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    Thursday, 16 December 2010

    December 2010 Desktop - Siem Reap Lady Monks

    Here is a free desktop wallpaper for December 2010. The picture was taken in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

    Click here for image

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    Tuesday, 2 November 2010

    November Desktop Wallpaper 2010

    November Desktop Wallpaper 2010, originally uploaded by Homdaum.

    This photo was taken earlier this year in New Zealand at one of my favourite spots, Lake Tekapo. It was a lovely warm evening and as my desktop wallpaper it is great antidote to the cold dark winter days back in England.

    Monday, 18 October 2010

    October Desktop Wallpaper 2010

    October Desktop Wallpaper 2010, originally uploaded by Homdaum.

    I wasn't going to do one this month but I decided I wanted a wallpaper for my PC at work. I took this last month while out exploring some of the local countryside. I just love the strong yellow of the sunflower. Enjoy!

    Thursday, 2 September 2010

    Desktop September 2010 - Easter Island

    It was our first day on the Island and we were lucky enough to see this amazing sunset. #travel #photo #lp

    Saturday, 31 July 2010

    August 2010 Desktop Wallpaper

    Here is a free desktop wallpaper for August 2010. The picture was taken at the northern most tip of the South Island in New Zealand

    Click here for image

    Monday, 5 July 2010

    July 2010 Desktop - Sydney Harbour Bridge

    Take a peek.....

    Wednesday, 30 June 2010

    July 2010 Desktop - Sydney Harbour Bridge

    Here is a desktop for July 2010. The picture was taken in Sydney, Australia.

    Click here for image

    Friday, 4 June 2010

    A Series of Mislaid Plans

    Bus to Cochabamba, Bolivia [Enlarge]

    Our overnight bus journeys were behind us. Our trip from Santa Cruz to Cochabamba consisted of a ten hour bus journey, which we could either do during the day or at night – we opted for the day journey! I find it’s always great to see the scenery as you drive across a country, and it’s also quite pleasant to not have to spend a night in a cramped seat. The bus journey to Cochabamba was okay – the first half was pretty uneventful, across flat plains, until we got back to the mountains of Bolivia, from where we climbed the 2500m to the city. The – I won’t say interesting – slightly unusual aspect of the trip was that for the ten hours we were on the bus, we had salesmen walking up and down selling some crazy products. There were herbal remedies, compact mugs and face cream. I’m not talking about the usual people who walk up and down buses in Bolivia selling water and empanadas – these people stood at the front of the bus and gave twenty minute spiels about how wonderful what they were selling was, before handing out free samples and finally collecting their cash. I’ve never seen this happen before, but I think it must be something to do with the bus company we went with. It was very strange.

    Mandarins in season, Cochabamba[Enlarge]

    Cochabamba was a nice enough city to spend a few nights in. We spent a day wandering around the massive market in the city. It was definitely a “market experience” – it was absolutely rammed with people! The fruit market was my favourite part – fruit is amazingly cheap in Bolivia. Six mandarins cost us 2Bs – about 20p! It really shows you the value of money when you can see how cheap food is here.

    Drums in the plaza,Cochabamba[Enlarge]

    The central square of Cochabamba was a good place to people watch. While we were there we saw a group of young people drumming, which was pleasant to watch for a while and added to the general buzz of the city. We were staying one block from the plaza, but one thing I found surprising was that there were no restaurants in the immediate area. We found that we had to walk a few blocks from the plaza to eat at night. It struck me as odd – most of the other central plazas we’ve visited in Bolivia have had a string of restaurants lining them!

    One or two chicks, Cochabamba[Enlarge]

    We’d originally planned to do a bit of hiking in the national park near Cochabamba, but this never eventuated. We spent a full day there checking out tour companies and wandering around the city. One thing we were looking to do was take a tour to the ruins of Incalljta, about 100km from the city. These ruins are really remote, and very expensive to visit by Bolivian standards. As a result, we decided not to visit. What we did do was book a flight to Rurrenabaque, a town in the Amazon north of La Paz, from where you can do a number of tours in the jungle and the swampy pampas areas nearby. The tickets cost us around £50 each with the local airline, Amazonas, and were booked for two days time from La Paz’s airport, seven hours away.

    Heading to La Paz[Enlarge]

    So, the following day we took a bus to La Paz – the capital of Bolivia. We were pretty excited – this was to be our last long (i.e. over 4 hours) bus journey of our entire trip! The bus journey seemed to go more slowly than normal, and we climbed to 4000m, before descending to about 3500m to the central city. The views were spectacular as we drove down the valley to the city – a backdrop of beautiful mountains and stunning cliffs made for a dramatic entrance to Bolivia’s capital. We only stayed one night in La Paz on our first visit, with the intention of flying to Rurrenabaque the following day. We stayed in the lovely Hotel Rosario (a splurge!), which we liked so much we booked for three more nights on our return.

