Potosì Bolivia – from Riches to Rags.

Sometimes you just need an adventure to cleanse the bitter taste of life from your soul.

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Three and a half hours from Sucre on the bus is Potosí, sitting tall at 4060m above sea level. Famous for its silver mine, and what was once one of the richest parts of Bolivia. Sadly the exploitation and wealth gain from some left the majority poor. A tale we’ve all heard many times over, and unfortunately the world over. That doesn’t stop Potosí being a beautiful and worthwhile place to visit.

Potosí is not as well preserved as Sucre, and sadly is now one of the poorest places in Bolivia, but it is rich in history. It still has grand churches and ornate colonial architecture.

Cerro Rico, a ‘Rich Hill’ or Rich mountain – full of silver – a stunning sight in Potosí. The city was founded in 1545 and as soon as the silver was discovered it was swiftly extracted and bankrolled the Spanish empire. The phrase still exists today ‘vale in Potosí’ – worth a Potosí.

Cerro Rico

During the boom years the metal seemed inexhaustible and Potosí became one of the wealthiest cities in all of The America’s’. Once the silver dried up however the city went into decline and the citizens sadly slipped into poverty. The mine is still going today and the locals work in abysmal conditions.

Entrance to the mine

Whilst the tour of the mine was interesting, it was also a horrible experience. You can’t help but feel for the workers and be grateful for what you have.

Potosí had a huge impact on the economy in the old world. Silver was exported to Asia and Europe. The Spanish crown received many of the benefits. Corrupt authorities took some of the silver and the bulk of it was shared between a few individuals. A number of ships carrying silver ended up as shipwrecks and had the silver stolen.

Silver in production

The famous claim is that you could have built a bridge from Bolivia to Spain with the amount of silver that was exported to Spain. That bridge could then be covered in the bodies of the indigenous people that were forced to work in the mine; called ‘the mountain that eats men.’ Many of them died. African slaves were brought over to work in the mine but struggled due to the altitude and cold weather so many died very quickly.

Big Deal Tours

If you can I recommend using Big deal tours for your trips in Potosí. It’s run by ex-miners and is really beneficial to the locals. Our guide was Wilson, a real character with a great sense of humour! http://bigdealtours.blogspot.com

Dynamite purchased with Wilson!

First of all we stopped at the market to buy gifts for the miners. I purchased dynamite to help them with extracting the silver. Other options include coca leaves, juice drinks or cigarettes. You can also buy alcohol from sugar cane, 96% proof!

The strongest alcohol I’ve ever come across!

I didn’t purchase the cigarettes as the miners have enough other contributions to shortening their lifespan. They work 12-16 hour shifts, in torrid conditions. Running heavy wheelbarrows full of rocks back and forth in small, dark tunnels. There are huge holes everywhere, in terms of health and safety the UK or The States, they wouldn’t let you anywhere near the place to wander round as part of a tour, nor work there.

Last year 12 miners died, 4 were new the rest died from age – but old age in Potosi has a different meaning to what our expectations are. Or they died from infections caused by the dust and fumes, or inhaling dynamite. Sometimes new miners are lost due to accidents, particularly with the wheelbarrows, or sometimes caused by the dynamite.

Next we went to suit up, a dust suit top and trousers over our clothes. A belt, a helmet and a head torch. Wellington boots, a face mask and a small bag for your belongings and gifts for the miners. The face mask was generally unbearable to wear, with the altitude and heat.

We experienced being deep inside the dark mine when dynamite was let off. And having to quickly get out of the way of the miners with their heavy wheelbarrows. It really is an experience but not necessarily a pleasant one. As I said, it makes you grateful for what you have. They work all day long, without stopping for lunch. Breakfast and dinner sees them through a long shift; that and the coca leaves which help them keep going.

Thankfully these days there are some rules. They no longer allow workers under the age of 18. Wilson our guide started working in the mine when he was just 8 years old. He worked there for 29 years and now he is a guide and sometimes does a shift in the mine. He taught himself English though he speaks pleasantries in many languages. He said they use a lot of bad language in the mine, it’s a hard job and it helps keep them upbeat.

Upbeat miners
Extracted silver and some fool’s gold

Walking Tour

Wilson also took us on a walking tour of a Potosí, also with Big deal tours. Its a beautiful city and he really is an interesting and charismatic guy with a lot of information to share and a great sense of humour!

You can visit the market area where widows go to meet people once they are alone. There is also a Central market, San Francisco Church is impressive and you can do a tour. And you can also do a tour of the Mint house.

Local market

It’s a lovely place to wander around and experience Bolivia and the local people.

Bolivia is now rich in something other than silver, it has the biggest lithium reserves in world, in the region of 50-70% of the worlds lithium. Other foreign governments want to extract snd export it. The previous government was apparently pushing lithium to China, Iran and Russia. Hopefully they can keep the money for there own benefit this time rather than being exploited.

There was a local football game on during our visit – photo of some of the fans getting ready below! I can’t imagine running around on a pitch at that altitude!

Food and drink

A great local restaurant with some traditional specialties is El Tenedor. Local dishes include llama, and chicken tongue!

A great cafe style pub when lovely food and some nice local red wine is 4060. It also has WiFi but the manager has to input the code into your phone herself.

There’s some good cafes too, Cafe De La Plata – sophisticated and cosy, good for coffee and cake! Trufa Negra is another little cafe with delicious food.

First day back at school – helping the children cross the road – new meaning to zebra crossing!

The Practical Stuff

The altitude gets you, if you’re coming from La Paz or Peru you’ll already be acclimatised. If you’re coming from Sucre as I was it’s significantly higher. I recommend the tablets mentioned in my Sucre blog to help you cope with the altitude. That and appreciate that you’re not going to get anywhere quickly! A short walking up a little incline will have you panting for breath!

Bolivia is cheap and eating and drinking out is great value. As usual I recommend a Starling bank card for great rates and its easy to withdraw cash when you need it or pay on it as a debit card but with no fees and great rates! https://www.starlingbank.com/

Next stop Uyuni, a desert crossing then the famous salt flats!

Sucre Bolivia – it’s all about the chocolate!

Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.

Dalai Lama

It was a fair old trip to get here from The Pantanal in Brazil. Part of our tour headed back to Rio leaving at 5am. The remaining 3 of us got picked up at a much more respectable 9am. I thought I’d get woken by the noise of them getting ready to leave, but I had a surprisingly good nights sleep in the hammock and when I woke I was surprised to find they’d already left. Thank you to Steven and Theo for being so quiet leaving our hammock room!

We took a one hour bumpy bus ride out of the park, then a further 2 hours to Carumba. We stopped for lunch, a cheap but very good buffet, then headed for the border.

No queue, sometimes it can take an hour, so a relatively painless border crossing.

The Bolivian border

And we are in Bolivia! We chilled out for a few hours by the pool in hotel Bibosi, in both the sun and the rain. Bolivia sees every type of weather in one day! The poolside shower and toilet felt so clean and amazing after Pantanal, where we showered with mosquitoes and shared the bathroom with snakes, spiders, frogs and cockroaches to name a few.

Taxi ride from the border to our chill out hotel for the afternoon

From here we got a taxi to the bus station where we set off for our 8-12 hour journey to Santa Cruz. Overnight buses are surprisingly comfortable so I managed to get some sleep. We arrived at the airport 10 hours later around 5am. From here we flew to Sucre where we finally got to our hotel at around 11am, 26 hours after leaving The Pantanal!

Flat tire en route to Sucre!

Bolivia

Bolivia has a complex political past (and present), as does most if South America. In 1809 Bolivia declared its independence from Spain by establishing its first Government in Chuquisaca, later renamed Sucre. General Simón Bolivar succeeded in liberating Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia and Panama from Spanish rule in 1822. In 1825 General Sucre incited a declaration of independence for Alto Peru, and the new Republic of Bolivia was formed, with executive and judicial branches of Government.

Independence was proclaimed on August 6th 1825. Bolivia later lost its coastline to Chile in the war of the Pacific. Losing this transit point impacted trade and continues to do so today. The strength of its natural resources played a part in Bolivia’s history, and are of huge interest to the world today. Especially after the largest natural reserve of lithium in the world was discovered in Bolivia.

There is currently no president in Bolivia due to the recent Civil war at the end of last year. The Deputy is currently in charge while they find a new president. As a female this is a really big deal as Bolivia still tends to experience males in more senior roles. I’m told by locals that the previous President was good at helping natives and the indigenous people; but the power went to his head. He created a law to allow himself to run for a third term, when no one is usually allowed to run for more than 2 terms. People disagreed and civil war started.

Its very recent with The Gadventures trips to Bolivia in November getting cancelled or diverted. So I feel lucky that just a couple of short months later I was able to enjoy this beautiful country!

Bolivia has a population of c.11m. Sucre is the capital though it only has a population of around 300,000 people. Many people believe La Paz to be the capital and there is no love lost between the two cities. Sucre is the historical and constitutional capital and La Paz is where the majority of government offices are, with a population of c. 2m.

