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Planes, Trains & Taxiwallahs

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Tonight Tonight - Smashing Pumpkins

La Paz, Bolivia

Hmm, Saturday really wasn't a good day. Our hotel was right on a busy market street, with most stalls selling costumes and other carnival-related paraphernalia. So we went and joined the throng in the morning to get our outfits and weapons. I had my hand on my wallet in my pocket when some guy squirted foam in my ear while shouting "Carnival". I gave him my best good-natured smile, wiped my ear and continued on my way. Anyway 2 minutes later I reached for my wallet and... yep, you're ahead of me. Git! He played exactly the same trick on another guy in our group and relieved him of his camera. I only had about 7 quid in local currency but it also contained both my credit cards, so getting hold of cash will be tricky for the next few weeks. This is where it really helps to be travelling in a group. Another couple offered me the spare card to their account, so I just needed to transfer money in and I was on my way again. Really good of them.

Anyway, that kind of dampened the carnival spirit, but we decided to go and join in anyway. So we donned our clown outfits, loaded up on water bombs and foam sprays and joined the mob. And I do mean mob. A bunch of gringos in the parade was like a red rag to the locals. There was water and foam raining in from all angles. And completely indiscriminate. Foam in the eyes, water bombs thrown at full force from point blank, it was like a war zone. And as if that wasn't enough, some people had what can only be described as golf balls in socks, which were used to whip victims across the back and legs. Seriously, if this happened in Europe there would be riots. And there was nearly one here, as one of our group took exception to one whipping and piled into his assailants. There were considerably more of them than us, so we dragged him out and bobbed and weaved our way back to the hotel. Needless to say La Paz, and Bolivia in general lost its appeal after that.

Thankfully we're moving on to Peru next with a new tour leader, Jennifer, who appears to be missing the fairly basic tour leader requirement of being able to communicate verbally. Every detail of our future plans so far has had to be painstakingly prised out of her. Oh well, things can only get better as D:REAM once reminded us. Although we then got 10 years of Tony Blair.

permalink written by  phileasdogg on February 22, 2009 from La Paz, Bolivia
from the travel blog: Planes, Trains & Taxiwallahs
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Worried About Ray - The Hoosiers

Sucre, Bolivia

Sucre is officially the capital of Bolivia, although unofficially it's La Paz, since that's the main political and commercial commercial centre now. But it's by far the most attractive city we've visited in Bolivia so far, and the nicest hotel too, which is good since we have 3 nights here. Had a cultural tour of the city, taking in a few museums, including the old mint which thanks to its proximity to the silver mines of Potosi, used to produce coins for the majority of the Spanish empire. It's a sign of the country's decline since then that their currency is now produced in France!

And a few of us went mountain biking too. Now I've probably lost a bit of fitness in the past 6 months, but I still don't think I'm in bad shape, but the 3km climb to get out of the city nearly killed me. At 4000m, you just can't seem to get the oxygen into your lungs that your body is begging for. I was reassured to see the local tour guide gasping for breath too, and thankfully the next 20km was downhill, where we met a bus to take us back to the city.

Carnival atmosphere is stepping up, with water pistols and bombs seemingly around every corner now. I think we'll need to arm ourselves for the carnival parade in La Paz.

permalink written by  phileasdogg on February 19, 2009 from Sucre, Bolivia
from the travel blog: Planes, Trains & Taxiwallahs
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Perfect Skin - Lloyd Cole

Potosi, Bolivia

So the tour rolls into Potosi, allegedly the highest city in the world at 4090m, and once one of the world´s largest and richest cities due to the silver mining that sprang up here in the 1550s. About 45,000 tons of pure silver were mined here between the 1550s and 1780s, but sadly the silver ran out and it´s now a fairly bleak, poor town, with shades of its former glory reflected in some impressive but run-down architecture.

Mining is still the dominant industry in the town, though it´s now lead, tin and other less precious minerals. The conditions in the mines have always been appalling - the Spanish conquistadors initially used indigenous labour to work the mines but as they quickly died they were replaced by imported African slaves who didn´t fare much better - an estimated 8 million miners have died since mining started in Potosi, either in the mines or from silicosis.

We did a tour into one of the mines to see the conditions for ourselves and it was pretty depressing. The miners work in very cramped conditions, chipping away at the rock face with hammer and chisel, with rock dust going into their eyes and mouths (goggles are too expensive and they can´t breathe with masks on). They typically work 12-hour shifts for the equivalent of about US$6. The most depressing sight was kids working down there - we saw one who was 11 years old, dragging a heavy sack of rocks out of the mine shaft. Usually their fathers have died in the mines, so they have to work to support their families. There was a film made about the children miners of Potosi a few years ago called The Devil´s Miner which we watched, but it´s not one to watch if your mood needs improving!

