Isla del Sol

30 03 2010

I once again managed to wake up in time for my boat trip despite having no working alarm clock and, after leaving my big backpack behind at the hostel, I headed down to the harbour. There I met Paul and Becky once more and also ran into Anthony – an Alaskan that I’d last seen way back in Potosí. I joined the queue with them but then discovered that my ferry was a different one.

On the ferry ride there two Aussies were sitting next to me chatting. The guy started talking about Big White where he’d spent the Winter. I know it’s an Aussie-owned resort and there are always Aussies there but it was still bizarre to be sitting in South America hearing someone talk about my favourite Canadian ski resort.

Once at the North end of the Isla del Sol I wasn’t really sure where to go so I just followed one of the groups that had joined a Spanish guide. We headed to the nearby museum (not really that interesting) and then followed him up the hill towards the ruins. He stopped off a lot along the way to explain things about the Inca culture – I could maybe understand one word in ten. Once the way became obvious I split off from the group and walked with Anthony.

Inca ruins on Isla del Sol

It was raining quite a lot in the beginning but as the day went on it finally stopped and the sun came out. Although it wasn’t really that steep the altitude made the hike quite demanding and I was often out of breath during the ascent along the Inca pathway but the downhill parts seemed really easy. We stopped off in a café just near to the end of the pathway and had some lunch.

Views from trail on Isla del Sol

Originally I was going to stay on the Isla del Sol for the evening but since we’d already completed the hike and there wasn’t really much to the island except for a string of restaurants and hostels I decided to head back to the mainland. We stopped off en route at the floating islands but I didn’t even bother to get off the ferry. It just looked too touristy.

When we got back to the mainland I bumped into Ellen, Bart and Anne on the way. They were heading off to view the sunset from the nearby hilltop but we arranged to meet later for dinner. I headed back to the place where I’d booked my onward ticket to Arequipa and changed it to a bus first thing in the morning instead. I went back to the Emperador and arranged a new room. This time I decided to get a room with its own bathroom. This cost me about 60p more and the shower was actually hot – much to my relief.

I was still a bit early for my dinner appointment so I headed off to Nemos for a few drinks first. I chatted to an American girl that for some reason (I assume it was a bloke!) had been in Copacabana for two and half months – I couldn’t imagine staying there much longer. Whilst there Anthony came in but he decided not to come with us for dinner and instead had a pizza there. I also met Jess – one of the Aussies that had been talking about Big White on the ferry that morning and invited her to join us for dinner.

We went next door to Mankha Uta to join the Belgians but the service was absolutely dire. They kept using the large table of 15 people as an excuse but most of the waiters were standing around doing nothing and the cocktails that we ordered back in the mists of happy hour took till the end of our meal to arrive. Most of us had the menu of the day since it was by far the cheapest option but the chicken that we ordered for our main was red in the middle. They didn’t seem to understand why we wanted to send it back and it was a great struggle to get a cooked chicken back. It was a shame because the sauce that was on it was really delicious.

After dinner we headed back to the hostel – it turned out that we were all in the same place. We were going to head up to the roof to drink a few bottles of wine but it was quite nippy up there so we found some chairs in the courtyard and drank our booze there. After a bit I went to bed but Jess and Bart stayed up – much to the chagrin of some of the other guests whose room we had been sitting next to.

Losing my laptop in Copacabana

29 03 2010

I managed to get my bus to Copacabana without any problems – somehow I’d managed to wake up on time. Once in Copacabana I wasn’t quite sure where to stay so I just picked one at random from the Lonely Planet – the Hostal Emperador. It wasn’t really that far from the bus stop but the altitude and my heavy backpack made it feel like quite a way.

There isn’t much in the way of dormitory accommodation in Copa so I got a room without bathroom for the reasonable price of 20Bs (£2). I took my laptop out with me (in the vain hope that there might be a WiFi access point somewhere) and headed off to lunch at Cafe Copacabana (as recommended by both the Lonely Planet and a personal recommendation from Tom and Angie) but I wasn’t that impressed by either the service or my tacos con carne. It looked more like cannelloni and the meat was grey and not that tasty.

