London in Lockdown

Walking down the street today to my hair appointment (excitement overload!), made me realise how much I’d missed the hustle and bustle of London. Supermarkets have obviously been open as have coffee shops for takeout. But there’s something indescribable about the feel and vibrancy now things seem more normal; the hairdressers, pubs and cafes are open for business. Rather than a few people queueing for the food shop or pharmacy. Or more likely sitting in the sun or park all day – We have been blessed with gorgeous weather during lockdown! There is a sense of normality that I hadn’t realised how much I was missing. And a sense of excitement in the air!

London Town.

Famed for the iconic Big Ben clock tower and Westminster Abbey. Across the River Thames the iconic London Eye, usually offering panoramic views of the city.

Photo credit: Fred Down

The capital of England and the UK. A vibrant city full of hustle and bustle with a history stretching back to Roman times. Empty and quiet. No tourists. No office workers. It was amazing to see London this way. Though I hope I never have the opportunity to see it like this again!

Everyone will have there own memories of lockdown but there are a few common things that will bind us all together. The zoom call: ‘Can you hear me?’. Tik Tok. Someone video calling you when you’ve just got out of the shower. More seriously the fear that you or that vulnerable family member might be affected by the terrible illness affecting the whole world. Our shared frustrations with The Government and certain politicians. The infinite memes that enabled the great British sense of humour to help me keep my sanity at the start!

For me it’s the fact I have a bike that helped to keep my sanity during lockdown. I struggled to start with, I’ve always liked living on my own. Then suddenly every single social contact is removed all at once. I had taken for granted how sociable working in an office is. I couldn’t meet friends or family. I couldn’t pop to a local cafe or go to the pub for a drink. I couldn’t even pop to a friends house. I hadn’t realised that work, no matter how busy my day was enabled me to chat to friends and colleagues. Even if it was a minute here or there before a meeting started. Or passing in the toilets, or while waiting for your water bottle to fill up. All of my social touch points were removed instantaneously.

My home that I used to like coming back to became my office, as well as my gym, and where I would eat every single meal. There was no differentiation between work and post work. The environment didn’t change. There was no change of scene. I didn’t realise that my commute home used to give me time to unwind. I said the words: ‘I miss commuting’. Never did I think I’d utter those words. And now I can’t imagine commuting 5 days a week, even though I’ve done it all my adult life. I also can’t believe how frequently the flat needs cleaning now I’m spending so much more time in it!

Time. Something that was always precious. I was always busy. I was always tired. Suddenly I had more time than I knew what to do with. As one of my friends who was on furlough told me ‘I’ve completed Netflix.’

Thankfully I have been working. Didn’t stop me being jealous at times of the people on furlough sitting in the park all day in the sun. Or going to the beach. But I think I’d have struggled more without some routine and security. As me and my team got used to a new way of working, having regular video calls.

I also lived through the brutality of 4000 colleagues in my company being made redundant. In my role the team reduced by 90%. My friends and team suddenly no longer expected back from furlough. Never coming back. Final. Im grateful to have a job but suffered survivors guilt. I’m not sure how long I have a job for but thankful to be earning money for now. I still feel bad for my friends. It’s getting easier as I start to see some people have jobs now and hopefully will go on to be successful.

My mums been shielding this whole time. In early April I decided to get my bike out of the shed and try cycling to hers. I loved the empty roads that made cycling so much more enjoyable. She was pleased to see me, being quite down at the prospect of staying indoors for so long.

Since then I cycle round to hers every weekend. Sometimes delivering paracetamol, chocolate, chewing gum. Things to cheer her up or keep her sane! I think the company and routine kept us both sane as we both live on our own. Though I think the traffic now is busier than pre lockdown as people avoid public transport.

I struggled a lot at the beginning. Then I found out that someone I used to work with lost her sister, a nurse with diabetes, to covid. A few days later, her mum who was in a care home passed away. No matter how hard I was finding things, there was always someone worse off than me.

My brother and his family had covid but thankfully they are all ok.

Cycling became something that could get me out and about. Further than just going for a walk round the park. The change of scene I’d been craving.

Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.

