Bolivia: Meeting The worst tour guide in the world

The idea of heading to Bolivia was never really on the cards. That being said the cards were never laid out to begin with so everyday on the road was unplanned, that’s how we like it. Passing from the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca from Puno, we breezed through customs and entered into Bolivia through the Copacobana Border (not to be mistaken for the Gary Manolo type). Hopped on another bus, tiny ferry(which our bus also got on) and bus again to La Paz then boarded a 12 hour night bus for Uyuni. Feeling fresh! No. Feeling tired and ready for night bus sleep. By now we are pretty seasoned bus riders, we’ve had break downs, near crashes, chickens, military police searching for fugitives and salesmen but this one was up there with one of the worst. it began with 2 hours of stop-start La Paz traffic followed by 10 hours of unsealed desert road. Road so bumpy that my butt was lifting off seat continually and bus lights unscrewed from socket then smashed into the aisle floor. That plus random stops at chicken shops in the middle of the night and chorus of snorers led to zero sleep and bloodshot eyes. We arrived in Uyuni at 7am looking and feeling like zombies after over 24 hours of pretty bad travel. Pushing through the hord of ‘travel agents’ trying to sell salt flat tours to tired travellers, we bunked down and decided to check out the companies later that day after a nap.

There are a few key things to note before I dive into my story. Bolivia is an incredibly poor country and I can only assume that as a result of this the lines of what is right and wrong are a little blurred. For example, if you as a visitor are scamed, hustled, screwed or just plain bamboozled all you can say is ‘That’s Bolivia – what did you expect?’. Uyuni is the base town for the largest Salt Flat in the world and survives purely off the tourism of 4 day Land Cruiser tours through the desert, either ending at the Chilean border or returning to town. There are over 80 companies driving the EXACT same route and none – I repeat none – boast consistent positive reviews. I spent a good hour reading reviews (always a bad thing) of broken down cars, lack of food, zero communication and drunk drivers (that was the main one). A name and company that also consistently popped up in the bad books was ‘Fatima’ from Wara Altiplano Tours. With this is mind we wondered around the streets talking to agents, hearing the same itinerary over and over and having no idea who to choose. Whilst on the street a woman with a mouth of gold capped teeth approached us and walked us to her company. She said that it doesn’t matter who you book with, everyone goes the same way, sees the same things and at the end of the day it’s about filling cars. So you may book with another company but end up in a different car that needs the passengers. This is something other backpackers had told us so she wasn’t lying. Tired and sick of walking the streets we asked her two questions:
1. Will there be Vegetarian food?
– Yes, buffet options.
2. Is the driver safe and reliable?
– Ofcourse. Our drivers do not drink and drive. No way.
Ok – sounded good. As we paid and started to sign our names a weird feeling in my gut reminded my brain about the dodger reviews and the lady named Fatima not to trust.
1. What was your name?
– Fatima. She said with a gold capped smile.
Fuck. It was too late, we had committed. Knowing full well she wasn’t going to hand us our money back, we booked with Fatty and I remained anxious until our tour began the next morning.

We got off to a rocky start. We had been told by Fatty that our tour had 2 Canadians and a Spanish lady. Highly convenient as your driver/mechanic/tour guide and cook only speaks Spanish and he is your ticket in and out alive of the desert. However we were piled into a Land Cruiser and the door was shut behind us – where was the rest of our group? Only because I asked we found out the rest of our tour was 2 hours away and we would later pick them up. Confused, Fatty (who yesterday was fluent in English) decided that she didn’t understand what I was saying and Ai found someone to translate what the driver was saying. The rest of our group was already at the Salt Flats and we would pick them up later. We drove away and I hoped that this tour wasn’t going to turn out as bad as it already was in my head. Our first stop was the Cemetary of Trains, a strip in the desert were they had placed old steam trains to rot and locals had covered them in graffiti. We then headed off and eventually arrived onto solid, salty white road and all you could see was salt. Stopping at a few monuments, salt mines and open road to take photos the scenery was surreal.

