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Rock climbing in Bolivia

Sucre – climbing with new friends in Bolivia

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Carlos and Ingrid

We desperately wanted to go climbing in Bolivia as we had not managed to do any climbing at all in Peru. When we were in Peru the catastrophic floods and landslides made it impossible to reach many climbing areas and unsafe to climb in many places. It had been 4 months since our last outdoor climb in Cat Ba Vietnam and we were itching to get back on the rock. At the same time I was wondering if I still would have enough climbing fitness in me to really enjoy it.

 

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Beautiful Ha Long bay Vietnam back in December 2016.

Once we got to Sucre from Potosi and started looking at things to do there, we immediately realised that there is plenty of rock climbing in the Sucre area. Happy days! There are 2 main climbing companies that operate in Sucre and through a friend of climbing friend that met in Lima 2 months earlier, I got in touch with Carlos at ClimbingSucre to se if he could help us out.

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Climbing at base camp Lima

By the time Carlos and I got talking we only had 2 days left in Sucre before our flight to Santa Cruz. Luckily Carlos offered to take us out climbing that same afternoon so that we could fit 2 climbing sessions in before leaving. Perfect! With such a long time since our last climb, to fully enjoy it we would need a proper warmup session before trying any harder climbs. We agreed on 2 half days of climbing at BS1000 and headed off out to Sica Sica crag just a few hours later.

Rock climbing at Sica Sica Crag, Bolivia

With only a handful of climbs in the last year in China, Malaysia, Australia, Thailand x 2, and Vietnam. Ingrid and I were lacking our usual climbing strength, especially in our fingers so we were both hoping to  enjoy climbing some lower grades than usual.

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View over Sucre from Sica Sica crag

Carlos met us at our hostel and a taxi buddy of his picked us all up and drove 10min to the crag at the edge of town. How amazing to have such a big wall to climb right on your door step at almost walking distance from the centre of Sucre. No wonder foreigners have settled here to run climbing businesses.

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Bolivia, Sucre, Sica Sica crag set in a tranquil eucalyptus forest

Getting back on the rock after 4 months break

Ingrid was soo excited she was almost hyper. She was skipping along the steep path up the 20 min ascent from the road to the crag and singing non stop. We soon arrived at the gorgeous crag and enjoyed the great view over Sucre right behind us. The 25m wall has a steep path up one side, perfect for setting up top ropes. Carlos went to set up the ropes, while Ingrid and I got our gear out.

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Ready to climb

As he came back down he was keen to point out that there are a lot of unsafe routes set up by amateurs in Bolivia. 2 routes he pointed out on this wall were set up with unsafe bolts and unless you come here with a guide, you would not know this and perhaps have an accident as a result.  Bolts and drills are hard to come by in Bolivia, and although climb Bolivia pay for some of the routes there guys set up, Carlos also explained he and other climbers have invested a lot of money in bolting routes and buying gear that is more expensive in Bolivia than in most European countries.

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Sore toes

I was not looking forward to unwrapping our smelly shoes that had been hiding in layers of plastic bags in the bottom of Ingrid backpack for months. Happy to find that they were ok and good to use…my feet however were not as pleased. I got another little bag out with what i thought was chalk, only to discover it was a bag of pasta! What a plonker, a days climbing without chalk as Carlos had not brought his either! At least the crag was in the shade so we would hopefully not be climbing too hard or sweating enough to really need it…

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Lovely routes on the Sica Sica crag

We started easy on a couple of 4s on the giant slab and were happy to find that the technique was still in us. We were also pleased to start the 2 days of climbing on a slab as it meant more leg power and less reliance on our weak fingers and arms. Most of the climbs were along flakes and cracks and friction on this sharp sandstone was good all they way. We continued climbing through the 5bs and 5cs  and finished on a couple of lovely long 6as. What a lovely afternoon of climbing.

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Ingrid on top rope at Sica Sica crag Bolivia

Lead climbing on Garcilazo Crag, Bolivia

Day 2 we headed off at 8 and had only a 15 drive to Garcilazo crag. The driver who’s car was running on something other than petrol was struggling to get the car up the hill to our drops off point, but eventually we made it.