Anyway, we took the miners a "gift pack" each, consisting of crackers, cigarettes, coca leaves, dynamite and a detonator. A slightly surreal assortment of gifts but they seemed to be well appreciated.

permalink written by  phileasdogg on February 15, 2009 from Potosi, Bolivia
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Cars & Girls - Prefab Sprout

Uyuni, Bolivia

We´ve just arrived in Uyuni, Bolivia after a fantastic 3-day crossing of the desert and salt flats in Toyota Landcruisers. It was desert and mountains for the first two days, interspersed with mineral-laden lakes filled with flamingos, boiling geysers and a whole lot of brown sand. We were steadily climbing to a maximum altitude of 4000m, where even tying your shoelaces leaves you short of breath. Quite a few of our group suffered from altitude sickness, with migraines and vomiting being the most common complaints. I was one of the lucky few who escaped any symptoms. We´d been told to expect temperatures as low as minus 10 at night, but in fact it was nowhere near as cold as that, and the two places we stopped at were pretty comfortable, albeit showerless, so we didn´t smell too sweet by Day 3!

But the highlight was definitely the salt flat at Salar de Uyuni on Day 3. It´s the world´s largest salt flat at over 10,000 square kilometres and is the remains of a giant prehistoric lake, Lake Minchin, which existed here about 40,000 years ago. Driving across the middle of it where all you can see is white ground and blue sky was a fantastic experience. And our cooks and drivers were brilliant - the food and service was better than most of what I´ve had in South America to date.

Uyuni itself is a fairly humdrum town, and the difference in affluence between Chile and Bolivia was immediately obvious. And with Carnival coming up in a week or so, the local kids took great delight in pelting the gringos with water balloons as we walked down the main street. I think we´re going to have to arm ourselves. It´s a dog eat dog world out there.

permalink written by  phileasdogg on February 13, 2009 from Uyuni, Bolivia
from the travel blog: Planes, Trains & Taxiwallahs
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Black & White Town - Doves

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

A fairly uneventful bus journey thankfully, apart from the expected lack of sleep. We´re starting to climb now. San Pedro is at 2400m, and you can feel yourself breathing a little harder after fairly mundane activities like tying shoelaces! It´s a pretty remote town in the heart of the northern Chilean desert and is completely dominated by tourism. There´s good hiking and biking options here, and it´s also the launchpad for 4WD excursions into the Bolivian desert and salt flats, which we´ll be doing in a couple of days.

But in the meantime it´s a nice chilled-out place to relax for a couple of days. We hired some bikes and went off to some nearby sand dunes to try our hands at sand boarding. It quickly became apparent that snowboarding techniques aren´t so great on sand - there´s too much friction. But after some experimentation I managed to get down the dune in one go, and it was actually really good fun, if a touch painful on landing. Also biked out to see some pre-Columbian ruins, that were little more than a few piles of mud. But then they were 2800 years old (allegedly).

The tour group are a good group all told. Still have some doubts about my roommate, a rock-bothering know-it-all geologist, who seems reticent to flush the toilet and has a penchant for getting up at 6.30am and rustling plastic bags for 20 minutes. Each to their own I guess.

permalink written by  phileasdogg on February 9, 2009 from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
from the travel blog: Planes, Trains & Taxiwallahs
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A Boy Named Sue - Johnny Cash

La Serena, Chile

Hmm, not the greatest coach ride from Santiago to La Serena, Chile´s third largest city. We arrived at the coach station at Santiago about 8am, and within about 3 minutes Ash, our tour leader, had had her daypack swiped by some thieving sod. It had her laptop, camera, iPod and about US$4000, so she wasn´t happy. And then about 3 hours into the journey, the transmission on our coach, which had been making some strange noises, packed up terminally. So we had to wait for other buses with spare space to come by and pick us up from the side of the highway.

Anyway, made it in the end. There´s not a great deal to do or see in La Serena itself, so a few of us made the 3-hour trek up the coast to do some whale watching. Or as it transpired, whale searching. We went out in a 10-man boat that looked like something out of Moby Dick, but couldn´t find so much as a spurt of water in 2 hours. However, all was not lost as we did get a school of dolphins playing alongside the boat, and also saw sea otters, sealions, an elephant seal, pelicans and penguins. So I reckon we probably got our 28,000 pesos worth there (about 28 quid).

There´s also a big observatory nearby where regular punters can go along and look through a big telescope at Orion´s Belt, the Northern Cross, Saturn etc. Actually more interesting than it sounds, helped by the fact that lack of light pollution means Chile gets some spectacular starscapes.

