Bolivia ep.2: Cochabamba & the Janajpacha Community + Copacabana

It’s been a little more than a month since my last post, and I have crossed many borders since then, to ultimately end up in the last country of my South-American adventure, Colombia, before advancing to Central America.

I spent Christmas, my Birthday and New Year’s Eve in a recluse peace-haven called Janajpacha deep down in Bolivia, on the outskirts of Cochabamba. I was semi-apprehending spending this trilogy of events, that I’m used to celebrating with family & close friends, with total strangers! But it was a great experience, seeing through some of the most important festivities of the year with travellers from more than 11 different nations, brought together in the heart of latin america. For Christmas, each nation cooked a speciality from their home country, which made it brilliantly folkloric, and made for a unique sensory experience, which wrapped up with a mystery gift exchange.

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Janajpacha is an Ecovillage-cum-Shamanic Ashram between the Andes and the Amazon  and is the most chilled out and spiritually awakening places I’ve ever been to. No drugs or alcohol allowed, and meat is off the menu, the community is vegetarian. The leitmotiv was “Todo es vida” which translates to “Everything Is Life”, which is also a Ricky Martin song, but let’s not talk about that.

In the 2-weeks I stayed there my days consisted of rising up nice and early (5:45am) in order to be on time for meditation at 6:00am, and heading off for breakfast on the sound of the bell at 7:00am, before starting a morning shift of volunteer work. We had all our afternoons off, leaving us plenty of time to read, walk around the community gardens, or hang out with fellow volunteers.

I learnt a whole lot about vegetarian diets, and how to diversify ones daily intakes, in order to divert away from the proverbial “Meat and Two Veg” that most of us were brought up on. Roots, leaves, flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables in a myriad of tones spanning across the whole color scale made for beautifully balanced meals, to make your taste-buds dance in a waltz of flavours.

My digestive system also thoroughly appreciated the new-found consideration It had been granted, and thanked me in many ways, that I needn’t describe here.

It was so enjoyable to have 2-weeks of just reflecting back on what I had done up until then, and contemplating my next moves, while floating in the “now”. A truly enriching experience that I would be willing to renew anytime!

+ a few pics from Copacabana:

La Paz, Bolivia

Upon arriving back in Santiago from my Patagonian quest, I had to think about my next move! I already had a vague idea of what I wanted to do, but nothing was clear. As my initial plan was to gradually make my way towards Cuzco in Peru, to visit Machu-Picchu, a short stop in Bolivia seemed a nice option, and the city of La Paz was first on the list. La Paz isn’t the capital of Bolivia, but it’s the main city, Sucre is actually the capital. It’s a bit like in Brazil, where Brasilia is the administrative capital, but Rio de Janeiro steals the show.

Direct buses from Santiago to La Paz don’t exist, so I thought I would stop in Iquique, and Arica in the north of Chile on my way. So I hopped on a bus, and after 24 hours, I arrived in Iquique. I must say, Iquique wasn’t really my cup of tea, it was so unappealing that I arrived at midday, and instead of staying there for the night, I decided to catch a night bus straight to Arica, the last city on my agenda, before leaving for La Paz. I made it to Arica for 7:00am and had just enough time to visit the bus terminal (woohoo!) and get breakfast, before shooting off to La Paz. It was supposed to be a 10 hour bus trip, but south american minutes always tend to be a bit longer than sixty seconds, especially the Bolivian ones! It ended up taking a cool 13 hours, after passing border control and having to change buses midway after ours broke down!

Passing border control was pretty tough, not because of the security measures in place, as the agents merely patted my bag before signalling me through, no, I’m talking about the altitude. At around 5000m, I was feeling pretty groggy, and I was literally zig-zagging to the inspection point, the rest of the passengers however were pretty much unfazed by this, casually stuffing coca leaves into their cheeks to relieve the effects of the altitude.

The arrival in La Paz (3600m) at night was so theatrical, the city lit up like altar candles, whilst the bus swooped down into the valley where La Paz is set, under booming thunder and lightning, saturating the light-levels, and making the houses tremble.

Upon arrival, I walked down. I’m saying this because La Paz is built in a certain way where, if you get lost, just walk down, and you’ll be back on main street! It was pretty late, so I decided to stop in the first hostel I saw. I left my bags and went straight for something to eat.

In La Paz, street food is the way to go, either grab a burger or a barquette of potatoes and sausage showered with a spicy “aji” sauce, or choose to sit down in of the many out door restaurants, where food is dished-out by the chef in the centre, whilst the guests gather round on small stools, by the roadside.