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Tricky approach to the Garcilazo crag in Bolivia

Once there I could not see the crag anywhere…turns out that we were on top of it and the approach was s steep scramble down a slippery hill to the impressive wall of exposed sandstone. Luckily Ingrid is like little mountain goat these days so we managed to get there safely in the end. The Garcilazo crag is a high quality vertical sandstone with long cracks, some tough crimpers and a distinct lack of foot holds.

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Typical route on Garcilazo crag in Bolivia

It is south facing so in summer, this shady spot provides great protection form the sun, but as this is winter it was very cold in the shade so I was glad we had brought our hats and puffers. Yann (one of Ingrid climbing coaches back in London) says cold is good for friction said Ingrid with a smile.

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No hanging about, I has asked to lead and that is what I got. I set up the first 5a route and Ingrid second it after me. We were both really suffering with cold fingers, especially the 1st third of every route. It was total agony and  sharp rock on our cold weak fingers made for an uncomfortable start.

Fingers apart, I felt really confident leading this route as it had many options for hands and feet. As the crag is approached from the top, all the ropes can be cleaned from the top as we were leaving, meaning could spend more time climbing and less time cleaning routes.

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Excited and happy to be lead climbing again
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Ingrid working her way up this 6a+

We moved on to top a few other routes of the same line and started to feel the pain building up in our relatively weak finders and feet after months of no climbing. I loved this crag, such a perfectly clean and sharp vertical rock towering up above you and a great mix of comfortable and hared moves. There are also many different routes to climb in a great range of grades from 4 all the way up to 7b+.

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Having a rest before topping out on this long crack

The first few moves on all the route were quite reachy and hard so Ingrid opted to second me while I led. Even I struggled to get the first 2 clips in on all routes and was secretly pleased she opted out of leading today. With more recent climbs in the bags I’m sure she could have led these routes with confidence, but lack of regular climbing does quickly take your top performance and climbing confidence out of you.

 

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Sore fingers after 2 days of climbing

After 4 leads and 2 top ropes my feet were absolutely killing me and Ingrid was getting hungry. Time to head back into Sucre to meet up with Scott and Paul who had been out to se the dinosaur footprints and park.

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Over 5000 dinosaur foot print on this wall
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Having fun in the dinosaur park

 

 

Dynamite sticks & fear deep inside the Potosi mines

Potosi, Bolivia the richest mine in all of world history

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Waiting for the bus in Uyuni

We initially through we would stay in Uyuni for a few days to chill out after our 3 day 4×4 adventure across Salar de Uyuni, but quickly changed our mind. Uyuni is not a particular nice place to hang out, just a transit town where the roads from both Argentina and Chile converge before continuing up towards la Paz and all other cities in Bolivia.

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Uyuni playground had a great slide and not much else

We only managed dinner at a really good pizzeria, a visit to the playground in the morning followed by lunch and a 4 hr bus ride up to 4090m, to Potosi, the old silver mining city but that was just about enough. 

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Beautiful colonial buildings and me looking silly in Potosi!

We could definitely feel the lack of oxygen at this altitude and the pollution from heavy traffic made it even worse. We all suffered light headaches, dehydration, general fatigue and grumpiness. Hostel Realeza was in a good spot right in the heart of the colonial city centre, close to the market and the beautiful town square.

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May 1st march in Potosi, a town full of workers and unions

Our first full day here was May 1st, the whole city of Potosi was closed as different unions of miners, farmers, shop keepers, teachers etc marched through the city centre. A great sight to see all the people out marching for their rights, especially the ladies dressed up in the finery and traditional costumes.

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Ingrid showing off on the monkey bars

After spending the day acclimatising and hanging out at an amazing playground we organised our trip to the mines the following day.

Safety gear for us – dynamite sticks for the miners

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Excited miners – before going into the mines

The main thing to do in Potosi is to visit the old silver mines so this is what we decided to do. There are a few travel agencies offering a mine tour, but we chose Koala tours, the only tour that takes you into an actual working mine rather than a closed down mine. Early departure in a minibus a few blocks up from the main square then a quick stop to get kitted our with protective clothes. Ingrid and Scott were both excited as Paul had explained to them that going into the mines would be a bit like playing Minecraft. Little did we know……

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Getting kitted out with safety cloths before heading into the Potosi mines

We all got protective trousers, coats and welly boots. I was surprised that they had wellies just the right size for the kids. Final touch was a protective hat with a head torch and a heavy battery pack clipped into your belt. Just getting dressed and walking in all the gear was hard, especially for Scott. How would he cope walking like this deep inside the mine…..

