Fine dining: Astrid y Gaston, Lima, Peru

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Peru is famous as a foodie destination, so before the hubby and I came to Lima we knew we wanted to try some high-end grub, so we booked ahead and budgeted accordingly (compared to London prices are reasonable but it’s far from cheap).

First on the list was Central by Virgilio Martinez (blog to come). Second was the  well-known and established Astrid y Gaston, named after the husband and wife team behind the restaurant.

It was this year named the 30th best restaurant in the world by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in the World list .

Since it’s relocation to a 300-year-old Colonial house in the plush San Isidro neighbourhood of Lima it is easier to get a reservation. Even so, we booked a month ahead and were still not seated in the main dining room of the house but on the balcony area where old fashioned heaters fended off the cold. They did a good job, Lima’s winter is very mild, though for ambiance I probably would have preferred being sat inside the dining room.

We opted for the Menu G’ thirteen-course tasting menu with wine pairing (385 soles/ £88 for the food and extra for the wine pairing, I can’t remember how much now, though I think it was around £40). There’s also a shorter, cheaper menu (240 soles/ £55).

According to the restaurant’s website, the ethos behind the restaurant is to ‘promote Peruvian food to the world’.

Ironically then, the second dish – the homemade bread and spreads – was one of my favourites.  Ask any Western traveller and they’ll tell you Peru isn’t known for tasty bread, more like dry tasteless bread, but the variety and quality of the bread and spreads we were served were simply delicious. No dryness to be found, tons of moisture and flavour. It’s often hard to find good bread in South America so I was really missing some top quality ‘pan’ (bread in Spanish) by this point in the trip.

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Bread plate.

I also loved the limeno ceviche with sweet potato – clean and fresh. But with good quality fish it’s hard to go wrong with ceviche, the dish Peru is most famous for.

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Lemeno ceviche.

I didn’t like the sea urchin because I just don’t like sea urchin at all, it has a disgusting harsh flavour,  but my husband enjoyed it.

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Sea urchin .

Surprisingly the vegetable ceviche was even better than the fish ceviche, the vegetables were crunchy and bursting with different flavours, many I’ve never had before. Don’t ask me what vegetables are in there because I couldn’t tell you!

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Vegetable ceviche.

Continuing with the Peruvian theme three types of guinea pig were served. Guinea pig is the Peruvian national dish and can be found everywhere in Peru. It’s typically eaten on special occasions. I’m actually not a big fan of the taste of guinea pig – it has a fairly strong flavour.

I didn’t like the steamed guinea pig because you could really just taste the meat and nothing else.

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Steamed guinea pig.

I loved the guinea pig dumpling, however, mostly because I love dumplings and the guinea pig favour was disguised somewhat from the soy based sauce. The third guinea pig did, however, have a nice crispy skin, which was really nice.

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Guinea pig dumpling.

Other standout dishes included the suckling pig with quinoa and the pacific fish, fresh and perfectly cooked.

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Pacific fish.

However, one of the best dishes has to be the pudding,  which was expertly put together and simply delicious. The cream was velvety and rich and the doughnut crunchy on the outside and soft and gooey on the inside.

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chocolate, lemon and oregano dessert

The wine pairing was decent enough, though I’ve had better. There were a few too many sweet wines for my taste, though sweet wine is what Peruvians make and like to drink, so that’s perhaps why.  Also, I thought they gave rather small servings of wine for the price. As seems to be fashionable in Latin America, the pairing also included a beer . The waiter also promised to give us a list of the wines but forgot and I forgot to remind him.

The service was a little intense at times. Very unlike me I had a bad stomach (in my family I’m well known for inheriting my nan’s iron stomach. Let’s just say she laughed in the face of ‘best before dates’) but on this occasion I had to visit the toilet quite regularly and the kitchen clearly didn’t want to wait for me because often I’d come back and a plate of food would be waiting for me.

I generally prefer a relaxed service but apart from that everything was explained well to us.

On the plus side the toilets were lovely and the deserve a mention for being unusual. Similar to Sketch and the Crazy Bear in London they were pod-like and covered in mirrors for a confusing – it was hard to distinguish the door to each cubicle – but dazzling effect.

At the end of the meal we were presented with a big wooden box full of chocolates, of which we could pick five. I thought this was a very nice and memorable end to the meal.

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Picking only five was a challenge.

Overall, I had a lovely evening and enjoyed 85% of everything we were served and would definitely recommend a visit.

The owner, Astrid Gutsche, also stopped by our table and checked if we were warm enough.

When we finally left the staff ordered us a taxi, but the taxi charged us 30 soles (around £6), which was three times more expensive than the one that brought us there. We felt like we were getting ripped off a bit there!

Overall rating: a 7/10.

If you enjoy reading my blogs or find them useful please like and share!  :) You can also follow me on Twitter @Heidivel or Instagram @heidihihohi.

Also, please feel free to ask me any travel questions you may have or to share your own travel experiences.

 

El Totumo Mud Volcano, Cartagena, Colombia

‘Bathe in the healing properties of natural, mineral-rich volcanic mud‘ said the leaflet, showing pictures of happy, bikini-clad tourists caked head to foot in mud and smiling from ear to ear.

