All posts by Iain

Esperanza Verde Peru: Volunteering at an Animal Rescue Centre

If you are interested in volunteering with animals in South America then check out our new video about life at Esperanza Verde in Peru. Esperanza Verde is an Animal Rescue Centre and Reforestation Project in the Amazon Basin. It was started 5 years ago and is home to an array of animals. It was also home to us for the past 9 months and we hope this video will give you an idea of what kept us there so long. Sorry for the lack of blogs recently but hopefully this makes up for it.

So if you’re asking yourself “where can I volunteer in South America?” then look no further…

If you’d like to volunteer or simply make a donation then get in contact with Olivia at info@esperanzaverdeperu.com or via the website at http://www.esperanzaverdeperu.com/

Top Sights Bolivia

Uyuni Salt Flats
Uyuni Salt Flats

Uyuni Salt Flats
If you’re planning on heading to Bolivia then i’m sure a salt flats tour is already on your list of things to do. Driving across the salt flats or standing on one of the islands for sunrise is a truly unforgettable experience. If you’ve got the time we’d definitely advise that you do a 3 day salt flat tour with a border cross to/from Chile. Whilst the salt flats are great there is so much great scenery in the area that you really shouldn’t miss. The Bolivian altiplano with its sapphire lakes, smoking volcanoes, flamingos and llamas in droves are equally as picturesque as the flats. It’s cold, the air is thin, the ride is bumpy and uncomfortable and we’d see it all again in a heartbeat.

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The White City: Sucre
Sucre, the Bolivian capital city is definitely the nicest in the country. If you just woke up there one day you’d be surprised to find out you weren’t in a particularly beautiful Spanish city. The city received huge amounts of money when nearby Potosi was still producing silver and as such the entire town center is a UNESCO world heritage sight. Apart from the fact that the people are friendly and the food is good there are plenty of things to do in Sucre to keep you occupied. There is a chocolate factory, jurassic park and cemetery. A lot of backpackers choose Sucre as a place to stop and learn Spanish for a few weeks due to its inexpensive prices.

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El Cerro Rico: Potosi
The mountain that looms above the mining town of Potosi once produced most of the silver for the Spanish Crown. Whilst the silver has now been mostly mined out, the “mountain that eats men” is still the single largest employer in the city. If you fancy it, tours can easily be arranged all over town. If you don’t fancy going into the mines Potosi is still worth visiting. As one of the highest cities in the world the air can be quite thin but don’t let this put you off. The old Spanish mint, now a museum, offers excellent guided tours explaining the history of the city. There is also plenty of opportunity to tuck into Llama in virtually every restaurant.

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Death Road: La Paz
If you’re seeking adrenaline then Death Road is a must do. Even if you’re not an adrenaline junkie then death road is still a great day out, easily arranged from La Paz. The views as you shoot down what used to be the most dangerous road on the planet are breathtaking. If you’re used to mountain biking then this is not a particularly technical descent, I found the biggest distraction was the view. If you decide to do the road, then the only company we’d recommend is Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. Whilst they’re the most expensive, you’ll get great bikes and the guides take you through every stage of the descent. At the end there’s the opportunity to do a zip line and visit an animal rescue centre with excellent hot showers.

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The Pampas: Rurrenabaque
The Bolivian pampas are a quick 40 minute flight from La Paz, followed by a 3 hour bus and boat ride to get to your tour operators lodge. The amount of wildlife in the pampas is truly amazing. Whilst we were there we saw five species of monkey as well as caiman, turtles capybara, hundreds of species of birds, piranha and pink river dolphins to name a few. If you want to get some photos of amazing animals then the pampas is definitely the place to go. We spent three days drifting the rivers in our boat in brilliant sunshine taking hundreds of photos, stopping only to swim with the dolphins and catch some piranha for dinner.

