Steak and Tango: Buenos Aires Homestretch!

SAM_4003

It was bittersweet, but we arrived back in Buenos Aires for the last two days of our trip. Luckily, we still had very exciting things on the agenda! Night one: learn to tango. Night two: eat the most amazing steak on Earth at La Cabrera.

We did little during the day, as per usual these days. We walked the Sunday market by the cemetery and checked out cafe Tortoni (the oldest cafe in Buenos Aires, which was both beautiful and had great coffee).  Afterwards we shared a pre-tango bottle of wine on the second story terrace of our hostel. It was surreal being back in Buenos Aires. We have stayed at the Ideal Hostel three times now on this trip, and being back this time was by far the strangest; I felt as if we should be STARTING a journey rather than ending one.

The first evening, we set out to La Catedral, a local milonga, full of portenos that held cheap tango lessons and had great shows later in the night. We had been there before, 4 months earlier, and loved it! Creaky wooden floors, red brick walls, and full of good wine and local flavor: everything you could want from a tango bar in Buenos Aires. This time, we wanted to take lessons, so we jumped in a cab and took off through the city. 
Very different from four months ago, I managed to flawlessly chat with the cab driver as we cruised through the streets. I’m impressed how much my Spanish has improved in such a short time. We covered a wide range of topics, including European influences in Buenos Aires, the wars between Portugal and its colonial provinces in South America, the places and things Adam and I had done on our trip, and joking about how I would love to buy all the clothes in the city, if only they would fit in my backpack. This is a far cry from four months ago when I would say “Corrientes y Suipacha por favor” and shut up for the rest of the ride.

When we arrived at La Catedral, we sadly discovered the place was closed (damn you Sundays!). Luckily, the driver knew a bunch more milongas in the area, and suggested a few dinner places as well. We were dropped off a few blocks away, and ended up in a restaurant that was full of people (rare for Buenos Aires at 8pm). We decided this was a good place, and sat at one of the only tables available, upstairs, overlooking the restaurant and a stage that was set up. By 8:15 there was not a single table left in the place… And it seemed to us, as we peered down on the crowds below, that EVERYONE knew each other. At first we thought we were being paranoid when it looked like every person kept looking up and staring at us after they walked in. We were the only tourist at the place, but Argentina has such a mix of culture, surely you couldn’t tell that from walking through the door!
  So we ordered a platter and some wine and forgot about the crowds.

Before long, it was apparent that a show was about to start. The emcee got up on stage and started talking. It was hard to understand him over the microphone, and he spoke ridiculously fast, but soon we realize he was congratulating an old woman on her birthday… This was her birthday party, and everyone at the restaurant had come for it. Great, first we crash a funeral, now we’ve crashed a little old lady’s birthday too! We’re on a roll!

Then all of a sudden the emcee switches to English and looks directly at Adam and I “hello my friends, welcome!!” then in Spanish “The couple from Canada ladies and gentlemen! Let’s welcome them to the party by a round of applause!” we get cheered for and whistled at, then out of nowhere a spotlight shines over at us and blinds me. I’m sure I’m blushing as we get a shout out by the announcer within the first 3 minutes of the show… People are still clapping for us. We smile and say thank you, and the show continues. This is going to be an unusual night, I can already tell.

The show went all night and was really quite amazing! It began with a few singers that sang popular Latin music, and a couple classic English songs like Whitney Houston’s “I Will Love Again” and Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” both translated into Spanish. The crowds of loved every second of it.  They sang along ruthlessly to each of the tunes, cheering and moving to the music all the while. South Americans are so much more passionate about life it seems, and they certainly love a party!

Next, the tango dancers began. The tango is both beautiful, and sensual, and Adam and I quickly realized we would have looked like absolute idiots at the class. How do you teach steps like that in an hour and a half?! I’m extra thankful at this point that the lessons weren’t available, as it seemed the girls take 3 steps to each one of the guy’s movements! I would have tripped over my uncoordinated feet FOR SURE. Nonetheless, I adored watching the dancers on stage!

After a round of dancing, a large bald man got up on stage and sang opera. He was fantastic! He didn’t even need a microphone; he easily could have filled the restaurant with his voice solo. I decided right then and there that, had I been at an entire opera show, I probably would have cried. Then later, when he broke out with one of my favourite Andrea Bocelli songs, I nearly did.

His son, who was probably about 7, sat on the stage behind him and offered him water between each song. It was very sweet. This kid was anything but shy. At the first intermission, when everyone in the restaurant got out on the dance floor and tangoed, he stood up on the stage and danced as crazily and as hard as he could. He was the center of attention for the entire restaurant, and was hilarious to watch while he shook his hips and his head as his arms and legs flailed haphazardly at his side. When the intermission was over, he ran upstairs to his mom to boast about his stage performance. She praised him and offered a sip of her wine as congratulations. Before she knew it, he grabbed the glass and scalded the entire thing in an instant! I nearly choked on an olive I was laughing so hard as the mother mortifyingly tried to pry the empty glass from his hands! No wonder he wasn’t shy, the kid was hammered!

The show continued with another set of the same. Singing, more dancing, then more singing again. The choreography become more complex, and as a result, more impressive! The performances went on until well after midnight, and just watching I was exhausted by the time it was over. Argentina is a dancing culture. You can easily determine this by the sheer number of great dancers that were there that night. Couples, old and young, got up to show off their moves at each intermission, and all of them were fantastic! I wish we had some sort of cultural comparison in Canada.

Our second day in Buenos Aires we spent in the San Telmo district. Still my favourite district in the city, we had no problem hanging out with a few pints in the main square, people watching the afternoon away! This is where we decided it was a good time to add up our collective bus trips over the past four months. Yes, all those hours of hell we had been carefully keeping track of. In four months we had a total of 43 bus trips (not including tours or city buses) for a disgusting grand total of 338 hours!!! When you do the math, that’s 14.08 days, or TWO ENTIRE WEEKS!! Good lord, no wonder we hate buses so much now!

SAM_4018

Thankfully, all of that was behind us. No more buses in South America on this trip! It was our final night on the continent, and we had other things to do… Such as finish our bet!

For those of you that have been following, Adam and I have had an ongoing crib tournament that we have been tallying up since the beginning of January. The rule was, the loser of all the totaled games had to pay for a steak dinner at the famous La Cabrera in Buenos Aires! In the end, the score was Adam: 70, Hilary: 122. Sorry Adam, looks like steak is on you!

SAM_4014

So we dressed up in our best backpacker clothes and went to the steakhouse for 7:30. Turns out, the place didn’t even OPEN until 8. But that didn’t matter, reservations were full and we were already pretty far along on the wait list. How popular IS this place? Also, there are actually TWO locations! One a half block from the first, both of which were packed an hour before opening. Ingeniously however, the restaurant had a few benches and a TV outside that played a blooper reel of the most ridiculous wipeouts. We found this hysterical (and that is an understatement). Although many people loitered around, watching the screen, only Adam and I were curled over in our seats, with tears in our eyes, wheezing breathlessly at how funny this was. Perhaps we had been deprived of comedy for a while (having only CSI on the English TV channels) or maybe it’s true that we do just have more fun than the average passerby. Whatever the case, we sat in line for an hour before we even realized that we were hungry. Well done La Cabrera, well done.

Finally it was our turn. Just as we sat down, they popped open champagne bottles to give to each of the waiting guests in line (jealous!). But not to worry, we had scoped out the menu an hour ago and were ready to start the feast! An amazing bottle of Santa Julia reserva Malbec and stuffed olives with parmesan, almonds, and a sundried tomato with sesames mix in the center. Unreal!  We picked away at this for a while and decided that, on our last night, we would re-read all the blog posts I had written over the last four months… Oh how much we had forgotten!! The horrific airport experience on day one, catching up with friends in Brazil, Carnaval, the Amazon River… and that’s just the first part of the trip! I realized how much I love to describe food in my writing (fancy or otherwise), and my limited vocabulary when it comes to describing scenery… Sorry everybody.

But it really has been an awesome trip. And so, to finish my posts for this trip, why not go out in style and describe another meal!

So for our main course at La Cabrera, we (Adam) spared no luxury. We ordered the nicest thing on the menu. A 500g medium-rare Sirloin Strip Kobe Beef steak… Oh my God. We have been convincing South America that, although Argentinean beef is amazing, we have EXCELLENT Alberta beef as well. It’s hard to impress us Canadians with an “okay” steak. But this Kobe beef blew us out of the water! It was melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Perfectly seared to medium rare, with a dark red juicy center. Also, it came with a platter of accompaniments. A waiter came around with a large wooden plank of sides that we could choose from. “Take as many as you want!” he said! Big salads with poached eggs and vinaigrette dressing, garlic mashed potatoes, grilled zucchini, spicy dijon mustard dip, palmitos, red pepper sauce, and so much more! We had a table full of small jars to go with the steak, each one more delicious than the last. We actually shared a steak (because the thing was massive) but were both stuffed by the time dinner was over. They added a free glass of champagne for dessert and a lollipop to go! Wow. Hands down the nicest steakhouse I’ve been to, with the most delicious meat I’ve ever had. The Santa Julia Reserva ended up being top of our rating for the wine log (now at exactly 60 different bottles) which made the meal even more perfect. This was not only the best meal of the trip, but also of my life! What an awesome way to finish off four months of travel! We had been at the restaurant for 4 and a half hours (including wait time) by this point, so it was finally time to go home… Actually. Our flight to Canada was scheduled for 9:35pm the following day. How time flies!

