seeing south america: lake titicaca + la paz

Peru had been an absolutely epic adventure, but it was time to move on and explore new territories. Taking a bus through the mountains, I was on a journey to Lake Titicaca and Bolivia. Whatever I thought I knew about South America was going to be challenged by what I was about to see across the border.

Puno

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In order to cross the border, I booked a seat on Bolivia Hop which is a really affordable bus service that takes you from Cusco to La Paz, with stops along Lake Titicaca. Most of the people on the bus are fellow travellers and backpackers, making it a worthwhile time to get to know people who are probably on similar trails and willing to explore with you.

The bus makes a stop at Puno early in the morning, which is a Peruvian town on Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable water body on the Earth. Altitude is still high, so expect to see mountains all around and still have shortness of breath. The lake is absolutely beautiful and supports so many people. What’s really interesting though is the Uros Floating Village, a village made on reeds that sits in the middle of the lake. The people were escaping from the Incans and formed a defensive settlement on the lake so they could move quickly.

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The islands are stable, housing ‘communities’ which are a couple of families pooling resources together to live on an ‘island’. The Uros start new islands normally when marrying out or wanting to start a new chapter of their lives, and the process takes a long time. The amount of reed needed is incredible, and the politics of it all is pretty interesting. The Peruvian government has committed to respecting indigenous populations and supports the Uros, even providing solar panels if you look closely enough, to ensure a basic standard of living. A lot of critics say that the Uros these days only live as such as a way to earn money from tourism, sharing that it’s kitschy. I don’t know how I feel about it, but I definitely found it interesting that such a way of life even existed and that there’s more to South America than just grand civilisations and beautiful landscapes. Indigenous people add to the flavour.

Copacabana

lake

From Puno, you’ll cross to Bolivia, which has quick border crossing process. People joke that it’s like stepping back in time, but honestly it’s not that bad. The visa process is a bit of a struggle, so I do recommend planning ahead for it, but Singaporeans get to go for free if you go to an Embassy or Consulate before crossing the border. To be honest, the only reason why I wanted to go to Bolivia was to see Uyuni, which ended up falling flat for reasons I’ll share later,  but I was about to discover some interesting sights. For one, Lake Titicaca is more beautiful on the Bolivian side, and Copacabana which is the city on the lake in Bolivia gives you access to more parts of the lake.

isla

One of the things you must do is to take a boat out to Isla de Sol, which is precious in Incan and Ayamara history as the birthplace of civilisation. It’s a small island and takes a hike to get around, which is difficult given the altitude. There are a couple of things to see on the island, including the famous but small Sun Temple, but the real prize are the views out from the island.

cordil

One of the best views are of the Cordillera Real, a beautiful snow-capped mountain range that just takes your breath away. Seated in the foreground is Isla de Luna, the sister island to Isla de Sol.

donkey

The Yumani village is situated on the island, and there are donkeys, alpacas and lots of hard labour. The woman are incredibly strong and visibly present carrying loads up and down the hills, while the men work on construction activities or are smoking outside. It’s quite the sight, seeing the villagers just live.

trout

Of course, while in Copacabana, you should try to get Trout which is caught from the lake. It’s fresh and delicious, and if you find the right local restaurant you can get the above meal for 2USD.

La Paz

lapaz

After Copacabana, I made my way to La Paz, which is the seat of government of Bolivia. It’s a chaotic city, with noise and confusion everywhere. Bolivia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, which makes travelling around it slightly dangerous and sketchy. On the bus ride, we had to go through El Alto which is where most locals live (La Paz is more of an urban work area). The roads were horrible and you couldn’t help but get scared as you went through it, but I guess that’s why they tell you not to go there.

cablecar

One of the best things to do in La Paz is to take the cable cars, which is a form of public transport in the country and therefore only costs 3USD for a two way trip lasting 20 minutes. Locals actually use it to commute, but tourists are allowed as well. The views of the city are stunning and remind you of how many people actually live and work in La Paz, and how chaotic this sun-baked city is.