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Lake Titicaca
The world’s “highest navigable lake” straddles the border of Bolivia and Peru. Whilst we found the towns around the edge of the lake to be fairly forgettable, Titicaca itself is beautiful. On the Bolivian side a trip across to Isla del Sol is the highlight. The small slow boats take quite a while to reach the island, but you can sit on the top deck and enjoy the sun. The island has a collection of incan ruins and there’s a pleasant hike you can do from one end to the other if you feel the need to stretch your legs. Don’t forget to eat some trout, available from every restaurant, cafe, house and street vendor…

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The Bolivian border
The border between Chile and Bolivia at Laguna Verde is an experience that we thoroughly enjoyed. Driving up out of San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, you will arrive at a small concrete building in the middle of nowhere. It’s made all the more fun by the road barrier to stop you sneaking into Bolivia, as there’s unguarded open altiplano for miles all around the border post. As long as you’re not suffering from the altitude too badly you’ll find this is one of the more unique ways you’ll ever change countries. A short drive from here is Laguna Verde. At 4,300m with a towering volcano, flamingos and llamas it’s the best welcome to Bolivia.

Our Little Oasis: Huacachina

After our flight over the Nazca lines we decided to head for a bit of sun and sand in nearby Huacachina. Laying back on the sand, maybe a quick dip in the water and all over 25 miles from the coast. The oasis of Huacachina is now well established on the backpacker route for those interested in sand boarding and dune buggy rides.

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The Ica desert, whilst not enormous benefits from gigantic sand dunes that have attracted tourists seeking the thrill of sand boarding. Having done some in San Pedro, Sam and I couldn’t wait to give it another go. Lauren was more excited about lying back in the sun with the local turtles.

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Whilst all the hostels and travel agents in town offer sand boarding expeditions, we quickly noticed that the equipment was a bit rubbish. Most of the “sand-boards” on offer were in fact home made and you were meant to lie down on them like a sledge.

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Sand-board Peru is one of the only places to offer proper boards (well maintained) and the focus of the trip is the sand boarding. Most other agencies put their emphasis on the sand buggy rides. The buggy rides are good fun, but be prepared to be thrown about in the custom made vehicles. It’s not uncommon to turn up for a tour and find the police doing spot safety checks on some of the buggies.

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After a quick re-introduction, we set off to the big dunes. The size of these monsters made the ones in San Pedro look like a children’s play park. We spent 3 hours moving between increasingly large dunes in the sand buggy as the sun set. Sam and I were soon reacquainted with getting faces full of sand, but at least we had a set of wheels to get us back to the top again.  We finally finished with a bit of starlight boarding back into town.

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Even if you aren’t interested in sand based activities then Huacachina is still a nice place to stop for a couple of nights. All around the edge of the oasis there are plenty of bars and restaurants. The accommodation options aren’t great, but most places are fine for the short amount of time you’ll be there.

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It’s also a good place to go and visit a couple of Peruvian vineyards. Whilst no where near the scale of Concha y Toro in Chile these vineyards have plenty of history and are also all producers of pisco.

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After our wine tasting we headed for a pisco tasting, with everything from pisco cream to double strength pisco. In our group we had several Peruvians, two Aussies, three Brits and a Korean and as a result we all exchanged our words for “cheers” in various languages. However when we tried to teach the group the meaning of “bottoms up”, were pretty sure our Spanish translated as “arses in the air”…whoops. Ten glasses of pisco later we left (on unsteady legs) with several samples in hand.

 

Condors and Cliffs: Colca Canyon

After our days at Lake Titicaca we headed to the Colca Canyon, one of Peru’s most visited attractions. With a depth of over 3500m, Colca Canyon is over twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the United States. Yet another high altitude and sheer cliff experience for Lauren!

The bus from Puno direct to Chivay at the end of the canyon is another great scenic drive where there’s a chance to see flamingos, alpacas, volcanoes and high altitude vistas. We must have finally reached our limit, whilst all the other tourists were snapping away on their cameras Lauren and I watched a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad. Lauren commented that snapping photos of llamas must be as funny to the locals as tourists taking pictures of sheep in Britain is to us.

