Chloe Hayes: Seeing South America - Chapter 5 (Part 1)
As my travels progress I have become more and more accustomed to my own company. I did live on my own for 2 years whilst working as Artist in Residence at a school without a telly or internet which was actually not as bad as it sounds. Yes it was super irritating at times when you just wanted to search for something or check a definition, but I got used to it and it used to make me feel sort of like I was doing a good thing with my life when I told people. So really it shouldn´t be that bad me travelling on my own.
Whilst I was in Cusco a girl named Stephanie caught my eye as I was leaving the hostel and we greeted each other. After asking something at the desk I came out of the door to find her standing outside. She asked me whether I was going to explore the town, I apologised and said I was on my way to a Spanish lesson but suggested we walk together there. When you are travelling on your own you sort of get a ´Lonely´ Dar and I could sense she wanted a chat with someone. As we walked we got onto the subject and I was explaining that it wasn´t the being on my own that bothered me, but it is always when you come to a new town or city, especially when you arrive in the evening that you do suddenly get hit with that unwelcome, hearty feeling that is loneliness. Stephanie agreed, she had been travelling on her own since Ecuador and said it still hits her and that she always feels guilty for feeling like it, receiving messages from her friends saying how jealous they are.
It is a funny feeling of being in a place that you have dreamed about for so long and have worked so hard to get there, Stephanie was right in the sense that you do feel guilty about it and it is a horrible feeling that you just can´t shake off even if you´re chatting with a group of people. You know you´ll be fine the next day when the sun is up and you’re busy exploring, but that first night is always a bit strange. It’s not even something that you can put your finger on, it’s not as if you miss home or your friends or your life, although the thought of them being here with you would be epic, it is just a weird, strange, ´being plunged in the deep end´ feeling.
he guy in Rurrenebaque said a similar thing while we were in the pool, although his feelings were more towards home and friends. Twice his friends had come out to see him, once in Mexico and once in Cusco. He actually said that although he misses them you get so used to being by yourself and being selfish in a good way that it´s frustrating when you have to all work together. He said he had fallen out with his friends a few times, he was totally laid back knowing that it was their holiday and he had endless time, however their indecision and time wasting frustrated him so much because they were not taking advantage of the experiences they could be having. The contrast of only having to think about yourself for 6 months to having to look after 2 friends in a foreign country is huge. However it wasn´t all bad. He still enjoyed the time with his friends and they bought him food from home that he was desperate for. Four packets of quavers, Dairy Milk and stuffing mix.
So this weird loneliness/ homesick thing can come in many forms. I think mainly mine has come in form of not having structure or a timetable of sorts. I like to have a plan and here I am trying to break that, relaxing in each place and just seeing what happens, I am getting much better at that! My travel is slowing down and I find myself booking buses on the day! Unheard of coming from the girl who booked her first bus 5 days in advance when really you can hop on 10 minutes before departure. It´s actually a really nice feeling not panicking all the tie that you might miss something or you have to plan the next week in detail.
Back to the diary. Although I was really not feeling 100%, having a cold in altitude is really not fun, I had booked a trek to go and see Chacaltaya and the Valle de la Luna. I caught the bus at 7 in the morning and after driving out of town we started to climb up a very dodgy mountainside road. Chacaltaya is a peak just outside of La Paz and it is completely black. The stone is very shaley and slippery and therefore, as we climbed back and forth up the mountain, the little flecks were slowly toppling down the side. The higher we got the more little lakes we saw on the side of the mountain, they were beautiful colours of tropical blues and purples due to the minerals in the rock. By the time we got out it was super freezing cold and snowing! I had gone from Amazon heat to snowing in 2 days, the weather in South America is crazy. We had stopped outside a little house perched on the edge of the cliff where the documentary ´Samuel in the Clouds´ is filmed. We all started trekking, firstly to the first peak then the second. What with the extreme altitude (the highest I had ever been), the snow and bitter wind and my cold I could barely breath going up the first peak and so, reluctantly, I decided to stay there, enjoy the view for a bit and then head back down for a nice coca tea in the house. On the way up however I did meet a few lovely people, one of whom, an Indian dude named Daniel was very keen to chat about travelling and especially the UK as he really wanted to visit it. After chatting to a few other people from another group down at the bottom, I rejoined my group on the bus and we headed back down Chacaltaya, through La Paz and then onto the Valle de la Luna, Moon Valley.
