A grand adventure part 8 – The home stretch

Puno is another town we never expected to return to – merely a stopping off point for visiting the floating reed islands of Lake Titicaca, and apart from the views of the lake and mountains, the town itself is a little ugly and dull.

Puno's harbour on Lake Titicaca

Puno’s harbour on Lake Titicaca

However, it was still only early in the day yet and all the buses to Cusco didn’t leave until night, so we had time to kill in Puno. Our added challenge now was that we were down to our last few soles – how to make them stretch yet keep ourselves fed until we could access more money in Cusco tomorrow morning?

We bought S./1 (25p/38c) of bananas at the market, shared a market lunch (so half a soup, half a main course each) for S./7 (£1.70/40c) and then bought S./1 of bread and a S./1.50 packet of jam to have later. Now we were absolutely exhausted and large black clouds were rolling ominously in, so we headed back to the bus terminal and found a quiet spot upstairs to set up camp on the floor with our rucksacks as pillows and get some sleep. Even though I was lying on the cold hard floor of a bus station, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the rucksack. After a couple of hours though, the cold started to creep in, so we got up and went to sit with everyone else on the plastic seats downstairs and got out the laptop to watch a film.

The shores of Lake Titicaca at Puno, Peru

The shores of Lake Titicaca at Puno

When the film finished, we still had three hours to wait, so went for a lakeside stroll. It was dark and there was no one else out and about. As we neared the artisans’ market by the harbour, a man who had been leaning up against the wall muttered something as we approached and then started walking alongside us. Suddenly aware that both of us were carrying all our wordly possessions – two laptops included – I became convinced we were going to get mugged. Then when he spoke to a dog who started barking in attack mode at us, I thought “This is it!”.

But no, the mysterious man was just the night-watchman for the market who in fact was quelling his dog. He wished us a good night and we continued with our lakeside stroll, my heart took a while to slow down though.

Somehow, eventually, we had made eight hours dissolve and it was time to board the Cusco bus in what was now a torrential downpour.

Four months ago, I remembered, the route from Cusco to Puno was quick and painless, giving me the confidence to take on the much longer bus journeys in the rest of the continent, but this time for some reason, the bus was bumping and swerving all night. It soon became the worst bus journey I had had so far in terms of travel sickness and I was never so glad to see Cusco again.

It was 5 o’clock in the morning when we auto-piloted through Cusco’s bus terminal pursued by a taxi driver. We agreed to his rate – our very last few coins – and let him sweep us up to a hostel high up in the San Blas neighbourhood, where we collapsed into bed.

Some hours later, I awoke to the sun glowing through the door, and stepped out in to the hostel’s garden. Sparrows and hummingbirds fluttered around the fuchsias, and beyond, lay the terracotta tiled roofs of Cusco. I had been here before, but this time the city looked even more beautiful, and I knew there were many new adventures to come.

The rooftops of Cusco

The red rooftops of Cusco. Photo: Rachel Ricks

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A grand adventure part 6 – Lovely, lovely La Paz

Outside Oruro’s bus terminal, we asked a man with a heavy basket balanced on his shoulder whether there was a bus to La Paz. The answer was no – and indeed, the road we were on had already been blockaded – butcolectivos (private mini-vans) were able to go. “Do you know a reliable one?” We called after the man. “Yes – me – my car’s over there. 50 bolivianos.”

Done deal. We headed over to where all the colectivos were parked. A woman with a clipboard came to take our payment: “70 bolivianos”. No way. Luckily, we had a man from the army on our side and we told her 50 was the agreed price – take us or leave us. Thankfully, she didn’t leave us. Army Man explained the reason for the protests on the roads – the people are unhappy with the new name of the airport. He rolled his eyes.

We were glad we had this escape route out of funny Oruro. Eight of us and a baby squeezed into the car and I slumped low in the seat to try and get some sleep and make the three hours disappear. With our driver’s speedy progress, though, we were seeing the sprawling outskirts of La Paz within a couple of hours. He deposited us in a crazy street entirely dedicated to terminating or departing buses, colectivos and taxis. I sprinted to the baño (toilet) before we hailed a taxi into the centre.

I had left La Paz on this same road to the airport without an ounce of regret some three months previously. This time, however, as the road curled down the side of one of the mountains that surround the city centre, I couldn’t help admire its stunning location. The city fills a bowl-like canyon encircled by immense mountains of 4000m or more; there is little left of nature to see as red breeze-block houses cover every inch of ground from the lip of the bowl to the bottom on all sides, but for the occasional spur of unyielding rock that no amount of concrete can surmount.