Sucre

The birthplace of the nation the white city of Sucre glistens in the sun, though at around 18 degree celsius if felt very cold after the heat and humidity of Brazil! I had a few days to chill out in Sucre before my Bolivia tour started so I have to say its one of my favourite places in Bolivia and is a must see whilst you’re here! Sucre sits in a lush valley surrounded by mountains, and offers a bit of everything, both old and new. It has the beautiful historic buildings and an impressive night scene. Around 40% of the population is between 20 -29.

I stayed in The Independencia Hotel, a great location near the Main Square. The shower was amazing! I needed a hot shower as we are now at a mere 20 odd degree Celsius! Very cold after the humidity of Brazil. Elevation is 2400m above sea level.

Looking back I think I thought the shower was amazing because I’d been showering in the Pantanal with frogs and snakes!

Hotel Independencia

The building is beautiful though. It used to be a family home and must have been pretty amazing.

Things to do

As well as wandering around the beautiful buildings of Sucre, there are a number of museums and markets to see. Do not miss Para Ti – the best chocolate shop in Bolivia! You can choose a selection of the freshly made individual chocolates, which are very cheap for what you get. Or the bars – I recommend the Dark chocolate with salt. They also sell special bags that will stop the chocolate being affected in hot temperatures if you still have some travelling to do!

Para Ty Chocolate Shop!

One of the popular things to see is Cretassic park – famed for its dinosaur footprints! You can pick up the bus from the main square, I think it was 15 Bolivianos for a return. Get there early as it goes when its full, and you an try and get a seat upstairs to enjoy the views during the journey. Then it was around 30 Bolivianos for entrance and you can take advantage of the guided tour. Well worth it for the information and passion that they share! I recommend wearing closed shoes as some of the surfaces are uneven.

Dinosaur tracks!
My hand inside a dinosaur footprint 👣

There are a number of local tours too. The more people, the cheaper the price per person. You can hike out to see more dinosaur prints. There is also rock climbing, quads or motorbike and mountain biking. I did the cycling and can recommend it. You can choose from a 3 hour tour, 4.5 or 6 hours depending on your fitness, but bear in mind the altitude as there is a small amount of uphill! Stunning scenery though!

The view whilst mountain biking in Sucre

You can also do a city tour which includes entrance into your choice of 2 museums. They take you up to the top of the hill to see the view from La Recoleta, its a fair walk up with the altitude so was a bonus to get the bus up the hill. You also visit the cemetery which although sad is beautiful. Sucre has catacombs which start at the top of the hill and run down to all the churches. They were discovered during independence but its uncertain when they were built. They now enjoy UNESCO protection.

Locals playing cards in the square at La Recoleta

I went to the textile museum which I thoroughly recommend. Its really interesting and you hear about 3 different tribes and what there work represents. You can see this reflected in the garments. The first tribe believed in Pachamama – Mother Nature, you can see the weather depicted in the weavings. The next tribe reflect the underworld and demons, they have a lot of red on black work. The third represents farmers and dancers in the tapestries and reflect gifts for Pachamama.

I also visited the semi precious stone museum which gifts you detail on how silver and stones are mined. As well as examples of how the Indigenous people used them as decorations on outfits. It also has a good shop where you can purchase some lovely silver pieces at good prices. Alternatively you can pick up silver cheaply in the markets.

Impressive roof in the semi precious stone museum

Food and drink

The local drink is chufflay. A transparent 40% proof drink, Sangini, served with sprite or my preference ginger ale. The best local brand is Casa Real.

Florin is a great restaurant with really good food. A bit of a mixed bag, I loved the enchiladas, and they make a really good chufflay! We were also there to watch the Super Bowl – great half time entertainment!

Another good option for breakfast or lunch is Bienmesabe la Arepera. Arepas is a delicious Colombian style dish. Its a tortilla and you choose fillings, I opted for eggs, avocado and tomatoes. It was so good I returned a couple of days later at lunchtime and the chicken filling was also delicious. They serve fresh juice and offer both gluten free and vegan options too, with Almond milk on the menu.

Delicious Arepas!

Metro is a cafe that’s good for when you need something quick but the food is good too, and they have a sushi menu too. It’s on the corner of the main square.

I also cant recommend highly enough a restaurant called Proyecto Nativa. For something a bit more special, but great value at just 120 Bolivianos (BOB), this worked out about £13; for a 6 course traditional Bolivian food menu, with some dishes a fusion of other cuisines. All made with local ingredients, with a local drink in between each course. The chef is Juan Gumiel and he comes out to tell you about each dish, in Spanish, which was kindly translated into English for those of us that needed it. The drinks then compliment what you are eating.

One of the many delicious courses
The first dessert!

He uses fresh ingredients everyday from the market. Its all made from scratch, he has a different menu each week and tries never to repeat the same menu. We had a lot of Bolivian and Chinese fusion, and some Bolivian and Italian fusion. You need to book, and he caters well to dietary requirements. One of the drinks was a cocktail with Gin from La Paz, with cucumber and grape – delicious!

Local Gin

For a night out I recommend Kultur Berlin. It’s a hostel with a bar and club downstairs, run by a German guy who married a Bolivian lady. It was mainly full of locals and a few youngsters from the hostel. It costs 25 Boliviano’s to get in and you get a free drink on arrival, either a beer or a jäger shot!

Obviously the party doesn’t get going until midnight or so but was a good night and lots of fun!

One night they had a free dancing show on with some local dances – impressive to watch and great costumes!

Bolivian wine is good, it’s generally hard to go wrong in South America for good wine! They don’t export a lot, most of it is kept for local consumption.

One of the many delicious reds, a blend of merlot and tannat

The Practical stuff

First thing to consider when coming to Bolivia is the altitude. Sucre isn’t so bad at only 2400m, but in other places you’ll reach 4-5000m. If you suffer with altitude sickness, or even as a prevention I’d recommend these local tablets: Sorojchi pills, that you can pick up in a local pharmacy. Though you may prefer to pick some up in the UK / US.

I’d also recommend having paracetamol handy. Some people are fine and get no symptoms, others feel sick or have headaches. Shortness of breath is common, even after what you would normally consider a small amount of exertion.

If you wear contacts get some eye drops as the altitude can dry them / your eyes out more than normal. A nasal spray and some tissues is a good idea too.

The local currency is Bolivianos, and at time of writing (February 2020), its circa 9 Bolivianos to the Pound. You can exchange locally or withdraw from an ATM. As usual I recommend a Starling bank card to minimise fees. Some local banks will still charge you though. Try BCP if you can find one as they often don’t charge.

Worth noting that Bolivia is a pre-dominantly Catholic country and many places are closed Sundays. So if you’re there on the weekend plan in advance if you need to use the bank, money exchange, laundry etc.

As I had time to regroup in Sucre I had a massage and got my nails done. A lady called Liz came to the hotel to give me a great massage for around £20. And I had my nails painted for £2.50! Including my toes!

I’m a bit late in my Bolivia write up I actually arrived at the very end of January. Next stop is Potosi!

Brazil – Bonito & Pantanal

Wanderlust – a strong desire or urge to travel and explore the world

Bonito

Bonito is a town and ecotourism hub in Southern Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul state. The surrounding area is known for its crystal clear rivers and is a great snorkelling destination with an abundance of fish to see and swim with!

Stunning colours of the fish whilst snorkelling

Abismo Anhumas is also an undergroundi lake in a huge stalactite covered cavern. Its an area of stunning natural beauty, with spectacular caves, lakes and waterfalls!

To get there from Iguazu involves a very long 12 hour bus journey. So long you actually cross a time zone en route and move back one hour. You also see very little for hours. You couldn’t drive that far in Europe without seeing something. It’s worth the effort though!

I stayed in Muiti Bonito, a hotel and an agency that sells all the local tours. Most of the tours involve water though there are other options available such as canopy walking and cycling.

Such clear water in the river!

The river snorkelling was brilliant. They are very protective of preserving the area and the environment for the fish, and limit the number of visitors each day. You have to shower before entering the water to remove any suncream or bug spray. And you aren’t allowed to put your feet down so as not to damage any coral, they ensure you’re comfortable floating before you set off. You must wear a wetsuit, as it’s river water and the temperature is a bit cool. Lifejackets are provided which also help with floating if required.

We took the Silver route which involved a 30 minute walk to the river – in our wetsuits! There was the option of a cool shower part way, well a shower of sorts anyway!

Quick shower to cool down!

During the walk the tour guide pointed out local wildlife, plants and fruit. We saw some male and female howler monkeys, and this relative of the ant eater.

The first half hour was the best for snorkelling with fish surrounding you at all times. After this we still saw plenty but the water gets a little deeper so there’s not quite as much around. Still great snorkelling though.

It’s also pretty easy to float along with little effort as the current takes you and you only need to move your arms a little.

There are minerals in the rocks which give the water the beautiful blue colour and keep it transparent so you can see everything clearly. It cleans the water, and also creates craters so there are lots of caves too.

It’s not cheap at around 400 real, but was worth it. This included transport to and from the park and a delicious lunch. We also saw a fair amount of wildlife on the way to and from the park.

Restaurants

A good restaurant I’d recommend is Pantanal grill gourmet. Their speciality is alligator and there is a great choice of dishes. I opted for the piranha ceviche which was delicious! And a local fish called Pacu for my main which was an enormous portion and also really good.

