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Latin American Trip Report (Peru & Bolivia JUL 09)

Sun Jul 11, 2010 10:30 pm

Hello everyone,

April 21st was a good day. I had applied to be a chaperone for any group of German AFS students going abroad for a high school year and on that day, I got the news that I could accompany 22 of them to La Paz in Bolivia. Upon that very nice surprise, some serious daydreaming and fantasising began and turned into travel planning a while later. Luckily, work was as flexible as ever and so there was nothing stopping me from a big adventure.

I've always felt it's easier for the reader if a trip report is divided into chapters, so I'm going to try my hand at it.

Chapter One: flying from FRA to DFW to MIA to LPB to CUZ in one go
Chapter Two: some time spent in Cusco, a train trip and some more time in Aguas Calientes
Chapter Three: Machu Picchu, "The Lost City of the Incas" and a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Chapter Four: back to Cusco, on to Lake Titicaca and all the way back to La Paz
Chapter Five: a couple of photos from La Paz
Chapter Six: on to Santa Cruz de la Sierra and the long way back home: VVI-MIA-DFW-FRA

I do hope this thread works out as intended (i.e. all the links and photos) and that your time won't be wasted reading it.  


Chapter One: FRA to DFW to MIA to LPB to CUZ in one go

This was going to be a long, very long 18th July:

(all maps and distances shamelessly pilfered from the Great Circle Mapper - copyright © Karl L. Swartz.)

FRA-DFW: AA 71, 4469 nm, 10:55 - 14:30, Boeing 777-200ER, seat 38F (middle)
DFW-MIA: AA 520, 974 nm, 17:00 - 20:48, Boeing 737-800, seat 12D (aisle)
MIA-LPB: AA 922, 2624 nm, 23:05 - 05:50+1, Boeing 757-200, seat 14D (aisle)
LPB-CUZ: 5L 450, 281 nm, 09:00+1 - 08:55+1, Boeing 727-200/Adv (CP-2447), seat 29F (window)

The AA check-in at FRA was, of course, an experience in itself - everyone had been told they were going to need an ESTA number for visa-free entry into the United States and everyone but two students had theirs handy. So we set off trying everything to get those two authorisation numbers, trusting the info we had got... after that had been successful in only one case, I asked an AA ticket sales agent out of desperation and his reply was "I've been to the US six times this year and nobody ever cared about that number, let alone asked for it." Jolly good, so we checked in with little issues (bit of overweight luggage here and there, but nothing we couldn't fix there and then) and were soon on our way to the security checkpoint in terminal 1, concourse C. That went well, if a bit slow, and the numerous checkmarks on my "passenger list" were soon complete. Boarding was civilised and the full (in economy, as far as I can tell) flight departed on time. The uneventful flight was a display of how personality affects customer service: the port side got courteous service with a smile, the starboard side was made to feel like a bit of disturbance in the lead stewardess's day. Food was the usual, neither good nor bad and they put the leftover biscuits, rolls and such in baskets in the galley for everyone to help themselves.

I also noticed, again, how small the world can be: one passenger recognised the AFS logo on my shirt and asked me what kind of group we were. We started chatting for a while and it turned out she and her family were flying to Mexico where she had spent her AFS highschool year and found a boyfriend whom she was now going to marry.

AA 70 at the arrival gate, terminal D at DFW

We arrived on time and I found the CBP / airport security officials to be rather friendly and helpful. There was of course the token "queue organiser", for lack of a better word, who gave the impression of complete ignorance of the word "smile", but the rest of them helped us and did their jobs quickly, thoughtfully and cordially. After we had cleared immigration, we got on the Skylink - because everything is bigger in Texas   - and arrived at terminal A with time to spare. Most of the students went to have a burger at McDonald's, which apparently was a particular attraction due to the location, while the rest of us stayed with the hand luggage:

Nice, isn't it?  

AA 520 was your usual LCC-like trunk route job, with most of "my" kids soundly asleep. Departure and arrival were both essentially on time, so again we arrived at the gate in MIA with time to spare... unfortunately. I don't know why, but the difference between our arrival and departure gates there was the one between an airport and a dim, worn out dump. Boarding did however commence on time and we eventually left with the obligatory one-hour delay after all the Bolivian pax could finally be bothered to step aboard and sort out everything from hand luggage to seatbelts.