    Ferry Crossing, Lake Titicaca[Enlarge]

    The following day, upon checkout we asked the hotel staff to check our flights with the agent we’d booked with. They did so, and it turned out that all flights to Rurrenabaque for that day had been cancelled! The reason was rain – Rurrenabaque’s airstrip is apparently a grass one, and when it rains a lot it gets boggy – and flights get cancelled. We checked the weather forecast and it turned out that rain was forecast for the next five days. After agonising over what to do for a couple of hours, we decided to cancel our flights. We had just two weeks left in the country, and couldn’t justify waiting in La Paz in case the flights opened back up. Nor could we justify the 20 hour bus journey each was to Rurrenabaque – two full days in total! We taxied across town to the Amazonas office where we obtained a full refund on our flights, with no fuss! It must have been the easiest flight refund in history.

    After this, to make our day more hectic, we boarded an afternoon bus to the town of Copacabana, on the shore of Lake Titicaca. This had originally been our planned destination for after Rurrenabaque. We were quite happy to bring this one forward, and decided to spend a couple more nights there, as now we weren’t going the jungle we had a bit of extra time. The idea was to stay two nights in Copacabana, then take a boat into the lake and stay on the mystical Isla del Sol – in Inca legend, the birthplace of the sun and dotted with ruins. The drive to Copacabana from La Paz was pretty as it ran along the lake. At one point we had to take a ferry. The bus got on one ferry and we got on another – it was so cold! We really had to wrap up warm, but it was a cool experience.

    Cathedral Entrance, Copacabana [Enlarge]

    Copacabana was a nice place, if rather touristy, and on our first full day we explored the town. The cathedral on the central plaza was unusual, and we had a look around. The white domes and expansive courtyard reminded us of mosques we’d seen in India, which made for an interesting comparison.

    Tortora, Reed Boat, Lake Titicaca [Enlarge]

    The lakefront in Copacabana hosts Bolivia’s only beach. Not that it’s much of a beach! It’s stony and smelly and covered in boats and lake weed, but it’s also beautiful. Especially at sunset! There are lines of lakefront stores selling food and drinks, and on our first night in town we enjoyed sitting there watching the sun go down. At the waterfront, it doesn’t feel much like you’re at 3800m above sea level – it feels like you’re right there on the sea!

    Copacabana,Bolivia [Enlarge]

    At the end of our first full day in town, we climbed Cerro Calvario on the outskirts – a steep 100m climb which is famed for good sunsets from the top. Sadly, when we got to the top, it had become cloudy! Mahmoud was also feeling the altitude quite heavily, and was really tired by the time we got to the top. We had a wander around and then headed back down.

    Sail boat and mountains,Lake Tittcaca [Enlarge]

    The following morning – the day we’d been planning to take the boat to Isla del Sol – Mahmoud felt ill and didn’t want to get out of bed. He had man-flu! We decided to put our trip to Isla del Sol off by a day, and see if he felt well enough to take the boat. If not, I would go alone for a day trip. We spent that day chilling out – Mahmoud stayed in bed and I wandered about town a bit. It became clear that Mahmoud was feeling worse as the day went on, so I booked us in at our hotel for two more nights, meaning we’d be spending five nights in total in Copacabana.

    The next day Mahmoud was still feeling a bit rough, but slightly better, and we decided to go to Isla del Sol the following day just for a day trip. However, later that day I started to feel rough, and the following day it was my turn to contract man-flu! I was in bed all day, and Mahmoud was not feeling well enough to want to head to the island on his own. Our plans to go to Isla del Sol were dashed! It was obviously fate that we weren’t meant to visit.

    After our fifth night in Copacabana, and even though I was at my lowest point of my flu (with fevers and everything!), neither of us could bear to spend another night in the same place. Even though we were staying in a pretty nice hotel, we were just completely sick to death of the place. We decided to charter a private taxi to take us to the small town of Sorata, three hours away from the lake, and in a valley at the base of the mountain, Illampu.

    Mountain Range, The Yungas [Enlarge ]

    We were so glad we hired a taxi. Although it was expensive, it saved us from having to get off a bus at the junction between Copacabana, La Paz, and Sorata, and waiting for a new bus on the side of the road – something I really didn’t fancy as I was feeling pretty rough. It also meant that we were able to appreciate the absolutely spectacular scenery along the way. The first half of our trip ran along Lake Titicaca – following the curves of the lake. The road then turned away from the lake, and began to climb the slopes of Cerro Illampu. We then came to the cusp of the valley, and began to descend towards Sorata. It was a truly beautiful drive, and contained perhaps some of the best scenery we’d seen on our entire twelve month trip. Mahmoud was able to take plenty of pictures, courtesy of our gracious taxi driver who offered to stop at just about every viewpoint!

    Carrying a bright load, Sarata [Enlarge]

    Sorata itself was a nice little town. Not much to do, but nice. We decided to stay three nights there – two full days. We’d spend one day looking around town and the following doing a bit of hiking. Our hotel was horrible. In truth, there isn’t a lot of choice in Sorata, and I think the best choices may be out of town. We stayed in a little place just off the main plaza, with saggy beds and a sloping bathroom which formed a lake at one end of it after we had our first showers. It did the job, but owing to the bathroom-lake it was a bit damp!