Pantanal

From Bonito we headed to The Pantanal, a couple of hours drive before you change into a more heavy duty open vehicle for a further hours drive with some wildlife spotting.

The Pantanal is a natural region encompassing the world’s largest tropical wetland area. Located mainly in Brazil in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, though it extend into Mato Grosso and also in part into Bolivia and Paraguay. Its sprawling area covers somewhere between 140,000 and 195,000 square kilometres.

Its possible to visit The Pantanal all year round, though unfortunately for me the dry season is usually better (May – September), as the wildlife tends to concentrate around the reduced water. That said it was so hot and it hasn’t rained for months so the river was very low and there weren’t as many animals around due to the heat. Except for mosquitoes aplenty and snakes seeking refuge from the heat in the shower!

On our last evening it rained, the locals were grateful and wildlife started appearing from every direction as things cooled down.

Chilling out before piranha fishing 🎣

I stayed in Santa Clara Pousada and camping, and we were in the camping area not the hotel. There’s one room with hammocks surrounded by a mosquito net. A bonus when we arrived was that we found out there was also one room with beds! That said I opted for the hammock! I think it was the better option as most people chose the bedroom so there was less of us in hammocks. Main benefit also was that it was fewer people opening and closing the door – so less mosquitoes!!

Up close and personal with the Caiman!

It was a great experience and whilst it put me out of my comfort zone I really enjoyed it. We fed Caiman, went piranha fishing, hiking and horse riding.

Feeding the Caiman!

We were well looked after by Pedro who helped us with the activities and was really informative. And also Delores who did all the cooking and I enjoyed some of the nicest food in my whole trip to Brazil. I think she tried to kill us with the caipirinhas though! They were SO strong! Pretty good value as one would last quite some time.

Delores and her bar!

We woke early with the birds and did some activities after breakfast. Which meant that by 10.15am most people were ready for a beer!

Next stop Bolivia!!

Iguazu Falls

Wow. Astounding. Awesome. Breathtaking.

Words or pictures simply cannot do justice to this stunning and amazing natural wonder. One of the seven natural wonders of the world!

At every turn and every corner I repeated the word WOW!

Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.

Gustav Flaubert

A very apt quote. It’s such an awesome waterfall, and does make you realise how strong Mother Nature – Pachamama – is, and how small we are!

Iguazu means big water. Iguazu Falls are jaw-dropping, you don’t just see it, you feel it. The power and the noise of the cascades, the remarkable scenery. A memory to be cherished forever. There are hundreds of waterfalls, circa 275, stretching 3km. The falls are easily accessed from Brazil and Argentina, and you can also access them from nearby Paraguay.

From Paraty we took a 5 hour bus ride to São Paulo airport, then just short of a two hour plane journey. From here we drove directly to the Brazilian side of the falls to enjoy the park for the afternoon.

Iguazu town has a population of 250,000 people.
The local economy is all tourism related. A lot of the restaurants are family run.

There has long been some conflict between Brazil and Argentina due to falls and who it belongs to. Paraguay no longer has any part of the falls for some 50 years and currently has a poor economy.

I stayed in the Del Rey hotel which was lovely with good facilities and about a 30 minute drive from the Brazilian side of the park. A shorter ride to the Argentinian border, but with the border crossing then getting to the park the other side the whole journey and process takes around one hour.

Brazilian Side – Foz do Iguaçu

It takes around 1 hour and a half to walk the most popular route which has stunning views at every turn!

The infrastructure is pretty good on the Brazilian side with a reasonably decent restaurant for such an attraction and a couple of decent gift shops.

The Brazilian side gives you a better view and Argentina puts on the show, and allows you to get closer to the falls.

Argentinian Side – Puerto Iguazu

Get there early to avoid the coach loads of tourists! It takes some time to get through the border but was relatively efficient. Our bus driver took all our passports and we were able to remain on the bus. This is obviously the details of my route from the Brazilian side to do one day trip to the Argentinian side.

You then pass through ‘No mans land’ and the bridge is green and yellow, then switching to blue and white as you get to the Argentinian side. You can see Paraguay in the distance as you pass.

The park opens at 8am and ideally you want to be in the queue earlier than this. Once the park opens I recommend getting the first train two stops to Devils Throat, the best view looking down over the falls. It’s then a 15 minute walk and you definitely want to get there early before it’s too busy! Be prepared to get wet which on a hot day is completely refreshing!

So much mist created from the strength of the water

I can’t put the view into words. It’s simply amazing how strong and powerful nature is. You can watch the falls mesmerised for quite some time. The water drops 80m and you can’t see the bottom for the blur of mist it creates. Stunning.

In the park you can pay in US dollars or Brazilian real. It’s not recommended to change or withdraw Argentinian currency if you are just visiting the park. They currently charge around 30% tax if you withdraw from an ATM and apply a similar fee on money exchange. There are restaurants and a gift shop here too but the infrastructure on the Brazilian side is a little better.

I also can’t recommend highly enough the boat trip on the Argentinian side. You get stunning views of the falls from the water, a different perspective. And prepare to get drenched as you enter the falls! If you scream they usually give you more goes under the waterfall too!

The price was around 250 Real for the tour. You get a trip through some of the park in a big open jeep type bus, stopping to look at wildlife. Though as it was so hot when we were there we mainly saw spiders, and the odd toucan.

Then you board the boat – go on in your swimwear. You get a life jacket and a wet bag to put all your belongings in.

You will get totally soaked! It’s great fun and amazing to be inside the waterfalls!

If you want to purchase the video and photos one of the guys takes using a go pro it’s 25 US dollars. They’ll send you a link, though only to one email address. But 3 of us split it and forwarded the link to each other.

There are a couple of trails you can walk too but after the views on the Brazilian side and seeing Devils Throat in Argentina they don’t seem as impressive. You do still see some good wildlife though.

A chilled out Coatis, be careful they steal your food!

I’m glad I saw the Brazilian side first, it gives you the impressive all round view. Then Argentina is impressive in a different way allowing you to get up close to the falls.

Restaurants

Here’s a couple I tried on Foz do Iguaçu – the Brazilian side of the falls.

Churrasqueria – an all you can eat buffet for 55 real. The buffet is average but if you like freshly cooked delicious Latin American meat this is your place. It was plentiful and so much choice. The waiters come around offering you different types and choices of meat and you can take it as you wish. If you like meat it’s heaven! Otherwise the next one is a better option.

Before I move on they do the best pineapple caipirinhas, and they actually come in a pineapple!

Pineapple caipirinha! 🍍

Raffain Shopp is a Sports music bar, with massive portions, great food and good value, and an excellent choice of cocktails! I had the house special ‘Big Caipirinha’, with pineapple honey and cinnamon – delicious!

I’m a little bit behind now with the blog as I’m currently in Sucre in Bolivia, but next Brazilian chapter, Bonito and Pantanal!

Best of Brazil – Ilhe Grande and Paraty

Stop dreaming about your bucket list and start living it.

Annette White

Chapter 4 of my South America Trip and stops 2 & 3 in Brazil! Brazil is such a vast country with so much to offer its hard to isolate highlights, but these are my latest stops! More to follow!

From Rio we’re taking a bus for about 3.5 hours, then a one hour boat ride to the island of Ilhe Grande. I didn’t particularly enjoy the boat ride it was a little rough so if you get motion sickness take tablets!

Some of the local street art

Ilhe Grande

The boat leaves from Angra dos Reis, and pulls into Ilhe Grande, a nice little island and beach town full of shops, tour agents and restaurants.

The whole area is sandy, if you have a bag on wheels you can pay guys to put them on trolleys and take them to your hotel for 10 Real return.

I stayed in hotel Bugjo a short walk from the front and Main Street. The rooms are small but bear in mind everything is a little more expensive as it’s an island.

Artist at work!

Most of the tour agencies and a number of restaurants are on the Main Street. There is a road that runs parallel which has most of the shops including the islands Haviana shop.

A little bit of island history

The island was originally home to a leprosy hospital. This building was later converted to a prison, for some of the worst criminals. They had many issues with the criminals escaping. Not good for the locals who’d moved to the island nor tourism. So in 1994 the prison closed.

Since then tourism has flourished, Ilhe Grande gets lots of South American visitors, in particular from Argentina.

Things to do

You can do a number of excursions. I got a boat to Lopes Mendes beach, which takes nearly one hour, then a 20 minute hike from where they drop you. Its 40 real return. Alternatively you can get a speedboat which takes about 20 minutes to the same hiking point.

Elevation for the hike is 50m, up then back down. Not advisable to do in flip flops, sandals are fine.

The beach is lovely, bear in mind they have no or limited facilities so bring plenty of water and some snacks.

If you like hiking you can hike up to see the sunrise but it involves a 1am start! Back by around 9am but worth it. Only advisable if you love hiking and have no knee problems!

A hike to the peak for sunrise!

There are a number of boat trips and diving available too, including snorkelling in the blue lagoon.

Food and drink

I recommend eating at Restaurante Lonier and Garoupas. The seafood platter is delicious and really good value. I’ve been told this is the best restaurant on the island and it was outstanding! You need to book if there’s a lot of you, earlier the same day is fine.

