Tag Archives: Travelling in a City

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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How Much Should You Save and Budget for South America?

Expanding on my first blog on How to Budget for Backpacking and Long-term Travel, I thought it would be good to provide some more detail on how much we budgeted for our trip in South America….

Loosely we used the £1000/$1600 a month rule as a basis

With an outward flight booked just before the start of March, we at least wanted to last until Christmas, 10 months later. So using the rule above,  £10,000* each sounded like a good total to save.

*It took 2 years of scrimping but we got there!

In more detail…

Once we browsed a bookstore we used the following prices as daily spends (all in US dollars, correct as of Sept 2013). We used these as a further basis for our budget…we took the comfortable (upper) daily budgets then we planned for a month in each country …

 

  Total for 30 days
Argentina $50 (Basic) $80 (comfortable) $2,400
Bolivia $15 $28 $840
Brazil $55 $85 $2,550
Chile $40 $60 $1,800
Colombia $50 $90 $2,700
Ecuador $25 $40 $1,200
The Guianas $65 $90 n/a*
Paraguay $30 $50 $1,500
Peru $25 $35 $1,050
Uruguay $30 $50 $1,500
Venezuela $60 $70 $2,100
Grand Total $16,140/£9,595

 

*Not on our itinerary.

So here the £1,000 a month rule works out pretty well…

However given that we hope to stay for longer and also get to Central America we will be trying to stick to the basic budget when actually travelling. For the last two months this basic budget has been going pretty well….Brazil during Carnival was a real test…but we are just about sticking to it.

Not saved as much as you’ve hoped/or want to stay longer?

Seems simple but spend less time in the more expensive countries and like us stay longer in Peru and Bolivia! In the end we settled for 2 weeks in Brazil as opposed to 1 month – this saved us an awful lot of money but meant we had to be super organised and keep our plans concise.

Hope this table is helpful to start planning your trip!

5 Tips: How to Budget for Backpacking and Long-term Travel

It’s a fairly common question that most backpackers will ask or at least google when they begin planning a trip but you’d be surprised how difficult it is to know how much to save. Here are our top tips for budgeting…

1. Always over estimate

Sounds obvious but it is way better to have too much money for your stay than too little. If you have a little extra it means you can splash out once in a while or do an expensive activity you’ve always wanted to do. For us it was a scuba diving course in Koh Tao.

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2. Use the £1000 a month rule

When we were travelling through multiple countries in 6 months we used the rule above. Whilst during a month in Australia we spent a quite a bit more than £1000, what we saved during our two months in South East Asia, meant it averaged out. So if you are travelling through multiple countries that vary in how expensive they are, this can sometimes be a fairly straightforward way to get started.

3. Spend an afternoon in a bookstore or library. The Internet can be a minefield of opinions on budgets.

It would be very expensive (and not to mention it would weigh a lot!) to buy a travel guide for every destination on the average backpackers itinerary. However we found it very useful, when initially planning a trip, to browse the travel guides and maybe take a few handy snaps or notes on your iPhone…ssshhh we know it’s frowned upon. Travel guides generally have a section near the front or the front of each country section that will give you an average daily spend. Often this daily spend is in the form of a basic, comfortable and luxury budget. Find out the “comfortable’ or midrange daily spend and times it by the number of days you hope to spend there, and if you keep yourself frugal you should be covered for most of the stuff you want to do!

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This isn’t a bookstore, it’s just a random book shelf in a hostel…in case you had forgotten what a book looks like…

4. Have a separate budget for extras

On this trip the Inca Trail and scuba diving are the must do activities. When we started planning we kept these separate in the budget to insure we would be able to them. I.e. we had an extra £500 for the Inca Trail set aside. In writing this I’ve realised we should probably also have some money separated for a flight home…we don’t…so it’s probably also a good idea to budget for this if you don’t have all your flights booked from the beginning! Either that or get yourself deported…but that’s really not recommended!

5. Keep an eye on the news

If a country isn’t doing too well financially, any prices listed in guide books in the local currency may become useless. Thankfully the daily budgets mentioned above are usually listed in US dollars so they are fairly safe to plan from. However with Argentina we found all the prices listed for activities were completely wrong due to inflation. On the flip-side keeping an eye on the news meant we quickly became aware of the blue dollar that has saved us a lot of money.

Oh and one more…

Don’t forget to budget for insurance, flights, immunisations, anti-malarials, and your kit and rucksack etc. Again keep this separate if you can, as all this can add up quickly! As for the travel kit – speak to friends and ex-backpackers as they may well have gear you can borrow.

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City Travel: Bus or Metro?

In London its fair to say I was one of those Londoners who knew where they were going and used the tube (or metro) as a way to get there quicker. Failing that I’d always walk, preferring a stroll to a bus journey that would inevitably crawl along on London’s roads. However when I’m travelling it’s a different story.

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In a new city I will nearly always advocate mastering the bus system. Of course this depends on whether the city has a competent bus system worth mastering but bus travel in a foreign city is part of the experience. Yes explore the metro too, but like the London tube I find most metro systems lack the charm of a bus and here’s why…

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You get to see the city – with time to spare it is always worth making a few journeys on the bus even if the traffic is bad. You get to see more of the city than you would buried deep underground and I find it allows you to build a mental map of the city to use later when strolling around.

You meet people – even in Rio where we could barely communicate with anyone bar nods, smiles and shoulder shrugs, we still found people on the bus were eager to help and talk to us, even if the conversation was one way! Any experience of an underground system will tell you that you’ll be lucky to make eye contact with another human being let alone get a word out of one.