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At the highest point on the journey there’s a chance to get out at an old Inca way station. The Incas used to leave small stone cairns to the gods here to ask for a safe journey. There are hundreds of them spread all over the top of the pass with towering volcanoes (worshiped as gods) in the background.

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Sadly they were all knocked over when the road was built and all the ones in the photo have been subsequently built by passing gringos. Go us!

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Colca Canyon has two main attractions, hiking and condors. This is one of the few places where you’re all but guaranteed views of Andean condors – you might see one or you might see a hundred. Whilst the hiking opportunities are meant to be great we weren’t all that interested so decided on just the condor trip.

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We imagined we were pretty lucky as within 10 minutes of us turning up there were over twenty condors flying directly over our heads on the thermals.

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The adults are black and white whilst the juveniles are a brown colour.

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With a wingspan of around 10 feet (Almost Iain and a half) it is one of the largest birds in the world. The Incas believed them to be sacred as they were capable of flying above the tallest mountains, which they considered to be gods, so the birds feature heavily in native arts and crafts. A final fact is that they are reported to live for over 70 years.

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There was also a hummingbird darting around. I was desperate to try and get a photo with one of the worlds smallest birds and biggest birds in, but alas wildlife just won’t pose properly.

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The Colca valley was one of the most important fertile valleys for the Inca empire, but habitation in the valley predates the Incas by thousands of years. Every patch of soil in the valley has been terraced and given over to farming for hundreds if not thousands of years. The word “colca” refers to a type of cylindrical building built into the cliff sides to keep grains and potatoes cold. There used to be hundreds all over the canyon, so Colca Canyon is literally the canyon of colcas.

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The town of Chivay is particularly small and most people just use it as a stop off before heading on a canyon tour. If you’re stopping by, make sure you head to the thermal baths. Ask the locals or a taxi driver, as you want to go to their one, not the tourist baths. Even at the local baths there are dedicated tourist pools. We managed to spend a good six hours lazing around, they’ll even serve you alcohol in the pools so you don’t have to get up for your pisco!

If you do a condor tour then you’ll probably get taken to one of the tourist baths for a quick thirty minute dip. It isn’t really long enough to enjoy such a nice experience, so we just went and sat by the river in the sun instead.

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Rain in the Rainforest: Rurrenabaque

From La Paz it’s actually a simple process to get yourself down to the Bolivian Amazon. There are two options, bus or flight. The bus takes the better half of a day, has a safety record that you’d never mention to your mother and is meant to be one of the worst experiences on the continent. The plane takes 30 minutes and has great views. That’s right…we went for the plane.

Sam and Lauren were initially a bit worried as we’d heard we’d be crammed into a 12 seater twin prop aircraft. In fact we were crammed into a 50 seater jet and shot off towards the rainforest. An interesting fact, going from 4000m above sea level to 0 causes your Pringles tube to implode and crush all of your crisps.

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Rurrenabaque airport has recently upgraded to a tarmac runway, the “terminal” is still the same though. I guarantee you’ll be using gate 1 in terminal 1, there isn’t a duty free, there are refreshments but you have to milk the cow yourself.

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We’d booked onto a 4 night 5 day combined rainforest and pampas tour and would be departing the next day. After a quick orientation at the office we headed to the hostel for an early night.

 We awoke that morning to the type of rain you’d expect in a rainforest. The empty swimming pool at the hostel was now half full, as was reception. We took it in our stride and headed to the boats.

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As we headed up river I couldn’t help thinking of Indiana Jones and wondering whether there was a seaplane or rolling boulder around.

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The rain abated and the sun came out just as we got to our halfway point. A sugar cane farm. We were handed a machete and shown the best way of chopping down the canes. Next we headed to the press and used a bit of muscle to get the sugar. After adding local citrus to the drink this stuff is far more potent at waking you up than coffee. We also got our first introduction to the biting insects of the rainforest that seem to think our insect repellent was an interesting sauce.

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A bit of river wading was of course necessary to get back to the boat.

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The jungle lodge really is set in the heart of the jungle, after getting off the boat we waded a couple more rivers and then trekked up to the lodges hidden in the trees.