After lunch I was a bit stuck for something to do so I looked in the Lonely Planet and decided to do the 17km trek that they suggested from the Northeast of town which would take me to a viewpoint across Lake Titicaca to Isla del Sol. Hopefully I’d make it there before sundown and find a way back somehow. Since it mentioned a village about 3km into the walk I didn’t bother taking any water with me. It was a really hot, sunny day at altitude so that probably wasn’t the wisest decision ever.

It was the first trek I’d ever done on my own and I can’t say that I really enjoyed it. I actually felt quite lonely that day – all the people that I’d met on my travels seemed to be in other places and it seemed that I was out-of-sync with everyone. I walked for many kilometres and still the promised village didn’t appear. Eventually I arrived at a small hill nearby some floating islands (I think Bolivia is trying to build some islands to compete with Peru’s Puno on the other side of the lake) and a promised Inca mirador (viewpoint). I decided to head off the trail a bit and try and make my way to the top of the hill. Along the way I stopped off at a rock to apply some sunscreen – this was when tragedy struck.

Since my sunscreen was at the bottom of my bag, I took out my laptop and laid it on the rock beside me and then put the suntan lotion on. After snapping a picture of the surrounding area I then packed my stuff into my bag and headed off up the hill. It was only as I started to descend back down the hill that I suddenly realised that my bag was a bit lighter than before and that my laptop was not in it.

The view from the rock where I left my laptop

I felt sick to the core and rushed headlong up and down the hill in a mad panic looking for the rock where I’d left my laptop. Since I’d barely seen another soul since starting my hike I was pretty sure that it would still be there. Unfortunately I had no idea where the rock was since I’d not really followed a trail. Even comparing the picture to the nearby surroundings I managed to find lots of rocks that might offer similar views. After 45-minutes frenetic searching I was almost at the point of giving up when I came down a hill to see my laptop perched casually on the rock where I’d left it. I was finally able to breath a huge sigh of relief.

After my panic and with a much-parched throat I decided that I wasn’t going to carry on with the hike so I headed back towards town. Along the way a taxi came past so I decided to jump in that and head back to town where I finally grabbed some water. I then headed back to the hostel and after trying two different showers I finally found one that produced tepid water. It seemed that the sign at the front of the hostel offering 24 hours hot water was open to liberal interpretation.

The hostel was really quiet, there wasn’t much in the way of social areas so I headed back onto the main street and arrived at Pueblo El Viejo (again found in the Lonely Planet). I bumped into Paul and Becky (who I’d last met in Rurrenabaque) and I sat with them for a bit. They’d already ordered their food (it took forever) so by the time I’d got mine they were finished and eager to head off to an Internet café. After dinner I headed down the main street searching for a bar with some activity but it was still quite early and Nemos the only bar of knew of in the area looked dead.

In the end I decided to head back for an early night ready for my boat trip to Isla del Sol the next day.

Last night in La Paz

28 03 2010

Once we finally got back to La Paz after the long bus ride, I got a taxi back to the Wild Rover with Tom and Angie and was pleased to be reunited with my backpack containing my passport, ATM card and laptop. It felt like coming back to civilization after my short stint in the Amazon. It’s a shame I hadn’t at least took my passport with me to Rurrenabaque – I could then at least have got the flight back down and saved some time.

I headed over to Alexander Café with the Aussies for some breakfast. It was quite a nice place although definitely not a local’s haunt. I had an omelette ranchero, a fruit shake and a very good double espresso. The service was pretty slow though and they gave us loads of abuse when we all tried to pay with 100 Boliviano notes – even though it turned out that they had loads of change upstairs.

I then wandered over to the main bus station with Tom and Angie – they had to get out of the country as soon as possible because their 30 day tourist visa had nearly expired. Although they wanted to go to Arequipa they decided just to go to Puno that night. I wanted to get a ticket to Copacabana for the next day – although since I was pretty much done with La Paz maybe I should have cancelled my reservation for that evening and headed straight out that afternoon.

