Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The Bolivian Pampas - and Tony going mental with the camera

Today is another hangover day...we were supposed to be finally checking out of Wild Rover to go to Uyuni tonight to see the salt flats, but we got to the tour agency to book the bus and the only available seats on it were right at the back next to the toilet.  I took one look at Tony and was like 'na-ah'.  We would have to sit at the back of a crap bus all night next to inevitably stinky toilets and start a tour the next we checked back in to Wild Rover (we did actually check out) and the guy at the desk was like 'why do you bother trying to leave??!' oh dear...

But we did go and do a Pampas tour for 3 days in the Bolivian Amazon Basin, and that was awesome.  Tony went absolutely mental with the pictures, he didn't know where to look there were so many animals!  We spent about an hour yesterday deleting a load of photos (he took about 6 photos each time of the same thing) and have "narrowed it down" to 250 photos!! 

Our journey started at the airport where we had to get a tiny little airplane to Rurrenabaque, the town where our tour would start.  The plane only carried 18 people!  I was pretty scared, especially because there was a lot of smoke in the air because all the farmers were burning the fields to make way for more crops.  The plane didn't fly very high, and it's meant to be an amazing view from the window but we didn't see anything unfortunately :(

The Plane on the landing field in Rurrenabaque
The Bolivian Pampas is a wetland area that is full of caimans, alligators, capibara, snakes, monkeys and loads and loads of different types of birds.  We did a 2 nights and 3 day tour and on our first day we took a boat up the river to our lodge.  We had never seen so many alligators in one place!  They were literally everywhere.  Capibara were everywhere as well - they are such bizarre animals, like a cross between a pig, guinea pig and rat.  But I guess that's exactly what they are...

Us on the boat going up the river
Alligators on the shore of the river
A massive family of Capibara
 On the second day we went out to try and search for Anacondas.  The region is renound for it's Anacondas but because it's the dry season we weren't sure whether we'd actually see one or not.  We went walking for about 3 hours through the farm lands, and were told that during the wet season the whole area is just covered in water.  Apparently you have to get around by boat the whole time.  Anyway, after a few hours searching we got lucky and found one in the tiniest puddle of water.  It was pretty impressive, not massive but Tony was so pleased!  

The Anaconda and our guide in the background

So after our successful morning anaconda hunting, we went piranha fishing in the afternoon (after another boat trip up the river and more countless photos by Tony).  It was actually quite hard catching the piranhas!  They bite the bait (meat) really quickly and you have to pull the line quite hard to get them.  I managed to get a couple though (actually one was a sardine) and so did Tone.  
Tony with his piranha
We got the chefs at the lodge to cook them for us later.  They were ok, but not really any meat on them at all.  

We were also constantly on the lookout for pink river dolphins, and caught a glimpse of a couple in the water but we didn't really get to see them properly.  They were just swimming along and occasionally would come up for air.  Apparently if the dolphins are in the water it's safe to swim in the river, even if there are loads of alligators and caimans around.  So Tony did...i didn't, but mostly because the water seemed a bit minging...

Our guide called over this alligator they all call Pedro, and Tony swam really close to him (ever the photo opportunist!)

Tony and Pedro!
It was so nice being in normal altitude again, you can walk around and not get out of breath with every step!  And it was hot and humid, which was great as well because it's not exactly warm here.

We had a pretty horrendous journey back, but I can't face writing about it now!  It involved a jeep, and leaking exhaust pipe and a farting driver.  Definitely one for next time...

Saturday, 14 August 2010

The capital of Bolivia - Sucre, no, La Paz, no Sucre....


Today is a hangover day so here´s another post for you. It see
ms at last the altitude is getting to us, an overactive day yesterday (mountain biking down the "World´s most dangerous road") followed by a big night out has hit us pretty hard, didn´t get in til half 5 in the morning... Lack of oxygen at altitude, an exhausting day and the fact that Bolivians don´t really measure their drinks, they just pour in however much they feel like = the worst hangover so far on the trip. We are staying at ´Wild Rover´in La Paz, a bit of a party hostel, so to cater for such things they do a proper fry up and serve ACTUAL tea (PG Tips!!!). I still feel like crap but it helped a little.

There´s still no movement on the road blocks around Salar de Uyuni and Potosi so we´re staying in La Paz where we´ll fly to Rurrenabaque for some Jungle and Pampas tours. Hopefully things will have blown over by the the time we´re back so we can go to the Salt flats. It seems like the best option as we´ve heard stories of other tourists getting trapped in Potosi and Uyuni where the locals have planted dynamite on the connecting roads and airport runway! Screw that. According to Wikipedia...