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Our guide Ron was excellently versed on the local flora and fauna and took us off into the rain to explain all the bees and trees to us.

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There were of course local plants that will do pretty much anything, from pregnancy tests to painkillers. We did catch on pretty quick though that the majority of the plants, spiders, ants and bugs are just there to kill you.

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Ron did warn us to watch where we put our hands, with trees like this you can see why.

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Humidity also started to be a problem for the cameras…

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After multiple more river crossings and a few more machete sessions we were all feeling like true jungle explorers and were happy to head back to the lodge for some more of the excellent food.

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There’s only one solar panel at the lodge and it hadn’t exactly been sunny, so there was enough light for dinner and then bed.

The second day was unsurprisingly wet, so wet in fact that there was no point heading into the jungle to look for animals. Instead we lit a fire, made rings and necklaces out of local nuts and played around with the bows and arrows.

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That evening we went for a trek in the jungle. When we stopped and turned off our torches the darkness was absolute, you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face. It did give us the chance to hear the sounds of the forest though. We didn’t see much wildlife except an Ocelot and some type of jungle rat, probably the Ocelots dinner, but the walk was still worth staying up late for.

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The next morning we jumped on the boat to head back to Rurrenabaque and the next part of our adventure, the pampas.

 

Surviving Death Road: La Paz

The worlds highest capital city lies at 3650m above sea level. As a major transport hub, with an international airport, La Paz is full of gringos suffering from altitude sickness. By the time our group finally reached the Bolivian capital we’d all been at altitude for over a month and were happily running up and down the steep streets. Ok so we weren’t running but we were at least able to make it around without collapsing. The local old women were still easily outpacing us…

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We arrived on an overnight bus from Sucre early in the morning and compared to Sucre’s white buildings and colonial charm La Paz is, well, pretty rough. But if you are coming from Sucre then make sure you’re awake for the arrival into La Paz as it’s spectacular. The city is located in a bowl like depression with 6000m mountains in the background. As the bus came in sight of the city the rising sun illuminated these snow capped peaks giving amazing views. If you arrive by plane there’s a good chance you’ll be looking up at the mountains on the way in to land.

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The front of main bus terminal is lovely, take a good look as the rest of the city is a bit ugly. Accommodation options in La Paz, consisted of a number of “Party Hostels” as no one was that keen we opted for a cheap hotel.

We decided to go on the “Red Cap” walking tour. We’d thoroughly recommend this excursion to anyone visiting the city as you get a thorough breakdown of the sites as well as the history of the city. It’s free with tips given at the end.

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The tour starts outside La Paz prison. This is a fascinating structure though i’m not sure it would work in European nations. The prisoners run the prison, completely, all the guards are stationed outside the walls. If a prisoner has a lot of money then they get a very comfortable stay with jacuzzi, flat screen TV’s and an apartment. If they don’t have money then they get to share a mattress with 8 other people.

Inside, there are shops, barbers and a small cocaine factory, they even steal the WiFi from the hotel over the road. Tours used to be arranged so people could see inside and even stay the night. This is no longer the case, if you go in, you don’t come back out.

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The tour continues through the local markets, witches market, (chance to buy a llama foetus) modern market (probably the worlds ugliest) and finishes up at the top of a hotel. Here there’s a chance to abseil down the side dressed up as any superhero you can imagine, or as a slice of bacon.

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Another popular activity is the Cholita wrestling on Sundays (which we sadly missed) Cholitas are the local women who still dress in the “traditional” skirts and bowler hats. The wrestling is actually a way for them to show off as the stronger women are considered more attractive.

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Anyone heading to La Paz is probably at least considering “The Worlds Most Dangerous Road.” The Death road or Yungas road to give it its real name (you might have seen it on Top Gear) is now mostly closed to traffic after the construction of a new highway. For the last 10 years mountain biking expeditions have hurtled down this road every day for the amusement of thrill seekers.

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We chose to go with Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. This company is the most expensive but is the oldest, has the best bikes and an excellent safety record.