SAM_4009

Advertisements

Malbecs in Mendoza

 

DSCF3937We arrived in Mendoza like giddy children in a candy shop. Wine: lots and lots of amazing bottles of wine at beautiful vineyards. This is where we were meant to finish our trip…

We stayed at a wonderful little hostel called Empedrado, recommended by Felicity and Aaron (thank you guys!), which was outstanding! Nice, affordable rooms, huge free breakfast, rooftop terraces, hammocks, lots of common areas to hang out in and free wine every night. It was every bit as wonderful as it sounds.
  We once again arrived on a holiday – go figure that the long weekend extended to Tuesday – so everything was conveniently closed. Luckily our hostel offered a 12-dollar, all you can eat, all you can drink BBQ that we took full advantage of. A group of twelve of us sat around for hours, chatting about our trips, eating meat until we wanted to throw up, and graciously accepting the never-ending bottles of vino that our host relentlessly brought to the table.
  Morning number one and I already had a red wine hangover… I see how this is going to go.

We made it to our buffet breakfast by 9:15; an excellent time considering we are now accustom to sleeping until 11 every morning. But the victory was short lived when Adam insisted on napping again before the wine tour. Whatever… We’re on vacation!
  It was a later start than expected, but we rolled up to Mr Hugo’s just before 1pm. For those of you who know Mr. Hugo’s, you probably just thought “Uh Oh…”. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, Mr. Hugo’s is a well-known tour company for checking out all the wineries in the Mendoza area. You rent bikes from him, he gives you a map, and you leisurely explore the wineries at your own pace. Seems very lovely… Until you experience this yourself.

Adam woke up that morning and said “You know what I think about wineries Hilary?”

“What?” I asked.

“I think that some people need to be supervised when going on a wine tour… And I also think, that MAYBE you and I fall into that category.”
  We laughed… Turns out he was right.

After getting the low down on the various vineyards, Mr Hugo offered us some free wine. “wine’s always free at Mr. Hugo’s!” he boasted.
 How sweet…
 When we had finished, he filled up our glasses again. Uh oh. After our third refill we quickly jumped up, trying not to be rude, and hopped on our bikes. “Thank you, but we must be going!” We hadn’t eaten in 4 hours, and we were already tipsy from three glasses of wine. Good thing we only had SIX wineries to get through that afternoon. 
Firstly, I would like to point out that this biking situation would NOT fly in most countries. Not because we didn’t have helmets, not because we drove against oncoming traffic where buses sped by at alarming speeds, but because driving a bike, drunk out of your mind, is considered EQUAL to a DUI in most countries. Argentina has its own rules… And by that, I mean NO rules. Biking wine tour is totally legit.  
I also found out, that biking with a little bit of a buzz, and knowing that your final destination is a beautiful and relaxing vineyard, ACTUALLY makes biking a pleasant experience (mostly). I cruised along and, without knowing it, biked a half marathon easily without loathing my existence! Such an improvement!

DSCF3932DSCF3930

Our first winery was Tomasso: a family owned vineyard that has been open and operating since 1869, making it the oldest bodega in Mendoza! It is beautiful (as most vineyards are) and has a quiet restaurant in a shady area that overlooks the fields of grapes. We had a tasting of 4 of their famous wines and actually learned a lot more about wine than I had expected. The differences between Crianzas and Robles (6 and 12 months in the barrel respectively), the origin of the Malbec grape (apparently Eastern Europe) and some other minor facts I was surprised about! The guide was a wealth of knowledge when it came to wine, and since Adam and I were the only ones there, we peppered him with all our questions in rapid fire!

DSCF3924DSCF3926

After our tasters we figured we should eat something (see, we were trying to be responsible!) and sat out in the restaurant and ate a small platter of meats, cheeses and olives… With a glass of our favourite wine from the vineyard of course! And then we added our tasters to our rapidly growing wine log so as not to forget.

DSCF3928DSCF3923

From there, we cruised onward to the next winery: Mevi. Already a little drunk, we sped down the street singing “Mevi! Mevi!” in a high-pitched voice, imitating Elton John’s “Benny!” from “Benny and the Jets”. This should have been our first sign to just go home…

 

So into Mevi we went, and this vineyard was even more stunning than the last. We were led out back to the upstairs porch that looked out across the winery: an olive tree grove, acres of grapes and the mountains in the background. We lounged in the hot sunshine on a comfy white couch and picked our wines. Reservas (aged 15months) were the only way to go. Not only were they so much better than the regular wines, we realized that if you fork out the extra 10 pesos for the better wine, they will give you the cheaper wine tastings for free anyways. Win/win!

DSCF3941DSCF3935

The view at this winery was by far my favourite, but the lady working there didn’t have a clue about wine. When she tried to convince Adam and I that a Syrah and a Shiraz were not only the same grape (which I agreed with), but also the exact same wine, I lost all faith in any of her future facts. Am I a wine snob? 
Nevertheless, Mevi’s wine was excellent! I could have sat there all afternoon if there were no more vineyards to visit that day! 
A little way into our tour, Frederic, a guy from our hostel that joined us at the BBQ, arrived with a Father/Son duo from Ireland. “When in doubt, a bottle of Vino, right?” Yup… The five of us were going to get along famously. 
Adam and I drunkenly biked the 500m to the next winery, and minutes later Frederic and the Irish guys joined us. We sat down at a table, together with another couple, and each ordered the 4 wine, half glass tasters that they offered. This was, by far, the most wine I have EVER seen on a table at once. 22 glasses of wine were lined up along the table. All reservas (’cause we’re classy like that) and all delicious! It wasn’t long before the Canadian/ Irish banter came out, and we were good-humoredly picking fights with each other… This continued relentlessly for the next seven and a half hours.

Nonetheless, we kept drinking, and was particularly fond of this vineyard’s Syrah (something we haven’t given much thought to here in South America). 
Before we knew it, it was 5:30, and we remembered that all the vineyards closed at six. Three wineries in, we were in no way prepared to stop now. Our reckless group of five quickly biked the tedious 100m to our last winery: Tempus Alba. Unfortunately for us drunkards, this happened to be the classiest bodega on the tour. At this point, we were borderline disasters… We ordered another tasting set, and sat out on the balcony just in time for the sunset. This winery actually had my favourite of all the wines on the tour! Their 2006 Tempus Pleno was BY far my favourite wine in the past four months (and I’m hoping that wasn’t due to the extreme amounts of booze I had been consuming that day). Even at the winery it was a $45 bottle of wine and all of us were 100% sold on buying a second bottle. Unfortunately (or luckily) the winery had closed, and we were sent back to Mr. Hugo’s.
 This is where the night went downhill.

Mr. Hugo’s was packed! Everyone who had been on a wine tour that day was hanging out at the rental place. There were tables and benches and pitchers of wine set out among the guests… “wine is always free at Mr. Hugo’s!” 
Oh No!!  
We sat. And we drank… And we drank until we realized we hadn’t eaten in 8 hours and we’d been drinking for 10. Three or four pitchers of plonk wine later we decided to cram the five of us in a cab and head to a steakhouse in Mendoza…. To be honest, the rest of the night is fuzzy.
  We ate, ordered more wine, tried to get home, had some altercations with a cab driver and the cops, and hours later… I woke up covered in purple. Solid day.

We didn’t do much the following day. Missed breakfast, managed to walk the single block to the supermarket, failed at exchanging money (again) and went back to our room to watch a CSI marathon on TV. We did make it to a wonderful pasta dinner at Tommaso Trattoria that was fantastic! Another fabulous recommendation from our friends Katelynn and Scott! And then off to bed early.

On day three, we hopped on the bus and went BACK to Mr. Hugo’s. I know, we are crazy… But we had missed a winery, and we were determined to take it easy the second time round. We only had TWO glasses of wine at Mr. Hugo’s before setting out, and our first two stops served food instead of wine! 
We started at a little olive oil factory and got a tour of the olive oil making process. There’s not many things in the world I love more than stuffed olives, tapenades, baguettes dipped in a rich olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and all you can eat food. That is what this place had to offer. There were three tables all set out before the two of us. The first had olive oils, balsamic vinegar, puréed olives, chilies, mustards and a bowl of bread. We shoved our faces full of everything and cleared the basket of bread in record time. The second table was jams. Chutneys, jelly’s, marmalades. Some made with malbec wine, others with whiskey, each of them more unique than the last. These were good, but as soon as our guide turned her back to talk to other people, we were back at the first table, filling ourselves with spicy mustard and garlic tapenade like it was going out of style!
  The third and final table was liquors. A row of about twenty different ones, Adam and I got to choose four to try. We picked a spicy liquor that had a chokingly strong pepper aftertaste, a smoother Irish cream liqueur, Tia Maria (a rum mixed with coffee and tea) and a 75% Absinthe… Obviously. These were good, but mostly sweet, and after two stops of this we were happy to make it back to a winery.

