Tour Day 1: The Salar de Uyuni – salt flats at 3700m?

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Hmmm…sea salt at nearly 4000m above sea level? Yes indeed! The Tour we’d booked ages ago would take us from the town of Uyuni, in south-west Bolivia, to the town of San Pedro de Atacama, in north-east Chile, over the … Continue reading

Hectic day one in La Paz….ends in piss-up!

Friday 7 March – day one in La Paz. Wake up to a very basic breakfast in the hostel we have booked into for 3 nights. Make a plan for the day – first find another hostel to stay at as we intend to be here a good 10 days or more. Second find a language school and enrol for a week of Spanish classes.

The view northeast from the hostel

The view northeast from the hostel

We are at the Hostel Maya Inn, in Calle Sagarnaga, 5 minutes uphill from Plaza San Francisco, and slap bang in the middle of La Paz’s tourist (or gringo) area. It’s not really us, although the hostel is fairly OK and standard for the area – its just seen to many bums on its cracked plastic toilet seat; the towels & sheets have been boiled clean a thousand times; and a clean room means, well, not really clean at all. So we spend an hour researching options and come up with a shortlist of likely places, access to a kitchen being a requirement for us veggies.

Prison visiting rules

Prison visiting rules

We set off first for what may be a long shot, and a 30minutes walk away. Our senses are bombarded by traffic & human noise, images & smells all around us, the pavements are narrow, as we twirl around all eyes and hope we dont fall under a van or into a street food stall. We head south-east parallel to La Paz’s main drag, El Prado. Ten minutes gets us to Plaza San Pedro, famous for its infamous prison, inspiration for the book ‘Marching Powder’. San Pedro prison holds approx 2500 prisoners, not the 400 it should have. Most are inside for minor offences and drugs. There are no more than 20 guards…who stay outside and leave the prisoners to run the place with their own rules and hierarchy, and economy & drugs. Women & kids live there too. Apparently tourists used to be able to take a tour inside. We consider the craziness of all this, then walk on.

wpid-IMG_20140310_205225.jpgAnother ten minutes and on Ave 20 de Octubre we pass a brightly arty pinkish house named ‘Vergen de los deseas’. Feminist images and slogans are prominent, and we don’t realise it then, but this is the house opened by the controversial & angry ‘Mujeres Creando’. To the right of it a group of indigenous women are queuing beneath a sign ‘Mujeres en busca de justicia’. Plenty of graffiti nearby reinforces the message.

We continue into the ‘bohemian’ area of Sopocachi, a mix of the old and new. After some confusion, not least the absence of any hostel signage, we find option one on our list of hostel options. Surprisingly, things go well, we can get in on Sunday, for 8 nights, and its a class above where we currently are, at only $3 a night more, quality breakfast included.

An hour later and we have enrolled at a languages school 10minutes from the new hostel. One of us gets 5 daily 2 hour classes, one-to-one, at complete beginner level. The other has to complete a bloody language test, written and spoken, and ends up in a lower intermediate group class of 2-4 people, again for 5 days x 2 hours. It works out at £50 each, we start Monday at 8.30am.

On a roll! Its 2.30pm and we stumble into a ‘bohemian’ cafe. The ‘almeurzo’ or lunch menu has veggie options, for 30 boliviarons (£2.80) each we get a mixed salad, quinoa & veg soup with tomato bread, huge tortilla, ice-cream, and juice. Stuffed. Have an espresso nearby, and they even have a smoking area! Back to the hostel for a rest time.

Go out about 7.30pm for a wander around Plaza San Francisco & nearby streets. On a whim we enter a bar with a distinct English theme. We’ve avoided such places like the plague so far, and expect the worst – drunken lager louts singing Ingerland. But we don’t have to turnabout and exit, we seem to be the only Brits there, the rest are locals with a few gringos. If you ignore the overpriced Heineken & Strongbow (40 bols each), you can sup on some proper Bolivian cervezas (lagers). We do – Parcena, Autentico, and the like come in 620ml bottles for about £1.80 each. Saya beer, blonde or negra is on tap as a pint, and the strong Hock bottles are tasty too. After ten minutes we notice someone smoking inside. Five minutes later we politely ask for an ashtray…and it turns into our first real drink-up since leaving the UK, backed by some half-decent 80’s music on a loop. After a couple hours we are given 2 free vodka shots from the bar, a problem for one of us but the 2 for the other! We stagger away around midnight, and sleep very well. Like it here!

Pic of the day 31 – Human skull in the hallway!