bowler

Now La Paz has a lot of history. It was the heart of a lot of revolutions, especially with the Spanish. The Ayamara, which is the indigenous civilisation before the Spanish, still have a large presence. The city was divided between the rich Spanish and the simple Ayamara, making city tours a diverse walk through two concurrent histories. The picture above shows the typical garb of a cholita which is an Ayamaran woman. The bowler hats are quite the sight.

callejean

Calle Jean is a neighbourhood in the Spanish side of the city that’s colourful and full of art galleries and shops. It’s said to be haunted at night, but there’s also alternate explanations that describe how secret conversations of revolt happened here, sparking some of the biggest moments in Bolivian history.

witches

Another good sight in La Paz is the Witches Market, that’s in the Ayamara side of the city. It could make you a bit queasy, with all the strange smells and sights including Alapaca carcases, but it’s an insightful look into local culture and traditions.

sopademani

A lot of what I loved about Bolivia was the food though. It was exceptionally cheap, simple but delicious. Sopa de Mani, or peanut soup, is a local favourite and is a slightly peppery concoction that fills you up well. Llajuita is a good chain restaurant that serves local dishes in a clean environment so go there.

sillp

Silpanchos were one of my favourite meals, made up of rice and potatoes with a large thin piece of meat and egg over it. It’s really tasty, but very greasy. Silpich is where you want to go for this for a clean and cheap meal.

saltena

Of course, you can’t go to Bolivia without trying Saltenas. They were my favourite snack and I had so many. The chicken one comes with an egg in it, and while it’s similar dishes around the world, what makes a saltena stand out is its mix of spices and sauce that bring out so much flavour. The famous ones come from Pacena La Saltena and they’re really cheap and quick. Add some peppers for a strong kick.

Bolivia doesn’t use Uber so walking is probably your bet for getting around, although cabs so exist. I only used it to go to the airport, so I think you’ll be good with walking.

TIGO should be your choice of SIM Card, costing only 5-6USD for a comprehensive data plan for a whole week, and I’d recommend going straight to their HQ building to set up your phone.

Be careful of ATMs in Bolivia, because they have heavy transaction fees and also some of them run out of cash but don’t tell you until they return your card. Some have been heard to even deduct the amount from your card without giving you money so go to banks to get money from the ATM and make sure you can talk to someone in case things don’t work out.

Be prepared for unexpected changes in your plans to Bolivia though, as protests happen frequently and they mean business. My trip to Uyuni had to be cancelled as they shut down the town and had gun patrols blocking travellers going in or out. I met people who had to sneak out at 2am under the cover of darkness and walk for 20KM before reaching the nearest town to take a bus out. Don’t plan for more than the next day.

As for safety, practice regular safety habits and you should be fine. Go where there are a lot of people, and eat at places where there are lines. A great hostel to stay at is Loki Hostel, which is admittedly a party hostel but a great community. I have a lot of memories at their rooftop bar that has a beautiful view of the city and some of the craziest party animals.

Next post, I’ll share about my time in Salta and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Look forward to it!

hooah.

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seeing south america: nasca + cusco + macchu picchu

The adventure continues as I move from Lima to Nasca. The journey leaves the city and goes to the desert, where sun-baked houses occupy the large expanse and sunsets are beautiful.

Nasca

Nasca is one of the smaller Peruvian towns, normally part of a larger trail going through Paracas and Ica, which I, unfortunately, didn’t have the time to explore this trip. The main highlight of Nasca, however, was the Nasca Lines, left by the extinguished Nasca settlements. You need to book a group flight to really see the lines in their true glory, and if you book early, you can get flights for as low as 70 USD. The average, otherwise, is 80 USD.  I flew with AeroParacas, which is decently reliable flight operator.

