Living with mountains

When I was living in a mini apartment in Cusco, I was lucky enough to have a panoramic view over mountains that would have exceeded 4000-metre altitudes. On bright days, I could even see at the end of the valley the almighty Ausangate – a significant peak in the area at a ginormous 6384 metres high. There is something about seeing mountains that makes the every-day special – each time I would look out the window, the scene would appear completely and utterly different with the changing light and cloud formations of the day.

Here are a few of my favourite shots of the same view from my apartment window:

Ausangate in full view on this bright sunny day

Ausangate (the snow-covered mountain) in full view on this bright sunny day

A misty morning with the mountains shrouded

A misty morning with the mountains shrouded (and Ausangate disappeared)

After an overcast day, the sun graces these few peaks with her presence

After an overcast day, the sun graces these few peaks with her presence for a few moments

After another unsettled day of weather, this cloud formation makes the landscape look volcanic

After another unsettled day of weather, this spectacular cloud formation makes the landscape look volcanic

Read about how I got to live in this cool apartment.

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 5 – Buses, trains and automobiles

Day 6
Back at the station, all seemed to be in order, though there were hardly any other passengers waiting. We realised we would be the only ones in ‘Executive’ class – the equivalent of first class, which for us in Bolivianos was cheap, and would mean we’d get more comfortable, fully reclinable seats, plus blankets and pillows. Excited at the prospect of a civilised journey at last, we settled down contentedly in our seats to watch the film showing on the carriage’s television. But then the train began to move, and it became apparent it wasn’t going to be all that peaceful as trains we know and love. The narrow-gauge line meant the shallow rails could easily be strewn with rocks and debris from the mountainsides, so the resulting noise resembled travelling in a metal box being constantly pelted with a hammer. Luckily, I was so exhausted I passed out for most of the night.

Inside the Executive class carriage on the Expreso del Sur train, Bolivia

Inside the Executive class carriage on the Expreso del Sur train, Bolivia

We were woken abruptly at around 6.30 in the morning by the militant train assistant who yanked the pillows and blankets off us. Annoyed, I hoped it at least meant he was going to bring round some breakfast, but no, we had arrived in Oruro – some six hours earlier we were expecting!

The Expreso del Sur train in Oruro's station at 6am

The Expreso del Sur train after arriving in Oruro’s station at 6.30am

Bleary-eyed, we wandered out into Oruro in search of breakfast. We intended to stay at least a night here to catch up on sleep and sanity, and then move straight through La Paz and on to Cusco in one swoop the next day. However, after walking the length and breadth of the bleak, former mining town to find not one shop or café open, we decided the three-hour bus to La Paz was preferable and made for the bus terminal.

Here, we found a small café serving tea and bread, and then we were ready to get our bus tickets for La Paz. However, now all the buses had disappeared and the ticket offices were all closed. Thinking it was just the weird Bolivian town’s way, we redirected our search to the road outside and got talking to some people – road blocks were being set up around the town as part of a protest – no buses would be able to leave Oruro for the rest of today!

Now go to part 6!

To plan your rail journey in Bolivia, go to the Empresa Ferroviaria Andina (FCA) website, and ask plenty of locals!

See my expert travel tips for Bolivia.

A grand adventure part 3 – Buses from hell

I was high on my adventure travel buzz – either that or the newly acquired high altitude we were now in – and with a stiff upper lip accepted my fate. The steps into the bus began at chest level so it was with some feat of flexibility that I hoisted myself and my carry-on luggage into the creaking carriage. I tried not to look too closely at the rickety seats that had been all but stripped of their upholstery, and instead snuggled down as best I could to look out the window and enjoy views of Bolivia.

It was only an hour-and-a-half ride, so inbetween gazing out at gorgeous altiplano landscapes dotted with bizarre cacti, and some twitchy sleep, the Rustbucket Express wasn’t the bad experience I had anticipated.