After about two hours we arrived into a ghost town, built in the middle of the salt flat at the foot of a volcano. To our relief we were joined by two couples. Tim and Naomi (Canada) and Eric (USA) and Kana (Japan). They informed us of their bizarre last 24 hours – arriving in the middle of nowhere with no instructions and minimal food and we all found out we had booked with the same company and Fatima. Ah the reviews are starting to make sense. We headed out to the Island of Cactus – literally an island in the middle of the salt flat filled with Cacti and wandered around under the blast of the desert sun admiring the crazy scenery. When you start to look at the landscape it is ridiculous – salt out to nowhere as far as the eye can see, so white it almost burns your eyes. The air is very dry and the heat was incredible. We got back into the car with Rucio (our guide) and headed towards our accommodation for the night. We drove 2 hours into vast nothingness and arrive at an adobe building made of salt. We spent time walking around the dining room, hallways and bedrooms amazed at the oddity but decided it was ultimately very cool. Even the ground was made of soft salt to crunch around in, Trent and I were high on salt and just kept walking around the strange accommodation checking if things were made of salt or not. We convinced Rucio to drive us 5 minutes into ‘town’ (a few other salt hotels and a store) and bought some wine. That night we all chatted, drank, ate and eventually hit the salt sack with strict instructions that we were to be off by 6.30am the next morning.

The next morning Trent spots our guide hop into a car and head off at about 6am. Strange but not entirely out of the ordinary. We finish breakfast and watch all the other groups one by one pack away their things, meet their guide and head off on their day. By 8am we have packed and wrapped the luggage on the roof racks ourselves and wonder if our guide is ever coming back. Off into the distance, 2 4WDs speed towards the salt hotel and pull up. One of the passenger doors opens and out falls our guide. He stumbles into the kitchen and comes back out with our food for the day in hand. His eyes are glazed over, he struggles to walk properly and he can’t even open the boot of his car. He is drunk. At 8am. I’m talking can’t even remember his name drunk. Half way between disgusted and not surprised that everything I had read was coming true – we all agree there is no way we are letting him drive. As Rucio tries to put his keys in the car – we calmly tell him (it is Bolivia remember) that we will be driving today. The drunk mess submits, moves over to the passenger side and quietly passes out. Tim takes to the drivers seat (use to driving left side – stick shift – jeeps) and we head off on a self guided Bolivian adventure across the desert, no map and no gps and as our guide drifts in and out of laughter and sleep.

The funny thing about Rucio is, he has been doing these 4 day tours for 13 years – driving Gringos across the desert so you are bound to pick up so,e English. So I call his ‘no hablo Ingles’ bullshit. As we drove off we are thankfully behind another car as a guide and we start to talk about how hilarious/ridiculous/Bolivia this situation was. Funnily enough at the end of every sentence Rucio (now nicknamed Rusty after Russel Coight – Australia’s worst outback adventure man) would laugh perfectly on cue, he understood perfectly. We would talk about the ridiculousness of the situation and he responded perfectly. Im sure to him it was hilarious he was wasted, getting paid and now getting driven by Gringos.

