Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Radisson Plaza Hotel La Paz

***This post is part 7 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

The Radisson Plaza Hotel is the only international chain in La Paz, but don't go there expecting international standards in decor and upkeep. In its heyday (probably a few decades ago), this was certainly a five-star hotel with its expansive lobby, full-service amenities, and towering presence over one of the wealthiest districts in La Paz. However, time hasn't been particularly kind, and without any major remodeling of the rooms and facilities, everything now looks incredibly dated and tired.

Armed with my U.S. Bank Club Carlson Visa,  I booked two nights here for only 15,000 Gold Points, with the last night free. If I didn't have this benefit, I probably would have just paid for the room out-of-pocket since prepaid nights often go for well under $100 USD. Booking over the Club Carlson website was very straightforward, and they even automatically removed the points deduction for the last night since your credit card and membership accounts are linked.

We arrived at the Radisson Plaza Hotel around 9:00 pm hungry and tired. Thankfully, the wait to check in was short. After an extensive day of traveling, I didn't have the energy or patience to take pictures of the facilities that night, but I did so the next morning. All we really wanted to do was throw our belongings into the room and quickly find something to eat in the area.

Radisson Plaza Hotel La Paz


Monday, August 26, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Strikes In Copacabana And Detour Through Peru

***This post is part 6 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

The day prior to leaving Copacabana, we went to the Titicaca Bolivia office to inquire about tickets to La Paz. Tourist buses cost about 30 Bolivianos and depart daily at 1:30 pm, with another possible departure late in the afternoon. There are also local buses that leave every hour for about half the price. 

Besides comfort, the main trade-off is the fact that local buses will drop you off at the cemetery bus terminal in La Paz, which is located in a more dangerous area outside the center of town. There have been documented robberies against tourists here, especially at night, so we opted to play it safe and booked the tourist bus instead.

We were warned, however, that there was a high possibility of a workers strike the next day. When that occurs, all transportation into and out of Copacabana ceases, and we would be left stranded. Of course, our tickets would be refunded. Feeling somewhat helpless, we hoped for the best and returned to the hotel.

Ominously, we woke up the next morning to the sound of loud chants and banging drums. From our windows, we could see a long parade of strikers marching through town.

Strike in Copacabana

Still clinging on to a shred of hope, we quickly got ready, checked out of our hotel, and headed to Titicaca Bolivia to see what the situation was like. Unfortunately, we were informed that all roads out of Copacabana had been blocked by strikers, and even the remaining possibility of taking a boat out of town was unfeasible since the boat drivers were refusing to cross the picket line.

The only way we could leave Copacabana that day would be to walk eight kilometers back to the Peruvian border at Kasani, find a taxi or shared minibus to drive us to the alternate border crossing at Desaguadero approximately an hour away, and then catch a local bus from Desaguadero to La Paz. This would be a huge detour, not to mention a complete waste of time crossing back into Peru and then returning to Bolivia. But it was the only option left.

After we made the decision to hike it out of Copacabana, we left immediately so as not to waste any more time. Behind us were at least another half dozen backpackers who were determined to leave as well. The eight kilometers to the border turned out to be relatively flat, but walking with the weight of all of our belongings under the intense sun was still very strenuous. On the way, we passed by several makeshift roadblocks set up by the strikers, including large stones and toppled tree limbs.

Starting the hike back to the Kasani

Edge of town

Leaving Copacabana behind

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Exploring Copacabana And Isla Del Sol

***This post is part 5 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Say the word "Copacabana", and the first image that comes to mind may be the sunny beaches of Rio de Janiero. Unbeknownst to many, however, is the fact that the famous Copacabana Beach is actually named after a small town along the shores of Lake Titicaca.

The town's preeminent basilica, one of the oldest churches in Bolivia, houses a revered statue of the Virgen de la Candelaria, to whom many miracles have been attributed. Carved in 1583, the statue turned the community into a pilgrimage site, and its fame quickly spread throughout South America. A replica was created in Rio de Janiero, and a chapel to house it was built along a white-sand beach, whose name was soon changed to Copacabana.

A beautiful place in its own right, Copacabana feels a world away from the rather dingy atmosphere of Puno. The streets were bustling, and the vibrant beach on Lake Titicaca were packed with tourists and locals alike. Maybe it was the gorgeous weather, or perhaps the relaxed demeanor of the locals, but something just made me feel completely at ease here. After a detour by the lakeshore, we hiked up a steep road (no easy feat considering the town is at 12,600 feet) and found our hotel, Hostal Las Olas, prominently situated on a steep hillside.