Whilst at the bus station I saw Jessica and Linh on the Internet. They were heading straight off to Arequipa that evening. I told all of them that I hoped to see them in Cusco when I got there but I’m already further overdue than I expected.

After saying goodbye to them all, I wandered around town just on the off-chance that somewhere in La Paz there might be an open technical centre that could either fix my phone or sell me a new one. Unfortunately, this was an extremely remote possibility on Palm Sunday so I soon gave up and headed back to the hostel to try to get my blog up-to-date.

In the evening I hung around in the bar and met lots of new people: I chatted with Michelle from New Zealand, Brad from San Diego, Christoff from Germany and Jonas from Switzerland before heading off to Loki in the hope of meeting Ellen for her birthday. My timing was pretty spot on, no sooner had I ordered my beer than Ellen and Bart turned up. Ellen’s sister, Anne, had now also arrived. Eve from London also joined us at our table – I’d spoken to her previously in Sucre at the Amigo hostel but we’d just been heading off to catch our bus back to La Paz so I hadn’t even got her name before.

After a while we decided to head over to the Wild Rover (the bar there seemed livelier than Loki) but after a while Ellen headed back to Loki again. I stayed around for a bit but eventually headed off to bed hoping that I’d get up on time for my early morning bus even though I had no working alarm.

Traveller’s Tips

27 03 2010

Now I could do my blog in the traditional fashion and talk about getting up, having breakfast, going to collect my laundry (it was always going to be ready in diez minutos) or how I was sat on the bus for 20 hours next to the biggest woman in Bolivia (if she wore the traditional costume she definitely wouldn’t need a bustle in her dress) who kept shoving her butt further and further onto my seat but I’m guessing if anyone is actually still reading this blog you’d like a bit of a change.

One of the more unusual passengers on the buses

So today I’m going to write some of my traveller’s tips (some of them learnt the hard way and some just common sense).

1. Always use a condom. I guess it goes without saying but there would be nothing worse than leaving a string of Barry babies across South America or even worse coming home with some horrible STD.

2. Never become emotionally involved with one of your fellow travellers. It only leads to complications and one of you is likely to be hurt (most likely yourself).

3. Don’t fall asleep lying on your mobile phone.

4. Don’t leave your laptop lying around. Especially not on a rock in the middle of nowhere (explained in a later episode).

5. Always seize the opportunity to try something new. To paraphrase Leonardo di Caprio in Alex Garland’s The Beach, “if it hurts: it was probably worth it”.

6. Be streetwise. Travel in groups where possible and try not to roam the streets waving your camera about. Where possible leave your valuables (ATM card, passport etc.) safely locked up back at the hostel.

7. Always remember to take your ATM card out of the machine. Unlike Europe, the machines give you your money and then ask if you want another transaction before giving it back. (See earlier blog).

8. Treat every new traveller or local as a potential friend but always be aware that there are potential bad apples out there so be careful who you trust. It is amazing how often you run into the same people at new places and it is always good to hook up again.

9. Keep a close eye on your possessions when in public – especially at bus stations etc. – a trustworthy fellow traveller is also normally a good bag guard.

10. Use other travellers’ advice about places to go. Sometimes it can lead to an unexpected experience or mean that you avoid places that aren’t actually all that.

11. The most important: have fun!

Sunrise early in the morning

26 03 2010

I’ve never been a big fan of sunrises, I much prefer sunsets. Firstly, sunrises are always at an ungodly hour of the day. Secondly, it’s not like you’re ever likely to be sitting in a nice bar with a Tequila Sunrise watching the sun come up (unless you’re a hardened dipsomaniac which I don’t think I am yet). And thirdly, they seem to be over before they’ve really begun.

I think you can compare it to the male and female orgasms. With a sunrise – the male orgasm, once everything is up and out, it’s game over. But with a sunset – the female orgasm, after going down, the show goes on with a gentle glow all around. (Obviously not having experienced a female orgasm I’m conjecturing a bit here – and I’ve probably lost any pretence of keeping a Universal rating for my blog).

