Peru

This will be the last country in South America before this blog returns to its mission, promise. We spent a little time in Copacabana’s markets, marveling at cubic-meter sized bags of popcorn, and trying Inca Kola, à pale yellow soda that tastes like children’s bubble gum balls.

Getting from Copacabana in Bolivia to Puno in Peru, at the other end of Lake Titicaca, is easy, it’s four hours by bus and simple border formalities.

Our first impression of Puno is that Peru does seem richer than Bolivia – excepting Bolivia’s jewel, Sucre. Modern shops replace wares on blankets spread on the ground, there are restaurants not lit by fluorescent tubes, and no animals. But Puno isn’t beautiful and doesn’t have much to see, apart from Lima St and the green plazas at both ends, and a handful of monuments.

After a week of pretty uniformly awful Bolivian food, we gave in and had typical local food: pizza. And it wasn’t bad. I’ll be more enthusiastic about the food when I reach Asia.

The birthplace of the Inkas

There’s just a few scheduled boats to and from Isla del Sol and they are not convenient. So we hired our private boat to take us to the north of the island, and from there to the ruins of Chincana, which is said to be the birthplace of the Inkas. Chincana is a maze of twisty little passages and rooms, with very low ceilings where ceilings still exist, built halfway up a hill over a large bay. We had it pretty much to ourselves, and a horde of local children playing hide-and-seek, because the inconvenient boats arrive later. We had a local guide but he spoke mui poco ingles, and my Spanish consists mostly of pattern-matching French words.

We are now in Copacabana, after a microbus ride over the worst dirt road in the world.

I wish I could show one of my fantastic pictures but my SD card broke, and my last backup was on the night before. (I do backups because I am a software engineer so I know for a fact that computers are out to get me.) Third failure of a Transcend card, and this time losing all data… I suppose I will never give Transcend another chance in my life, a brand, once burned, stays dead.

Anyone know a good FAT image recovery tool?

Isla del Sol

Titicaca is said to be the highest navigable lake in the world, at 3800 meters. Its largest island is Isla del Sol, reachable by a very very slow boat. There is no way to go from the harbor but up a very long stairway. At the top is another very long stairway. Followed by another. Then some stairs. And some more. All that in Bolivia’s thin air. But not a single direction sign. When we finally got to our chosen hotel, we had once again topped 4000 meters.

The upside, so to speak, was that the place was right on the ridge, and our room had fantastic lake views on both sides. What it didn’t have is heating (but good ventilation due to cracks in the wall), and it has no Internet. Neither do the restaurants advertising Internet access. There are no motor vehicles on the island, perhaps because there’s scarcely a level path here, no asphalt, but lots of donkeys and llamas.

Unbolivable

La Paz, Bolivia’s seat of government, stretches from an altitude of 3200 to 4000 meters. The center follows a narrow valley, with avenue Prado in the middle. The various neighborhoods climb up steeply on both sides, without much regard for the terrain. Downtown isn’t much to write home about, it’s incredibly congested and mostly built from dirty concrete and open bricks. There’s apparently some tax scam involving unfinished buildings, so not much is ever finished.

Here, too, commerce doesn’t so much happen in regular shops, but out on the street, in dingy covered markets, and hole-in-the-wall shops. Once we saw street vendor carts vanish when police was approaching, and reappear just as quickly a minute later.

We rented a taxi for the afternoon and had the driver show us around. The affluent leafy neighborhoods are at the lowest point; the poorest are the highest. We also saw the “moon valley” with bizarre needle-like rock formations, probably on the theory that erosion is typical on the moon. In any case, views from the hills down on the city, with the mountains as a backdrop, are fantastic. Also because the buildings don’t look as bad from a distance.

At 4000 meters in the Andes

Potosi is the world’s highest city at 4070 meters, in the Bolivian Andes. Having visited places in Tibet at up to 5400 meters without difficulty, I underestimated the altitude a little – you need to breathe a lot faster, heartbeat accelerates, and you feel an urge to do everything very slowly.

The city spreads out over a number of hills and much of it is dusty, ugly, and poor. You expect Mad Max to roam the streets in search of new hubcaps or something. The center is quite nice though, with the usual leafy square in front of the cathedral, and a number of colonial buildings and shopping streets. Shopping tends to be dominated by little hole-in-the-wall shops and old ladies with bowler hats spreading their wares on a blanket.

The main attraction in Potosi is the silver mines. The Lonely Planet guide book says that it’s actually possible to visit them without permanent health damage due to exposed asbestos, arsenic, tunnel collapses, and other attractions, but we decided to pass this one.

Sucre, Bolivia

Sucre continues to enchant. No amount of white paint was spared to turn this city 2800 meters up in the Andes into a shining colonial architecture monument. UNESCO thinks so too.

The Museo de la Recoleta, an old convent built in 1600 on a hill, offers a great view over the city and the surrounding mountains. Although it is lower than Lhasa, which I visited three years ago, I find I have to breathe more than normal when going up those steep hills… But tomorrow will make 2800 meters seem like nothing.

Sucre, Bolivia

What a surprise. Sucre is everything Santa Cruz de la Sierra isn’t. It’s elegant, spotless, affluent, and full of interesting colonial architecture. It’s a joy to explore after seedy Santa Cruz. Our hotel is spacious, has vaulted ceilings and attentive staff, and definitely doesn’t smell of mothballs. And the food in Sucre is excellent as well.

