I’ll start this post with an ending. We’d been in Chile for almost two months and the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama was to be our last stop here. It’s high (altitude is over 2000m) and hot here – a big contrast to cool coastal Patagonia where we first entered this hugely varied and hugely impressive country.
Being somewhat foolhardy we hired bikes and cycled out in the midday sun to a place called Valle de la Luna. Here were multi-coloured rocks, stupendous views of miles around and a very narrow canyon which looked like a mini version of Petra. At the end of this one-person width canyon was a cave through which we scrambled and emerged gratefully into sunlight the other side. The rock here is mostly salt and it creaked and twanged in the intense heat.
From San Pedro we start to retrace the journey I made almost 19 years ago; on a tour into Bolivia and across arid highlands. Here there are lakes coloured green and infused with copper and arsenic, or white and full of borax, or red from microbes that flamingos scoop up in their beaks.
It’s a place so surreal that Salvador Dalí came here and was inspired by the bizarre landscapes. It’s punctuated with geysers, 6,000+m volcanoes and sand dunes. At one point we were driving along at 5,000m high and having our lungs hammered by the lack of oxygen.
Lava flows from millennia ago had been eroded into fantastical shapes. On day two of this tour we rose before dawn and soon were driving across the largest salt flats in the world. At this time of year the Salar de Uyuni is partially flooded and so the vast white landscape acts like a mirror and reflects distant hills and awe-struck tourists.
One overnight bus journey later and we were in La Paz. Here there was an unexpected highlight of this trip; the cable cars which glide silently over the city giving passengers incredible views for about 30p a journey. Up here you can hear dogs barking, bands practising, birds singing and other such sounds usually drowned out by traffic. The cable cars (enjoy a video journey on the cable cars here) first started to be installed in 2014 and are designed to relieve congestion.
President Evo Morales also launched the first Bolivian satellite and has overseen great economic growth and poverty reduction. He also renamed the country at the end of his tenure so as to constitutionally be allowed to serve another two terms. I learned this on a walking tour, as well as the fact that the inner-city prison I got an official tour of in 2000 is now too dangerous for intrepid tourists.
Post-independence, when Bolivia opened its doors to people worldwide, many British gentlemen could be seen in the city, sporting bowler hats. An enterprising local salesman ordered hundreds of these hats to sell in La Paz, however, when they arrived they were all too small for adult heads. This salesman then managed to convince the La Paz ladies that these hats, perched on the top of their heads, was the latest in fashion. To this day the native female inhabitants of Bolivia can be seen wearing this unusual headgear. True story? I hope so.
Our second Copacabana of this trip is a touristy town on the shores of immense Lake Titicaca. It’s worth mentioning here that, should you ever be in these parts, the excellent La Cupula hostel is well worth a stay. It’s quirky buildings reminded me of Portmeirion and the breathtaking views across the lake are worth the breathtaking climb up the hill.
We took a boat across the lake to Isla del Sol where you can see an Incan ruin as well as distant snowy mountains across the deep blue water. As well as this island, the other thing I remember about this place is the trout. Happily it was still very much on the menu and as delicious as ever.
On the Peruvian side of the lake, in Puno, we met up with some friends and went to see the SS Ollanta – a large and handsome ship assembled by Anna’s great great uncle. He was sent to Lake Titicaca to put all the pieces (which had been shipped to the Peruvian coast then carried by train and mule) together.
Today the Ollanta is in need of some tlc but, as a security guard was kicking us out of the secure dock, a lovely lady showed us around another historic ship (also with numerous historic ties to the UK) and so we were able to get a taste of life on board, as well as a unique insight into lake life in the late 1800s.
The main reason we were here was to visit the floating islands. The Aymara people have created a town that floats on reeds and hosts a population of 2,500. Standing on the islands felt remarkably sturdy and it was a wonderfully serene place.
Our friends took a luxurious train ride from Puno to Cusco (lots of brass fittings, massive windows, an observation car and exquisite food), our budget meant we had to endure the abysmal Bolivia/Peru Hop bus. When we eventually reached the city our minds were blown by the exquisite grandeur of the place.
Cobbled streets, intricately carved church facades and solid Incan walls met our eyes. My memory of the ancient Incan capital didn’t do justice to its magnificence. Tomorrow we set off on the Inca Trail.