So I wasn’t best pleased that we had to be up at 5:30am to get in a boat only to be driven to a farmer’s field (we stood behind the barbed wire that a farmer had put up to keep his cattle in place) and be bitten alive by swarms of insects that seemed to ignore the insect repellent that we’d doused ourselves in. Even so I got some good shots.

Sunrise over the pampas

After the show was over we headed off downstream again without the motor (so that we could listen to the sounds of the birds and monkeys) and looked at all the wildlife again.


We headed back for breakfast and then went piranha fishing. Unfortunately only Juan the guide caught anything but it was fun trying – the couple of nibbles that I got only meant that I had to replace my bait (raw beef) a few times.


After an early lunch we headed back towards town. This time we took a few short cuts through the river so that we didn’t have to navigate all the bends. Sometimes the boat would get stuck in the mud and we had to get out of the boat whilst they pushed it through the shallow river. The trip to town also seemed a lot quicker than the original three hours.

When we got back to Rurrenabaque I was quite annoyed to discover that there was no evening bus (contrary to what the tour operator had told – it looks like they only run on Sundays and Mondays) so I was stuck in Rurre for the evening. Me and the two Swedish girls checked into a triple room at the Hostal Madidi. So I can now say that I’ve shared a room with 2 Swedish girls – although that sounds a lot more exciting than it was.

I tried to see if I could get my phone fixed in Rurre but their solution to fix my screen – buy a new phone of the same model and they could replace the screen – seemed like overkill: why not just use the new phone. After a bit we all went to the Mosquito Bar for some dinner and drinks. Our guide Juan turned up at one point and we played Chicago with him but he didn’t seem to get the rules and always dealt anticlockwise for some strange reason.

The others left early but I was anxious to make up for the beer shortages in the pampas so I stayed around and chatted to a few people. I met a nice Australian couple – Paul and Becky – and a bit later I saw the Aussies Tom and Angie again. I also met some English girls (both called Katie) and their friend, Chris. Tom and I teamed up to play a game of pool against Chris and another guy and we were doing really badly. Fortunately, we had so many of our balls left on the table that we were able to snooker them with every shot without even trying. Somehow, after a major war of attrition we actually manage to conclude the world’s longest pool game with a win. After a while the early morning start began to take its toll and I headed back to the hostel to sleep.

Invisible Anacondas and Swimming with Dolphins

25 03 2010

In the morning we headed off in the boat again spotting loads of wildlife as we went along and eventually arriving at some wetlands where we disembarked and went looking for anacondas. Much like every other tour group I’ve spoken to since we didn’t find any and then headed into the forest where Juan our guide pointed out various things. Unfortunately I couldn’t follow much of what he was saying (Spanish) so I missed out on a lot of what he said. Along the way we ate some weird fruit – it had a yellow skin, flesh like a lychee and a citrus taste. I actually quite liked it.

The fruit wot we ate

After that we went back for lunch – again very tasty and then headed off in the afternoon to go swimming with dolphins. Luckily the dolphins tend to keep the piranhas and alligators at bay. It was good fun but not being the world’s greatest swimmer I was quite nervous about swimming to far away from the boat in a river with sometimes strong currents where the bottom is quite a way away. The dolphins also kept moving away and didn’t really play with us much.

Swimming with river dolphins

After our swim we headed to the Sunset Bar where I was finally able to get a much-needed beer and we played Chicago again and then headed back for dinner. I bought a couple more beers carry out so that I had something to drink back at the lodge. There was apparently no new tour group that evening so it was just us 5 and we played another round of Chicago before we headed off to bed ready for our early morning start.

Discovering why it’s called a “rain” forest

24 03 2010

Contrary to everyone’s expectations after the late departure the bus actually got into Rurrenbaque two hours ahead of schedule at 6am. Most of us gringos didn’t even realise that we’d arrived at our destination – we thought it was yet another small insignificant town – until we noticed them unloading all the backpacks.

I headed into town and found the tour operator quite easily, although I had been given some directions – normally they’d meet you at the bus station but they’d also been caught unawares by the early arrival of the bus. At the tour operator I used their bathroom to grab a shower which I shared with a cockroach. Initially I thought the cockroach was dead because it was lying on its back but after kicking it with one of my shoes it righted itself and then, like me, spent most of the time cowering from the stream of ice-cold water jetting down from the ceiling.