Our third stop of the day was Trapiche: the largest winery in Mendoza. Trapiche vineyard also has the largest amount of exports, shipping their wine to over 70 different countries around the world. Here we tried, not the basic wine, not the Reservas, but instead, we had the luxury of trying the Gran Reserva wines! Aged 18 months in the barrel, gran reserva wines are supposed to be the best of the best… And they are delicious! We even tried a gran reserva Chardonnay, which was unusual and rare considering a huge majority of wines here are red, and to take the time to make a gran reserva white is a risky business. It was not bad for a white, but if I’m going to choose a white wine I’m probably not going to be looking in the Mendoza section of the liquor store. Their 120-anniversary blend was delicious and the Malbec was an obvious favourite for the winery. The tasting room at Trapiche was so beautifully put together. Dark wood bars with leather couches and a dim lighting. The room had a glass floor that looked down onto hundreds of stacked, French-oak barrels below. Glass cabinets lined the walls, displaying their most famous bottles. The place was very luxurious!  
But after Trapiche we decided we better be responsible and head back into town before we got stuck partying at Mr. Hugo’s again! We found a lovely restaurant near Plaza Independencia and shared a tapas platter over a bottle of Malbec. It was an early night once again, as we had booked our LAST, 16-hour bus ride to Buenos Aires early the next morning. We were so adamant about forgoing an overnight bus, in fact, that we chose the early morning, milk-run day bus that took an extra 2 and a half hours to reach our destination. Although there was no food served, and no exciting landscapes to be seen, I think we made the right decision… Buenos Aires, here we come!

DSCF3942

Santiago

SAM_3255

Santiago is not only one of the most modern and industrialized cities we’ve come across in South America, it is also one of the most scenic. It WAS apparently considered the most beautiful place to live in the world… before all the smog settled in. Sadly, the smog is Santiago’s downside. We did managed to catch the city during the end of an extra long weekend, which meant no cars and factories working for a few days, and clear, sunny skies for us to enjoy! But unfortunately this is an uncommon occurrence for the city.

DSCF3916

Over our three nights in Santiago, we actually had to stay at two different hostels. Apparently the long weekend made for very full hotels and the closed pass between Chile and Argentina left people stranded an extra couple of days. On top of that, some hotels were actually closing for the WINTER at this point. But on our second and third night we stayed at this adorable hostel run by a tiny, old woman we simply referred to as “grandma” from the second we met her. She didn’t speak a word of English, but blabbered on to us in Spanish as of we were her long lost grandchildren coming for a visit. Everyday she wore a tiny pin of a Canadian flag on her shirt, and seemed so excited that we were actually from Canada! She was 
aaaaaaadorable!!

 

Once again, we were completely unproductive in the city: it was wonderful. We walked around the downtown core the first day and were surprised at how green and active Santiago really is! A huge green park runs right through the middle of the city and continues for kilometers! Patrolled by mounted police, the park is full of bikers, runners, rollerbladers, picnickers, families, dogs and everyone else under the sun it seems! It wasn’t crowded ever, but it was definitely well loved. From the park you could see the Andes Mountains looming in the distance. They were gorgeous and covered in snow and reminded me a lot of the North Shore Mountains from home. We did meet a girl who moved to Santiago and she said she was in the city a whole week before she knew the mountains were there. Apparently the smog is usually so bad they are completely invisible… How sad.

DSCF3909DSCF3902

We also heard that you haven’t truly experienced Santiago unless you’ve taken a nap in the big park. So, as stressful as that sounded, that’s what we did, 2 days in a row! We checked out the city sites, smaller parks, cafe’s, a small castle nestled in the city center, then lay down and took a nap! The architecture was beautiful and colonial and there were very few modern looking high-rise buildings (which I was expecting from such a major city). It managed to keep it’s quaintness, even though it houses about 1/3 the population of Chile! 
After nap time in the park, it was vino time at the hostel. The upstairs balcony had a great setup of comfy couches where we stretched out and continued our ongoing crib tournament. We ordered takeaway pizza the first night and spent hours enjoying the final hours of sunlight from the deck.

DSCF3900DSCF3918DSCF3920

On our second evening, we discovered the Bella Vista district, which was full of touristy restaurants and cafe’s. It was tucked down a pedestrian-only alley and opened up into three major squares, each filled with three levels of restaurants on all sides. Great food, huge selection and awesome for people watching the night away. Although we tried to avoid it, we were both craving steak and ended up having a wonderful meal at a fancy steakhouse right in the middle of the square. Sometimes it’s hard to believe we’re backpackers.

 

The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn to start our bus ride back to Argentina. The pass was finally open again, and we booked ourselves a day bus (anything to avoid overnight buses still). The scenery between Santiago and Mendoza is unbelievable. This is the Andes mountain range at its best! We drove through snowy passes and cruised by mountains that were surprisingly similar to the views between Banff and Jasper. Gorgeous, overly dramatic mountain ranges that you could never tire of if you lived there! So glad we decided to travel during the day!

SAM_3267SAM_3270

Valparaiso

DSCF3800

We had finally made it to the coast of Chile. Back at sea level and next to the wide-open ocean for the first time in months… I was ecstatic! You could smell the salty seawater as we drove through town in the taxi. Valparaiso is such a beautiful seaside city. It’s built into the natural hills of the landscape, has a massive port for the city’s fishing industry, and if you go just a few minutes out of town in either direction, there’s fresh seafood and sandy beaches!

 

We spent the first afternoon strolling the cities slopes. Valparaiso was the first place where we realized that it is actually autumn… In May! The leaves are changing a beautiful yellow colour, and crunchy brown leaves cover the sidewalks. The mornings and evenings were brisk, but the afternoons were still full of sunshine and heat! Personally I find this really neat, that autumn can happen in May. For Adam, it totally freaks him out. It’s been over a week since we arrived in fall weather, and he still can’t stop talking about how unnerved he is by the sudden change in seasons. I egg him on by stomping on every crispy leaf we pass with a satisfying crunch and then talking about everything fall related: the colours, the weather, the fall boots I spot at every shoe store… I find his weather frustration infinitely entertaining. But even Adam admits that it’s a great time to end our trip.

DSCF3802

Valparaiso, Santiago and Mendoza are utterly stunning in Fall colours!
  Our second afternoon in Valparaiso we went on a self-proclaimed graffiti crawl. The city is absolutely chock-a-block full of beautiful works of graffiti. Not just tags and amateur scrawling, but real works of unique and innovative pieces of art. The graffiti covers nearly every blank space of wall in the city, and we had a great time searching out our favourite pieces and photo-bombing the city.

DSCF3809DSCF3831DSCF3835

Near the end of our afternoon we ran across the Museum of Pablo Neruda, a famous poet and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. I used to love reading Neruda’s work in school, so was eager to check out his museum. The museum was actually Neruda’s house at one point in his life. He lived for many years in Valparaiso in a gorgeous, 5-story house, high up on the hilltop of the city, with a fabulous view of the ocean. Of course it was interesting seeing where the poet lived, wrote, spent time engrossed in thought etc, but what was the most fun, was checking out the house itself. Firstly, the architecture of the place is beautifully unique: rounded rooms with large open windows, a floor to ceiling, urn shaped fireplace, a spectacular view of the city from every room in the house… This was prime real estate. But secondly, Neruda was the most amazing collector of antiques and artifacts. He was fastidious with his decorating, and when he found an object that he wanted, he stopped at nothing until he obtained it. Paintings, maps, statues, plates, desks, you name it! Each piece had a history and a place in Neruda’s home. We must have spent over an hour, listening to the audiotapes and exploring his home before finally moving on. We both walked out of the place wishing we could become antique collectors… Guess I’d need a house first.

DSCF3817

After our “exhausting” afternoon taking photos and exploring museums, we decided it was time to relax. We found this great restaurant by our hostel that overlooked the water, where we sipped on a bottle of chilled white wine and watched the sun descend over the water.

DSCF3857DSCF3813

At 6 we met up with Mark and Oli, who had finally finished their bus trip down from the North. It was their final night, so we decided to celebrate Adam’s birthday one night early and head out on the town together. We had some pre-bottles of wine at their stunning hotel with an awesome view and then went back to the restaurant we had found in the afternoon for some food. (Adam and I had the crab-stuffed ravioli in a cream sauce with truffles that was honest-to-God the best ravioli I’ve eaten in my life!). By our third stop I lost track of the bottles of wine. Although we woke up with pictures of each label, there’s no way I could have properly rated them in our ongoing wine log…needless to say, Adam and I both spent most of the next day’s afternoon in our room recovering.

