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.

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