Happily, we didn't get delayed any further and arrived shortly before seven. Being one of the highest commercial airports in the world (13,325 ft / 4,061 m), LPB was quite cold and exhausting. It can easily set your heart racing even if you're just walking or standing around, particularly if you're dehydrated from all the flying you've done before the arrival. The immigration, baggage claim and customs area did look a bit ramshackle, but the rest of the airport was nice by Latin American standards. I did feel welcome. The Bolivian AFSers, including two German volunteers doing their FSJs or internships in the national office, waited for us just behind customs and were glad to hear that everything had gone well. As there wasn't anything for me to do and the students were in good hands, I went ahead with the idea of buying a ticket to CUZ right away and just stayed at the airport.

So I was going to fly on a 727!    This one, in fact:

CP-2447 at LPB, about to operate AeroSur flight 5L 450 to Cusco, Peru

As I was going to be in seat 29F, I had been wondering about the rear stairs which would of course have been the icing on the cake... one of the last chances to fly such a historic bird, it might as well be the full banana. And it was:

All of the windows were scratched very badly, but that kind of thing is what you get a large memory card for: some of the photos came out OK for the circumstances. This, for instance, is Mount Illimani seen from the airport:

In front of it, there is a Boeing 737-300 of Boliviana de Aviacion which is apparently Evo Morales' attempt at replacing LAB as Bolivia's flag carrier. I'm not sure...

Some of you might be aware of the so-called "carniceros" ("butchers"), historic piston prop aircraft like DC-6s that served for years as meat haulers transporting beef from the Bolivian lowlands to the altiplano. These days, the remnants of these operations sit in the corrosion corner at LPB and await their fate - if there is one. Here's an excellent web page on these veteran aircraft: Bolivian Heavy Props

the best I could do

The flight was again largely uneventful and, for a nice change, rather empty. Take-off took, as you would expect, quite a while but you know what you're getting yourself into if you choose to fly a 727 from more than 4,000 metres. The female flight attendants wore surgical masks due to swine flu and we were required to fill out an additional health form, but apart from that we were able to enjoy the flight. Across from me, there was a young French woman who apparently was taking the flight for the same reason as I - the aircraft and the scenery:

shortly after takeoff - dry season, obviously

Lake Titicaca from not that far above, actually

approach into CUZ, right between the mountain ranges

We arrived only minutes behind schedule with one FA jumping up to stop the improperly secured trolley from crashing into things, immigration and customs were again a breeze and I had finally arrived.

Chapter Two: some time spent in Cusco, a train trip and some more time in Aguas Calientes

Coca tea is great. It might not taste like a handpicked first-flush Darjeeling caressed by the skillful hands of Indian child labourers, but it does help tremendously with altitude sickness. As I experienced, it's the common thing to offer a guest - even if he's a paying guest in your hostel - a cup of the stuff to get his spirits back up, and thankfully, I accepted. Otherwise I'd have spent more time asleep instead of going into Cusco (10,860 ft / 3,310 m) to have a look and book my rail tickets for the upcoming journey to Machu Picchu.

The main square of the historic capital of the Inca Empire is, as in many other Latin American cities, called Plaza de Armas:

Right on the square, the massive cathedral dominates it as is common in the region:

But of course, most things aren't quite as large as the central square or the cathedral. This narrow street is much closer to normal, complete with the Spanish colonial architecture that is present in all of downtown Cusco:

That city definitely deserves more time to be explored and appreciated, but alas I was far from acclimatised and quite jet-lagged, so Cusco became the first entry on my list of things to see "the next time".  

