When I was in Buenos Aires, I kept putting off going to the area with all the multicoloured houses that is such an icon of the city. People kept telling me scare stories about the dangerous neighbourhood it’s in, but one day I plucked up the courage to go…check out my experience of La Boca on Stanfords’ blog.
I had put it off for years. I had made it into a bigger monster than it needed to be. I had missed out doing it in such amazing locations as Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and Koh Phi Phi in Thailand. Then finally, at the age of 28, after a long, frustrated summer spent in the Greek Islands, I got back to London and marched myself into the local leisure centre and did it. I signed up to swimming lessons.
I don’t know why I had never learnt to swim properly – I grew up spending all summer in the sea and swimming pools. But I never really swam.
Then as I started stepping out into far-flung corners of the world, my lack of ability at staying afloat in water became more and more of a vital issue. What if this rickety boat that’s bouncing across the waves to an isolated Pacific island doesn’t make it? What about on that experience-of-a-lifetime Ha Long Bay trip where everyone else is ecstatically jumping off the wooden junk boat into the aquamarine waters while I dangle nervously from the ladder?
And as for the time just I and a boyfriend were deposited somewhere in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Sumatra to do some snorkelling, only to see our “tour” boat disappear into the horizon…
So that day back in London was a life-changing one. I had decided to bite the bullet and face those fears of feeling humiliated, of being too old to take lessons, of looking stupid, of wearing a swimsuit in front of the general public, and – naturally – of drowning.
Those 12 weeks I spent – at first thrashing and eventually swimming – under the watchful eye of a patient teacher in a Covent Garden pool were the best investment I ever made.
Being able to swim opens up another 70% of the world to you – how cool is that? And this time when I departed for my travels in South America, I knew I could happily and confidently jump off any boats and plunge into any pools that came my way.
If you haven’t learnt to swim yet, just do it.
I’ve been very generously given files of books to read on my computer. I’ve got all the classics – from Carroll to Chekhov and from Kipling to Dickens; I’ve got all the titles by my favourite author, E M Forster; I’ve got poetry by all the greats, too.
I’d been desperate for a good read for a while, as English-language books are sparse in South America. I came from England last year with a ration of two books that I managed to stretch out over a few months, but by the time I hit Argentina, I was in need of a novel. The bookshops of Buenos Aires had small sections of ‘Pocket Books’– a euphemism for English books – but my eyes scanned and scanned the spines to see nothing but modern trash written by unknown authors. Finally, on a dusty hostel bookcase, I scavenged a 1986 copy of The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. A young Meryl Streep’s face peering out from the cover reminded me I had seen the film version years back, and somewhat enjoyed it, so the book must be worth a go.
The battered book stayed wedged down the side of my backpack as a mammoth voyage across the continent ensued. When I finally settled in Cusco, had time to unpack, and even more time to sit and read, I at long last opened the cover of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and turned those first, delightfully aged and yellowed pages. I brought the book up to my nose and drank in the musty smell from the antiquated paper. And I settled down into what was to be one of the best stories I’ve read.
Would I have enjoyed it half as much if I read it on my odourless, clinical laptop screen? I don’t think so.
Since bookless, I have made several attempts to start reading my favourite books from their computer files – A Room with a View, Howard’s End, Through the Looking Glass, Wordsworth’s poems. But something just isn’t quite right.
Of all the books I have read in my life, I can remember the physical book as well as – or even as part of – the actual story. I remember my 1970s series of Famous Five books that lined my childhood bookcase; the big old hardback copy of Peter Pan and Wendy with its colour plates; and then I remember my first borrowed copy of Wuthering Heights; and, for me, A Room with a View will always be associated with a sturdy hardback borrowed from the library that I got sand between all the pages as I read it on the beach one summer between college years.
So now I have a vast digital library full of great books, but will I ever read them? I suspect not in that form.
No, not for me the Kindle, iPad or any other electronic device to read my stories; no, I’m going to wait for the next crumpled, fusty tome abandoned on a shelf and with which I can delve deliciously into another time, another place.
This post appeared as Wanderlust’s blog of the week.
We had gone round all the ticket booths at La Paz’s bus station to establish prices and routes to Cusco. Bs.170 (£16/US$25) was the average price for the 12-hour journey. We decided we could do it cheaper.
So on the morning of our departure we rose early to beat the marathon that was starting at 8am and would mean closures (and the resulting mayhem) of the city’s streets. After a fond farewell to our hostel, we backpacked to the corner where we caught one of La Paz’s funky Guatemalan public buses to the Cemetario – a district where not only do you go to get buried, but also to catch onward buses. Here, we could pick up a colectivo to Desaguadero – the border town with Peru.
I was feeling heavily nauseous with altitude, exertion and travel, so was not looking forward to the two-hour ride on a pull-down seat in the back of this minivan. After half an hour the driver stopped to try and pick up more passengers to fill the van. When people looked in and saw the only seats left were in the very tiny, very back row, they were reluctant to board, so the driver started shouting at Carlos, accusing him and his guitar of putting people off, “We can’t leave because of you!” Carlos demonstrated that he and his guitar weren’t taking up any more than one seat, but still the driver argued. Finally the couple sitting in the front got fed up and transferred to the back to get things moving.
We arrived at Desaguadero and I could see right away how it had acquired its name – translated into English: ‘drain’ – the effluent from Lake Titicaca all comes this way, and inbetween the usual unfinished houses and muddy roads of these parts, were big swamps floating with rubbish. We couldn’t move quick enough to the border post.
We crossed the Desaguadero river and entered Peru. Now I had a small worry – I had overstayed my Peruvian visa last time, and this time I wanted to request the longer, six-month one – how was that going to go down?
Some charming words from Carlos and a friendly immigration officer saw I got a six-month visa for Peru. Now first things first, some breakfast before progressing on to the next bus. We changed our bolivianos to soles with one of the senoras who sit along the road in a row under parasols and with six blankets wrapped around them, then moved on into the town. The market was right beside where the buses depart so we were able to check prices and schedules before grabbing avocado sandwiches for S./1 (25p/38c) each from a market senora. The colectivos to Puno run constantly, so as soon as one fills up, the next one pulls in to call “Puno! PunoPunoPunoPunoooo!” Always keen to get the front seat, I leapt up to the car, but a schoolgirl beat me to the best seat by the window. So I was stuck in the middle seat next to the gearstick, where there was nowhere for my legs. If I sat up straight, my head came above top of the windscreen so I couldn’t see out.
Two hours later, I had manoeuvred my aching legs into every position imaginable and all the time craning my head to try and see out, and was getting pretty desperate to get out of the car. The road follows the shores of Lake Titicaca the whole way, so I tried to distract myself with what I could see of the serene, glass-like waters of the lake. Then, like a mirage, Puno appeared on the horizon.
See how my epic voyage ends in part 8 coming soon!
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 – but – colectivos (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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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?!!
See my expert travel tips for Bolivia.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
See my expert travel tips for Bolivia.
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…
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…
…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.
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?!
You can now go to part two!