paracas

Once you’re up in the air, the whole flight takes around 30-40 minutes, with many dips and curls so don’t eat anything before your flight. The pilots do these so that you can get a closer view of the lines which are magnificent. You really need an eye for perspective to appreciate the intention and scale of the Nasca Lines, some of which are accurate to a high degree on their depiction of various animals and people. The Spider was my favourite, and one of the most visible drawings. It’s rumoured that these lines were drawn in worship to the Gods, or because of aliens, but because not much is known about the Nasca settlements, we will also not know much about the lines and their intentions for the foreseeable future.

spider

Getting to and from Nasca is easiest by bus (Cruz del Sur is my recommendation for quality service) and doesn’t really have much other for the tourist beyond the lines. There are some really cool aqueducts/wells and beautifully stunning landscapes so I would recommend one additional day to explore those. I must give one of my highest recommendations to NaNasqa Hostel, run by Roy (below). It’s by far one of the best representations of what a homely hostel should be, with Roy and his Mom making the personal effort to take care of you and make sure you’re well prepared for your trips. I had the pleasure of building the friendships I did with both Roy and Dino, another friend of the hostel. If you go to Nasca, definitely stay here.

nanasqa

On we must now continue on the rest of the trip.  I took the bus from Nasca to Cusco which was supposed to last approximately 12 hours. Unfortunately, I learned a very important lesson about South America on this journey, which was that you should never expect for plans to go they way you intend for them to. Protests are frequent and rampant, and tourists are often hostage to the situation at hand. We were stuck in the mountains on the way up to Cusco for 12 hours, and I learnt a bit about the state of affairs in mountain towns. It’s sobering to learn that much of Peru is left to fend for themselves, especially in the rural areas, and that as a result, many are left without basic resources such as clean water and access to supplies. This was an added lens to see this country through. Also, I used the 12 hours to acclimatise to the altitude, which helped when I reached Cusco.

protest

Cusco

Cusco is nearly 3600m about sea level, causing many to think of altitude sickness and Coca Leaves. Cusco was by far one of my favourite cities on this trip. It’s a big city, but much of its history remaining and breathing, with cobblestone streets and indigenous Incan descendants in traditional garb in plain sight. Cusco is a convenient entry point to understanding Incan civilisations and what Peru is mostly renowned for.

garb

Cusco as a town has a lot to offer in terms of history and culture. While there are many trips (beautiful but normally costly) you can base out of Cusco, I’d recommend starting with a walking tour of the city to understand the seat of Incan civilisation, as well as the Spanish occupation of the Incan empire.  For example, below you can see Qorikancha, which was the Incan Sun Temple and by extension, one of the most important buildings in the Incan Empire. It’s unfortunate then that when the Spanish occupied, they converted the temple to a church, destroying many of the cultural and historical aspects of the building. There are still remainders of the temple, and within the church as well, many beautiful Christian paintings and treasures.

qoricancha

Walking into the Plaza de Armas, you’ll see the many important buildings of Cusco. Below is the main cathedral of the city, which was again built over important Incan temples. It became a morbidly fun challenge to wonder what every Spanish/Christian building was built over and discover the rich heritage of both Incan culture and the Spanish occupation.

cuscocathedral

Once you’re in Cusco, you can begin trying some of the more exquisite foods available. I tried Cuy (guinea pig), which has mixed reactions upon my utterance. I personally found it tasty, but too much of a hassle to eat and so won’t try it again. A good locals-only place to try cuy without breaking your wallet is La Chomba. Another meat I tried was Alpaca. I had it as a steak to really get familiar with the meat, but you can eat it in burgers or other meat dishes in Cusco. It’s tasty for sure, and lies somewhere between mutton and beef on the taste spectrum. Uchu Peruvian Steakhouse is where I went for mine, and the different sauces they offer help bring out different dimensions to the meat.

alpaca

Finally, once you build up the capability, eat Peruvian street food. Anticuchos were one of my favorite. They’re basically skewered beef hearts that are amazingly tasty and chewy.