"La Paz is the highest (administrative) capital city in the world.(Although it is not the formal capital like Sucre. Calling La Paz the capital of Bolivia is like saying New York City is the capital of the USA.) , La Paz is home to the world's highest Golf Course, Football Stadium, Velodrome (where the world record currently stands), and landing strip."

... Bolivians in La Paz say that they live in the capital and in Sucre they say the same. Sucre was a lot prettier and cleaner than La Paz and seemed a lot more like the capital but La Paz is still a breathtaking city. It´s 3,600 metres above sea level, way up in the mountains, and you can feel how thin the air is - every time you try to run or walk up the steep hills (which are everywhere) you are nearly winded and have to stop and catch your breath. It seems a ridiculous place to build a capital city but this is Bolivia we are talking about.

La Paz, high rises to basic brick huts, most of them perched precariously on the edge of the mountains. In the background is Mount Illampu.

We didn´t realise but altitude sickne
ss can actually be very serious and cause brain damage or death so we have to take it a bit easy, unlike yesterday...
There is only one effective way to help you stay well up here, Coca. You can chew it, but it´s pretty horrible tasting and you basically have to keep a ball of dirty leaves in your mouth for 45 minutes to an hour until your cheek starts to go a little bit numb, and then add either plant ash(!) or bicarbonate of soda to release the alkaloids that give the effect (which is very mild anyway). Not very pleasant. Coca tea is a lot easier to stomach, although isn´t nearly as effective. We have managed to find "Coca Elixir" which is just as disgusting tasting as chewing but you only need to keep it in your mouth for a few seconds.

Coca tea

We had a relaxing week or so in Sucre, we mostly trawled the markets and artisan shops for Alpaca wool clothes and ate really nice food. For JC´s birthday we went to a posh
restaurant and paid 4 quid for the tastiest steak I´ve ever eaten, in a red wine and mushroom sauce. Bloody lovely. On 6th August it was Bolivia´s independence day and the whole of Sucre seemed to be in the parade around the town. We got to see it from the balcony of the posh restaurant which was even better! All the buildings in Sucre are painted white, the flowers in the city are all pristine, and the whole place is generally very clean, unlike La Paz.

Local man looking across the small Plaza
Local man in one of the smaller Plazas

The streets of Sucre
The streets of Sucre

Independence parade at night
Independence parade

On the edge of Sucre there´s a fault line where a huge slab of fossilised mud with dinosaur footprints all over it has been pushed up so it´s almost vertical. Sounds amazing but actually it was a bit disappointing. Rather than build a nice walkway up close to the footprints and have the dinosaur park next to it, the local concrete company has a massive factory, and quarry all around it, and they´ve built a gravel road between the park and the footprints so you can barely see them! Typical Bolivia!!!!

A good illustration of Bolivia´s disregard for archaeology
The Dinosaur park with the concrete factory in the background

As close as you can get to the footprints without trespassing on the cement factory´s land!
As close as you can get to the footprints without trespassing!

We left Sucre 5 days ago and took another toilet-less night bus to La Paz. This was probably the sketchiest journey so far. We don´t have pictures to show it, but basically after a couple of hours the tarmac road disappears and the road turns into a far-too-narrow, dirt road with shear drops on one side and pot holes everywhere. We spent most of the 15 hour journey on that road. It was bloody scary, and made even scarier by reading an article a few hours before with the the following snippets of horrifying info...

In January 2010 there were 72 deaths and 196 injured in Bolivian bus accidents during that month alone. A lot of these are due to drunk bus drivers. Bus drivers on the night buses will often start out drunk and continue to drink through the night (this is bad enough as it is but then throw in dirt roads with a couple of hundred metres of sheer drop next to it...). To top it off when the government wanted to introduce laws to make drunk bus driving illegal there were national protests! WTF?!

We saw a poster at the bus station with a photo of a crashed bus all mangled after it fell off the side of the road, then we had to get on the bloody thing and hope we would make it alive! Luckily we had a good driver and I made a point of checking whether I could see a bottle next to him. He did, it was a plain white bottle with "Alcool" written on the side... but it later turned out to be de-icer. I wouldn´t be surprised if some Bolivians drank that stuff though.

After not dying by falling from a great height we decided to mountain bike down the "World´s most dangerous road". A name well deserved, but applies more to cars than bikes. In most places it´s just wide enough for one car to pass with it´s wheels almost hanging over the edge. I don´t have a statistic for the number of deaths there but every 20 metres or so there was a cross at the side of the road.

We survived, including the drive back up in van and it was a really cool ride. 4 hours of down hill as fast as we dared pedal, a metre away from mental sheer drops, awesome.

Fia ready to go. It was bloody freezing at the top (4,800 metres above sea level) and at one point it was snowing. You start in the clouds basically.