They usually get you to the doorstep – you can ask the driver to shout when you reach your destination and unlike the metro they usually drop you within metres of where you are trying to get to. If you’re lucky they sometimes even become taxis, as we found at 3am in the morning when we were the only passengers on the bus and the driver insisted on dropping us to our door.

They are cheap – enough said really…

They run all night – most metro systems stop at night but you will nearly always be able to find a bus home in the early hours of the morning.

The expanse of the network – certainly on this continent the bus networks far outstrip the reach of metro systems.

Do our readers agree? Or have any other tips and stories about transport?

A Courgette and a Chandelier – San Telmo Market

Anyone heading to Buenos Aires is probably going to spend some time in San Telmo. Whether you’re coming for the antiques market on a Sunday, or just browsing the shops and cafes it’s a great place to hang out. When you’re there, make sure you don’t miss the permanent covered market in the middle of the Bario. Taking up nearly an entire block, with entrances on 3 streets around Calle Carlos Calvo and Bolivar, this massive market is capable of meeting all your foodie needs.

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Anyone spending time in Argentina will quickly notice that whilst the food is great, delicious and sizeable, you’re fruit and veg intake is falling far short of normal. Forget five a day, you’ll be struggling to get five a week. On top of this, the fruit and veg you’ll manage to scrape up at supermarkets, are overpriced and under-quality. A short holiday won’t be a problem, but anyone spending more than a couple of weeks out here will start to feel the loss. El Mercado de San Telmo to the rescue!

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Obviously this isn’t the only place to buy fruit and veg in the country, but out of everywhere in the previous month it had the freshest produce and the greatest selection (i didn’t even know there were five kinds of courgette). With five or six competing stalls keeping the price down, you can really save some money on some great produce. There wasn’t anything we wanted that we couldn’t get hold of and in most cases in multiple varieties. Whether you’re after cheese, meat, bread, pastries, herbs, grains or spices there’s somewhere to buy it at the market. There’s no need to rush and being a covered market the weather doesn’t matter, and there’s a great place to grab a coffee and an empanada right in the centre. Even if you’re not coming to San Telmo to scratch your vitamin itch, the market is still well worth a visit. Whilst the central area is mostly dominated by food the rest is in keeping with San Telmos staple product, antiques.

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I’m not going to pretend i know anything about antiques and i’m sure theres a good amount of junk/fakes here, but whether you’re looking for a bag of old snooker balls or massive ornate chandeliers the collection is extensive. Handbags, vinyls, old medical equipment or some really scary dolls, we found it very easy to just walk around and look at all the bits we couldn’t buy. That’s the problem with backpacking, if you buy something, something else is getting left behind…

 

How safe is Rio?

It may just be an impression us Brits have obtained of Rio de Janeiro but we were led to believe that our visit would undoubtedly be tainted by crime. It seemed impossible to us that, during our 9 days there, we would escape unhindered by pickpockets or some sort of corruption.

Truth be told we experienced nothing to substantiate Rio’s terrible reputation for crime. Any new city is intimidating when you first arrive…you have no idea what is social acceptable, where’s safe at night or even how to cross the road – in Rio most people just seemed to make a dash for it in a gap in traffic! I would never advise any backpacker to loose their initial sense of caution when arriving in a new city…its saved us from a few scams before now…but certainly Rio its not as intimidating as people might fear. I honestly think if you use the same caution and common sense you would in any major city across the world you’d be very unlucky to experience crime in Rio.

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Keep your belongings in sight, do as others do, wear your backpack on your front on busy transport, don’t flash your cash, or walk around with your Digital SLR swinging from your neck. When you get to a place of interest get your camera out and put it away after. At all the major tourist spots in Rio there will be plenty of others with the latest technologies on show to make it unlikely that you’ll be the victim of a crime.

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So how safe is Rio at night? About as safe as any other major city…everywhere has crime and areas that are best avoided. If you are off on a night out, leave your valuables at home and carry as little as possible. Ladies avoid handbags and invest in a “Cash Stash” which allows you to keep a few rolled up notes secure somewhere – I find attaching it to my bra strap works quite well.

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We travelled after dark quite a few times and escaped unscathed using the above advice. Ok…so there was one time when we felt a bit intimidated late at night. Having been to the Sambadrome, backpacks and DSLRs in tow, we travelled back at 4am on public transport. As the roads close around the Sambadrome when the Carnival is in full swing, the Metro was the quickest way to make an exit. Once off the Metro we decided a bus/taxi would be safer than the 15min walk to our apartment. No taxis in sight…surprise surprise…we stood at the bus stop and waited patiently.

After a few minutes a group of young guys turned up, obviously on their way home from a night out. Anyone who has stood waiting for a night bus in London in the early hours of the morning will have experienced similar and I think our feeling intimidated was purely down to the language barrier. True to form the boys were larking about, chattering away and standing just a little bit too close…one guy was so close, I was sure he was either trying to pickpocket Iain or fall asleep on his shoulder. Turns out said guy had just had a few too many like his friends and was absentmindedly waiting for the bus like any other. When the next bus arrived (not ours inevitably) he asked us (twice so we understood) very politely in his best Portuguese if this was our bus or if he could go ahead and get on in front of us…

Moral of the story…don’t believe the worst, don’t judge a book by its cover, use common sense and always form an orderly queue for the bus…