I also ate in Rei da Moqueca on the front. The food was very good here too. I had the traditional moqueca with fish. It’s like a fish stew with vegetables cooked in coconut milk, the fish will vary according to what they’ve caught that day, mine was full of delicious swordfish.

They are big so normally for two to share but if you only want a portion for one you can order this and it’s 60% of the menu price.

This is a great place to buy beer and alcohol, just as you get off the pier where the boat pulls in.

You can buy açai in numerous places on the island – in fact all over Brazil. The superfood Berry is blended with ice and tastes better than ice cream! It’s refreshing and healthy, usually served with granola and banana or fruit toppings, and optional condensed milk. And sometimes more chocolate or candy based toppings.

Paraty

From Ilhe Grande we got the boat back to Angra dos Reis, it was calmer in the morning. Then a 2 hour bus journey to Paraty.

I stayed at Refron, a short walk from the old town. It’s basic but with a good bathroom and good value laundry facilities.

Paraty is a lovely chilled out place with a nice vibe, plenty to do and lots going on. The town is really pretty with white buildings with coloured doors and windows. And the most colourful boats I’ve ever seen – they look like they belong in a dolls house!

The town has historical significance as it used to be part of the gold route. Today what is around a 4 hour drive from where one of the best goldmines used to be, back then would have been walked by slaves, usually from Africa, carrying the gold on their backs.

Later a new route to that goes more directly to Rio opened. Paraty hit economic crisis, but currently gets all its business from tourism. The construction is all historic and the town has a story as well as being rich in natural beauty. For a period in the 70s Paraty survives on producing cachaça and coffee. These now form part of the tourist sites as well as still used for production.

Things to do

There are a number of excursions I did the Paraty Caipirinha boat tour and the jeep excursion boat with Paraty tours. More details below. There’s also a few others including a visit to some nice beaches, and horse riding – though not advisable here as they don’t use riding hats.

Caipirinha Paraty Boat Tour

The boat trip was beautiful, so much fun, good value and well organised. We had great weather so it was a really lovely day out. It’s advertised as a snorkel tour but the snorkelling is average at best. The scenery is beautiful though, with gorgeous beaches and 4 enjoyable stops for swimming. There’s a small boat taking people over to the beaches if you don’t want to swim.

The cost is around 85 real, though I pre-booked in the UK with Gadventures and paid slightly more, which included a free caipirinha and snorkel equipment. A bargain at less than £20!

You get given a number when you board, and can order your lunch and any drinks against your number then pay the bill before you leave. It’s well organised and there’s a reasonable choice for lunch and drinks. With free fruit after lunch.

A thoroughly enjoyable day out, good value and excellent scenery.

Jeep Tour

A fun day out touring waterfalls, a cachaça distillery and a tapioca production plant in jeeps. Unfortunately a little rainy and cooler so whilst there was opportunity to swim in the pools, and slide down the rock of one the falls I didn’t participate, just enjoyed the scenery. The water is cold so would have been enjoyable on a hot day!

There is some walking involved between waterfalls and it can be rocky, muddy and slippery so it’s advisable to wear decent footwear. The views make it worthwhile.

We visited a Cachaça distillery, interesting to learn about the process of the main ingredient of the must have drink in town! And they let you try as much as you like of all the different types, flavours and infusions!

My favourite is the Gabriela infused with cinnamon and cloves. Perfect for a passion fruit caipirinha!

We stopped at a restaurant called Villa verde for lunch whose specialty is pasta dishes. Prices are a little on the high end (relatively speaking) but the food was good and there was plenty of it! You had to cross a canopy style bridge to get there, in theory only 5 people can cross the bridge at once! Though there was definitely more then that when I crossed with a motorbike waiting to cross back the other way!

We headed to another waterfall with more opportunity for swimming and also a slide down the rock within one of the waterfalls! The locals surf down it but not advisable if you’re not a local! It’s very impressive! A number of people had a go at sliding down it though!

Waterfall surfing!

Finally we visited a Tapioca plant. They demonstrated how they clean the Yucca. Then the process of going through the mill, pressing the water out to make it into flour.

They used to trade it for what they needed from other local producers but now it’s a standard business and how the family earn a living.

Again this trip is good value for 100 real (about £20, a little less with the current exchange rate).

Food and drink

Thai Brazil comes highly recommended, it’s a fusion mix between Thai and Brazilian. Unfortunately I didn’t make it to this one as I was unwell, but my group went and all enjoyed it.

Opposite the hotel is a nice restaurant on the beach called Dito and Frito. It’s really good value, good food and a great location. They play music most evenings too.

If you’re after a local burger place I recommend Elespecialista. It’s very reasonably priced and mainly locals eat in there.

The local drink here is Jorge Amado, it contains Gabriela caxaça (which is infused with cinnamon and cloves), passion fruit, lemon and ice. Really delicious and definitely recommended during your stay!

Again there are many açai places around Paraty so you really are spoilt for choice!

The Practical Stuff

For Ilhe Grande, best to ensure you have enough cash in local currency with you. You can exchange on Ilhe Grande but the exchange is poor. And sometimes you can use cards in some places, but if the connection goes (which can be often), you’ll need cash.

In the old town in Paraty there are cobbles which can be slippy, especially if it rains. Make sure you consider this when choosing footwear.

Paraty has everything you’ll need such as ATM’s and money exchange. Its generally a little bit pricey for food as it’s a gastro town, and earned a licence to operate as one a few years ago, but there’s still some good value and interesting options.

Onwards to Iguazu Falls!

Rio de Janeiro! Why are they called Favelas?

Stop 3 on my South American journey! Staying in Copacabana at the Royalty Rio Hotel. Two blocks from the famous Copacabana beach! Brazil is such a large country with so much history. Whilst I will be travelling to a few other places in Brazil its scale makes it impossible to cover in such a short space of time. I’ll update you on my highlights as I go!

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world.

Freya Stark
Home of the Haviana!

I have a couple of days here on my own before I pick up the Gadventures group tour around Brazil and Bolivia.

A very brief history..

Its believed early inhabitants of the Americas arrived from 12000 to 8000 BC, crossing land that’s now submerged. The Portuguese arrived in 1500 AD, and claimed possession of the land, believed at first to be an island. By this time there were somewhere between 2 and 4 million indigenous people, in over 1000 tribes speaking 1000 different languages, in what is now known as Brazil. There are currently believed to be around 900,000 indigenous people in over 200 tribes.

After the numbers dropped to 300,000 in the 1980s there were fears they might die out completely. International concern groups helped out and now Government policy supports them. It seems they are now both supported and respected with 12% of the land being indigenous, serving less than 1% of the population.

City Tours

I used and would recommend ‘Be a Local’. You can contact them via WhatsApp on this number: +55 21 97973-1442. They communicate in English almost immediately, and you can easily pay by card on there site. They run small group tours on mini buses or in taxi’s depending on size, with English speaking guides.

I did the city tour which covers the main sites like Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf mountain, Lapa steps and Santa Teresa; and the Favela tour. Unfortunately it rained for the city tour but was still impressive and we managed to see everything. For the Favela tour some money goes back to the community to support the kindergarten.

The Favela

I visited Rocinha, the biggest favela in the whole of South America. The favelas are high in the mountains, we got a great view from the top then wandered down through the narrow uneven streets. You have to look where you’re walking, there is rubbish, sewage and dog shit everywhere, and water running down through some of the streets. It’s a difficult walk for the disabled or the elderly as it’s so steep and uneven.

Brazil is a country rich in natural resources and whilst politicians aren’t great anywhere there is a lot of corruption in Brazil that doesn’t let everyone enjoy this natural wealth.

Rocinha

Thus the contrast we see of rich people living so close to poor. The poorer people didn’t have anywhere to live so they invaded, took the land and settled. Soldiers also came back with no government support and nowhere to live so took to the favelas. They have there own communities with everything you could need, shops, bars, restaurants, hairdressers, gyms, martial arts etc. Everything accept a real school. Our guide told us the government want to keep the people uneducated to make elections easier.

Samba in The Favelas!

The first favela settled in the late 19th century and was called Providence. Rosinga came about in the 1940s and has the largest population of all the favelas at over 100,000 people.

View from the top of Rocinha

There are around 700 different favelas and they make up approximately 20% of Rio’s population.

Why are they called Favelas?

To clear out the hills they had to remove the favela bush. It’s really difficult to clear with hard spikes sticking out of it and gives most people an allergic reaction. Hence the name, The Favela.

Inside Rocinha there is one Main Street and many narrow paths off of it, like a maze. As we wandered we were told where we could take photos and where it was most definitely not allowed. Tourists have been visiting since 2006, as long as you don’t photograph the locals they let you pass.

The area is run on drugs, power, weapons and corruption. There are 4 main gangs, Red Command is the largest. Militia is run by the police and said to be the most corrupt.

The police don’t really enter the favelas, they stay one at each end, the gangs run there own towns but as they are always watching in some ways safer as long as don’t take photos of them. If someone stole your phone on street, in say Copacabana or Ipanema, you’d have to find a policeman, the thief is gone and you’re never getting it back. In The Favelas as people are watching everything with binoculars, apparently if someone took phone they’d be shot dead and the phone returned to you with an apology for the inconvenience.

