Mas Vino Por Favor!

Published: July 15th 2011
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Dear all

(Many more photo's right at the bottom of the page!)

Well we are in La Paz, Bolivia at the moment - the highest capital city in the world, and don't we know it. The city is 3660m above sea level and the oxygen here is 40% less than normal, meaning it is almost impossible to walk up stairs and even talk to each other without feeling out of breath. We are acclimatatising and the dull headaches are going but it has been quite an experience where the only real remedy is to chew on Coca leaves like the locals do - it tastes like forest! We have just come back from a wonderful trip to the Amazon and our friend from back home, Chris has flown over from England to spend some time with us.

Sorry we haven't been in touch, but due to a lack of internet connectivity in Bolivia and the fact that we have been doing soooo much means it has been tough to sit down and write something..

So we last wrote to you from Pucon in Southern Chile where we travelled back up to Santiago, then over and through the Andes to a wonderful city on the Argentine side of the mountains called Mendoza. We planted ourselves there for five days, enjoying some wonderful hostels and relaxed in a city with wide shady sidewalks, beautiful plazas, good restaurants and a thriving cultural scene. We'd been travelling hard up until then, and Mendoza was a great place to stop for some chill out time. We also met our current travel buddy in one of the hostels; a bubbly humerous and likable German named Bjorn who we have been travelling with for a while now - we can't seem to lose him!

Those who know us well will know that we are rather partial to a glass of vino or two... so we were rather excited about arriving in Mendoza, as it is famous for producing quality red wine - in particular with the Malbec grape and boy did we exploit this. We went on two wine tasting tours in two days. The first was to celebrate our one year wedding anniversary where we went to three different wineries of different character, and were taught the basics of the production of wine, its process, how to sniff the aroma, how to taste 'properly' as well as storing it. We found that spitting the wine out into a bowl was not only a rather disgusting act, but also a complete waste of wine...we didn't want to waste the wine of course. We also were provided with an eight course lunch afterwards with as much wine as we wanted. It was all rather grand and a little pretentious, but we had ourselves a very good time and now feel we know far more about Marieke's favourite tipple.

Due to time constraints Barrie and Bjorn (Marieke had toothache unfortunately for her) were 'forced' to go on a wine tour with a some crazy Dutch guys and an Australian the following day. This was far more light hearted and involved cycling around as many different wineries as you wanted, tasting the different wines in the sunshine or choosing to have a tour and then moving on to the next one. It was a lovely day sitting in courtyards sampling the vino, and then cycling on to our next choosen destination. By nightfall a police car came to escort them back to the first winery where Barrie and his gang were put on a bus home - apparently the police always do this because the bikes provided don't have lights - whatever Barrie.

After Mendoza we left Bjorn and the two of us travelled east to Buenos Aires, where we spent some time exploring this huge and wonderfully European influenced city. With 13 million people it is vast and certainly had a dark edge to it. We both agree that some of the streets looked a little unsafe for our liking. However we experienced no problems and used what common sense we had left get around.

BA is famed for its great high quality steaks, one of which Barrie ate weighing in at 500g, approximatley 30cm long and 8cm deep. Needless to say he didn't need to eat until the following evening - the next time he ordered a steak he shared it with Marieke! Of course the other thing that BA is famed for is the Tango (the dance, not the drink). We had one of our most entertaining nights out in BA, where we were given Tango lessons by two fantastic dancers, followed by a three course meal (steak included........again) as much wine as you want and of course a Tango show. We could not believe our eyes - forget 'Strictly Come Dancing', these people could REALLY dance! It was absolutely mesmerizing as they wrapped themselves around each other, swung their legs and threw each other around. It was an unforgetable night.

We also made it to the Cementerio de la Recoleta, where in death as in life, generations of Argentina's elite rest in ornate splendor. It was fascinating to walk around this mini city with its grand tombs and lofty statues. Each tomb was above ground, at least by 3 meters. Many had glass doors where you could peek through and see the dusty coffins. There were so many cats wandering the tombs that we had to ask ourselves whether they DO have some form of connection with the dead? We followed the crowds and wound up infront of Evita's grave and refrained from singing 'Don't cry for me Argentina', although the temptation was too much for Marieke. Being such a prominent figure in politics in the last century, we were surprised to see that her tomb wasn't as grand or ornate as some of the other heads of state who were buried there... but it was however one of the only tombs to have flowers wrapped around the railings. Political history in Argentina is fascinating, especiallty the Peron years and what followed. If you don't know about it, then you must start reading about it!