And so we set off on our day, at first it was exciting and the situation kept us entertained. But as the trail got worse, the car stopped and started and Rusty started to sober up the tension got thicker. After one of our stops in the desert admiring Joshua Tree like rock formations, Rusty decided that he was sick of trailing behind the other guides (who had probably been making fun of him – they were also drinking) he was ready to leave – now! So now we were driving ourselves through the desert, alone, whilst our alcoholic guide described the route with shaky hand signals and started to get angry that some white guy was driving his car. By this time I pretty much thought Rusty was the biggest piece of shit I had ever met. A couple of hours of back breaking rock trails Rusty started to yell at Tim for not driving smooth enough and told him to stop the car so he could drive. Tim politely told hi that maybe if he wasn’t a drunk asshole we wouldn’t be in this situation. Rusty understood and was pretty quiet after that. A bit later we arrived at a glorious mineral Laguna home to hundreds of Flamingos and Vicunas (rare desert dwelling Llama/Alpaca type things). We all went for a walk whilst Rusty prepared our lunch. The stops is when you would run into the other cars and meet up with other groups. Our guide had become quite the story and many people would ask ‘how’s he going? Yeh pretty sure our guide is drinking too’. It was also at these breaks that you would see the divide between the better companies and well.. The ‘Fatima’ companies. Whilst other groups had table cloths, picnic tables and glass wear we had rock seats, plastic everything and Rusty. No matter how many times he says Bueno amigos, I’m still not tipping him – I think to myself as I stare at the incredible long legged birds. We eat our lunch and decide that after some food Rusty will be fine to drive. And he was, very chatty and informative straight back into guide mode with I’m sure some help from a white powdery substance. We spent the afternoon driving through the crazy desert, stopping at different mineral and salt Lagunas and clusters of petrified trees that have turned to stone. The landscape was mind blowingly awesome and it felt as if we were driving on Mars. That night we were dropped at a small cluster of brick houses in the middle of the desert. Rusty unloaded our bags then disappeared. The 6 of us shared a room, played soccer with the little boy that lived in the hostel with his family, made friends with some Chileans and had a merry old time. We also wondered whether our guide would ever come back and would we be stuck here forever? We had a 4.30am call the next morning and we were worried as he was again MIA. Around 11pm he fell into the hostel blind drunk and generally looking great. We sternly told him we were leaving at 5am and he agreed and gave me a sloppy kiss of the cheek. Ew.

The next morning we rose before the sun and headed to a thermal hot springs to bathe and watch the sun rise. After soaking in heaven and relaxing after somewhat of a tense time it was time to get out and get back in the car for the final time. Soon we arrived at the Bolivian border and I was happy to wave goodbye to Rucio/Russell/Rusty and softly mentioned he should give up the booze. We only spent 5 days in Bolivia, so I can’t make an fair assessment about the country. But our desert trip and the overall vibe of how things are done didn’t paint a great picture of the country’s relationship to visitors. We also were made to pay a fee to enter and exit which the customs officer decides on his mood at that time. When we hopped in our transport to the border, in a matter of minutes we went from desert roads to sealed bitchumen and bright green road signs. Borders are a strange thing. Adios Bolivia, Bienvenido a Chile! Phew

.

IMG_1059.JPG

IMG_1065.JPG

IMG_1076.JPG

IMG_1152.JPG

IMG_1171.JPG

IMG_1166.JPG

IMG_1130.JPG

DSCF4549.JPG

DSCF4549-0.JPG

DSCF4666.JPG

DSCF4582.JPG

DSCF4636.JPG

Peru: which way to Machu Picchu?

Since brought to the attention of the Western World by John Birmingham in 1911 – Machu Picchu has been a site of international pilgrimage and for many it is the highlight/climax/pinnacle of their South American adventure. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of 7 Modern Wonders of the World and one of the most famous Peruvian icons is visited every year by thousands upon thousands of people from all walks of life and there is no question why. It is magical. The site is breathtaking and incredible and if you are lucky enough to find a moment of solitude whilst up there you can take a deep breath in, close your eyes and imagine Incan mountain life in 1450 surrounded by Llamas and Alpacas and breathtaking (have I said that one already?) Pacha Mamma (mother nature).