Hopefully a less stressful trip to San Pedro de Atacama tomorrow, though it´s an overnight bus which doesn´t bode well. A few of our tour group did an overnight bus in Brazil that got hijacked. Fingers crossed...

permalink written by  phileasdogg on February 7, 2009 from La Serena, Chile
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Getting Away With It - Electronic

Santiago, Chile

So back to Santiago where the South American adventure started. Met up with my 14 tour buddies for the next 6 weeks who seem a decent enough bunch. Slightly concerned about the Greek guy who thinks he´s too cool for school, and the young Canadian girl who he seems to have partnered up with - she´s very loud and opinionated for a 23-year-old. But I´ll reserve full judgement until later.

There´s really not a great deal to do in Santiago so after making some cursory gestures towards exploring local culture by visiting a couple of museums I took in two movies, which I can justify by claiming they improve my Spanish - they´re English language with Spanish subtitles.

It´s up to La Serena tomorrow, a coastal resort about 6 hours drive from Santiago.

permalink written by  phileasdogg on February 5, 2009 from Santiago, Chile
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Munich - Maximo Park

Puerto Varas, Chile

Arrived in Puerto Varas a few days ago, which is just over the Andes from Bariloche, and is in Chile´s version of the Lake District. Not quite as beautiful as Bariloche, but still very nice. Did the now obligatory bike ride and also took a kayak out on one of the lakes for a day trip which was all very good. But the highlight was definitely the canyoning. It basically involves getting dressed head-to-toe in a rubber suit (yeah, OK, that was the only reason I wanted to do it), then climbing up through a forest to a mountain river, then getting back to the bottom through a combination of jumping into pools, sliding down waterfalls and abseiling. It was cold, but great fun.

I also parted company with Caroline here, so after 5 weeks of having a highly efficient organiser to tell me where to be at what time, I´ve now got a few days of trying to keep myself alive before joining a 6-week tour in Santiago that takes in Chile, Bolivia and Peru.

permalink written by  phileasdogg on February 3, 2009 from Puerto Varas, Chile
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End of the Line - Travelling Wilburys

San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina

Last stop on the Argentinian leg is San Carlos de Bariloche in the Argentinian Lake District. We had two days of perfect weather in El Calafate, and have been lucky with another three great days here. It´s absolutely beautiful, and much as it pains me to say it, is probably more impressive than the English Lake District. The mountains are bigger and the lakes are deep blue and very clear. We did a great bike ride round the Circuito Chico - a 25km circuit that offers some fantastic views over the lakes, and also climbed up Cerro Lopez which was a tough climb but worth it for the views from the top.

Argentina has been great - Buenos Aires is a vibrant, cultured city, and the natural and diverse beauty of the glaciers, the Lake District and the Iguazu Falls have got to make it one of the most naturally beautiful countries in the world. And the steaks have been great too! It´s almost enough to make you forgive the Falklands and the Hand of God. But not quite.

permalink written by  phileasdogg on January 28, 2009 from San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina
from the travel blog: Planes, Trains & Taxiwallahs
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Sally Cinnamon - The Stone Roses

El Calafate, Argentina

So after a long and generally very pleasant stay in Buenos Aires, we flew down to El Calafate in Patagonia to see the Glaciers. And it´s been brilliant - one of the most beautiful natural spectacles I´ve ever seen. The landscape around El Calafate is fairly bleak, looking a bit like a lunar landscape, and obviously it´s a lot cooler down here than in BA, but it´s all about the Glaciers. We took a boat ride out yesterday to get up close to three of the Glaciers - Upsala, Spegazzini and the most famous one, Perito Moreno. The ride out to them was fantastic, dodging icebergs in varying shades of white and blue, but getting up close to the Glacier face is the best part. They´re huge, much bigger than the ones in New Zealand and the sound of them creaking and groaning really gets the hairs on the back of the neck going. Then every 20 minutes or so a chunk of ice will shear off and crash into the water below accompanied by a sound like thunder. It´s quite an experience.

Then today we went out for a trek on the Perito Moreno Glacier itself. Clearly it´s in a fairly safe part of the Glacier a long way from the face, but there are still deep crevasses all over it, so it pays to watch your step. There are impossibly blue small lakes and mini-waterfalls all over the Glacier (I think the colour has something to do with the density of the compacted ice) but it was brilliant to be out there on such a vast, constantly shifting ice Field.

It´s definitely been a highlight of the trip so far, and it´s a shame we´ve got a non-changeable flight to Bariloche tomorrow as I´d have like to spent a couple of days trekking in Torres del Paine, but hey ho...

permalink written by  phileasdogg on January 24, 2009 from El Calafate, Argentina
from the travel blog: Planes, Trains & Taxiwallahs
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