DSCF3880

On our final day in Valparaiso we went to the beach. The forecast had called for rain, but when we woke up it was sunny and gorgeous! We took the metro out to Portales station and walked up and down the waterfront. From there you could see the entire city of Valparaiso; from the ports to the towering city behind them. The beach was beautiful and sandy, and covered with great looking, fresh seafood joints. After checking out the fishermen on the docks, and watching them feed the group of sea lions below, we picked a place to eat and decided to camp there ALL afternoon eating platters of seafood and sipping on wine. This was one of my goals since day one: seafood and wine on the coast of Chile. So that’s what we did!

DSCF3888DSCF3891DSCF3897

We started with a delicious seafood soup. It came out in a steaming hot, stone bowl, and the water was still boiling inside! The soup was full of prawns, muscles, scallops, and squid, and had fresh herbs and some veggies in it as well. We mixed in a couple scoops of their freshly, homemade, spicy seafood sauce and the thing was to die for! We had endless garlic bread to go with and a lovely bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. After we sat around and let the soup settle, we ordered prawns. A plethora of prawns!! We had one massive bowl of prawns, sautéed in butter and garlic, which came out as steaming hot as the soup. Then we had a cold, avocado shrimp cocktail which had slices of fresh avocado under a mountain of prawns, topped with a light mayonnaise dressing, displayed on a bed of lettuce. We picked away at these dishes for a loooong time, still indulging on the endless bread, before we realized that there was no way we could order a main dish. They did not skimp out on the number of shrimp they offered in each dish, and we were both stuffed by the end of it. We settled up, moved back outside to the beach, and lay down on the sand to let our stomachs digest and to watch the waves. I could not have though of a better way to spend our last day in Valparaiso. This was definitely vacation mode… And luckily, it is only a short hour and a half bus ride to Santiago!!

DSCF3892

Star Gazing in The Valley of the Moon

As soon as we stepped over the border into Chile, our travels ended and our vacation began. We decided that, for the last 2 weeks of our trip, there would be no more running from city to city every other day, no more crazy tours, just good food, good wine and lots of relaxing! San Pedro was the start of this.

We had finally made it back to warm weather. Very different from the morning’s freezing geysers, by the early afternoon, we had descended thousands of meters and ended up in the hot desert. San Pedro de Atacama is an adorable town, of just a few blocks, in the middle of the desert: a little oasis in an otherwise dry world. The place felt like it was straight out of a western film. Unpaved roads, horses walking through the main street: I felt as if a tumbleweed should blow through the place at any moment.

DSCF3768

We spent the afternoon sitting in the sunshine and eating good food. Finally tried to get some colour after 2 months of cold weather! As the sun went down, we decided to grab a couple bottles of wine. Although we were a little shocked by the difference in price between Bolivia and Chile (I’m pretty sure Chile is the most expensive country in South America) we managed to find some cheaper versions at the minimarket. We sat out on the patio with some snacks with our new Aussie friends and enjoyed being back in wine country until our star gazing tour began.

DSCF3769

Stargazing was the one thing we wanted to do while in San Pedro – and it was incredible! We had a small group of 4, the two of us and a couple from Brazil, and our two guides. We drove out to the Valley of the Moon, where a massive telescope had already been set up for us. It was freezing out, but, with no cities or lights around for miles, the stars were unbelievable! We spent two hours learning about the southern constellations and the names of the stars. We got to see Saturn so well through the telescope, that even its rings were clearly defined! We saw young stars like Sirius, that under the telescope looked EXACTLY like the most beautiful diamond I’ve ever seen. It is bright white and sparkling and, as people who love shiny things, Adam and I were totally sold! Then we checked out Beetlejuice, a red star that apparently is actually dead and gone, only its light is still reaching us from millions of miles away. Our guide had an incredibly strong laser pointer with him to properly point out which star he was talking about (which was helpful with so many millions of stars up there). We saw Mars, the Southern cross, all the astrological signs that could be seen during this time of year. In fact, I think the only thing we didn’t see in the Valley of the Moon was the moon itself! Apparently it was hanging out in the Northern Hemisphere somewhere… The tour was super informative, really fun, and to top it all off, the tour came with free wine!! What more could you ask for really!

DSCF3788DSCF3774

When we arrived back in San Pedro at quarter to midnight, the sleepy town was already shutting down. So we went to bed early and prepared for another day of nothing.
 The next morning, all we accomplished was dragging ourselves to a cafe on the edge of a beautiful little main square. We sat there eating, reading and drinking banana milk shakes all afternoon until it was time to take our hour bus ride to Calama.

DSCF3789

From Calama, the next morning, we had a flight down to Santiago… Yes, I repeat, a FLIGHT! We finally got our act together early enough to book a flight instead of taking yet another 24 hour bus ride South. To top it all off, the flight, with all taxes in, was actually $4 cheaper than the bus! Win/win situation!!  Mark and Oli were slightly less fortunate than us and had to suck up the bus ride while we slept in a comfy hotel room, left 10 hours later, and still arrived in Valparaiso 8 hours before them… Sorry guys. But after four months of buses, this was by far the most exciting mode of transportation we’d been on in a while. Less than a 4 hour trip from the North, to the beautiful coastal city of Valparaiso!

SAM_3208

The Salt Flats

DSCF3630

Adam and I have been excited about visiting the Salar de Uyuni since day 1 of our trip. Uyuni: home of the largest salt flats on Earth, where tourists love to take crazy photos of themselves in odd positions! Plus, we’d get to check off another world wonder at the same time. Glorious!  We had been writing a list, and collecting props, for our designated hour of photo taking for months now, and it was finally time to put our work into action!

 

The town of Uyuni is nothing special… And that may be giving it credit. It’s a couple blocks of dusty streets in the middle of a desert. The restaurants in town try to cater to every backpacker craving at once.  There were Italian restaurants boasting about their Mexican tacos and their wide selection of traditional Bolivian cuisine: pizzas, fried chicken, American breakfasts, pastas, and burritos, all served at the same tiny hole in the wall. And yet, after 3 days off-roading around the Bolivian countryside, Uyuni was the most appealing town we saw.

DSCF3610

Our tour began at 10am the morning after we arrived. We had a wonderful group of 6, from Brazil, Australia and Canada who got along famously. We all piled into our little 4X4, bags strapped to the roof, and headed out into the desert! 
Our first stop was the train cemetery. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a pile of old trains, rusted and no longer in use, stranded in the middle of the desert. The trains were originally British built and used to export minerals to the coast. The Bolivian government supported the railway, but the Indigenous people saw it as an intrusion on their lives and kept sabotaging the tracks. Eventually, the mining industry collapsed, and the trains were left to rust during the 1940’s. At first I didn’t realize why we had a whole 15 minutes to take photos of unused trains, until it became apparent that “train cemetery” is synonymous with “awesome adult playground”. We climbed the trains, got in the conductor’s booth, tried to lift all the heavy parts (read: Adam did) and lay down on the tracks like a damsel in distress (read: I did). 15 minutes and a whole bunch of fun photos later, we knew this was going to be a great tour.  So off to the salt flats we went.

DSCF3614DSCF3620DSCF3625

Driving towards the salt flats looks like you’re driving towards the edge of the sea. You can see it coming from kilometers away; it’s bright white colour reflecting the sky, making it look just like the ocean. The mountains on the other side of the Salar seem to hover in the sky. There is a strange gap between the ground and the base that make them appear as floating islands. Very surreal, and very beautiful. 
Originally we believed the salt flats were the result of a giant, salt-water lake evaporating… Turns out we were wrong. The flats are made from several prehistoric lakes, combining into layers of water and salt crust. The salt crust is anywhere between 10 centimeters and a few meters thick. Underneath the salt crust is a lake! The briny water ranges between 2 and 20 meters deep. There were even a couple breaks in the salt crust, that looked like ice holes for fishing, where you could clearly see the water beneath. The flats stretch for 10,582 square kilometers, making them BY FAR the largest in the world. They make up 70% of the world’s lithium reserves, and much of it is used for human consumption as well.

DSCF3632

Our driver set us loose to take photos while he cooked us a meal in the back of the 4X4. The 6 of us collaborated our ideas and took a plethora of silly photos. 
When lunch and photos were over, it was time to make the 3 hour drive to Chuvica village to spend the night.

