Uyuni to La Paz to Lake Titicaca to Cusco

After two days barely moving and still feeling dreadful, I decided we’d better try to get to the capital. I decided to fly – it was three times the cost of the bus, but still only 80 USD each, gave us a great view of the salt flats and the Andes, and got us there in a hour rather than a bone rattling night bus that got in at dawn.  Sometimes its OK to just whip out that credit card.

I also treated us to a nice hotel in La Paz, and an airport pick up. This latter turned out to be a mixed blessing as while I was in no fit state to negotiate Bolivian public transport, the driver spent the entire 45-minute drive telling me about corruption in Bolivia and the president, of whom so many had high hopes but who recently ignored a referendum on whether he should change the constitution and stay for a third term. The usual story of someone getting into power, doing lots of good and then not wanting to leave and slowly getting corrupted. I’m sure its more complex than that, but I spent most of the ride trying not to throw up, while following his rapid Spanish and trying to get him to turn around and look at the road rather than me.

I did get some antibiotics from a pharmacy in La Paz, no prescription needed, and they did at least seem to stop the diarrhoea in its tracks, although I was still constantly nauseous and shaky.

I wanted to show Lauren the witches market, a bit of a tourist trap but also genuinely stocked with things local witches use for their magic (icons, herbs, llama fetuses etc), so after a brief rest, I staggered a few blocks to get her some lunch and show her the market. After that, it was back to bed for the rest of the day.

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Next day we got the bus to Cusco, which was a mammoth day-and-a-half with a stopover of a few hours in Copacabana, on the edges of Lake Titicaca. At one point, we had to get off the bus and catch a small boat, so that the bus could cross the lake on a wooden ferry.

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The Incas believed the sun (which they worshipped) came from here, and that the first Incas also came from here. For lack of anything else to do in Copacabana – where I have vague memories of stumbling about 19 years ago, completely out of it with altitude sickness – we joined a boat to the Island of the Sun – immensely holy to the Incas, now a bit of a tourist trap. Lauren nattered away to an Irish couple we met on the boat, and ran around on the island, climbing up an ancient Inca staircase and admiring the Incan ‘fountain of youth’ as well as the local donkeys, while I sat shivering at the bottom.

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Supposedly the Inca fountain of youth….. 

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After an uneventful if exhausting trip across the border to Cusco in Peru, we arrived at 5am and thankfully the guest house we had booked let us check in. I went straight back to bed for a few hours, then we ventured out, to find ourselves slap bang in the middle of some major procession of traditional costume and communities. No one we asked gave us a clear indication of what it was – someone said it had to do with a convent, another it was a rehearsal for something, but it was rather fun.

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We basically spent the next 3 days in the room, making brief forays out to get food (which Lauren ate, and I either couldn’t face or ate and threw up). I was trying to get my strength up for what should be a highlight – the Inca city of Machu Picchu. We had tickets and train reservations, and spent a couple of hours at the museum learning about the Incas in preparation, but I really needed to get my strength up. There is only so much gatorade a girl can drink.

 

Day Two – Crossing from Chile to Bolivia

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One of the strange rock formations we saw on day 2.

Day two of our crossing from Chile to Bolivia was just as spectacular as day one, with strange desert rock formations, more beautiful lakes, some weird rabbit-type creatures with long tails, a beautiful green valley as we emerged into inhabited areas, and the start of the famous salt flats that day three would be all about.

The day started off bright and early, with pancakes and tea. I was feeling fine, despite the altitude, although had woken in the middle of the night convinced I couldn’t breathe and on the verge of a panic attack. Only knowing Lauren was in the bed beside me got me to focus enough to breathe deeply and calmly, working every bit of oxygen I could out of the air. By morning, I was coping well enough, although still pathetically breathless after any exertion. Lauren of course was coping fabulously, generally running around outside with the llamas. Some people had headaches but paracetamol seemed to do the trick.

We set off driving along what passed for tracks, sometimes across broad empty plains, other times through deep canyons, and even at one point along a riverbed. First stop was at a huge collection of rocks, thrown from a volcano at some point in the past and eroded by the wind into weird shapes.

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Next we found ourselves driving through a canyon with steep sides, and some rather unstable-looking boulders we could just imagine falling at any moment, as some obviously had in the past as the track wound round big chunks of rock. It was worth it though to see the weird rabbit-like creatures who live on the rocks….

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Strange creatures, look like rabbits with really long curly tails… can’t remember their name… 
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Despite the sun, that’s ice on the ground! 

We reached another beautiful lake, filled with flamingos, with an ‘ecolodge’ that had pay toilets. Its the first time I’ve been to a toilet where half of the bowl is restricted to ‘number ones’ and the other half to ‘number twos’. Not only that, but the ladies had a window, and the (male) attendant came and peered through it while I was on the loo, presumably checking I was aiming accurately enough….. it was a bit odd, but hey, you take any chance for a wee out here, there aren’t many bushes!

Lunch was by another beautiful lake…..

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One of the many mineral-filled lakes…. 
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Loving the mirror effect….
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Flamingos…..
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Lauren with her new best friends….they were so brilliant with her. 

Eventually we reached ‘civilization’ with a few scattered dusty villages, and enjoyed about ten minutes of an actual road before another diversion, this time to clamber on yet more rock formations. Lauren and Connor found a ‘fortress’ and were quite happy up there until it was raided by the others…. cue lots of shrieking and squealing (and that was just the boys!).

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Lauren and Connor in their fortress.

After that, Paul promised us beer, although it seemed an awfully long time coming – first we drove up a valley that was actually green due to a river running through it, and we went for a walk through the waterlogged fields amidst a herd of llama.

