Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Welcome to the jungle (aka: A-mazing Amazon)

Chilling in a hammock in a semi- stilted hut on a steamy jungle morning I am jolted from my kindle by the rustling of trees, and look outside to see a family of tiny squirrel monkeys swinging through the trees just outside our hut. Amidst the unearthly sounds of the howler monkeys, I can hear them squabbling, and look out to the river beside them, hoping to catch a glimpse of another river dolphin. I love the Amazon!

Squirrel Monkeys outside our hut!
One thing that I was very excited about before coming to South America was to visit the Amazon rainforest. There's a children's book by Iva Ibbotson called 'Journey to the River Sea' which I always loved, and I always said to myself that I would go there one day. I also have an obsession with dolphins and as a little girl always wanted to see the pink river dolphins, one of the rarest dolphins in the world and certainly the strangest! Whilst most people think of Brazil for the Amazon, the Amazon basin extends to many other South American countries, and due to Brazil's expense and the continued deforestation, Bolivia is an excellent alternative! And tours abound from La Paz, where you can book to go to Rurrenbaque, in the middle of the Bolivian Amazon, and take a boat through the Amazon delta seeing loads of wildlife, and even swim with the river dolphins!

We shopped round alot of different operators trying to find one that was friendly to our budgets, but also friendly to the environment. We read a few horror stories on the internet about terrible guides and operators that chased and handled the animals and were pretty destructive, but luckily everything is alot better regulated now and most of the agencies follow the proper guidelines. To get to Rurrenbaque we had the choice of a 21 hour local bus (complete with rigid seats and infrequent toilet stops) or a 45 minute flight.... needless to say we chose the latter despite being a bit more expensive! Taking off in a rickety little plane (where you could see out the front window) and landing in a tiny little airport in the middle of the rainforest was pretty mental, but very cool! :D


We then set off on a nauseatingly bumpy trip in a 4x4 to reach the river, where we were transferred into small motorised canoes. Almost immediately we began to see wildlife, with crocodiles and alligators lining the river banks, families of capybaras (giant semi- aquatic rodents), squirrel monkeys scrambling around the trees, and so many birds (egrets, herons, parrots, eagles, kingfishers, and lots of other ones I can't remember the name of!) Also along the way we saw a few river dolphins which was SO COOL!

Family of Capybaras
One of many crocodiles!
Incredible birds

After 3 hours of going down the river we arrived to our lodge which was a really cute set of wooden structures on stilts. We expected to be in a dorm room with the other 4 guys in our group, but luckily me and PK ended up with a room to ourselves, complete with an en-suite! So we were very happy. For some reason, for our meals we had to go to another lodge, which actually turned out to be quite cool as we traveled by night down the river we could see the alligator eyes shining back at us from the torchlight, very creepy!

Our lodge
The food was really nice as well actually, with special vegetarian for me! And in the evenings our guide, who was really funny and spoke excellent english, helped us build a campfire and we stayed up around it chatting until late about all the animals in the area and what it was like to grow up in the Amazon.

The next morning we went searching for annacondas, which turned out to be just a long trek through grasslands with not a snake in sight! That's the luck of nature watching I guess. Luckily the afternoon was alot better when we set off to go swimming with the pink river dolphins! After about 20 minutes I spotted some (after years of practice, my dolphin spotting abilities are well-honed by now...) and we stripped into our swimwear. Lots of people eyed the brown river water with suspicion but my thoughts were firmly on swimming with the dolphins so I ended up in the water about 10 minutes before everyone else. Which was excellent! As when it was just me in the water a couple of the dolphins swam really close and seemed quite curious, but when the other people from the boat started to splash in and move towards us they got a bit scared and began to disappear. It was a little unsettling to be swimming in the water with a huge crocodile about 2m away from us on the bank, but they luckily didn't seem too interested in us!

Swimming the pink river dolphins!
That evening we went to watch the sunset from a beautiful place, and joined up with a few of the other tour groups for some games of football and vollyball. Unluckily, the mosquitoes also decided they wanted to play, but some bug spray managed to see most of them off!