A story about The Favela I got told not long before coming here, I hope I’ve accounted it correctly.. Having visited it sounds more then plausible. The mother of one of the senior gamg leaders recently needed to go to hospital and called an uber. Four uber drivers accepted the ride then cancelled it once they realised where it was. (I assume she eventually made it to hospital after the delay). As revenge, her son kidnapped and subsequently killed 4 uber drivers.

Lapa Steps

The Lapa steps for me are one of the more impressive sites in Rio. The art is cool and you can get a caipirinha and chill out while you wander round taking it all in. The benefit of going when it’s raining is that it’s much quieter!

Also known as the Selarón steps named after the Chilean born artist Jorge Selarón. It began as him repairing the dilapidated steps outside his house in 1990.

Caipirinha’s!

Initially he was mocked for the brightly coloured tiles, but he used yellow, blue and green to represent the Brazilian flag and red for his Chilean home flag. He said it was his gift to the people of Brazil.

When he began he scavenged for tiles but eventually tourists began to donate tiles from there home countries. They were finished in 2013 and there’s 215 steps in total.

Some recommendations of places to go in Lapa:
Bar Brasil, Restaurante and bar Nova Capela, Boteco Belmonte.

Christ the Redeemer

The famous Christ the Redeemer statue synonymous with the city of Rio stands tall at 38m on Corcovado mountain. The arms outstretched measure 28m wide. Built in 1920s as an Art Deco style created by a French sculptor and made of soapstone and concrete.

It’s not the easiest place to get to, being part of the tour saved us a lot of time. You can get a taxi or it’s possible to get there on public transport. the cost is 46 real for an entrance ticket. All fees were included in the city tour price.

Keep hold of your ticket you need it to get in an out. A national park bus will take you the last 5 minutes up to the entrance.

Sugarloaf Mountain

Sugarloaf mountain is 200m high and named as it’s the same shape as sugarloaf cakes. You get a cable car up to a viewpoint and another up to the top of the mountain – the views are stunning!

View from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain

The cable car was originally set up in 1912, fits 65 people and takes around 3 minutes. The first generation of cable car was from Germany. The current one is third generation from Switzerland in 2005.

Sugarloaf mountain in the background

Again the ticket was included and cost 110 real, and you need to show it numerous times. The tickets are valid for ten days so if the weather isn’t great on the day of your city tour and if you still have some days left with a better forecast you can keep it to use on a different day. It is only valid for one use though.

Food and Drink

No visit to Rio is complete without trying the local cocktail – Caipirinha – the unofficial Brazilian National Drink! The main ingredient is Cachaça, a high proof sugarcane alcohol with crushed lime, sugar and ice. There are a number of different versions, you can replace the cachaça with vodka or the lime with numerous other fruits. I tried mango and pineapple too but I enjoyed the traditional lime the most.

Brazilians love to drink, and not just alcohol, visiting a juice bar is highly recommended. The choices and flavours are delicious and fresh. There’s the popular mangos, passion fruit, watermelon, avocado, then some less well known Amazonian fruits to experiment with!

Obviously I found a great sushi restaurant – Soy. Its on Santa Clara just off copacabana beach and the sashimi was so fresh and delicious!

In the evening there’s some bars on the beach and we found one with a great vibe playing some local samba music.

I’d also recommend Beco de Garrafas, a cosy bohemian place with music most nights including bossa nova, samba and jazz.

Some cool restaurants in Ipanema are:
The girl from Ipanema Bar, where the famous song was written – Restaurant e Bar Garota de Ipanema, and Restaurante Vinícius e Bossa Nova.

Santa Teresa

This is also a really cool area to hang out in. The Portuguese influence is evident and it has some great music bars to chill out in. It’s known for its art, music and culture. Amy Winehouse stayed there 3 months before her death.

Some recommendations of bars and restaurants in Santa Teresa: Bar do Mineiro, Bar do Portela, Aprazível restaurant.

The Practical Stuff

Other recommendations of things to do in Rio if you have time, a visit to the Botanical gardens, the museum of tomorrow, Mural Etnias graffiti street art, or catch a football game.

Safety first! Brazil, and Rio in particular has a reputation for safety concerns, but as when you travel anywhere be careful and sensible and you should be ok. Dress down and leave expensive jewellery and accessories in the safe in the hotel. Along with passports, only carry cash you’ll need for that day. Use ATMs inside buildings and be aware of your surroundings. After dark, don’t walk along empty streets or deserted parks.

The currency is the Brazilian Real. It’s circa 5 Real to the £ sterling. ATM’s are widespread in Brazil. Credit cards are accepted at most restaurants, shops and hotels. Some cash points will charge you a withdrawal fee of around £5.

The language is Portuguese – you’re at an advantage if you know some Spanish. English is not widely spoken so I recommend learning a few words / key phrases.

Weather – January is hot and humid! But expect rain at times.

The dress code is casual but it’s a good idea to have something a bit smarter got a night out. Given the heat and humidity lightweight and natural fabrics are best. Pick up some Havaianas while you’re here – everyone’s wearing them and they’re so cheap – seems a shame not to!

Some interesting Haviana designs!

Apparently in the bigger cities in Brazil such as Rio it’s safe to drink the tap water though is not recommended as it tastes awful! I concur just from using it to brush my teeth! So better to stick with bottled water.

There are not many public toilets though most bars and restaurants will let you use them. Bus and rail stations usually have public facilities available for a small charge – around 1 or 2 Real.

Next chapter for me in Brazil is Ilhe Grande and Paraty!

Easter Island – The most Extraordinary place on Earth!

A remote volcanic Polynesian Island, its native name – Rapa Nui. Maybe not the most extraordinary place in the world in everyones opinion, but it certainly is a very special place full of mystery! Famed for archeological sites including almost 900 monumental statues called Moai. The Moai are carved, oversized human heads created by the inhabitants in the 13th – 16th centuries.

Easter Island was formed by 3 separate volcanic eruptions between 3 million and 100,000 years ago. All the volcanoes are now extinct and have been for some time so no concerns while you’re visiting!

The famous and iconic Moai statues

It takes almost 6 hours to fly there from Chile which is almost 4000km away. Rapa Nui definitely feels as remote and isolated as it sounds, on its own in the Pacific Ocean. It measures 14 miles at the longest point. It has an intriguing history and despite its small size there is much to see and do.

In Easter Island the past is the present.

Katherine Routledge

First Impressions!

I’m not usually one to gush emotions so freely but it feels every bit as special and magical as I imagined it! How amazing to visit a place so remote, with so much history and still so traditional, having had so few visitors over the years. I hope it stays this way for years to come and I have a feeling it might. The locals realise how special the place the Island they inhabit is. In addition, its location and the time and expense to get there will hopefully help to keep it unspoilt.

Approximately 100,000 people visit Easter Island a year, increased from around 10,000 visitors a year just ten years ago. I feel extremely lucky to have the opportunity to visit. If you get the chance to come here I thoroughly recommend you take the opportunity!

The first settlers

The first settlers on Easter Island came from another island in Polynesia sometime between 600 and 900 AD. They travelled around 2000 miles bringing with them everything they needed to start a new society on an uninhabited island.

Ancestor worship was popular in Polynesia. The belief was that a persons spiritual power was still effective and influential long after their death. Ancestral carvings were constructed elsewhere in Polynesia, but nowhere did they reach the scale and size of that of Easter Island. A common misconception is that the statues face out to sea to offer protection from intruders. The majority actually faced inwards to watch over and protect their people. The islanders became more proficient in the art of carving and transporting the stone heads, the size increased and the detail improved. You can see the later generation of statues are larger with more style and detail.

Why is it called Easter Island?

The first European, a dutch explorer named Jacob Roggeveen, sighted Easter Island on April 5th 1722. Since it was Easter Sunday the island was named Easter Island. They didn’t fare well with the locals and with poor weather continued on there journey. It was a further 48 years before there were any subsequent visitors to the Island. A Spanish expedition led by Felipe Gonzalez de Haedo from Peru. They claimed the island with little resistance but never came back to follow it up.

Four years later James Cook bought his weary and weak crew into Hanga Roa bay after over 3 months of travel looking for supplies and fresh water but found neither. The condition of the island had deteriorated in the 4 years since the Spanish were there and after a brief visit they were on there way.

Peru abolished slavery in the 1850s and needed cheap labour. They quickly saw the benefit of using Polynesians and putting them to work in agriculture due to their size and strength. They raided the island a number of times forcibly removing some 1500 Rapanui including some of the chiefs and elders who could still read the artistic Rongo Rongo script.

Many died on the journey and only 15 were repatriated back to Easter Island, and they brought small pox back with them. By 1877 the islands population was down to 111, down from around 12,000 during the peak of the Moai period.

In 1883, Chile had defeated Peru and Bolivia and began looking to expand its growing Empire. Easter Island was not immediately sought after, being far away and seen as little worth. After some gentle persuasion from the British – to avoid France claiming it – Chile made their move.

The Moai factory

Hanga Roa

The Islands capital and home to 95% of the population, its the only part of the island with electricity and running water. Its compact and easily covered on foot. It has a couple of banks, a pharmacy, post office, hospital and fire station. As well as restaurants, mini-markets and souvenir shops.