I still had loads of time before the tour left so I headed to a nearby café for breakfast. I was the first person there but eventually it filled up with lots of familiar faces from the bus. I’m not sure if they took my order wrong or whether a ham and cheese omelette is really a ham and cheese sandwich in Bolivia.

After a stop-off at an Internet café to kill some more time I headed back to the tour operator and met the rest of the group. Contrary to what the booking agent had told me, there wasn’t a big group of British and Irish but instead the Swedish girls from the bus – Linh and Jessica – and a French couple – Lou and Johan – who’d flown in that morning.

After that it was another 3 hour drive in a 4×4 to the small town of Santa Rosa where we paid our park entrance fees and had some lunch. The lunch was okay but not really exciting. At the restaurant they had a pet pig,  a parrot and a monkey. The monkey was tied to a door and didn’t really match my expectations of an ecologically friendly pampas tour.

Parrot at the restaurant

After lunch we got back in the car for a short drive to the Amazon river where we got in a boat. As we went along we could see some dark clouds looming on the horizon and our guide Juan advised us all to don our raincoats. Pretty soon it was absolutely tipping it down in diluvian proportions. One of the boats alongside us with a group of Israelis in it had broken down so we all boarded their boat and the two guides sped back off in our boat to go and get a new propellor.

It turned out to be a very long wait and the rain continued to drench us. My coat soon became saturated and lost its ability to keep me truly dry. I cowered over my bag desperately trying to keep it dry – I didn’t want to lose another iPod to water damage.

After a while some of the others started bailing the boat out and although the boat was in about as much imminent danger of sinking as the Titanic when it was still being built in Belfast – the Israelis suddenly went on a mission to create some more bailers by tipping bottles of fresh mineral water into the Amazon and sawing the bottles in half. After the Israelis barking out orders as if they were still on military service, the boat was soon empty of water but our guides seemed to take forever to return. Finally they came back and we were able to return to our boat (which was also in need of bailing) but then the propeller didn’t really fit so they had to bodge it together with more cut up pieces of plastic bottle.

At long last we were able to set off on our trip through the Amazon. It rained the whole time so I rarely got my camera out to get some pictures (I missed a very good capybara opportunity) and when I finally did get it out I discovered that my camera had got damp and the shutter was not opening properly. (This eventually righted itself once it dried out).


We were all soaked to the skin and starting to feel cold – dipping your hand in the Amazon felt like you were plunging it in a warm bath – so I was actually quite pleased when we got back to the lodge. Unfortunately, in common with most of the lodges along the river, there were no hot showers (the average temperature is 26˚C so quite why none of the lodges have a black barrel on the roof filled with rain water I don’t know – at least it would be slightly warm) so we had to settle for some very flavourless hot chocolate and cookies.

A little later on a group of English and Irish came in on the second day of their tour – I assume these were the ones that the tour operator had referred to and he had got his dates confused – but they were quite clique-y and not really interested in talking to our group. After a very tasty dinner we headed out with our head torches to look for alligator eyes along the river. Unfortunately we only found little ones but it was quite good fun and the rain at least had stopped.

Alligators at night

During the boat trip we were convinced we’d seen a snake swimming in the water and were happily telling the English group about the anaconda that we’d seen. After going past the same place in the daylight the next day we realised that we’d actually just seen a stick bobbing up and down.

After our second boat trip of the day we sat around playing Chicago – it has some elements of poker and other games in it. I was very disappointed to discover that there was no alcohol at the lodge – it was the second night without booze after the long bus journey (probably a record for my trip) – and after we’d finished our cards we all turned in for the night.

The long way to the Amazon

23 03 2010

There are 2 ways to get to the jungle town of Rurrenbaque: a 40-minute plane ride or a 20-hour bus ride. For some reason, even though the budget isn’t suffering yet, I chose the masochistic option of the bus. The bus is actually slightly more reliable – during rainy season the planes often can’t land because the landing strip gets waterlogged.