Our final morning was spent piranha fishing, which I decided just to watch (and occasionally laugh as the clever fish had seemed to perfect the art of nibbling off the bait without being caught!) But a few did get caught, along with a couple of catfish! It was a little disconcerting seeing how many piranhas were around seeing as we'd been swimming around in the very same spot the afternoon before.....

Piranhas have SHARP teeth!
After that, we piled back into the boats to head back to Rurrenaque (and then the terrible 4x4!) where we managed to find a cheap hotel to have a well deserved shower. The next afternoon we got our flight back to La Paz, witnessing on the way the most incredible rain storm, which whilst cool to watch managed to majorly delay our flight. Which, as we had a bus to catch, was not ideal! Luckily we got to the bus station on time and were on our bus to Sucre, which was a whole other adventure in itself.......

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Flying High in the Heights of Bolivia

Whilst doing the Lost City Trek in Colombia, I met an absolutely incredible Bolivian girl. It was therefore with some confusion that I heard that the people of Bolivia are said to be the rudest in the world. Whilst surely a stereotype, in which exceptions abound, for us it was true that our first taste of Bolivians was a rather strange affair.

After crossing the border from Peru, we skirted the edge of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world to land in Copacabana, a rather ugly little town but the gateway to the Isla del Sol, a stunning island in the middle of the lake. We spent two wonderful nights there, paying a pittance for a room in a house overlooking the water, and marvelling at the fact that it looked like we were on the coast, but were in fact over 3800m above sea level, with mountains in the distance. The confusing thing about the Isla del Sol is the multitude of tickets you have to buy. There's a ticket to get there. And then there's a ticket to access the north side of island, which allows you to walk by a few Inca ruins. Then, if you want to get the boat roand to the south side of the island, that's another ticket. At which, upon arrival, you are required to buy a ticket to be able to step foot and walk around the south. Finally, if those tickets were not enough, if you wish to walk back to the north side rather than take the boat, halfway along the path some local people will start to shout out at you to buy another ticket. A walking ticket. This all grew incredibly tiresome, and whilst we were always polite, we met many other travellers in heated arguments with the local ticket collectors. The constant complaints is perhaps why these local people were immediately so rude to us, understandable but slightly offputting! Whilst all this was a little annoying, the real nail in the coffin in 'good first impressions of Bolivians' was when as we were walking along (after buying one of our tickets) we came across some llamas grazing, which we (of course) began to coo over, and took some pictures. After another 5 minutes of walking a local lady was walking along the path the opposite way herding a small group of llamas. As the path was narrow, I stepped off onto the side and smiled, wishing her a good afternoon. She didn't reply but stared back at us with narrowed eyes, before exclaiming "Propinas! Las llamas, propinas!!" She was demanding tips off us, because we had taken photos of the llamas. In some disbelief, we decided to play the ignorant 'ICan'tUnderstandSpanish' tourist card and shook our heads with a "No entiendo" after which she eventually let us pass her. We were a little saddened at how this was how the locals viewed and interacted with tourists, which was deepened a little further along the path (after we had bought our walking ticket) when a small girl who couldn't have been more than about 8 years old, aggressively stepped across our path holding a llama and exclaiming that we had to pay to pass. That we should take a picture of her llama, and then pay to walk on down the path. I suppose it isn't so surprising that children will act like that when they see their adults doing so, but it was a strange and disappointing introduction to Bolivian hospitality..... but luckily did not ruin the beauty of the island.

After the Isla del Sol we headed on to La Paz, stopping half way so the bus could be boarded onto a ferry across a canal. Why isn't there a bridge across this tiny patch of water?? More south american madness:

Anyway, we reached La Paz, which is probably the most ridiculous place to build a city in the world. Located at 3600m above sea level and boasting the highest airport in the world (which seems to be expressibly designed to just make people ill who fly there from sea level) there is also a 400m elevation difference between the top and the bottom, which just means that every single street is at a ridiculously street slope. Of course, we decided to choose a hotel at the top of such a ridiculous slope and with a cough and chest infection that had suddenly crept up on me I felt like I was going to die every time we went for a little shopping trip (but this probably also had something to do with PK's ridiculous fitness and fast walking pace!) In any case, to add to the madness, La Paz is really just one huge market. Whatever you want, you will find on the streets somewhere in La Paz. Be it socks, batteries, pens, chocolate, coca leaves or llama foetuses, someone will be selling it. And yes, that is llama foetuses there- they're good luck apparently. We were staying near the infamous 'Witches Market' which is where rather witch- like looking ladies in bowler hats and big skirts sell all manner of strange potions and mixtures. We spent rather more days than we'd planned walking around the markets and buying all manner of alpaca and llama wool related items- here is warning, all birthday and Christmas presents from me for the next five years will be llama wool related! Everything was so unbelievably cheap and I can't help myself when it comes to bargains so left La Paz with one extra huge bag in addition to my rucksack! (Which was all fine when PK was being the chivalrous gentleman and carrying it, but when we had to part ways in Chile I did begin to regret my present stock- up.....)

Anyway, the main reason for our delay in La Paz was not entirely due to wanting to buy the entire market, but because I was suffering from this horrible chest infection/ cough/ sore throat thing and I wanted to get better before we went on our next hike- to climb the awe- inspiring Huyani Potosi, a 6088m mountain looming over La Paz! After delaying as much as we reasonably could, we set off on a 3 day tour to attempt to reach the summit. We had heard about it from the American girl we met in the Galapagos, and whilst she warned it was the toughest thing she had done in her entire life, she said it was as awesome as it was horrendous, and we thought well, what a rock star you'd sound to go home and say you'd climbed a 6000m mountain!!! Whilst it is one of 'easiest' 6000m mountains to climb, because La Paz itself is so high, we were told that less than half the people who attempted it made it to the top as the altitude completely wore them down.....

Huyani Potosi Mountain!
It was thus with some apprehension that we donned our ice axes, crampons, snowboots and snowsuits and prepared for the mountain! Things would have perhaps have been more reassuring if the people at the agency had remembered our booking- we were waiting outside the shop with two american guys who were in our group for nearly an hour until we found the telephone number and called, to the response of "but you guys are tomorrow!" Erm, no. No we're not....

Anyway they eventually came to pick is up and we set off for our first day, where we got driven to the 'low' base camp (low being about 4200m) which turned out to be a beautiful little cabin type thing next to a bright turquoise lake, with the mountain we hoped to climb looming above us! In the afternoon we donned our snow gear and hiked up to the nearby glacier to practice using our iceaxes, snow shoes and crampons. I'm not the most co-ordinated of people and so was quite worried about walking along on snow with 10 huge spikes on my feet, so it was good to get a bit of practice, and quite exhilarating to be able to walk up near vertical slopes of ice and snow without slipping backwards!! It was then time for a spot of ice climbing- another thing I dreaded as everytime I have attempted a climbing wall I have embarrassed myself profoundly. Luckily ice climbing was alot easier for me, and it was alot of fun to climb up, digging the front spikes of your boots into the ice and then the ice axe above and making your way up. It was definitely something I never would have done if I had been travelling by myself, but was very glad I did!
Our low base camp cabin
One part of the glacier we practiced ice climbing on!

That night was ever so cold, and we spent the evening huddling round a fire in the living room, after eventually getting some wet wood to catch! We then huddled into our beds dressed in about 5 layers with thick sleeping bags and blankets covering us. The second day was earmarked as an 'easy hike' up to the second higher base camp. Easy hike???? PAH. It was probably one of the toughest things I had ever done in my entire life! I was in pretty good shape fitness wise, after having done about 4 long hikes in as many weeks, but the combination of the altitude and my chest infection (which I had antibiotics for) really wore me down. Also, hiking through snow is freaking hard! The first part of the hike was done in our normal walking boots, and then we switched to the snow shoes and crampons and were trekking up ice and snow.... all with our huge backpacks on which must have weighed about 15kg. Anyway, somehow, SOMEHOW I managed to make it up to second base camp which was at 5500m, with the last part a vicious slope upwards. My head was swimming and I felt quite sick. But hey, enough excuses! After chatting to the guide he explained that he took a maximum of two people up with him to the summit, but if one of the people couldn't go on, they all had to turn around and come back down to the high camp for safety reasons. PK had found the hike to the high base camp fine and was feeling really well acclimatised, and so I made the difficult decision to stay at the camp while he attempted the summit. I never would have forgiven myself if I had attempted it, failed, and caused him not to make it to the top as well! Looking back it was definitely the right decision, but I still felt so useless and annoyed at myself at the time for not being able to make it. But I consoled myself by meeting some other very fit and strong looking people who had also succumbed to the altitude and failed to reach the summit!