Often, just getting to MP is half of the adventure. Not just arriving on the other side of the world, getting to Peru and making your way to Cusco then choosing how you will get to the site. Arriving without breaking the bank was our aim and ultimate challenge and writing this blog to share that there are alternative ways, the cheap way. The most popular way to arrive is by train (half American owned Peru Rail), whilst apparently being beautiful at $320 for two people return from Cusco (2 hours one way) was WAY!! out of the budget. Numero dos, the ‘ultimate adventure’ option is to trek. Inca Trail or not, these can set you back anywhere between $300-$500 – depending on number of days etc. having heard lots of people doing both options and have heard great feedback – except for the cost. So, if you are on a budget and are visiting the continent on a long haul trip – spending big chunks in one go isn’t what you want. Having met many people on just add water diets (packet noodles) we knew we weren’t the poorest people in Peru so surely, there had to be another way! After a little research the real backpacker option was found. Although it seemed a lot more outlaw, which was to be part of the excitement, we found out you could simply walk the train tracks right into the town. Not from Cusco, that would have taken days and probably quite dangerous but from a train station 3 hours walk from the town of Machu Picchu. To us this sounded very exciting and like a fantastic adventure movie – which is how I base most life decisions, so we decided to go for it! After catching up with a family friend who was volunteering an hour outside of Cusco in Urabamba (Hey Andrew!) we caught a bus to the town of Santa maria (4.5 hrs $14 for 2) then hopped into a collectivo taxi (1 hr $10 for two) and arrived at the Hydro Electrico Train Station and began our O brother Where Art Thou montage as we walked the tracks. We stopped frequently along the way to take photos and soak in the magnificent scenery and I loved every moment of it. Even waving to the passengers on the train as it chugged passed I never once thought ‘shit, we are poor’ but ‘hell yeah this is incredible! And it’s free!’. The whole walk we were surrouned by the jungle and imposing mountains with the remains of Incan buildings scattered on top. We walked past train workers, little shops set up along the tracks offering drinks and snacks to the walkers and ofcourse other backpackers and Peruvians. Because the reality is there is no way a Peruvian can afford Peru Rail – it’s simply for cashed up tourists which makes sense once you find out that PERU Rail is half owned by an American company. Shocker! Our only wish is that it was completely Peruvian, the ride would have cost a dollar and they would have squeezed hundreds on including Llamas and Alpacas which would have been amazing. A couple of hours later, feeling energised from our walk and quite happy with our budgeting selves, we arrived into town as it was getting dark and set off to pre buy our entry tickets for the next day. The town is a product of fast tourism: expensive ski type lodges to the front and food, drinks and hostels to the back. Our tickets were $50 each and only included Machu Picchu city and the mountain. We ended up bartering for a private room at a Hospedaje (a low budget hotel – $11 together) and scored cheap set menu for dinner (3 course $12 together). If I said ‘winning’ this would be an appropriate time to put that in! Simply choosing the long way round had save us over over $130 yay- look at us go Mumma – we are budgeting!

The next morning we caught the bus ($20 each – VERY steep but we were exhausted) up to the Mp entrance and spent a couple of hours wandering around. We didn’t opt for a guide as our time in the North had prepped us to self guide – ‘Yes so that must be where they put the sacrifices, that would have been for the high priest, that was farming terraces’ etc. What can be said that hasn’t already been said about this postcard perfect national geographic place? It is epic, just it’s size alone is wow plus the backdrop of surrounding mountains leaves you with an unforgettable and memorable experience. And also very surreal after thinking you were never really the type to head to Peru and now I was standing on top of Machu Picchu. It was a cool moment. After walking around for a couple of hours and exploring the adobe city maize, we skipped the bus back down to save money and walked to the bottom by way of 45minutes worth of steps. Knees. Calves. Yep, they were feeling it. Feeling a little pooped, we decided to check out trains back to Cusco that afternoon to see if we could maybe, possibly, somehow snatch a deal. No luck – one way tickets were going for $80 each – WHAT! So we booked another night in the Hospedaje (bartered an even lower price) and followed our same route by the train tracks the next day. That day was Trent’s 25th birthday and we spent it doing what he loves – on an adventure. A beautiful morning walk, collectivo, bus and 10 hours later we were back in Cusco. It was definitely an adventure!

At the end of the few days we had definitely put in the extra effort to save the extra pennies and it had paid off. Our journey to and from Machu Picchu was special and felt as if we had undergone our own little pilgrimage. It wasn’t the Inca Trail but it was the Jacqui and Trent trail and it felt special and magical. In terms of money, if we had taken the train it would have cost at least $320 for the both of us. Our way had ended up setting us back $45 return meaning we had saved $275! That’s a lotta empanadas!

To anyone that may be reading this I highly recommend walking the train tracks if you are looking for another option – choose your own adventure, it’s definitely worth it! X

IMG_0840.JPG

IMG_0846.JPG

IMG_0841.JPG

IMG_0857.JPG

IMG_0878.JPG

IMG_0848.JPG

Peru: a touch of the South

When we were in the north of Peru we often felt quite alone. As we went days on end without seeing another traveller. However, once we hit Lima, we were well and truly back on the gringo trail.

