In October, we completed a huge milestone, one year of travelling full time! But we didn’t give ourselves too much time to celebrate as we exited Peru and headed down South into Bolivia and Chile.
To date, our travels had been relatively peaceful, with only a few small incidents along the way. We were nearly refused entry into South Africa, broke down in the middle of the desert in Namibia, had our debit card cloned and sold onto the black market in Italy, almost had our laptops stolen in Ecuador and finally, had our camera ripped out of our hands in Colombia.
Actually, after listing them out like that, it’s clear that it wasn’t all smooth sailing and to be honest, those situations were all rather stressful. Still, we managed to overcome each of them quickly and move forward with our travels. But, as they say, all good things must come to an end. It was time to get a taste of extended travel stress!
Read on to find out why.
The lake at the top of the world
At the end of September, we left Cusco, having enjoyed a peaceful couple of weeks of culture, good food, exercise and beautiful scenery. We boarded a Bolivia Hop bus (part of the Peru Hop family) and headed south towards the border with Bolivia.
Our final stop in Peru was Puno, a small (and frankly uninspiring) town on the shores of Lake Titikaka, the highest navigable lake in the world. The main reason to visit Puno is to hop on a boat and explore the nearby natural and artificial islands that dot the lake. Apart from the town square, there’s nothing to see in Puno and, as we discovered, even that was under major renovation.
It’s a strange experience being on a boat at almost 4000 metres in altitude. Your body still feels the effects of the thin air but the lake is so huge that it almost feels like you’re out on the ocean. Then, whenever you try to climb some stairs or walk slightly uphill, you soon remember that you’re not.
After travelling overnight from Cusco we arrived in Puno very early in the morning. Exhausted, we slept almost the entire day. Early the next morning, we set off on a tour of the lake.
The Islands of Lake Titicaca
We’d organised a small overnight boat tour to the floating Uros Islands, Amantani and Taquille islands. It was a beautiful day and the waters were calm as we headed out of Puno’s port through a channel of yellow reed grass.
The Uros Islands are probably the best-known attraction on Lake Titicaca. These man-made islands are built out of the reed grass that is commonly found around the edge of the lake.
While it was interesting to learn how the islands are constructed and how the people live on them, unfortunately over the years they have become overly touristy. In fact, many of the island’s supposed inhabitants actually live on the mainland, commuting between it and the islands every day.
Our tour of one of these floating islands consisted of a brief demonstration of how it was built, followed by a request to see the island chief’s house. But that request was just a ploy to guilt us into buying their overpriced craft-wares by explaining just how much a new solar panel and battery for their home would cost.
It was one of those rather awkward travel situations where you try and delicately extract yourself without causing too much offence. Frankly, we couldn’t get back on the boat quickly enough!
A better experience on Amantani and Taquille
Amantani and Taquille are two of the natural islands on Lake Titicaca. We headed first to Amantani, where we stayed the night in the house of an indigenous family. This was a much more enjoyable experience.
While the family did get paid to host us and while the matron of the house did want to show us her “work” (i.e. sell us some cheap knitwear), there was no hard sell and the family was very welcoming and warm-hearted towards us. We were happy to buy some gloves and a beanie to help support them.
Our hosts’ house was rather rustic, to say the least and they certainly weren’t rolling in cash from the home-stays. The experience remained rather authentic and was the type of eco-tourism that is actually mutually beneficial. We had a good chance to learn about their way of life and in return, we helped improve it just a little.
The following day we explored nearby Taquille island, before heading back to Puno.
Crossing into Bolivia
The next day we re-boarded the Bolivia Hop bus and headed over the border into Bolivia. We stopped for a night at the little lakeside town of Copacabana where we had a lovely room in a hotel overlooking the lake.
We enjoyed wandering around Copacabana quite a lot, including a short hike up to the peak above the town for a great view. We could easily have spent a couple more nights there, just chilling by the lake.
Two things tarnished that experience a little though. The first was that the town was pretty dirty, in contrast to most places we’d visited in Peru. There was rubbish strewn all over the place.
The second was in the morning when we came across a street dog lying on the pavement who was slowly dying. A kind person had placed some crackers in front of him but he wasn’t touching them. It was heartbreaking. While in many ways street dogs lead a very carefree life, the flip-side is that they don’t live long and they often suffer towards the end of their lives.
That afternoon we took an overnight bus to La Paz, Bolivia’s capital.
