Sucre – downtime, dinosaurs and the Dutch King’s birthday

We arrive in Sucre exhausted from our long bus journey, but since it’s only 9am, our room isn’t ready yet so we head into town for some breakfast. We’re staying at La Casa Al Tronco, a tiny guesthouse with only three rooms in Recoleta, which is set back from the centre of town on a hill. The good news is that we’ve got a stunning view of the city from our bedroom window, the bad news is it’s a bit of a breathless walk home from town – we’re now at 2500m above sea level, our first taste of altitude.

View of Sucre from our bedroom window

It’s a pretty city, full of whitewashed churches, and it’s not hard to see why it’s now a Unesco World Heritage site. It was formally the capital of Bolivia, and although this crown is now taken by La Paz, it is still the judicial capital. Despite its importance, it retains an intimate, friendly atmosphere, more like a small town than a big city.

Sucre city centre

That evening, after a much needed siesta, we head into town for something to eat. We pick one of the recommendations from the book – Cafe Florin – a cute little bar/restaurant which does a great mix of international food and two for one happy hour cocktails. The only available table is for eight people so we perch at one end and order some food. We opt for the traditional Bolivian dish of pique a lo macho – a combination of frankfurters, beef, onions, peppers, tomatoes, chillies and boiled eggs, all served on a bed of chips and covered in a spicy gravy. Yum.

As we’re waiting for our food, a party of five come in and the only place left is at the end of our table, so of course, we invite them to join us. As they sit down, I realise I recognise two of the girls from the Pantanal – small world! Needless to say, we get chatting, swapping stories of our travels since we last met, and before long we are taking full advantage of the happy hour cocktails. It also happens to be the King of Holland’s birthday (who knew?!) and since every bar in town seems to have jumped on the Dutch bandwagon there are plenty of free orange vodka jellies being handed out. Let’s just say a great night was had by all and there were a few sore heads (and stomachs) the next morning.

Sampling Sucre's nightlife

Despite a rather late night, we’re up at 7.30am the next morning after only a few hours sleep to catch a micro to Tarabuco, 65km southeast of Sucre, to visit the Sunday market. Here they sell all manner of traditional handicrafts for tourists as well as goods for locals too. You’ll find alpaca ponchos and jumpers (as well as plenty that look more like they have been mass produced in China), wall hangings, cushion covers, bags, hats – there’s something for everyone. Having said that, you’ll also find most of the same stuff elsewhere in Bolivia, particularly La Paz, so don’t feel this is your only chance to get something authentic. You can haggle a little with the sellers but they don’t come down much – don’t expect it to be like Asia where you can get the starting price down significantly. You might barter a pound or two off the price but not much more.

Tarabuco market

After a two hour journey winding up through the mountains, we arrive at the market still half asleep and not in the mood for shopping at all. In need of some food, we head to a local cafe for a sandwich and a cup of tea in the hope it will wake us up a little – unfortunately our order of ‘te con leche’ is interpreted as a cup of hot milk with a tea bag on the side. Oh well.

Little old Bolivian lady

As we venture into the hub of the market, we bump into the girls from the previous night and it’s safe to say they are feeling as rough as we are. Still, as girls we’re programmed to shop even in the face of adversity, so we struggle on, determined to go home with at least a few souvenirs from the wealth of ethnic tat. But by lunchtime, both Rich and I have had enough and we hop on a micro back to Sucre with just a couple of purchases. Back at the guesthouse, we head straight to bed for some much needed sleep.

Bolivian dudes at the market

The next day and we decide to venture out to the Cretaceous Park. On a single day, millions of years ago, herds of dinosaurs made their way across the muddy shores of a long-disappeared sea. The footprints remained preserved until discovered by chance only 50 years ago by local miners. Today, you can still see the tracks. After some confusion over whether there is any public transport running (it’s a public holiday) we jump on the ‘Dino Bus’ (you can spot it from the dinosaur head sticking out the front) to ride the 5kms out of town.

They do a pretty good job of padding out what would otherwise be a five minute visit. First you get an episode of the BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs (some of the special effects are laughable), then a guide explaining in intricate detail how they found the footprints and which species they come from. Only then do you get to see the footprints. It’s definitely worth a visit but don’t expect to be wowed by the footprints. They aren’t that much to look at, although the fact they have been there for millions of years and the sheer fluke of them finding them does make it quite awe inspiring.