From BA we took a horrible 24 hour night bus to Iguazu Falls in the far NE of Argentina - where we experienced some much needed tropical weather. We splashed on some sun cream and dusted off the mosquito repellent - oh how we missed those warm barmy nights! Anyway, for those who haven't seen or heard of these falls then 'google' them. The power, size and sheer noise of the falls are truly spectacular. The most awsome section of the 3km long falls being 'The Devil's Throat', which can be seen from Argentina as well as Brasil. Despite some development, this huge park is a natural wonderland of subtropical rainforest and was reminisant of the film 'Avatar'.

Our next stop was Salta in the NW, where we didn't do a lot (for some reason) but we did pick up Bjorn again, and we met another New Zealand guy named Matt. We were staying here to psych ourselves for the journey north to Bolivia. Throughout our travels we have met so many people who have travelled through Bolivia, at least half of whom have come back with tales of muggings, having their bags stolen from buses, being held at knife point at the ATM by 'fake' police and being pick pocketed by teams of fiends. We were pretty wired as we crossed the border and we had both practiced our 'don't mess with me' faces on many occasions - we had also talked two other fellow travellers to travel up with us, so we had six in total - safety in numbers! We have been in Bolivia for two weeks now and there has been no hint of problem or aggression (at the time of writing...), infact the locals seem to just let us get on with things - so don't worry for us too much Mums and Dads.

We began our Bolivian leg of the journey by taking an epic four day tour in a 4 x 4 vehicle of the Uyuni Salt Flats and its surrounding volcanic deserts. The worlds largest salt flat sits at 3653m and is 12,000sq km. This amazing landscape is huge, scaleless and blindingly white! The salt flat was actually the last place we visited on the four day tour and for the first three days we drove over some beautiful desert way on top of the Andean Plateau (around 3.5 times the height of Ben Nevis). The deserts where so colourful, with different hues of greens, yellows, reds and coppers, a perfect film location if ever there was one. We experienced volcanoes, thermal hot pools, giesers, beautiful food and such such cold nights that you could not believe. We were so high up that the temperatures reached around -15 degrees celcius at night. as soon as the sun went down we had to prepare for what seemed like Armageddon. The 'hostels' we stayed in - hundreds of miles from nowhere, provided no heating and no hot water. The sun would set and the temperature dropped significantly. The generator was turned on from sunset until only 9pm, and it only provided the hostel with light. We were close to hyperthermia, (honestly) - one evening, the group decided to stay up past 9pm after the generator would turn off, and brave the cold and darkness. We lit the only candle that the hostel provided, gathered around it with layer upon layer and duvet upon duvet wrapped around us. Every piece of clothing we owned was donned and we were still cold. We played cards until we couldn't bare the cold anymore and jumped into our beds made from salt. It was officially the coldest we have been and this was the down point of the whole tour for us - oh and we smelt a bit after not showering or even washing for five days. But the arctic temperatures we were experiencing were outweighed by entire experience. Looking around the room that evening when we played cards, everyone was in good spirit - we were just so happy to be there, experiencing what not many people have experienced, sitting and sleeping on furniture that was made from salt - the natural resource of the desert, seeing landscapes that not many people have seen, a truely amazing time was had.

The tour ended with a few of us taking a nasty 12 hour night bus north to the administrative capital of La Paz. Most of the roads in Bolivia are not paved and most of the buses have no suspension (so we found out - bringing back those shuddering memories of the night bus without suspension in Vietnam...) an uncomfortable combination and we did not sleep. La Paz was a fantastic city and was worth the rough bus ride. It is situated high up in the Andes in a large valley, the city seems to melt up into the Andean mountains like a bowl of ice cream (see pictures - difficult to describe!)

We all stayed in a lovely hostel for a few days, not realising it was a party hostel... It was a grand building, with a ball room bar and lovely high ceilings and three storey voids. On the second night of partying, our friend Chris came over from England to visit us on a two week holiday, his journey to Bolivia involving 3 flights over 30 hours - that's friendship eh! We relaxed around La Paz for a while, exploring markets and plazas whilst Chris got used to the altitude. Probably the most random thing we did do over those few days was to go and see some Bolivian Wrestling. Now this was REALLY funny. Obviously inspired by the American WWF, we spent four hours watching overweight Bolivian men AND women in skin tight lycra and face masks, with names like Doberman and Rayo Aztuca perform suplexes, piledrivers and clotheslines on each other. They spat at the crowd, the larger than life female wrestlers beat the men up (in the ring!) and the crowd threw tomatoes at the fighters. It was so random and unbelievable, poor old Chris didn't know what he had entered into! Like the American version, the wrestling was all planned and fixed - it was great to see the women get the men in a headlock and make him scream! The crowd loved it!