Early on the next day, I took a taxi to the nearby town and train station of Poroy, from where the tourist trains to Machu Picchu depart. The driver was much less suicidal than expected, we got there with time to spare and soon I was on the train back down to "only" 6,693 ft / 2,040 m. The difference was very much noticeable and remarkable, both in terms of effect on the body and the changing flora.

map of the narrow-gauge railroad

crossing one of the rivers we followed for most of the way

All in all, the trip was quite relaxed and a nice experience. As expected, the train was slow and the ride was bumpy, but then again, it's Peru and not the Shinkansen. I chose the lowest category tourist train, which is completely sufficient and apparently the one to pick if you're not big on en-route entertainment.

church on the main square in Aguas Calientes, the "base camp" in the valley below Machu Picchu

the main street in Aguas Calientes, also the shunting station of the village

Aguas Calientes is little more than the place where you sleep before you go up to the Machu Picchu Sanctuary. It'd be rude to call it a dump because the people do make an effort and it shows, but there is very little to do and very little to see. Still, I was glad to find a place to stay which fortunately cost much less than the hotel I had intended to stay in. As you can see in the back of the pictures, the place is a lot greener than Cusco - 1270 metres make a huge difference.

Chapter Three: Machu Picchu, "The Lost City of the Incas" and a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Machu Picchu is a pre-Columbian Inca site located 2,430 metres (8,000 ft) above sea level. It is situated on a mountain ridge above the Urubamba Valley in Peru, which is 80 kilometres (50 mi) northwest of Cuzco and through which the Urubamba River flows. Often referred to as "The Lost City of the Incas", Machu Picchu is one of the most familiar symbols of the Inca Empire.

The Incas started building it around AD 1430 but was abandoned as an official site for the Inca rulers a hundred years later at the time of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire. Although known locally, it was largely unknown to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, an American historian. Since then, Machu Picchu has become an important tourist attraction.

Machu Picchu was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Since it was not plundered by the Spanish when they conquered the Incas, it is especially important as a cultural site and is considered a sacred place.

Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls. Its primary buildings are the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. These are located in what is known by archaeologists as the Sacred District of Machu Picchu. In September 2007, Peru and Yale University reached an agreement regarding the return of artifacts which Hiram Bingham had removed from Machu Picchu in the early twentieth century.

The locals recommend that you get up very early to catch one of the first minibusses that take you up to the sanctuary, so that you can witness the sunrise. I recommend that you get up even earlier than they recommend if you want to see the dawn as well - which depends entirely on your preferences. Anyway, this is the kind of queue that you're going to be in at around five in the morning:

about 500 people in line for busses that can carry less than 30 people each

Fortunately, the Peruvians proved to be no fools. Shortly before the advertised first departure of the day, the armada of minibusses began to arrive. For about an hour, driver after driver came up the street, turned his vehicle around in a display of skill that could only help build confidence and went back down to the "boarding area". As the light of day arrived, I too got to board one of the things and off we went along the river and then up the mountain in a series of quite interesting hairpins. After a while, we arrived at the entrance at 8,000 ft / 2,430 metres. There were quite a lot of people up there, but the area is large enough for them to get lost in the space. Additionally, I had gone left where most others had gone right and so I was pretty much on my own to watch the sun as it rose above the mountain tops and bathed the ancient ruins in glorious, ever-changing light:

still dark

warming up

There you are!

In retrospect, that was the best possible place to be in. One terrace below, a guide was explaining to his group the various subdivisions of the city and the history of the empire, all in perfect Spanglish. So I could listen to him when I felt like it and go my own way without being rude - that's how it should be.   

After the spectacle was over, I decided to go downtown and take my time exploring the place. One small advice is to use layers of clothing - I went from feeling cold under a shirt, one cotton and one wool sweater and a jacket to being hot in just the shirt. Anyway, Machu Picchu is a city above the clouds, as you can see in this picture:

It was a bit hard to decide what was more remarkable - the ruins themselves or the landscape they are in. I've never seen mountains and valleys like that and they seem to change all the time, depending on how the sunlight shines on them. It's perfectly understandable why the Incas considered the place sacred, it is out of this world.

the Room of the Three Windows

As you walk through the streets, you find huge differences in build quality and urban planning. Most walls are nowhere near as perfect as the one pictured above, the storehouses and homes of the common people are of much lower build quality and the streets in the respective areas are narrower, almost labyrinthine and uneven.

How would you like waking up to this view every morning?