Oooooooo, that sounds good, we’ll try that, I said to my husband enthusiastically. So I booked the trip to El Totumo Mud Volcano via our hostel, Mammallena, in Cartegena, Colombia.

We were picked up in the morning, along with other tourists from our hotel, and driven an hour to the volcano. On the way, we passed beautiful tropical scenery of lush green bush and towering palm trees.

Having missed the in-car explanation of what would happen when we reached the volcano because, these days, I can’t stay awake in a moving vehicle for longer than ten minutes, I had no idea what was about to happen.

Once there, we were taken into a little building with outside toilets and showers and some tables and chairs and told, very matter-of-factly, to take our clothes off (apart from our bikinis, of course) and put all our valuables in a plastic bag to be locked away. For 4,000 COP (£1) we could give our cameras to a man who would take our pictures while we were in the mud bath.

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Volcán del Totumo

Outside I searched for the volcano. What I found were two fairly steep wooden stairs leading to a little peak. I’ve climbed volcanos and this didn’t really look like one, more like a reasonably large mound. 

When instructed to we climbed the stairs to the peak.

When I saw the roughly four metres squared mud filled crater of the volcano and the many tourists rammed into it, one a big hairy man being scrubbed and massaged by a local guy (for an extra fee), I began to think this wasn’t going to be the relaxing beautify experience I thought it would be.

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‘Errr, no massage thanks’

As one tourist came out another was ushered in. When it was my turn I slid down into the mud, which felt like a grainy, watery syrup. A local man was there waiting for me. Lie back he demanded.

‘Err ok,’ I said duly compiling because I wasn’t sure what else to do.

He began massaging the back of my thighs with one hand and the back of my neck with another.

‘Put your head right back’

‘No, I don’t want to get my hair muddy’

‘Do it’

No, I don’t want a massage,’ I said as politely as possible.

Displeased, he pushed me with force into the other tourists at the other end of the crater.

I was quickly pushed back by the tourists. As I tried to gain my balance in the gloppy mud while bumping into people  I grimaced inside thinking this perhaps isn’t the most hygienic situation. 

More people entered but I was still trying to balance myself. For some unknown reason I couldn’t keep legs down, like in a normal pool, to gently paddle. Every time I pushed my legs down into the mud something beyond my control pushed them back up and I’d go bashing into someone.

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The struggle commences…

Apparently, I was the only one having this problem. My husband tried to force my legs down as I clung onto him for dear life but they just sprang right back up again. 

What’s wrong with you?’ He questioned me, puzzled.

‘I don’t know’ I said, at this point feeling like Karl Pilkington from An Idiot Abroad.

I resolved to just float, making myself as small as possible.

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The struggle continues…

Then a British girl shouted ‘Ewww!’ and flicked a used plaster onto my finger.

Get me out of here, quickly! I thought. 

Fortunately, we were only allowed a mere five minutes in the mud bath before we were ushered out to make room for the now long line of tourists waiting to get in.

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Just float and don’t move…

Once out the mud bath, a man wiped off the excess mud from my legs, stomach and arms and I followed the others to a nearby a swampy lake area where women were washing the mud off the tourists with brownish water scooped from big blue plastic barrels.

I sat waiting on a plastic crate for my turn to be washed, effectively, like a grown toddler.

With vigour and efficiency, a skinny, old  woman threw water at me, down my bikini top, which she jiggled about ferociously, and over my face, which she scrubbed with her bare hands. 

She scrubbed my arms, stomach and neck. Her hands worked so quickly I didn’t have time to object as she pulled my bikini top from side to side sloshing water down my cleavage and nearly exposing my breasts to the world.

She ushered me to stand up and started scrubbing my legs and throwing water down bikini bottoms, yanking then from all angles as the water kept coming.

At one point she slid her skinny fingers into my pants to pull down the crotch in order to let the water she threw down the top pass through.

Once finished she tied a ribbon saying ‘Maria’ around my wrist, which I assumed was her name.

‘Gracias Maria, I think…’

She smiled at me in a motherly way and ushered me back up the way I came with a gentle push to the small of my back. I assume the wristband was so I’d remember to pay her the 4,000 COP (£1) for her motherly scrub down. 

After my husband had the same treatment we walked together back up to the building in order to reclaim our belongings and our dignity.

‘Well, at least it helps the local community, I suppose’ he said.

Yes, that’s one positive…

So, after being touched rather intimately by several Colombians and splashing about in a most likely germ-ridden mud bath for five minutes like a clumsy buffoon, it was time to head back to Cartagena.

The only good thing about the trip was meeting other travellers who we went out with that night.

Notes for fellow travellers: save the 45,000 COP (about £12) the trip costs and buy yourself several beers instead.

If you enjoy reading my blogs or find them useful please like and share!  :) You can also follow me on Twitter @Heidivel or Instagram @heidihihohi.

Also, please feel free to ask me any travel questions you may have or to share your own travel experiences.

 

El Alto, La Paz, Bolivia – Cholita wrestling, shamans and the afterlife

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Mortally hungover after staggering in at 5am the night before, we turned up outside the now shut down Oliver’s English Tavern on a Sunday afternoon for the Red Cap extended walking tour.

After some confusion caused by half of the group meeting in the bar next to Oliver’s and the rest of us waiting on the street, we finally joined together and started the walking tour.