I stayed in Hotel Gomero, a friendly little place not far from Main Street. It’s so small that nowhere is far from anywhere.

Moai

The Moai statues are hugely impressive and still surrounded by some mystery. In general there is a full day tour that covers most of the key sites, finishing at the beach in Anakena. And two half days, one where you go to Orongo – the crater. And the other afternoon I was less impressed with but what you’ll see across the two days is amazing!

There are many sites you’ll visit on a tour, I’ll touch on some of the key ones below. Alternatively you could hire a car and self guide but you won’t get as much informative history and information.

Rano Rakanu

Rano Rakanu is one of the most impressive sites. It’s the quarry or moai factory where they were made and contains 397 moai’s. It still looks like the iconic images you will have seen.

The iconic Moai shot at Rano Rakanu

To make the Moai they were initially carved whilst still in the rock. The face, chest and belly are carved in the mother rock. Then they are taken from the mountain to carve the back. It’s believed they are slid down the mountain side, then stood up in a hole to finish the back, ears, neck and arms. From the hole where they are finished they are transported to their different locations. The scale is immense so it was a really impressive feat!

Tongariki

The best spot for watching the sunrise, the opposite side of the island to Hanga Roa. You can easily pick up a tour in town. Because of the late sunrise you don’t even have to be up ridiculously early to view it. I can’t recommend this enough!

There’s 15 moai at Tongariki and the platform was restored by the Japanese government. The largest moai is 8m 37cm. The older moai are smaller and the 2 different generations of moai are evident.

The platform is 100m, 200m including the terrace.

As for sunrise – Wow. No filter on these photos – none needed on any of my photos on Rapa Nui, even though some of them don’t look real! The colours during sunrise are outstanding. I can’t recommend this enough whilst you’re here. Obviously you may be unlucky with the weather or the cloud cover but it’s worth a go!

Stunning colours at sunrise!

Anakena

Anakena has 7 Moai staring out to sea and a beautiful beach. These statues have more top knots or hats. The sand was gorgeous and the sea was so clear and a beautiful colour. The sea was rough until you were past the brakes the day I visited but once you’re in it it was lovely, and no other land for 1000s of miles!

Tahai

A great spot to watch the sunset is Tahai near Hanga Roa. You can wander down, past the most interesting cemetery I’ve ever seen. Bring a bottle of wine or some beer and sit on the grass watching the sunset over 5 moai along with everyone else. That said whilst busy there weren’t too many people and you can enjoy it and get some decent photos.

Wine at sunset

Orongo

Orongo is a huge crater some 1600m wide from a now extinct volcano. It was the second largest volcano on the island. It has its own microclimate and the lake is good for growing food and water. The water looks black.

Orongo crater

Years ago the locals used to use the pool to get fresh water, this could take all day due to the descent down inside the crater and the difficulty coming back up carrying the water. Once horses came to island this was quicker and easier.

The Birdman Competition

The Birdman competition, also known as Tangata Manu, used to unite the different clans into a single activity. It’s believed it stopped in the mid 1800s due to slavery and there being so few people left on the island. There is a carving near the top of Orongo that demonstrates the winner of competition. The one I saw was pretty faint, and I believe the rest are less accessible so we weren’t able to view them.

All clans would nominate a competitor, usually a teenager, it was a bit of a right of passage to becoming a man.

One of the locals in traditional dress

They would then run 200m up from lowest point of the volcano, 300m down wall of volcano into sea. Followed by a 2km swim to another island. They then had to find an egg of the manutara bird, which may involve staying on the island surviving in caves until a bird laid an egg. Then swim back to the coast, climb up the volcano and give the undamaged egg to The High Priest. The winner would become king of island for one year, and get to choose a wife.

The island the competitors swam to during the Birdman competition

Food and Drink

Those of you that know me know how much I love sushi so I’ve obviously managed to find a couple of sushi restaurants!

One called Ohi Sushi, more of a lunch place – lovely and fresh and I washed it down with a strawberry daiquiri! I got chatting to a really nice local girl called Amanda, her dads American and she was was interesting to talk to.

The other is Kai Sushi, again lovely and fresh, I had dinner there one evening. Both are on Main Street.

Another great restaurant on the beach front that was a recommendation that I will pass forward is La Kaleta. The ceviche was great and really fresh, the pina colada’s were delicious and the view was out of this world!

Delicious fresh ceviche
Pina Colada’s – my favourite cocktail!

It started raining on my first afternoon as I was wandering around, I nipped in a little cafe called Mahute and had a local beer. It was nice and light though they have darker beers too. I chatted to a guy called George from the US who is half Chilean and has been working here for 18 months and travelling for 5 or 6 years.

Both Amanda and George were great to chat to and I picked up lots of local information I wouldn’t have otherwise done. I think being on your own makes you more approachable so may not have spoken to them as much if I wasn’t travelling solo.

Thanks all for your company and special shout out to Deb, Bob and Kunal – thanks for your great company!

I’m not normally a red wine drinker but I shared this one with Bob and it was really smooth and went down easily, so I may be a convert and will definitely look for this one again!

A delicious red – thanks Bob!

Stargazing

The lack of light pollution and clear skies make Easter Island an outstanding place to stargaze. If you’re lucky you’ll see a shooting star – they are said to be seen frequently – though unfortunately I wasn’t lucky enough to experience one. Again you can pick up excursions in town and they’ll take an amazing shot on a great camera and email it to you all so you can focus on enjoying it!

Apparently the females of the royal family would live in a cave for one year with no exposure to sunlight. They skin would go very pale and there eyes changed having become accustomed to the dark, they became good stargazers. Inside the cave are enormous carvings of astronomy maps of constellations.

The Prison

There is usually no more than a handful of inmates at any one time given the small population of the Island. Education goes as far as High School so if you hear that someone is at ‘University’, it usually means they are spending some time in prison!

Bike Hire and Cycling

Its relatively easy to hire a bike during your stay and you can hire one for the day for around 10 – 15 US dollars. The standard of bikes is ok, obviously be mindful of giving it a once over before you set off with it. I’m gutted I didn’t have time to enjoy this during my stay. A few people told me there’s not much to do on the island other than see the statues. I guess everyones opinion and perspective is different, personally I would have liked an extra day or two. I had two full days of tours which didn’t leave me enough time to explore and enjoy cycling, or shopping as much as I would have liked, or additional time to chill out and take it all in. Something to consider if you visit.

The island has good roads and some relatively flat surfaces making it ideal for cycling. If you want something more challenging then try cycling up to Orongo – a gruelling ride up and a short descent back down!

Getting a Tattoo

Tattooing has existed in Polynesian culture for 1000’s of years and is more than just body art. It was the main method of marking social rank and hierarchy, as well as marking important events in peoples lives.

There are a few International standard tattoo artists who will happily design something unique for you, and are known to have excellent hygiene and safety standards.

Rapa Nui tattoo designs are some of the most unusual in the whole Pacific. Most people recommend Mokomae at the top of Main Street. Maybe not for everyone, but if you like tattoos its the best souvenir and memory of your holiday I can think of!

Shopping

Worth bearing in mind that some places are shut on Sundays. Most of the locals are Catholic so don’t open. Prices are often a little higher than elsewhere but tend to be pretty consistent from shop to shop.

NASA

Apparently Easter Island has one of longest runways at 4km. It was built by NASA I’m case required for emergency landings for shuttles. Initially it was built for The Challenger, which unfortunately was never able to land there as it disintegrated. Shuttles now have more efficient landing methods.

The thatched roof and sign welcoming you into the airport as you land

The Practical Stuff

Easter island uses both Chilean Pesos and US dollars. Tour prices are often quoted in dollars, though you can pay with either. Many shops and restaurants accept credit cards but not everywhere so it’s best to check first.

There is a one-time cash payment of 83 US dollars, or 54,000 Pesos for all non- Chileans which must be paid in cash. You can purchase on arrival at the airport, from a bureau on Main Street or apparently online in advance. This is for your entrance to the national parks. Proof of purchase is required at all sites.

Signs at all the official sites

Tap water is safe to drink, though worth considering that our stomachs are not used to ‘different’ water so its probably easier to stick to bottled water. The water comes from underground freshwater reservoirs which is then purified so its perfectly safe for brushing your teeth or using for ice.

Voltage is 220v and plugs are round 2 pins. Easter Island is always 2 hours behind Chile. It really ought to be 3-4 hours given the distance but is kept nearer to the time in Santiago to facilitate banks and business. Therefore sunrise and sunset are relatively late.

The current population is circa 8000 people with approximately half being Rapanui, people of Polynesian Descent, the remainder are from Chile with approximately 500 resident foreigners. The official language is Spanish, although the Rapanui also speak Rapa Nui – a Polynesian language. English is not widely spoken but some shops and restaurants speak some English.

There is so much more to this place I can’t fit it all into one post. I genuinely think that calling Easter Island the most extraordinary place on Earth is a credible statement, it’s still so full of mystery, I enjoyed my visit immensely! Next stop Rio!

Santiago – Stop 1!

An amazing city for my first stop on my 5 week tour in South America! I have 2 nights, 1 day here – not enough to do the city or the country justice so I will definitely have to return to Chile. From here I head to Easter Island for a few days which I’m unbelievably excited about!