Gringo trail: noun ~ exists in Lonely Planets ‘must see’ places of South America. A gringo is generally described as a foreigner who identifies themselves as one or all of the following: professional climbing enthusiast, white water rafter, walking stick carrier, camel back wearer, sky diving instructor and marine biologist in spare time, (usually American)ready to take on South America with a KABOOM! Often outfitted head to toe in expensive, zippable? adventure gear, spotted wearing said gear in sports drink aisle of local super mercado.

Funnily enough, and I say this without judgement (honestly), we have met many of these people and have yet to see or hear them doing any thing that requires the outfit and equipment. But instead its the guys you see at the top of the mountain, carrying a swisse army knife and wearing sandals that are the real adventurers. Contrary to popular belief you don’t need a particular ‘adventure outfit’ to travel this continent – that is a BIG myth I like to debunk. Trent and I opt out of the adventure uniform and instead go for our usual look of homeless chic. You may judge but we are 4 months on the road and mugging free!

Anyway – after a luxurious 22 hour bus from Lima we arrived in world famous Cusco. We spent a couple of days exploring the old Incan empire which was beautiful, historic and still maintains a lot of ancient charm. Much of the old town is still uncovered by archeologists today as the city is quite literally, built on ruins. Our walking tour guide told us his friend was building a new house and they came across Incan ceremonial jewellery, of course the kept it and sold it on the black market. We spent a few days walking around the steep cobbled streets, learning the inside scoop from a dedicated and passionate Cusquenian, drinking potent Pisco Sours and eating delicious (non peruvian) food. We also reunited with our Danish friends from Merazonia which we didn’t think would happen so soon after saying our goodbyes! After a few days of exploring the city, we set off for Machu Picchu (see separate post) and returned on Trents 25th birthday after a long day in transit, not surprisingly all we could think about was a frosty beverage. We met up with the Danes for dinner, hoping to have a few drinks (get wasted) but alas to our utter devastation this plan was soon shattered. The hilarious and exciting lead up to the Peruvian election (which we had witnessed for weeks) had finally come to it’s main event – voting weekend. Voting is compulsory in Peru and the government are fearful that citizens would have one too many and forget to tick the right box so all alcohol is prohibited! The entire weekend! Even for tourists Cusco was dry as a bone, you wouldn’t even read about it! Safe to say the birthday boy was utterly devastated. Boozeless we still had a great eve and decided to head south as a group the next day.
Nb: We have since found out that Peruvians do a roaring trade on the black market to gringos during these weekends – damn!

IMG_0788.JPG

IMG_0793.JPG

IMG_0786.JPG

IMG_0791.JPG

From Cusco, together with our Merazonia buddies we headed 8 hours south east to the city of Puno, located on the shore of Lake Titicaca – the largest navigable lake in the world and also the highest, at a whopping 3’800m above sea level. It is the main pull for the area as Puno is a shitty and dirty city. The next day we booked a cheap 2 day tour and headed out on a boat to visit the Floating Islands of Uros. Famous, shockingly, for being islands that float! Crazy construction process of tying, anchoring and weeving that is too indepth to explain but it is very cool! Especially to walk around on the tiny island, roughly the size of half a basketball court, and feel the reeds squish and squash beneath your feet. There is about a meter of reeds separating you from sinking into the lake! What wasn’t very cool was the ‘It’s a small world after all’ type cultural display to the tourists from the locals. There are a few things written about the islands, namely that tourism has destroyed them and the locals are an act (pretty rough) but it so hard to know the truth when there is different information everywhere. But when you are being shown the traditional terracotta pot and dried fish that they supposedly cook in, which are laying next to a pile of plastic Coke bottles and chip packets – you feel like you are being taken for a bit of a ride. After a talk from the ‘chief’, a sales pitch of wares from the women and a ride on the homemade reed boat, it was time to go. The song and dance type act is generally the type of tourism that Trent and I try to avoid and sadly, without knowing it, we had ended up encouraging it. We wouldn’t have cared if we simply sailed past the islands, or if the locals were in board shorts, watching tv and drinking beer just relaxing. But the costumes and performance was very forced and quite unsettling and the more we were there the more I saw the negative affects of tourism to the what I’m sure were once beautiful islands.