Now we were in Tupiza – a more touristy town, with street-fulls of hostels, tour agencies and ‘Italian’ restaurants. Here, travellers come to go horseback riding in the badlands and relive where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid allegedly met their ends. It’s also another place where you can start or finish tours of the Uyuni salt flats, so it was weird to be back being offered tour packages everywhere we turned, when we had completed that adventure some months – and many miles – ago.

Tupiza's market for breakfast

Tupiza’s market for breakfast

We made our first stop the essential market hall and had another delicious, recuperative soup, before finding a hostel. A few hours of sleep later and we set out to explore Tupiza and get our bus ticket for Atocha the next day. Afterwards, we ended up walking way out past the bus station, beyond the last row of houses and out into the countryside where we followed the already overgrown railway track past corn fields, and horses grazing, with beautiful birdsong and stunning red rocky mountains all around.

Walking in the countryside outside Tupiza

Walking in the beautiful countryside outside Tupiza (note the overgrown rail tracks)

That night, our close relationship with thunderstorms continued. Holed up in a cosy ‘Italian’ restaurant, we enjoyed hearing the tremendous claps of thunder and watching through the window as the whole street was illuminated by lightning, until we realised we’d soon have to be splashing back to our hostel. The rainfall was so heavy, roads had turned into flowing rivers, with no hope of us crossing unless we wanted to be swept away down-current, so we took a long detour to the upper streets where the water ran shallower and we were able to hop across to our side of the town!

Day 5
We got on the 10am bus for Atocha, which is supposed to take two-and-a-half hours. If I had known what was to follow, I would probably never have set foot on the bus. After just a few metres of paved road out of Tupiza, we turned off onto what looked like a silt riverbed, and that was our road for the next what was to become four arduous hours.

The 'road' (read: silt riverbed) from Tupiza to Atocha

The ‘road’ (read: silt riverbed) from Tupiza to Atocha

It got even worse when the ‘road’ started winding up mountainsides and our tall bus leaned and creaked as it seemingly impossibly negotiated hairpin bends, or started reversing on the edge of a precipice because a truck was coming in the other direction. Feeling hot and breathless, I reached to the air conditioning adjuster above my head, but all I found was a handful of wires hanging out of a hole. Somewhere behind me a baby was wailing. At regular intervals, I spotted memorial shrines set up on the edge of sheer drops by the side of the road.

The dusty road lined with cacti

The dusty road lined with cacti

These hours are probably among the most terrifying of my life. Thoughts of standing on solid ground once again and remembering Paddy in BA’s experience kept me going.

The neverending road through the desolate landscape

The neverending road through the desolate landscape

As the painful hours ticked by, and with the dust track visible as far as the eye could see across the desolate altiplano landscape in front of us, we began to question whether this was actually the bus for Atocha. Then finally, finally, joy of joys, after one last cliffhanging bend complete with memorial shrine, Atocha appeared.

First impressions of Atocha (not good, though I love how in such high altitudes the clouds seem to hang closer to the ground)

First impressions of Atocha (not good; though I love how in such high altitudes the clouds seem to hang closer to the ground)

I practically fell out of the bus and would’ve kissed the ground if I hadn’t needed to run so fast to get to the toilet.

Everyone else on the bus was continuing on to Uyuni, and even though we were to be left stranded in this bizarre and bleak mining town that doesn’t get tourists, I had no intention of stepping back on that bus. Please let the trains be running from here!

Now go to part 4! And did you see parts 1 and 2?

A grand adventure part 2 – Chasing trains

We hadn’t given up hope on the train just yet, as in these parts you can rarely get a straight story – tales ranged from that the train hadn’t been running for two years, to that a bridge was swept away in the recent rains. When we finally reached the station, nobody could be found, but opposite was a small guesthouse where the young woman owner gave the straight facts – the track had been damaged and so the train hasn’t been running for a month – but – there was hope! It was only the stretch between Villazon and Atocha – from the latter we should be able to pick up the train that leaves in two days time!

Full of optimism and the relief that we would at least be sleeping in a bed not a bus seat tonight, we checked into her guesthouse and I took a very long hot shower.