Heading towards our first destination down La Paz’s annoyingly narrow pavements we stumbled upon an unconscious man who was blocking our path. A posh English girl walking next to me, looking concerned, said to me ‘do you think he’s alright? Should we help him?’ The guy had clearly passed out after consuming some cheap but highly potent alcohol cocktail. At that present moment all I could think was that I knew exactly how the poor fella must feel, I felt something similar just hours ago. In fact, I was quite envious he was sleeping it off while I was lethargically shuffling along the streets of La Paz.

Seeing the English girl’s concern and my sympathetic look, his equally drunk but still conscious mate sitting across the street shouted something in Spanish along the lines of ‘don’t worry, he’s ok’ so the English girl and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and continued to walk around the unconscious man.

I’ve noticed that it’s not unusual to see drunks in Bolivia and Chile, though I don’t recall seeing any in Argentina. In Chile we saw one guy walk straight into a massive billboard sign that he surely would have seen had he been sober enough. He knocked himself right to the ground. It was hard not to immediately laugh but also very sad considering it was eleven in the morning.

The life of the dead

The Red Cap tour headed first to La Paz’s massive public cemetery. Our guide told us that people in La Paz bury their dead here, paying a yearly fee, for the first five years after their death. During this time Bolivians believe that the dead are still with them.

After five years they ‘don’t care’ – the guide’s words not mine – what happens to the remains of their loved ones because they believe that if you still mourn the dead after that period the dead can’t move on to the afterlife. Seems like quite a nice philosophy to me.

An interesting and rather sexy mural at La Paz general cemetery.

An interesting and rather sexy mural at La Paz general cemetery.

After this period burial plots are served eviction notices, which we saw plastered to the little windows of some graves, and eventually evicted. The remains are then buried in a common mass grave keeping only the skulls which are then adopted by families.

These are known as natitas. They’re kept for good luck and treated like idols by their adopted families who give them offerings. People believe the skulls represent the souls of the dearly departed and that giving them offerings and treating them with respect will protect their houses and businesses. The skulls are from random people and not the skulls of their loved ones.

Once a year in November the natitas are celebrated and honoured in a sort of ‘Day of the Dead’ festival that takes place at the cemetery. I absolutely love the idea of a day of the dead festival, a day for everyone to come together and remember their deceased loved ones with a big party.

On this particular Sunday in La Paz’s general cemetery people were just hanging around, chatting and relaxing like they usually do in one of the country’s many plazas. It was much more of a busy, bustling vibe rather than a subdued and peaceful one like at the cemetery in Sucre.

After the cemetery we took the cable car up to El Alto, a separate town to La Paz and where the very poor people live.

The cable car to El Alto.

The cable car to El Alto.

I hate cable cars. I know it is an irrational fear, but I dislike heights and I can’t understand the mechanics behind them – it’s a big box hanging off a piece of wire…how is this safe?!

The cable car in La Paz, however, is perhaps the most modern looking thing I have seen throughout the whole of Bolivia. It was built by socialist President Evo Morales to connect the richer South part of the city with the poorer North and is actually a fantastic idea. The cable cars float above the city bypassing traffic, endless steep hills, and reducing pollution. They’re said to be the safest way to travel around La Paz – the system is built by Austrians not Bolivians – and the government are already planning to build several more lines.

They are not for the faint-hearted though, they go incredibly high, almost vertical at some points as they climb the lofty edge of the city to reach El Alto.

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But Bolivians are hardy people who live mostly at altitude and aren’t daunted by this at all, unlike me. Disembarking at El Alto after a 15 minute journey where I avoided looking down the entire time there was a line almost a kilometre long to get on the cable cars and back down to the city.

El Alto

According to our guide, El Alto is home to the biggest open air market in Latin America (though I’ve also heard this claim made in Peru).

I love markets but even this one was too much for me. People cajole and hustle trying to get past each other. There’s the regular stall holders set up in rows and others pushing carts past the hordes of people selling all sorts of random stuff. I saw one cart peddling only plastic spray bottles and another hair clips. Everything can be bought here. Our guide claims his sister bought a brand new, genuine Louis Vuitton bag for the equivalent of £10 at the market, though I’m not sure I believe him.

The smell of fat frying from stalls selling fried fish and chicken with rice fills the market air, though it looks reasonably tempting we were told not to eat anything from the market as even people from La Paz can’t stomach El Alto food.

Shaman's street for coca leaves reading.

Shaman’s street for coca leaves reading.

I was quite glad to get out the market even if it was onto a dirty, dusty street lined with mini-bomb fires.

This street was dedicated to Aymara shamans who read coca leaves. They reside in little wooden huts lined up one by one. The bonfire outside each hut is for burning offering such as sweets and other things to Pachamama (mother earth) for good luck. According to Aymara beliefs to become a shaman you must be struck by lightening and have survived. (If you’re interested in this sort of thing you can find out more in Mario Vargas Llosa’s fiction story Death in the Andes which I have just read and can recommend).

Shaman's hut.

Shaman’s hut.

According to our guide, some people come here daily to have their future told or to seek direction and guidance by the coca leaves if they have a big decision to make. It’s taken so seriously there is a whole street devoted to it, not that it was very busy on this Sunday afternoon. Mostly there were just men chatting and drinking beer by bonfires. I noticed one of the men offered some beer to an American guy in our group who politely declined. The Bolivian man insisted but still the American refused and the Bolivian man was very offended by this, throwing the beer aggressively on the floor. 