At the bottom of the bowl is the commercial centre with its shops, offices, markets, hostels and more importantly – places to get breakfast. Yes, I was quite happy to see La Paz again.

The street outside my hostel in La Paz

The street outside my hostel in La Paz

We chose a different hostel to the one we stayed in before, this time one that the guidebook described as small and quiet. The Hospedaje Milenio was perfect – run by an incredibly friendly and helpful family, cosy little rooms surrounded an inside courtyard and everything felt very homely. We strolled out in the crisp, sunny climate and found great places to eat for minimal prices. We ended up feeling so glad to be in La Paz, we thought we’d give it a try for jobs, and proceeded to send our CVs to every hostel, hotel and bar in town.

Newsstands in La Paz

Newsstands in La Paz

Over the next week, the jobs we were offered were: 50 bolivianos (£5) per eight-hour shift in an English pub; 20% off accommodation to work eight-hour shifts five times a week in a hostel bar; and finally, our best offer was free accommodation to work in another hostel’s bar four shifts a week. Unimpressed and now panicking slightly about money, we decided it was time to leave La Paz – by now we had been hanging out there for two weeks. At least in Cusco, we thought, there’ll be more work options – and better pay…

See part 7 coming soon!

See my expert travel tips for Bolivia.

A grand adventure part 4 – Abandoned in Atocha

As the bus drove off from Atocha in a cloud of dust, we asked directions to the train station. People happily gave them, with none of the sucking of teeth or shaking of heads we received in Villazon, so maybe, just maybe, there was hope!

The little, almost silent mining town of Atocha didn’t much look like it held a railway station, but sure enough, just behind the plaza, there it was – and there was the Expreso del Sur train waiting! And there was the ticket office open! We bought our tickets with a shaken mixture of disbelief and relief. We had finally caught up with the train!

Expreso del Sur train in Atocha station

Expreso del Sur train in Atocha station

After leaving our luggage, we headed back down to the plaza for a, by now, very late lunch. In this odd, isolated place we were surprised to find a café-bar with a full menu and were soon happily tucking into beef and chips.

Now there were a few hours to kill before the train left at 9.45 that night. We wandered round the town with everyone staring at us intruigedly – yes, it seems no other tourists come here in crazy pursuit of trains like us.

A plane monument in Atocha's main plaza (don't know why)

A plane monument in Atocha’s main plaza (don’t know why)

The sights were few and dull: an ominous-looking grey quarry dominated one side of the town, while along the river bank were dumped the shells of old cars. We passed some boys amusing themselves by cycling through a big muddy puddle. We wondered how a public toilet had ended up being donated to the town by the European Union. Then we were back at the railway tracks. Lots of people were walking across and up and down them determinedly – where they were going to or from, we couldn’t quite fathom. All we knew is we had nothing left to do, so we went to the market hall for dinner. As we’d only eaten about 45 minutes ago, we weren’t very hungry, so we managed to drag the meal out over the next two hours.

Our third thunderstorm in as many days rolled in and we sat listening to the stereo-sound claps of thunder and the torrential rain clattering on the market hall roof. Then I realised – what if more of the railway tracks get damaged and the train can’t leave Atocha either?!!

Atocha train station

Atocha train station

Now go to part 5! And have you seen parts one, two and three?

See my expert travel tips for Bolivia.

Montevideo: Expert travel guides

I spent nearly six weeks in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, so you could say I’m something of an expert on the city. I have written a series of guides to the city for Stanfords’ travel blog – Montevideo: A cultural guideMontevideo cafe guide and 11 quirky things to do in Montevideo.

Montevideo's old city gate

Montevideo’s old city gate

The unexpected city

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have seen I’ve been moving quite rapidly lately – through four different countries in as many weeks. And many of the places I’ve stopped, I’ve not particularly enjoyed – not only was the strain of budget travel taking its toll, but I just wasn’t seeing anything I liked. As you know, I didn’t warm to La Paz, and the cities of Argentina were loud, brash, scruffy and incredibly hot and sticky. Then I arrived in Uruguay and it was literally a breath of fresh air.

In fact, I like it so much, I think I’ve found the next place where I’m going to settle for a while. The capital, Montevideo, is one of the most pleasant cities I’ve been to.

My days here so far I have spent walking every inch of the city, and the more I see the more I like. For starters, its position on the coast is ideal – the old town and port area are on a promontory so when wandering the city streets, you regularly catch a glimpse of the ocean, or receive a fresh sea breeze as it whistles up the street.