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Whilst it’s called the Death Road and over 20 tourists have died on it, one a couple of days before us, it is certainly not a dangerous excursion. Around 300 cyclists go down the road every day and in 10 years only 20 tourists have died. If you’re an experienced cyclist then you’re going to find it a great day with amazing views. If you’re not an experienced cyclist you’ll probably find it a bit more intimidating but still perfectly safe and lots of fun. Two of our group haven’t touched bikes since they were children and they both survived until the bottom.

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Gravity break the day into about 30 sections, the first half (distance) is on wide paved highways which you can charge down and get used to the bikes. After this you head to the off road section which takes around 3 hours to traverse.

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Our instructors explained the layout of the next section of track during each break, so we always knew to look out for any particularly tight corners or rocky sections.

They didn’t warn us when we were going to be heading through a waterfall or river, but this was more for their own amusement watching us get soaked.

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As you’d expect with vertigo, Lauren stayed away from the edges and enjoyed the view, whilst I concentrated on getting my adrenaline fix.

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The very last section is actually  where the most accidents happen. As you head into town it’s not very steep and there are no vertical drops. However chickens come charging out of houses to attack your wheels. If you hit it you buy it.

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At the end of the tour, Gravity take you to a monkey sanctuary for some food and a chance to get clambered on by monkeys. There are around 5 species of monkey present as well as macaws and parrots. What you might find quite odd is that the whole complex is under a cage with the animals peering in at you.

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As long as you follow the instructors advice then Death Road is a great day out with amazing views and a free beer and T-shirt at the end. Go on give it a go!

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The Mountain That Eats Men: Potosi and El Cerro Rico

After our 4×4 convoy escaped Uyuni we finally made it, albeit a few days late, to the city of Potosi. It is capital of the Potosi province and also one of the highest cities in the world at 4090m (14,318 feet). As our only experience of Bolivian civilisation so far had been Uyuni, Potosi came as a bit of a shock. The city was once considered the richest in the world due to the huge silver deposits in the Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain). The silver meant that the colonial families were hugely wealthy and were able to build luxurious houses, churches and monasteries that still exist today.

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Whilst we’d travelled up to 5000m crossing from Chile, we wouldn’t say we were acclimatised. By normal standards the streets in Potosi wouldn’t be called steep, but in our oxygen starved states the 2 block walk from the plaza to the hostel was exhausting, then we found out our rooms were on the second floor…

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The city of Potosi has been shaped by it’s relationship with El Cerro Rico. When the Spanish discovered the quantity of silver in the mountain, around thousands of metric tons were mined, funding much of the Spanish empire. This meant the city became one of the most important in South America. To this day, although most of the silver is gone, a large chunk of the male population head into the mountain to mine for the remaining minerals, mostly Zinc and Tin.

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With the silver flowing out of the mine, the Spanish crown established a royal mint in the city that still exists today. The 2 hour tour of the mint is well worth a visit and teaches you not only history of Potosi but also explains a lot about the history of money in the western world.

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Tours of the mines can be easily arranged all over town, although Koala Tours is considered one of the best. Whilst we originally had little interest in visiting the mines, as it seemed a bit voyeuristic considering the dangerous nature of the work and the fact that millions of lives had been claimed by the mountain, we were lucky to have come at the right time of year.

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A few times a year the miners make a sacrifice to the god under the mountain, Tio. This meant that during our visit their were no men working in the mines. for us to gawp at. Tio was originally an invention of the Spanish but the locals couldn’t pronounce Dio (God in Spanish) and so Tio was born to keep the miners in check. The llama sacrifice is a very important occasion for the miners who have a very real belief that if Tio receives the llama blood then he won’t ask for theirs. He is both their protector and the enemy under the mountain.

Before heading to the mines it is customary to visit the miners market. This is both a place that the miners can pick up tools and food and also where tourists can collect gifts for the miners. As we were going for a party and no one would be working we were told not to buy one of the most common gifts, dynamite. Instead we loaded up with beer, coca leaves and the miners favoured 96% alcohol and headed up to the mine, another 500 meters above on the slopes of the Cerro Rico.