Me at the edge, that´s a rain-forest below

The road...

...and again.

La Paz is a pretty surreal city, we´ve fed the pigeons and spent a couple of half days wandering through the "witches market" where you can buy anything and everything, from clay Condors to fossilised trilobytes, llama hoodies to woollen gimp mask style hats (I have bought all of these things, the Bolivians are good sales people)! And for good luck... shriveled, smelly Llama foetuses, which apparently get buried under the doorstep of a new house for good luck.

Llama foetuses

Pigeons in the main plaza

We have a couple of days left in La Paz and then it´s off to Rurrenabaque in the Amazon basin where we get to swim with Pink river dolphins (and piranhas and Caimans!!!), go animal spotting, piranha fishing and lots of other cool stuff. AND we are going to fly this time, which we hope is a little safer!

Friday, 6 August 2010

Santa Cruz and Samaipata - One big fat, slightly overdue nugget

The search for a decent internet connnection continues.

We have hundreds (literally) of really cool photos to illustrate what we´ve been up to in the last 3 weeks but so far it´s been impossible to upload them. Seeing as I´ve managed to get one photo from Santa Cruz I´ll mention it briefly, to be honest there isn´t an awful lot say about Santa Cruz anyway. The picture below was taken from the main Plaza which actually was quite pretty, a handful of nice little cafés and bars dotted around a pretty square, but that´s about it. We basically chilled out there for a few days and spent a lot of time going back and forth to town in search of a guitar. After three days of shopping around´we eventually found a really nice one so it was worthwhile in the end.

The weather was nice and we met some nice traveller
s who pointed us in the direction of Samaipata (our favourite place in Bolivia so far), but Santa Cruz wasn´t a city with a lot going on and the fumes from the traffic were almost unbearable. We stayed in Santa Cruz for three days and then took a taxi to Samaipata... 4 hours along broken roads and dirt tracks with shear drops up into the mountains with a driver who insisted on overtaking two or three huge trucks at once!

The cathedral in Santa Cruz

Fia mentioned Samaipata briefly but seeing as I´m in the internet cafè for the VERY long haul I´ll go into more detail while the photos upload, this post is a long one so hopefully you won´t get bored reading it.

Samaipata is a small but relatively well developed town (for Bolivia) in the mountains with a population of around 3,000, lots of them are foreigners who´ve been to visit and decided the quality of life is too nice to leave behind. It´s 2,700m above sea level so it´s pretty high up. We did a lot of chilling and eating nice food before exploring the surrounding area. We met up with some now good friends, JC and Manuella who we first bumped into in Rio, and are now travelling with them through Bolivia which is really nice.

One of the first things we did was to find a road that would lead us up to the top of one of the nearby peaks for a good view of the area, unfortunately we took the wrong road but we ended up stumbling across a small "zoo" for rescued and injured animals. They had Turtles, Macaws, some birds of prey, wild boars, and a selection of monkeys, including a couple of Howler Monkeys that behaved well enough to roam free inside the park. They were a bit too friendly actually!

I actually meant to upload the nicer photo of Fia with monkey but her expression is quite telling in this one. I was even more disturbed when the monkey wrapped it´s tail around my neck and jumped onto my shoulder.

The next day we went hired a moped to zip around the mountain roads in search of some waterfalls in a very small village called Cuevas. We drove for about an hour out of town and just as we got to the gate of the waterfalls we got a puncture! Luckily we´ve been travelling long enough now not to panic and figured we´d get back to Samaipata one way or another so we went and saw the waterfalls anyway. We got chatting to an family from the area who asked what had happened and they helped us flag down a farmer´s truck who was taking a load of potatoes and fruit back to Samaipata. We paid him 30 Bolivianos for a lift back, we had to lift the bike up onto the back of the truck through a narrow opening on the side (no ramp!) which was bloody hard work and we shared the lift with a few workers on the farm, which was a very humbling experience. They were very poor and one of them had a bit cut across his face, when we got on with our nice jackets and sunglasses we felt a little uncomfortable, not threatened, just bad because our only worries were getting back to town before it got dark. They had probably been working extremely hard all day on the farm with little food and for a fraction of the money we paid the farmer to give us a lift. Of course it could have been a little dodgey getting a lift with strangers with our valuables and camera in our back, but it all worked out fine and they even dropped us off outside a shack with a man that repaired motor bikes. It cost us 30 Bolivianos (3 pounds) for a new inner-tube and 1 Boliviano (1 pound) for the guy to fit it. We got back in time for Fia to drive us up the hill to the viewpoint we´d missed the day before.

