Friday, July 31, 2009

La Paz to Puno - Around Lake Titicaca

Just as we were geting ready to leave La Paz, thousands of fresh students arrived for the new academic year. Common practice here is for the new students to put on a big show for the locals. Much nicer than getting hammered and sicking up all over the streets for a week.

Fantastic costumes everywhere in the parade.

Men dressed as cakes.

Women dressed in very little - great!

After the party it was time to go.

Remember what we said about arriving La Paz? It´s down a whopping great hill into a canyon. Well, to get back out of La Paz, we had to go back the same way. Pah!
Luckily, we had a fantastic plan, it´s called a taxi. Many taxis in La Paz have roof racks and so we managed to get our iron-donkeys roped to a roof and off we sped up the hill.

Back in El Alto we rode through the horrible streets and out into the altiplano again. It was only about 60kms to the shores of Lake Titicaca.

Here by the lake there are some folk that use the totora reeds to build boats. We found one in the process of being built.

Not long after we found one sailing by.

And that evening we spent the night in a hostel (used frequently by cyclists but not many others) which was owned by a guy who built these boats for travellers wanting to do crazy things like sail them to Easter Island or down the Amazon. In his shed was a big boat head.

Here we met a couple of Canadian lads also on bikes. They had cycled all the way from home and were going down to Ushuaia. We spent a good couple of hours reminiscing and exchanging tales.
The next day we cycled to Copacabana. While cycling up a hill a man in a car couldn´t resist rushing over to take our photo. In return we managed a photo of his whole family that squeezed into a tiny car after this pose.

They must have a thrilling photo album.

Down the other side was a quick ferry crossing. It was absolutely freezing this day, no idea how Gemma managed to smile so well without cracking the skin on her face, or breaking her teeth.

-600C - smile frozen on.

-600C - hands frozen together.

The feries are not quite P&O standard. They are just a few planks of wood nailed together with a small motor at the back. Coming the other way we saw this thing being taken over...

It´s a miracle.

It´s amazing how the thing stayed afloat, it was swaying all over and the tiny motor was barely doing anything.
Most likely it survived due to a recent visit to Copacabana. This town on the shores of the lake is a local worshipping place. People from both Bolivia and Peru come here to cover their vehicles in tat and have water thrown on it by nuns. We even saw one car have an entire bucket of confetti thrown into the engine. Not sure if that will help it last long but at least the drivers are assured.
We weren´t. We guessed it meant they felt they could drive like maniacs and trust God to look after them.

Purchasing miracles from nuns.

The cathedral in which Ian accidentaly swore.
Hell beckons.

We then had a little stroll up this whopping great rock next to town. Nice view. Just in front of us were more crazies. These nuters were buying miniature replicas of things they wanted (new house, car, shop etc), they then put them ina small garden, pour beer on them and then set fire to them. You´ve gotta love ´em.

Sat in a garden waiting for dreams to come true.
Almost as crazy as cycling 5,000 miles.

Next up was a trip on a boat to the Isla del Sol. Legendary birthplace of the founders of the Incas.

A short walk from the port takes you to the building built like a labyrinth. It´s easy to get lost in the hundreds of tiny rooms and tunnels and alleys, so long as you don´t just look over the wall.

Not far from here is a rock which bears footprints made by the sun itself. Amazing.

The sun stays in the sky because it´s feet are so tiny it falls over easily.

From here you can follow a path up a hill which keeps going up, and up, beyond the clouds and into the sky. It eventually takes you to the sun. Incredible.

After you´ve gone all the way to the sun it´s a long walk back. To make the return journey nice, the early Inca´s built a giant staircase.

The fountain near the bottom (to the left) is believed to have all sorts of healing powers and other magic stuff. It tasted just like soil.

On the way back to Copacabana the nice boat man stopped by some floating islands. These islands are made from the same reeds that they use to build those boats. Apparently the Urco´s people who occupy them don´t like the other people on the mainland, so they moved onto the lake. Very sensible of them, rather than starting a war and getting themselves slaughtered.

And so the the following day we got the bikes out again and headed off to Peru, just 8kms (5 miles) away. We have enjoyed Bolivia in many parts, the scenery and landscape is absolutely beautiful. We tested ourselves to the extreme in the remote and freezing south west, we will also never forget our time at IntiWaraYassi (God we miss those little criters). Unfortunately we won´t be very sad to leave behind some other aspects of the country. Although the majority of people were great, we had many bad experiences with others which made things very frustrating. Gemma managed to get herself punched by a crazy man in La Paz, he was simply unable to wait 5 more seconds for her to move the bike out of his way. Hopefully in Peru we will have less of this craziness.

Ian crossing into Peru.

Gemma crossing the final border.

Our final border crossing before returning home. Just 500kms from the finish line in Cusco if we follow the main road (which we´re not!). Going home seems to be all we think and talk about now. We´re excited about being so close to the end, but it will also be tough returning back to the so called ´normal´ life.