    Sorata had some quaint little streets which were good for a day’s wandering. The plaza was, as always, a good place to people watch. The market was also pretty interesting to wander around. I think the people in Sorata don’t see quite so many tourists as most of the other places we’ve visited, as they like to stare a bit. Sorata is a very photogenic town, but there’s not a lot else to do. Walking around for a day was perfect!

    Enjoying the View, Sarata [Enlarge]

    The following day we had been planning to do a bit of walking out of town. However, we awoke to fog, drizzle and cold. After a week of things going wrong, we had had enough! We couldn’t bear to sit in our hotel room for the day, and there was nothing else to do around town. We walked to the plaza, hired a taxi, packed up our things and left for La Paz two days early.

    We’ve been really lucky in our year long trip. Things have usually gone our way, generally speaking. We’ve never had to cancel our plans due to the weather, or sickness, or anything like that really. And yet, the past week has not gone so well. Even so, at this stage of the trip, neither of us are too worried about it. We’ve seen so much at this point, that we’re pretty much happy to go with the flow of things. And based on our experience of our sole night in La Paz, five nights in the big city should actually be pretty cool.

    Monday, 31 May 2010

    Meat Stall,Copacabana, Bolivia

    Meat Stall,Copacabana, Bolivia, originally uploaded by Homdaum.

    We are in La Paz and the last couple of weeks haven't really gone to plan. To top it all off the netbook has decided to stop working, so no more photos or updates for a while unless you follow on Twitter. We are back in the UK on the 8th of June, so I guess the updates will have to wait until then.

    June 2010 Desktop Wallpaper

    Here is a desktop for June 2010. The picture was taken in Bolivia crossing the border from Chile.

    Click here for image


    Friday, 28 May 2010

    Pre-Inca Ruins at Samaipata, Bolivia

    Wires, Samaipata[Enlarge]

    Our trip to Samaipata from Sucre was a long overnight bus for us. It’s only the third time in our entire 11 months that we’ve opted to do an overnight bus as it may save on a night’s accommodation, but it really writes you off the next day as you are so tired. It is pot luck when you buy your ticket for a bus in Bolivia as to the type of bus you are going to get. The buses in Bolivia are similar to the ones in Cambodia – they’ve pretty much seen their best by dates and if the windows close and the seats stay put then you are on a winner. As we boarded our bus I was pleasantly surprised as to the size of the seats and the amount of leg room I had. The lady we’d booked with had promised I’d have enough leg room and she was right. As a side note I’ve found that the Bolivians generally are really honest and will tell it how it is. That’s great for us, as you can usually rely on what you are being told.

    The journey on the bus was a pretty tough one. It was cold and by the feel of it the road didn’t really exist. All I know is the bus snaked up and down the mountains. I think in this instance it was lucky I couldn’t see what was going on outside, as I can just imagine how bad and narrow the road must have been with sheer drops. There was one point in the middle of the night I sort of remember as I was half asleep. I think the bus driver was trying to manoeuvre past other vehicles but the problem was that I don’t think there was much room to manoeuvre, because as the bus was reversing I heard a lot of the passengers say ‘PARE’ – STOP! I wonder how close to the edge we got?|

    We did arrive safely, we left at 5pm and arrived in Samaipata at 6am. The bus itself was headed to Santa Cruz, another 3 hours from Samaipata, so thankfully the bus driver remembered to drop us off. As we disembarked the bus and collected our backpacks from the hold, we were approached by a taxi man. He knew where we wanted to stay and took us directly there. A good result as it was still dark and there was no sign of life. It turned out that an email we’d sent enquiring about a room at a hostal, had then resulted in them getting us picked up. It was still cold so I was really pleased to be ferried to our hostel of choice. We still had the company of Marcus and Andrea and the four of us arrived at the hostal thanking our lucky starts that we were out of the cold.

    Nancy at Hostal Pasada del Sol, greeted us and said our rooms would be ready by 11am. We had a few hours to wait but it was made easier by Nancy kindly lighting a fire to warm us up and the offer of a hearty breakfast.


    By now we had got into a pretty good routine travelling with Marcus and Andrea and after breakfast, hot showers and a little rest we ventured out to have a look at Samaipata. It’s a tiny place that took all of 30 minutes to explore. It wasn’t the town that we’d come to see, but some pre-Inca ruins and the chance to do some hiking. A little walk around was as much as we managed on that day. From what we saw it was a quiet sleepy place with not much going on.

    UFO Site, El Fuerte,Samaipata[Enlarge]

    The following day we’d arranged to go and see the pre-Inca ruins of El Fuerte. We decided to take a taxi there and then walk back. The ruins had been carbon-dated to 1500BC and there are a variety of theories as to why they are there, from the plausible pre-Inca civilisation to a UFO landing site. Whatever the reason for their existence, they make for an impressive visit, situated high on the top of a mountain. We took several hours to walk around the ruins. There isn’t a lot of explanation as to what it’s all about so you are left to let your imagination run a little wild. Having said that, the theory that it’s a UFO site was a little far fetched.