It’s interesting that although Bolivians are now predominantly a Catholic population due to the country’s colonisation by the Spanish, many people, mostly the indigenous Indians who make up the majority of Bolivia’s population,  still follow their own rituals and beliefs from their indigenous heritage, such as making offering to idols and shamans. In the ancient past offerings of mostly girls and children would be made to the mountain gods when building a new structure or road, for example, as they believed the mountains to be very powerful.

Lady selling offerings.

Lady selling offerings.

It’s understandable how people would believe the mountains to be powerful when you consider that a landslide could kill thousands of people at any time.

Our guide said there are suspicions that sacrifices still happen, that bodies of people have, years later, been found under modern buildings. He thinks builders might find a street alcoholic, get them extremely drunk and when they’re sufficiently out-of-it bury them under the foundations of the new building. This is all speculation of course.

Cholita Wresting

Finally, to end our tour it was time for some afternoon Cholita wrestling. Yes, little women in their Cholita outfits – ankle length, wide rimmed skirts and tights – ‘wrestling’ each other.

It’s a bit silly and touristy, though lots of locals do come with their kids to watch. The premise is usually an older lady pitted against a younger, more beautiful lady who gets ‘beaten up’ by the older women, only to come back and win the fight at the end. They’re not really hurting each other, though they certainly get thrown high in the air and slammed down quite ferociously.

Cholita wrestling.

Cholita wrestling.

It all gets a bit raucous when the wrestlers come off the stage and into the arena threatening to spray fizzy drinks over those who boo them. They never actually do this to the tourists but the locals certainly get fizz in their face. The audience throw meat bones and fruit in return. I nearly got hit by a couple of T-bones a few times.

Old men wrestling young men also takes place following the same pretence. The cutest thing, though, is how the children idolise the young wrestlers, clinging onto them as they leave the stage and asking them for autographs.

Locals watch the wrestling.

Locals watch the wrestling.

As part of the ticket tourists get a free drink, a little souvenir and a bag of popcorn.

And that was the end of the tour!

More reading…

You can also read about Death Road just outside of La Paz here.

You can read more about La Paz here

For a blog on Sucre, Bolivia click here

For a blog on Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and Samaipata, all Bolivia click here

For a blog on Uyuni and the Bolivian Salt flats click here

If you enjoy reading my blogs or find them useful please like and share!  :) You can also follow me on Twitter @Heidivel or Instagram @heidihihohi.

Also, please feel free to ask me any travel questions you may have or to share your own travel experiences.

Exploring La Paz, Bolivia

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To me, there’s nothing quite like La Paz. It’s one of the most unusual, bustling and chaotic cities I’ve ever visited. It’s a complete feast for the eyes and ears because there are so many people and so many things going on.

La Paz is located roughly 3,650 metres above sea level and looks to me to be laid out like a massive bowl. The bottom of ‘the bowl’ is the main city hub, and from there the city rises on all sides so that when going out of the main centre you are always walking up, steeply. Look up and you’ll see rows and rows of terracotta buildings that look half finished, rising one after the other for a great distance. In fact, La Paz is the highest administrative capital in the world and home to Bolivia’s parliament (but not the country’s official capital which is Sucre).

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La Paz from above.

Everything can be bought in La Paz. And I mean everything. The centre is shop upon, shop. One street sells only fridges and microwaves. Another sells Tupperware. Another sells only festival costumes, and so on. Street stalls sell everything from giant ornaments of cats and tigers to different kinds of cereals. 

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There’s also the famous Witches Market where llama fetuses and readymade ‘offerings’ for gods and idols can be bought. It’s not really a market, in the traditional sense, though, more a couple of streets with small shops.

The traffic in La Paz is horrendous. Comparable to what I’ve seen in Hanoi and Saigon, which is pretty atrocious. The narrow street pavements are just as busy, especially on Saturday mornings when everyone seems to be out doing their weekly shopping.

La Paz’s population is mostly Aymara, so almost everyone living in the city is indigenous.

Locals seem to eat mostly from the street. A round, plump Cholita will sit and serve some delicious looking roast pork with vegetables and rice out of a big metal bowl onto plastic plates to queuing punters who munch it on the side of the road. Another Cholita sits nearby selling ‘tragos’, drinks, of duranzo, ‘peach juice,’ and all other kinds of concoctions. I noticed this heavy meal is eaten quite early, at about 10am and then also later in the afternoon.

I also noticed that Bolivia is a sugar addicted nation. The locals drink sugar infused fruit juices out of plastic bags and seem to be constantly eating ice cream, or other sweet treats, and fizzy drinks are consumed over all others. Often, on tours for lunch you’ll be given no water but only full fat coke to drink. I have a theory that Bolivians’ addiction to sugar might be fuelled by living at altitude. I think altitude makes you crave sweet food, but maybe that’s just me.

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La Paz is a people watching city. It’s addictive because of the way, the women especially, dress and the culture that is so different to my own. What fascinates me is that La Paz is about 23 degrees in the day and then about 5-10 at night but none of the locals seem adjusted to the cold weather. From morning to evening Cholitas will wear woolen tights, and layers and layers under their full skirts and a few tops and then often a cape pinned together at the breast. Or if they’re not in traditional garb they’ll be layered-up and wrap a blanket around their waist. In fact, a blanket seems to be a must have accessory in chilly Bolivia. Everyone has one (me, too, now) and will wrap themselves up in one as they wait for buses or eat.

