Who ever said Bolivian busses were shitty? If only you could be a mosquito on the window right now, you’d see my #travelbae Luke and I snug as two bugs, wrapped up in our llama jumpers & socks, snacks by our feet, chairs reclined, blankets tucked over us, as Bolivian evening trundles by on our way to its capital: La Paz.
Just two weeks ago (beggars belief when I think of all we’ve done since), I wrote you from my kushty Workaway in San Rafael, Argentina. I was, and had been, travelling solo for close to five months. All is no longer the same.
Heading back to Buenos Aires after a teary farewell with my San Raf hosts, I met up with mi compañera for the following three months: Luke, henceforth known as el Capo. And in the two weeks from then till now we’ve travelled Argentina, and touched base in Brazil, Chile, and Bolivia. Looking at my calendar just now, as I said, I was shocked to see we’d only been travelling together for two weeks. In a sense, it has understandably flown by, and yet, if feels like a whole lot longer – we’ve seen so much, and are as comfortable as travel buddies as llama meat & taters are in ma belly.
To have somebody to travel with, especially at the half way point in my travels, is a joy I had previously not realised existed. Of course, I love travelling alone. My meagre words have attempted, and failed, to describe how much fun I’ve been having as a solo backpacker. But, like everything, it has its pitfalls: loneliness, lack of shoot-the-shit conversation, unending responsibility, lack of familiarity.
Travelling with pals, long term, takes care of all these problems with, as far as I can thus tell, zero setbacks.
El Capo and I are able to halve the burden of booking hostels, busses, tours, planning our route, dealing with language barriers, finding a place to eat, thinking of things to do, dealing with shitty hippy and/or laddish travellers (South America has a whole lot of these).
I know from shorter past experiences, and from stories told me by others, that one of the great downsides to travelling with friends is the loss of the complete freedom and spontaneity afforded you when you’re flying solo. That suddenly you’re put in a situation where you’ve got to compromise, perhaps even argue over all of the decisions required to continue on your way. This would, of course, suck ass.
Thankfully this is not the case for Don Quixote y el Capo. If I may say so myself, we’re both pretty easy going cats, with a penchant for adventure, nature, history, (the odd boozy/intoxicated-one-way-or-another-night once in a while). Plus our travel-selfs are very similar. We like to keep on the move (but happily veg out when needed), we’re always keen to eat local, we’ll go cheap till our wallets bleed, and on top of this, our spanish ain’t half mal neither.
Quick refresher, for if you’re reading this blog for the first time, or you got bored and stopped reading halfway through my And the sun set on China post. I met El Capo in Guilin, China, subsequently kicking it with he and his buddy Dill in Beijing. We camped on the Great Wall and partied hard. Back in Guilin, the pair of us bonded with the rare kind of immediacy afforded on just a handful of occassions in a lifetime; the kind afforded those whose interests include smoking, reading, eating, bevving, and obscure historical facts. Thus, it was hardly even a month after El Capo left me in Beijing for home (Toronto) before I get a call saying he’d booked flights to come meet me in Argentina.
Aye, and so here we are: thick as thieves and just a fifth of the way into our Southern Hemospheric adventure.
After a day of exploring art museums, eating cheap pizza and discussing our next move (not easy when you’re in a country the size of Argentina, where busses cost £60 and 20 something hours minimum), we caught our first of many busses out of the capital and north, up into the ‘finger’ of Argentina, to the very tip bordering Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay. We were headed for Puerto Iguazu and the Iguassu/Iguazu/Iguaçu Falls, one of the world’s seven natural wonders.
Twenty three hours on a bus is never a favourable prospect, but in Argentina it’s actually quite bearable. Plied with cig breaks (perhaps not as frequent as we might have liked), hot lunches and dinners, and a strange selection of almost audible movies, we made it with our feathers unruffled.
Iguassu Falls proved more than worth the time it took to get there too. The Argentinian side, which we explored with Jan – a lad we met on the bus there – took us up close and personal with a monstrous array of fauna and the cascading giants themselves. So close were we that our faces and phones became drenched with spray. The scope of the falls is enormous, and at no one point can you view all of them together. The most stunning part was El Garganta del Diablo (The Devil’s Throat, aptly named). This horseshoe collapse of river descended ferociously into a complete white-out of mist. Looking over the edge of the walkway you could make out nothing: not height, nor depth, nor what exactly lay below.
What on earth did people think when they first discovered this place?! I remember thinking.
We stood there for a half hour, just soaking it in. The more-than-well-travelled El Capo said Iguassu even beat Niagara in its beauty.
The next day we took a cheeky day trip over the border and into Brazil, as you do, to accrue a couple more entry/exit stamps in our passports, and to see how the Brazilian side of Iguassu compared. Whilst a much shorter day than we’d had on the Argentinian side, Brazil proved no less impressive, offering stunning panoramic views, and the chance to walk out to greet El Garganta del Diablo at it’s Adam’s Apple. Complete, of course, with stupidly sharp rainbows.
