Friday, October 27, 2006

Most definately Not a jungle girl

We found ourselves in Villa Tunari and were disappointed to find that being the end of the dry season the rivers were too low to travel far up stream but we were told that if we went further into the jungle it would be possible to hire a canoe for the day.
We set off after a late start (Ursula is a vegan and in a world of fried chicken and unidentifiable meat soups it is often difficult to find a meal- even for breafast! To the question do you have anything without meat the answer is often yes, we have chicken followed by yes, we have fish to which she will patiently explain (much to my stifled giggles) meat is something that has not been on a living animal!), the journey which was probably only 25miles took close to two hours before we arrived at Puerto San Francisco and in search of a canoe and guide.
We soon realised that arriving at 3.30pm is not good for organizing a trip that day and our friendly local (soon to be guide) suggested that we camp in his garden. Well, not actually his garden but in a tent in a treehouse type structure in his garden- "sleep in a den we thought?", we couldn't wait. We agreed and also arranged a half day trip in his boat for tommorrow then went to find the nearest bar and spent the rest of the evening trying to understand incomprehensible drunk Bolivians trying their luck- but at least the beer was cold. we slept well but discovered that we seemed to be the delicacy forthe resident insects and both awoke with many bites (despite almost bathing in insect repellent).
Our guide served us breakfast but had clearly not understood the concept of veganism and gave us plates of cheese and eggs (!) and did sem to be a few slices short of a loaf but nice enough. We set off late but soon arrived at the destination for our 'jungle walk'- this jungle walk lasted about 30 minutes (out of 3 hours) due to the unbelieveable number of mosquito's. We were both particularly girly and asked to return to the boat very quickly.
Back on the boat the mosi population decreased to something more like acceptable and we began to enjoy floating down the river, looking at the birds and flowers in total peace and quiet. The sun was shining, yes we both got a bit pink! and it ws fun to negioate the various obstacles that faced us, such as broken trees blocking the river, rapids- which we were going up and very shallow stretches.
Early afternoon we reached our final destination- a natural swimming pool where the brown water was clearer than it had been all day. We stopped, had a swim, watched the local children playing and whilst their mothers washed clothes inthe river and then relaxed on the bank eating pineapple our guide had just picked for us (let me tell you it doesn't even compare to anyting you can get at home) then we floated back down stream and back to Puerto San Francisco for the long bumpy taxi ride back to Villa Tunari to collect the rest of our possesions and sleep in real beds.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

lonely in Cochabamba

After leaving Uyuni; i actually got on the train at 1.20am after lots of french wine, very drunk and awoke at dawn with both rucksacks tied to me squashed beside the window and the fattest bolivian i've met so far; i arrived into Cochabamba mid afternoon and (after a good shower) explored the town, i was impressed. It was small enough to walk around easily with pretty plazas, good shops, colourful markets with tasty food and what looked to be lots of cool studenty type bars, great. The only problem was that in my hotel there were no other guests and as of yet i had met noone else, so that evening i dined alone and again didn't meet anyone. I really enjoy finding places that are not full of other tourists, but none is a bit lonesome after a couple of days.
The following morning i moved hostels in hope of meeting more travellers and had a little walk to some nearby inca ruins (unimpressive ruins but good view, i didn't take enough water and consequently nearly got sunstroke and definate sunburn!! oops). That evening, saturday night in fact i was disappointed not to meet anyone again but the following day whilst deciding where to head for next a guest checked in to the hostel and we began to chat. i'd met Ursula, an english girl with my same dislike for the 'gringo' trail- we decided to celebrate we'd go out for a few drinks that evening and then head on to some lesser visited towns and try to find a canoe to paddle up the river...

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Ça c'est bon ça

i've just returned from a trip around the salt flats at Uyuni - this was amazing!