It was such a stark contrast getting into the bus freezing cold in the snow, and getting out having to apply sun cream and hats because it was so hot. The valley was stunning, really looking like the moons surface. It was formed when the entire area was a lake and it was full of fossils of aquatic animals and plants. We had about an hours walk around the weirdly formed rocks and more chatting about travelling and England, Daniel also said he really wanted to try this Indian curry house back in La Paz with a ´Britisher´ as he calls us as he had heard that the UK made the best curry outside of India, which is true and he wanted to get my onion to see what the difference is like. I said why not and we agreed to meet there later. After the tour I realised that I hadn´t actually eaten anything all day and it was about 3 in the afternoon by this stage. I couldn´t find anything on my way back to the hostel and then I stumbled upon this teeny tiny restaurant that was open. This one did look a bit scarier tan usual, not just because I was the only person in there but because the entire family were sat in there around the telly watching a soap. I was given the only thing they had which was cold potatoes, a cold banana and some luke warm chicken, as I ate it I was thinking if I don´t get ill from this I will be so surprised but I was so hungry I didn´t really care.
The next day I had already planned to go to the Cholitas Wrestling with Daniel. It’s a crazy event where the Cholitas, the traditional native ladies wrestle. I had a morning free and I really wanted to go on the cable car and to see the El Alto market, the biggest market in Bolivia. I walked up to where you can hop on and it was a complete shambles! The queue for the one way only ticket was huge and took me about 15 minutes to get through and then the actual queue to get on the cable car was out of the door, snaking, overlapping about 6 times through the square! It took me a good 50 minutes to actually get on a car, fortunately I have a new improved patience limit and I was in no rush so didn´t really mind and spent my time people watching.
The cable car itself was pretty cool and as soon as I stepped out of the station I was in the market. Just as ridiculous as La Paz itself it was manic and packed and you could literally buy anything you wanted there. As I walked through it I saw car parts, juices, antiques, cooking equipment, you name it, they had it. I must have spent hours just walking around being awed by the sheer amount of stuff and the variety. Coming back down on the cable car was a bit scary as it was super windy and it was swaying quite dramatically from side to side. Even the locals looked concerned and were holding on and one lady even got off at the stop before hers because she was scared.
Later on, I hopped on the bus to the Cholitas Wrestling. We ended up at what looked like a school gym hall filled with a wrestling ring and little shops selling snacks. I met Daniel and then we met a German Traveller, Zdenka in the queue to get our Coke and popcorn. We took our seats and I was surprised at how many locals were there. All the back and side stands were filled, I thought it was a super touristy thing but it looked like these families came every Sunday night for an evenings entertainment. It started with the classic commentator voice, although of course in Spanish and the referee came on. What was to follow was the most ridiculous scenes I have ever seen going from men in tiny lycra underwear wrestling WWF style to various cholitas is various dress all pepping up the crowd and coming out with their entrance music and posse of dancers. There were one on ones, two vs. twos. dodgy referees and wolves vs. robots, yep. The moves including plait pulling, chest slapping, slam dunking, shoe smelling and foot stamping. Almost always coming out into the crowd and fighting and on a few occasions a Cholita would steal a Coke from a crowd member, swig it down and spit it at her opponent. The acrobatic throwing, twirling and lifting looked all the more dramatic with the plaits swinging and the many layers of petticoats and skirts swiveling around. After 2 and a half hours of this absurdity we were ready for a beer and headed to a bar for a good old debrief and to get to know Zdenka.