Next up is a nutty ride to Arequipa. We have a lot of time left before we need to be in Cusco. So we are heading over the mountains again, down to Arequipa where we will visit massive canyons, valleys of fire and the Nasca lines.

Not long now everyone...

love you all.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A week around La Paz.

We had arrived in La Paz hoping that all the hype and the fantastic reports from other travellers were true.
La Paz (the world´s highest capital city - even though it is not the capital!?) must be the world´s most overly exaggerated place.

They claim to have the world´s hottest curry (which Ian ate without even breaking wind), there´s the world´s most dangerous road (more on this below) and the world´s funniest wrestling (probably true - also see below).

First up was a visit to the curry house. It had been nearly 8 months since we had a curry (other than the odd efforts Ian cooked with limited spices) and so we were quite excited. The restaurant makes the claim that it has "The World´s Hottest Vindaloo!" and if any crazy can complete the dish, they win a t-shirt. Something normally only attempted by students, Gemma convinced Ian to try it. Afterall, it would be crazy to run a curry making business and not be able eat a vindaloo.

Having watched a couple of Isreali´s try it, (one just survived, the other failed) there was a little bit of concern. The dish arrived and smelled just like a pot of minced hot peppers. There were hundreds of little seeds in there and the vapours burned the back of the throat. A few spoonfulls in and Ian was still going strong and feeling good. With the aid of 4 strong beers the whole thing was finished even before Gemma had finished her Korma. Job done, only a slight sweat but some large belly rumblings.
The vindaloo was hot, but it is by no means the hottest in the world. The main trouble with the meal is the aftermath...

At high altitudes the toilet roll is always cold. Good.

After some soothing, the next day we headed out to Tiawanku. This small village about 60kms from La Paz used to be the main city of an ancient empire. Long before the Inca´s were even dreamt up, these folk built huge structures and ceremonial stuff along with Easter Island like statues. It was a fascinating place but unfortunately a lot of the history has been lost or forgotten, so much of what is known is made up by imaginative locals.

Very old statue of man holding two double Frappuchino´s with cinnamon from Starbuck´s.

The sun gate is a giant calender, if you believe September has 35 days!?

Another gate with statues in front and behind.

Heads of defeated warriors.

Warriors pulled funny faces just before they died.

Back in La Paz we visited the witches market. Here you can buy anything to cast spells on enemies, loved ones or just to nibble on if you like eating llama foetuses. We´d already had a big lunch thankfully.

The witches market.

You can buy whole armadillo´s. Want one Katie?

Llama foetuseses. Or is the plural just ´feet´?

Next came a couple of days out at Sorata. This is a small town at the foot of the Illampu mountain. A very beautiful place where palm tress grow, hummingbirds hum around and people come to trek on the massive snowy mountain. We didn´t fancy any serious trekking, so instead we had a walk around to San Pedro´s cave where there are millions of bats and fish with no eyes. Unfortunately the lights were out and we had to make do with tiny torches. No photos of the cave because obviously it was a bit dark.

Gemma, Sorata, Illampu.

No Gemma, Sorata, Illampu.

Ian giving a llama breakfast.

Back in La Paz we decided to investigate the hype around "The World´s Most Dangerous Road". This road from La Paz to Coroico goes up to 4,700m and then in just 65kms it plunges 3,600m to Yolasita before climbing back up slightly to Coroico. Starting in the icy mountains you ride through freezing temperatures, into cloud forest, through rain and into the steamy jungle, all while the road clings to the edge of the mountain side. Sounds fun right? ...

The reason for the title is because in 1996 some fella in a suit behind a desk at the world bank saw a report saying many people had died from buses and trucks falling over the edge. This probably has nothing to do with the road, but with the drivers. They´re not very good here.

Some 15 years later the tour operators still convince people that it´s worth £50-75 to join their tours. These companies supply full suspension mountain bikes with disc brakes, knee and elbow pads, goggles, motorbike helmets, sparkly banners and all manner of other tosh.

We inquired at several of these companies about the possibility of transport to the top of the hill and back from the bottom. We were told that the road was impossible to cycle without disc brakes and full protective gear. One guy was a little shocked when Ian explained that the bikes they used were built for mountain biking, not for road use.

So the next day we made our own way to La Cumbre (the top of the hill) and began the descent on our bikes with no suspension, v-brakes only and no protective clothing. In the first 20kms we had sped down a nice high valley with our fingers and toes getting quite cold. During this stage Gemma could have been heard laughing and mocking the tour cyclists as she raced past them.

Ian´s bike at La Cumbre.

Gemma heading down to the clouds.

The valley opened out and the clouds were pouring in.

After 20kms the road starts to go uphill for a while. In the thick fog we couldn´t see much. We did however see the tour groups speed past - in their buses! - as they were transported to the next downhill section. Tsch.