anticuchos

Macchu Picchu

One of the must-do trips to take from Cusco is the one to Macchu Picchu, one of the only remaining ruins of the Incan civilisations that are also stunning beautiful. There are multiple ways to get there, and there are other blogs for this, but in essence, you can choose to hike there or take the train. I’d honestly have chosen to hike had I known you have to book 6 months in advance and pay nearly 600 USD for the whole package, but alas, I was not as prepared and had to book the fast trip. Booking a package is convenient and covers most of your logistics, all for an average of 200USD. A bus first takes you to Ollantaytamboo, itself a town with historical ruins, from which you take Perurail through the mountains to the base of Macchu Picchu.

train

The train carries both tourists and locals, and so as a way of prioritising locals (after many protests that complained about favouritism of services to tourists), tourists only get 2 cabins that are basically the equivalent of first-class cabins. This explains why tickets run out fast. The good thing is that the cabins do provide beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and landscapes so photo opportunities are available. The train reaches Aguas Calientes, which is a small town with no roads and multitudes of hotels and restaurants primarily catered for tourists. Trust me when I say that the town has nothing else going on besides Macchu Picchu. Prices also match the tourist phenomenon so don’t try to stay too long here.trainview

Buses go up to Macchu Picchu for 12USD a ride, or you can take a roughly 1.5 – 2 hour climb up the Incan steps to the entry gate. Either way, the highlight of the trip is walking past the entry point, up the small knoll and into the steppes that are iconic to what is Macchu Picchu. I had the luck to see the clouds leave the town and provide an astonishing view of this city. Taking the tour provided a thorough and comprehensive understanding of not only the city but the Incan civilisation as a whole, including how the people lived and how they worshipped. The mountains provide a backdrop that is not easily replicable and you truly feel like you’re living in the heavens. The photos I took reflect the beauty of the Macchu Picchu only to the minutest extents. One must stand amongst these ruins to truly appreciate them.

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Lllamas also roam these ruins freely, grazing and cheesing around. They’ll occasionally pose for a photo but like to be left alone most times.llama

From the main ruins, there are also multiple other trails you can follow, including climbing up the taller mountains on the sides to get a better view. I took a hike to see the Incan Bridge (below), which saw me walk along the sides of cliffs and overlook vertical drops. The bridge in itself is simple, but perplexing, and altogether dangerous.incabridge

Quickly, a good recommendation for hostels in Cusco is Pariwana Hostel, which is a large party-esque hostel with a lot of activities both internally and in Cusco. I’d recommend staying away from their internal travel agency and doing a bit of legwork around the city to book tours, but for everything else, Pariwana has got you covered for an affordable rate.

I left this part of Peru absolutely fed with adventure, beauty and emotion. There was so much richness that I hadn’t been exposed to before, especially with such frequency, and I was realizing my world was a lot bigger than I had thought it was. How much history does our world hold and how ignorant are we to think that we cannot take lessons away from our past?

I was about to find out as I made the journey forward to Lake Titicaca and Bolivia. Till then,

hooah

seeing south america : lima

Winter Break 2016 saw me go to South America, to explore a continent I had never been to and to interact with a metaculture that I had just started to become familiar with. The first portion of this trip was in Peru, and we’ll start with Lima. Let’s just say that quickly into the trip I learnt I can’t travel in South America the way I’ve been familiar with so far – I was about to be schooled.

Lima

Lima is the capital of Peru. When I talk to other SA travellers a lot of them mention how less alluring of an option the city is compared to other Peruvian wonders, but I’ve come to disagree. Lima has a rich past and a promising future, and that energy is something different that can be tapped into when you walk the streets. Historically, Lima also was a huge strategic city for the Spanish Conquistadors, who play an important role in most of my trip, and a good entry point to understanding Peru and other parts of SA. Lima is a lot more of a collective of districts, rather than one big city, and exploring these districts provide a lot of diversity and wholesomeness to the traveler’s understanding of Lima.barranco