Villazon often gets a bad press from travel bloggers – described as dodgy and a place to hurry through quickly. But I felt nothing sinister about the women setting up their food and drink carts for the day, the uniformed children scurrying diligently to school, the hardworking men loading up cars and vans (yes, with what were probably illegally imported goods, but heh).

We headed to the Mercado (market hall) for breakfast, and I was so happy to be pushing my way through vibrant Andean stalls again, with plump, multi-skirted women seated among their wares of enormous fruits and vegetables, flame-red gladioli, unfathomable piles of eggs, and uncountable other useful products and nick-nacks.

Typical Andean market hall scene

Typical Andean market hall scene. Photo: Rachel Ricks

All these markets smell the same too – the air is pungent with fruit and vegetables as fresh as you can get them, along with raw meat. Comidas (food) was upstairs, and we joined a long row of tables to be served the most delicious meal I’d had in a long time – a big bowl of peanut soup with pasta, potato and a hunk of meat. Just what the doctor ordered, before we returned to the guesthouse and to bed for a few hours’ sleep catch-up.

Day 4
We rose early to get to the bus station for our 7am bus to Tupiza. Buses in Bolivia are of an entirely different calibre to their Argentinean counterparts we’d come to enjoy. No ultra-modern, high-luxury vehicles here. Most that we watched pull in and out of the terminal were weird and tall and 1970s-looking with ear-shattering engines. I spotted one pull in to beat them all – a bus that was riddled with rust and in fact had lost its entire rear undercarriage to the affliction. I nudged Carlos – “Look – I bet that’s ours! Check the ticket – I bet it says ‘Rustbucket Bus Lines’!” Again, I should have known better in Bolivia – it was our bus.

Rusty bus from Villazon

Rusty bus from Villazon

Did you see part 1? Go on to part 3!

See my expert travel tips for Bolivia.

A grand adventure: Iguazu to Cusco. Part 1 – Which way?

It all started in Iguazu – the town from where you visit the eponymous falls. The falls were spectacular, a real highlight in my life (see my Iguazu Falls story). However, back at the hotel that night, it was time for practicalities. The problem with Iguazu is it’s miles away from anywhere. We had taken a bus from Buenos Aires that took no less than 20 hours to reach here, and it was looking like journey times of 24 hours upwards to get out the other side.

Rapidly running out of money, we had decided in overpriced Buenos Aires to return to Peru, and planning the best route was proving tricky. Iguazu is way up on the tip of a promontory of Argentina that juts between Paraguay and Brazil,  and on the map, it looks very sensible indeed to go straight up through either of these countries to reach Peru, rather than do a dog’s leg through Argentina before heading northwards. However, a trawl through online forums brought comments such as, “if you want to take the most arduous, painful, endurance-testing journey of your life” – on bus travel in Paraguay, while the Brazil route would involve traversing the Pantanal – a vast wetland covering 21,000 sq km (apparently “the size of Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland and Holland combined”). So, there was no other way round it – the best way meant getting to the north-west of Argentina, traversing  Bolivia and out through Lake Titicaca to Peru.

Now the added issue was, as those of you who know me know, I love travel, but unlike my good friend the Overland Traveller, I do not always enjoy the travelling part. I have what’s bordering on a phobia of buses and am prone to horrendous motion sickness, so imagine how I felt at the thought of days and nights of long bus journeys ahead – however more comfortable than Paraguay it would be.

So this is my tale of what happened…

Day 1
We needed to get to Salta, in north-west Argentina, from where buses headed north to the border with Bolivia. However, our first obstacle was that no bus companies run direct from Iguazu to Salta, but eventually we worked out that they would sell a combined ticket where you take a bus with one company as far as the transport hubs of Posadas or Corrientes and then change onto your 20-hourer up to Salta. The kind assistant at Iguazu’s ticket office must’ve felt our increasing stress levels as she even slipped us into cama class for the stretch to Posadas, and cama ejecutivo to Salta, all for semi-cama prices – score!