At 09:30, the tour operator turned up to pick me up to take me to the bus (it wasn’t the regular bus station and is right over the other side of La Paz). Since they’d told me 10:30 the previous day, I wasn’t packed, and the bus didn’t leave until 11:00 I sent them away and told them to come back in an hour as discussed.

I got to the bus terminal in plenty of time but the bus didn’t even leave until 12:30. Bolivian timekeeping is sometimes a bit fluid. The bus journey was quite scary at points since we drove along stretches of the Death Road with steep drops along the side. Fortunately I wasn’t sitting next to the window so I didn’t really notice.

At various points of the bus journey (there were a lot of stops for food and drink) I also chatted to two young Swedish girls, Linh and Jessica, and an Aussie couple, Tom and Angie.

Me and the guy behind me, an Israeli called Ezrael, both had unoccupied seats next to us so we agreed that we’d sit together if someone occupied the seat next to us. Sure enough, at a stop along the way another person got on next to me so I moved back to sit with Ezrael. We chatted for a bit – the most interesting topic of which was that if the bus arrived too late to start the pampas tour the next day he’d have to do something else because he couldn’t do anything on the Sabbath – before trying to sleep.

Unfortunately the seat next to him was broken and almost reclined completely flat. This was actually not comfortable (the seat was never designed to do this) and meant that I kept descending closer and closer to the poor, Bolivian woman’s lap behind me every time we went over a bump (and the roads are dire). After a while I gave up and decided to go back to my original seat.

Unfortunately the guy there had capitalised on his new-found fortune and was sleeping across the two seats. Rather than wake him up I was prepared to sleep on the bus floor but Ezrael woke him up with a quick “Hey, amigo” and I returned back to my original seat where I was finally able to get some sleep. At a stop sometime before Rurrenbaque the guy got off so I also slept across the two chairs. Unfortunately, I slept right on top of my mobile phone which caused the LCD screen to crack completely so it is no longer usable. Barry the mobile phone killer strikes again!

Back in La Paz

22 03 2010

After the long night bus ride I was back in La Paz. I was supposed to be meeting Byron and Kevin at the bus station but I couldn’t see them anywhere so I walked to the Wild Rover hostel where I had actually made a reservation. I bumped into the Kiwis there and they’d managed to get a room and were heading for a wander around the city.

Unfortunately the check-0ut time at Wild Rover is 1pm so I had to wait absolutely ages for my dorm and spent a lot of time trying to update my blog on their dicey Internet connection. After a bit I went into town and booked a trip to the Amazonian Pampas for the next day.

In the evening I had a few drinks in the Wild Rover with the Kiwis and then we went over to Loki hostel around the corner. I bumped into Ellen and Bart there (they had stayed around La Paz after their pampas trip the previous week because they were waiting for Ellen’s sister to arrive) but I ended up leaving early – I think the bus trip had actually tired me out and unlike Byron I hadn’t had a disco nap.

Sucre is sweeter

21 03 2010

I got up early so that I could pack my bags and check out and then I headed to Café Florin with Byron and Fraser. The Florin is a Dutch run establishment and although I found the idea of bitterballen in South America quite tempting they didn’t strike me as the ideal breakfast food so I settled for an English breakfast instead.

After some more blogging on their free WiFi I went off to buy my bus ticket to La Paz for later that evening and then just wandered around the city for a bit exploring. It’s a really beautiful city and they whitewash the buildings quite regularly so that they can maintain the title of the White City.

The White City

In the evening, Kevin, Byron and I got a taxi to the bus station (the windscreen had so many cracks in it I thought it would fall out if we went over a bump in the road) and then waited around for our buses. Unfortunately the Kiwis were on a bus 15 minutes before mine. Jess and Phil were also on the same bus as the Kiwis (they were going to stay at Loki – not quite sure what they’d make of such a party hostel) and they then caused a huge fuss when they thought their bags hadn’t been loaded.

After delaying the departure of their bus by almost 15 minutes they finally found their bags in the boot; sheepishly boarded, and their bus was able to depart: probably only a few minutes before my bus. I was on my way back to La Paz.