Lawrence Block

I didn’t realise how much time I’d spend in the garden. The hammock below – my best lockdown purchase! Also a photo of my feet with no toenail polish on! I can’t remember the last time this happened. But when you live in jogging bottoms, sportswear and pyjamas, and have no plans, it somehow didn’t seem important!

There’s a selection of photos on this blog from eerily quiet visits into central London. I always take photos and write blogs from places I’ve travelled to. Here’s some views from closer to home. That said, I can’t wait to get abroad and travel again. Though that will have to wait a bit longer. For now, I’ll be content with an appointment at the hairdressers and dinner out in a restaurant this evening!

And of course, enjoying some of the lovely weather with friends in the park once we were allowed to. Even better, pubs started to do takeaway drinks that you could enjoy in the park weather permitting!

The Road of Death! – Cycling in La Paz!

So I didn’t die, but I did get a concussion and some serious bruising! North Yungas Road, officially the most dangerous road in the world.

As long as we don’t die, this is going to make one hell of a story.

John Green

I’ll start at the beginning..

I booked the tour through my Gadventures trip before I left the UK, priced at £88, plus a local entrance fee of 53 Bolivianos (BOB), just over a fiver in Sterling. You can also book locally once you’re in resort, you have to pay in cash in Bolivianos.

Gadventures use Enhance as a tour company who were very good and provide you with a 4000 US dollar mountain bike. As well as some serious kit, including elbow and knee pads, a proper motorcycle style crash helmet, gloves and outer trousers and a jacket. Even if it does look like something out of an 80s ski catalogue! There are plenty of different companies you can book with locally.

The few of us that had opted to cycle Death Road got picked up early from our hotel. It was a half hour drive to pick up our bikes and equipment. From there a further one hour drive to start at the top of the mountain. I recommend you wear lots of layers, long socks, additional gloves or liners too. And sturdy footwear, waterproof if you can!

It was freezing at the top of the mountain, and snowing when we started. We experienced rain, hail and fog during our ride too. Wear lots of layers underneath the clothing they provide – you’ll need them! It gets warmer as you descend so you can remove layers as you require and put them in the van which follows behind at all times.

I’d also take sunglasses, in case its bright, or to stop small stones or bugs flying into your eyes. That said, for us it was so wet you could barely see through the glasses. We fashioned a method of resting them on the end of our noses! It prevented some of the spray and allowed us to see something!

You start at over 4000 metres above sea level. Being used to riding a very light road bike, just under 9 kilo’s, not only did I find the bike extremely heavy but with the altitude I was breathless trying to ride it until we started going downhill! There was a very, very slight uphill to start, between my lack of breath and the weight of the bike I almost couldn’t get the bike to move! But just about managed to keep it upright and moving! Unlike one of my fellow death road companions who went sideways into a puddle before we’d started!

The first 20km of the cycle are mainly on a road and you gradually descend along with some traffic, and some fog and heavy rain! The remaining 30km is all on track and arguably the more dangerous part of the road. The bikes are expensive, good quality and you have to trust them. You descend all the way down to around 1200 metres above sea level. It starts to feel tropical on the way down and you get chance to sunbathe and swim in the pool of a local hotel before heading back.

The Yungas road, to give it its formal name, links La Paz and The Yungas region of Bolivia. It was considered dangerous owing to the steep slopes, narrow track, lack of guardrails, rain and fog. Nicknamed ‘The Road of Death’. The original road was built in 1930. An alternative was built to bypass the most dangerous section over a 20 year period and completed in 2006.

The 30km track section that you enter is no longer used by cars and vehicles. Many tour operators offer downhill mountain biking tours, offering guides, equipment, information and transport. It draws around 25,000 tourists a year. At least 18 cyclists have died on the road since 1998. You have to sign a form before you start, basically signing your life away. If you die or injure yourself, you’re accountable.

The track section of the road is narrow in places, with water running in parts. Very few of the areas have barriers, if were to go over the edge its a long way down! That said it used to be a road, so is more than wide enough for a bike!

You go over a variety of surfaces including rocks which can be wet and slippy. The bikes will go over anything and you have to trust them. Easier said than done! Most accidents are from people braking too hard.

The guide will stop regularly at different sections where there is space to or a good viewpoint for photos. He will also take photos and some short videos that will be sent to you afterwards.