Main street in Copacabana


Out of all the places I stayed at on this trip, I was most looking forward to Las Olas. Take a look at their website, and you'll probably understand why. "Hostel" is definitely a misnomer here, as each of the seven suites that make up the property is its own bungalow. And each bungalow has been individually designed like a life-sized art project. I imagine the owner to be some sort of eccentric recluse, because the creative quirks that went into each of these buildings is really quite impressive.

Hostal Las Olas

New seashell suite being constructed

View from the reception

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Crossing Into Bolivia Via Kasani

***This post is part 4 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Border crossings by land can be a little tricky, especially when it comes to developing countries. The path between Southern Peru and Bolivia, however, is well-worn with backpackers from across the globe. As such, it is relatively safe and hassle-free. The two main routes in the Lake Titicaca region are either via Desaguadero or Kasani. 

Desaguadero is the larger of the two, and most people who want the fastest and most direct passage to La Paz will choose this course. Kasani is smaller, less chaotic, and more picturesque. It is also the only way to reach Copacabana from Puno. To get from Copacabana to La Paz, you will have to get off the bus at one point and take a ferry across a narrow strait on Lake Titicaca (the bus is ferried across separately by barge). Once you reach the other side, get back onto the same bus and continue on your journey.

Since we were headed to Copacabana, our only option was the Kasani route, which I actually preferred. We had booked the bus ticket through our hotel in Puno, and the cost was 18 soles per person, including a taxi ride from the hotel to the bus station. I believe there were three daily buses (6:00 am, 7:30 am, and 2:30 pm) leaving Puno for Copacabana, all operated by Titicaca Bolivia. We chose the 7:30 am departure, and made sure to arrive at the station by 7:10 am.

Taxi to Puno bus station

After locating the Titicaca Bolivia stand and confirming our tickets, we headed over to the Tasa de Embarque booth to pay the mandatory departure tax. Finally, we exited the building via the gate number listed on the tickets and found our double-decker bus waiting at its designated spot. I was surprised at how clean and modern the vehicle was. After reading so many horror stories online regarding buses in South America, I had been expecting the worst. Large backpacks were stored in the bottom compartment, and we then climbed aboard.

Bus station shops

Titicaca Bolivia stand

Paying the departure tax

Our bus to Copacabana

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Exploring Puno

***This post is part 3 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Puno is quite popular these days on the Southern Peru track, and a stroll through the main streets will quickly confirm that a large portion of the day-to-day population consists of tourists from all parts of the world. It matters little that the town itself is not particularly picturesque, since the main attraction is Lake Titicaca and its many islands.

Historically, Puno lies at the junction between the Quechua and Aymara peoples, though to the foreign eyes and ears, it may be difficult to distinguish between the two. Indeed, Puno is a melting pot of sorts, both between cultures and generations. Older women and men dressed in traditional Andean garb cross paths with their younger counterparts in t-shirts and jeans. This lovely mosaic of colors, sounds, and tastes encapsulates a beautiful snapshot of the entire Lake Titicaca region.

A feast for the eyes - shopping in Puno

At around 12,500 feet, Puno is no place to be messed with in terms of altitude sickness. From there, you only go higher as you make your way into Bolivia. To give you some perspective, Lhasa, in Tibet, is just under 12,000 feet. My best recommendation would be to get a prescription for Acetazolamide (Diomox) from your doctor before heading there, and to follow the directions on taking them carefully. Even if you don't have a genetic predisposition to experiencing the affects of altitude sickness, it's much better to bring the pills along just in case.

My second recommendation, despite some people's hesitation, would be to chew coca leaves. This stuff really works. Within an hour of arriving in Puno, I began experiencing the symptoms of altitude sickness, including a severe headache, fatigue, and nausea. I was about to run to the restroom to vomit during lunch, but the waitress handed me a cup of coca tea instead and told me to chew the leaves immediately. Within 10 minutes, almost all the symptoms had subsided. Just be careful not to bring any leaves with you when you return home, as there are strict anti-drug laws in many countries regarding the importation of coca.

Buying the wonder drug - coca leaves

After a 45-minute drive from the Juliaca airport, we were dropped off directly at our hotel, Mosoq Inn. The total cost of the transfer was 90 soles. We chose Mosoq Inn based on the positive reviews on TripAdvisor, and also because of how affordable it was, even relative to the already low cost of hotels in town. While nothing terribly special, we did appreciate the fact that they had triple rooms and the fact that breakfast was included.

Check-in was friendly, and the front desk lady was extremely helpful with our questions regarding buses to Copacabana the next morning as well as tours to the Uros Islands. In fact, we went ahead and booked both directly with the hotel as the cost was comparable to estimates we found online. The Uros Islands tour was $15 USD per person, payable directly to the tour company, and the bus to Copacabana (including a taxi transfer from the hotel to the bus station) was 18 soles. It was also a plus that Mosoq Inn took Visa or MasterCard, as many hotels in this region are cash only.