As I said Bolivia’s parliament is located in La Paz. While we were there Plaza Murillo, where the Presidential Palace is located, was completely barricaded off from all four corners with each connecting road lined with a dozen or so policemen. To pass into the square we had to ask permission from the police who let us through easily.

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In the square there were few people, only some Cholitas selling snacks, a few other tourists, and a kid joyfully feeding the pigeons, who willing swamped him for foods. We walked around the square and spotted water cannons. The Presidential Palace sat giant and stately looking over the square.

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Upon leaving the square from another road we noticed colourful tents blocking off a road in the distance. Inside the tents were disabled people who had travelled from all over the country, by bus and foot, to speak to President Evo Morales to request that the government increase their state benefits. The police presence and water cannons were apparently for them. The Leftist Morales had decided to reject their demands and not speak to them, though the water cannons and police presence seemed a little strong.

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Stay tuned for another blog on El Alto, La Paz’s poorer neighbour, where we watched Cholita wrestling and visited the fortune tellers, among other things.

You can also read about Death Road just outside of La Paz here.

For a blog on Sucre, Bolivia click here

For a blog on Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and Samaipata, all Bolivia click here

For a blog on Uyuni and the Bolivian Salt flats click here

Tips for fellow travellers:

Food and nightlife: We ate mostly at The English Pub near our hotel which offered good Western food. It’s good for a couple of beers too but not a party.

For nightlife most people head to the hostels such as Loki Hostel or Wild Rover. Loki has a big upstairs bar that has a club like atmosphere and is full of Europeans and young Israelis on their gap year. There are a lot of Israelis in Bolivia who go there after they have completed their national service.

Accommodation: We stayed at Sol Andino Hostal which is decent enough but nothing special. The walls are quite thin and it’s cold at night but you can hire a heater if you want. The staff did let us leave our bags there for four days when we went to Rurrenabaque, even though we weren’t staying at the hotel afterwards. I do recommend the travel agency inside, the guy was really honest and helpful.

Safety: Most people worry about being safe in La Paz it having a very bad reputation as a city. The 2013 Lonely Plant describes it as actively not safe. One guy we met on our travels said he was so paranoid he kept thinking someone was following him and ducking into doorways. A bit over the top, perhaps. We never had any problems and we did walk around at night. I guess we are two so that helps, but just exercise caution, as in any big city, and have your wits about you. Only take official taxis. The only thing bad we saw was one drunk Bolivian throw an absolute monster of a punch in the face of a bouncer who refused to let him in. The two then had a very physical fight. So there are definitely some nutters about La Paz, not too different from Streatham Hill then I suppose.

If you enjoy reading my blogs or find them useful please like and share!  :) You can also follow me on Twitter @Heidivel or Instagram @heidihihohi. Also, please feel free to ask me any travel questions you have!

 

Taking on Death Road, La Paz – Bolivia

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Death Road.

Staring down into the seemingly endless rolling ravine a few metres to my left and then ahead at the steep, thick gravel strewn road, I nervously tested my mountain bike’s brakes for the 15th time that mourning.

I surveyed the protective cycle clothing I was wearing – shin pads, helmet, elbow pads and thick jacket and trousers – and concluded it was no protection from the beautiful but deadly green abyss that followed the road for the next 64km.

I was about to, very hesitantly I might add, cycle down the infamous Bolivian ‘Death Road’.

Death Road is the standard tourist trip everyone does when they come to La Paz, Bolivia. It is named so because in 1995 the Inter-American Development Bank christened it as the “world’s most dangerous road”

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In 2006, one estimate stated that 200 to 300 travellers were killed yearly along the road. Search ‘Death Road’ on You Tube and you’ll find videos of busses falling off the road’s hairpin bends.

A new road was built, taking the old one out of service to traffic (though cars do still pass through it) and for about the last ten years it’s been used as a daredevil excursion where tourists, starting at 4,750m above sea level, cycle 64km downhill.

I remember eight years ago, on a particularly terrifying bus ride from Laos to Thailand, meeting a girl who had cycled Death Road. I remember thinking ‘wow that girl must have some balls, I’d never do it’.

Here I was 8 years later doing exactly what I thought I never would.

I’m sure nowadays the bikes and equipment are of much better quality than 8 years ago. There are now many agencies that sell the tour, the best undoubtedly being Gravity, who have been running the tour for the longest. But at $120 per person Gravity was too expensive for us, so we opted for a mid-range company called Extreme Downhill ($75 per person).

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Starting the tour, we drove to the top of the new road. Here the equipment was handed out. The bikes were the make Giant and looked new and sturdy. The breaks worked well.  At first when we were handed all the protective clothing I thought it was a bit excessive.  Later I would be thankful for all of it!

All kitted up we started on the paved road to get us used to our bikes. The journey is completely downhill so you go fast and have to use your breaks to control your speed. The scenery is beautiful, if the height a little terrifying. On the first part the roads are smooth and with little traffic so it’s a pleasure to cycle down at speed with the freezing wind in your hair.