Reaching greater heights in La Paz
As with many of the big cities we’ve visited, we weren’t sure what we’d make of La Paz. We’d allocated over a week there in an Airbnb in the centre of town but thought that might be too long.
To be honest, La Paz itself didn’t get us that excited. The food was pretty uninspiring compared to Peru’s, although it does have quite a few international restaurants. It’s not a bad city to walk around and it has a nice setting, nestled in amongst the mountains. But the main reason to visit La Paz is to explore the areas surrounding it.
We took a few day trips during our stay. The one that was the most fun was when we reached our highest altitude so far at 5400 metres. To be fair, we only walked the last 300 metres to reach the summit but still, it felt great up there and we had some amazing views out over the countryside. The drive up and down was also an experience. The road was very narrow, with steep drop-offs on one side.
Touring Sajama National Park and the Bolivian Salt Flats
Leaving La Paz, we headed out on a private tour with Banjo Tours to the Sajama National Park and the Bolivian Salt Flats. This is something we’d looking forward to for a while but we were a little apprehensive.
While on a walking tour in La Paz, we’d learned that Bolivia’s presidential elections would occur on the last day of our tour. That worried us a bit because the Bolivians are pretty passionate people and when they’re unhappy, they like to protest loudly and sometimes violently.
But as it turned out, we avoided any unrest in Bolivia (but they certainly had some a few weeks later!). The Sajama National Park was amazing and it felt like we were the only tourists there. The Salt Flats were also really cool and almost as empty.
In fact, our only concern as we arrived across the desert at the border with Chile was whether we’d have to pay the $US110 per person reciprocation fee that Chile charges Australians. We’d been travelling in South America on our Australian passports but hoped to use our EU passports to enter Chile and avoid the fee.
But our tour guide had suggested that the Chilean officials would want to use the same passport that had our Bolivian exit stamp in it. That meant we’d be paying the fee which luckily we had just enough US dollars for.
Fortunately for us, it turned out that the Chilean immigration officials couldn’t care less which passport we used to enter. They didn’t even want to see the exit stamp! They seemed a lot more interested in the game of football on the TV behind us. As we left the border and descended almost 1500 metres to the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama, we breathed a sigh of relief. Another bullet dodged!
Stuck in San Pedro de Atacama
We were very happy when we arrived a little while later at our hostel in San Pedro. But that didn’t last long. The girl at reception asked us whether we’d heard about the political unrest in Chile. We certainly hadn’t, especially since we’d had little mobile signal for the last two days. Plus, Chile was supposed to be one of the most stable countries in South America.
Fortunately, things were fairly calm in San Pedro. People were still protesting in the streets in solidarity with the rest of Chile but there was none of the violence and looting seen in the capital and other parts of the country.
For a few days, some protesters blocked the road to the airport in Calama but they soon realised that it wasn’t a smart long term play, given that tourism is such as huge part of the region’s income.
While the local protests caused us some interruptions and changes to tours we’d booked, we were more worried about what lay ahead. We were due to head to Santiago for a few days and then meet our friends from Australia at the airport and head down to Concon to celebrate Cindy’s 40th on the coast and in the nearby wineries just inland from Valparaiso.
No Chilling in Chile
But now we were worrying whether we should just cancel everything, tell our friends it wasn’t safe to come and head straight to Argentina. It was very hard to know what to do as it wasn’t clear how events were going to unfold.
Fortunately, we were able to make our way without trouble to Santiago. We cancelled the Airbnb we’d booked originally as it was right in the middle of the protests and opted for a cheap deal at a four-star hotel in the upmarket area of Las Condes.
Las Condes was like a little oasis in the middle of all the turmoil. If it wasn’t for a heavy police presence around the shopping malls, you’d hardly know there was any trouble. We spent the time shopping and relaxing by the pool, with only one outing to do some wine tasting.
Celebrating another milestone
Our friends had decided to chance it and still fly to Chile to meet us. So, after picking them up at the airport, we headed down to Concon. Over the next few days, we managed to avoid the nearby protests but only just. One day we headed to the wineries via a seemingly peaceful Vina Del Mar, only to watch the news that evening and see violent protests and looting happening just twenty minutes down the road.
Still, we did manage to enjoy the coast, climb some massive sand dunes and spend some time relaxing in some wineries, enjoying some excellent Chilean wine.