Getting here isn’t so easy. Sucre is in the Andes and at 2700 meters. That’s an arduous and dangerous 20-hour bus trip, or 40 minutes by air. We got a little 18-seat turboprop that looked rather scuffed and bedraggled. For ten minutes before landing there was some sort of alarm in the cockpit. No matter…

Traveling to Bolivia

It’s not easy to go north from Santiago. Our plane made a stop in Antofagasta, and a longer one in Iquique. That’s a town mostly known for its 142-hectare duty free shop. The airport boasts five gates and a very desolate location (I took the picture just outside the departure door). As apparently always in South America, formalities are perfunctory.

We are now in Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, on the other side of the Andes. Bolivia is clearly much poorer than the places we had seen before. Prices are much lower too.   The central plaza is nice enough but two blocks away it’s all a little decrepit, and most restaurants are gaudy fast food joints with loud music and clowns.

The airport shuttle looked exactly like it should when I travel: a rattling minibus with foldable seats and a door that gave up closing decades ago. Disappointingly, I couldn’t see the street through the floor, and the seat-to-passenger ratio was way below 2. Need to work on this.

Santiago de Chile

Santiago is the capital of Chile. One third of population lives here. It has a similar vibe as the other two capitals we have visited – it feels European, but with less polish and more grit. Of the three, Santiago has the least touristic interest. Downtown is centered on Plaza de Armas, which looks great with its historical buildings and a fountain and palm trees. The rest of downtown has a number of pleasant pedestrianized shopping streets, but is architecturally bland.

The Bellavista neighborhood on the other side of the river is the hip nightlife location, with many restaurants, pubs, boutiques, and small shops. It borders on the San Cristobal park, which rises over 300 meters above the city. There’s a funicular that takes visitors to the top in five minutes. You are supposed to see Santiago in front of the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, but there’s too much smog to see more than a faint outline of the mountains. According to the tourist Info guy in the mobile info booth mounted on a Segway, that’s it for worthwhile tourist sights in Santiago. But I like the place anyway.

There are tons of Farmacias in Santiago. We went into one to buy some lip balm. Turns out it’s just a front for a much larger sex shop.

Valparaiso, Chile

The hillsides are extremely steep in Valparaiso, so the houses seem to cling to the hillsides rather than being built on a level foundation. Some are brightly colored, others are rusty corrugated metal. A maze of twisty little stairways connects them all. Just two days ago they had an earthquake here, it’s a miracle that it didn’t all end up in a big pile at the bottom! San Francisco is essentially flat in comparison.

We spent most of the day exploring the hills to the north, and climbed some ridiculously steep streets to reach the top. Even the stairs that often replace the sidewalks are dangerously steep in some places. But the views are amazing, and the hillsides are wonderfully tranquil and free of traffic.

The town is full of dogs sleeping on the pavement, and cats in search of anyone willing to stroke them. I don’t know how we would have found our way back without GPS and OSM maps…

Valparaiso, Chile

Other side of the continent: Valparaiso is a coastal town not far from Santiago, with an old town perched on a very steep hill, criss-crossed by ancient steep stairways and cobblestoned streets that are often so steep that the sidewalks are stairs too. It’s the ultimate wheelchair-unfriendly place. It’s an UNESCO world heritage site.

On our host’s recommendation, we had dinner at a hidden little restaurant that turned out to be a treasure chest of thousands of knick-knacks from tiny figurines to a meter-tall wooden dog and a huge bomb suspended from the ceiling. The food was great and the owner sang love songs to Chile and Valparaiso.

Montevideo

Montevideo is Uruguay’s only large city. It’s about three hours from Colonia del Sacramento by bus. The city lacks Buenos Aires’ monster streets but feels nicer – at least downtown, we didn’t have time for the suburbs. We mostly explored the old town with its grid of quiet and partially pedestrianized streets. The old town doesn’t feel all that old though. And Montevideo sadly lacks Buenos Aires’ trees. Overall it feels like Buenos Aires’ poorer brother.

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

Colonia is a very quiet little town with simple old whitewashed houses on cobblestoned streets, shaded by large old trees. Very pleasant, especially after the chaos and smog of downtown Buenos Aires. Colonial sleepiness ends when the ferries from Buenos Aires arrive, spilling crowds armed with cellphone cameras into this little town. We decided to leave.

Buenos Aires to Uruguay

<p>As boring as the downtown of Buenos Aires is, as interesting are the suburbs. Palermo is another shady and quiet neighborhood with restaurants, cobblestoned streets, and the huge old trees that give Buenos Aires its charm. La Boca has an artist community with associated tourist hell that reminded me of Copenhagen. </p>
<p>In the evening we took a fast ferry across the bay of the Rio de la Plata. As the boat arrived, everyone was rushing to the buses to Montevideo, but we’ll stay a night. I am writing this in little Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. Not much to do, it’s dark and they have chosen not to invest in street lights.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

In 2009, I wrote this blog when traveling in Asia. After two years in Marseille I am on the road again. From a strictly geographical point of view, Buenos Aires is not in Asia, but bear with me, I’ll be in Asia soon…

Anyway, Buenos Aires is surprisingly European. Downtown, ugly concrete buildings crowd out the old colonial houses, and 20-lane roads cut through the city. There’s generally far too much asphalt here. But ten minutes walking takes you to suburbs with beautiful cobblestoned streets shaded by huge old trees. People sit on the lawns in big parks, street artists draw crowds, and there are lots of restaurants. The national dish appears to be pizza, but we found good steaks.