The next day I toured the city with an Australian couple I met, and we had lunch at the market in true “Almuerzo” style. A Tasty and filling starter & main meal for about £1,40, and on top of that you’re able to get up close and personal with the Bolivians!

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La Paz looks like a gigantic unfinished real estate project, most houses stand naked, flashing their orange bare brick walls, lacking the final Stucco coating leading to completion. Is this a financial issue? A lack of readily available building materials? Or are the Bolivians just prone to procrastination, offsetting the completion of their projects?

Well, the right answer is pretty straight forward: Bolivian law stipulates that home owners don’t have to pay taxes whilst their houses remain unfinished.

Another plausible answer is that the developing country that is Bolivia also has developing constructions. The current generation can’t necessarily live as comfortably as they would like, but wish for their children to be able to. That’s why they prefer to start a grand project, in order to polish it off in the future. It’s an inter-generational pact.

In Latin America there are a handful of high-end restaurants, but only one is located in La Paz! As a passionate food lover, I suggested we go to the one and only “Gustu” a modern Bolivian restaurant founded by the Dutch chef Claus Meyer, and cheffed by Kamilla Seidler.

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Just showing off

I’m a bit embarrassed to say how much we paid for this meal, even by Bolivian standards, but I definitely wasn’t thinking of that whilst I was tucking in to some succulent raw Llama meat, followed by a slab of Amazonian fish wrapped in it’s banana leaf. My Australian neighbour decided to opt for some Cayman! It was a pretty exotic meal, for sure.

Gustu’s “zero kilometre” philosophy, implying that only local produce be used ensured the freshness of the meals, and added to the charm, knowing that we were drinking, breathing and eating Bolivia.

We also got to taste some marvelous cocktails made with Singani, a bolivian alcohol, aji peppers, tamarind and some andean herbs.

On the next day, I went to visit “Moon Valley”, I’m not sure the moon really looks like this, but it sounds cool anyway. After contemplating the quasi-lunar landscape, I headed off to “The Devil’s Tooth” a 2-hour hike up to a great viewpoint of La Paz. I had read a few reviews warning hikers about the enraged dogs attacking people on the way up, but that obviously couldn’t happen to me!

How wrong was I, my pleasant and leisurely walk turned into a battle for my life, as I had to beat off packs of dogs with rabies, every 10 minutes, by throwing stones and war cries. However the risk definitely brought reward, as I entered a tiny mountain town, just under the devil’s tooth, where old Bolivian farmers bring their cattle down from the mountains, and the children run away to hide, bursting with laughter, upon seeing strangers enter the community.

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My only weapon

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After taking in the view, I headed back down, thankfully a 4×4 stopped by me and offered me a lift, helping me skip the dogs.

La Paz was definitely the most south american city I’d been to, and ironically the more north you go, the more south american, south america gets!

I really like how all the ladies named the “Cholitas” have kept the traditional attire, and how life here is still all about human relations. Nearly nothing is automatic, and every transaction you do obliges  you to communicate with somebody. Thankfully my Spanish has improved quite a bit, so it wasn’t too much of a struggle!

After 4 days in La Paz, I left for Cochabamba, where I had organised to stay a week in a Shamanic Ashram called Janajpacha, through workaway.com

I’m currently writing from here, and am seriously contemplating staying for more than a week, like most of the volunteers here! It’s a spiritual peace haven resting at the foot of the Tunari mountain, and makes you never want to leave.

I’ll tell you all about it in my next post!

Patagonia, Torres del Paine and the W Trek

I’m not going to write much about the W trek, I’ll just let the images speak for themselves!

I met my french friend Robert in Puerto Natales, the small fishing town where most people meet-up and get all their things together for the trek. We prepared our hiking rations, our itinerary, and rented all our camping gear, before catching a bus to Torres del Paine national park, where the action takes place.

The trek was pretty intense, we walked 75km in 4 days, that’s an average of 7 1/2 hours a day, but fortunately we were blessed with the best possible weather you could ask for! Usually while trekking Torres del Paine you get 200 km/h winds and schizophrenic weather, the area is notorious for having 4 seasons a day.

We also met a couple of swiss friends, Rose and Simon, who ended up hiking 3 of the 4 days, with us!

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Thanks you Torres del Paine!

Uruguay, Buenos Aires & Mendoza

After 1 and a half crazy months in the city of Santiago, it was time to move on, so I got the map out and started to contemplate my next destination.

Santiago was truly magical, the idyllic setting of the capital, nestled in-between the snow-capped Andes made everyday, and especially every evening a feast for the eyes. I made a habit of watching the sunset from wherever I was, might it be at the terrace of a local bar, a friends balcony, or on top of San-Cristobal hill alongside the humungous Virgin Mary , casting her gaze over the south-american metropolis.

Everyday was a new day, a new adventure, and routine was a concept that didn’t make sense anymore. Everything from 5-hour hikes leading us to breathtaking summits, the ecstatic Creamfields music festival, to lazy afternoons in the park making small talk with the chilean locals, made my stay so special.

So what was the next destination? I chose Uruguay, an often wrongly over-looked country by travellers alike. A secret gem sat in-between Argentina and Brazil, that you only need to look at once to be blinded by it’s shine. I started in Montevideo, the country’s capital city, it was slightly uneventful but it definitely had it’s charm, and I would say that the people’s positivity and friendliness definitely perfected the mix. Montevideo carries just over half of the Uruguayan population of 3 million, so kilometres of untouched natural beauty, is what you get upon leaving the city. I got into ultra-tourist mode for a picture on the Montevideo sign.

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Yeah, yeah, So what?

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A flag (just in case)

After a few hostel conversations about the must-see opportunities in Uruguay, I went for Punta del Este, a coastal ghost town in the winter, that flourishes into a bustling seaside resort in the summer. This is where the Argentinian jet-set comes to relax and party under the Uruguayan sun.

I was blessed to meet some of the coolest Uruguayans, who taught me the Uruguayan way of life. Surfing, drinking Maté and lounging on the beach where all activities on full rotation for the 4 days I stayed in Punta del Este.

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Drinking my first Maté

The next stop was Colonia del Sacramento, a small colonial town fought over by the Portuguese and Spanish centuries ago, before becoming independent.

Mossy cobble stoned streets, lined with terra-cotta colonial style Spanish casas with bunches of vivid flowers growing out from the facades, lead to quiet serene parks that gather enamoured couples, kissing on benches, perched like love birds.

Dusty 50s cars can be found in the streets, rusted and corroded by time, failing to move on unlike the many nations Colonia del Sacramento fell under.

After dawn, yellow-tinted street lights generate a soft glow, slowly rocking the coastal town into a 19th century lullaby, as they wrap their rays around you.

 

The next move was Buenos Aires, I was told it was going to teleport me straight back to Europe, as the influence was so strong. If this is partly true, on the other hand the city has an electrifying latin twist to it. Buenos Aires is a south american power house, buzzing 24/7 and is truly overwhelming. I tried out my first two Couchsurfing experiences here, one was in the neighbourhood of Loma Hermosa, a very working-class area, about one hour out from the micro-centre, and the other was in the hip Recoleta neighbourhood, bang in the middle of BA, so I really got the best of both worlds.

I was actually couch surfing at the same time as an Italian guy called Alessandro,  we unfortunately got on the wrong bus on one night on our way back from the centre. That lead us to a villa (vi-sha as they pronounce it), which isn’t the flamboyant 5 bedroom palace that you could imagine. These are actually the Argentinian version of favelas. We kept our calm while navigating through one of the roughest neighbourhoods in BA, yes, cars were on fire, and motorbikes were one-wheeling around the bus. Thankfully the driver took us back to where we should have been. We definitely laughed a lot about it, but it’s all in our memories, because, as you could imagine I didn’t really feel comfortable pulling my camera out!

The second Couchsurf offered a more cosmopolitan experience, we went food & beer tasting in a festival, and even had liquid nitrogen frozen ice-cream. We also had a champagne fuelled night out in a swanky Buenos Aires nightclub… Oops.

In any case, I’ll definitely be Couchsurfing again.

To get back from Buenos Aires, to Santiago, I took a 14 hour bus and stopped for 2 days in Mendoza, the wine capital of Argentina. All I did there was lounge by the pool, go on wine tours, and eat grilled asados in the evening, I’m not complaining though.

At the time of writing I am waiting for a flight to Punta Arenas in Patagonia, to do a 4-day trek with a french friend I met in Santiago, this is definitely going to be a highlight!

It’ll also be a 4-day internet cure, I daren’t imagine how hard this is going to be ;).

Update 09/10/2016

Soooo, I’ve been here for 11 days and I’ve finally managed to find a Hostel with vacant volunteer positions! After sending out at least 45 emails to most of the hostels in Santiago, and getting only 2 replies, one hostel kindly took me on. The deal is that I have to help behind the bar, and at reception 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, in exchange for a room and breakfast. Bartending is definitely a great way to practice your language skills, on my first night I had a 3-hour conversation with this Colombian guy… well actually I lie, he had a 3-hour monologue! He was basically talking to a brick wall with ears which was half-deaf. I felt tetraplegic, with all my thoughts trapped inside me, and the inability to express them. But that’s what I’m here for, so I’m not going to complain!

The staff are cool and pretty welcoming, they’re nearly all spanish speakers, from all sides of South-America, except for the manager who is… french! It is nice to have a lifeline though, if ever I need to ask something urgent I don’t need to mime to him. Talking about miming, I’m trying a new technique where I have to keep my hands behind my back whilst speaking spanish, so I can’t take the easy way out, which is sign language. Hopefully it’ll help me develop my basic communication skills. I’m also translating a piece of spanish literature everyday in order to learn new vocabulary and sentence structure.

I’ll leave you with a few pictures of my day to day life:

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The Chilean “Chorrillana”, basically a Heart Attack on a platter made up of fries, chorizo, steak, onions, and eggs.

Night & Day in Santiago:

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People queuing for the bus! How civilised!

A stroll around Yungay, another very artistic neighbourhood in Santiago.

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The equivalent of about £2,50 in Chilean Pesos. The money here is a real nightmare.

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Charly Dog: One of my fav’ places for a mind-blowing As, which is basically saucy slivers of meat in a hotdog bun, under a generous layer of personalised ingredients.

Valparaíso

Today Ailsa, Emma and I decided to go to Valparaíso, a city located an hour and a half north-west from Santiago, known for its seaport and for being and educational centre in Chile.

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Quick hospital… Oops, hostel breakfast

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Return ticket to Valparaíso

In the bus I was reading the headrest and on the bottom right the paragraph explains that if you hear an alarm or see a red light above the drivers cabin, it means he’s speeding, and it’s your right as a Chilean to ask him to slow down. Nice incentive to active citizenship.

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“Es su derecho como ciudadano exigirle al conductor que disminuya la velocidad”

 

Valparaíso is pretty vast and is overlooked by favelas lined hills. The center in itself isn’t too big and a 30-minute walk took us from the bus station on one side, to the colourful vibrant neighbourhoods like Cerro Concepcion and Cerro Bellavista the city is famous for. In order to climb up to the top of these neighbourhoods set in the hills you can walk, but if you’re feeling a bit lazy or are short on time you can hop on one of the many funiculars which reach up to the top. These funiculars are showing their age, however they have stood the test of times and are still carrying locals and tourists alike up and down the hills.

Checkout this badass bus with chrome alloy wheels…

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This badboy puts the competition to sleep

Another set of Valparaíso shots:

One thing that you cannot help noticing is that people sell literally ANYTHING, straight from street stalls and tend to specialise in everyday products from Air Fresheners to Sellotape to shoelaces. There is a whole culture around street merchants and they aren’t their for the tourists in particular, the locals actually support this economy. I assumed this, because the welfare system is set-up in a certain way for it to come across as neither an entitlement nor an open-ended expenditure, and is carefully crafted so that it does not result in dependency. Welfare goes to those who help themselves, and it cannot become a lifelong crutch.

This means that chileans have to find ways of earning a few pesos- any way they can.

In short, Chileans are expected to work and look after themselves and their families.

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Air freshener galore

There are also so many stray dogs living among the people, going about their business, untouched, as if they had a sacred status likewise to cows in India. So watch your feet and don’t tread on one of the many dogs who won’t hesitate to lie down all paws out in the middle of the street to bask in the blistering sun, for their routine siesta. The dogs are so streetwise and can regularly be seen waiting for the green light at zebra crossings, hopping on buses and getting off at their usual stop (although they don’t pay a fare, looks like animals ride for free here), and participating in manifestations.

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The dogs are a true national heritage

But there is a true dark side to this story, there are an estimated 1 million stray dogs in Chile, about half of which reside among the 5 million humans in its capital city. The majority have either been abandoned by their owners for a variety of inexcusable reasons, or are the depressing product of a society that is unwilling to spay and neuter its pets. 

Thanks for reading, I’ll be back soooon for more Chilean adventures!

In the mean time, check out this amazing track by the chilean deep-tropical three-piece band, Matanza that my chilean friend Niko showed me.