Fortunately, the Peruvians have resisted the temptation of turning Machu Picchu into a theme park by reconstructing the derelict structures or re-enacting "scenes from the Inca Empire" for the oodles of tourists coming through every day. This means you can discover the city the way you want to and let your imagination run wild.

the Condor Stone

the Temple of the Sun

reconstructed roof on top of ruins near the exit of the sanctuary

Chapter Four: back to Cusco, on to Lake Titicaca and all the way back to La Paz

On the train trip back to Cusco, I met a German who had spent a highschool year in South America with Rotary International - so the nighttime journey didn't get boring.

Back in Cusco, I spent the night in the same hostel as before and once again enjoyed the colonial architecture. The courtyard is where the guests had breakfast:

Not bad at all!

The plan had been to take the Andean Explorer train to Puno on Lake Titicaca:

But this being South America, not everything could go perfectly. The day before, there had been some kind of protest or strike near Puno which meant that the train had been stuck there. As there seems to be only one trainset, my service had been cancelled as well since there wasn't any equipment to operate it with. With the refund in my pocket, I went to the coach station and tried my luck. After a while, I found a company selling tickets for an afternoon service - at some later point. So I purchased some kind of voucher to guarantee a seat for 30 Peruvian Soles and waited. After a while, the ticket was ready and I exchanged the voucher for it. Naturally, the ticket had cost just 20 Soles with the attempt at blackening this information on the ticket having gone slightly wrong, but the currency isn't really worth that much so the rip-off didn't hurt - and it was still infinitely cheaper than the train.

LAN Airlines A320 at CUZ photographed from the coach

The trip was OK for most of the time and the road ran parallel to the railroad tracks, so the scenery was the same and again spectacular. We went up to 14,150 ft / 4,313 m at La
Raya pass where the landscape was barren; nothing but some prairie grass for mile after mile. The road got so bumpy on the last portion of the trip that my HDD iPod refused to work and displayed the dreaded "sad iPod" symbol, but it thought better of it and started working again in the hotel. The trip home wouldn't have been nice without my own music.

on the way to Puno

The bus arrived in the dark and an hour late, but everything else worked out and the hotel was nice. I had to be ready at 6 am the next day, so I went to bed fairly early. And it was worth it!

The next morning, I was picked up by representatives of the tour company I had booked for the next part of the journey: Lake Titicaca by hydrofoil. The first part was going to be along the shore by bus, there were just one Brazilian lady and myself on it. The Peruvian guide was excellent and when we stopped for a bit of sightseeing, I finally managed to shoot a recognisable photo of Quechua fashion:

typical small-town scene with decorated buildings, local people and the usual billboard for a phone parlour

We soon got to the border where two Bolivian guides - one for each customer, imagine that in Europe - took over from their Peruvian colleague. My guide was "friends" with the Bolivian border agent, so immigration was lightning-fast and we were off to Bolivia's national religious sanctuary: Copacabana.

Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana

It's often a bit surreal to visit a Latin American church, and this one was no exception. The amalgamation of Roman Catholic and Native American (in this case) symbols and beliefs is just stunning - everything from the way they depict the saints to the way you pay them respect is different. Just slightly, perhaps, but even as a German Protestant I noticed the differences. After that impressive visit, we went to the shore and boarded our hydrofoil to Isla de la Luna.

another boat arriving

This island's main attraction is the ruins of a temple dating back to the pre-Inca era, where you can see and compare the different architectures and building techniques of the various empires in a tiny space. I also found a spot that embodies the essentials of a visit to the lake:

ancient ruins, prairie grass, dry soil, the blues of the lake and the sky and the snow-capped mountains.