    Dwelling at El Fuerte,Samaipata[Enlarge]

    The views from the ruins were amazing, it was a clear day with some cloud which gave the whole place a very dramatic look. I’ve got a feeling that the ruins had a sacrificial purpose but that’s just my opinion. Apparently they are still finding dwellings surrounding the main site, so in years to come it may be much bigger. As it was, I thought it was well worth a visit.

    Sun peaking through, Samaipata[Enlarge]

    Spending time with Marcus and Andrea was really good fun and we did seem to spend a lot of time eating. Samaipata, for such a little place, had several good restaurants (oddly all partly foreign owned) which we had some great meals in. We did spend a lot more time in them than we would have if it had been just the two of us. Luckily, Bolivia is so cheap that it was fun not to have to worry about money too much and just enjoy it.

    The following day we did decide to work off some of the extra calories by doing a hike to see condors up close. The day started at 4.30am for breakfast and the four of us were on the road by 5 with our guide Rufo and his assistant (I never did get his name). The idea was to drive a couple of hours to the start and then walk up, enjoying the amazing mountainous countryside. We would then spend some time observing the condors, which can number up to 40 and then make our way back down another way.

    Walking into the clouds, Samaipata[Enlarge]

    It was spitting with rain when we started and apart from a glimpse of the sun at the start of the walk we were surrounded by cloud most of the day. The walk was good as Rufo was really passionate about the flora. He told us about the different plants and their medicinal uses and also gave us some Bolivian history. Thankfully Marcus was on hand to translate some of what he was saying from Spanish to English as I didn’t always get everything.

    The walk itself was pretty tough; we were still at altitude so the breathing was difficult at times. A lot of the first part of the walk was uphill and scrabbling along the cliffside, where the path had been washed away by landslides. For me it was really good to get out and explore the countryside regardless of the weather.

    Keeping warm, Samaipata[Enlarge]

    Once we got to the ridge where we would see the condors using the thermals to glide we knew that we were out of luck. We were in the clouds and consequently we could only see about 10 metres. Apparently on a clear day the views are amazing with lakes and mountains. And the drop from the ridge was 300 metres which was ideal for the condors. We had to take Rufo’s word for it and hope that the cloud might lift. In an attempt to do that he did light a fire, I’m not sure how that was going to help but it did serve the purpose of warming us all up.

    Farm Community, Samaipata[Enlarge]

    We settled on the ridge to have some food and as we were tucking into some bread and cheese a sole condor swooped out of the mist over our heads along the ridge and back into the white abyss. It took a second or two for me to realise what I’d seen. It was amazing and I can only imagine what it must be like on a clear day when they are flying all around you. That one glimpse was worth the trip up.

    We hung around for a while longer and then we made our way down. The whole hike took about 7 hours and towards the end we passed through a tiny community, isolated from the world. Here usually they ask for some money to pass through their land, but on this occasion I think the lady felt sorry for us as we hadn’t really seen much, so waived the fee. Instead she happily posed for a photo with a big toothy grin.

    Rock and Waterfall, Samaipata[Enlarge]

    We made it back to the car which had been brought to the end point by the able assistant and we were off to see a water fall and head back. The water fall was impressive and we got to see a couple of condors from a distance. It’s here both Jono and I noticed that there was something up with the brakes of the car. We left the waterfall and started our journey back along hair pin bends and narrow unsealed roads with sheer drops. Every time Rufo went to slow down he’d stick on the handbrake. Jono and I looked at each other nervously and decided not to tell Marcus and Andrea who were in the back.

    As we made our way back, sometimes I couldn’t look as we turned sharply downhill, hoping that the handbrake would be enough to keep us on the road. We did make it back and there was only one time I thought we were going over the edge and that was at the start of the journey when I guess Rufo was finding his feet – driving with no breaks. He did admit when we were safely back in the hostal that he had no breaks, but he didn’t tell us earlier as he did not want to worry us – Too late for that I thought. There have been a few time on our travels I thought I was going to die. I did think that when we started our journey back from the walk but soon felt reasonably comfortable that Rufo knew what he was doing. It was scary all the same.

    Photo Op, Santa Cruz[Enlarge]

    The final day we all took it easy, milled about a bit, had more food and sorted out our journey to Santa Cruz, the biggest city in Bolivia. At only 3 hours away we decided on a taxi between the four of us. We arranged a taxi for the following day. At the time we spoke to the driver, I wasn’t sure he’d turn up. He didn’t but a quick phone call from the hostal had another taxi there before the phone had been hung up- to say he was fast was an understatement.

    Let them eat cake, Santa Cruz[Enlarge]

    Getting to Santa Cruz was quick. The road was pretty good by Bolivian standards and our driver wasn’t shy about overtaking on corners, narrow sections or anywhere else for that matter. Again we arrived safely and he dropped us off at our hotel in the centre of Santa Cruz. Instantly I felt that we were in a big city, everyone was rushing around and horns were being tooted impatiently. For such a large city Santa Cruz did not have a lot to see or do. What it did have were some good restaurants so subsequently we spent a lot of time in them with Marcus and Andrea. We even took a number of taxis to hunt out good restaurants with some success. We only spent two nights here and on our final night it was time to part company with Marcus and Andrea as the following day we would head west and they east.