Post-Iguazu it was another 20 something hours on a bus out west, to Salta, Salta Province. Crawling out of jungle and rainforest, and into la pampa’s endless mid-west American plains, the sights proffered up by this journey kept me more than entertained.
Salta, however, was perhaps not worth the time it took to get there. A small, unimpressive city with very little to keep us occupied, cooped up in a hostel with one shower, shite WiFi, regularly blocked toilets, and sometimes no electricity to speak of, you can imagine our lasting impression of the place. And yet, it’s on occassions like this that the beauty of travel buddies steps up to the plate. Had I been alone, and you better believe I’ve been in situations like this alone before, Salta would have been a permanent black mark in my history book. But with el Capo, we somehow made it bearable. Maybe it was just having someone to voice my complaints to, maybe it was the deciding to fuck it and get drunk in the park, maybe it was taking the piss out of the shitty English couple rather than getting annoyed by them, maybe it was smoking up with the crazy interesting Russians. Whatever it was, I’ve managed to save some fond memories from Salta, which would almost certainly not have been the case had I been on my own.
Leaving Salta meant leaving Argentina, not – as I had originally planned – for Bolivia or Brazil, but instead for Chile: a country much raved about by my Japan pal Paula and many others along the way. We were headed up over the Andes, along absolutely the most beautiful roads I’ve ever seen in my life, to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile’s Atacama Desert: the driest place on earth.
Our bus there included 4700 metres of altitude (and the headaches that come with that), almost fainting after a cigarette and lugging our luggage through border control at the same meterage, knicking an extra two lunches each from the bus, and views like these:
Ten hours later (so short!) we arrived amidst dust and the gold of a falling sun in the smallest place I’ve stayed in yet: San Pedro de Atacama, a tiny desert town catering essentially entirely to passing tourists, with a population presumably similar to my home-village Denholm.
This was a welcome change from city-hopping, especially given it’s setting was to prove more alien to me and more gorgeous than I could ever have expected.
In the warmth of a desert sun, our first day in the town was spent cycling out to Valle de la Luna, so called for its lunar landscape (in fact I believe NASA used to run their tests there). The cycle out was long, but with a 360 degree landscape that’d pull your jaw to the ground with a magnetism so strong you’d better watch it doesn’t rip it right off.
The cycling in Valle de la Luna itself was… not for us. I mean, we’re not completely unfit, we’re just not that fit. Through a messy combination of sweaty, altitude-oxygenless cycling and walking with the bikes through thick sand, we made it to our goal: the main dunes, and the main viewpoint of the valley itself.
After drinking mate (southern South American tea what folk go mad for) and sharing a smoke with a Chilean lad at the top of the dunes, we set off back into town (not, of course, before fixing a puncture in el Capo’s front inner-tube – something neither of us had done before, thus making our success all the more rewarding).
That night we cycled out back towards the Andes to catch the sunset as it turned the mountains pink and purple and blue and black.
Day three, however, was much more interesting. Having met at the hostel the three English lasses (Siân, Libi & Abby) who’d be accompanying us the following day on our three-day tour into Bolivia, el Capo and I decided to tag along on Siân’s horse-riding that afternoon.
MORE HORSE RIDING YASS.
The three of us, with our Gaucho leader Rodrigo, set off under the comfortable afternoon sun atop our trusty steeds/wee pony-esque beasts, bound for Valle de la Muerte (The Valley of Death). So named because some dickhead Spanish conquistador mistranslated Marte (Mars) as Muerte. Still, I’m gonna persist with the death thing, given it’s cool, and I wanna be cool. K?
We took a relaxed hack out of town, through rivers and gorges, into the Martian hills of Valle de la Muerte. I held behind most of the way, relishing the view of two pals and Rodrigo trotting through canyons of blood red sand and rock, sunlight catching Siân’s hair there, or Luke’s camera here. At one point, we reached a point in the pass where three walls of stone converged to cut us off from everything else. Rodrigo’s horse, out front, took a wild spook despite the silence and lack of other life. I joked ‘el vió una phantasma!’, the smile soon wiped from my face as Rodrigo confirmed that yeah, actually, this particular point in the pass has been known to be haunted for centuries.
Oh. Great. Gracias amigo.
With thankfully zero further encounters of the third kind, we made it to our final point: the sand dunes of the valley, and our chance to gallop. Not only was I foaming at the bit to do so, so was my horse – a nippy wee bugger who did not want to walk, not ever (I kinda loved that about him). As I’m sure you can imagine, the feeling of galloping across the dunes of the Valley of Death, el Capo close behind me, the breeze in my face, was not a feeling I’ll soon forget.
Out of breath, we returned to Rodrigo for a break. We clambered down from the horses and slammed a few bottles of water, the late afternoon still pleasantly warm. At this point auld Rodrigo produces an unusual type of grass to feed his horses, and to quench his own thirst. The ride back home was, then – with the sun setting and moon rising above volcanoes and mountains – a fairly enjoyable ride.
And so, after a brief but very enjoyable few days cavorting about the deserts of Northern Chile, we felt it time to move on, to the deserts of Southern Bolivia.