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Buying dynamite gifts in the miners shop

Next, the minibus took us to the miners market were we bought gifts to take with us to give to the miners we’d meet inside the tunnels. The guide explained that its the part of our tour fee that goes to the miners and the gifts we bring that keep the working miners happy for tourist to come into the mines to see them working. We bought dynamite sticks, ammonium sulphate, detonators, coca leaves and soft drinks that they mix with 96% alcohol while working. Next stop the actual mines!

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Feeling scared deep inside in the dark Potosi mines

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Cerro Rico at 4400m

After a 15 min drive up the hill we were there. Young coca chewing men covered in dust and dirt were having a break outside the mine entrance as we got a safety briefing from our guide. Every now and then a 2ton cart with dirt and stones came hurtling out of the entrance on old rickety train tracks pushed & pulled by 3 young men. These were the carts we would have to avoid at all cost once inside the tunnels.

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Getting ready to head into the mines
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Last minute safety chat before we head into the mines

With our head torches turned on we went into the tunnels covering our mouths with our buffs to limit inhaling the dangerous mining dust. The tunnels were pitch back and very small,  much smaller than I had imagined. Only Scott could walk upright the rest of us were folded over trying not to trip on the tracks and stones along the tunnel floor.

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Inside the dark mining tunnels

In the distance we could hear carts being loaded and pushed down the tracks. “Out of the way” cried the guide and we all had to jump into a niche along the side of the track to avoid being run over. Every 10 min or so another cart came hurtling at us as we stumbled along the dark tunnel, folded in half and sweating profusely in all our heavy gear.

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Miners hard at work

As we got deeper into the tunnels, the oppressing feeling and slight fear was getting to all of us, especially Ingrid who was looking very uncomfortable stumbling along in the little light from her head light. After 40 min of walking, 450 m deep inside the mountain, where more than 10 000 men work everyday, we finally arrived at a resting station. During our 10 min break the guide told us about the hard life of the miners in Potosi and the gods they worship to stay safe.

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The mining god

Each man work for himself in a syndicated group with their earnings depending on the minerals they find. Around 50 miners die every year in accidents and another 50-100 in lung related diseases, their life expectancy is only 40-50, but working the mines earn them more money than any other job they could possibly do here. 

Time to get out of the mines – we end the tour early

After the 10 min break we were supposed to head further into the tunnels for another hour of exploring the tunnels deep inside the mines. At this point Ingrid and Scott were starting to feel a bit unwell and so I told the guide we had to take the kids out. To be honest, at this point I did not want to go in any further either.

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Feeling uncomfortable deep inside the mine

On the way out we had to wait as carts were filled up with rubble from a shaft in the roof…and all I could think of was the terror of being stuck in the mine behind falling rocks. The guide assured us we were safe, but I certainly did not feel very safe.

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Happy to be out in the fresh air
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Well deserved rest in the fresh air

Once outside, we waited an hour in a little safety shack before the rest of the group returned. Ingrid almost fainted as we sat down, totally overcome by the stress of being inside the mine for over an hour. I too felt unwell and relieved to be out in the fresh air again. Scott and Ingrid both promised then and there to study hard in school so that they never ever would have to work in a mine.

A week of adventures in the Atacama desert

Our house at the end of a dusty road – Cabana Volcano

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Minibus ride from the airport in Calama to San Pedro de Atacama

It was a 2.5 hr flight from Santiago to Calama then a 1.5 hr bus ride from Calama, in the north east part of Chile on the Bolivian border, to San Pedro de Atacama. At the end of a dusty bumpy road, 20 min walk from the centre of San Pedro de Atacama we finally arrived at our little cabana for the week. Cabana Volcano!

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Cabana Volcano

Cabana Volcano was a very small but cute little house with 2 tiny bedrooms and a fold out bed in the kitchenette/sitting room, bathroom with a hot shower and best of all a terrace with a large BBQ, table and chairs.