One of the more iconic districts is Barranco. Located in the south-eastern part of Lima, this district is known as the Bohemian District and has played host to the inspiration of many Peruvian creatives and intellectuals. Its colourful baroque buildings stand out and encourage you to consider indulging in your own creative moment. There are many beautiful graffiti pieces and architectural sights to look at as you walk through this district.

bridge

One of the more iconic parts of the district is the Bridge of Sighs – a beautiful wooden bridge that overlooks a deep ravine (Bajada de los Baños) and puts you in the heart of what Barranco is. Come here for some cool views.centrohistorice

If you want to see the historical (Spanish) part of the city, you have to take a 20 minute drive up away from Miraflores to the Centro area, which is essentially downtown Lima. Here you’ll find the Plaza de Armas, which is the main city centre for most Spanish cities, and a lot of beautiful Spanish buildings. Almost every Plaza I’ve seen has a Palace and a Cathedral almost assured, and the Spanish don’t hold back on the beauty of these structures.

miraflores

Of course, Miraflores is where most tourists go to in Lima, and that’s because of the beaches, backdropped by tall cliffs and sights of the district behind you. I was lucky enough to be brought to a private beach which had sand on it, but some of the public access beaches are rock beaches so take your pick. There are also some pretty sweet spots amongst the cliffs if you look online for you to catch the sunset. They call some of these ‘Lovers Area’ because of the obvious connotation but the sunsets from Lima are amazing so you should go there even if you’re by yourself. ceviche

Onto food. You’ll hear it again and again. Lima is the culinary capital of the Americas. There’s not only direct access to a rich diversity of ingredients here, there are unique flavour profiles and cooking methods that really push the boundaries of good food. One of the things you must try is Ceviche – cured fish (or other seafood) with lime zest and spiced with aji, a Peruvian take on chilli. If you like sushi or sashimi, ceviche isn’t that far off, and Canta Rana in Barranco comes highly recommended for its local focus, so no touristy overpricing, and community vibes.

maido

If you want to Fine Dining anywhere in South America, you have a number of options. Don’t let Lima slip away. Maido is an amazing Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurant that offers stunningly exquisite dishes. If you want to try the kitchen’s best, go for the Nikkei Experience, a multi-course menu that takes you on a journey of Peruvian ingredients. My favorite was this reduction of a shrimp based broth over spices and herbs from the Peruvian jungle. It was eventually served a baked cod belly, and was absolutely mind blowing.

luquma

And don’t do yourself a disservice by not trying the fruits. Luquma is a sweet and addictive fruit that is served best when mixed with milk (so ice creams or yoghurts) and is readily available. This picture is also from Maido and shows a Luquma ice cream in a chocolate shell and served with milk foam.

Here are some general travel tips for Lima:

Location to stay in: Miraflores and Barranco are your go-tos. Miraflores if you want access to the beaches, Barranco for the beautiful bohemian district and bars. I stayed in a hostel called Family Backpackers Club. It’s a pretty no-frills and reliable hostel (6.5/10 from me) but don’t expect to leave feeling anything special about the place.

SIM Cards/ Data: Avoid getting a SIM Card in the airport. It’s overpriced and not worth it. Go into the city centre and get one for 10 soles (~ 3 USD) and add money to your account and purchase a data plan for around 25 soles (~8 USD). That should set you up for at least a week.

ATMs: Don’t be tricked into using any regular ATMs. Peru has ATMs that don’t charge local withdrawal fees like Scotiabank and a number of others. Save up to 8 USD per transaction by using these

Transport: Uber is available and super cheap in Lima. Try to use it wherever you go and avoid getting your directions misinterpreted.

Crime: Not as present. I’m sure there’ll be regular pickpocketing if you don’t keep your wits about you, but I didn’t feel unsafe in Lima at all.

elna

I have to thank Elna for showing my around this beautiful city and telling me about what it has to offer. She was also such an amazing person in providing me tips around Peru in general and bringing me to some local haunts. People like Elna are hard to come by. Thank you!

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In the next post, I’ll cover Nasca and Cusco so look out for that! Till then,

hooah.