I remember going fast on slippy, wet rocks. I assume I must have hit a rock at a dodgy angle and came off. The next thing I remember is being on the ground, very confused. I felt like I’d just woken up from a dream, I didn’t know where I was and I had no memory of falling.

At this point I was at the back of the 5 of us in the group, with only the driver behind me. I woke up on the rocks with him trying to take my helmet off. I didn’t recognise him or know what was happening so I went a bit hysterical shouting various things at him. ‘What are you doing to me!’ ‘Who are you!’ ‘Where am I?’ ‘What happened to me!’ ‘Speak English!’ ‘Take me to a hospital!’

Then I gradually started to realise what was going on, I still wasn’t with it and was in a lot of pain and very confused. He called our guide and asked him to come back. And in the meantime he took off my helmet and stood me up. Not the best course of action but I wasn’t with it enough to realise at the time. I actually fell on one of the most dangerous parts of the road. It wasn’t too far from the Ambulance station. So our guide came back in the Ambulance. I was already stood up by this point. I also wasn’t aware an ambulance had turned up until some of the other guys told me later on!

I was still extremely confused and trying to work out what had happened. I had worked out that I must have fallen, but really wasn’t with it.

I had one hell of a headache. I later discovered I had a fair few bruises coming up down one side, down my leg and thigh, and on both shoulder blades – so maybe I bounced! They were starting to come up but appeared a lot more in the next day or so. It was really sore but I think because my head hurt so much, I didn’t really register the pain anywhere else!

That said I still think I was lucky. It could have been worse. I didn’t brake anything, and I didn’t go over the edge! It’s a good job they give you such good helmets, mine had a huge crack in the back. If it was a normal cycle helmet that would have been the base of my skull.

So I managed to do around 35km of the 50km route before coming off the bike and knocking myself unconcious! I’m still glad I did it, and I really enjoyed the part that I did do. I was a bit gutted that I didn’t manage to complete it all but I had a bad concussion and no memory of falling!

I went in the van for a bit and tried desperately hard not to fall asleep. One of the cyclists on my trip was a radiographer and asked me a lot of questions. She confirmed in her opinion it was concussion. I concur based on the pain in my head! I also felt sick and sleepy. Staying awake was priority number one!

I spent the 10km after that in the van. Then at around 5km from the end I decided to get back on and have a go. Part of me wasn’t thinking straight and part of me wasn’t really aware what was going on. I decided that for my own confidence I needed to get back on, even if just for a little while. Otherwise I was worried I’d struggle when I tried to cycle back home.

I only did about a kilometre or so and the guide stayed at the back with me. The surface was a little flatter and less rocky so it was more manageable. My head still hurt though so I decided that was all I needed to do and I got back in the van for the last few km.

Once you’ve finished the ride you drive a short way to a small town where you can get a beer to celebrate. With my very recent head injury I decided alcohol wouldn’t be the wisest thing I’d ever done so opted for a Fanta for the sugar. You give your equipment back at this stage and the bikes get a thorough cleaning.

We then had a further half hour drive to a hotel for a buffet lunch and a shower. There is a pool if the weather is good. It was a bit wet while we were there. Much as I usually love swimming I probably wouldn’t have been up to it anyway! Bring bug spray and suncream as well as swimwear just in case.

Snacks and water are provided throughout. The van and a mechanic are always with you in case you need anything. The guide is usually ahead and helps you on your way down. The van is always behind in case anyone needs it – like I did!

You get a t-shirt included, along the lines of ‘I survived death road’. My group told me I could wear it with pride!

We then had a 3 hour drive home, I took some paracetamol and did have a short sleep in the van. Then got back to the hotel, showered and went out for dinner as of it was a normal night!

With hindsight I should have gone to hospital. I didn’t realise how bad it was but thankfully I’m ok and recovered and back to cycling on my road bike.

I did visit my GP when I got home a couple of days later – having slept for most of the flight home. It’s a good way to get over jetlag as your body needs so much rest! The doctor gave me a link to a professional rugby website as they’ve done so much research into head injuries. I had to take it easy and not raise my heart rate for a couple of weeks to aid recovery. Then ease back into exercise gently. I still had headaches for about 3 weeks afterwards.