Dinosaur footprints at Cretaceous Park

The next day and we’re up early to catch a taxi to Potosi, three hours away. You can get a bus, which is obviously cheaper, but at £16 for a private, door to door service, we decide to splash out and avoid the hassle of public transport. Unfortunately, after a lovely stay in a great room with a beautiful view, our departure from Casa Al Tronco is somewhat marred by a long and protracted row over the bill, where they refused to deduct the deposit that we paid on HostelWorld when booking. We didn’t pay it in the end but it put a bit of a dampener on things – if you choose to stay here then make sure your bill is right.

Out on the town

So that’s it. It’s goodbye to Sucre and hello to Potosi – at 4070m, the world’s highest city.

Samaipata – monkey hat

We decide to take the Sindicato El Fuerte to Samaipata from Santa Cruz, which is basically a shared car. You turn up at a designated point, wait for four people heading the same way and off you go. It’s not quite as cheap as a local bus but it’s quicker, plus the randomness of who you might be travelling with adds to the fun. The journey should take about three hours but our driver seems to be in a rush to get there. After two hours of mostly dirt road, carved precariously out of  the edges of mountains, we arrive in the centre square. It’s a small town, locals are friendly and we feel at home immediately.

Samaipata town square

Our accommodation, Posada del Sol, is top notch – cheap and almost hotel standard. Again we get lucky, many travellers insist on not booking ahead to try and get a better deal but we find turning up can leave you with only the cheapest or most expensive options. Also, arriving in a new town without the hassle of lugging backpacks around is worth every penny.

Samaipata town
Samaipata town

The weather is great so we grab a cab (local chap with a car) and head up to see the pre-Inca ruins – El Fuerte. It’s our first taste of altitude and although we don’t notice it the cab does – how a Nissan Micra made it up the tracks to the ruins I don’t know.

I’m a kinda no instruction manual kinda guy, and hiring guides fits into the same category for me. But in this instance I decide I don’t know it all and we rent an amigo for a couple of hours to talk us through the site. It’s an impressive place, dating from around the 16th century, a huge settlement of  importance to the Incas, and subsequently the Spanish, due it’s elevated position, closeness to trade routes and it’s alignment to the stars. These days it’s a big carved rock on top of the mountain covered with inscriptions and sacrificial altars, the surrounding land full of primitive huts, with most of the site yet to be excavated. If you have already been to Machu Picchu you might scoff at the place but for us it’s our first taste of ruins and old stuff.

El Fuerte
El Fuerte

That night we buy our bus tickets to Sucre. A few months back we met an English tour guide who has been taking a tour group around South America for years (Toucan Tours). His advice was to avoid night travel in Bolivia, and went as far as saying it’s suicide. Pah, what does he know. We book a 10 hour overnight bus, and are informed it’s a dirt road all the way through the mountain up to 2500m. To catch the bus we need to wait by the side of the road at a designated time, apparently the bus driver will be informed. What could go wrong?!

After awkwardly avoiding some miserable Israelis we met at breakfast, we grab a local pizza in an empty local restaurant on the square where I’m treated to hours of Shakira videos on TV. How I’ve never seen a video of hers before I don’t know. I’m in love and Leah accepts there will forever be another in our relationship.

The next day we take an hour’s walk out of town to a private animal sanctuary,Zoo El Refugio. It’s the reason I wanted to come here – big fan of monkeys. The placed is actually a small paddock, 70 pence entrance. Inside are a crazy collection of rescued animals: boars, parrots, monkeys, dogs and cats all live together perfectly happily and they all like a bit of attention. The boars will walk alongside nuzzling your legs looking for a pat, the fox will accept a stroke and the monkeys will outstretch a hand to be lifted for a hug. It’s great fun and we spend about two hours wandering around playing with the monkeys. It’s also possible to volunteer here for a few weeks. Accommodation is provided in exchange for a full working day of preparing food and keeping the critters company. Low season is best, the fellas get bored of playing when there are loads of tourists, and we had the place to ourselves.

Monkey hat

That evening we catch our bus, that’s it. No crazy stories of bad transport, rip offs and breakdowns. Its not the cleanest bus, but it arrived on time(ish), the seats almost recline fully and although the journey was bumpy we didn’t drive off the cliff face that was just two feet from the road and even arrive slightly early in Sucre! Don’t know what all the fuss its about. A little girl behind me did empty her bowels around 2am which was fragrant to say the least but her embarrassed parents did a great job of cleaning her up whilst bouncing along. If you’re going to Bolivia and are worried about the buses, yes, there are fatalities every year, just pay that few dollars extra and get local advice on recommended companies. You’re going to miss a lot of Bolivia if you fly everywhere, don’t wimp out.

