The South American traveller’s ultimate getaway

Looking for somewhere to break up that epic South America road trip and put your feet up awhile? I found it.

After crossing the border from Peru into Bolivia and reaching the tacky ‘resort’ of Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca, we decided to head straight out into the middle of this, the world’s highest navigable body of water and spend the night there – why not? Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) is a three-hour boat ride out into the lake and with basic amenities, no cars, and barely electricity, is a little getaway from modern life, and indeed, life on the road.

This is what happened…

We took the boat that’s run by a sailors’ association from Copacabana’s waterfront. A small, rickety wooden boat with narrow bench seats didn’t make very comfortable travelling for the three-hour journey, but seeing the snow-caps of distant Andean mountains were a great distraction and a reminder of just how high up in the air we were, despite being in a boat on water…

The tips of the Cordillera Real as seen from a boat on Lake Titicacaca

The tips of the Cordillera Real mountain range as seen from the boat on Lake Titicaca

Traditionally dressed local mother and daughter on their commute back to Isla del Sol from the mainland

Mother and daughter on their commute back to Isla del Sol from the mainland, wearing the multi-tiered skirts and bowler hats that are long-standing traditions in the Andes

As we neared Isla del Sol, some discussion and confusion broke out among us foreign passengers as to where the boat was stopping first – the south or north of the island. We didn’t really know which one we’d prefer, so when the boat stopped at the south – or was it the north? – and most tourists got off, we decided to wing it to the north – or south – no idea what to expect there.

When the boat docked in Challapampa, the main settlement in the south/north, a girl in an ill-fitting wine-coloured velveteen dress was lazily hanging around the end of the wooden jetty. As we approached she gently spoke, “Habitacion?” We looked around, and with just a few up-turned boats on the sand backed by basic buildings, we agreed to be led by the girl.

We followed her along a sand path between the ramshackle buildings and must’ve crossed a narrow peninsula as now we saw the water again – from a beautiful sandy bay. We walked onto the beach and turned into her family’s guesthouse that was sitting right in the middle of the sand.

Basic, it was, but this was our view for a mere Bs.40 (around £2):

View of Lake Titicaca from Isla del Sol guesthouse

The window with the best view ever? Certainly a strong contender

We explored the town and found that a couple of the buildings served food – one in particular suddenly filled with travellers that night, all enjoying the set menu of vegetable soup, lake-fresh trout with rice, and coca tea. At dusk we strolled along the bays and were struck by the ethereal landscape in the light of the full moon.

Full moon over the boats moored off Ch'allampa

Full moon over the boats moored off Challapampa and the distant Cordillera Real

Sunset over Lake Titicaca, from Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), Bolivia

Sunset at 12,500ft. Note the crops growing on the beach – every bit of land is used productively in these parts

The next morning, this was what I saw – as you can imagine, I couldn’t wait to get up and enjoy the beach…

Beach on Isla del Sol's northern end, Lake Titicaca

The beach in all its glory

It only took a few steps to stroll out through the gate to our guesthouse and we were on the sand.

Guesthouse on Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

The gates from our guesthouse straight onto the sand

The water looked tantalising, but surely at over 12,500ft (3800m) high in the Andes, it’s going to be freezing? No – it was the perfect temperature – refreshing for dips in-between sunbathing.

Rachel in Lake Titicaca

It’s not a bad life

The pigs were enjoying it too (it’s easy to forget that to the residents of Challapampa, this isn’t a beach, it’s common land for grazing their animals).

Pigs on the beach, Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

Pigs on the beach – what else?

My companion turned and said to me, “Everything we’ve done until now has led us here, so even the mistakes were worth it.”

Sailing away from Isla del Sol

Breaking on of my travel rules – looking back over my shoulder as we sail away from Challapampa and back to ‘reality’.

Letting it happen

Just over a year ago, I had arrived in Peru with absolutely no idea of what to do or where to go. It wasn’t long, however, before my adventures began and I found myself (thank you Johannes) in a funny little valley below Cusco with places I’d never heard of soon becoming my home, and people I’d never met soon to become friends.

Here are some of my photos taken within the space of just a few weeks of arriving in this new land. I think they show that sometimes the best laid plans are none at all…

Urubamba cross

The Cross, above Urubamba, solo

Salineras

Las Salineras – salt mines, with Alex

Puma walk

Walking down from Pumamarca, with Tara

Pisac

Discovering Pisac, solo

Phone

Back streets of Cusco, with Veronica

Koricancha, Cusco, Rachel Travels

Taking a break from exploring Cusco, with Jenna

Naupa temple

Naupa temple, with Johannes, Carlos, Juan Carlos

Ollanta

Above Ollantaytambo, solo

moon

The moon, somewhere in the valley, with some people

Kai, with many

Kai, with many

Looking down on the lights of Cusco from Q'enqo ruins at dusk

Looking down on the lights of Cusco from Q’enqo ruins at dusk, with Alex

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.

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 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.

Lima – misunderstood city

Peru’s capital, Lima, is often presented as a dangerous and generally unappealing city. Here’s my take on it, published on Stanfords’ blog.

And here are some of my favourite pictures I took of the city:

Three Irish girls and a church in Barranco, Lima

Three Irish girls and a church in Barranco, Lima

Kissing the silver cross of Padre Urraca in the Iglesia de La Merced in Lima, Peru

Kissing the silver cross of Padre Urraca in the Iglesia de La Merced in Lima, Peru

Lima's Plaza de Armas with taxis

Lima’s Plaza de Armas with taxis

Lima's Plaza de Armas by night

Lima’s Plaza de Armas by night

Mujer mural in Lima

Mujer (woman) mural in Lima

Piano player in Tram cafe, Miraflores, Lima

Piano player in Tram cafe, Miraflores, Lima