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Of course as you’re going into the mine, you’re expected to dress up in the appropriate safety gear…

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The first stop on the tour is one of the refineries, the machinery is very simplistic but clearly does the job as our guide was happy to smear some newly refined silver on our hands.

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We were next given a lesson and explanation of the coca leaves. Coca leaves are the source of cocaine, however most of the leaves contain less than 0.25% of the alkaloid and therefore have none of the effects of the drug. Coca leaves are deeply ingrained into Bolivian society for both social and practical reasons. The leaves are one of the easiest ways of treating altitude sickness, either through tea or by chewing a large wad in your mouth as the miners do.

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The miners also use the leaves for another reason, they believe it increases their strength and endurance. Whether this is true or not, during their 14-18 hour shifts they will only chew coca and won’t consume any food that day until they leave the mine. Tough work on empty stomachs.

The llama sacrifice saw 16 llamas lined up outside the mine to be sacrificed to Tio…

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This little boy was saying goodbye to his llama by giving it a pat on the head.

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The blood of the llamas is splashed across the entrance of the mine as an offering and the heads and feet are buried in a special pit outside of the mine.

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The rest of the llama is efficiently and rapidly butchered and barbequed ready for the party.

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As we headed into the mine past the now fairly intoxicated miners they let us join in the ceremony by smearing llama blood on our faces. I found it was best to smile and stick your cheeks out as trying to avoid the blood led to them being far more liberal with it.

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All the mines are owned by collectives of between 3 and 40 miners, the smaller collectives hammering the dynamite holes by hand and the larger using pneumatic drills. The miners are assigned areas by the government but since no maps of the honeycombed mountain exist accidents are common.

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We of course had to pay our respects to Tio on the way out. Each mine has its own Tio statute that the miners leave offerings at.

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As we left the mine the party was in full swing and the smell of cooking llama wafted in the mountain air. The now heavily drunk miners were keen to grab unsuspecting Gringos for a dance.

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If you’re interested in learning more about the Potosi mines, hunt down a copy of “The Devil’s Miner.” This documentary is about the children who live and work in the mines and shows you the conditions and society that the miners live in.

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Walking the Moon: San Pedro de Atacama

Our night bus from La Serena saw us rolling into San Pedro de Atacama at about 9 in the morning. As we awoke and peered through the curtains for our first glimpse of the desert, we were all a bit bemused. The Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on the planet was covered in snow. This rare event occurred two days before and due to the low temperatures there was plenty around to play with. Sam had survived his first overnight bus despite a brief spike of fear when he found out he was sitting in front of a 10 month old baby.

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San Pedro de Atacama sits at around 2,400 metres on the Bolivian and Argentine borders. This tiny little town sits on an oasis and is one of the biggest traveller hubs in Chile. The town has a dizzying number of natural wonders within easy reach and it’s proximity to Bolivia makes it a popular stop for backpackers heading out on to the Bolivian Altiplano.

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From the moment you get off the bus, you get the impression of the old American wild west. The setting of the tiny town is on an oasis, with small single story buildings and one long main street. There are plenty of horses wandering around and numerous rustic drinking establishments. The only thing missing was a gun duel…yet the whole effect was somewhat ruined by the snow…

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The whole town is set up for tourism. Tours operators, hostels, hotels, restaurants and tourist shops are found all down the main street. Most importantly there are plenty of places to buy those supplies for your trip in to Bolivia. San Pedro might be rustic by Chilean standards but compared to the three day salt flat tour it’s luxury.

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Tours and excursions can be arranged all over town and we quickly set up our expedition to El Valle de la Luna. Moon valley is well named as the landscape is surreal. The whole valley is a national park and there are wardens to make sure you don’t walk (or sandboard) on the giant sand dunes. All that perfect sand is incredibly tempting but the lack of human marks really does make it a stunning view.