DSCF3638SAM_3144SAM_3151SAM_3160

We sped over dirt roads, kicking up loads of dust behind us until we reached the village. The place was deserted. It was a tiny ghost town, in the middle of a brown desert, with only a couple little places for us tourists to stay. It was freezing cold as the sun dropped behind the mountains, and although there was a spectacular sunset, that was the only thing to see or do for the evening. We sat around our little table with hot tea and cookies and chatted until dinner. When dinner arrived we realized we were part of the reject group. We drooled at the hot plates and bottles of wine that arrived at the next table over. Breakfast was the same thing. Cakes, cereal, juice, yogurt, anything you could want, was all laid out on the table next to us… A crushing realization at 6:45 in the morning. But our makeshift runny egg sandwiches were definitely a delight!! And we shamelessly “borrowed” the remaining yogurt and fruit loops after our rival group departed. Class act!

DSCF3651DSCF3655

Day two was full of crazy sites and loads of driving. We set out on the road at 7:30 sharp, and continued into the icy morning. We had an uprising and commandeered the iPod dock from the driver. His choice of Latin pop music on day 1, was less than ideal to the six of us, so Raf plugged in his tunes and we trucked along to ACDC, Metallica and other, more appealing, road-trip artists. The rare bits of desert vegetation had long but passed by this point, and we didn’t see plant life again for 2 whole days. We treacherously drove over rocky paths, engulfed within a landscape that could have been on the moon! Rich, reddish-brown earth, sweeping hills that looked like they were painted in the distance, snow capped mountains and rocky valleys. This place had it all! Except plant life of course.

DSCF3686DSCF3675DSCF3711

We first stopped in the valley of the rocks, where we spent another 15 minutes scrambling around the strange rock formations. Although none of us were really sure what caused these rocks to look so unique (much like the hoodoos of Alberta but less windswept and more jagged) we threw out theories like “glaciers!” and “wind!” like we had a clue. Our driver appeared to be much happier with his title of “driver” than that of “tour guide”. He didn’t speak English, but never explained anything in Spanish either, which left us to either speculate, or rely on the pre-downloaded Wikipedia pages that Mark and Oli provided.

DSCF3661DSCF3666

From there we cruised along to a few lagoons. To be honest, most of their names meld into one. Apart from the Laguna Verde, Blanca and Roja (which were Green, White and Red, respectively) the other names meant nothing to me. However, that didn’t stop each lagoon from being more spectacular than the last. The first one we came upon was a serene blue colour, with ice-capped mountains in the background. In fact, we were at such an altitude by that point, that even the lagoon itself had a thin crust of ice around the edge. The strangest thing about these freezing, high altitude lakes, were the myriad of flamingos that flocked around them! I’m standing there in 8 layers of clothing, kicking at ice, in the middle of a desert and listening to the unusual trills of the cooing flamingos! To me, flamingos belong in hot, tropical places; but here, they splash around in the icy water like it’s the greatest place on Earth! There are three different species of flamingos in the region: The Andean Flamingos (a grayer version), the Chilean Flamingo, and the rarer James Flamingo (which are the brightest pink). All of these types flocked around each of the lagoons we saw during the trip, and their strange cooing sounds could be heard across the valleys.

DSCF3674DSCF3693DSCF3687SAM_3182

From our first lagoon, we continued through the Siloli Desert, otherwise referred to as the desert of Salvador Dali. Dali’s surrealist paintings of desert scenes almost directly reflect the landscape of the Siloli Desert. At first I didn’t think much when our driver stopped on the side of the road for pictures, but as soon as he said the name Dali, I immediately understood. For a second you could even picture the bizarre, long-legged animals from his paintings just cruising across the horizon. The place really is spectacular!

DSCF3679

After we ate lunch out of the back of the van, we stopped at a place called “El Arbol de Piedra” or “the Stone Tree”. The only type of tree we’d seen in days, and it was made out of stone. It sat there, strange and seemingly out of place in the middle of the desert, but looked remarkably like a big, bushy tree. It’s amazing the thing hasn’t fallen over! A tiny base, expanding out into makeshift branches and foliage, the stone tree must be about 6m high! 
It was a quick stopover at the stone tree, then we continued to our final sight for the day: the red lagoon.

DSCF3724

No one was joking about the name; the red lagoon is a deep reddish-orange colour and stretches on for kilometers! (again, fully inhabited by trilling flamingos). Apparently the colour is caused by a copper sulfate that is found in the water. Once again, very little “touristic” information given on the lagoon. I believe there was something to do with Algae as well, but as I decided to procrastinate writing this blog, I have forgotten the details.  
Nevertheless, it was a short drive from the red lagoon to our overnight destination, Huayllajara. A town, much like the first, that had absolutely nothing to do. Although this one did have a place to buy cans of beer, it apparently traded that luxury for its ability to provide electricity. So we drank beer in the diminishing light until 6:30, when finally, the dim hall lights turned on for 3 hours while we ate dinner, and called it an early night for bed. Which was fine with us, as our wake up time was quarter to 5 in the morning.

SAM_3190

Let me tell you, quarter to five came too early after a sleepless night for us all. The dry climate and 4500ish meter altitude kept us all unable to breathe properly through the night. But we dragged our asses out of bed, early enough to still see the night sky all lit up with stars, and drove off into the darkness. First stop: the Geysers. At almost 5000m, the natural geysers and clay mud pots in the Sol de Mañana volcano were pretty neat. The sunlight was just getting ready to peak over the mountain, but the giant vents of steam that shot out of the ground were clearly visible, even before sunrise. Once again, no safety standards. Big surprise. Please feel free to walk through the dark, along the slippery mud, right up to the edge of the lava filled hole with shooting steam, all you’d like! You could clearly hear the sucking and sloshing, of what I’m assuming was lava, below: although I was confused that there was no heat, or red glow, like the lava that can be seen in other volcanoes. In fact, it was freezing out! There was no heat whatsoever. I immediately regretted wearing flip-flops and it didn’t take long before I jumped back into the jeep, shivering.

DSCF3740

We watched the sunrise while we drove through the desert on our way to breakfast. At our breakfast stop was a natural hot springs that we had about a half hour to lounge around in. The temperature outside was insanely cold, and after getting into the water there was no way I wanted to face the outside world again! But it was a pretty spectacular view from the springs. You could stare through the steam, out towards a lake and the still rising sun off in the horizon. Not too bad a morning if you ask me!

DSCF3751

When we’d finished with breakfast, we drove onwards to the Green Lagoon. Not as green as the red lagoon was red, but the lake was still spectacular! The mountains in the background looked like a watercolor painting, and the lake was so still that it created a perfect reflection. This was sadly our last stop before the border into Chile. It was time to say goodbye to our Brazilian friends “The Raf’s” and work our way into San Pedro de Atacama. 
The Uyuni tour was incredibly fantastic, and I’m so thankful we had time to do the three-day trek over the one day. The extraterrestrial landscape of Southern Bolivia is unlike anything else we’ve seen in South America yet. Just another spectacular adventure to tick off the list!

DSCF3760

The Miners of Potosi

SAM_3070

Food Poisoning: the two words that pretty much sum up my last few days in Bolivia.  A failed attempt to visit hot springs in a nothing hole called Oruro (This place rivals Cambodia’s town of Strung Treng for places with nothing to do: minus the garbage market and the matching pajamas) I ended up on an overnight bus to Sucre with screaming babies, NO bathroom and food poisoning… I destroyed several bathrooms in a hostel with no functioning water system during the day, spent two full days in bed, and have nothing worthy to report on the otherwise aesthetically pleasing capital city.  Then, we worked our way to Potosi.

 

Potosi is the highest city in the world (with a population over 100 000) at an elevation of 4060m above sea level. The altitude is so intense, that just walking one block at a slight incline left both of us breathless. One girl we met said she nearly passed out brushing her hair one morning! We’ve been at a lot of high elevation in Bolivia, but Potosi is where I really noticed the physical difficulties.

 

The city is really quite beautiful. Settled in brown hills with very little vegetation, Potosi’s streets are colourful and quaint! The place has gorgeous stone churches that light up at night, and funky pubs that cater to tourists with excellent cuisine. But what Potosi is really known for is it’s mining industry.  Potosi’s mountains are full of minerals including tin, iron and lots of silver; thus resulting in huge mining cooperatives. Anyone in Potosi can get a job in the mines; in fact, it’s a hugely family oriented career. Parents pass down mining techniques and knowledge to their sons and grandsons for generations, working long, hard hours for their wages. The men get paid according to how many tonnes of the minerals they can produce… But at the end of the day, the wage is middle class at best, and the work seems hardly worth it.

SAM_3072

Adam and I went on a tour of one of the mines and found the experience to be eye-opening. We suited up in full rubber boots, work pants, a jacket and a helmet with a large headlamp and set out from our hostel. 
Our first stop was the miner’s market. This is where we bought gifts for the miners we were going to see during the day. We each bought juice and coca leaves, but it was also possible to purchase gloves, clove cigarettes, a moonshine-like alcohol of 98% liquor or dynamite.