We first came across this in Ecuador – the old custom of keeping a human body part, preferably a head, at the entrance to your home. To protect your family and house from evil spirits & bad luck of course. But this is the first time we have stayed in a house with an actual human skull by the front door! This one, with a few other objects, sits in a hole in the wall in the hallway of our Cusco hostel, behind a thick glass screen. Our hosts say it has been there for many decades, possibly since the house was first built over 200 years ago. The house has always belonged to the family, and the skull may be from an ancient family member?

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Pic of the day 14 – Contrasts in Canoa

An intriguing Sunday night and Monday here in Canoa, on the Pacific coast of Manabi province in Ecuador. Canoa sits at the northern end of a 18km beach that runs south to San Vincent. There are dozens of hotels/hostals, beach bars, cafes, and restaurants here, half of which seem to be closed and the rest half-empty at present….so its pretty chilled.

wpid-P1000299.jpgThe first pic here is of the front of our hostal, which faces inland. The second is the view out of the back of the hostel, facing towards the sea, and shows wpid-P1000296.jpgtwo family homes.

Our hostal has hot/cold showers & tiled bathrooms with each bedroom, a great Wi-Fi connection, electric fans, a modern clean communal kitchen, and costs us $30/£20 per night. A decent breakfast costs $3/£2 each. The family homes, little more than shacks really, house at least 6 people in each, and have none of the above. Their floors are concrete and/or dirt, furniture is minimal, decoration nonexistent, and they have chickens/dogs running loose in their dirt yards. Our privilege eh! Or is it?

Mind you, the cacophony of night long animal noise is equal for all of us – a braying donkey just down the road, roosters in competition at all hours, and the barking dogs…well once one starts they all join in. The local pig & its 3 piglets snoozes through it, we don’t at all, but we suspect our neighbours do!

There are some interesting economics at play in Canoa. The guy who owns/runs our hostel tells us he brought the land 10 years ago for $8,000, after a bit he spent 18months building the place, which has now been open for 15months, and he is just covering his outgoings whilst living on site. The plot of land behind us, that includes the 2 homes shown and 2 more, is presently valued at $50,000 (if they’d sell it). Next to us both is an empty plot measuring about 75 x 50m worth a reputed $200,000, and owned by ‘someone’ in Quito. Similar prices apply to plots nearby, with similar absentee owners.

We are told most of the seafront land/property is owned by Americans, with new buildings going up regularly. Some people clearly anticipate making a lot of money in Canoa in the very near future. Few, if any, of them will be locals of the town. Those locals remaining near the seafront are being slowly bought out, and then have no choice but to move further inland – where land is much cheaper and less desirable. You may call this ‘regeneration’, or you may call it ‘social cleansing’, to create a temporary paradise for ‘privileged’ tourists. But one thing it doesn’t seem to be doing is creating a sustainable future for those who have lived here for generations. That seems to be one of Ecuador’s ongoing contradictions.

Our hostal in Quito – Colonial House

We´ve left Quito now but thought we´d give a shout-out to the first hostal we have stayed at, Colonial House, in the San Blas barrio of Quito.

We were welcomed by one of the volunteer staff, Pete, on our arrival, who along with the other vols was helpful & friendly. The hostal is owned & managed by an unassuming Ecudorian woman.

The hostal location provides easy walking access to the historic old town (5 to 10 minutes), the not-so-new-at-all tourist district of Mariscal (20 to 30 minutes), as well as a choice of public transport, a local market, plenty of shops and cafes, and much more.

P1000126The hostal occupies an old house reputed to be about 200 years old – like many Quito houses it shows signs of having been added to and/or adaped over time. The house is brightly painted internally, mainly wooden, with a fair bit of art on the walls and a few murals – in some ways it reminded us of a better West Berlin squat in the 1980´s. So Colonial House is 3 storeys tall with a large rear back addition. This creates space for 13 rooms all holding at least a double bed, and many several beds. In addition there are 2 communal kitchens, communal dining areas, a lounge with tv, and a chilled & shaded garden featuring two busy rabbits.

P1000129We paid $25 per night (£16.50) for a double room with bathroom. We usually had their excellent breakfast for $3.50 each – fruit salad-yoghurt-granola, juice, coffee or tea, bread/croissants with butter & jam, and scrambled eggs. In addition there was plentiful free tea, real coffee & good drinking water; decent wi-fi, 2 pc terminals and a printer, and beers to buy in a fridge.

As our first place to stay this was ideal. There was a real mix of international guests of all ages, who were all pretty friendly and sharing info. Leaving there we felt pretty set up for the next step of our trip. Cheers to Colonial House! More info/booking at http://www.colonialhousequito.com

Lastly a pat on the back for CarpeDM tours, who ran a great free walking tour of Quito, and the day tour we took to Otavalo ($25), check them out if you are in town. More info at http://www.carpedm.ca/tours