After about 20km we reached a tunnel that bikes are not allowed to pass through so we had to take an unpaved slip road.

Confident, I headed down the slip road at speed. Then, suddenly, I panicked. My brain was yelling ‘look at all the big stones, you’re going to come off your bike!’ So I pulled hard on my brakes to stop, for what I don’t know exactly. This was a big mistake. The bike buckled and I went flying forwards. My husband, who was just behind me, was forced to brake hard too and also came flying off his bike.

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Fortunately, the road was fairly wide at this point and the cliff edge lined with thick bushes. We were both fine and got back on our bikes.

Once we exited the side road we were back on flat road for another five minutes then we entered the ‘Death Road’.

It is easy to see where the road got its name from. The height is dizzying, the road narrow, pebble-lined and full of sharp curves, some that leave only three-four metres of road, that’s not much road if you come flying off your bike.

The scenery is beautiful; lush jungle bush that flows down for hundreds of metres into a green abyss. Though as I rolled down the road holding onto both my breaks for dear life and gritting my teeth it was, to be honest, hard to enjoy.

After about ten minutes of cycling I noticed a cyclist ahead of me legs and body flat out on damp gravel floor, bike nearly hanging off the cliff. As I got closer and the person got up to get back on their bike. I then realised it was my husband! My heart skipped a beat. He was fine but had this happened on a narrower part of the path, who knows how it could have ended.

This, for want of a better word, shit-me up, so I went slow and careful afterwards, my hands going numb from both the cold and clinging onto the bike breaks. My arse also took a battering from the continual bump, bump of the bikes’ wheels on the hard stones.

Other bikers seemed to have no trouble, though. I think it helps to be an experienced, confident, off-road biker and my husband and I not really, both of us having not owned a bike in about 15 years.

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The key to cycling Death Road, I think, is just to relax and whatever you do don’t panic and pull sharply on your breaks! And always use both breaks at the same time and not only one as this will cause the bike to buckle.

Once we completed the first hour of the road the second was much easier, with wider roads and bush lining the cliff edges.

As you probably guessed we survived (and got the T-Shirt to prove it) me coming in last at every stop! The journey ends at the beginning of the jungle so the climate is a hot and humid, much welcomed after the cold of La Paz and just about everywhere else in Bolivia.

Am I glad I did it? Honestly, I felt I accomplished something at the end, but I can’t say I actually thoroughly enjoyed it. Plus, for me, it wasn’t worth the weeks of back pain that I subsequently had to endure after coming off my bike, but I guess that was my fault!

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Brexit won, Britain is leaving the EU and now I’m scared

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This is an emotional blog for me. I’ve realised I get way too emotional about politics and my country.

The EU referendum was an emotive campaign, though, based not on facts but on emotions, half-truths, hyperbole and fear. I’ll try not to fall into that trap here.

But the truth is I am scared because the pound has fallen by record levels, the country’s credit rating has been downgraded from stable to negative, Scotland is making another bid for independence (who can blame them?), hardline Irish republicans are talking borders again, stocks in UK and Europe plunged…I could go on.

I don’t want Britain to face more hardship and be more divided or to lose the United Kingdom.

Maybe I’m being dramatic as I said I wouldn’t be.

But it’s hard to swallow, especially because Brexiters are asking me to accept and embrace change when that is exactly what many of them don’t want to do themselves.

Brookings quote

Some Brexiters don’t want to accept immigration and globalisation, which are both facts of the world we live in. Some Brexiters don’t want to accept that the world looks and works in a very different way than it used to.

Age chart

Some it appears voted for this reason, the older generation perhaps, but many voted as revolt against politics, as a protest, because they have had enough.

As this Guardian article ‘The 10 Faces Behind Brexit’ shows these people were both on the Left and Right of politics.

You know, I understand Brexiters complaints, their disillusionment, their fear. I felt very disillusioned at the last general election. I hadn’t had a pay rise in three years and I was on a very low wage, I felt Britain had become very unfair economically, I was fed up of waiting so long for a doctor’s appointment, I was sad to see people eating from food banks, sad to see some people I knew who really needed social housing to struggle to find any. I struggled to make ends meet in London and lived in my overdraft. I still feel this way about most of these issues and I can only imagine it’s worse ‘up North’.

Britain should be better, more prosperous, with more jobs, less NHS waiting times, fairer. We are all fed up, perhaps for different reasons. BUT I still don’t understand, no matter how I try, and I’ve really tried, it’s consumed me, to see the other sides’ point of view – how leaving the EU changes any of this? Please someone make it clear.

I understand some people wanted to say fuck you to the politicians – I do to – but this vote did not do that. It was momentary satisfaction for years of pain. Like cheating on your partner to get back at them.It has handed government over to more far-right people, like Michael Gove, who has already tried repeatedly, to make people’s lives harder. (I watched as my husband worked 70 hours a week for minimal pay as a new teacher because of his reforms.)

As Caroline Lucas says in this interesting article: “The leaders of the leave gang are about as anti-establishment as the Duke of Edinburgh, but we cannot dismiss the fact that they tapped into something profound occurring in Britain, and the daily dose of fear from some remain campaigners wasn’t enough to sway people towards remain.”

It seems people who voted out are trying to claw back control, which I can understand, but I can’t help but feel they just gave up control for lies and false promises based on ‘getting our country back’. I still don’t understand what that statement means.