Samaipata town
Samaipata town

Santa Cruz – first taste of Bolivia

After a quick pit stop in Buenos Aires for a night and another three hour flight, we arrive in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Having spent two months in the cosmopolitan Brazil and Argentina, this suddenly feels a long way from home again. Sure, there’s plenty of cars, including an unusually large number of 4X4s (once you see the roads here you understand why), and the younger generation are still dressed in their jeans and hoodies, but there’s also a great swathe of people in traditional Bolivian dress who obviously live very simple lives the way they have done for centuries. The women wear pleated skirts to the knee with a knitted cardigan or cropped jacket, their hair in two braids hanging down their back. The men are in ponchos. All wear hats. It’s quite charming and it’s good to be somewhere that feels less familiar again.

Santa Cruz - Plaza de September 25

If you are looking for a typical Bolivian city though, Santa Cruz is probably the last place you would pick. Although there’s plenty of evidence of the Bolivian culture around, the people here would rather be Brazilian than Bolivian and campaign for independence from the rest of the country. To be completely honest, whilst it’s a pleasant enough town, there’s not a whole lot to do here, but since the flights were much cheaper than flying to La Paz we must make the most of it!

We are staying at the Residencial Bolivar, a few blocks from the main square. The rooms are small and the bathrooms a little damp smelling but there is a lovely communal courtyard with plenty of plants and some hammocks for a nice afternoon siesta. The biggest draw though is their pet toucan which is tame enough to jump up onto your arm but also bold enough to steal your breakfast!! Other than that, it’s a fairly standard hostel – the staff aren’t particularly attentive and the rules are pretty strict (no alcohol and lights out by 10pm) but it’s fine for a couple of nights and in a good location.

Simon the toucan

We have a fairly relaxed first day, wandering around the centre of town and grabbing a spot of lunch. That evening, we have a few beers in the Irish Pub – yes I know it’s pretty touristy and also one of the pricier places in town, but if you can get a window seat then you get a great view of the central plaza as it’s on the first floor. It’s awesome people watching – the square comes alive in the evening and the locals play chess, sit and chat, get their shoes shined, and buy coffees from the guys in suit jackets dragging hot flasks behind them on small trolleys.

The next day and we head north of the centre to check out the zoo. As we pull up in our taxi after a failed attempt at taking a micro (local bus, we got on the wrong one, even though it said it was going to the zoo) we see one of the keepers outside on the street, carrying a recently escaped sloth back into the zoo. Quite how a sloth manages to escape I don’t know – they’re not exactly quick on their feet! He places the sloth back in his tree and we watch in awe at this strange, weird creature as he slowly climbs up the branches.

Sloth making his slow escape from zoo

The rest of the zoo is not as bad as you might expect given that we are in Bolivia. Sure, it could do with a facelift but it’s evident that they are already doing a lot of repairs and building new, more modern enclosures. And the existing enclosures are a decent size with plenty to entertain the wildlife – we certainly weren’t concerned for any of the animals we saw there. There’s a decent range of animals too, including lots of birds, some impressive jaguars and pumas, monkeys, boars, capybara, tortoises…there’s also a reptile house, although I was a bit put off when Rich pointed out the sound of chirping from inside which was clearly the snakes’ dinner.

Sleeping armadillo

We manage to catch the bus back to town (the number 58 if you are wondering) and as we wander back to the hostel we stumble upon a bar showing the Barcelona/Real Madrid match so we pop in to join the locals for some empanadas and beer whilst we watch the game.

Later that evening as we head out for dinner, we spot a roadside stall selling all sorts of things made out of various animal skins. Whilst Richard is keen on the jaguar fur wallet (he seems to think it would be better if it had a claw for a clasp though and made a growling noise when you opened it) I manage to persuade him that, despite the ‘wow’ factor, it’s a little unethical and probably highly illegal too. So instead, a disappointed Richard and I leave empty handed, grab something to eat, then head back to the hostel, ready for an early morning taxi to Samaipata the next day.

El Calafate – ice cold and hot buns

The bus is leaving Ushuaia for Rio Gallegos at 5am. As the Haush Hostel is only a five minute walk from the petrol station where the buses pick up we set our alarm for 4am and have an earlyish night.

We wake up at 4:42am. After a snap decision that we can still make the bus, we get dressed and pack and stumble our way out of the hostel and run down the hill. I’m sure we woke the other guests in our hostel but I’m also sure they found it amusing, it must have been obvious we were very late for something.

It’s sub-zero outside and we fall into the unheated bus dead on 5am, ready for our 12 hour journey back to Rio Gallegos and then onwards a further four hours to El Calafate. Our first near miss, but it’s not as if our schedule is inflexible. We laugh it off and I promise myself to buy an alarm clock.