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Not very big inside, but ok for a few days

This is where we spent most of our time enjoying the with views over snowcapped volcanoes with nothing else to distract us. The cabana was ours for the next week and the kids felt excited about not going anywhere for a while and so did I to be honest. The previous week of exploring towns in Chile had meant a lot of travelling and eating out so we were all ready to settle down in one place for a while and cook our own food.

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Breakfast on the terrace overlooking the mountains

For Granny Olive and Uncle Adam who had come all the way to Chile from Scotland to see us, this was the main destination of their trip and by far the most exciting part of tour time together. While the kids had some well needed rest mornings and afternoons adapting to the high altitude of 2400m, Granny and Ad went on a coupe of trips on their own.

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Scott riding a bike we found along the dusty road leading up to our house

We spent 6 days here mixing lazy morning with early starts for sunrise excursions and late evening stargazing sessions with strolls into San Pedro de Atacama for food and play in one of the playgrounds.

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There are some great playgrounds for the kids to enjoy in San Pedro

San Pedro de Atacama is quite a busy little town with tourists in mini busses coming and going everyday as they head out on one of many exciting desert adventures on offer in the many tour offices. Dirt streets are lined with little shops, hostels, restaurants and bars that mainly spring to life after dark. We were glad not to stay in the centre of things and enjoyed the peace and quiet in our cabana 20 min walk from town.

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Main road, a little dirt road that runs through the little town of San Pedro de Atacama
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Heard of llamas on the way from our cabana to town

While at the cabana we didn’t do much except cook, eat, play games and enjoy the views on the terrace. We found 2 little bikes round the back of the house that Ingrid and Scott loved whizzing round on in the dust. There was also a friendly builder close by with a dog called Ozzie and a stray puppy that Scotty of course fell in love with.

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The end of the road and the view from our cabana, looks like the Savannah
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Scott and Ozzy the dog

Exciting Atacama adventures

The sights and excursions we did here were some of the best on our round the world trip so far and with Granny and Uncle Ad here we did more of them than we would have done on our own. It was just the excuse we needed to push the budget a bit to make some magical lifetime memories. Here below is a summary our favourite Atacama desert adventures.

Hot air balloon ride at sunrise

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Watching the hot air balloon being inflated

The Atacama is probably the best place in the world to go on a hot air balloon ride..according to our pilot who had been flying balloons all his life in over 25 countries. Unfortunately for Scott you had to be 8 to go, to be able to see out of the basked unaided, so he stayed at home with Paul for a morning of sleep and mine craft. 7.30 pick up from our house then a 20 min ride out into the desert landscape where we were met by the balloon pilot and his crew.

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All fired up and ready to go

After a thorough safety briefing we go served hot coffee, hot chocolate and croissants while watching the team inflate the balloon. We even got to climb inside it for a quick photo before getting ready to go.

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Inside the Hot air balloon with our pilot

The basket was divided into 4 compartments round the centre compartment with the pilot and gas canisters. Ingrid and I climbed into one compartment next to Granny Olive and Adam. One the other side was a German contingent photographing designer suits. We rose up 300m very fast avoiding the breeze lower down while enjoying the view of the desert as we and the sun rose ever higher in the sky.

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View of the landscape and our shadow from the balloon
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Having a great time up high
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View of the sunrise over the mountains from the Hot air balloon

From 1000m up we could see our cabana and San Pedro in the desert landscape far below and a few oasis scattered along the dry riverbed. After 1 hr of drifting in the gentle breeze it was time to go down. The basked descended slowly with us sitting down in brace position hoping the basket would not drag along the ground as we landed. Suddenly the basket was standing still on the gourd and we were safely down greeted by champagne and orange juice. What a lovely morning!

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Touching Mother Earth at the Meteorite Museum

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Outside the little Meteorite Museum in San Pedro de Atacama

The little Meteorite museum in San Pedro de Atacama does not look like much from the outside but what a great afternoon we had here. All the magic takes place inside the little dome where a large collection of real meteorites are exhibited along the the wall of the dome shaped tent. Entry of £3 includes a guided tour in English with headphones and some hands on activities at the end. Its well worth the price!

