From Clowns to Breakdowns

Trip Start Jan 16, 2008
Trip End Apr 27, 2008

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Monday, April 14, 2008

If Hell had a capital, it'd be La Paz. Although we were both glad to visit, it's not the kind of place you go on holiday.

We arrived after an eleven hour coach journey over night which was, for 90% of the journey, on bumpy dirt roads which were so violent that every few minutes the bumps opened the squeaky window next to me, letting in a blast of the icy air outside which was well below freezing. Apart from a few toilet stops, the bus plodded on steadily overnight and arrived in La Paz, capital of Bolivia and the World's highest capital city (3600m) at 7am. After grabbing our rucksacks and heading five minutes walk downhill to the hostel, we crashed out in our room.

A few hours later we plucked up the courage to head out into the chaos of the city which we could feintly hear out of the window. We were warned about the many scams that operate in the city (namely, fake policeman, "money inspectors", and the worst which involves a person spitting on you, which is followed by a well-wishing local who offers to clean it off you, whilst in the meantime you are relieved of all your possessions by a third accomplice).We took a short walk down the steep hill into the city centre and the sight had to be seen to be believed. You'd think that everyone was trying to escape a natural disaster, with gridlocked roads, car horns beeping, people running and everyone shouting. The roads were mainly packed with micros, which are private minibuses which act as shuttles around the city, packing in as many people as physically possible into the bus. One person drives the bus while another leans out the window shouting out the bus' route, and cramming people in, four to a seat. We were happy to be walking but the scene on the pavement was not much less chaotic, with every good under the sun on offer from roadside stalls.

We were glad to get back to the relative refuge of the hostel and just watched a film in the afternoon before heading up to the bar that evening which had great panoramic views of the city and served free Saya beer, brewed in the hostel's own microbrewery.

The next morning we decided to venture once again into town, after the all-you-could-eat pancake buffet included in the five pound a night price of the hostel. We strolled for half an hour right through the city to a park just South of the CBD which afforded great views of La Paz. The park designers had either gone for that "living on the edge" feel, or the builders had run out of money - despite being on the side of a cliff, stone paths and stairs would just stop abruptly and turn into a pile of rubble which fell away down the hillside with no prior warning. After three or four dead ends, we gave up trying to reach the top and sat on the grass to take in La Paz. It really does seem like a strange place to build a city - houses cling to the side of the mountainside and many of the streets are too steep to get cars up at all. In the distance are snowy capped Andean peaks and it was nice to get away from all the hustle of the city centre and take in the surreal cityscape.

That evening we had hoped to visit an Oxygen Bar (to breathe in pure oxygen which, apparently at these altitudes, is very beneficial) but, being a Sunday, most of the city had closed down for the evening. However, we found another bar and took a taxi there which was another experience in itself. The taxi driver, like all drivers in La Paz, had obviously played too much Grand Theft Auto. Taxis nudge forward into every inch of road space, hitting walls, lights and eachother, and even people - on one roundabout we hit an old lady with our wingmirror, and she didn't even bat an eyelid. When the traffic cleared, we could've been forgiven for thinking we'd gone for a ride with Lewis Hamilton as the driver pushed the pedal to the floor down narrow, cobbled, one way streets.

Needless to say, we weren't too upset to be leaving La Paz the next morning as we climbed aboard a minibus to Lake Titicaca.

Lake Titicaca is wrongly known for being the World's highest lake or World's highest navigable lake. It isn't either, but it is the largest in South America. On our full day in Copacabana, the small Bolivian town on the shore of the lake which shares its name but none of the characteristics with the funky Rio beach resort, we were supposed to take a boat trip out to the Isla del Sol which was the birthplace of the Inca empire. However, a dodgy lasagne put an end to those plans as I was confined to bed and small walks around the town in my pyjamas.

