Author: gortoner

Valparaíso: the city of street art

It’s the 16th of December. I’ve just spent two straight days on a bus, listening to almost all of Dracula, unabridged. If I leave now and catch a flight from Santiago to Brazil I could be on my original flight and back in London tomorrow. We’ve just arrived at our hostel in Valparaíso, the city by the sea. The flight’s still cheap on Skyscanner. I can actually do this. I get as far as the checkout screen for the airline but something stops me. I close my browser. I’m not ready to go home. I smile for the conviction and go to tell Caroline. Valparaíso has long been reported to me as a favourite place by many travellers going in the opposite direction – not only in Chile, but in some people’s whole itineraries. I’ve already been shown pictures of it, accompanied by awed and enthusiastic commentary. And as we walk into town that first day, I’m not surprised. It’s immediately my favourite too. The city is made up of 42 cerros (hills) giving necessity …

San Pedro de Atacama: exploits in the Chilean desert

Another long bus journey takes me to my next destination in Chile. I’ve vowed not to take another night bus on this trip if I can help it, after some of the more horrific journeys of Bolivia. So I idle the day looking out on to the passing barren landscape in a mild stupor, audiobook in my ears. I’m interrupted only when we cross into a new region of Chile where our bags have to be scanned. It’s at this point I discover the oil and vinegar I was ill-advisedly transporting – in a stubbornness not to waste such expensive items – have exploded odorously into the side-pocket of my bag, making the bus and the rest of my day smell like a heavily dressed salad. On this journey I also feel the full absurdity of the detour which had led me back to La Paz and not across the Chilean border after the salt flat tour. For San Pedro de Atacama – the mid-desert backpacker hub where I’m heading – is exactly where I …

Iquique: a Chilean writing retreat

It is a sad and bewildering bus journey that takes me away from Bolivia and on to the Chilean coast. I say an early morning goodbye to Adam who flies home that day and board my 5.30am bus bound for Arica – a surfing town in the north of Chile. Exhausted and rather deflated by Adam’s departure I sleep my way through most of the early part of the journey, waking to find stunning volcanoes stark on the landscape as we reach the border. My Spanish receives a severe knock here as I hear the Chilean accent for the first time and regress back to my Mexico self, shaking my head and saying no intiendo after most exchanges. This makes the border crossing – stressful as they can be anyway – all the more bemusing, especially as Chile is extremely strict with what goes into the country. All our bags have to be scanned. The guy on the seat next to me is far too chatty for my contemplative mood and his accent especially indecipherable. I …

Bolivian detours: An unexpected visitor

Caroline and I waved a final goodbye to La Paz the day after we braved Death Road and survived relatively unharmed. Heaving on my backpack and walking through the city to the terminal is slightly more difficult with my various injuries, but I manage it. We’ve opted for one of the cheapest buses in the terminal and aren’t too surprised therefore at the dilapidated state of the vehicle that pulls in. Entrenched in the ways of our overly-organised nations, we stand a little baffled before boarding, waiting for someone – anyone – to confirm it’s the right bus, look at our tickets, put our rucksacks in the hold or pay any attention to us whatsoever. As the departure time approaches and nothing changes we eventually decide to climb on board, big bags and all, and the bus leaves a few minutes later. We’re the only gringos on board and it’s a hectic, cold and rather disconcerting journey, with frequent stops and interruptions of many kinds. I sleep little, my bag clutched to myself. We’re heading …

Coroico and the world’s most dangerous road

The world’s most dangerous road, Camino de las Yungas or ‘Death Road’ as it’s affectionately nicknamed, is a big attraction for backpackers travelling through La Paz. Bolivia’s known for its perilous roads and high number of car accidents, and this particular route, connecting the city to sleepy village Coroico, around three hours away, was deemed so dangerous they were moved to build a new road between the two places. Mountain bikers and the tour agency collectivos following closely behind are now its only traffic. At first, I had no interest in the tour, mainly because I was stuck in my hostel trying to keep food down for the first week in the country. But also, I had never mountain biked or particularly desired to before and didn’t see why I would try it now because the gringo trail demanded it of me. I was more interested in Coroico itself, one of Lonely Planet’s top picks for Bolivia which is recommended as a place for relaxation and ‘extreme hammocking’. I liked the idea of a relaxing …

Locked in Loki: My first week in La Paz

It’s the bus journey where I start to feel it. I always know I’m in a bad state when I reach for my iPod and one of my greatest comforts: Stephen Fry reading me one of the Harry Potter series. It’s usually a later one, although the first couple sometimes still get an airing. This time I chose Half-Blood Prince. It’s similar to the few times I was ill in Cusco and amidst the ruins at Machu Picchu – there’s the nausea and lack of energy, and I decide it must be altitude sickness, the only connecting factor for all of my episodes. But a quick and lucky toilet stop indicates that this time things have considerably escalated. We’re on the short bus ride to La Paz from Copacabana. Short for me is four hours, but I suppose my UK-self, used to far shorter journeys, would dispute the term. We’re in the worst possible seats at the back of the bus. We have plastic panelling instead of a window. The air is close. I shut my eyes and lean …

Into Bolivia: Lake Titicaca and Isla del Sol

Those last few days in Cusco passed quickly in the blur of trekking recovery, spent walking in the pleasant sunshine of its streets and squares, playing cards in its restaurants and deciphering a wide selection of Spanish-dubbed films for my mum from the wide screen in our hotel room. This was also the week I decided to make big on my plan to extend my trip, booking another plane ticket two months after my intended return date, allowing me to fit Patagonia, Buenos Aires and, crucially, Rio and carnival into my itinerary. The finality of this move did nothing to diminish the wave of homesickness that broke over me as my family and I prepared to part ways – the two of them to London and me into Bolivia. I seem to always have to endure a fierce internal battle whenever I’m traveling for an extended period. This war rages between my freer spirit, independent and spontaneous with a thirst for discovery, solitude and the great desire to climb to the top of every rock …