Having heard from a few Patagonian Chileans that they’d never experience cold like the tour to Uyuni (an encouraging sentiment) we layered up with two pairs of socks, running pants under jeans, two t-shirts, sweater, hoody, coat, hat & gloves. Nice and snug in the bus on the way to the border, it’d be just a couple hours till we’d find how bollocks can freeze solid even underneath all that.
We climbed steadily up to the Bolivian border: nothing but a small hut and a raggedy flag with border guards who laughed at our lack of winter clothing and stamped our passports without so much as a ‘how’s it going?’.
Transferred then to a battered old jeep, our home for the next three days, we were bundled through the 4-5000m high Martian landscapes with Siân’s playlist the soundtrack to our gorgeous surroundings. Our day was packed full of stunning lagunas, white, green, and red, each vibrant against snow-capped mountains and our dust-drenched jeep. We chewed coca to alleviate the elevation, and shitied out of taking a dip in the thermal pools (having left my towel in Buenos Aires, I didn’t fancy the old drip dry). Lunch and dinner was taken at our hostel for the night, just a stones throw from Laguna Colorada: a lake of deep reds and blues, complete with llamas and flamingoes (adding two brand new experiences to my journey). That night we ate, drank wine, played cards, shivered feverishly, and slept beneath a ton weight of blankets: still Baltic.
Bright and early at 6am the next morning we woke, our heads pounding like an untrained carpenter was hammering rusty nails into the backs of our eyes. Poor el Capo had been up since maybe 4am, sick as a dog with a headache ‘more painful than a broken bone’. Coca leaves and 6 litres of water it was, then. And back into the jeep; the two biggest lads of the group piled into our cubby hole in the boot, trying to catch up on a bit of sleep.
Day two proved a long one, with greater distances between each break, the heat in the jeep dense and exhausting, our headaches thankfully ebbing slowly but surely. The day passed in a bit of a haze for me, too tired to fully take in the views. Still, looking back at my photo’s I’m reminded of the majesty of active volcanoes (new experience: tick), geysers (new experience: tick), and wind-carved boulders the size of mansions (new experience: tick). My favourite part of the day was lunch with our guide by a laguna in the hills, which made me wonder again what the Incas must have thought when they discovered it. Our saving grace that day was our hotel for the night, set against the expanse of the salt flats which would fill our final day. Hot shower, mate, dinner of chicken, veg, and taters, and the cutest wee lass kicking around in her stroller who el Capo and I swooned over.
Our sleep was cosy and uninterrupted, all the better given we were to start the next day at 5am to catch the sunrise.
Back down at a ‘sensible’ 3500m, the Salt Flats proved not just warmer than our first two days but, as the day wore on, actually warm.
Driving out under the moon and stars into the unending expanses of the salt flats, with nothing but a sliver of greenish blue light on the horizon, the drive felt like the first manned exploration of Pluto might feel like.
We arrived at a small hill formation named Isla de Incahuasi, still shrouded in night, where we were to watch the sunrise and take breakfast. I’ve seen a lot of of sunrises in my lifetime (funnily enough) and on this trip. Not to mention one from atop an unrenovated section of the Great Wall of China (#namedrop), and yet, by far, this was the most stunning I’ve ever seen. Rising as slow as jam, the piercing light illuminated a 360 panoramic tundra in deep purples and pinks. From where we stood, the shadow of the hill cast a long mountain out across the salt. We could have stayed there for hours, but a breakfast of chocolate, coffee, cake and cigarettes beckoned. After a few quick photo’s with various national flags (inc. el Capo y Don Quixote in front of the Chinese flag that united them), we headed out into the middle of the flats to play around with perspective.
And thus we arrive in Uyuni, and subsequently – after a day soaking in the sights, captivatinf faces, smells and tastes of a small Bolivian desert town, and a cosy night on a bus to La Paz – in the capital of Bolivia, with all its madness and corruption and crime and beauty.
In just two weeks, el Capo and I have packed more brand new experiences in than I could have ever imagined possible. And we’ve done it with smiles on our faces, despite shitty Salta, freezing Uyuni, and a billion hours on busses. This is the beauty of travelling with a pal, and I feel very lucky to say I’ve 2+ months left with his crazy ass in this most craziest ass of continents.
With all my love, to all my Capo’s back home and to all those I’ve yet to meet.
Addendum: El Capo woke me up this morning with the news that I, as a citizen of the UK, am no longer a part of Europe. Despite the fact that, once again, Scotland shouted in protest with a voice brave and defiant, our say has been quashed by a scared, tricked, deceited, and often racist older generation. I sat in stunned silence over breakfast. How can we still not see through the lies of the likes of Johnson & Farage? How can we be so blinded by a media created fear of immigrants (whom without, our economy would be in tatters, our culture grey and bleak, our working lives ten times harder)? I am saddened and dissapointed by the UK. The only goodness I can see come out of this is a potential Corbynite government, and in time, an independent (EU member) Scotland. I hope that the EU and all our global trade partners really tighten the screws on us, leaving us as fucked as we were in the 70s and 80s. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll then see what a mistake we’ve made. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll then burn Westminster to the ground.
Peace, love, and destruction, comrades.