 

going off the grid

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‘People seem to be nicer to you when they think you’re lost.’ I’ll write that down, Octi thought to himself. That’s a good line. That’s a really good line. The bus jerked again, and Octi had to grab the armrests. He didn’t have to be embarrassed; there was no one else on the bus. 2 more hours to Nasca, he muttered. That’s not a long time at all….

Lima had been fun, but it wasn’t what he was looking for on this trip. Maybe Nasca provided the answer. It probably didn’t, but he had time to kill and questions to mull over.

He heard footsteps coming up the stairs. “Hola, vas a Nasca?” the voice arrived before the person. Yes, Octi answered, realizing there wasn’t really an alternative given that it was the only stop left. The bus stewardess walked up to him.

“You speak English?” she asked, surprisingly fluently.

“Yes, do you?”

“Enough to chat,” she said, and then smiled. “Where are you going?”

Octi looked at her puzzled. “Nasca…” he answered.

She laughed. “Yes, this is obvious.” She sat on the chair in front of him and turned back. “What are you looking for? Adventure?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe. I think I’m looking for answers”

“What is your question?”

“I don’t have an answer to that too”

She stared at him softly, her eyes scanning his face. “My name is Adalina,” she said, reaching out her hand. Octi shook it back. “This is the part where you say your name? Or am I wrong?” she responded to his silence.

“Oh yes. You can call me Octi. My parents named me October.”

“Why don’t you want to be called October? Is it too long?” she probed.

Octi stayed silent for a while. “That used to be it. But I think Octi lets me be myself, October reminds me of who the world wants me to be”

Adalina turned her body more and made herself comfortable. “Very interesting, Octi… do you not like who the world wants you to be?”

He turned his head towards the window and stared at the cliffs running past. They were majestic and unmovable. They must have been here for centuries, he thought. Yet, they spoke nothing.

“No, I do not.” he said, and then let out a sigh. That felt good. “I think all my life I’ve grown up wanting to live a certain way. I’ve wanted to change the world, to make an impact in history. And then I traveled the world, and I’m not sure if I want to do that anymore,” he went on.

Adalina kept her eyes fixed on him. Octi took that as a cue to keep talking.

“Listen, this may sound crazy, but I’ve been thinking. What if I go off the grid? What if I just disappear and travel around South America on what I make from odd jobs and things like that? It’s cheap enough to do so and I know I can survive. I can just leave everything behind, and everyone will be forced to forget about me. I’ll get to restart everything”

Adalina laughed, loud and involved. Octi looked at her, shocked at first, and then joined her. “I know, its ridiculous. What was I thinking?”

“No, not at all.” she said, coming down from her laughter. She placed her hand over his, looked at him staight and said, “Hazlo! Do it.”

“No, I was joking. What would my family think?”

“Write them postcards. Tell them to keep it a secret. You can’t live your life bound to someone else’s will… you’re not free at all.”

Octi looked at her puzzled. Her hands were still on his. He did not know what to say.

Adalina saw this and moved her hands away. “We’re almost at Nasca, it’s 30 minutes away. It’s a beautiful city, and I hope you have a good time.” She got up from the seat. “I can’t wait to see my family again.”

Octi watched her go back down the stairs. He went back to staring at the cliffs out of the window. I can’t do it, he thought, everything will change… everything! He turned his head to the other side of the bus, and noticed for the first time, the coastline. Dense, powerful waves slamming against the beach and drawing back to become join the expansive ocean. Octi looked up The National on his phone and played Sorrow on loop, plugging into the music as he stared at the ocean for the rest of the ride.

Adalina walked up the stairs again a while later. “We’re here, October,” she yelled across. Octi walked up to the front and took out his earphones. It’s Octi, he said, and are you planning on grabbing dinner?, he quickly followed.

Adalina looked at him for a second and then smiled. ‘Yes, Octi, of course. I forgot. And that depends, I know a good place, but we may get lost”.

That’s completely fine, he replied.

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hooah.