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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
They say a change is as good as a holiday, don’t they? Well, after four weeks in Montevideo, I dusted the cobwebs off my backpack and headed up the coast to Buenos Aires – no, not The Buenos Aires, but a beach village with the same name, a few kilometres outside of Punta del Este on Uruguay’s coast.
Punte del Este is the celebrity hang out of this part of South America at this time of year – Brazilian and Argentinean stars and travellers alike flock to this Miami-esque city by the sea to pose and parade by the beach. Not for me. But luckily, Carlos had some friends who are working in the much more undeveloped and rugged Buenos Aires, and offered for us to stay with them in their beach-side house for a couple of days.
After an emotional few weeks, I was still feeling low and fragile and questioning this whole travel lark, but figured a change of scenery and some beach time should do the trick. After arriving at their house, however, I endured several hours of Spanish conversations and jokes, with me able to pick up only a few words, and too embarrassed or frozen or whatever to attempt any contribution, so I only descended into a deeper state of misery.
However – it would all be worth it and I’d soon be cheered up, as swimming in the sea and sunbathing on a beach are among my favourite things to do in the world. When we finally headed to the beach, I sat down and looked at the massive waves ripping and curling into the shore; I’ve only recently learnt to swim and have never encountered waves as powerful as these before, so effectively, I realised, the sea was inaccessible to me. As I watched everyone around me frolicking and enjoying the beach, I suddenly felt a bit isolated – I was not enjoying it, and felt guilty for thinking this way.
But suddenly something changed – Carlos, who grew up playing in the surf of Lima’s Pacific beaches, got me down to the water’s edge and slowly but surely led me in, teaching me how to read the waves.
The lagoon-like waters of Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands it was not – it was way more exciting. I spent the rest of the afternoon screaming and laughing as I dived into waves and let them crash me into the shore.
And suddenly from those small steps, everything was better.
From now on, I know that big waves don’t necessarily mean danger, but a whole lot of fun. When we got back to the house, I even managed a few words in Spanish and understood a sentence or two.
And best of all, I’m excited about travel again.
Yep, all those philosophers are right; to really get the most out of life, we have to face our fears – just like I leapt head-on into those oh-so intimidating waves.
I have been in Montevideo for pretty much four weeks now and it’s unexpectedly become a rocky ride. At first I was hanging out here by choice – I found the city a great place to spend some time, and flung out emails left, right and centre for teaching work and apartment rentals, while planning to head to the beach for the Christmas holiday.
However, as Christmas approached, things suddenly didn’t look so rosy.
A couple of months ago, on my last night in Peru while waiting for the bus, my wallet had been stolen out of my rucksack. Unfortunately my bank card was inside, and for the coming weeks I planned to be on the move almost every day so there was no chance of getting sent a new one without staying put for a good while. Buenos Aires’ post offices refused to do poste restante for me, but thankfully when I arrived in Montevideo they offered the service – and for free.
By then it wasn’t long before my cash supply ran down to zero and my bank card would take 10 days to arrive, so the Christmas and New Year period I spent sat in my cheap hotel room, with supermarket food bought on my credit card.
After New Year, my bank card finally arrived, but I also received devastating news from home that my beloved cat Molly had been run over and died.
By this point I began to wonder why on earth I had given up what was really quite a wonderful life back in England, where I was surrounded by lovely people whom I love very much, had a great home with my cat and my five housemates, had a decent job with a good salary that allowed me to do anything I wanted. Why, why, why did I give up all of that? Was I ungrateful? Greedy? Always wanting more? Never satisfied?
These have been dark days, but slowly I’m coming out to the other side where the sun is breaking through – I know there are good times ahead and that my loved ones will support me all the way. There are mountains I will climb, waterfalls I’ll stand beneath and new four-legged friends whose fur I’ll run my hand through.
No matter what hurdles I must face and sadness I will feel along the way, I had to do this – even long before I stepped on to the plane, it was already part of my life.