From Easter Island I head back to Rio where I have a couple of days to myself before I join a group tour with Gadventures for 3.5 weeks, touring Brazil and Bolivia. What an amazing experience! I’ll be posting regularly during the trip, though some posts may not get published until I’m back in the UK, depending on time and wifi connections!

Solo Travel

I’m looking forward to spending a bit of time on my own, I believe and have found that travelling alone needn’t be lonely! You meet some interesting people you wouldn’t otherwise cross paths with, it gives you perspective and makes you realise what a small part of the world we occupy.

I’m always really busy in the run up to Christmas with work and it’s such a busy time of year anyway, so now is a perfect time for a decent break starting with a bit of me time to unwind!

That said I left work Thursday with less than 12 hours to go until I needed to head to the airport and all of my packing to do! Then I suddenly had a panic – ‘What was I thinking?!’ ‘What am I doing?!’

I think I suddenly realised that I’m taking 5 weeks out of the routine! A short while later I calmed down and got excited again; back to packing after my moment of panic!

If you think adventure is dangerous try routine, it’s lethal.

Paul Coelho

Anyway, Santiago..

Also known as Santiago de Cuba is the capital of Chile, and translates to St James in Spanish. It’s the largest city in Chile and also one of the largest in the whole of The America’s. It has a population of c. 7 million and sits around 5-600m above sea level.

You get absolutely stunning views from the plane of The Andes mountains as you fly into Santiago.

Stunning view of the mountains from the plane

I picked up a taxi from one of the official desks in the airport and I had the friendliest taxi driver! He spoke very little English and my Spanish is limited, but he wanted to chat. He ended up talking into his phone with the google translate app on, which would then repeat what he was saying in English. He got me to respond the same way. After a while I stopped noticing that he took his eyes off the road every time he wanted to pass the phone back and forth!

We had a great chat, he told me about the local area, politics, was interested in what I do back home and where I was visiting whilst here. It also helped me recall some of the Spanish I do know from when I lived and worked in the Canary Islands years ago. Great first impression of Chile. Well second impression actually, the first was the not so great lengthy immigration queue!

One of the political statements I saw whilst out and about

Hotel Riviera

I’m staying in Hotel Riviera on Miraflores which is really central, its quite small and very basic. It looks tired and rundown, but a great location and near a number of the famous sites! Whilst I’d say come in with low expectations and you won’t be disappointed, the bed and the bathroom were clean. So that and the location mean I would recommend it, despite it being a little tatty looking. Bring earplugs! It’s midnight and I can hear roadworks, political protests and traffic!

The first thing I do when I arrive in the room is close the curtains, only to pull the very dodgy curtain hooks off on the first four hooks on one side. I don’t want the light to wake me up and need to catch up on some sleep. So I stand on the bed in front of the floor to ceiling window, balancing after nearly 24 hours of travelling to get the hooks back in. And they say most accidents happen in the home. Operation successful!

WiFi is generally fine but you have to re-enter the password every time you use it. Breakfast is basic but does the job, and all the staff are friendly and helpful.

Santa Lucia Hill

Santa Lucia Hill

I’d definitely recommend a visit to Santa Lucia Hill if you are in Santiago. Its a beautiful park to take a wander and I’m told one of the nicest green spaces in the city centre. Its a well maintained park, with a number of trails, stairs and terraces – a gorgeous place to stop and take in the view! It feels a bit like a maze or some sort of secret garden. There are a number of interesting buildings scattered around too.

Entrance to Santa Lucia Hill

It’s really peaceful. I grabbed myself a crushed ice drink and sat in the shade for a while people watching – one of my favourite pastimes. The highlight for me is the Neptune Statue, below, it was gorgeous.

Neptune Statue

San Cristobal Hill

View from the top of The Funicular

Known for its amazing views across Santiago and better known as Cerro San Cristobal. At over 700 hectares this is Santiago’s largest green space but still very urban. It feels enormous and the views are fantastic, I had no idea Santiago was so big.

View up the track from the funicular carriage

It has a funicular railway you can get up and a cable car down the other side to help you enjoy the different views, with some outstanding peaks and viewpoints. Get there early to avoid the crowds and queuing for tickets. One way for both the funicular and cable car is about 4400 pesos. Return is 5800. They are both worth it!

View from the cable car

It really is a huge park with plenty to see and do inside, and different areas to wander round. Including the chapel at the top. I enjoy looking at churches when I’m abroad but this one was a bit too holy for me with the music and crosses everywhere. Still worth a look though.

Artistic crosses at the top of San Cristobal

Other key sites

There are a number of other key sites to visit, as I was literally only here for a flying visit I didn’t get chance to see some of them. The two main ones I wanted to see were Santa Lucia, my hotel is literally over the road, and San Cristobal, I walked there, it’s about a mile and a half away.

There was something satisfying about using a paper map instead of following the blue dot! Obviously the map was folded up small with the section I needed in view, then tucked away in my pocket. I was warned about safety in Santiago but as long as you’re sensible it’s fine.

In case its of use some recommended sites are: The Chilean National Library, The Red House, San Agustin Temple, San Francisco Church and The Museum of Pre-Columbian Art. They are all very nearby Hotel Riviera. I passed a number of interesting buildings and fountains just wandering round the city.

Wine!

Chilean wine has long been a favourite of mine! The Spanish and French influence throughout history still evident in the taste today. The most popular grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenere. Chile is now the 5th largest exporter of wine and the 7th largest producer.

The Practical Stuff

The currency is Chilean Peso’s. As usual I recommend a Starling Bank card for ease of use abroad, great rates and the app is brilliant. https://www.starlingbank.com/

Another site someone recently recommended to me (thanks Alex!), is Eater which has 38 recommended places to eat in most major cities. Unfortunately with such a short visit I didn’t get to try any of these, though I will definitely be using this site in future! Here’s the link in case it’s helpful: https://www.eater.com/maps/best-restaurants-santiago-chile-38

I’m here in the middle of summer so its lovely and hot – though a slight shock to the system given I’ve come from the UK in the middle of winter!

Tap water is generally apparently pretty good and normally safe though I’ve avoided it due to the high mineral content as my system might not be used to it just yet! Wine is going down nicely though!

My 2 pin European plug is working fine in this first hotel.

Next stop Easter Island – so exciting!!

Belarus – My first cycling holiday, and a beautiful part of the world!

I’m not sure if this trip was brave or stupid on my part! Maybe a bit of both! I decided I wanted to try a cycling holiday so picked an Explore trip that was only 5 days with 3 days cycling, and graded easy. Between 20 – 40km per day, and fortunately for me relatively flat! At the time I didn’t own a bike – nor had I owned one in about 20 years! In the last year or so before this trip I’d done a half day cycling in Vietnam and a half day in Japan and really enjoyed it, so thought I’d give it a go!

I loved cycling through the Vietnamese paddy fields in Hue, and the mountains in Takayama in Japan. ‘I’ll train in the gym on the exercise bike and it’ll all be fine!’ Cycling on the road – as I now know – is very different to cycling on a static bike! I kept up – just, well almost.. I was very slow compared to the others and am eternally grateful for there patience and pleasant company!

It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you don’t stop.

– Confucius

Belarus looked like a really interesting part of the world – and it lived up to expectation! Doing a trip by bike is a nice way to cover a lot of ground with great views along the way! I visited in July 2018 and the weather was generally warm and pleasant, bar one heavy rainfall during our longer cycle where we sheltered in a bus stop!

What I hadn’t anticipated was the large framed German bikes! I’m relatively short – not a problem hiring a bike in Asia, bit more so when they’re German! It was a really heavy hybrid and far too big for me. The guide put the saddle down – but: ‘Tough, this is your bike!’ Once I got used to it cycling wasn’t too bad. It was stopping and starting that was the problem! I learned to brake and jump off the saddle sort of at the same time!

Belarus is a really interesting place. Lots of history and in some ways it felt like going back in time. Minsk (which will always remind me of Friends!) is developed though you can still see the Communist style. We visited a couple of castles, stunning and in great condition. Although some parts have been reconstructed. Our third day cycling was through forests and parks to an eco village and a somewhat eccentric musicians house. Such an interesting part of the world and still very unspoilt from a tourism perspective.

Day 1 – Minsk city tour

There is a cycle path running through through the city with a few places to stop along the way, making this route suitable even for beginners. It’s also a great way to cover a lot of ground and get a different perspective of a city.

One of my favourite stops was in a street filled with art, we stopped for a coffee break and had chance to take it in.

Fantastic Street Art

There are various points of interest to stop on the way. We cycled in the morning and in the afternoon took in a city tour seeing some of the impressive architecture. As well as the war museum, full of artefacts with a beautiful memorial.

Minsk war museum
Memorial at the top of the war museum

We also stopped at a local market. There’s the usual fruit and food stalls at the market though the bra stall was a little bit different..

Visual merchandising could do with some work..
Fresh fruit and veg in the local market

The Soviet feel of the city is still there, and very evident, despite this example being above KFC!