Then, we went to Isla del Sol to have a delicious lunch of trout and continued on the way to Huatajata on the Bolivian shore where I was going to stay for the night. The hotel and an adjacent museum/"eco-village" were built and are operated by the tour company as well, so they were a bit heavy on the self-praise. Nevertheless, the exhibits were truly interesting and I enjoyed my time there.

in the hotel

reed boat exhibit (Heyerdahl's Ra II) in the eco-village

If you've ever heard og Thor Heyerdahl, you have also heard of reed boats. The best in the world (naturally...   ) are built on the shores of Lake Titicaca. I wouldn't start an Atlantic crossing on one of those if you gave me a million dollars, but obviously it can work as the boat in the picture above, a copy of the one used for just that adventure, demonstrates. The day ended with a visit to the little observatory on the location which gave me the idea of trying my luck at getting a shot of the Southern Cross:

not actually a "stellar" shot, but I had to use a cardboard box as a support for my lens

The next day, I got to sleep in for the first time since my arrival in La Paz and continued on the way back to the city, on a road along the Royal Range of the Andes (Cordillera Real). Once again, the scenery turned surreal:

No less unexpected was this view:

as seen from the road from El Alto to La Paz proper. You basically drive off a cliff where the altiplano ends and the canyon created by the Choqueyapu River begins. That edge marks the city limit between El Alto and La Paz.

Chapter Five: a couple of photos from La Paz

I had a couple of hours in the city before my transfer to the airport. These are some of the photos I took:

typical street in one part of La Paz - quite different from Cusco

some official building - providing a new definition of "flag-waving"

inside the Cathedral of San Francisco, taken from the choir (I think) - you can only enter the nave with a guide and they don't want you to take photos, so this is what I managed

You can, however, get to the roof of the Cathedral. Before you do, they tell you to not ring the bells - I had wondered "What bells?" but it soon became obvious as the belfry was right behind me when I took this photo.

the staircase back down - bit narrow, but it'll do

finally, the garden inside the cloister - a very nice refuge indeed

the cloister itself - more colourful than I've ever seen in Europe

Monks have always known how to live the good life - as evidenced by this grape press and the wine barrels next to it.

La Paz is definitely worth a (second) visit, as it is a enjoyable mix of Quechua, Spanish, German and other cultural elements. It offers everything from "witch markets" to coffee houses.

Chapter Six: on to Santa Cruz de la Sierra and the long way back home: VVI-MIA-DFW-FRA

On the same evening, I took another AeroSur flight to Santa Cruz de la Sierra:

LPB-VVI, 5L 557, 298 nm, 19:30 - 20:30, Boeing 727-200/Adv (CP-2462), seat 27F (window)

The surgical masks had gone and I think one stewardess had also been on the flight to CUZ. The plane was fuller than the last time, but there still was ample space for everyone. Food was the same simple sandwich we'd been given on the flight to CUZ and we arrived at Viru-Viru airport on time. The taxi ride to the hotel was interesting - the lowlands of Bolivia are quite different from the highlands, I found Santa Cruz to be much more like a Brazilian city than la Paz or El Alto had been. The streets, zoning and buildings were a lot more alike.

The next and final day in the country had me walking the streets of downtown Santa Cruz de la Sierra (or "Sierrrrrrra", as per the locals   )

To my pleasant surprise, I found another beautiful square that I hadn't expected. On it was the "Casa de Gobierno":

Apparently, they do have to govern quite a bit more money in the lowlands - at least if you can go by the sort of car you do see in the streets:

possibly the sole Porsche 911 in all of Bolivia - everyone else got a Cayenne

Santa Cruz didn't do much for me. I can't quite put my finger on it, but in a way it exuded much more corruption, nepotism and machismo than the highland cities I had seen before. I might do the place a terrible injustice, but that's the impression it left me with.

Finally, the trek home began in the late evening:

VVI-MIA: AA 948, 2782 nm, 22:55 - 05:40+1, Boeing 757-200, seat 25F (window)
MIA-DFW: AA 893, 974 nm, 10:40+1 - 12:40+1, Boeing 757-200 (N195AN), seat 25F (window)
DFW-FRA: AA 70, 4496 nm, 14:45+1 - 07:20+2, Boeing 777-200ER (N780AN), seat 37A (window)

As I learnt later on, this is a pileus. It looked interesting and changed just as quickly as the Wikipedia article suggests (from aboard AA 893).

All the flights went well, the immigration officer at MIA was surprised that we've got IKEA in Germany ("Where do you work?") and the service was more consistent on these flights. Immigration in Germany was the usual "hand-over-your-passport-and-barely-have-time-to-say-good-morning" affair and my baggage came out so fast I was home by 9 am.

