of a mountain, back to around 4000m, and we cycled all the way down. Views included a multi coloured mountain range, massive canyons and my back tyre bursting. All good fun!
Our final day in Tupiza involved a fond farewell to Ollie, with promises of drinks back in London, and a day by the pool for Fi and I. We managed to get to a lovely shade of red by the end of the day, something I had not expected in Bolivia! This proved less than comfortable for our night bus that evening!
Onto Potosi, our final destination in Bolivia together.

Uyuni -Salt flats

Our 3 day salt flats tour didn’t exactly start as planned. Fiona and I took a night bus from la Paz to Uyuni, where the tour began from. We had paid extra for a tourist bus so we would get a nights sleep. What we had failed to realise is that the majority of the road to Uyuni is unpaved. This made for a very restless night! We had a good breakfast then headed out on our tour, 7 of us in total in a Toyota 4X4. Snug, but actually not as bad as it sounds!
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Our driver/guide/cook for the tour was a wonderful man called Domingo. He spoke no English at all (luckily 1 of our group was fluent in English and Spanish), but he was incredibly knowledgeable about everywhere we visited. He knew every mountain name and height, it seemed to us that his knowledge of the area was limitless. He was also a comedy genius, continually telling jokes or letting go of the steering wheel in order to dance and sing along to his music. In all a total legend!
Our first day included a visit to a train cemetery, exactly what it sounds like but in the middle of a desert, the amazing salt flats and an island in the middle of the salt flats called cactus island. This was the beginning of my saying the phrase “this blows my mind” basically on repeat for 3 days. A few people before I went on the tour had described the salt flats as other worldly. This is probably the best description I can give. I have never seen anything like them before and the whole place is so bizarre there is nothing I can compare it to. We managed to get some great pictures before leaving the salt flats to stay the night in a salt hotel. Everything is made of salt, walls, tables, beds. Pretty ingenious really given that this is the one thing they really have a lot of.
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our second day involved visiting a multitude of lakes, of all different colours. All were helpfully named after the colour, and looked this way due to different mineral balances. The red lake was particularly impressive, but we also saw a yellow, white and green one. There were flamingos living on some of these lakes, they had black tipped wings which looked amazing against their pink bodies. In between the lakes we saw various bizarre rock formations and mountains. Never more have I wished to have studied Physical Geography! We finished the day at yet another salt hostel. This time in a shared dorm with the rest of our group. We were all very happy with this arrangement until 5 of us spent the entire night awake listening to one guy snore!
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our third day began at 4.30am. We set off to visit the geysers at sunrise. This was one of the most stunning views, as you saw the first light through the hot steam. Even the smell of sulphur didn’t detract from the experience! We then visited another lake, this one had a high concentration of cyanide so there was little wildlife to see. After this we went to a thermal spring, where we all sat in this natural pool of lovely hot water admiring stunning mountain views around us. Suddenly no sleep the night before seemed a long way away!
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We then had a long journey back to our start and end point. However this was broken up with visits to a stunning canyon and some more bizarre rock formations in the middle of a desert. We arrived back into Uyuni around 5.30pm. Originally we had planned on getting a bus straight to our next destination. However, fiona and I dec

La Paz

We arrived into La Paz a day earlier than we had expected,  so we were feeling rather smug with ourselves about how terribly efficient we were with this whole travelling thing. We arrived at the hostel we had booked and we were given orange wristbands which basically are your tab for the week. These tend to be used at the larger hostels and the ones more focused on drinking rather than seeing the sights! The message on the wristband read “if you find me drunk or lost please return me to the below address”, this was helpfully written in English and Spanish. At this stage we were slightly concerned about what we had let ourselves in for!

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We decided to head out and explore of La Paz. Other than a few squares and the odd street la Paz is not a pretty place. However la Paz has a certain charm to it. We did a fantastic walking tour of the city which included hearing lots about the city, the government, visiting lots of amazing markets and seeing the infamous San Pedro prison (no visit inside though, fyi readers of Marching Powder!)

We had a brilliant day cycling down the world’s most dangerous road. The ride itself is through stunning scenery and its really quite amazing how quickly you forget about there being a 400m sheer drop next to uou at all times! The day is incredibly long, we spent 6hrs cycling and then with travel to and from,  we got back into la Paz pretty late. However, fiona and I decided that surviving the bike ride deserved some celebration. We had a quick shower and change and were in the hostel bar in no time, meeting a friend of mine from Peru. After a few drinks we started talking to the bar staff and this led to numerous shots being made specially for us. Fiona and I finished the night dancing on the bar, fairly ironic given that we were concerned about the hostel being a bit too much of a party hostel!

 

The following day was not our best. The combination of far too many shots and high altitude resulted in pretty epic hangovers for us both. However,  we managed to get some things to take back home from the markets. We finished the day getting onto a 10hr night bus heading south ready for our salt flats tour.

Lake Titicaca

On to country number 4 and now half way through my trip!

I arrived here on Saturday after a 12hr bus journey from Cusco, not a great experience but I made it and that is the most important thing. Fiona came to meet me here on Sunday having spent a night in la Paz recovering from her flight and getting used to life at high altitude.

Lake Titicaca sits at a rather head spinning 3700m, which makes it the highest lake in the world, but far more importantly means that the weather is fairly extreme. During the day it is very sunny, you will happily sit in a t shirt and soak up the rays. However,  at night it is cold. Extra layers are essential.  The lake itself is beautiful, the sheer scale of it is rather astonishing.

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The town of Copacabana seems to be entirely based around tourism on the lake, as there really is very little else here. The main attraction being visits to 2 islands in the middle of the lake. Fiona and I had both been told that a trip to the islands was unmissable, so once we had settled ourselves into life at 3700m we decided to get a boat across the lake to see what all the fuss was about.

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We took a boat across to the northern side of Isla de sol, the largest island in Lake Titicaca. We explored the area and managed to find some ruins just at sunset which made for a rather beautiful photo opportunity. We then managed to find one of the very few restaurants in the village for dinner. By this time we had met a fellow Brit called Anthony,  a disenchanted Accenture employee, and spent the evening with him. He obviously lived in Clapham Junction.

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The following day we walked from our hostel through to the southern part of the island. This was around 5 miles, with a climb up to 4000m, with the most stunning views of the lake and surrounding mountains. We managed to make record time to get to the southern port and took an earlier boat back to Copacabana. From here we decided it was time to head to la Paz and we jumped on a bus ready for the 4hr journey away from peaceful Copacabana to bustling la Paz.