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We spent 3 hours travelling around the valley running down our camera batteries before heading up to the cliffs that overlook it for sunset. As the sun sets the shadows and colours change all across the valley. After the sun has set you get the incredible colours all along the mountains that form the Chilean – Bolivian border.

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Whilst it was warm in the sun, the moment it set the temperature dropped sharply. We bundled back in our bus and headed back to the hostel. Like most of Chile, the hostel of course had no central heating. Our fears were calmed when a wheelbarrow full of wood was rolled out, lit and everyone cosied up around it. Plentiful Piscolas (pisco and cola) definitely helped as well.

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The next day we’d booked on for a stargazing expedition. Even just standing in the lit streets of San Pedro the nights sky is stunning with the full sweep of our galaxy clear to the eye. We’d managed to be in San Pedro when there was no moon (intentional of course) so the spectacular sky was even more visible. We’d be viewing the stars from a spot just outside of town. Upon arriving we were served some of the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had by the worlds most enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. Over the next two hours we looked through the two powerful telescopes at nebula, white dwarves, star clusters, the rings of Saturn and even other galaxies.

Tune in to see how we got on on the Bolivian Salt Flats…

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Our Top Sights: Argentina

1. Iguazu Falls

Iguazu Falls
Iguazu Falls

Sitting on the border of Brazil these waterfalls are one of the most impressive in the world. WIth abundant wildlife, pelicans, hummingbirds and the ever present Coatis there’s more than just the falls to photograph. If you’re travelling between Argentina and Brazil then this is a great place to cross the border, but if you’re not it’s still more than worth the detour. Looking for somewhere to stay, the Poramba Hostel offers a relaxed atmosphere towards the edge of town.

2. Perito Moreno Glacier

Perito Moreno
Perito Moreno

This 7km wide glacier is still advancing and so you’re all but guaranteed to see chunks of ice breaking off into the lake. The blue of the ice means that even on a grey day it’s an incredible sight to see. Boat trips up to the face of the glacier, or all day hikes across the ice, are easy to arrange and well worth the money. Trips to the glacier can be organised from nearby El Calafate, which is a great town to relax in for a couple of days. We recommend Hospedaje Lautaro, as Belen and Dario are probably the friendliest hostel owners on the continent.

3. El Chalten

El Chalten
El Chalten

The trekking capital of South America is a bold claim but El Chalten’s accessible hikes and stunning views live up to it. The Fitz Roy and Torre mountains tower over the town and short hikes offer crystal clear lagoons, glaciers and abundant wildlife. The small town lacks an ATM or petrol station but don’t let this put you off, there are plenty of good hostels and restaurants. If you fancy camping in the forests then gear rental is easy in town.

4. Cafayate

Cafayate
Cafayate

Fancy sampling some of Argentina’s world famous wine, then Mendoza isn’t the only option. The small town of Cafayate located in the Andean foothills is a small relaxed place where you could easily spend a week visiting the different vineyards. Many can be walked or cycled to and the ones further out often have sampling houses located in the town. We recommend Domingo Molina, up in the hills with unparallel views, or Bodega Nanni, an organic vineyard that is located just off the main square. The Rusky K Hostal is just a couple of streets from the main square and their grape draped courtyard is great for drinking all that wine you will inevitably end up buying.

5. Buenos Aires

La Boca
La Boca

The Argentine capital is worth visiting for more than a couple of days, with museums, great food and varied neighbourhoods, you won’t run out of things to do in a hurry. We recommend the Sunday antiques market in San Telmo and an afternoon walk around La Boca. Whether you’re staying in atmospheric San Telmo, stylish Palermo or colourful La Boca each Barrio has a unique feel and it’s worth moving around and trying a few out. For a better idea of the areas why not check out this post.

6. Tierra del Fuego

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“The End of the World” is a great place to visit no matter the time of year. Whilst the summer will offer whales and dolphins, there is still plenty to see if you go in the winter and the autumn colours are breathtaking. Catching a boat to one of the islands in the Beagle channel offers amazing views of Ushuaia and the snow capped mountains behind. Easy hikes can also be found in the Tierra del Fuego national park, a 30 minute drive from town. La Posta Hostel just outside of town offers the warmest rooms you could hope for on Antarctica’s doorstep.