The leave campaign preyed on all the things that piss people off in the UK and blamed it on Europe and immigrants.

But I don’t see how the EU is responsible for Britain’s hardships?

Maybe because if you look at the facts, the reality, and not Brexit’s lies, it isn’t responsible for Britain’s hardships. The financial crisis has a lot to do with it – bankers being reckless  – this is why we have a huge deficit and can’t afford to pay for the NHS or social housing (actually you can also blame Margret Thatcher for that one, she sold off all our social housing.)

Cuts

Not immigrants, no. They pay more into our country than they take out. Fact.

But it’s easier to blame your neighbour rather than the faceless billionaires hiding their millions away in offshore accounts so they don’t have to pay tax and contribute to a fairer society. That’s greed. That’s what greed does, it makes the majority poorer, more miserable and angrier. But getting angry at your Polish neighbour won’t change that, and by the way, they’ll still be your neighbour now we are out of the EU. That won’t change. Now it’ll just be a bit more awkward when you bump into each in the street.

 

What about sovereignty, which has played a massive part in the Brexiters campaign – is feeling more sovereign going to make anyone’s day to day life better?  I don’t see how.

Are we going to feel better if the government brings in a law that fucks us over once again just because we can say that the EU had nothing to do with it?  Are we really going to have more say in those laws, when they rapidly revise all our laws after our EU exit? No and no.

In any case, we’re already a sovereign state. That is a fact. EU law never overrides UK law. If it ever does it is only at the express instruction of parliament which it may choose to do for a whole host of reasons. Watch this if you are unclear.

Anyway, who would even know the difference if we kept all the laws we adopted from the EU or abandoned them – I wouldn’t, would you?

Patriotism isn’t a flag, an England tattoo, shouting ‘we want our country back’ in the street. Patriotism is a feeling, it’s a quiet sense of pride, it’s going abroad and knowing that when you say you’re British you’re welcomed because the British are known as polite, respectful and down-to-earth people. Our sense of humour and self-deprecation are well-known.

The definition of Patriotism is: devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country; national loyalty.

Some of the definitions of Nationalism include: excessive patriotism; chauvinism; the policy or doctrine of asserting the interests of one’s own nation viewed as separate from the interests of other nations or the common interests of all nations.

I’d say our patriotism has fallen into this definition of nationalism. It’s lost all reason. It’s forgotten that our woes are also our neighbours’ woes and we are stronger, more equipped to fight these woes together.

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Post-factualism and misinformation has dominated the Leave campaign and scaremongering the Remain, though as I say, I’m scared so maybe they weren’t wrong!

Brexiters have been called ignorant by those on the Remain side. Well, now isn’t the time for name calling.

I do know some people who voted out because they thought Syria were going to join the EU. I assume they jumped to this wildly wrong conclusion because they were scared to death by what Farage was telling them about Turkey joining the EU (also wrong) and with his anti-immigration propaganda posters depicting people who looked a bit like Syrians queuing to enter Britain (if that is actually what they were doing, who knows?).  Either way that’s how fear works, it makes you make decisions based on lies and misinformation.

But then I guess the Leave camp could say many Remainers voted remain not because they were better informed but simply because they were scared. I bet they did.

Either way we were all manipulated one way or another, but I don’t understand why so many people have suddenly shunned academics and experts, those that have no agenda and have dedicated their lives to the study of a subject for everyone’s benefit.

“People are fed up of ‘experts'” Gove shouted. Are they? Why?

To me this is the most astonishing thing to come out of this referendum.

Digestible sound bites such as ‘Take Our Country Back’and ‘Breaking Point’ may be quicker, easier and more emotive to take in (to me they don’t make any sense, but whatever) however, I don’t think you can boil a decades old institution that works on many layers into sound bites and slogans and one or two issues.

I can only see it as the experts disagreed with what half the country wanted to believe so they simply decided to not listen to them.

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So, now I am more confused about my country and fellow Briton’s than ever. Obviously, half of us identify being British with different characteristics from the other. We’re different and divided. I hope this doesn’t form into resentment and hate. I don’t want to be angry (believe me I was) I want to understand how to make this better.

But now we’re divided and have so much work to do. We  have to revise every single law we currently have, negotiate trade deals with the EU, who quite rightly hate us now, and the rest of the world, manage our borders, and the million other things we need to do now we have divorced the EU (the academic in the video above says this could take 10 years at an optimistic estimate, that the UK only has the capacity to negotiate one or two trade deals at a time). How do we do all this and also unify ourselves?

How do we do all of this and also deal with the bigger issues, such as fighting global warming so we have less climate change refugees in the world? How can we also go about making policy reform, such as abolishing tax havens, in order to create a fairer society and share wealth beyond the 1%? How do we fight privatisation of the NHS so we can continue accessing free healthcare? How do we do this and fight terrorism, from both abroad and at home? How are we stronger now to change all those things that made people angry in the first place?

The government weren’t doing a great job before, how is it going to do any better now it has all this on its plate?

I don’t feel stronger. I feel weaker, diminished, wide open, out in the cold, like Britain’s bargaining power and former powerful influence on the world has been diminished, and I still don’t understand what for?