It’s a shame how your entrance to a city can affect your overall impression of it. I had not long been in Bolivia when I took a local bus from Copacabana to the capital, La Paz – a journey that was supposed to take just over three hours, but slowly and painfully extended to five, meaning I entered the city in not the best of moods…
The landscapes on the journey from the shores of Lake Titicaca and through the mountains had been spectacular – especially as the sun set and the great big full moon came out. But my contentment crumbled away when we hit the sprawling suburbs of La Paz, in rush hour. An undeterminable amount of lanes of solid traffic stretched for miles, while the same grocery store, pharmacy, metal workshop and garage seemed to appear every few hundred yards, making me think it was just a rolling scenery screen from a cartoon.
The bus then decided to terminate not at the bus terminal – because “Nobody wants to get off there” – but instead in the Cemetery district. Trying desperately to hail a taxi, I stood with my pile of luggage where the bus had deposited me in the road. Locals daringly skipped between ruthless vehicles – my taxi nearly killed about five people by the time we reached the hostel.
I stepped over rubbish bags and mounds of hair that had been piled outside a hairdressers, to reach the door of the hostel I’d selected as the cheapest in town (El Solario; £2 p/p). Things didn’t improve once I was inside – I was buzzed through a metal barred gate and stepped into a fluorescent strip-lit stairwell. My room was on the third floor, with only an internal window and a lumpy bed.
I vowed that night to get out of La Paz as soon as possible, not caring what it might have to offer upon deeper exploration.
I spent three nights in La Paz, and every day I walked the city, which seemed marginally better than that first night, but I still couldn’t get it out of my head that the place was a dump. The city centre consisted of tragic, once-elegant colonial buildings that were being left to rot, and oppressive 1960s office blocks.
I have been in the mayhem of many capital cities, but somehow their pandemonium was vibrant and proactive. It seems the people of La Paz have been in a state of chaos for so long they have simply become accustomed to it; therefore no one challenges the rubbish-strewn streets, the broken pavements, the dilapidated buildings and the jumble of electricity cables on every lamppost. Only one elderly lady spoke out as I negotiated a three-lane onslaught of traffic with her: “Qué desgracia! Qué desgracia!” She exclaimed as we dodged honking taxis and fuel-belching buses dating from the 1950s.
One short street of well-preserved colonial buildings, some cosy European-style coffee shops and old-fashioned, creaking bookshops were redeeming features of the city for me, but otherwise my mind had been made up – my escape ticket out of La Paz had been booked.
(You won’t find any photos of La Paz here as I was too scared to take my camera out.)
My tips for La Paz
- The street of well-preserved colonial buildings is Calle Jaen. There are four museums along this street for which you can buy a combined ticket.
- Hostal El Solario (Murillo 776) was basic, but clean and friendly. Also has a well-run travel agency downstairs through which I booked my Salar de Uyuni tour, which was good.
Eating and drinking (my favourite things to do)
- Coffee shops and cafés I enjoyed included Café Angelo Colonial in the vaults of the Museo Nacional de Arte, but accessed from Calle Socabaya. Next door, the Hotel Torino’s restaurant and separate café looked good, too.
- If you’re craving the comfort of some home-cooking like I was, head to the English pub Oliver’s for bangers and mash, cottage pie and pints of PG Tips. Good sofas and book exchange make for a cosy afternoon, too. It’s moved up the stairs above Sol y Luna (Murillo with Cochabamba), a bar-restaurant serving tasty Dutch dishes.
- For quick and budget food, Eli’s Pizza is a 1950s-established chain of American-style diners. The branch at Avenida 16 de Julio serves dishes such as stuffed potatoes and salteñas as well as their ‘famous’ pizzas.
How to escape
- Thankfully, flights now operate between La Paz and Uyuni (TAM are cheapest, book through a travel agency as their website is rubbish; Amaszonas also fly this route – www.amaszonas.com), so if you’re heading for the salt flats tour, you no longer need to endure the 12-hour bus journey.
- Buses leave to Copacabana on Lake Titicaca (3-5 hours), Santa Cruz and Uyuni among other destinations every day.
Postscript: I have since revisited La Paz, with quite a different point of view…!
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.