In the morning I was determined to leave La Paz, I was getting far too comfortable there! I went straight to the bus station to book my ticket on the night bus to Sucre and then to the Post Office to send the presents and a load of films that were exposed home. It was a bit of a faff as I had to unwrap the parcel and remove everything to show the contents. As I did this Zdenka walked in to do the exact same thing, what are the chances. After we had resealed everything and filled in a lot of forms we both needed and internet place, me for my writing, her for her emails. It had just started to tip it down and so we ran into one and settled down. We said goodbye after she was done and about an hour later when I was done, Daniel walked in, turns out you can´t go anywhere without bumping into someone! We had a chat and then I said goodbye to go to lunch. After an epic vegetarian set menu I was sat outside the restaurant and who should walk past but the two English girls I met about a week ago, you definitely can´t go anywhere! I joined them for a bit of shopping then realising the time, rushed off to meet Zdenka and do the street of Museums. They were hilariously tiny and not great but really interesting and I am glad I did them, 4 museums for 30 Bolivianos is not bad. I popped back to my hostel to make a few calls before the bus and then waited for my taxi to the bus station. And waited, and waited. It got to 7.35pm and my bus was at 8pm. It took 10 minutes to get there and it is like a plane in the sense that you have to check your bags in and check in. I did start to panic now and I asked the guy where it was as I had booked it through the hostel, he said he didn`t know anything about it and neither did the taxi company so I had to run outside with all my bags on me to the nearest big road and try to hail down a cab, they were all full and I really was starting to sweat now, after what seemed like an age I got one and was sat on the edge of my seat the whole way through the painful traffic. I ran in, threw my bag under the desk and jumped onto the bus with the most relief I have felt during this trip. It was a bit scary there for a moment but I made it on and settled down for the nights travelling. On the seats next to me was a young couple and their 3 year old girl, she was so cute but I sort of got the feeling that she may be a bit of a pain during the night.
I woke up at about 7.30am and found myself about half an hour away from Sucre. I was not wrong, the little girl kept waking up and calling out for her mum in the middle of the night, but to make it better all I kept thinking was I was exactly the same when I was her age. It also got pretty chilly on the bus, but my trusty fleece kept me warm through the weird dreams I was having all night. We got off the bus and after finding out the hostel I had planned to stay in didn´t exist anymore, I got into a taxi with a couple from Quebec and we found another hostel together. I got changed straight away, whipped my stuff in the Laundry and headed out to explore. I decided to have a cup of tea as I had only really eaten 2 apples for both dinner and breakfast, but when it arrived I found it had alcohol in it, fabulous!
The cafe I was sat in had the news on a big telly and it was then I realised that it was D Day. Trump had won. I almost spat out my alcoholic herbal tea in shock, it felt like Brexit all over again, I immediately got out my phone, got the wifi password and was suddenly bombarded with messages about the gruesome event. Everyone in the café from all around the world including the staff were watching intently, shaking their heads and looking at each other in disbelief, shock and fear.
Anyhoo without getting into a ginormous political rant I tried and failed to find a day trek for myself. Again the loneliness discrimination was used because I was on my own they couldn’t guarantee a trek unless I paid a wad to have a private tour. I strolled around the beautiful white city, soaking up the now much more warm climate because I wasn´t so high up.
In the afternoon I finally found a trek at Condor Trekkers, a lovely non- profit company that works with locals to improve their lives. The trek I had booked was going to include visiting some dinosaur footprints, Dinosaur Park and then a trek through seven waterfalls, sounded amazing!
I got up for my trek bright and early and decided to eat lunch in the cafe adjoined to the trekking company. Oh my was it fabulous, Muesli with SEEDS and NUTS and FRUIT, actual fiber!! I was so excited, it was the first real breakfast I had actually eaten in South America and I loved every minute. A french couple and I joined the tour guides, 2 lovely ladies, (that only spoke Spanish). We hopped on a local bus, which I was super excited about because I had always wanted to get on one but was too scared and headed to Parque Cretacio. After 2 confusing changes we were there. The dinosaurs were insane! Huge models set in the trees, they looked totally real and because of the surrounding views, it was such an epic experience. Now for anyone that doesn´t know me, I LOVE dinosaurs, so as you can image, I was having a whale of a time. The dinosaur footprints were also insane, they were the largest collection of fossilized prints in the world and there were loads of them.