Me outside the shack where the guy fixed our bike

The next few days we spent doing organised tours with some really sound tour guides. We have to mention Olaf and Frank at Roadrunners tours, Samaipata who were incredibly helpful, honest and friendly. So often you come across tour guides or people selling things who don´t give a shit about you or the environment, and just want to make a quick buck. These guys even helped us plan another tour that they didn´t offer based on the weather which meant not doing one of theirs and taking a tour with another company instead. Olaf was an absolute legend, you could hear him coming a mile a way, and his colleague Frank spend loads of time with us making sure our plans fitted around the weather and we saw the best of Samaipata. If there are other travellers reading this who are trying to choose tour companies in Samaipata. Choose Roadrunners and say his to Olaf and Frank from Tony and Sofia! :)

The first trek was a 5 or 6 hour hike around Bella Vista, it was pretty challenging in places, some very narrow cattle paths with very long drops on one side. The altitude was noticeable but we´d acclimatised pretty well. The views were stunning.

A long way down!

Fia, JC and Manu

The view from the top

Next was El Fuerte, the most Eastern Inca (and pre Inca) site that´s been found (I think...). A big sandstone rock with carvings, one of the most important ritual sites for the Incas. We spent half a day there with Olaf. He gave us a really good insight into what went on there, unfortunately the Bolivian government doesn´t share his sense of importance for the site and properly excavating the area. Instead they´ve concreted over all of the pre Inca villages (or their remains), which almost certainly hold many secrets and artefacts from the Incas and the tribes before them. Sadly they think it´s more important that they build a concrete replica of the village than actually discover something new about their ancestors. Everywhere you go in Bolivia seems to have a similar story, it´s quite ridiculous.

El Fuerte

There are carvings of Condors and Jaguars, and pits carved in the rock which fill with water when rituals were performed (in a nutshell, the rock is made of sandstone and it´s believed the internal structure acts like a sponge, when it rains the rock soaks up the water and then when there is a drought the Incas would dance on top of the rock and perform rituals , which agitate the rock in a way that the pools fill up from the bottom up. You can imagine how this must have seemed to the ancient people).

We also did a Condor hike with Saul at Tucandera Tours. He was a Biologist who´d studied at Cambridge University and spent 10 years studying the mammals and plants in the Amboró National Park. He was really nice too, he knew lots about the plants on the way up and told us lots of cool facts. We saw a King Vulture (AKA Tropical Condor) on the way up, which he had never seen at that altitude before, pretty cool! We hiked up to 3,040m above sea level where we eventually came to a huge canyon with a waterfall that came out the side of a cliff to one side. We saw around 25 Condors (usually only ever seen on their own or in pairs) fly in and glide down onto the ledge of the falls to wash and drink. It was a really special sight. We couldn´t really get close enough to get a decent photo as we didn´t want to disturb them but we had a bout an hour sat there watching them with binnoculars and we´ll never forget what we saw.

If you look closely you can see 5 or 6 Condors on the top of the waterfall - Saul told us they fly from as far as Peru and Argentina to drink at this waterfall.

And last but not least for Samaipata, led by Olaf once again we grabbed the Machetes and went to Parque Amboró. We headed to the Cloud Forest, a forest up in the mountains that spends most of it´s time in the clouds, hence the name... due to altitude and the way the valley is shaped, so it´s very humid and the environment is very unique.

The worst cold spell in 50 years hit a few weeks before we got there, which meant that ice and snow brought down a trees and branches (they haven´t evolved to take the extra weight of the ice so just snapped or fell down) leaving all of the paths blocked or invisible. This was kind of cool and the men in the group took their turns to hack through the undergrowth! We saw a cool spider on entering the park, but the main attraction was getting to the top of the cloud forest where tree ferns grow. Trees ferns are ancient plants and only exist in this one type of ecosystem, there are just a few dotted around the world. I won´t ramble on much longer now because this is getting quite epic and I´ve been in the internet cafe for 4 hours now. Here are a couple of pictures.

The crazy spider (not it´s real name!)

The Cloud Forest from a distance, it´s the bit perched on top of the mountain where the clouds touch the summit.

A tree fern amongst the cloud

A bit of up to date news (this next blog post can wait!)... We´re in Sucre at the moment and have been for the last week, we were hoping to go to Potosi and from there Salar de Uyuni but there have been impassable road blocks for the last week and from what we can piece together, lots of hostility towards anyone even trying to pass through the area. We are still determined to get to Uyuni to visit the Salt desert but it looks like we may need to skip Potosi. Tomorrow we catch another night bus with no toilet and probably stinks of piss to La Paz where we´ll try and work out what to do next.

If you have got this far you deserve a medal, now go and make a cup of tea.