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Our Marching Powder Moment

20150110-154730.jpg Gone were our days of sipping on Pina Coladas and countless bikini’s hugging our bodies underneath crocheted knits. It was time to head south, first stop- La Paz. I never thought I would find myself flying into one of the most dangerous airports in the world, heading straight for the highest capital city on the planet. I’ve always been infatuated by this city through documentaries, tourist guides and friend’s stories- often experiencing it from the comfort of my own home. In terms of South America, we jumped head first into the melting pot of culture, tradition and something a far cry from our own lifestyle. Sitting at 4000m above sea level, La Paz is one of the only cities where the rich live below the poor, and (noticeable in this 21st century world) where wifi is literally non-existent. A few years ago I had read the notorious crime novel Marching Powder, explaining the life of the drug underworld and the narrator’s experience in the famous San Pedro Prison. This to me, painted an all-too realistic perspective of what I should except La Paz to offer- drugs, corruption and even more drugs.

On our last day we ventured across town to witness the prison doors open as women and children filed in, and having read the book recognising this was not in fact ‘visiting hours’ but a common site for passers by. San Pedro is home to 1,500 inmates at a time, and famous for its ability to function as a society behind the iron gates. San Pedro Prison is the epicentre of drug trafficking, and from what i’ve read (and now seen) a real-life representation of South America’s corruption and underworld. After being ushered along by the guards and waved to from a small window by one of the inmates- us three girls were well on our way. The dialled-down glamour demanded by this cold concrete jungle forced us into the Witches markets where we purchased the latest collection of Alpaca scarves and tasselled beanies. Once feeling in tune with the locals and dressed in the finest local produce, we explored this backwards city with more ease.

Death Road

Plucked straight from the metropolitan buzz and plunged into the Bolivian jungle, we found ourselves staring over the edge of the world’s most dangerous road. Known as Camino de las Yungas, or more famously ‘Death Road’, there seemed to be an uneasy pattern emerging, as La Paz boasted ‘the world’s worst’ of everything they had to offer. We were almost breathless with excitement when faced with the prospect of mountain biking down the gravel stricken path, yet excitement soon turned to anxiety and we happily cemented ourselves at the back of the pack. While we tried to forget what our fate would be welcomed with just a metre over the edge, our hands turned numb from clenching the brakes so tightly, and overcome by the bitter sweet feeling of looking out at the most dense jungle on earth. The road stretches 61 kilometres from La Paz into the jungle, and ascends 4,650m high, with most of the road only wide enough to fit a single vehicle. Now despite the obvious lack of signs, emergency vehicles or any form of safety, our guides assured us that road rules applied. Vehicles coming downhill were always on the outside, only inches away from plunging over the edge, but safety measures in place assured that all those travelling upward would slow down, stop and carefully wait until the other had passed.

While i’ll never wrap my head around why this road ever became the busiest gateway of traffic into La Paz, it’s even more foreign to me that guides and locals alike drive past graves and crosses each day, a constant reminder of the dangers involved, tempting fate each day on the job. Most of the time when signing up for tourist activities, little risk is involved- whether it be in the form of wearing a helmet or hiring a safety harness. In hindsight, I doubt many cities today would boast of this sort of thrill without being wrapped in cotton wool and smothered by OH&S regulations- and only those who sign their life away on legitimate contracts would be crazy enough to take part. I suppose a week in La Paz made us numb to things we take for granted back home- a sense of safety and even more comforting- help when things go wrong. This perhaps explains, and justifies our slow pace, and much to our Mother’s horror, the fact three girls can now boast we survived Death Road, as sadly many tourists don’t return to tell their tales.

Salar de Uyuni

La Paz’s luck is seen in the form of the natural wonder of the Salt Flats, as it provides the gateway to Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt flats in the world. If it weren’t for this 10,500 square kilometres of white, Bolivia would be pining for it’s much needed attention. We began our adventure with a 10 hour bus ride along dirt-stricken roads with not a street light or sign to be seen. Due to the bumpiness I considered myself lucky enough to watch both the moon shimmer and the sun rise, as I sat embracing each Bolivian bump the road had to offer. Uyuni represented a town straight out of Pixar’s Rango, where tumble weed was a constant site and the town’s grid-lock roads stretched as far as the eye could see. Our three day tour weaved across what seemed like half the country, even making it to see the Chilean border to the West and just scrapping shy of Argentina further South. It was some of the most vast and empty landscape I had ever seen, comparing it to Australia’s outback and laughing at the prospect of having our own salt flats back home, yet justifying the 30-plus hours to set our eyes on Bolivia’s. After falling victim to countless tourist photos and marvelling at the all-white horizon, we were in our jeep again making our way over the salt flats. Next stop brought us to Incahuasi ‘Island’, actually the remains of the top of a volcano, and home to some of the biggest cacti species on earth.