SAM_3065

Once we had bought our gifts, we drove onwards towards the mine. 
The mine that we went to had been in operation since the 1700’s; and I’m pretty sure still had the same safety regulations as when it first opened. Today, there are 150 men working in that particular mine, but there are over 500 separate mines in the one mountain. The men work in small teams, or individually within the mine: each collecting his own profit and or splitting it among the group of 4 or 5. Their workday is minimum 8 hours a day, 6 days a week: although often some men work up to 12 hours a day. The work is tough to say the least. Long hours of heavy labour with no food or sunlight all day long. The only thing the men consume while on duty is coca leaves and juice. Food is said to be bad for the digestive system down in the mines because of the amount of dust that is around. Some men chew so many coca leaves that they have permanently stained black teeth, and have large, permanent lumps on the side of their face from where they’ve had coca stored for so many years.

DSCF3604SAM_3080

We walked as a group into the entrance of the mine to begin our two-hour decent. The entrance tunnel was dark, dusty, and filled with ankle-deep water most of the way. You had to hunch over to be able to walk, and electrical wires and oxygen tubes ran along the ceiling of the tunnel. You could constantly hear dripping water and leaking oxygen as you walked along, and frequently we would all have to press ourselves against the cold rock walls to let men with carts speed past along makeshift rails. 
This mine went down 4 different levels, and men worked on all of them.

DSCF3595

We began our tour by descending to the 3rd level and talking with 2 miners. One was named “Jimmy Morrison” and the other was his eldest son. 
It was immediately apparent that there was no easy way down the levels. We scrambled through tiny holes that were barely large enough for a body, crawled through short tunnels, and traversed our way down the side of a rock wall with only a rope to hold on to (the rope was only used for tourists, the miners apparently just scamper their way around effortlessly without). At the bottom, we briefly chatted with Jimmy Morrison’s son. He was a twenty-year-old kid who had diligently worked along side his father in the mines for the past 5 years! Since he was 15, he’d spent minimum 48 hours a week, down in the mines, chewing on coca and digging away for silver and tin. By 20, he was an expert in setting up dynamite explosions, and extracting minerals with small hand tools. This boy looked way beyond his years. Although he was very shy, I never would have guessed that he was only 20 by the way he talked about his job and moved about the mines. It was incredible, and kind of sad, knowing that he was destined to a life of darkness at such a young age. We gave him a large bottle of peach juice and a bag of coca leaves and let him continue with his work. There’s no money made in taking breaks in this trade…

SAM_3090DSCF3591

So we continued exploring the mines, our adorable little female guide leading the way effortlessly through the maze of tunnels. We arrived in a cavern with a large, rock statue with horns, which was covered with small offerings. This was the god of the miners: Satan. 
Because the miners work underground, where there is no light, they worship the devil so that he will protect them in his realm of the underworld. The statue was creepy to say the least, with a snarling face, painted red, large horns, sitting in the darkness on a ledge in a cave. The effigy was covered in small offerings from the miners. Coca leaves, cigarettes, small bottles of alcohol and such covered the statue from head to toe. As well, little colourful flags were found covering the devil, and the room that we were sitting in. The flags were from Carnival. Every year the miners celebrate Carnival, just like the rest of South America. But they do it at work! They dance, bring booze and decorate their workspace with colourful flags for the day to celebrate! Even the tourists that come on that day join in with the festivities, and party alongside the miners.

SAM_3094

After we stared down the hardened face of the devil for a while, we continued upwards, and deeper into the mine to visit an old man named Pablo, who had worked in the mines for 36 years. 
We squeezed our way through tiny openings, scrambled upwards, practically digging our fingernails into the dirt walls to shimmy along, and made it to a larger opening a few stories up. There we found Pablo, a huge and jolly miner digging away with his bare hands in a tiny hole that he’d been working on for god knows how long. How this man fit through the holes we had just squeezed through is beyond me! But he was nice enough to take a break, sit down, and talk to us about his life as a miner.

 

Pablo came from a long line of miners. His father was a miner, his grandfather was a miner, and his great grandfather was a miner. Pablo himself had 10 children, 5 girls and 5 boys, and 2 of his sons worked with him in the mines while the rest went to university to learn other trades. Pablo is 51 years old and has been working in the same mine since he was 15 years old. He really enjoys it! He says it’s a great job for families. Sometimes, when his sons have a day off at school they come to visit him in the mines while he works. They get to catch up on life while he works. It’s mindless work at times, with just a lot of digging to do, so it’s nice to be able to keep up to date with your children’s lives at the same time. They tell stories while he listens and digs; he almost makes it sound idyllic…

 

But then Pablo reveals the sadder aspects of his job. In the 1970’s they did a count of every man that worked in the mine. There were 200, ranging from the age of 15 and upward. Pablo and his father had worked there then, and were included in the list. These were all people he knew, worked in close proximity with, was friends with some of them. Today, if you look at that same list, only 3 of those men are alive. Pablo revealed this with tears in his eyes as he recalled how each one of his family members and friends had passed away, too young for their years, from some sort of lung cancer, disease or illness as a result of their jobs. At 51, Pablo is an old man for the mines. He wants to retire soon, but his chances of living that much longer are slim anyways. 36 years of inhaling dust and grime and working unprotected around chemicals, explosives and dangerous minerals will take its toll on a body. Luckily, he still gets to spend quality time with his family while he can…. I suppose all jobs have their ups and downs.

 

Mostly, Pablo works by hand, or with a drilling tool that he managed to acquire over his years in the mines. To make a 1 and a half meter hole by hand takes 1 month. To make that same hole with the hand held drilling tool takes 1 hour. Big difference; however, to rent the machine for one hour is equal to over 1 day’s wage. So for some people this luxury is impossible. The average mining wage is 100 Boliviano’s/ day, or $12CAD. It is $15/hour to rent the machine, and even that is a low-end, hand held device that would be sub par standards around the world. Some men we saw in the mines have newer, more efficient machinery to work with, but mostly those men work together as a team and are able to split the costs. Pablo still uses more traditional techniques, and carries the 75kilo, several feet long, drilling machine into and out of the mine everyday himself. Through snaking tunnels and tiny enclosures: trust me, this seems a nearly impossible feat when you see these tunnels!!

SAM_3100

After we all chatted with Pablo it was time to go. We also gave him a portion of our gifts, then headed on our trek out of the mines. Just two hours, trapped in the dusty enclosure of the mines was quite the experience. To see how these men work so hard, everyday, to support their families, even though they understand the consequences of their job, is incredible. The safety standards are completely non-existent, with men wearing jeans and t-shirts into the mine with no safety masks or protection from dust whatsoever. It’s amazing, saddening, and a way of life that I just have to accept I suppose.  
It was a whirlwind morning in Potosi to say the least. We were out for a nice dinner that evening and onwards to Uyuni the next morning! Three days of trekking in a 4X4 in the South of Bolivia still to come…

DSCF3599SAM_3097SAM_3095

Death Road: Bolivia

Just outside of La Paz exists the world’s most dangerous road. Now titled “Death Road” from the number of people that have died driving on it, this highway used to be the ONLY means of transport between La Paz and a good chunk of the rest of Bolivia. Finally, a 15-year project was launched to build a new, very much longer, but very much safer highway (if you could really call it a highway). Before the new road, about 26 vehicles tumbled over the edge and down the massive, vertical drop each year: very much deserving it’s “Death Road” moniker.

 

I first saw clips of The World’s Most Dangerous Road (WMDR) in the Top Gear “Bolivia Special” episode and have been having heart palpitations about it ever since. When Adam told me he wanted to mountain bike down it I laughed. I said “Nope, not me, I’ll wait for you at the bottom in a cozy cafe, you crazy SOB”.  Obviously that’s not what happened.

 

Okay, so you need to know one thing. I HATE biking. I loathe it! I don’t like cycling down a flat, perfectly paved street; I don’t like rocketing through trees downhill on a mountain bike; honestly, I don’t even like the stationary bike at the gym, it’s my NEMESIS. So I definitely don’t know why I thought I was going to enjoy biking down the WMDR in a third world country… But that’s what I signed up for.
  The actual bike ride is between La Cumbre and a small town called Corioco. It is a 64km journey and a 3600m vertical descent, total time: 5 hours.

Our mini bus pulled up to La Cumbre just after 9am. It was breathtaking… As in, the altitude was so high it was difficult to breathe. Well, the 4600m, combined with the brisk early morning air and the idea that I was about to be rocketing 3600m downwards left me a little breathless. But also, there was a VERY beautiful lake, surrounded by what appeared to be very low, snow-capped mountains, but which were probably close to 6000m in altitude. We all put on our gear: elbow and knee pads, helmets, gloves, thick jackets and pants: the whole works. Although I was significantly warmer, I couldn’t help but thinking that NONE of this will be relevant if I go skidding off a cliff. Since the WMDR has opened to bikers, 15 have died… And I’m sure they were wearing just as much gear!
  Nonetheless, we started our decent!