20180423_151748.jpgWe drove through a lovely green valley full of llamas, and went for a walk among them….

Once back in the car we came across one of the other vehicles, that had broken down. Apparently, the drive shaft had ‘popped out’ and was ‘popped back in’ using a stake one of the drivers wrenched out of a villager’s field and a rock.

The day ended with beers (coca beer, cactus beer…) at a local shack before heading to the salt hotel where we would have dinner and spend the night in the relative luxury of private rooms (and bathrooms!).

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Sun setting as we head for the Salt hotel for the night….. 
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Our trusty steed….
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The beds, part of the walls and the bedside table are all made of salt…..

By 9pm we were both in bed, having had warm showers, as we would be up at 5am for a 5.30am departure to the salt flats. However, I needn’t have worried about getting up in time, as I got about one hours sleep all night, due to an explosive reaction to what I can only imagine was some bacteria on some of the food at dinner, or possibly something I picked up on my hands, despite regular applications of antibacterial gel.

Within a couple of hours I was vomiting profusely, and had terrible diarrhoea, and I spent most of the night in the absolutely freezing bathroom. Lauren, thankfully, slept on regardless.

Crossing the Andes to Bolivia – Day One

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I am happy to admit I was somewhat nervous about this trip. Those of you who know me personally will be well aware I like to be in control, and this time I was putting my and my daughter’s well-being into the hands of a travel agency to get us across some very remote territory with extreme conditions. I had done as much research as I could and thought I’d chosen a decent agency, but still, given my dodgy lungs and previous problems with altitude (and we would be going far higher) and given I had Lauren along, I was anxious it go well.

The agency assured me that the driver was experienced, the jeep had proper seatbelts (I was still carting Lauren’s booster seat around), and they would carry oxygen in case of altitude sickness.

We were picked up at 0630 by a minibus that took us and a number of other people to the border with Bolivia, where we would transfer to the 4 by 4’s required for Bolivia. We climbed and climbed for around 45 minutes, in the pre-dawn darkness, everyone a bit quiet until we reached the small building that housed Chilean immigration.

The contrast between two countries can hardly be greater than when crossing from Chile to Bolivia. On the Chilean side, decent tarmacked road, polite immigration officials, clean toilets, even a ping pong table that some of the members of our group made use of, challenging the immigration officers to a game.

Then, a few Km later on, a dirt track and a stone hut with brusque Bolivian border guards.

We had breakfast in the searing cold wind – we were high, the sun was hiding behind a cloud, someone said it was below freezing. As far as the eye could see was just flat brown earth and snow-capped mountains. It couldn’t have looked less appealing. What had we signed up for?

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Not much out there……. 

It turned out that there were three vehicles that would be travelling roughly together, which was reassuring. We had all heard horror stories of breakdowns on the rough terrain. We were fortunately assigned to a jeep driven by Paul, an experienced and careful driver who seemed to be the most responsible of the three.

We were also lucky in our fellow travelers – after all, we would spend three whole days with these people, at close quarters, sharing the car, a bedroom and all meals. We were joined by a trio of mid 20s Dublin lads, Sebastian, Connor and Guy, much to Lauren’s delight, as half the time she thinks she’s Irish, and a Czech woman, Katerina.  I was by far the oldest of the group, and Lauren by far the youngest.

The day passed in a blur of mountains, stunning lakes, thermal springs and geysers. Nature at its harshest. Arsenic in the ground, sulphur from the geysers, salt in the water, intense heat and cold at different times, and of course the ever present reminder of the altitude. Tracks varied from rough to non-existent, we saw the odd fox and vicuna (a wild deer related to the guanaco we’d seen in Argentina), a few birds and not much else in terms of wildlife.

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The real secret behind Blackburn Rovers’ promotion – this is a site where people make cairns to worship pachamama or mother earth….. the guys and Lauren made one, with Roar as an offering (he didn’t stay behind though). 

 

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Then, in the middle of nowhere, some volcanic hot springs, with filthy changing rooms and zero health and safety. Felt so good though, although ten  minutes was enough given the altitude. 

 

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Bubbling, sulphic mud ponds, truly evil. 
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We were told the mud comes out at 200 degrees C. No health and safety, you could just wander around at will. 
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Evil smelling place but fascinating. 

We ended with a wonderful (if rather breathless), walk around laguna colorada, possibly my favourite of the whole day, as it was pink, full of flamingos, and just beautiful.

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Lauren was by now in full hero-worship mode and firm friends with the Irish lads. When I tried to intervene (not all mid-20’s lads want a 9 year old girl tagging along) I was firmly told that she was now ‘one of their crew’ so left well alone.

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Three Irish musketeers and an eager D’Artagnan… deep in conversation as I breathlessly bring up the rear. 

The evening saw us arriving at a very basic lodge – electricity for a couple of hours in the evening, no heating (we were at 4,600 metres), no showers, and 2 shared toilets without paper or soap. For Lauren, at least, none of this mattered, as she made firm friends with this filthy orphaned Llama, which at least twice had to be ushered from the kitchen…. where our dinner was being prepared…

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Orphaned baby llama at our lodge in the mountains. 

 

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Another Llama….. 
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And another….. we liked the llamas. 

All 6 of us shared the same room. The food was basic – boiled chicken, salad, and smash (reconstituted dehydrated potato). Lauren taught everyone how to play Uno, and an Irish guy from another group brought out a guitar and entertained us with songs.

By just after 9 everyone headed off to bed, many feeling some effect of the altitude and the grueling but amazing day.