So at 10am we boarded our bus at Iguazu that hurtled at an alarming rate along a muddy road through to Posadas. By 2.30pm we’d arrived at Posadas, and with just a couple of hours until the next bus, we set up camp in the terminal’s old-school cafe. At 4pm it was time to board our night-bus for Salta. Three movies, a chicken dinner and a fairly decent sleep later and we reached…

Inside the Flecha bus from Posadas to Salta

Inside the cama Flecha bus from Posadas to Salta (18 hours)

Day 2
…Salta at around 10.30am. We decided to keep our journey ball rolling and get tickets for that night to La Quiaca – Argentina’s border town with Bolivia. We had already spent five days in Salta three months ago, so didn’t need to spend another night here. We knew the centre was an easy stroll away, and knew where to get our lunch (Vea supermarket, Florida) and dinner (Doña Salta, Cordoba 46); we even slipped in a cable-car ride up the mountain and a trek back down. Then an almighty thunderstorm rolled in – we were soaked within seconds and still had to get to the bus terminal. Cue some soggy socks and t-shirts hanging on the rail in the bus (lucky we had the front seats). And so on with our next overnighter, departing with spectacular views through the front window of the electric storm in the mountains all around Salta.

The calm before the storm in Salta

The calm before the storm in Salta

Day 3
5.30am: Arrival in La Quiaca (we think).
I woke at some hour of darkness with my mouth stuck to the armrest and to the unmistakable sound of Bolivian women’s high-pitched, screamy voices, and deduced it was time to get off the bus. We blurrily gathered our belongings and stumbled out the door into what immediately felt like Bolivia – the air was freezing cold, the ground was dusty and there were lots of well-wrapped Bolivians sitting with big piles of boxes and bags.

I immediately had that thrilling pang of adventure kick in again – Argentina and Uruguay had been very nice in places, but I felt a little too much like I was in a wannabe 1980s-Europe most of the time, so getting back to the nitty-gritty of South America was an exciting prospect. One of the things I love best about travel is sometimes not knowing where on earth you are, and this was one of those moments. For a time, you have no fear, nor even concern as to what happens next, you’re simply living the present. And usually, everything does work out alright; we walked straight to a taxi, which dropped us within minutes to the border crossing – easy.

Now we just had to wait two hours in the icy cold until the border offices opened. I dug out all the woolly clothes I had faithfully carried round sweaty Argentina and Uruguay, knowing I would regret throwing them away. Then we sat on our backpacks with our sleeping bags wrapped round us, watching as dozens of people casually passed indifferently across the border in either direction – some hurrying to work, some drunk teenagers staggering home.

Finally the sun began to rise and staff slowly emerged to unlock the offices and we were through! Within a few steps we were in the Bolivian town of Villazon, through which we staggered with quick stops for toilets and money exchange on the way to the train station. Yes, we were to take a break from buses and make use of the railway that runs from Villazon to Oruro – saving some 18 hours of Bolivian buses and roads.

But, knowing Bolivia, I kind of guessed what would happen next – everyone we asked directions for the railway station shook their heads and warned us there were no trains! No! Please tell me we don’t have to cross Bolivia entirely by bus?!

Rachel and Salta's cable car

Me and Salta’s cable car

Salta in downpour

Salta in downpour

You can now go to part two!

Never say never. Or, how I fell for La Paz after all

You may remember reading my previous opinion on Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. I can recall the joy I felt as the taxi whisked me away to the airport for my escape, and how I looked back over the city and thought “Never again”.

Well guess what? Three months later, I came back to La Paz! And as I wrote in that entry, it seems to be all about your state of mind and how you arrive that affects your impression of a place.

This time, La Paz signified for me the penultimate stop on an epic multi-day voyage from Buenos Aires to Cusco. There had been 20-hour buses; back-to-back buses; rustbucket buses and death-defying buses. There had been lost trains; roads washed away by rivers; hours spent in abandoned mining towns in Bolivia’s back-and-beyond; road blocks…and finally, thankfully, La Paz.

Now, as we drove in above its canyon setting, La Paz looked stunning. And I was glad to get back to the reassuring hustle and bustle of city life and all the comforts and conveniences it brings. And this time I checked into a hostel run by a friendly family that made it feel welcoming.