    The four, Samaipata [Enlarge ]

    Our final meal was in a very posh Italian restaurant which turned out to have lovely food. Marcus had prepared a quiz for us to take with prizes, which was a surprise to us. One of the questions had been how long the four of us had been travelling together – two weeks. I came last but I still got a prize out of pity I think! It’s rarely that Jono and I travel with other people as we find it much easier to do our own thing. But Marcus and Andrea had made perfect travelling partners with a similar outlook on travelling. We’d had a lot of fun together and it was sad parting company. However I’m sure we’ll see them again at some point in the future.

    Tuesday, 25 May 2010

    Touring the Central Highlands - Potosi and Sucre

    Backpacking, Uyuni, Bolivia [Enlarge]

    Although we’d already been in Bolivia for three full days, it didn’t really feel like it until we got to our first major town, Uyuni. A night there was all we needed before we embarked on our first proper Bolivian bus journey. The five of us from our tour of the Salar de Uyuni all boarded the same bus. Rebecca was taking the bus directly to the city of Sucre, ten hours from Uyuni, while Andrea, Marcus, Mahmoud and I were getting off at Potosi.

    Having a chat, Potosi[Enlarge]

    The bus was a big surprise. It was pretty clean, relatively comfortable and not over-filled. My window didn’t close properly and let in a fair bit of dust, but considering the road the poor bus had to drive on every day I’m not surprised there were a couple of problems with it! The road was really unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. We’d been on bad roads in Cambodia and Laos – pot-holed, muddy, and narrow – but they were nothing compared to this road. I keep saying road – it was really mostly a dirt track. Most of it didn’t even have gravel on it, it was just a track. I guess it must get bulldozed occasionally to stop it from eroding, but it was very basic. The road went through streams (no bridges), dodged llamas and donkeys, and wormed its way through a number of small towns on the way.

    We had one toilet stop on the way. Everyone got off the bus, and while the locals trudged off to do their business, the uninitiated among us looked around for the “Banos” sign and the inevitable concrete toilet block. But… nothing. Shocked looks of realisation crossed a few faces, and a couple of Japanese girls shrieked and rushed back into the bus. We were doing it the natural way, and once that sank in, everyone found a rock/bush/went behind the bus and did their business. As the only toilet stop on our seven hour trip, modesty was not required!

    Cerro Rico, Potosi, Bolivia [Enlarge]

    We arrived in Potosi at 4000m above sea level at the fancy new bus terminal. We all said our goodbyes to Rebecca, who was continuing on to attend Spanish lessons in Sucre, and got into a taxi to our chosen hotel. The four of us remaining decided on the same hotel, and, being unopposed to one another’s company, decided to spend some more time travelling together.

    Potosi was a lovely city, situated on a hillside as if to make you all the more aware of the altitude by making you huff and puff your way up and down the streets. We were really surprised by how modern Potosi was – it’s an old mining town and was really important to Spain in its colonial heyday. In fact, it’s said that Spain was dependant on the wealth generated by the silver mines inside Cerro Rico (literally, Rich Hill), the cone-like mountain which towers above the city. That wealth persists in Potosi today, and it’s full of interesting colonial buildings, wealthy looking people and hosts a pretty plaza in it’s centre.

    Lost on walking tour, Potosi[Enlarge]

    The four of us did a walking tour of the city from Marcus and Andrea’s Footprint guidebook, which took in some of the lesser known sights of the city and gave us a bit of a workout by walking up and down at high altitude. Somehow, though, we ended up doing the walking tour backwards by following the map instead of reading through the steps. It all got a bit confusing, and eventually I ended up navigating us by reading through the steps backwards and reading ahead to make sure we didn’t go wrong. It was all a bit confusing, but actually ended up being quite fun – I really suggest spicing up your guidebook’s walking tour by doing it backwards. We saw a few interesting things – some decorated doorways, a street which turns seven times… etc. It was good.

    Can I have my picture taken with you,Potosi [Enlarge]

    Separately, Mahmoud and I visited the city mint. We did a tour of the mint which sort of doubled as a museum. It was mostly pretty interesting (with a few boring paintings), and we got a bit of history of Potosi, saw the mint which is where it all happened back then, and saw a giant painted stone face on the wall which looked a bit scary.

    Processing the Silver, Potosi [Enlarge]

    One of the more controversial tours you can do around Potosi is the tour of the mine tunnels inside Cerro Rico. For me, it’s not something I ever thought I’d do – it really didn’t appeal (and still doesn’t), but Mahmoud, Andrea and Marcus were all pretty keen so I figured I’d give it a go. After booking the tour, we left early the following morning and got outfitted with our mining gear – trousers, jackets, boots, helmets and headlights. We then went to the miner’s market where we bought stuff for ourselves and for the miners. This included dynamite. We each bought a stick of dynamite, which later we would get to blow up. Good fun! First though, we went to the refinery where they sort out the silver from the crud that no one wants. There were all sorts of noxious chemicals floating around, so we were glad we had handkerchiefs to cover our faces with – it was really horrible stuff. Fortunately we didn’t stick around long – we were about to go somewhere more horrible.