IMG_0977-2.JPG

IMG_0969-1.JPG

IMG_0981-0.JPG

IMG_0973-1.JPG
Back on the boat and sailing deeper into the lake for a couple of hours we arrived at the Island of Amanti, home to the native Aymara people whose ancestors have lived here for thousands of years. The island is 3 hours away from the mainland and therefore the communities are very much isolated from the modern world. Stepping onto the island was like stepping back into time. Firstly we were greeted by our 4 and a half foot Mammi wearing traditional dress. Amanti is made up of 7 Aymaran communities and along with their daily life in the fields and around the home, there is a roster system for taking in homestays. We walked 45 minutes up through the island, which was pretty wheezy work at 4000m above sea level, to get to our house and our Mammi didn’t break a sweat. The women and men of the island still dress very traditionally: women wear white embroidered blouse, colourful shirt, sandals, long plaits and a shawl draped over their heads and the men wear colourful ponchos and warm hats as it gets very cold at night. Once we arrived at our home, we shared lunch in the small kitchen that was made on an open fire. Quinoa and vegetable soup, grilled andean cheese, boiled potatoes and rice. It was so simple but delicious and was served with andean mint tea in terracotta cups. Communicating with our host family was interesting at times, the Aymarans have learnt Spanish to interact with tourists but it is not their native tongue, at times it was difficult to tell if it was a comfortable or uncomfortable silence. But through broken conversations we learnt our host mum was 26 years old and had a four year old, and along with her mother they made textiles to sell to tourists. We met her husband once and lets just say ‘you are a lazy piece of shit’ is an international language and we were picking up some strong vibes. I think he needed to help out more around the house and spend less time drinking beers after work with his andean pipe band. He was in an andean pipe band and played for us. The Grandpa and only name we remember(Maximo) was lovely and very interested in interacting, whereas the women preferred to sit in the corner and talk to themselves. Don’t get me wrong everyone was lovely but Maximo was a bit warmer. Maximo (68 years old) who was shorter then most 10 year olds I know, spent his days chiselling rock down at the lake and walking all the way up the mountain (about an hour) with kilos of stone strapped to his back to create new pathways. His body had had a tough life but you couldn’t tell in his face, he was warm and welcoming and a real old dad. Maximo was very interested in knowing where we had been and where we were going and as we told him he responded with shock and excitement and laughed as he talked about how rich we must be. One of the things we are forever thinking of when we would meet locals interested in our travels, an overseas trip to a far away land like Australia will simply never be an option. This trip has taught me many things but most of all how incredibly lucky I am to be in the situation I am in. That night the community had a party for us, we were dressed up in traditional clothing and danced with our families to the sound of hits from the andes. The next morning after breakfast Maximo showed us gifts he had received from previous Australian home stays: a Swisse Army Knife and a Kellogs Cornflakes watch (we just smiled and agreed how Australian they were), having nothing on us Trent gifted his Aboriginal flag hat pin and gave it to Maximo. We let him know that it was the flag of our native people and we could tell it was a good gift. We said our goodbyes and made our way down to the port with Mammi leading and way and spinning her wool. Three long hours later we were back on the mainland in Puno and ready to move on. The lake was to be our last stop in Peru as we made the last minute decision to pop on over to Bolivia.

IMG_0996.JPG

IMG_1008.JPG

IMG_0993.JPG

IMG_1012.JPG
Crossing the border into Bolivia I saw that we had spent just over a month in this crazy country. Woah – what a month. Altitude, beaches, mountains, deserts and everything in between Peru had been a treasure trove of adventure. It really is an incredible, mysterious, gritty, inspiring and beautiful country. There really is so much more to Peru then Machu Picchu and we definitely got to explore a little slice of that. Hasta luego Peru, I’m sure we’ll be back. Xx