Finally, if you like North Atlantic sunsets, this is for you - kitsch as kitsch can   :

[Edited 2010-07-11 16:09:17]
Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened.
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RE: Latin American Trip Report (Peru & Bolivia JUL 09)

Sun Jul 11, 2010 10:57 pm


nice TR!
I'm planning to travel to Peru and Bolivia as a backpacker in December and January! Thanks for share the pictures!

Quoting aloges (Thread starter):
Once again, the scenery turned surreal:

this view is really breathtaking!
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RE: Latin American Trip Report (Peru & Bolivia JUL 09)

Sun Jul 11, 2010 11:54 pm

very interesting report! specially for me as I am a german located for my company in Lima and some days ago I was in VVI and LPB... and next weekend I will visit the Peruvian side of the Lake!

Thank you and cheers
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RE: Latin American Trip Report (Peru & Bolivia JUL 09)

Mon Jul 12, 2010 4:20 am

Quoting aloges (Thread starter):
Santa Cruz didn't do much for me. I can't quite put my finger on it, but in a way it exuded much more corruption, nepotism and machismo than the highland cities I had seen before.

and you forgot that the Girls are much more nicer in Santa Cruz than in the highlands!  
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RE: Latin American Trip Report (Peru & Bolivia JUL 09)

Mon Jul 12, 2010 6:27 am

I was told that Cuzco is also difficult to get used to due to the height? Any advice? Did you feel OK the first day there?
Great pictures. Thanks.
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RE: Latin American Trip Report (Peru & Bolivia JUL 09)

Mon Jul 12, 2010 2:09 pm

Great tripreport with stunning pictures! Wow what an adventure you must had!
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RE: Latin American Trip Report (Peru & Bolivia JUL 09)

Mon Jul 12, 2010 4:29 pm

Wonderful photos of Peru and Bolivia! Both are extremely high on my places to visit!!
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RE: Latin American Trip Report (Peru & Bolivia JUL 09)

Mon Jul 12, 2010 7:34 pm

Wow. beautiful pictures. I'm visiting Machu Picchu labor day weekend and I'm really excited after reading this trip report. Those pictures are just stunning...
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RE: Latin American Trip Report (Peru & Bolivia JUL 09)

Tue Jul 13, 2010 1:42 am

Beautiful TR...gorgeous pictures. Reminded me of the time when I lived in South America. We hiked the Inka Trail to Machu Picchu and it was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. I also went to Titicaca and lived with an indigenous family on the island of Amantani, and also visited Isla Taquile...the lake is so blue. I want to return to Peru and Bolivia some day - two of the most natural and mystical countries in Latin America so rich in culture and purity of life.

We should consider ourselves lucky, thanks again!
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RE: Latin American Trip Report (Peru & Bolivia JUL 09)

Tue Jul 13, 2010 7:18 am

Very nice TR! Thank you very much. I always wanted to go to Bolivia. This was a nice way to know more about the country.
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RE: Latin American Trip Report (Peru & Bolivia JUL 09)

Tue Jul 13, 2010 7:43 am

Thank you for all the feedback! I appreciate it.

Quoting lychemsa (Reply 4):
I was told that Cuzco is also difficult to get used to due to the height?

Yes, but it wasn't as bad as El Alto (LPB airport) just after arrival from the long intercontinental trip. I did experience some altitude sickness (shortness of breath, headache, cold sweats, fatigue and so on), but shifting back a few proverbial gears helped a lot and I somewhat acclimatised to the altitude.

Quoting lychemsa (Reply 4):
Any advice? Did you feel OK the first day there?

On the first day I didn't really feel anything anymore, being knackered from the journey, jet-lag, the altitude and trying to speak Spanish instead of Portuguese.

As for advice, take it slowly and don't reject a cup or two of coca tea. It really does help, although you probably shouldn't overindulge even despite the minute amount of alkaloids in it.
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RE: Latin American Trip Report (Peru & Bolivia JUL 09)

Sat Jul 24, 2010 7:35 am

Wonderful photos of Peru and Bolivia!

I want to visit these places too now, just not enough holidays to go around!

One day I hope.

Thanks for posting.




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