The night was spent in local lodgings, where the abundance of salt was evident in the fact the entire building was made of salt bricks- surprisingly insulating from the cold, yet worrying with the rain and lighting outside. Electricity was out all night, so candlelight surpassed while we played cards and drank cinnamon tea offered to us by the locals. Day two provided us with more Bolivian eye candy, highlights being the Laguna Colorado- famous for its rich red colour and the flamingos who call it home. On the outfit front, we were being showed-up by the locals themselves, as these top-heavy birds supported by their stick legs stuck out like sore thumbs- as they sported their fluffy pink winter coats with arrogance and grandeur.

Although thankful to get back to the flurry and mayhem of La Paz, the south brought with it a sense of serenity and calmness. It was a place so clearly anticipated in my mind and over saturated by tourist photos that it was hardly surprising how beautiful it was in the flesh. There is something special in the fact that this corner of the world cannot be reached with ease or visited in style, nor viewed from the comfort of luxury transport. It’s beauty is summed up in the rawness of the endless landscape and it’s lack of civilisation- the dust on my clothes a constant reminder of this unique experience and one cemented as highlight so far. 20150109-093923.jpg
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Thoughts from Cartagena

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Having visited Cartagena a week ago, makes us feel as if we’ve discovered South America’s secret, just as Mykonos was to Europe, and like Bali was to Australia pre their tourist influxes. We reached Cartagena’s coastline early morning and with sea-legs we stepped off the boat, gladly welcoming the somewhat bizarre ‘immigration’ checkpoint- a black Escalade parked on the street. We graced Colombia’s shores at what seemed like the perfect time of year, witnessing the Latino glitz and the glam flock to Cartagena’s watering holes and terraced villas. The city is blessed with an Old Town infrastructure, providing a base which condenses Colombia’s culture down to the tiniest of details. From the bougainvillea clad balconies, the tiled cathedrals and the women selling fruit sporting the traditional dress- frills and all. It reminded me a lot of the South of France in the summertime, where original old buildings were being taken advantage of by concept stores, gelato stands and more boutique hotels to house the country. Despite the overwhelming existence of tourism and visitors, Cartagena remained true to herself- proud of her architecture and culture and all she had to offer us.

Our days would consist of morning walks, followed by cathedral spotting and terrace watching, doing circles around ourselves but spying something new each time. We were staying in the San Pedro district, where houses were no more than two stores high and the colonial manors opened into little courtyards exposing tiled pools and sandstone Juliet balconies. A Cartagena Christmas consisted of fairy lights, ceviche and lots of salsa music. Although an art form we haven’t yet mastered, being part of the audience gave us enough insight into their Spanish roots- embodied in a dance which appears so effortlessly passionate.

Stay
Casa San Augustin
Casa Lomo Hostel (Minca)
La Passion
Agua

Shop
Galeria Cano
St Elmo
Onda De Mar
Kanowa
Casa Chiqui
Vilebrequin

Eat
Mila
La Paleteria
Rosita Benedetti Bakery
Donjuan
Di Silvio Trattoria
Ceviche restaurant
La Vitrola
Juan Del Mar

Drink
La Movida
Cafe Havana
Laboratorie

After a few days downtown we took advantage of our time and ventured upto Santa Marta en route to Minca (4 hours away by bus). Known for it’s coffee and vast jungle, the change of scenery was well needed- and from what we soon found out- well deserved! The bus picked us up early morning, and running on Colombian time of course, it wasn’t until midday we were on our way. Arriving in Santa Marta cemented it as nothing more than a gateway to it’s surrounding (much more desirable) neighbours. After a taxi ride with little words exchanged and a local Jeep to take us upto Minca, we were dropped off broad daylight with a wooden sign pointing dauntingly uphill towards our Casa Lomo Hostel. A fifteen minute hike brought us up to what appeared to be Peter Pan’s tree house- where locals were the Lost Boys, and us…Wendy. It was worth the view over the jungle below, stretching down to Santa Marta, and a Wifi free zone cleansed our Instagram feeds and forced some worthwhile chat. Our accommodation for the night were hammocks attached underneath of what appeared to be Minca’s first class treehouse, where we cocooned ourselves in for the night deep in Colombia’s famous jungle, just as Wendy did when escaping reality to Neverland.

While up in Minca we took a three hour trek up to La Victoria coffee plantation, followed by a much deserved swim in the waterfall below. We reached almost 4000m, just shy of being able to see the snow capped glaciers in the distance. Being up there makes you appreciate Colombia’s beauty- embodied in the fact that the sea and the snow are found only a few hours apart- seeming almost a mile away when you can’t see the other.