The first part was 32km of paved road with absolutely unbelievable views of the mountain range. The scenery was exquisite, and every time I try to describe the landscape here in South America I feel at a loss for words because everything is so larger than life and amazing. Death Road was no exception! Endless mountains, deep passes, green brush, rocky cliffs, and waterfalls all throughout… Oh yeah, and a windy road right in the center of it.

I actually enjoyed the first 32 kms (Shocking, I know. Don’t worry it doesn’t last long). I didn’t have to move a muscle; the downhill part kept me gliding onwards, then I would occasionally use my hand breaks when I needed to slow down, or pass a truck. I didn’t feel 100% confident on the bike, but if this was Death Road, then NO PROBLEMO SEÑOR! The 32km went by VERY fast. With all our photo stops and re-grouping to catch up it took us about an hour and 20minutes.

 

Afterwards, we stopped for a snack of sandwiches and cookies. Then our guide announced we were jumping back in the van. My heart leapt a little as I thought this might be the end. Unfortunately he continued with “then we’ll drive you all to Death Road”. What? That wasn’t it?! 
That’s when I started looking at the photos of the people on the map he gave us. Pictures of people biking over huge rocks, gravel roads, through waterfalls… Awesome, I’m going to be wet at the end of the day too! (Another pet peeve of mine.  Just try to get me on a water ride at Disney Land). Okay, I’m a little more adventurous than I’m making myself out to be, but I’m pessimistic about biking all day… And this is how I felt at the time.

So our van pulls up on the start of death road and I’m pretty sure we’re all going to be part of next year’s stats for vehicles plummeting over the edge. Our driver backs up RIGHT to the edge of the cliff, so it’s possible for another vehicle to pass if needed, and leaves the whole left side of the van practically dangling over the edge. The German girl in front of me screams, I most likely went white and froze; who knows, I’ve blocked it from my memory (and I’m not even afraid of heights!). This was something out of my control.  For once I actually wished I was on my bike. At least I have control of that vehicle and don’t have to leave it up to the skills of our Bolivian driver.

 

View from the window as we parked

So our guide gives us all the safety rules of the road. How to pass other bikers (haha, as if I needed to know that), how to deal with oncoming traffic (not that there are many vehicles on the road, but we did encounter a few) and how to properly use a bike (something I actually know how to do, god help anyone who comes on this trip trying to LEARN how to bike). 
So we set out, and I’m doing fine. I’m not a show off, so unlike Adam, I don’t feel the need to be at the head of the pack. I took my time and was not hating the experience like I thought I would.

The views were awesome, and because the road was rocky and steep, I pretty much rode my breaks for the next 28 kilometers: not good for the bike, but better for my sanity. After we stopped about three times for photo ops is when my hands started to hurt. I rode tensed up, trying to stop the shocks going through my body as I hurled over the rocky road. My hands couldn’t grip anymore they were so sore. Every time I tried to slow myself, my hands started shaking as if they were going to give out. My shoulders and neck were aching, and I stopped enjoying myself. I had NO PROBLEM with the height, OR the fact that I was on the WMDR. In fact, I forgot I was even in Bolivia! The dangerous road part had ZERO effect. I simply hate biking. I don’t like jolting over uneven rocks and skidding on scree and overusing my breaks, or going too fast.

Luckily, I managed to do some soul searching on the trip and realized where my unprovoked hate of the sport began. Turns out, when I was little, I went mountain biking through Mount Seymore parkway (either with school or Guides or something), and, down a steep, rocky hill, my breaks gave out and I had to cause myself to fall at the bottom of the hill before flying off the edge of the road and over a small cliff. I had entirely forgotten about this episode from my childhood until I was bouncing down similar terrain on this Deadly Highway… See, at least something positive came out of the trip!
 Anyways, point being, as soon as my muscles hurt I wished the trip would end. But it didn’t. It still took 3 and a half hours to complete!  But enough complaining.

 

Although I missed a lot of the scenery because I was watching the road so intently, our guides took photos for us and I’m sure they’re amazing! 
What I find the MOST amazing is HOW IN THE HELL this used to be a functioning road! A TWO-way road at that! During one of our stops, Adam and I watched a truck drive up a good section of the road from across a pass. We saw the truck, speeding along like he’d done this a million times with no care in the world. It was like a scene out of a movie, where a bus speeds down a highway and doesn’t realize the bridge is out ahead, but the whole audience is aware. Of course the bridge wasn’t out ahead, but around one of the corners the road got VERY narrow, and had absolutely zero rails, barriers, nothing whatsoever between the edge of the road, and impending death!

 

We stood, shell-shocked and horrified as the truck moved along the road, taking corners at speeds faster than I would allow my bike, until finally he came around the corner where the road narrowed. We, like disgusting tourists, had our cameras out trying to take photos as he flew around the corner. Then, just like that, he continued at the same speed like nothing happened; just as if the road hadn’t HALFED and his right wheels weren’t half on and half off the cliff! He just trucked on around the bends, through a couple waterfalls that left the road wet and slippery, and back onto the wider area (even the wider areas were no more than a truck width at best). I couldn’t believe it. No hesitation. Just like he was driving through a desert on a straight road. I nearly fainted watching him!

3 and a half hours later, we arrived in Corioco for a shower and a buffet lunch. The second we arrived I thought, “that wasn’t that bad”. But then I remembered how sore my hands and neck were and just shut up. 
For those of you who are wondering, Adam absolutely loved it!  So has every single person I’ve talked to that’s done it. Don’t let my hatred for bikes deter you from going should you find yourself in Bolivia one day. I’m sure the views are worth it!

Adam said he had a blast the entire way down, despite his showing off and falling not once, but TWICE on the trail. He’s okay, not to worry, just boy wounds and a ripped shirt. One of his falls was right at the end, and then after he recovered, he stopped to help an older lady who fell as well. That allowed enough time for me to pass him and finish earlier… Which, whenever he jokes about how bad of a biker I am, I rub in his face that I finished the WMDR before him. Muahaha! It’s the little things.

All in all, despite how much of a princess I’ve made myself appear in this post, I’m glad I did it. I can successfully say “I Survived Death Road”. It’s a story for sure, and we all know my old motto, “do it for the story”.   
Well here’s another I’ll never forget…

Playoffs in La Paz

So there we were… Adam and I, with our arms thrown around three other Canadian guys (and a guy from Seattle which we figured was close enough), crammed in the upstairs bar of the Wild Rover in La Paz, shouting “Oh Canada” at the Television screen in a deafening screech. Playoff Time… Happy hour was over, we’d been streaming hockey onto the pub television for 3 hours now as we watched the Flyers beat the Penguins: I’m not going to sugar coat it, we had been drinking.

 

I don’t think La Paz realized that hockey Playoffs would have been such a draw to their pubs; perhaps if they had, I wouldn’t have had to threaten the bartender’s life when he refused to play the Canucks game. In the end, he weighed his options and streamed the game. Good man. 
Sadly, and I mean sadly from the bottom of my heart, we all know how this game ended. What you don’t know, is how we ended up watching hockey in La Paz. So here you go…

 

Three days earlier…

 

After a 5-hour, incredibly sickening, bus ride from Copacabana, we arrived in La Paz and had a fairly uneventful evening. It was Easter Sunday morning when we finally started exploring the city. La Paz is huge. It only has a population of 1.5 million people, but the way that the city is built within a canyon, all houses clinging precariously to the steep edges, makes it dizzyingly large. The upside to this city planning is, there is only one major street in La Paz, “Av 16 de Julio”, and it is at the deepest point in valley. If you ever get lost, just walk downhill and you’re right back on track!

 

We spent the entire day walking through La Paz’s many districts. We started off at the infamous San Pedro prison in the San Pedro district. This place is unbelievable. For those of you who have read Rusty Young’s novel “Marching Powder”, a true story on one man’s life in San Pedro, you’ll know what I’m talking about. For those who haven’t, I hardly know how to explain. The prison has no guards once inside the outer walls, inmates are left to defend themselves and work out their own system of government. They have shops, restaurants, and APARTMENTS, in various “neighborhoods” throughout the jail: all run and operated by the inmates. Many of the inmates’ wives and children live with them in the prison (but are free to come and go as they please) and they drink and party and do drugs as freely as if they were on the outside. In fact, the best and purest cocaine in the world is manufactured within the walls of San Pedro: hard to believe. Up until a few years ago, they used to host tours for tourists to go inside, for a small fee, and see the workings of the prison themselves. The prison tour was even a must-do in the Lonely Planet guide one year. Unfortunately, since the “tour guide” of the prison was released, they have stopped all tourist access. So all we got to do was take a couple sneaky photos outside (which they frown upon now) and watch the going ons from the plaza outside. Being Easter Sunday, there was a huge lineup outside the main gates of the prison. From the plaza, you could see right inside the prison gates to the main courtyard inside. People had already set up for a huge party and you could see the inmates greeting their friends and family as they arrived. Very unusual rules here in Bolivia…

So we continued along our self-proclaimed city tour and headed East. Only 10 blocks or so from the prison, in the Rosario district, are numerous small shops, all lined down one or two streets, this is considered the “witches market”. They sell some very odd looking things. 
The “witches” are really just Bolivian women all dressed up in traditional garb. The clothing is similar to Peruvian, BUT, the Bolivians do sport a new hat! Bolivia’s hat fashion statement is the bowler cap! This is similar, and yet dramatically different, to the Ecuadorian fedora and the Peruvian “Robin Hood” style hat (These things are very important, you know, just in case you’re not quite sure what country you’re in).  
Anyways, the witches market sold everything from herbs, special healing elixirs in glass bottles, souvenirs, stone statues and even dried llama foetuses… Yes, that’s right, dried llama foetuses.  They were disgusting, bony, sometimes even hairy creatures, that we at first thought were shrunken llamas (not sure how you would shrink a llama, but I assume the Bolivians could figure it out if they wanted).