 

7. Salta

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Nestled in the North West corner of Argentina, Salta is a great getaway from busy Buenos Aires. The old section of town is dominated by wonderful colonial architecture and the Plaza de Armas is lovely in the ever present sun. The cable car up the nearby Cerro San Bernardo or the MAAM museum are must see attractions. If you want to get out of the city, horse riding trips or El Tren a Las Nubes (Train to the clouds) are easily arranged at most hostels.

Crab Claws and Yellow Cathedrals: Chiloe Island

After a few days on the Chilean mainland we decided to head out to try some island life. Chiloe island, the second largest in South America after Tierra del Fuego is just a short hop from Puerto Montt. A 20 minute boat ride across the Chacao straight will take you to an area of Chile still new to the tourist track. The island is noticeably different to the southern Chilean mainland. Maintaining strong links with its native heritage along with a heavy dose of 17th century Jesuit missionary influence, Chiloe has charm, culture and colour in abundance.

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For a few days we’d be staying in Castro the capital of the island, located half way down the east coast. The weather predictions were as we’d come to expect from southern Chile, bleak with almost constant rain expected. As we pulled into Castro in the dark and rain the only thing we could make out through the haze was a brightly lit building. It was only as we got off the bus we realised that this pink and yellow structure was in fact the towns Cathedral and in addition to it’s psychedelic colour scheme was also built entirely out of wood.

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Chiloe is famous for it’s colourful wooden churches, there are more than 150 spread across the island, each one unique. The Jesuit missionaries and later the Franciscans are to thank for these remarkable structures, but probably not the colours.

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The hostel we were staying in was in the traditional style for the island, a “palafito” a house on stilts, which at high tide leaves you sleeping above the water. As with most of Chiloe’s architecture the palafitos are brightly painted and made of wood. If you’re heading to the island we’d definitely recommend trying to stay in one of these traditional houses. As we arrived with the rain hammering down outside and a lovely log fire going all we wanted to do was sit back and enjoy the Chilean national drink, the Pisco Sour!

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Southern Chile has yet to see the advantages of central heating, this is especially odd considering it has a cold climate most of the year. Wood burning stoves are fairly standard in homes, shops and restaurants. Whilst they make you feel warm and cosy, they also mean that after a few days you’ll smell rather strongly of wood smoke. So does everyone else though so you don’t really notice.

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The next day started…surprisingly…rainless. As this was a rarity this time of year we were up and out, ready to explore within twenty minutes. Apart from it’s colourful architecture Chiloe is also famous for it’s cuisine. A little unsurprisingly for an island that cuisine is seafood and the fish market is where all the restaurants and locals come to get their supplies. A colourful building surrounded by colourful fishing boats you’ll find yourself amazed by the size and range of fresh catch for sale.

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Whilst there is plenty of fish on offer what impressed us the most were the more unusual items for sale. Whilst I know seaweed is edible I rarely eat it outside of a chinese. Seaweed is however clearly put to good use on Chiloe. Loose seaweed, seaweed cakes, cooked, dried, smoked and even thick kelp like tentacles that were wrapped around themselves ready to go. If we’d had a clue what to do with it we’d definitely have bought some!

Directly next to the fish market is the central market selling a great selection of local hand crafts. If you’re only just starting to head south, this is a great place to pick up some warm jumpers and socks. Or you could always pick up a poncho if you’re feeling adventurous…but since we’ve yet to see anyone wearing one, we gave it a miss.

 

If you fancy sampling some of the local seafood the restaurant we’d recommend is El Mercadito, near the fish market. Specialising in seafood, the restaurants sharing starter is a great way to get a feel for Chilean seafood and followed by one of the huge mains it’s a hearty meal. For those who aren’t fish lovers, there are of course steaks on offer as well. The Frozen Pisco Sour at this restaurant is a must have, probably the best we’ve had in Chile. Book or arrive early as it’s nearly always full by 9:00.

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