After all the excitement we started trekking. At first it was not nice, walking past a huge cement factory and along a busy and dusty road, the first few villages weren´t great either, they were littered and scruffy but when we got past all of that and started heading down onto the dry riverbed it got a lot more beautiful. The scenery was beautiful, rainbow coloured mountains and scented eucalyptus forests as well as the rocky riverbed. The only downside was that I had stupidly only brought with me 600ml of water, thinking there would be a little shop or a little stall. There was literally no one for km and it was starting to get super hot.
We finally got to the first waterfall after about an hour. We walked further and further up alongside the river and the falls until we came to a big pool that a few local people were swimming in. This was the penultimate fall before we reached the one that we were going to swim in. It turned out thatit was actually over a huge rock wall that we had to climb over. So after we left our bags with the guides and took our shoes off, we stone stepped over the river (I of course in the process falling in and dropping my boots in the water, typical) and attempted to climb over the wall. The guy managed to scramble up over the top and then pull us girls up over it. It was definitely worth the effort though, It was beautiful, a little oasis of 3 deep pools and a cascading waterfall behind, surrounded by the glorious mountains. We changed into our swimwear and dove in, it was freezing! The couple from Quebec were there so it was great to have a good chat with them and a cooling relax in the pool, well the three pools as we tried out each different one.
When we felt like we were ready to get out we got changed and then ventured back, clumsily climbing back off of the rock wall into the river then tip-toeing back, trying not to fall in again to the guides and our bags. The hike back was a real challenge and although the swimming helped with the dehydration situation, the sun was really hot now and we were climbing out of the valley so it was very hard work. We were trekking about 2 hours up out of the valley and through villages back to a place where we could catch a collectivo.
Desperately I asked ´Donde puedo comprar agua?´ through literally a dry mouth and chapped lips and I was pointed to a little lady with a bucket of water with bottles in it. YES. I honestly don´t think I have ever been in need for water so much. I bought 2 litres and guzzled most of it all the way back to Sucre. We had a refreshing jugo de manzana then went our separate ways. I popped back to dry and dry and air out my shoes and found that there were three horrible boys in my dorm so I went out to dinner.
The boys were truly awful, in the afternoon they were talking unbelievably loudly whilst a guy was trying to sleep and then I woke up to them at about 6 in the morning smoking out of the window and playing a boombox really loudly with awful music and lights. What the hell? They had also hung every piece of clothing up around their beds so that I had to crawl underneath them just to get to mine. Not ok. Of course after this I moved straight away to another hostel, I as
considering it anyway as there wasn´t that many people in this one. I instantly met 2 French girls and 2 American girls, all of whom were lovely and actually my age! Definitely made the right decision. After settling in I walked to Parque Bolivar north of the plaza which was beautiful and then climbed up a huge mountain to get to a restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet.
A few days later I booked a short visit to the ´Devils Mouth´, a cavern in the side of the mountain next to the waterfall, we crawled inside and were old a story about people throwing themselves off of the devils mouth into the water below and you can see ghosts appear if you come down here at night time. It was actually getting to dusk pretty sharpish so we left and on the walk back to the hostel we found a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest. We managed to save it and put it back in its hole in the wall and carried on. When we got back to the hostel we had tea that accidentally turned into red wine and then the ladies went off to make dinner. We amused ourselves by drinking more whilst the guy taught us about local culture and village traditions. He showed us a quinoa cake which was like a black version of Kendal mint cake that you eat just before chewing coca leaves, it did improve the taste I must say and also gave us a cigarette that the locals smoke. This was strange because hardly anyone in South America smokes at all, so to find a tiny village in the middle of nowhere that does was odd. It was really fat and had no filter so naturally I was worried that it was potentially some sort of ´funky´cigarette but we gave it a go and it was pretty straight, we think.