 

From the witches market, stems the “regular” market. Here there are endless streets full of a designated theme. A whole block full of electronics, or jeans, or shoes, bath products, snacks, fresh vegetables… You name it, it’s SOMEWHERE wrapped up in the maze of streets that makes up La Paz’s market area. It was exhausting. For someone who loves markets it was exhausting!  Needless to say, it was time to head home.

 

For our very special Easter Sunday dinner, we decided to go to the Steakhouse. We have heard people talking about this steakhouse for weeks now, and Easter seemed to be the perfect excuse to check it out. I knew this place was going to be amazing the second I saw the sign (yes, I also judge books by their covers). Their tagline was “A Rare Steak… Well Done”. A pun AND meat?! Two of my favourite things in life! 
The place was tiny, all wooden inside with classy looking picnic style tables. You could see right into the open kitchen to watch each individual steak being cooked. We ordered a bottle of wine as our liquid appetizer and watched the rest of the place order. 600gram Jack Daniel steaks came out, still sizzling in the pan, and were lit on fire right in front of the guests. Quite a show! All the steaks were served bohemian style on a thick wooden cutting board and served with a bowl of mashed potatoes and all you can eat garlic bread / salad bar. Mouthwatering…

 

We decided, on the excellent recommendation by our friends Charlotte and Craig, to order the Argentinean sirloin tip, 400grams. Holy crap was this one of the best steaks I’ve eve eaten in my life! Tender, juicy, perfectly grilled, and excellently paired with our second bottle of Cab Sav. Mmm mmm! Our food looked so excellent, in fact, that two girls waiting for a table asked us what we ordered because they wanted the same. This is an absolute MUST stop for anyone in La Paz (unless you are a vegetarian, that is).  After dinner we rolled ourselves back to the hostel for a relatively early night. We had a mountain biking trip down “Death Road” in the morning that we weren’t to miss (see following blog for details).

Our last two days in la Paz were a little more relaxing. We ate good food, enjoyed the city sites and lounged around playing cards in the “4 Corners” area of the city. Adam spent some quality time drinking coffee in various cafe’s and I got my teeth cleaned and fixed at one of the billions of dentists that exist around La Paz.
  On our last full day we found ourselves with the blues at a cafe called Luna y Sol. Today was the kickoff for the Playoffs; game 1 Canucks versus the Kings… And we were going to miss it. Nobody will play hockey when Soccer cups are on in South America! This is one of the few times we’ve been homesick for Canada over the past few months. Alas the day.

 

Then one of us got the idea that MAYBE they would play it on a single TV, out of the way, at the bar we were at. We got excited; our hopes rose! We looked at the map and picked all the touristy places that MIGHT have mercy on two hockey-crazed Canadians. We would go to them ALL, begging and pleading with each one, until we found the Playoffs!  We started with Luna y Sol… They laughed in our faces; “The TV is for soccer only”. It was like a kick in the face.

 

So we dragged our sorry asses back to the hostel.  We asked the Irish guy at reception if he could help us out. He said unfortunately no one in South America would even HAVE a channel that showed hockey. If they wanted to, they couldn’t. The only way would be to watch it online, but no places in La Paz would have Internet fast enough to stream the game. “You need to make a LOT of money to have that kind of high speed Internet in Bolivia,” he said, “and no one would… 
Except, For THIS hostel.  WE have fast Internet here, all the soccer matches are over in the afternoon today, so I’m sure if you asked the bartender nicely he would stream it onto the TV at the bar!”  SUCCESS!

 

And the rest is history…

The Isla Del Sol, Lake Titicaca

It was a sad moment when we realized the only buses going to Lake Titicaca from Cusco were overnight buses. We tried our best to avoid it, but then once again found ourselves tossing and turning in our seats through the evening. 
We were woken at 5:30am with a little old woman serving Cinnamon tea out of a big red jerry can and were told our stop was in 10 minutes. When the bus pulled over, only we and the lady with her gas can got off: we were in the middle of nowhere. Just the three of us, dead tired, at quarter to six in the morning on the side of a highway.

View from the bus as I woke up.

We had decided to skip Puno, the town on the Peruvian side of the lake, because other travelers had said it wasn’t worthwhile. We agreed to have a relaxing time during our stay, and so, opted against staying in Copacabana (the town on the Bolivian side), and went straight for the Isla Del Sol, just an hour and a half boat ride from Copacabana.
  The trouble was, we now had to make it across the Peruvian/Bolivian border at 6:00am, and we had no clue where we were. Luckily, the woman who got off the bus with us agreed to help; and let me tell you, she was a lifesaver!

It took us 2 minibus rides, a taxi, a lot of trouble trying to find an open bank during a holiday, a money exchange center and walking across the border to finally get to Copacabana by 8:00am: probably one of the most productive mornings I’ve had in my life. 
When we arrived in Copacabana, the place was a zoo. It was Good Friday, and in such a Catholic country, this was a BIG deal to Bolivians.

Turns out, every year on Easter weekend, people from all over Bolivia come to Copacabana as pilgrims to camp out in tents and camper vans. The beach was jam packed with families in tents or sleeping in cars and vans. Street vendors were in excess, selling choripan, soup, massive bags of popcorn and roasting giant pigs on the corner of traffic packed streets. The streets and the cars were covered in flower petals of beautiful colours! People had weaved garlands of flowers and laid them on the hoods of their cars in some sort of Easter celebration; as a result, the whole town was covered with flowers. It was a little overwhelming at such an early hour of the day, but we powered through the crowd, bought a ticket to the Isa Del Sol and ate a quick breakfast of choripan from a lady camped out on the beachside.

Although I slept most of the boat ride over, I did catch enough to tell you the lake is breathtaking! Lake Titicaca is the largest high-altitude lake in the world. It sits at an elevation of 3808m and is an impressive 8400 sq km. The Cordillera Real mountain range sits as a beautiful backdrop to the lake, with peaks that look too low to be covered in snow (although at that altitude they were anything but low!). 
The Isla Del Sol is, according to Incan Mythology, the place where the Sun was born and where Gods came down to Earth and appeared to mortals – and I can see why: the place is magical.

Yes… this is how I sleep on boats.

We stayed in a village called Yumani, right in the center of the island. When the boat docked it was a thirty-minute hike straight up uneven, rocky stairs with ALL our bags! I felt like I was back on the Inca Trail again, but somehow I’d become a porter! Once at the top, however, the view was worth it. Every hostel and restaurant had a gorgeous view of the lake. We stayed at an East-facing hostel and could see the Isla del Luna (Island of the Moon) from our bedroom window. Not bad for less than $5 a night and a room to ourselves!

We spent the afternoon walking around the Yumani area. It was very basic, but incredibly beautiful. Apart from the hostels and restaurants, the land was pretty barren. Alpaca’s, pigs and donkey’s roamed the countryside and the locals kept busy working the land or participating in the local soccer match that we could see happening from the top of the hill in the next village over. Once we climbed to the top of the island, it was easy to see how unreal the landscape really was. The water was placid and a perfect deep blue colour. The surrounding islands were green and looked almost uninhabited, and the snow-capped mountain range in the background was stunning. We managed to pick the perfect day for sightseeing, as the sun was shining and there were very few clouds around. You could see forever!

For dinner that evening, we chose a little pizzeria (the Isla Del Sol rivals Rome for it’s per capita Pizzerias) that sat right on a cliff face on the West side of the island. We sat outside, overlooking the lake, and watching the sun go down. At this point in the trip, we were both sick and exhausted. This was the first place I had a headache from the altitude (before only my hands, feet and lips went numb and was more of a confusing sensation than an annoying one) and Adam was progressing into full-fledged cold by this time. We called it a night after dinner, and sat in bed reading, and listening to the incessant braying of donkeys all through the night (they are more persistent than roosters, and a LOT louder). 
We ended up spending only one night on the island, and although we intended to spend some more time in Copacabana, when we arrived, it was so chaotic, and so many more pilgrims had arrived since the previous morning, we decided to just hop on the next bus to La Paz…