    Mine Entrance, Potosi [Enlarge]

    The mines were up next, and we set off into them at a pretty hefty pace considering we were at about 4200m above sea level. Apparently we were going fast to outpace the mining cart which would be coming along shortly. After about 600m it started to get hot, and I started to get a bit freaked out. There was hardly any space, we were stooping to walk and in some cases crawling. At one point my helmet hit a wooden beam and I heard bits of gravel fall onto my helmet – ugh! The dust was bad too – apparently it can contain noxious gases and particles in places, including silicon dust which can cause silicosis. When we stopped for a rest I was having trouble breathing due to the dust, and I knew I wasn’t going any further. Mahmoud was also not keen to go on, being a bit claustrophobic (as he didn’t enjoy caving in Laos I’m not sure why he thought he’d enjoy a mine tour!). Our guide took the rest of our group on, while we waited in the dark for someone to come and get us. Sat there in the total darkness, with only our flashlights to keep us company, I was still having trouble breathing. I think I started to hyperventilate, as Mahmoud was telling me to slow my breathing down. I felt like I needed to breathe more – it was hard to breathe with the dust in the air, and to keep the dust out I had the handkerchief in front of my mouth – which was making it even harder to breathe. I was really relieved when a guide came out of the darkness, and led us back down the tunnel to the outside. I’d never been so pleased to see sunlight – I really wished I’d never gone down into that mine, it was horrible!

    Lit & Ready to explode, Dynamite,Potosi[Enlarge]

    Once outside we chatted for a while with a drunk miner who couldn’t even stand after 24 hours in the mine and a few hours after that on hard alcohol, and then when the rest of the group returned from the mine we blew up some dynamite. Well, that’s a slight exaggeration – we held lit dynamite for a few seconds, then gave it to the guides who took it far away before it blew up. So it was all very exciting, but rather pointless and a bit of a waste of good dynamite. I was very relieved afterwards to get back to the tour office and change out of the nasty mining clothes. Having a shower back at the hotel was very pleasant, albeit slightly cold due to the temperamental electric showers which are ever-present in Bolivian hotels!

    Workman on the way to Sucre[Enlarge]

    The following day we hired a taxi to take us to Sucre. It was incredibly cheap – approximately £4 each for the four of us for a three hour journey. This was only a little more than the bus, but we were able to take the taxi at the time we wanted. The journey was spectacular, in normal Bolivian fashion, and the road marginally better than the road to Potosi had been – it was mostly sealed! Our “taxi” was a sort of boy-racer type car, with a very loud exhaust – not the most petrol friendly automobile I’m sure! After three hours, we arrived in the beautiful city of Sucre.

    Traditional and Modern,Sucre[Enlarge]

    At approximately 2500 meters elevation we really noticed the difference in altitude in Sucre. We could breathe properly, even when walking at a reasonable speed! We stayed right on the central plaza in Grand Hotel, which was a lovely little refuge from the outside world. Sucre was incredibly busy with people, and once again we were surprised by how well-off the people seemed to be. It seems that the cities of Bolivia are full of the richer people, while those who live in the countryside are much poorer. I had always thought that Bolivia would be like another Cambodia, but generally I think people have more money here. The sheer number of cars on the streets of places like Sucre is evidence of this – if people here have a vehicle it seems like it’s normally a car, rather than a motorcycle. Crossing the street in Sucre is quite frightening – you have to avoid the busy traffic. In some countries, people drive around you when you’re crossing busy roads. Here, if you’re not careful, you’re toast!

    Stain Glass Window, Surpreme Court, Sucre[Enlarge]

    We spent a good amount of time wandering around Sucre. One of the most interesting places we visited for me was the Supreme Court. We wandered up to the building to have a close look. Out of curiosity Marcus asked the security guard if tourists were allowed in. Instantly, and without fuss, we were ushered into the building and given a free guided tour. It was really interesting! We even saw the court in session, with TV cameras present and everything. The colonial-style building was great to wander around, and I was amazed that we were able to go in with so little fuss – I’m sure that in any other country in the world we’d have no chance.

    Convento De San Pelipe Meri, Sucre[Enlarge ]

    We also visited the nearby town theatre (Teatro Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho). There was nothing on, but a couple of really kind people showed us around. They even switched on all the lights, and we met a charango (a traditional Bolivian ukulele type instrument) player who chatted to us for a while. I think they were really proud of their theatre, and wanted to show us around, to share what they had with us. It was really nice.

    A visit to the church, Convento de San Felipe Neri, was one of the highlights of our visit to Sucre. In this church you can climb up onto the rooftop for great views of the city, and you can even climb up into the bell towers. We visited just before sunset, and it was great to see the city lit basked in a soft, orange glow. It was a lovely spot.