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Bringing back the Panama Hat

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A thirty hour open ocean crossing, the best coffee to grace our taste buds, and enough tiled mosaics to mimic the Taj Mahal- Panama earnt itself some brownie points.

Our Belize experience ended in an Argo fashion- as we held our breath leaving the smallest tarmac claimed by Belize City’s airport. We were up in the air en route to Panama City, when (rather dramatically) hitting International airspace was a bitter sweet moment, we were heading south, and Central America could nearly be ticked off our list completely.

Touching down in Panama City just after midnight, we were herded through customs amongst a cheering crowd to welcome home what was thought to be an obviously successful local sports team. While we were warned of Panama’s risks and dangers, and had only been given mediocre feedback by fellow travellers- our attitude was optimistic from the get go. We stayed just outside the Old City’s quarters, where half-renovated high risers loomed over the tiny bit of history the capital city still had to brag of. Our one day was spent exploring the Casco Viejo (Spanish for Old Quarter), also known as San Felipe and completed in 1973 after undergoing reconstruction from pirate attacks- now humbly claiming the title as a World Heritage Site. If it weren’t for the constant reminder of the San Blas Island tours in the form of posters, immersing ourselves beneath the colonial balconies and lace-iron doors gave the impression we were in fact in Spain herself. Each floor was lined with traditional mosaic tiles, doorways seemed small enough to be right out of The Hobbit movie set, and the numerous Plazas marked by their given Cathedral created the background of a Spanish feature film. By all means it wasn’t all crisp and manicured, with the occasional gutted buildings reminding the visitors of the city’s brutal history. This to me, was synonymous to what Barcelona embodies- narrow cobbled streets, the locals matter-of-fact attitude, and a constantly fast pace. If you have a moment to spare in this neck of the woods, let Panama City be your gateway to your next American (be it Central or South) destination.

With a 4:30am start, we found ourselves at a lonesome supermarche in downtown Panama City, where we loaded our luggage and were buckled into a 4WD. It wasn’t until mid way through the Panama Jungle that we fully appreciated the size of our vehicle (and the skill of the driver), experiencing one of those moments where watching the road deludes you into thinking you’re most definitely more in control of the outcome, when in fact you’re simply cargo amongst a production line of tourists. After an hour of winding and dipping (and a few makeshift passport checks) we arrived at the tip of a river’s fork- where one way led straight to the Caribbean Sea and another back down town. We continued to be herded onto a smaller boat, and after life jackets were handed our way and bags strapped in- we were taking things seriously this time. Although drenched and shaken, we soon realised this pre-arrival stint was nothing compared to what was to come, our thoughts hovering on the 40+ hour crossing we had ahead of us.

Cue the white sand, palm trees and enter Captain Jack Sparrow- we had stepped into a movie set, this time swapping our Argo anxiety for rum, starfish and the sprinkled islands which made up the famous San Blas archapeligo. We spent three days aboard the infamous Sailing Koala yacht, a vessel experienced in the waters having made this particular crossing three times a month for the past year. The days were spent sailing between white-sand beaches- some no bigger than a small car. Others were so perfect to the naked eye it could have been used for Disney’s Madagascar’s adventures, where palm trees hung gently over the water’s edge and there was so little human life it remained dictated by the flora and fauna. We took advantage of the sun’s light, finding ourselves walking around the landmass more times than one, stopping at bamboo huts, piglet pens and infatuated by the local kids.

Our forty hour crossing started on the afternoon of the third day, where we literally sat staring into the pitch black ahead of us as we were bounced upppp, and downnnn consistently for two days. If it weren’t for each other’s company or our pack of Belize-labelled cards we would have had (an even worse) case of cabin fever. Poseidon was on our side, and we were lucky enough the swell was considerably ‘small’ enough that our captain allowed us a mid-crossing swim, and as we jumped in, rope in hand, and Jaws soundtrack on playback in one’s head, it was hard to believe where we were.

Interestingly enough, the open ocean proved more exciting than we thought, where flying fish were a constant sign that life still existed somewhere out there, and huge polystyrene crates continuously floated by us- later realising they were in fact full to the brim of cocaine. Just another reminder of Colombia’s Cartel reputation. We were all snapped out of our mirages when the horizon exposed a pod of nearly one hundred dolphins jumping towards the boat. It wasn’t long until they were chasing the front, the water so clear we could see each twisting and turning as if putting on a rehearsed show for their audience they were always expecting. Apart from the motor conking out two miles off Cartagena’s coast, we had made it. With city lights an arm’s length away, I’ve never been happier to see a coastline before. With mobile reception back on the cards and daylight presenting us with one of the most magical cities we had ever seen, we all agreed, Cartagena was well worth the wait.

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