The following day we took another bus across the border and into Peru and stopped off over night in the town of Puno before taking another bus up to Cuzco the following day. We decided to take a luxury bus up to Cuzco which not only paid off because it had a toilet which came in handy for when Lotte became reacquainted with the previous night's chicken milanese, but because it afforded brilliant people-spotting opportunities for the eight hour trip. Of particular interest were the larger than life Brazilian couple, who always delayed the bus by half an hour at every stop because they were buying souvenirs (incan earrings, llama blankets etc), and even better was the French 'David Bailey' who, complete with beret and thick rimmed glasses, subtly took pictures through his jumper of artefacts in the museum after being asked not to use his camera by the curator.

The following day, our first in Cuzco, we took a visit to the local doctor after my assortment of stomach cramps and nausea had left me without eating for five days. After a lot of umming and ahhing he prescribed some antibiotics for a stomach infection and a lot of Gatorade which I worked through all the flavours of over the following few hours (and gladly now I'm all back to normal). We took it easy because we knew the next day was going to be long. We had no idea.

We woke up at 5am and headed down to the central station to climb aboard the train to Aguas Calientes, a town just short of one of the Seven Wonders of the World - Machu Picchu. The journey there was pretty uneventful. After leaving right on time at 6.30am the train climbed a steep hill out of Cuzco by means of a series of slow switchbacks, before finally reaching the top of the hill and carrying on with the 4 hour train journey down the valley. It was a picturesque ride, starting in the bleak plains with snowy mountains on either side and slowly descending 1000m until we were plodding through steep, forested valleys with white-water rivers running through the middle.

As soon as we arrived we jumped off the train, stretched our legs and went off to buy our tickets, before climbing aboard a bus which drove the last twenty minutes through a series of hairpin turns which snaked up the mountainside.

After the initial view of Machu Picchu when we walked in, which looked exactly like the picture-postcard face it is always portrayed as, we found ourselves surrounded by mobs of tourists. You can go anywhere within the ruins and so swarms of tourists move around to see all the famous sights. Away from the beaten track, however, the site has a much better quality and is much more beautiful. In the quiet it is much easier to appreciate all that Machu Picchu has to offer. The mountains around the area are stunning, with trees clinging onto cliffs and sheer drops which travel thousands of metres down to the sacred river of the Incas below.

However, to take advantage of all the tourists, Lotte came up with the genius idea of taking a "Where's Wally" picture and so, armed with a stripy woolly hat, I ran off into the hoards and posed like a tourist while Lotte took a picture from afar. See if you can spot me...

The train journey back was when things started getting very strange.

We had booked onto the slightly more expensive "Vista Dome" train which had panoramic glass windows in the roof which gave magnificent views of the thick black plume of smoke which came from the engine car right ahead of us. After a dinner of chicken and peach sandwiches and passionfruit marshmallows a man ran out of the crew area wearing a balaclava shouting. We had been hijacked.

Or that was what we thought, but soon the typical Peruvian clown was dancing along with an array of props including a small llama and a whip. It was enough to give anybody nightmares.

The clown show was followed by a fashion show where the steward and stewardess walked down the carriage in a variety of llama wool jumpers and cardigans, which then retailed at prices in excess of two hundred pounds and, much to our astonishment, people were actually buying them. Just when we thought it couldn't get much worse, the train slowed to a halt and the carriage lights went out.

We were about an hour away from Cuzco, it was well below freezing outside and it was the middle of the night when the train broke down. At first the crew thought it was a temporary problem but soon the mechanics were fumbling around in the dark trying to fix the problem (luckily one of the American tourists onboard the train had a torch which the mechanics gladly borrowed to help them see). We sat in the darkness for over an hour not knowing what was going on before the stewardess announced we would be leaving the carriage in single file and waiting for rescue. I made a video at the time...

Eventually after another hour waiting out in the cold on the tracks, a bus came and drove us back to Cuzco and back to the warmth, where we feasted on chicken nuggets and collapsed into bed.

We spent the next day recovering in Cuzco before heading to Lima airport today, from where this evening we are heading onto Buenos Aires to begin our last week of travelling before heading back to the UK.
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