Mosoq Inn


Computers for guest use

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Comparison Of Three Carlson Rezidor Hotels In London

Besides the generous 85,000 Gold Points sign-up bonus, probably the best feature of the Club Carlson Visa is its "last night free" benefit, wherein if you redeem Gold Points for two or more consecutive award nights, your last night is always free. This creates an interesting proposition, because if a city you're visiting has multiple Carlson Rezidor properties, you could technically get 50% off your entire award stay by hotel hopping for two nights each.

I did this recently in London since they have no less than 15 properties close to downtown. I stayed for six nights total, choosing The May Fair, the Radisson Blu Edwardian Mercer Street Hotel, and the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge. Hotels in London are incredibly expensive, and any of the Radisson Blu hotels can routinely top $400 per night. Carlson Rezidor's most famous and luxurious property in London, The May Fair, can start anywhere from $400-$700 per night and only goes up from there.

The May Fair is where I started, and to be honest, I was a little nervous to show up at one of London's hot spots with my nasty backpack and disheveled appearance. By then, I had been traveling through Germany for almost two weeks, and after a late night flight into London from Munich, I was exhausted and grimy. I kept imagining security dragging me out of the lobby while hip onlookers pointed and shook their heads disapprovingly. Luckily, reality was a lot less exciting, and I was courteously greeted upon arrival despite my demeanor. 

The May Fair

It was almost midnight when I checked in, so there were few people in the lobby, although the bar area was fairly crowded. I really appreciated the watermelon-infused water dispenser that was located at every check-in terminal. The very friendly front desk agent was efficient and quickly handed me the keys to my room. He noticed I was by myself and confirmed this with me since I typically put two people on the reservation just in case a travel buddy decides to join me. He then asked if I preferred a king bed instead of two twins, which I declined.


When I entered the room, I was really surprised at how large it was. Shocked was probably a more apt description when I then saw the size of the bathroom. I'd read about how small London hotel rooms can be, so I was not prepared for so much open space. Not sure if I was upgraded to a nicer room because of my Gold Status or if this was just the standard room here... but either way I was extremely happy. On the table was a personalized welcome letter, as well as a small amenity box of chocolates. A complimentary bottle of water was also provided.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Are Germans Just Grumpy?

I just returned from a two and a half week trip to Germany and London, and I must say, the very first thing I noticed upon arrival in Berlin was how grumpy German service workers are. I don't think I've seen/heard so many eyerolls, deep sighs, and snarky comments in my entire life. The first thing I do after arriving at TXL is head over to the express bus counter to purchase a ticket into the city. I ask the gentleman if they accept MasterCard. His response was silence, and without any eye contact, he lets out a deep sigh, then literally rips the card from my hand and processes the payment.

At Sancoussi Palace in Potsdam, I was waiting in line to purchase a ticket, and as the gentleman in front of me finishes paying and leaves, I notice the lady behind the desk roll her eyes at him in the most blatantly obvious way possible. I think to myself that perhaps the man had given her a hard time or said something rude. Nope. I go up to her and simply ask what the difference was between two of the ticket types. She lets out a huge sigh, rolls her eyes, then reaches over for a long ruler and slams it against the chart on the wall and repeats exactly what is printed on there, no explanation whatsoever. I don't dare say another word and just pay what I think is the right amount.

The reception lady at my guesthouse in Hohenschwangau slams the phone on a customer and then rolls her eyes. She then proceeds to ask what I want. I tread very carefully. Although I must admit, she was actually quite nice to me and very helpful with information. Not so much with the lady at the fast food restaurant in MUC. I couldn't understand her English very well, so I asked her politely to repeat what she said. A deep sigh ensues followed by the dreaded eyeroll. Then a long pause, and in a loud deliberate voice, so that every other customer could hear, repeats what she said. People in line give me the evil eye.

Lord have mercy on your soul if you dare bother a waitress at a restaurant. I witnessed multiple people (usually tourists) getting shot down with snide remarks and eyerolls when asking for something. The best example was when I was eating at a rather quiet restaurant in Munich. Not too many other patrons and the waitresses weren't terribly busy. Two Japanese tourists enter just as a waitress was walking by them with beer for another customer. They quickly ask her if the restaurant takes credit cards (they do), and her response was a loud "Can you see I'm busy right now? Go ask someone else!"

It's slightly jarring, because I had so many pleasant interactions with regular German people on the subway, in restaurants, and just randomly on the streets. But holy cow... German service workers are definitely not known for their friendly demeanor!