    Wall of Dinosaur Footprints ,Sucre [Enlarge]

    My favourite place in the city though – and some might say the most random – was the Parque Cretacio, a 20 minute shuttle bus ride from the city centre. This showcases some incredible prehistoric dinosaur footprints on a vertical stone cliff, about 200m from a viewing platform where you can look at them. It’s a really impressive site – there are literally thousands of individual footprints dotted over the cliff-side, and you can see the well-preserved paths the reptiles took. The information centre is also pretty amusing, with life-sized replicas of the beasties surrounding it, roaring and groaning in bizarre ways. Our guide was enthusiastic and her English was excellent – we really enjoyed the tour. I just never thought I’d be wandering among life-sized dinosaur models in Bolivia…

    Palm Shadows,Sucre[Enlarge]

    We really enjoyed our time in Sucre. Unfortunately, while we were there, Andrea developed a stomach bug – as she put it, she had “small animals in my stomach”. This was not very pleasant for her as she did not eat very much. I also acquired some stomach animals a few days later, so obviously we’d eaten/drunk something we shouldn’t have! While in Sucre, we also met up with Rebecca from our tour of Salar de Uyuni for a meal, and it was nice to catch up. We spent three fun and relaxing nights in the city in total before our bus journey to Samaipata. This was to be our first experience of a night-bus in Bolivia – it was good we were feeling relaxed when we got on!

    Monday, 24 May 2010

    A Unique Border Crossing into Bolivia

    It was time to cross the border into Bolivia. Having spoken to a few people about it, this journey across the Andes was one of the highlights of their trip. We were both excited and nervous as we were now in the hands of Estrella Del Sur, the tour agency we had picked to take us across. It had been recommended to us by fellow travellers, and from the reviews of all the agencies on line it seemed pot luck as to whether you would get a good trip or not. There were horror stories about drivers being drunk, the 4x4’s breaking down, and shockingly, not enough food or water being provided.

    We’d spent 4 days in San Pedro de Atacama and we hoped that it was enough to acclimatise to the high altitude. Our next stop was going to be over 4000m and we would be getting as high as 4800m during our trip and there was a real possibility of altitude sickness.

    The night before the tour we had to confirm if the pass between Chile and Bolivia was open as it had been snowing and for the last three days it had been closed. Lucky for us it was open and we were good to go. The tour was 2 nights/ 3 days and on the first day we were picked up at our hotel at 8. We then headed off around San Pedro to pick up the others that we would be sharing the tour with - Marcus and Andrea who were from Switzerland and Rebecca who was Australia but had been living the UK for a number of years and now was returning home on a slightly circuitous route.

    The first part of the journey was on a bus to the Bolivian border at 4300m. We raced up to the border in about an hour which was totally against any advice we’d read, which says you should only go up 300m a day once you get to 2500m. Here we checked out of Chile and got stamped into Bolivia for 90 days. A good result for us as there was a chance we would only get 30 days on our stamp, but our trip in Bolivia was going to last 31 days. I have to say out of all the border crossings we’ve done over the last 11 months, this was by far the easiest.

    At the border crossing we met our driver Alberto a 21 year old Bolivian and had a bit of breakfast. We’d already had breakfast at out hostel and all the advice was to eat lightly to avoid altitude sickness, so both of us settled for a hot Milo. A good start as it was pretty cold at the border, due to the high altitude. It was also the first chance to get to know our companions for the next 3 days and I had a good feeling that we would all get on.

    We packed up the 4x4 and set off on our adventure, it soon became apparent that it was going to be pretty cold as we were surrounded by snow. It was also going to be a thrilling ride as Alberto had a heavy foot, zipping along at breakneck speeds. The speedometer was broken so I never really knew how fast we were going during the tour but it felt FAST!

    The first stop was at Laguna Blanca (White Lake). With the recent snow fall it definitely looked white and was the start of some of the most dramatic landscape I’ve ever seen.

    On our trip we saw many lakes, the next was supposed to be one of the most impressive, Laguna Verde ( Green Lake). Again due to the snowfall it was less green, however with a backdrop of Volcan Licancabur it still made for a very imposing view

    We’d been going a few hours on the first day and about midday we arrived at Polques Hot Springs. This was a chance for us to take a dip, partly because they were there at 4400m above sea level and partly because our first nights accommodation was described as basic with no chance of a shower. I was really reluctant to strip off and get in as it was so cold. However as our fellow companions eased themselves in and gushed about how wonderful it was I was persuaded to get in. It was really like stepping into a hot bath and was a wonderful experience, once in though it was much harder to step back out into the cold!

    Our next stop, after having dried off really quickly and gotten back in the 4X4 was Geyser Sol de Manana, which would be the highest point of our trip at 4800m. I’d already started to notice that even the slightest bit of effort would make my heart pound and breathing was becoming more laboured as the air thinned at altitude. At the geyser I made sure I walked around slowly trying not to exert myself. Another tip is to take it easy at altitude to avoid sickness. One of the things I’ve been doing on our trip around the world is having a jumping picture at different locations. Being at probably the highest point on our entire trip I couldn’t resist. Not the best thing to do at high altitude but as our timing has got pretty good, it only took one go.