A short while later we came to a tunnel which was 1 mile long. A man hurried out to tell us that we couldn´t cycle through and instructed 3 men to drive us through on the back of a truck. At the other side these men demanded a large quantity of cash. The driver then told us that it was prohibited for tourists to use this road because it was so dangerous. It would have been useless explaining to him that the title and the reputation were a result of Bolivian drivers, not tourists on bikes. It would have also been crazy to take road safety advice from somebody in a country where at a crossroads with fully working traffic lights, they still need 4 policemen to direct the traffic. After much arguing and a small payment equivalent to 20p, we set off again.

Down we went, through the clouds and into the jungle. Unfortunately at the bottom of the hill is a 10km ascent of 600m to Coroico. Tour cyclists again jump onto their buses, we had to huff our way over the cobbles for an hour and a half.

In the clouds with huge cliffs behind.

Coroico and the road behind.

Overall, we decided the road was "The World´s Most Dissappointing Road", there was no real danger and not a great deal of beauty. But it was at least fun going down such a long and big hill. The next morning we had the bikes put on top of a local bus and headed back to La Paz.

Back in La Paz we had one last event to see. Cholita Wrestling. This is not ordinary wrestling with muscular freaks in tiny kaks. This is local wifey´s in traditional dress and local men trying their best "Nacho Libre" impersonations. From the very start we were in hysterics all the way to the end. The costumes were hilarious and the women were very scary!

Novice Nacho.

Wifey about to get ´splashed´.

"I said I wanted my tea ready at 6!"

Wifey fought back and won.

Our favourite star of the night must have been "Fat Elvis". Harking back to Ian´s younger days at Butlins (Darren and Karl - must remember this!), no wrestling event is complete without an Elvis, either in the crowd or in the ring.

Sadly "Sunny" did not make an appearance this night.

After an eventful week, we are now ready to leave. Tomorrow morning we will be heading back up out of the canyon, and onto the road for Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca, where we will update again.

Love to all at home, thanks for the recent spurt in comments, we need them to keep us going.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Cochabamba to La Paz - A shock to the legs!

Never mind the fact we´ve cycled 6,000 kms already, after 3 weeks of monkeying around our legs were just not prepared for the next few days.

Cochabamba itself sits at a lofty 2,500m but to get to La Paz the road engineers decided it would be fun to test the nations vehicles by sending them along a road that winds around countless canyons and over ridiculous passes.

The signs showing the way are correct when they point up.
On the way up we had to camp in some trees clinging to the side of a near verticle canyon. Luckily just enough room for the tent though we did wake up in a heap in the bottom corner of it.

It took us 2 and a half days to reach the first summit at just over 4,100m. The contours on our maps don´t show much detail and so we assumed (hoped) that it wouldn´t get much higher.

Down the other side we found a small town where a woman gave us the privelage of sleeping in her potato shed for the night. Nothing but the best for Gem on her honeymoon.

Tent in the back room of the spud shed.

Outside the shed was a broken down bus. Four men, black from head to toe with oil, were trying their best to fix it. We asked them what the road was like from here and it sounded bad. Up, down, up, down, up, down, forever going higher until it´s impossible to breath. They offered us a lift in the bus once the spare part arrived from the nearest city.

Gem sat outside the spud shed to the right.

In the morning the men were still hard at work and the part had not arrived. By lunch time the part still hadn´t arrived and so we decided to leave. Uphill of course.

The next pass got to 4,300m. We slept at an art centre (out here?). The old man at the centre told us that the next morning´s pass was the last pass. It took us to 4,500m and we were wondering how on earth just 3 weeks rest could hurt so much! Fortunately Gemma´s bite wound hadn´t reopened but it was hurting. On the way up we saw our bus again - broken down on the side of the road - again. It had also been abandoned, no people anywhere near it.

Spare part was obviously not all it needed.

Going down the other side was great fun of course. We were also amazed to find a short cut that on our maps was unpaved, had recently been paved and so we could arrive at our next city two hours earlier than expected!

Views across the canyons going down.

Oruro isn´t a great place for toursits. There´s not really much to see or do unless you like mines. We stayed long enough to buy valuable food goods and then set off over the flatish altiplano for La Paz. The next 3 days were rather dull and uninteresting.

It seems crazy to say it but after 5 days of moaning about the hills and mountains and steep roads, when we get to the flat bits we so crave, they´re boring.

Anyhoo, before arriving in La Paz it is impossible to avoid going through the horrible El Alto, which is the part of the city that spills out over the canyons upper edges. La Paz itself sits 500m below in the canyon and is not visible until you reach the very edge. It is a truly magnificent sight and the views across to the Royal Mountains are spectacular.

El Alto just in front, mountains behind.

It makes you feel a bit dizzy.

Like cycling a real life computer game, hit a rock and you lose a tooth. Loose more than three teeth and it´s game over.

Now in La Paz, we intend to have some fun. There are countless things to do here and we are most excited about the wrestling. It´s not any wrestling though, it´s old women in traditional dress followed by midgets in Disney costumes. Finally Bolivia got something right.

Obviously we´ll be putting plenty of those photos on here soon.

Until then, can somebody let us know if they are still reading this thing?

Love to all xxx

Gem and Ian.