One Sunday evening, I walked along the seafront Ramblas for about five miles, enjoying the sun lowering over the Atlantic, along with local families, couples and groups of teenagers civilly sipping their maté.

In the city centre, I keep discovering excellent-quality cafés maintaining their ‘60s décor and waiting staff, serving delicious pizzas, pastas (many Italians settled in Uruguay), chavitos (massive sandwiches filled with steak, ham and egg) and more, all coming in portions fit for four (which suits me – as anyone who knows me knows, I can eat).

People are cosmopolitan yet very amiable, and the streets, even in the centre, are spacious and crowd-free, while the traffic is light and – more importantly – polite.

There are plenty of museums I’m still waiting to investigate; I’m looking forward to dinner in one of the grills in the smart port market; and there are lots of bookshops in the University area begging to be rummaged through.

Best of all, Uruguay imports some of my favourite chocolate from England, along with its finest teas. Yep, I’m happy to stick around for a while.

Rachel Ricks in Montevideo's Plaza Independencia

Me in Montevideo’s Plaza Independencia

Bar-Grill in Montevideo, Uruguay

My favourite caff

Bookshop in Montevideo

Libreria Puro Verso, Old Town

Bookshop in University area of Montevideo

Bookshop in University area

Rachel Ricks in front of the 17th-century city gate in Montevideo

Me in front of the 18th-century city gate in Montevideo

Montevideo is the 2013 Ibero-American Capital of Culture – see what’s happening on their culture and arts website.

See my trio of guides to Montevideo.

A meaty subject

Not for readers of a sensitive disposition, nor those whom are feeling peckish.

I am an animal lover.

I am also a food lover.

Therefore I have an enduring dilemma that most of the time I try to ignore, but certain recent situations here in Peru have brought the issue again to the fore: Is vegetarianism the way forward?

I love all food, so I wouldn’t go short if I was veggie. In fact, I veer towards veggie options anyway as they’re always more interesting than the same old meat dishes – vegetable lasagne I find is more flavoursome than an average beef one; and a typical sausage contains less than 30% pork. So would I really be missing much if I went meat-free?

Let’s face facts – it’s a dead animal, who 100% for sure would’ve suffered miserably at some point on its journey to my plate. Following years spent in the divine company of furred and feathered creatures, I have every evidence that animals possess individual personalities. When I eat a bit of one, I deny all knowledge that it was once a living, breathing, feeling being.

When I was on a contemplative walk recently, I sat down to rest in the shade on a country road. No one else was around, but suddenly I had company – a beautiful brown horned bullock appeared at the top of a ledge up the mountainside above me. He was tethered, but had managed to stretch so that he could peer over and nose at who was at the side of his land. We sat and looked into each others’ eyes for some time, enjoying the unusual companionship. Then spontaneously, tears began to roll down my cheeks. It hit me hard that this animal who – just like me, was enjoying the sunshine of this beautiful day – would soon be slaughtered and butchered just to fill someone’s burger.

The shops and markets in this valley do not hide or disguise where our dinners come from. In a busy shopping street in Cusco, I saw a chicken being pulled from its cage and its neck wrung fresh for the customer. Previous victims lay, beaks agape and legs akimbo, awaiting selection. In a major supermarket in Lima, an entire vaccum-packed piglet in the freezer section startled the life out of me. And in Urubamba’s market, cows’ heads sit staring eyelessly on the meat-sellers’ counters.

Last Sunday, I went with friends to buy beef for a big roast dinner. The shopkeeper and her daughter were conveniently in the middle of sawing bits off a cow’s leg balanced on wooden stool in the middle of the shop. She slapped a chunk of thigh on the scales to price up for us, taking our money and giving us the change with the same, unwiped, bare hands she had handled the flesh with.

It embarrasses me how I flinch and shudder at these sights in front of my Peruvian friends – after all, I eat all this meat as much as they do – and I know where it comes from. I should not be so surprised to see it outside of an unrecognisable shape and colour in a plastic tray inside a pretty cardboard package, but that’s just what I’ve had all my life. I wonder if meat was displayed as crudely as this in the UK and the US, whether we would still be such ravenous carnivores.

Then there was the other night, when I went for a special birthday dinner in a lovely restaurant in Ollantaytambo. After a couple of months of budget eating, this was my chance to treat myself. The speciality was 300g prime steak. With creamy sweet potato mash. And blue cheese sauce.

It was amazing.

Wish me luck.

The cow that looked into my soul

The bull that looked into my soul