Escaping to the Elqui Valley
After farewelling our friends at Santiago airport, we hopped on a short flight to La Serena and then took a local bus straight into the nearby Elqui Valley to spend some time in the pretty little town of Vicuña. Unlike Santiago, Vicuña and the valley were quite tranquil. We spent our time exploring the town and had one day riding through the valley on bicycles, stopping at Pisco distilleries, wineries and breweries along the way.
Avoiding Tear Gas in La Serena
Afterwards, we headed to La Serena, a biggish town on the coast. But if we’d known what was to await us, we wouldn’t have bothered. La Serena had previously been a bit of a hotbed of unrest but we’d heard that it had calmed down. However, we arrived there to find that it was again in turmoil and that our hostel was only two blocks from where all the action happened.
Each night at around 6 pm, the protests started up again and later, at around 8 pm, you could hear the sounds of the police breaking up the protests with tear gas. Fortunately, our hotel was again a bit of an oasis but all the unrest meant that none of the restaurants were open except down on the beach.
Trouble on Easter Island
After returning to Santiago for the night, we boarded a plane bound for Easter Island. This was somewhere we’d always wanted to go. We’d been tossing up whether to head there on this trip because the airfares were so expensive. But Cindy found some reasonably cheap flights, so we bit the bullet and booked them.
It was wonderful to arrive on the island, escaping the stress of mainland Chile. The only sign of the political turmoil we could find there was a couple of menu boards with some messages of solidarity. No rioting and no tear gas!
Easter Island is pretty small but there are lots to explore. The island’s famous statues (Moai) are spread out across the coastland and into the interior. So we decided to hire a car for a couple of days and explore ourselves, rather than take a tour.
On our first full day, we covered a lot of ground. We especially loved our visit to one of the quarries where the Moai had been carved before being transported to their final resting places. You could still see unfinished Moai in various stages of completion. They’d been abandoned as the island’s civilisation collapsed.
Breaking a Leg
At the end of the day, we decided to check out a couple of the island’s beaches. Unfortunately, that’s when disaster struck. While walking along a path beside the first beach we visited, Cindy slipped and fell, breaking her leg. With the help of some fellow travellers and locals, we got her safely back to the car and to the island’s hospital.
However, that’s when we discovered that Chile’s political problems had spread more than we’d realised. Most of the hospital was on strike, in support of mainland protests and the emergency room was being staffed by a skeleton crew. We didn’t leave the hospital until nearly 11 pm that night, with Cindy’s leg break confirmed and her leg in a cast.
Over the next few days, in consultation with our travel insurance provider, we decided to return to Australia early and get her leg checked out properly. We couldn’t be assured of getting first-class treatment on the island or even back in Santiago given the political turmoil.
We had a long flight home. First, we flew from Easter Island backwards to Santiago and spent a few hours at the airport. Then we flew another thirteen hours back to Melbourne.
On arrival, my dad drove us straight to the hospital near my parents home, to get Cindy’s leg properly assessed. We were expecting that this would just take the day and that we could return home with some idea of how her rehabilitation would progress.
Unfortunately, things again didn’t turn out quite how we envisaged. During an Xray of her ankle to check for ligament damage, Cindy collapsed and convulsed. After she was stabilised in the hospital’s ICU, it was discovered that she had a massive pulmonary embolism, large blood clots in her lungs. Her condition was extremely serious. If she hadn’t been at the hospital when she collapsed, she may not have survived.
The decision was made to transfer her to the Alfred hospital, Melbourne’s premier trauma hospital, to undergo clot-busting treatment. After a couple more stressful days in their ICU, her condition improved enough for her to move to a normal ward. Fortunately, because she’d been treated in a foreign hospital, she was assigned to an isolation protocol which meant she had a room all to herself!
She made a very steady recovery and the consulting haematologist was surprised by her quick progress. After a week she was released from the hospital and is getting better day by day. Still, she has a long recovery ahead of her.
One of the unfortunate long term consequences of the blood clot was that we had to decide to forgo surgery on a torn ligament in her ankle. It was just too risky given her condition. This means that she may get arthritis of the ankle later in life that would impair her ability to hike. Sometimes life doesn’t present you with easy choices.
So that’s the end of our full time travels for a little while. We have to focus on Cindy’s recovery. But it certainly doesn’t mean an end to travelling. I couldn’t stop Cindy hopping back on a plane, even if I wanted to!