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?

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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.

Why am I going?

Why am I going?

What is your definition of travel?

What is your definition of a traveller?

Someone asked me the other night.

As a veteran traveller, I always thought the answers to these questions were easy. But upon deeper reflection, I’m not so sure. Or maybe it’s because this time, it’s different. This is not so much about the travelling. This is about making the life I want happen.

Do I want to do the travel cliches? Do I want to traipse round ruins and sites, just because they are ‘must dos’; because everyone else does? And then wonder why I am frustrated and exhausted.

The other week when I was back at my mum’s, I looked at my old photo albums of my travels in Asia. I’ve looked at them many a time before with nostalgic pleasure; this time all I could see behind every picture-postcard photo was the negative elements of travelling alone in a foreign country – the strain of the backpack straps; the sweating from parts of the body I never knew possible (backs of knees anyone?); the never feeling properly clean; the arguments over fares with taxi drivers; the inability to communicate with people properly; the sitting alone in cafes for dinner; the different bed each night. Did I actually enjoy travelling, or is it just something I have to do?

And that’s what I answered to my friend who asked the poignant questions – I think I’m going because I can.

Backpacking on a ferry in Sumatra, Indonesia

Trying not to let my backpacks unbalance me when boarding a ferry during previous travels in Sumatra, Indonesia

The ruination of ruins

Some complain of ruin fatigue. Some spend a week at Angkor Wat with genuine interest in every carving. Some whizz round famous sites just to say they’ve been.
I think I’m apathetic to old stones.

When I went to Cambodia, I had endured what had proved to be one of the most horrendous journeys of my life so far to reach Siem Reap overland from Thailand. I was heading for the legend that is Angkor Wat, in fact my my sole reason for visiting the country. I got the three-day pass for the site as my guidebook by a popular publisher, which normally has the same opinions as me, seemed to strongly suggest that I’d be a criminal to spend anything less than this admiring the ruins. However, after having to stay in the grotty town of Siem Reap for those three days, I heavily regretted it. I could have easily seen all I needed to at Angkor in a day.

Temple ruins of Athens, Greece

Unimpressed in Athens

Then there was my visit to Easter Island as part of a round-the-world ticket that had such a demoralising effect on me, I subsequently cut that whole trip short. Rows of big stone heads in a wind-beaten landscape on the most isolated inhabited island on earth inspired me to nothing more than a severe bout of depression.

Now, before you form an opinion of me as an philistine or an airhead, let me clarify – I love architecture and ancient relics – I spend my weekends going to practically every museum, artist’s house, stately home and castle in the UK, and revolve all my foreign travel around culture and sights rather than beach loungers and pools. But when I think of some of the ruins I’ve put blood, sweat and tears into reaching around the globe, I inevitably end up with a little bit of a flat feeling about them. Maybe we’re just too exposed to the wonders of the world by the mediums of media that real life will never compare anymore.
I hope not.

And now I’m headed to Peru with a key aim, of course, being to visit the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. Will I stand atop a mountain, gazing down over the ruins with a sense of elation, and ecstatically cry “I made it!!”…or will I just feel as momentarily excited as when I see a new Sainsbury’s Local has opened up nearer my house? Watch this space dear reader, watch this space.

Footnote: I would like to mention one big exception – and that is the ruined city of Petra in Jordan that I visited last autumn. It completely exceeded my expectations – I got lots of wonderful surprises there and was utterly stunned. Maybe it doesn’t receive so much media coverage..?