So I completed most of Death Road, but I am a bit gutted I didn’t manage to do it all! That said, it was an amazing experience. Stunning scenery and beautiful, breathtaking views! As I say I’m glad I did it, and enjoyed the part that I did manage to do!

The final word..

That concludes my South American trip. A fantastic experience seeing some beautiful sites and countries. And met some great people! I’m also extremely grateful I was able to complete by trip this year, 2020; arriving back in the UK after 5 weeks travelling in the middle of February. Shortly before Covid-19 changed our lives and the travel landscape so much. I appreciate I was lucky to complete the trip and enjoy so many amazing experiences.

My highlights: Sunrise on Easter Island, Iguazu Falls in Brazil, and The Salt Flats in Bolivia. And I think The Pantanal in Brazil features too; it put me out of my comfort zone but I look back on it as one of my best memories. See other blog posts in the South America section for more information and photos.

Sunrise on Easter Island
Stunning Iguazu Falls
Chilling in The Pantanal
Enjoying The Salt Flats

I enjoyed so many other amazing things throughout the trip. I will definitely be back to South America soon. As and when travel restrictions and funds allow. And I can’t recommend you visit highly enough! Until then I hope you all stay safe and well x

La Paz and Cholitas!

You’ll love and hate La Paz, where all the cultural diversity of Bolivia collides. A mad, bustling carnival of a city.

In The Andes some 3,600m above sea level. The highest administrative capital in the world. It stretches to the snow-capped El Alto in the highlands at 6,400m above sea level. The city’s dramatic setting can be taken in via the cable car system.

If you’ve read my Sucre post you’ll know La Paz is the de facto capital of Bolivia. Despite being home to Bolivia’s Government buildings and its financial centre, its not actually the country’s capital. Thats distinction goes to Sucre. Santa Cruz is the only place with a bigger population than la Paz.

San Francisco Church

From Uyuni we took an overnight bus to La Paz. This experience of the nightbus was less enjoyable than my last one. I was upstairs and seemed to feel every turn and the road surfaces are bumpy so I didn’t get a lot of sleep. Fortunately blankets were provided as it was fold but definitely have layers, for the sleep I did get I had my coat on! I was also sat on the left hand side by the window and everyone on that side got a nice drip of air conditioning on them throughout the journey! Happy Days!

We stayed in Hotel Las Brisas in the chaotic downtown area, not far from The Witches Market. There are ATM’s and a pharmacy next door.

My room at Las Brisas Hotel

Arriving off the nightbus our rooms weren’t ready yet so we headed out for breakfast. I highly recommend Cafe del Mundo. Great breakfasts and a good choice for dinner or a cake later in the day. They had loads of choices for breakfast including vegan options and it was very reasonably priced. Great for breakfast, brunch or more! The owners are Swedish and love travel. All the staff speak English.

Cake selection at Cafe Del Mundo!

Cable Cars

La Paz has the biggest cable car network in world. It’s used as public transport and is the most logical method to improve public transport given the height and peaks of the city.

There are 10 different lines. The Red line was the first one introduced in 2014. It’s a great city and this is the easiest way to get out and about and see the city. And it’s very inexpensive at around 3 Bolivianos per line. It’s also clean, safe and well staffed. It’s easy to use the mountains as a reference point so you won’t get lost too easily!

Cable car map

When the cable cars were introduced people initially complained about the lack of privacy. You can see why as you can see straight onto some people’s roof terraces and directly into some people’s apartments from the cable cars. Though I think most would now agree it’s a positive addition to the city.

The Red and orange line start from The Old Central train station, near where we stayed. Bear in mind a short walk in La Paz is hard work! It seems to feel like you are always waking uphill! Obviously you aren’t but between that and the altitude it can be hard work until you’re acclimatised!

The cables allows you to see the diversity of the city. It’s so different in each area. Some people have started to put advertising on their rooftops as people see it from cable cars.

You can see the social project, a poor area where the buildings are now brightly coloured to try and create more positivity. It looks impressive from the cable or you can head there to wander round and take photos.

From the silver line you can see a different part of the city, over the huge market. Usually there Thursdays and Sunday’s. Apparently it sells everything, it looked huge. It’s good for hiking clothes, the branded ones often aren’t genuine but are good quality.