On the way to the base camp- a rather strained smile!

Hiking up with all our gear...

I was very proud that PK managed to reach the summit though, as well as the two American guys who were in our group. The pictures looked absolutely incredible, and such an achievement! But I was also quite pleased in a small way not to be attempting the summit when all the others were woken up at 1am to get dressed and start hiking! The idea is that you hike for 6 hours in the night, and reach the summit just as the sun rises. I woke myself up at sunrise back at the camp and also enjoyed a stunning sunrise over the mountains at 5500m, so didn't feel like I'd quite missed out on everything!

PK at the summit!
Some wonderful pictures PK took at the summit!

All the guys who'd reached the summit looked absolutely dead when they came back down, and that was only the beginning! That day we hiked all the way back down to the low base camp where we had lunch and then were transferred back to La Paz. At lunch we met the next group set to go up- all looking so fresh and optimistic. We probably crushed a few spirits by telling them how horrendous it was and that lots of people didn't make it, but hey that's the privilege of the people who go before!

Anyway, what other shennanigans did we get up to in and around La Paz? One day we did the infamous 'Death Road', which was cycling down the world's most dangerous road. We had some plans to do this in advance but I thought it wise not to advertise them too much so as to not give rise to unnecessary parental anxiety! It was a really fun day, as the route comprises of 3400m of decent from nearby La Paz into the Yungus valley. It was christened the world's most dangerous road in 1995 when it was the only route down into the Yungus valley, and was no more than a stony track wide enough for a single vehicle, with a sheer 600m drop to the side, with no less than 200 to 300 vehicles hurtling over the edge every year. Luckily a new road opened up in 2006, so the 'Death Road' is now used almost exclusively for cyclists, with the odd vehicle passing you every now and again. Since it's opened to cyclists however, 18 people have died on the road, but the guide said the vast majority of them were idiots who thought it was a clever idea to take a picture of themselves whilst they rode along.....and over the edge. It is still pretty dangerous though- I don't watch top gear but apparently there's an episode where Jeremy Clarkson is forced to the edge of the road by an oncoming vehicle and the road starts to crumble under him. Luckily this didn't happen to me, but I did have a rather scary experience where I was heading round a bend and came face to face with an oncoming car! The car should have beeped before it came round the bend apparently, and been on the inside of the track (cyclists going downhill are given priority for the wider left hand side) so it was completely his fault, but there were a couple of heart stopping moments where I felt my wheels skidding!

It was my first real experience of actual mountain biking and by the end of the day my hands and arms were aching from the death grip on the handlebars as we hurtled at about 30mph over the rough and stony track! We went through waterfalls, splashed through fords, and the guides took loads of pictures of us which we got on a CD at the end. We also got a free t-shirt, a really cool free t-shirt! Whilst probably not the best reason to choose a company, it is 100% true that we chose our company based on the t-shirt.......

Ready for the death road!

La Paz also had a huge parade whilst we were there, which we granted a first row view from outside our hotel window! Which was nice for a while, but after starting at 6am did the parade really have to continue until 3am?! Who needs that many twirling dancers and costumed dragons!? It was fun for a while but I couldn't believe the enduance of the men walking along for hours in huge heavy costumes, or the women walking along in high heels! I can't even walk for 5 minutes in heels without my feet and back hurting, the thought of dancing for 8 hours in them with a huge costume to boot fills me with horror! Perhaps they're all just drunk and this chap below has the right idea:

Bolivians do love a good parade!
We also spent a day or two with my Swedish coushsurfing friend who happened to be in La Paz at the time, a wonderful coincidence and great to catch up!

We also went for a 3 day trip to the Amazon rainforest from La Paz, but more on all that in the next post, I think this one is long enough for now!