Ricky Gervais

And if we don’t get what we want, what was promised by Leave, (their promises are already falling by the wayside), the only people who are going to suffer are those that go to work every day to support their families.  My friend who has a second child on the way and works hard every day, as does her partner, now has to worry about whether her partners’ job will be safe; another single mum I know, who also works hard, is facing the same worries. Not Boris Johnson, not Farge, not Michael Gove they aren’t worried, they have millions in the bank.

If we wanted more say  we should have voted in the AV system in the last referendum and then when we vote in general elections our votes will actually account for more instead of a party winning with only 36.1% of the votes as the Conservatives did in the last election (the Scottish National Party won 56 seats with only 4.7% of the votes compared to the Liberal Democrats who won 8 seats with 7.9% of the votes ).

But I’m trying to stay positive as people keep telling me to. I really am. Maybe in a year or two I will look back on this blog and think how silly I was, how dramatic I was.

I really hope that will be the case.

From the FT

From The Financial Times

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Why I want Britain to stay in the EU

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I’m going to be honest, when I say I want Britain to stay in the EU I am thinking mostly about myself (well, and all other young people).

I spent my early twenties in the midst of an economic crisis, that hindered my job prospects and resulted in years of pay freezes, and I don’t want to spend my early 30s in the same capacity.

No one – not Brexit campaigners or David Cameron – truly knows what will happen if Britain comes out of the EU, but I think the fact that almost all economic experts are saying it will be immediately bad for the economy means we can expect that to happen.

In fact, the economy only has to retract 1% for us to lose more than we pay into the EU. There’ll be at least four years of economic uncertainty. That we can almost guarantee.

I think the Brexit campaign has been staggeringly misleading. Not necessarily false but only telling half-truths and I’m concerned that most people won’t bother to find out the full story.

This excellent article from News Thump fairly and accurately works through the main points and is worth a read.

Some of the key issues that I didn’t fully understand until I decided to educate myself are:

  1. I am not against immigration, my father and uncle are both immigrants who have paid taxes all their lives, and I live cheek by jowl with immigrants in Streatham Hill, and love doing so. But if you are against immigration, it is worth knowing that as a collective group immigrants pay more into Britain’s GDP than they take out in services such as NHS and housing etc so it’s not accurate to say that immigrants are to blame for long NHS waiting lists, lack of places in Primary schools or a lack of social housing. The money is there but the government isn’t putting the money back into these services, probably because it’s paying off the deficit caused by the financial crisis or giving tax breaks to big businesses, I don’t know. Plus, even if we leave the EU there is no guarantee we will reduce immigration. Britain may have to partake in the free movement of people in order to enjoy other benefits of the EU, like trading with them. To me immigration is a fact of life, it’s been happening for thousands of years and we can’t just be ignorant and say we don’t want immigrants without acknowledging what immigrants bring to our country and economy.
  1. The EU does not make most of our laws, we have to pass all our laws through our own parliament before they become actual laws. Yes, it does dictate some product laws i.e the use of inflammable materials in pillows etc but this is because product standardisation makes it easier for EU countries to trade with each other as each country has the same product requirements. I honestly don’t really care about this, personally.
  2. The EU costs us £350m a week but we get a £13bn rebate (as negotiated by Margret Thatcher) and another £5bn never leaves our account. So the £350m a week figure isn’t accurate. It actually costs us £136m a week. As I said before, not even counting what the EU provides us in terms trade, if our economy was to retract by 1% (very likely) we would be losing more than we pay into the EU. Negotiating new trade deals will be long and arduous and as President of the US Barack Obama said the UK ‘will have to get to the back of the queue behind the EU’ when it comes to negotiating trade deals. Plus we’ll still have to abide by all those EU product laws if we want to sell stuff to Europe, our biggest trade market (56% of UK exports by value are delivered to European trade partners. Also, England accounts for only 2.5% of overall global exports, so we’re not exactly a massive trading superpower as some like to think.)

Those are three of the key issues, but there are many more, of course.

I hope Britain stays in Europe for these reasons but also because the world is fighting the same problems – terrorism and global warming to name just two – why do we think we will be better at fighting these problems alone? Leaving the EU won’t make global warming or terrorism disappear from our shores.

Does the EU need to reform? Yes, and we need to be at the table when it inevitably does or we’ll be left out in the cold.

But if you want to leave the EU make sure you’re doing so for good reasons. I and my future children, my friends’ children, all children, have to live with your decision.  Some of the reasons I’ve heard so far when I’ve asked Brexiters why they want to leave the EU are: ‘It’s nice to have a change’, ‘I’m patriotic’ and also just radio silence because they can’t tell me why they want to leave (or I suspect because they think their answer will make them sound racist). I’m not saying this is the case for every Brexit supporter this has just been my experience.

I’m also suspicious of the people behind the Brexit campaign – Nigel Farage (do I need to say any more?), Boris Johnson (who I think is doing this because it will give him a decent shot at being Prime Minister), Katie Hopkins (do I need to say any more?), Michael Gove (who has managed to piss everybody off) and the Daily Mail (do I need to say any more?).

My instinct tells me listen to those independent experts, the universities, health care experts, Stephen Hawking, Noble Peace Prize winners – the full list of people behind Remain are here – all those that are far more educated and knowledgeable than me. I hope Britain does the same because now is no time to be bloody minded.

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