We left in the morning for a short but steep climb up to the cemetery on top of the hill. As it was situated almost directly in the middle of the crater, the 360 degree views were incredible. You could see the base and the edges of the crater seeing where the earth had been pushed up and outwards. The colours in the soils were still prominent and you could see the different layers in the rocks and how they moved. I can imagine a geologist would have had an absolute field day here. After about 15 minutes and a secret wee down the side of the very steep hill, we trekked back down and along to the local museum. It turned out to be owned by the same guy that treated us the music the night before and we were welcomed with a similar affair, me on the drums, everyone else on various instruments. We were also treated to the local chicha, the corn drink, however this was not what I had been used to. It was white his time and not the most palatable of beverages. We were told we had to drink the entire jug and we all looked at each other nervously as we drank a sip from the cup and passed it to the next person. Carlos showed us into his teeny museum and talked to us about his collection of fossils, skeletons and ceramics whilst we gulped down the chicha and passed it on and then we were on our way.
The trek back out of the crater was a long straight line, directly and steeply up. It was crazy hot with the sun beating down and there was no shade anywhere to be seen. When we managed to get to the top of the crater we all crawled under a really spikey tree just to get some relief from the sun. When we crawled back out again we looked behind us and saw where we had just climbed, the views were as stunning as ever and because we could see the whole path that we had just hiked we felt a real sense of achievement. BUT the walk wasn´t over yet and what goes up must come down! We tottered over the rocky pathways down the outer side of the crater and through onto a dusty road that wound down the side of the mountains. After only about 45 minutes of walking one of the ladies pointed out our bus in the distance, I couldn´t believe it! I was really expecting another day like yesterday, a good 9 hour trek but no, we were here at a casual 1pm! I was sort of relieved as the sun was getting absolutely roasting and I could feel my skin slowly drying out. We hopped on the bus and then drove to a nearby village where we sat and ate lunch in the little plaza under the bandstand. The bus ride back was hot and bumpy and took around 2 hours.
On day 60 I was meant to leave Potosi but after a faff with the laundry and the girls persuading me to stay another night, I did so. I spent the entire morning writing as I needed to catch up and then I met the girls for lunch. Afterwards Jessica and Linda were doing the city tour and Cecile and I went to check out some church rooftop views. We went to 2 and views from both were absolutely beautiful over the terracotta rooftops and super blue skies. In the afternoon I continued to write and then we all met up for dinner and more beers in the evening.
The next day I was ready to leave Sucre. My bus was at 1pm so I had a bit of time to soak it up before I left. I strolled to the Parque Bolivar again and there was another school science fair like the one in Copacabana. I sat and absorbed the atmosphere for a bit and then went to get a quinoa cake for my takeaway bus lunch. I also tried my first Salteña, I thought I better had before I left Bolivia and it was very nice! I met the girls for a quick tea and then got back to my hostel for a brief taxi to the bus station, I got on in a bit of a flap as the traffic was bad and I was a bit late what with paying for station tax etc etc but I made it and endured the hot and bumpy 4 hour bus ride to Potosi. I got there about 5pm and when I checked into a hostel that the girls had recommended, I saw Zdenkas name on the board, what are the chances! I went straight out to book a mine tour and a bus for the next day as I was due to do my Salar de Uyuni tour on the Thursday. I went with a Lonely Planet recommended Tour Agency and the Guide was an ex miner himself so I was happy to book there. Afterwards, a little girl and I were both stood waiting for a lady to make us fruits salads, I had said I didn´t like Papaya and the girl turned around in complete shock, we spent the next 10 minutes talking about fruit and food in my hilariously awful Spanish and then I walked around the town eating what I reckon was the best fruit salad of my life. Back in the hostel I bumped into Zdenka and we decided to go out for dinner where I also bumped into the three French Guianan people from the trek! Potosi was beautiful and I sort of wished I had spent more time there!
Words and Images by Chloe Hayes