You’ll see some little houses famed for sourcery and fortune telling too.

From the Yellow line you’ll see a lot of the embassies and plenty of stadiums with kids playing football.

The green line you’ll pass a wealthy area with some of the more expensive schools and extravagant homes. There’s also a good mall you can stop at.

We headed back on Green and then blue, for another walk back to our hotel. I think this while trip cost me 9 Bolivianos, and we’d used half the lines.

Things to do

There are numerous trips you can do from La Paz, as well as some key sites in the city itself.

Lake Titicaca, though this one is a long day. You can visit the Sun and moon gate, or Valley of the Moon. Easy to research if your interested and easy to book locally once you’re in La Paz.

The famous Witches market is worth a wander too. La Paz is full of markets that are crazy and disjointed, colourful and noisy, mad and stinky, and remarkable. You can spend hours wandering around and buy almost anything imaginable. Food, sorcery, clothes, flowers, even your stolen camera!

Llama foetus – a common purchase at The Witches Market

There is also the Church of San Francisco and numerous museums.

Cholita Wrestling

For something a bit different, you can try Cholita wrestling! Cholitas are riding a wave of resurgence at the moment. They were once seen as ‘maids’, stereotyped and discriminated against, and have seen a return to having clout in the economic, political and fashion worlds.

Cholitas have a very distinctive style with high bowler hats, puffed skirts and plaited hair. For generations they were not permitted to walk freely in La Paz’s central square, home to the presidential palace. Nor in the wealthy suburbs of the city. In 2005 the first indigenous president of Bolivia was elected. On the back of a gradual rise of grassroots movements lead mainly by peasants. The country has continued to transform since then and credit is due to Evo Morales for the ongoing transformation.

Poverty and inequality remain but Bolivia’s economy is growing. In recent years the Cholitas have shown there fortitude by battling in the wrestling ring. Usually on Sundays.

It cost 100 bob and includes a drink, some popcorn and a small souvenir. As well as transport to the venue in El Alto, on the edge of La Paz and high up in the mountains. It’s very cold – wear a lot of layers!

The wrestling is choreographed and is very amusing! The wrestlers are aged between 15 – 40.

Death Road

Is another famous option for a day out cycling on the most dangerous road in the world. But that’s another story – more details to follow in my next post!

Restaurants

There was an English pub next to out hotel, normally I wouldn’t be interested but the food was great. Plentiful and good value. It’s also a lot of fun, they do Happy hour drinks, and we did a few shots, some on the house! I tried Golden Tequila with cinnamon and orange, much nicer than your standard tequila!

Carrot cafe is upstairs near the Witches market. It has a good view and WiFi. The food is nice and they have vegan options.

Cafe Del Mundo I’ve already mentioned, great free WiFi connection here!

Breakfast at Cafe Del Mundo

I didn’t maange to eat there but Higher ground restaurant was also recommended to me. Its a popular Bolivian restaurant, serving great coffee and breakfast, its vibrant and eclectic and serves South American food all day.

The Practical Stuff

La Paz is not known as one of the safest cities, but like most cities in South America just be careful. Be mindful of pickpockets and just take out the money you need for that day.

There is a lots of contraband in Bolivia, electronics, drugs, cars. Selling coca leaves is an important job and requires a licence.

La Paz is cold! It has very high elevation so even though it’s close to the equator temperatures are cool. Check the average temperatures for the time of year before you go and take layers! And sunglasses!

In terms of what to wear Bolivia is a tough travel destination with a climate that can swing from very hot to very cold. For La Paz you definitely need warmth and layers. Practical and hard wearing sturdy shoes and a rain jacket no matter what time of year you go.

Give yourself time to acclimatize to the altitude. Take it slowly to start. You can pick up altitude locally in the pharmacy. I used Sorojchi pills – a red and white capsule. A little Spanish goes a long way. Allow time for delays.

Plenty of impressive graffiti in Bolivia and Latin America

Currency is Boliviano and its about 10 Boliviano’s to the Pound. Everything is cheap in Bolivia so your money will go a long way.

As usual I recommend a Starling Bank Card. Great rates and no fees for using and withdrawing abroad. https://www.starlingbank.com/

In restaurants tips are not usually included. Add 10-15%. Tips aren’t expected in taxi’s, but round up. Tip tour guides 10 – 20%.