Day 2 – 41km between castles

This was a long day for me and where it became evident that cycling outside is different to static cycling in the gym! The last 10km I found really hard! In fact at one point I thought I was going to die! It’s true what they say about digging deep and pushing on! Having trained this year for a 350 mile charity bike ride, 40km feels like nothing – but it’s all relative!

That said it’s mainly flat in Belarus and once out of the city the cycling is predominately on quieter roads surrounded by pine forests. It’s a really beautiful place to cycle.

Mir Castle

Both Mir and Nesvizh castles are 15th century UNESCO would heritage sites. We started at Mir castle, it was part of Poland until 1939 when the borders changed. We had a thorough tour of the castle with a guide. It’s well maintained with some beautiful furniture.

It’s said that soldiers mounted these metal frames with feathers on to there armour when going into battle. The noise they created when riding on a horse would startle and frighten the enemies horses as they approached, giving an advantage during the battle.

Traditional Armour

Much of the castle still demonstrates original, extravagant decor.

We spent a night in Nesvizh castle, the rooms felt old but grand. Dinner and breakfast were included and both were delicious. Again we had a detailed tour, though by this point I was tired and ready for some food! It was still a gorgeous and again well maintained castle. Nesvizh was part of Poland until 1945, and was regarded as one of the most beautiful castles in the area.

The castle and the courtyard just outside our rooms.

Extravagant decor still in great condition

Day 3 – forests, eco-villages and countryside

On day 3 of cycling we cycled through beautiful forests to Rosy eco-village. Families have moved out of the city and chosen to live a simple, self sufficient life. Each family produces different food and they trade with each other.

The family we visited served us fresh bread, salad and tea, it tasted amazing, and we were surrounded by gorgeous gardens.

Homemade and so fresh!

Ales Los farmhouse is run by a couple who have dedicated there life to music. They are outstanding musicians and play amazing folk music. We were welcomed by them playing us in, then they showed us around and educated us on some traditional instruments.

A somewhat eccentric couple with outstanding musical talent playing traditional folkloric music

We had a great lunch stop in an 18th century lodge run by Vadim and his wife. It was traditional, hearty food and cannot be described as anything other than delicious! Being traditional they fed us wine and liquor too!

We headed back to Minsk for the evening and ate in a traditional restaurant with delicious food and some fantastic flavoured vodkas! Honey vodka was my favourite, it was even good neat over ice.

After dinner and with no cycling to do tomorrow we hung out for a few drinks in our hotel bar which had pool tables and being a Saturday night was full of locals. A round of drinks – 2 vodkas and 2 beers same to £2.50! And some of the locals had clearly had a few!

What made the trip more interesting..

Was the interesting group of people and our Polish guide. On these solo travel trips you meet people from different walks of life and you all have one thing in common – you all love to travel. It feels like a secure way of travelling solo if you don’t want to do it completely alone.

In this group were two couples, and a gentleman who’s wife was at home, all older than me, and our guide who was a fair bit younger. But what a great bunch of people and brilliant company they turned out to be! Age aside we all got on well as travelling companions.

Peter has travelled a lot and lived abroad with work. He spent a lot of time in Japan where I’d just got back from in April, having wanted to go as far back as I can remember. We spent hours talking about Japan and what we loved about it!

John’s Polish father had been captured in 1940 by the Russians, who sent him to a hard labour camp in Siberia. In September 1939 when Russia invaded Poland at the start of WWII, he was farming about 12 miles from Nesvizh. He left his farm, which was on the border of what was then Poland and Russia, never to return. John had a map drawn by his father and the name of the village, so rather than take the second castle tour that day, John jumped in a taxi to try and see where his father once farmed. At dinner that night we eagerly awaited an update on his story! John I hope I’ve recounted this correctly!

What an amazing experience that I wouldn’t have had without this trip. And a pleasure to talk to people I wouldn’t otherwise have met.

Sunset in Minsk

The Practical Stuff

The currency is the Belarusian Ruble. It’s a closed currency, you can exchange before you leave the airport, or withdraw cash. I recommend the latter on a Starling bank card for the best rates. Cards are widely accepted in Minsk but less so in more rural areas. https://www.starlingbank.com/

Drinking tap water is not recommended, you can pick up drinking water cheaply everywhere, almost as cheap as the vodka!

Tourism is still relatively new in Belarus so it still feels unspoilt and untouched, making for an authentic stay. It’s a fascinating place filled with history and outstanding architecture, as well as natural beauty, good food, and of course – great vodka!

An old wine cellar

The cycling trip was a different way to see a place and a great experience. Also a bonus on holiday that you can eat and drink what you like without gaining weight as you’re exercising everyday whilst sightseeing!

Explore is a great company to travel solo with and I’ve done many of there trips now. I also recommend Exodus, slightly dearer and usually nicer accommodation. Flashpack is good for 25-45 year olds. G adventures are good, cheaper and a little more basic. Often, but not always, a younger crowd. Intrepid is another one, similar to g adventures. It’s amazing how many other people travel solo, and I’ve always had a great experience on these group tours. Another one I haven’t tried yet but fully intend to at some point is Grasshopper, who specialise in cycling trips in Asia.

https://www.explore.co.uk/

https://www.exodus.co.uk/

https://www.gadventures.com/

https://www.intrepidtravel.com/uk

https://www.grasshopperadventures.com/

If you get the opportunity to visit, I thoroughly recommend a trip to Belarus!

Macedonia to Kosovo

My final stop on the tour of The Former Yugoslavia is Kosovo. Logically you’d go from Serbia to Kosovo and then on to Macedonia. My understanding is that the border between Serbia and Kosovo was closed hence the slightly longer route and finishing in Pristina, Kosovo.

Kosovo is not always recognised on maps as it is considered past of Serbia. It has been independent since 2006. It is considered to be an independent country by the United Nations, but not all countries see it that way unfortunately.

I have to admit Kosovo seemed very underdeveloped relative to its neighbours with limited things to see. Though it doesn’t have the easiest history. It is going through a period of development. And trying to establish itself within the industry of tourism. The route from Lake Ohrid in Macedonia to Pristina in Kosovo however was stunning!

It’s a lengthy drive through hills and mountains with much to see on the way; including passing through a national park, with outstanding views of the mountains, lakes and streams. Above is a man made lake, stunning and worth a viewing stop.

I recommend a stop at this gorgeous restaurant literally in the middle of nowhere, so peaceful in the middle of the mountains. The toilets were some of the cleanest I’ve come across on this journey through The Balkan’s! We stopped for a coffee before continuing the drive towards Pristina.

Monastery of St John

I also recommend a stop at The Monastery of St John the Baptist where you’ll see practicing monks. Women have to wear a skirt, they provide ones with Velcro you can put over your clothes upon entering. Men’s knees must be covered, and shoulders must be covered too.

There is stunning scenery all around, and the interior is extravagant. No photos are allowed inside as it destroys the frescoes.

Stunning mountain scenery

You can light a candle here and it seems an appropriate and peaceful place to do so.

We stopped for lunch as we continued on our way, it was basic but delicious and fresh. And the views were amazing with mountains behind you and the lake in front.

Hotel

I stayed in the Garden Hotel in Pristina, it’s a lovely 5 star hotel, in fact the nicest hotel of my whole trip! Though choices are limited in Pristina. It was a really nice hotel with modern rooms – except the phone! And a lovely bathroom and shower.

Staircase in the hotel
Telephone in the room

Breakfast was the highlight! So much choice and eggs cooked fresh however you want them! And the honey was delicious!

Fresh honey for breakfast!

Getting into Pristina was interesting! Traffic everywhere beeping, it’s a free for all and no one will give way!

Restaurants

This restaurant was round the corner, it didn’t look much but the food was good. I’ve discovered that just because something is on the menu it doesn’t mean it’s available to eat!

Equally there was no drinks menu and wine comes in small or big! That’s a small bottle or a standard bottle! There’s no prices for the drinks so I think it depends who serves you and what mood they’re in! I found it cheaper to buy 4 small bottles than 1 large one! I drank the same wine I enjoyed in Macedonia, Temjanika, there weren’t any local choices.

The Practical Stuff

It’s not safe to drink the tap water in Kosovo. The currency is the Euro. They aren’t part of the EU, but it was allowed in order to prevent the collapse of the currency. Much of the population is Serbian or Albanian.

Conclusion of The Balkan’s

This really is a beautiful part of the world with so much to see and experience, and so much history. The people are friendly, the food is good and the wine is especially good!

The North seems a little wealthier, there is more variety in the food and it is more established in tourism. It was in part less affected by the recent war than the some of the more southern countries. I found it got cheaper and hotter the further south we went. Whilst the food was still good quality there was less choice available. I enjoyed the local wines throughout.

Ljubljana in Slovenia makes for a great city break. I think Bosnia was my favourite country, it’s beautiful. And Macedonia was the prettiest. I particularly recommend Lake Ohrid.

Read my previous blog posts to find out more on each area.

If you get the opportunity to travel round the area by train I thoroughly recommend it. I’ve had an amazing journey through the Former Yugoslavia and really can’t recommend it highly enough!

I met some fun, interesting and amusing people along the way! Thanks for all the laughs!

My next trip is January when I head to South America! I’ll try and post a retrospective trip between now and then!

Thanks for reading #mysolofootprints