El Calafate

El Calafate sits on the edge of the Andes next to a number or large glacial lakes (Lago Argentino being the largest lake in Argentina). Although the glaciers have always been here, it’s only in the last few years that the town has exploded, with many new chalet-style restaurants, bars and shops. Again we have booked accommodation online on a recommendation from the Danish couple we met in Bariloche. Its a great hostel and you couldn’t do better if coming here, the couple who run the place are uber friendly – it’s like staying at a friend’s. We have two plans for the weekend, a trip to see the glaciers and an attempt at making hot cross buns. It’s Easter and we are a LONG way from home, so we are going to do battle with Argentinian supermercados and try to recreate a bit of Blighty.

Perito Moreno is the main attraction here, it’s one of the world’s only ‘stable’ glaciers, meaning it’s still advancing at 2m a day rather than melting a bit each year, not exactly a poster child for the climate change clan. Maybe they’ve not heard of this place or just don’t do long bus journeys. Hmmm.

On the way to the glacier parks

It’s a 140 pesos and a 3 hour bus journey to Perito Moreno through the mountains and past glacial lakes. The lakes are milky in colour due to the glaciers constantly grinding away the bed rock, the particles being so fine they remain as a suspension, a kind of rock soup. The whole area is now a national park and the entrance is 100 pesos for gringos (40 for South Americans). The driver stops a little short of the destination at a corner that gives us the first view of the glacier. Although this is the smallest of the three primary glaciers here the size is still impressive – in fact it’s as big of Buenos Aires.

Perito Moreno at distance

We opt for a boat tour out on the lake to see the ice up close, it’s a tad touristy but it’s low season so there appears to be no smaller outfits and it’s busy. Taking our queue from German sunbathers we ensure we’re at the front of the line and head straight up to the top deck, rooting ourselves to the best spot. The glacier is an awesome sight, yet difficult to gauge its size as there is no point of reference. It’s not until we spot some glacial hikers making their way across the ice that we can truly see how big it is.

Perito Moreno from the boat

The sun is out and it’s almost warm but there is not a lot of activity from the ice. If you are lucky it is possible to see huge shelves of ice fall away creating mini tsunamis across the bay…maybe later. After the boat we make our way along a huge network of viewing platforms. You can actually get closer to the ice here than on the boat, and now we start to hear the cracking and creaking of ice, firing out like gun shots. It really is an incredible experience. Leah found a nice quiet spot on one of the lower walkways which was deserted and we set up camp with a nice cup of tea. Over the next few hours we were treated to a number of ‘falls’, where the ice breaks away as the glacier advances into the sea. The sights and sounds are truly awesome – we really went out of way to get here but it was well worth it. Everybody says it’s a highlight, not wrong.

Perito Moreno from the lower balconies

For the next few days we take some time out. The hostel is like a home from home so we take advantage. We spend our time around town and down at the shores of the nearby Nimez Lagoon, where there are flamingos and other feathered things to spot.

Nimez lagoon - Flamingos
Nimez lagoon - Flamingos

And as I said, it’s Easter so I’ve decided I’m going to make hot cross buns. Not an easy task, but after shopping around local supermarkets and spice shops we manage to cobble together a home made mixed spice and with a bit of flour and fresh yeast (three failed attempts with the yeast but we got there eventually) we turn out some very respectable buns, complete with that white cross on top that means something, I forget what.

Nice buns

I also had plans for some Easter eggs but the ATM networks are down so we have no cash and end up leaving this great place with about £30 in our pockets and not a single working credit card. We have a four hour bus followed a nine hour wait in our beloved Rio Gallegos before  a three hour plane to Buenos Aires. All part of the fun.

Ushuaia – the end of the world

After our epic journey from Bariloche to Rio Gallegos, we still had another 12 hour bus journey until our final destination, Ushuaia. Since Argentina and Chile share Tierra del Fuego, where Ushuaia sits, the trip involves passing out of Argentina, crossing the border into Chile, then coming back the other way again – a total of four passport controls plus the usual police check points at either end. Oh and just to add to the fun there’s also a ferry crossing to boot. So as well as being a rather long journey, it’s also rather tedious, having to get on and off the bus a lot, plus the scenery’s not much to speak of, except for our first llama sightings and several herds of sheep.