Final installment of my South American trip to follow – Death Road!

Stunning Salt Flats – Salar de Uyuni

The site of the Salt Flats genuinely leaves you speechless. Salar de Uyuni is a truly stunning natural wonder of the world. Bolivia is a beautiful country, with so much varied beauty in terms of natural landscape – and the Salt Flats top it all! Definitely a bucket list must do and one of the highlights of my recent trip in South America!

Travel – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.

Ibn Battuta

Salar de Uyuni is the worlds largest salt flat at over 10,000 square metres, located in the province of Potosi in South West Bolivia; amid the Andes with elevation of c. 3,600 metres above sea level. It was formed by a prehistoric lake that went dry thousands of years ago and the result is something otherworldly.

When its dry the surface is a pure white expanse, just blue sky, white ground, and you, as far as the eye can see. When there’s a little water on the surface its turns into the worlds greatest mirror! With a prefect reflection of the clouds and the sky, and the horizon disappears. Its surreal and hard to believe what you’re seeing. Its a stunning, beautiful site either way!

Uyuni

After travelling from a Potosí we spent a night in Uyuni before starting the desert crossing. It’s a small town that has everything you need including ATM’s, and South America’s best pizza place! You can also pick up snacks and last minute bits for the desert crossing and the salt flats – including dinosaurs if you need one for photos!

Minute man has a lot to live up to – known as the best pizza place in South America, and I concur with the reputation that precedes it – delicious, fresh, great quality and good value!

Delicious pizza as large as a wheel!

Minute man pizza place is in Hostel Tonito. It offers vegan cheese and gluten free bases if required. There are two sizes of pizza – most of us went for large – enormous would have been more appropriate! Fortunately you can get takeaway bags. Good wine and a good choice of beers is also on offer. I can’t recommend it highly enough while in Uyuni.

Desert Crossing

The landscapes in Bolivia are stunning and varied. The desert crossing was long, you spend hours in the car and get to know your travelling buddies well! It’s one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The memories of the outstanding views and scenes I saw will stay with me forever.

I admire the drivers who looked after us so well, cooking our lunch and dealing with our luggage as well as driving for hours day in day out for 3 days.

Valley of the rocks was one of the first highlights of the desert crossing on day 1.

Valley of the Rocks

We also stopped at Laguna Catal – The Black Lagoon. Mirror lake which was a short hike from the stop – very welcome to get out of the car and stretch your legs!

Little Italy – names as such because it was discovered by an Italian! We stopped in a little village called mallcu villa mar for lunch. The drivers cooked it from food they’d been carrying in the cars, along with us and all our luggage!

Little Italy
Little Italy

In the afternoon we headed to some amazing natural hot springs. We soon learnt that approximately a 2 hour drive across desert is more like 3.5 hours! The conditions are ever changing and you often have to drive around things to get there, the surfaces can be poor.

It was worth the long journey once we arrived at the natural springs. 6 Bolivianos entrance – try to have the correct change. Changing rooms are provided, though we’d been sat in our swimwear all day so were ready to go! The changing rooms were small so afterwards I changed inside my towel behind the car door on the road – traffic is few and far between!

The scenery is beautiful, and you can bathe in natural mountain spring water. With the mountains and flamingoes around you.

It was then further 2 hours drive to our home stay for the night! We stayed in a family home with 3-4 people in a bedroom. The family cooked us dinner, and we played Uno. Turns out The Southern Hemisphere has different rules! Disappointingly there was no wine or alcohol on offer! We’d all been thinking about a nice glass of wine for the final 2 hours in the long car journey!

On Day 2 we headed to the Red lagoon – Laguna Colorada – and this was well worth the long journey and time in the car! The lagoon contains algae with caratene creating the red colour of the water. It’s also known as The Nest of The Andes and has some 30,000 flamingos! This was one of the highlights of my trip and is another amazing memory I’ll recall forever!

There are several different species of flamingo, Andean and Chilean both have pink feathers. It’s breathtaking seeing so many beautiful creatures! And its so quiet and peaceful.

We also visited The Stone Tree which is a National monument, located in one Of Driest deserts in world. We stopped a few times to take in the stunning views of the mountains.