Each meteorite has an exciting story to tell which is explained on little screens next to each meteorite. The language is very scientific, but we all could understand enough to make out how planet earth was formed in the big bang of meteorites 450Bn years ago, how a giant meteorite killed the dinosaurs and how they may impact planet earth and us in the future. All meteors on display here have been found in the Atacama desert by the two brothers who set up the museum ..not because there are more meteorites here but because they are much easier to find here in the stable desert environment than in other places in the world.

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Enjoying our guided tour in the meteorite museum

The session ended with a lady showing us, and letting us touch a 450Bn years old mother earth meteorite. Mother Earth meteorites are the oldest rock on earth, they are leftovers from the meteorite crash, the big bang that formed planet Earth 450 Bn years ago. The lady also explained how to find and identify a meteorites from a normal stones. The kids especially loved this part and were were all excited to go out and look for our own meteorites to take with us home.

Stargazing and hot chocolate

Perhaps not the easiest activity to do with little children due to the late time and the relatively long time you spend standing around, but we all loved it nonetheless. We went stargazing in an observatory in Australia back in October but this was even better. The english speaking bus from Atacama desert stargazing left San Pedro at 7.30 and arrived at the observatory 20 min later. We all gathered round our extremely knowledgable Canadian guide who was telling us about the star constellations, planets and solar system using a laster beam to point it all out. The light pollution is close to zero here and so the night sky is simply stunning. After 40 min gazing at the stars it was time to see the most interesting planets, stars and galaxies up close on a permanent set up of 11 telescopes, 1 of which is the largest public telescope in all of South America. There were enough telescopes to go round avoiding any queues. Ingrid and Scott loved walking round looking at all the stars and planets, excited about those they could recognise from our session in Australia. It was getting cold and so after 45min of telescopes we were invited into a a little hut for questions and a hot chocolate. Home in bed by 10, what a great evening! Sorry not to post any photos here but it was pitch back and impossible to photograph.

Horse riding in the desert

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Rancho Cactus outside San Pedro de Atacama

As Scott was too little to go in the hot air balloons a few days earlier, the two of us went horse riding one late afternoon to make up for it. It was something I had been longing to do and so was very happy to organise our 2 hr desert horseback ride with Rancho Cactus. The actual ranch was just 10 min drive from the centre of San Pedro and offered more stunning views of the landscape with snowcapped volcanoes in the background.

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Scott and I loved our 2 hr desert horse ride

Pablo, Scott and I packed our saddlebags with water and set off. I was worried Scott would get tired or bored but he was such a star, loving every moment.  We spend 30 min heading out of town towards the riverbed. I was surprised at how confident and relaxed he was as he had only just had a coupe of 5 min pony rides in London before. Even when packs of wild dogs came running barking at us he stayed cool as a cucumber and so did the horses. We rode along the riverbed for 1 hr letting the horses stop for a drink and a break then spent 30 min getting back to the ranch. After 2 hrs on the back of the horse my bum and I were both ready for a break.

From -8 degrees celcius to +38 at Tatio Geysers

Scott and I did not go to Tatio Geysers as it was a 5am start and a trip up to 4200m altitude. We had a lazy morning doing play-doh instead. Below is an extract out of Ingrid diary from the trip to the Geysers with Paul, Granny and Uncle Ad.

IMG_8512“Toady we woke up early to go to geysers El Tati. We got into the minivan and because the english speaking guide didn’t show up Granny became the guide. When we stopped for the tickets it was freezing outside, it was -8degrees celsius.A t first it didn’t feel that cold but suddenly it was freezing. We forgot to bring my puffer jacket so I was wearing daddays fleece instead.

 

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Lovely soak in the water heated by Geyser Tatio

We got back into the bus and drove to the Geysers. First we had breakfast consisting mostly of hot chocolate and then we went to look at the geysers. It had to be quick otherwise my feet would have frozen completely. We saw one geyser erupting. Back in the car daddy warmed up my feet then it was time for the volcanic hot springs. You could only swim in it for 30 min because of all the minerals from the geyser. Me and daddy got changed and when we walked outside to the water the coldness of the stones burned into my feet. We got into the water and it wasn’t that warm so we swam closer to the geyser and it was amazing. We were next to some Australian and Irish ladies.

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Llama skewers taste great

After the swim we got dressed and got into the van. We drove for a while until we came to a little village where we had delicious llama skewers and goats cheese empanadas. I loved both of the but my favourite were the empanadas.”