The end of the Americas

Ushuaia is pretty much as far south as you can go in South America and is the jumping off point for those lucky enough (and rich enough) to be heading on to Antarctica. Some people seem to baulk at the idea of heading down to Ushuaia outside of the December to March high season but to be honest I’m not really sure what all the fuss is about. Sure, it’s pretty chilly, but whilst we were there it only dipped below freezing at night and the days were beautifully sunny – I’ve seen plenty worse weather back home in London. Of course, July and August might be a bit too much to bear but there’s absolutely no reason not to visit in April and you’ll avoid the crowds at this time of year too.

Next stop - Antarctica

We were staying at the Haush Hostel – a couple of blocks from the centre of town and walking distance from the bus stop (there is no actual bus station in Ushuaia). It’s a cosy hostel with a nicely decorated, modern interior. We had a private double with a bathroom that was shared with just one other room. The only slight downside was that the walls were paper thin and we were right next to the kitchen and living room so you could pretty much hear every word of people’s conversations. Still, nothing a pair of earplugs couldn’t fix. Plus it’s warm and cosy and we even had a proper duvet – just what you are craving after a day out in the cold!! It was the most comfortable bed we’ve had so far on our trip.

The next morning, it was raining and the skies were looking pretty grey so after a quick reccie round town we decided to have a quiet afternoon in the hostel doing some research on some of our upcoming destinations. After grabbing a couple of sarnies from a local deli, we were just settling down when the rain stopped and the sun appeared from behind the clouds. Not wanting to waste the good weather, we promptly ate our lunch, grabbed our coats and the camera and jumped in a cab up to the Martial Glacier.

Up by the Martial Glacier

The glacier sits on top of a hill overlooking Ushuaia, 7km out of town. If you’re feeling fit, you can hike there yourself, but it’s a steep uphill trek so if you’re in less than peak physical condition then you can just take a taxi instead (costs about 25 pesos). Once you get to the top of the hill, you can trek up the mountainside quite easily, it’s not too steep. As you climb higher, edging closer to the glacier, the snow thickens and you find yourself crossing small streams and ice bridges. Look back down the mountain and you’ll see some spectacular views over the town and port, with the mountains in the background. We stopped short of the path onto the glacier itself as you need specialist equipment and strong winds were causing occasional white outs, so we thought as we were equipped with only trainers, jeans and a packet of chewing gum we had best head down for a cup of tea. But we still really enjoyed it and had a fantastic couple of hours up there. Of course, it’s nothing on the scale of Perito Moreno in El Calafate but it’s still an afternoon well spent for some beautiful scenery.

On the way down, we stopped at a lovely little tea shop for a cup of Earl Grey and a slice of cake. Don’t go to the rather bland cafe immediately on your right as you come down the mountain, cross over the other side of the car park for a much nicer ambience. They’ll even call you a cab to get back down the hill, although there may be a few already parked in the car park that you can just grab. We also ran into a rather lovely, albeit grumpy, St Bernard – gratuitous pic below.

Dog of the week

Rich was in need of meat, so that evening we dined at an all-you-can-eat parrilla restaurant. For 85 pesos (about £12) you could have your choice of lamb, chicken, steak, chorizo, straight off the barbecue, plus the other usual innards that we prefer to steer clear of, and as much as you liked from the salad and vegetable bar, as well as a dessert. After two ‘small’ (relatively speaking) helpings I was stuffed, but Rich managed to consume an impressive quantity of livestock!! The place was packed, and by the time we were finishing up there was a queue of people waiting for tables.

The following day the sun was still shining, so we decided to go out on a Beagle Channel boat tour. There are tons of operators down at the port with a wide array of boats available, all offering pretty much the same tours. Given the cold, we decided to opt for one of the larger, more comfortable boats instead of one of the small fishing vessels.

Snow capped mountains
View from the boat

In the high season, you can see penguins, but we were informed they’d left two days ago. We still got to see plenty of other birds though (mostly cormorants), plus some pretty awesome sealions!  The boat was surprisingly busy considering the lady at the tour desk had told us things were very quiet – it must be super-crowded in the high season. We had a pleasant, if rather chilly, trip lasting a couple of hours – the boat gets pretty close to the wildlife and there’s plenty of opportunities to take photos. It’s a shame we missed the penguins but I guess that’s one of the downsides to coming to Patagonia late in the season. Even so, it was a worthwhile trip which is a must if you are coming to Ushuaia.

Sealions
Sealions

On our final day, we opted for a fairly quiet one. We thought about heading out to Tierra del Fuego National Park but with the bus and the park entrance fee it worked out fairly expensive so we decided to give it a miss and catch up on the planning we were supposed to do on our first day. Besides, we had to be up at 4am to catch our bus back to Rio Gallegos…

Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse