Bolivia was amazing, we ended up wishing we had left more time to do it justice - we missed out on jungle trips and the death road and what look like some of the best ruins anywhere at Tiowanaku. But our 3 week whirlwind tour was very satisfying, particularly due to some local contacts we had through Tania's family (again). And in Bolivia we saw some of the strangest, awe-inspiring landscapes, dissimilar to anything we had previously seen on the trip.
We travelled from very cold Puno, on the shores of sacred Lake Titicaca (at 3,811m), to slightly warmer Copacabana, which we liked, even though it is undeniably touristy. From there we got a boat to Isla del Sol where we spent a very pleasant 24 hours, having a nice meal with some new friends in the evening and doing the 3 hour hike from north to south the next day. The water was a stunning azure and the whole thing looked strangely like a Mediterranean island. We then hotfooted it to La Paz, where we paid attention to the spectacular nighttime entrance into the city through El Alto - the many lights start on the right hand side of the bus and it takes a while before you get the scale of the city. It's a bit like an upside down night sky opening up below you.
We had 3 nights in La Paz and didn't really do very much but see markets and eat - comfortably conquering the 40 chilli vindaloo at the notorious Star of India, which we enjoyed on 2 visits. Many online reviewers say it's not the real thing, but nothing outside of India is and considering you're in South America.. come on, it's not bad. We did walk down the valley from Plaza San Francisco towards the sports area, which is a pretty amazing sight - in fact, my favourite city view of the trip, well apart from Cape Town maybe. Reflective skyscrapers to the right of the foreground; the huge, multi-level open sports complex filling the bottom of the valley; the eroded, redddish lunar hills in the distance; hillside and top residencial areas to the right and left and this twisting walkway going out over it all, the road passing below. Kind of like Miraflores in Lima, but better. And we took a bus out to La Valle de la Luna, a park of walkways through eroded hills and valleys that is pretty out there.
Then we hit Cochabamba, where we met Fabian, Geoff's former student who was just a miracle to us. He helped us arrange our Uyuni tour, took us out for a real Pique Macho (a huge pile of meats, veggies, cheeses and sauces à la Desperate Dan) and Huari draft beer and taught us the local dice game, Cacho. Then it was time to do the tour which everyone recommends and you've all seen photos of, the Uyuni salt flats. The train down from Ururo was very pretty - we saw flamingoes within minutes of leaving. The salt flats were pretty different and quite wet at the time, the place really coming alive when the sun came out which was unfortunately towards the end... but the real wonder was the rest of the 4x4 trip, onto the Altiplano where altitudes approach 5,000m. Photos can do it little justice, descriptions even less - you simply have to be there to understand the scale and the stark beauty. The colours, the colours - I didn't know browns could be so beautiful - and the vivid reds, blues and greens in the many lakes we saw. Very, very different indeed.
We had a great group on this trip, one of the best minglings ever. We kept people up on 2 successive nights with our raucous behaviour. We were stupefied that we could find alcohol in the tiny towns where the refuges in which we slept were. A far cry from Mount Kenya, at the same altitude, where I lay quietly hyperventilating, fully wrapped and still freezing, waiting for the 2am summit push.
After returning to Uyuni, we caught a bus to Potosi with Lisette and Oscar, our new Dutch friends. We had a very nice day there just wandering about the town and managing to miss both main attractions, the silver mines and the best museum in Bolivia, the Casa de la Moneda. Then onto Sucre, the governmental capital where we were to hook up with Fabian again, drink some Anejo rum with his interesting architect friends and try the amazing chorizo sandwiches at the Siete Lunares restaurant in the central market. A 20 minute flight (infinitely preferable to the alternative 10 hour bus journey) took us to our final city of the whole trip, Santa Cruz, the financial capital which everyone had dissed but we actually liked. I guess it may have been dull for some in comparison to all the spectacular things you can do in Bolivia. We had tea with another contact of Geoff's, ate some river crocodile nuggets, met up with some more friends from the Uyuni trip and went for a more expensive hotel than usual, as it would be the last of the trip - $15 a night!! One last complete unpack/repack (gotta be careful) and it was time to book our taxi to the airport.
What would the borders be like, I thought. We were coming from Bolivia and going via Miami, so we were expecting hellish customs and immigration but as usual it was straight through. I was a bit shocked when on the first leg I didn't have my own personal TV screen and was rather squished, but hey ho, this was Bolivia, even if we had forked out for American Airlines. The second leg delivered though, particularly with the extremely nice attendant who kept giving us free drinks, pretending to swipe our proferred card. Some of the views over the Americas and the Caribbean were outstanding, with some amazing cloud formations and islands that I wished we had visited. Then I realised I was really quite excited about going back to London, where I was born, where I grew up, effectively my "home" - even though I had no actual home there, apart from the rather nice one so kindly offered by my surrogate (Tania's) parents. What would immmigration say? "Welcome back Mr Shepherd, it's been a while," perhaps? Nothing. We wondered whether Geoff and Rita would be at the airport, as we couldn't remember specifically arranging anything. Of course they were. Place looked quite nice, people cheery, weather warm. Chatted to a German tourist while enjoying the outdoor smoking area. Felt quite emotional to be back. Let's go and see some Senegalese music tonight near Liverpool street. Walk the dog on Ealing Common. See some good friends - did we have "an announcement" to make? Yeah - we're splitting up! ;-)
And then, it wasn't really over. Because after a week in London, we would be getting in a car to go to the south of France to visit my family. Which I have realised it is the most beautiful place on earth. Oh well - had to make sure, didn't I?