We stopped at the Stinky lagoonLake Hedionda – luckily the sulphur smell wasn’t too strong when we stopped! We had lunch at an Eco hotel. We then headed to a Volcano but unfortunately it was heavy rain and the volcano was covered in cloud.

Stunning landscapes

Instead we headed to The Quinoa museum. I tried some delicious dark chocolate with salt! They showed us how they produce darker quinoa for chocolate or beer. The Salt flats were too soft to cross so we had to border round a lot of it which takes longer.

Community lodge made from salt bricks

Our second night we stayed in a Gadventures community lodge. Made from salt bricks and sleeping on a bed made from salt. We drank a lot of wine before and after dinner and played Uno and Mafia. The lady who cooked us dinner had the most beautiful baby!

Salar de Uyuni

Day 3 and we finally head to The Salt Flats! Its actually only half an hours drive from Uyuni the town we started in, but the desert crossing is worth it if you have the time!

Overall I’d say we were lucky with the weather. We had some parts of the salt flats that were dry. Some that had a small amount of water to create the reflection where your photos looks amazing. We also had some rain but fortunately we made it work with timings.

Golden Tequila with Salt Flat salt!

The flats are completely stunning, the photos speak for themselves and they also as ever don’t to it justice. I shall treasure the memories forever.

Bring props, I’d recommend a bottle of wine or beer bottle, and a dinosaur! The dinosaur needs to be as big as a beer bottle for it to work in photos with the perspective. You can buy them in Uyuni but they aren’t cheap. Some of the drivers have them in the car if you’re on an organised tour.

Enjoying the South American wine!

Sunset and The Salt Flats by Night

I also cant recommend highly enough and evening tour of The Salt Flats with Extreme Fun Travel! This involved heading out to watch the sunset on the flats, with an optional extra of wine and snacks! The white table cloth was the finishing touch. https://www.extremefuntravelbolivia.com/en/

Roberto is such a character and his photography skills are amazing! As it started to get dark we experimented with photos and light.

Some lightning in the background!

Unfortunately an almighty storm cut our evening short so we weren’t able to get as many pictures but it was one hell of an experience and well worth the money. Apparently there are only about 6 storms a year so we were just unlucky, but the lightening was also impressive!

Take layers and wrap up warm!

The Train Graveyard

The Train graveyard is a strange yet impressive site. We went in the morning and having not seen many people for days it was unbelievably busy and full of instagrammers climbing all over the trains trying to get the perfect photo, but ultimately just all getting in each others shots!

We came back later on in the day and it was much quieter but unfortunately raining so it can be worth a second go, though I stuck with the photo I managed to get earlier in the day!

The Practical Stuff

The best time of year to visit, for the best climate is September – November. For the wet salt flats December – April. The great mirror, December – February. Also worth noting that during the rainy season some tours are limited, so worth looking into what your priorities are to see during your visit. Anytime of year is good though, and you’ll see different features and highlights. Each visit is unique and you’ll be awestruck no matter when you go!

Beautiful double rainbow 🌈

You most definitely need sun cream, and a good lip balm for both the Desert crossing and the Salt Flats. You need decent sunglasses too for the reflection against the white of the flats. For the desert I recommend a bandana for the dust, also can be used to cover your head to stop it burning! For the desert crossing take baby wipes, tissues and hand sanitizer too. If you can get hold of any with the current coronavirus situation! Small change is needed for most of the toilets too.

Days in the car are long if you do the desert crossing so take snacks. 

Do some research so you have an idea of what type of photos you’d like to try and get while you’re in The Salt Flats. Your guide and drivers will help, for some of them you need a lot of patience.

Make a decision over whether you want clothes where you’ll look nice in the photos or old clothes you don’t mind getting ruined by the salt. It wasn’t too bad when I was there so the salt washed out. But some people have had to throw clothes away after as they can’t get the salt out.

Flip flops is a good idea if there’s some water. Or you can rent boots. 

I visited in early February before The Coronavirus had such a sad impact on travel and everyone’s lives. I’m grateful I was able to complete my trip and wish everyone and their families well.

After Uyuni I headed to La Paz by night bus. Next post to follow shortly!

Potosì Bolivia – from Riches to Rags.

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

Unknown

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!