Now it was autumn, so the leaves were turning orange on the plaza’s plane trees, and there was a crisp chill in the air which made it ideal for walking around the city and swerving into cosy cafés for hot drinks.

Now I noticed what I didn’t before. I admired the resilience and determination of the locals: the ancient women in their traditional Andean skirts who robustly sit on every corner with their snack stalls every hour of the day, come rain or shine; the fashion-conscious young women office-workers who non-chalantly negotiate the perilously steep and pot-holed pavements in their precipitous stiletto-heeled boots; the drivers who ignore all the rules of road safety, but somehow get there anyway; the school kids laughing, joking and ignoring the cars honking at them as they idle across the roads.

This time I have discovered great restaurants, warm and kind people, and stunning views of distant snow-capped peaks in the day, and twinkling lights soaring up the mountainsides all around at night.

I’m glad I came back to La Paz and gave it another chance, and I’ll remember that – especially when it comes to travel – you can really never say never.

And this time, I took loads of photos of La Paz, here are a few:

La Paz ladies

La Paz ladies

I grew a new appreciation for La Paz's funky Guatemalan buses

I grew a new appreciation for La Paz’s funky Guatemalan buses

One of many hardy senoras with her sweets and cigarrettes stall

One of many hardy senoras with her sweets and cigarettes stall

La Paz Plaza with pigeons

La Paz Plaza with pigeons

Plane trees in La Paz

Plane trees in La Paz

Urban park walkway in La Paz

I discovered this rather cool ‘urban park’ – an elevated walkway that gives great views over the city and beyond

Looking back over the city from the urban walkway

Looking back over the city from the urban walkway

Snow-capped peaks in the distance outside La Paz

Snow-capped peaks in the distance outside La Paz

Typical street in La Paz's centre - a hotch-potch of colonial buildings and electric cables

Typical street in La Paz’s centre – a hotch-potch of colonial buildings and electric cables

See my expert travel tips for Bolivia.

The not-so relaxing hot springs of Lares

While I was living in the Sacred Valley in Peru, I took a trip to the famous hot springs of Lares, however, it wasn’t quite as relaxing as would be expected…read my article on Stanfords’ website.

Lares hot springs. Photo © Rachel Ricks

Lares hot springs. Photo © Rachel Ricks

The walk that didn’t know it was happening until it did

Originally written by hand at 3.35pm, sitting by a stream at the side of a field.

It’s Friday night back in London. My friends there are heading out to pubs in the city for a night of drinking. I headed out with my book and notebook to sit somewhere quiet in the afternoon sunshine to read and write.

Urubamba doesn’t have many quiet or green spaces – apart from the cemetery – which, nice as it is and as comfortable as I am being around the dead, I fancied being around life on this glorious day.

So I started walking.

I walked to the edge of town, past the cemetery; the road turns to dust here. I walked past the foot of the first mountain outside the town. I walked past schoolchildren on their long trudges home. I walked through the next village. I walked ever upwards past farmers’ fields and nearer the snow-capped peaks and glaciers of the Cordillera Urubamba that cut off the end of this valley.

I stopped to sit down in the shade by the roadside and a curious bull appeared on the other side of the road to look at me. I carried on, ever upwards. I stopped to eat the bread and cheese I’d bought in Urubamba. I stopped in another village to buy a 70c bottle of Kola Real. I stopped to write this.

Somehow the mountains have lured me to keep walking along the dusty, stony road in the beating sun, with quite a heavy rucksack full of books. I don’t know for how long or how far I will go, but I do know this must be complete and true freedom as any human being can expect to obtain in this life.

No one knows where I am or what I’m doing, apart from the country folk I pass. I can walk at the exact speed I wish. I can stop when I want. I can smile and greet anyone I care to. I can go on walking as long as I feel like it. I can return home and no one will ever know what I did and what I saw unless I want them to.

Unless I type this up and share it with you.

Urubamba's cemetery

Urubamba’s cemetery

The bull that looked into my soul

The bull that looked into my soul

The mountain valley with children on swing

The mountain valley with children on swing

Walking back

Walking back

Me

Me