    Our final stop of the day was at Laguna Colorada (Red Lagoon). Before we headed there we stopped off at our very basic accommodation for the night at Hostal Hualla Jara at 4300m. Taking one look we all knew we were going to be in for a cold night. It was freezing and the sun was still high in the sky. I did also notice the beds were made out of concrete – interesting.

    Laguna Colorada was our first chance to see some of the wildlife of the area. It wasn’t ‘peak season’ if you like as most of the Flamingos had migrated to warmer climes for the winter but we got to see some hardy flamingos and Vicuñas. The latter are like Llamas but smaller and can survive at higher altitudes.

    One of our fears was that there was not going to be enough food on the trip but there was no problem of that sort. Both at lunch and then dinner that evening food was plentiful. Being full didn’t make it any easier though as it was hard to see the sun go down and, as predicted, for the cold to take over. After dinner we did not hang around for long, all of us were tucked in by 9. Luckily Jono and I had hired sleeping bags as without them I think it would have been twice as cold as it was. The night was long with not much sleep for any of us. I discovered the next day we mostly had the same experience – we were all really cold and wide awake for most of the night. It could have been the cold but we had our suspicions that it may have been something to do with the coca tea we had. The locals use coca to help with altitude sickness as before we went to bed we were nearly all suffering from throbbing headaches which was one of the early symptoms of altitude sickness. The next day I ‘awoke’ to the worst headache I’ve had in ages. As soon as there was a glimpse of light I was up. A couple of neurofen and a hot chocolate later (caffeine is also bad at altitude) I started to feel better. I was so pleased to see the sun.

    The second day was another packed day of sightseeing as we continued on our way into Bolivia. We started off by having a look at some rock formations named Arbol De Piedra (Stone Tree).

    On our way to the next sites we helped another 4x4 which had got stuck in the snow. We saw more wildlife with the most interesting being a very curious fox..

    We had lunch at the picture perfect Laguna Hedionda..

    The flora was interesting along the way too.

    And generally got time to enjoy the dramatic landscape.

    That night we arrived at what Jono and I thought would be a salt hotel to stay in. Somewhere, either we got our wires crossed or we were lied to by the tour company but we ended up at a village called Villa Martin at a little homestead. My disappointment was soon forgotten as I got a warm shower and some more decent food. That and with the prospect of a much warmer night at only 3600m and being able to breath just a little easier I was content.

    The next morning was an early start as we were on the road by 5am to get to our destination of Salar De Uyuni, the salt flats, for sunrise. This turned out to be one of the highlights of the last 11 months for me. The salt flats were an ethereal place. As we ventured onto the salt flat in the 4X4 it was the smoothest ride we’d had for a while. Alberto also turned off the headlights and it felt like we were gliding along at high speed into the twilight. We eventually stopped somewhere on the salt flats and got a chance to get out and watch one of the most memorable sunrises I have ever seen.

    The following are set of pictures I wanted to share with you from that morning.

    Sun shines out of my ..., Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia

    Contemplation, Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia.

    Jump, Salar De Uyuni,Bolivia

    After the sunrise we went off the nearby ‘island’, Isla Incahuasi, which was covered by a cacti forest. We wandered around for a while to have a look and then tucked into another great breakfast

    While tucking into breakfast I wasn’t expecting to see an ostrich.

    Leaving the island and the ostrich behind us we were off to our next destination – the first salt hotel to be built in the area.

    The hotel is pretty much in the middle of nowhere and is made entirely out of salt and is also surrounded by salt

    Further on we saw that the salt is still collected and sold for what I think is household use.

    I was really sorry to leave the salt flat as I thought it was a magical place. The landscape started to change again and there was noticeable more evidence of life. We made a pit stop at a little village which was very used to seeing tourists.

    It was a chance to get a few souvenirs for those of us who had space in our backpacks and for me to people watch. It was the first glimpse for me of life in Bolivia.

    As the third day was coming to an end we were on our way to Uyuni, our first real town in Bolivia at 3600m. There was one last thing to see before we got there, a railway cemetery, where forgotten locomotives from the first railway in South America had been abandoned. For me it wasn’t the locomotives that will be memorable but the amount of rubbish strewn over the parched desert landscape. I have to say it’s the worst I’ve seen anywhere on our travels. I think I must have been too shocked to take a picture.

    That was it, we made our way into the centre of Uyuni and checked into a hostel for the night. We still had some daylight left so we took a look around Uyuni, which in comparison to what I had seen around the outskirts was a pleasant surprise. It was relatively clean and pretty lively but nothing to keep us there for more than one night.

    The trip was at an end and the 3 days had been amazing, the scenery was gorgeous and we had really lucked out with the company of Marcus, Andrea and Rebecca. That final evening we tucked into some of the best pizza we’ve come across with our new friends. It had been a great start to our time in Bolivia. Next, waiting for us was our first taste of the notoriously bad Bolivian roads by bus.

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