For a few months now we had planned to cycle down 'The Worlds Most DeadLiest Road'; a road 40 km to the east of La Paz, where groups on mountain bikes descend a dirt road from 4800m to a lowly 1200m in 3 hours covering around 60km. This was extreme. We were suited and booted and looked like BMX kids with full face helmets, knee pads, elbow pads and extra jackets and trousers. A group of 30 of us rode down through beautiful mountain passes at extreme speeds, overtaking buses, trucks and cars. The views were spectacular and so was the adreneline rush as we rushed down this most unusual of roads - with no barriers and sheer drops hundreds of meters down to our left. At least two people die here a year and sometimes whole bus loads (which is why they officially call it 'Death Road'😉 - but we felt in control at all times and although some of our group did fall, it was only on the road and not down the mountain. Shock reverberated through our arms and wrists from the harsh gravel road, but we finished this magnificant ride in triumph, and sat in the sweltering heat (the temperature drops 1 degree every 100m vertically) and had a cold beer with very big smiles. we even got a free t-shirt!

One day later we were in the Amazon. Set in northern Bolivia, an area known as the “Pampas” is a plain of wide open grasslands that stretches out like a massive African savannah. Sitting on the brink of the ecologically diverse Madidi National Park and part of the greater Amazon basin, the Bolivian Pampas is one of the best places to get up close and personal with some of the unique wildlife of the region.

This was another tour we'd promised ourselves - so many fellow travellers had recommended it. We decided to take the 35 min flight from chilly La Paz rather than the 18 hour journey from hell on the local bus, where bags go missing and you often get robbed. The plane was propellor driven and so small, with 18 seats we did feel like we were in a sardine tin - but come on, it was only for 35 mins! Imagine Indiana Jones, minus the chickens in the plane and that is pretty much what it was like. The runway in the Amazon was just a long patch of grass. It was a great three days and it was so nice to be in tropical temperatures again, we could breath easily and run around with some energy. Bjorn, Chris, Barrie and Marieke travelled with four others and we all really enjoyed this remote jungle experience.

We saw a two metre cobra being pulled out of a bush. We fished for piranhas and ate them for dinner. We were woken up by growling howler monkeys dancing on our tin roof at 5am. Frogs in the toilet eating other frogs whilst you're trying to do your business; mice running riot in our wooden hut like dorm and pooing on our mosquito nets (good job we had them really just for that reason!) We were feet away from HUNDREDS of man eating Crocodiles and Alligators at all times, even in our hut, some as much as 4.5m in length. Actually, Barrie and our guide Domingo, jumped off the boat and swam in the murky River Beni, where a population of pink Amazon River Dolphins swam amongst them both, thankfully keeping the resident Crocodiles and Alligators at bay - this trip was awsome if not a little risky.

So, we are only two weeks or so from our return to England. We have mixed feelings and will miss the travelling, however, part of us is ready to get back to normality and to finish living out of a suitcase. We suspect that this will be our last blog written from abroad, but we will conclude our last three weeks back in England. In the next week, we plan to travel to Lake Titicacca in Bolivia and then onto Peru, where we will walk the epic Inca Trail.

We look forward to seeing you all soon and catching some sun in the late English summer.

Love Barrie and Marieke xxx

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15th July 2011

Great last entry, I can't believe it's coming to an end! Loads to talk about here, but mainly, US wrestling isn't real?! I feel like my childhood was a lie...! Loads of love xxxx
16th July 2011

I am looking forward to seeing you both at the end of July,what a great blog as usual and thank you for putting it together as you have with fantastic photo's.All great things come to an end but you will have superb memories with you forever,Reality beacons now and life in good old England is good too !!Lots of love and have a good trip back home xxxx
19th July 2011

You really have a knack for driving home the fact that what we think is a decent life is actually an excruciatingly dull, boring life where the highlights consist of seeing the Harry Potter finale and reading other people's blogs! And I thought hunting groundhogs was exciting... This was a great read again, thanks for bringing us up-to-date. Enjoy your last days!!! Love, Albert.
23rd July 2011

Hey guys, Great BLOG and great to see you both and meet Bjorn, had a really good trip just wich it could have lasted longer. Definitely wish I was still there. I got back to reality with a bump as I finally got home at 8:30Pm Sunday (9 hours sat at Lima airport was not fun) and then straight back to work Monday, italready seems like so long ago! Anyway hope you had an amazing time in Peru and on the Laris trail and I'll see you both soon. Chris

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