i arrived in Uyuni after onew of the worst bus journeys of my trip so far. In total it took 14 hours, the first 6 were fine, i was on a lovely bus, lots of leg room, enough space, just fine. The second bus was however, very different- i had the last seat on the bus the middle of the back row. My seat did not recline (not great for an 8 hour night bus) beside me was a smelly couple with a baby wrapped in a huge blanket taking up at least half of my seat and in front a woman got on with 4 children and had only booked 2 seats (the other 3 made a bed at my feet), the road was unmade the majority of the way very bumpy and the temperatures dropped to near freezing- i was feeling great when we got off at 5am, even better when my first choice of hostel was full and i had to search for another.
After a sleep in a more then adequate hostel i went in search of an agency to book my tour with. I was interested in a day tour but only one agency would offer this to me and so far the tour had 4 french guys booked on (6 is the maximum on each tour) i was faced with the dilemma- could my spanish stand up to 4 full days with no english communtication?...argh what to do. i booked the trip.
The following day i was very relieved to find an austrailian girl, called Kylie (i thought only popstars had names like that) had also booked to come with us. The french boys, very friendly but only one of them spoke a little english and one of them spoke a little spanish...and i couldn't remember any of my A level french and Kylie spoke no french at all.
When we finally set off after a few car troubles (well it is Bolivia after all!) it wasn't long before we reached the edge of the salt flats. The salt flats (the highest and largest in the world) are what is left of a huge inland sea that once covered almost the whole of Bolivia, this lake dried up and the ground was also pushed upwards, forming the altiplano and leaving behind just the salt- 12,000km square in fact, 10m deep in places. It is one of the most weird things i have ever seen in my life, at once we started to drive across it to our destination for the night, and drive and drive and drive- it didn't seem anything was getting any closer. When we had driven for an hour or so the entire landscape was just flat (really really flat) and white (really really white) the 'edges' of the lake were nearly suggested by hazy blue mountains on the far horizon. i've never been in a desert but i imagine if deserts were totally flat they may look like this but i could only think it was like being on another planet. It was also a great canvas for silly photos!
Early afternoon we arrived at one of the volcanoes that borders the lake, our site for the night. We were staying in basic accomodation and in the morning, climbing about half way up the volcano until it became too dangerous for us- inexperiened folk. The afternoon was spent taking more silly photos and trying to find some alcohol in the tiny village we were staying (we suceeded, of course) and in the evening we played a french dice game despite the initial language difficulties. (and i have to say i kicked some french ass)
The following morning we got up early to walk up the volcano before it got too hot. The views from our view point were fantastic- behind us we saw the volcano's gravelly slopes towering above us and spread below, for what seemed like forever was the blinding salt flat . we wandered past increasingly odd flora, my favourite was a huge catus with bright pink flowers growing from the top. We relaxed at the top for a while, chatting and i'm pleased to say my french was coming back (albeit in a terrible accent) but we were making progress. That afternoon we drove to an island in the centre on the flats, again more cacti and silly photos and lots of time in the jeep. We spent the night at the 'salt hotel'.
i'm not sure what i was expecting but the whole thing was constructed from salt, the walls (blocks), the floor (grains), our beds, tables and chairs! it was quite weird, but just to make sure i did lick the walls (remember the salt cathedral in columbia?), we even managed to find someone willing to sell us wine (decent wine), not bad considering the town had about 10 houses, a church and nothing else.
The next morning we continued on our journey southwards into the national park past volcanoes, mountains, multicoloured lakes (red, blue, green) and flocks and flocks of bright pink flamingoes. The landscape was amazing it was very barren with only small tufts of vegetation in places, we followed dusty (bumpy) roads that seemed to stretch on forever stopping occasionally to look at the view. That night was our coldest, we stopped at 4200m in the refuge- i felt poorly and couldn't share the warming rum that the french were offering, but more importantly i kicked ass at the dice game again (come on).
Our final day started early, 5am- it was freezing, actually freezing- too cold for the car it seems, as just after we set off the jeep totally gave up. The driver explained that the radiator had frozen and we would just have to wait for it to melt before setting off and then went back to look under the bonnet (in that way men do when cars break down) after a few moments he came back and searched through the glove compartment- removing a screw driver, an old rag and a lighter (curiouser and curiouser). He then set light to the rag after dipping it in petrol and stuck it in amongst the engine in order to melt the radiator faster, good lateral thinking i would have agreed withhim if it wasn't for the fact that wewere all still locked inthe car!! It worked however and obviously we didn't explode and quite soon we were on our way again, not before however, the sun had risen behind us.
We stopped for breakfast at a natural hot spring at the edge of a lake, we all had a dip and a good look at the geigsers before the long long trip back to Uyuni (only 2 further breakdowns) and some proper food and wine french style.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Random Bolivian Oddness

i'm trying to show normal everyday life in Bolivia. As you can see it's slightly different to back home!! i'll more as i go so look again later.

so from the top: 1. a novel type of ploice transport- but i'm sure you can get one more in there.

2. fresh squeezed juice- a cheap option for breakfast.

3. help with typing?- a line of typists await customers

4. an old woman selling coca leaves from a hand woven blanket

5. Popcorn anyone?

flying in a tin can!

Leaving Rurrenbaque we decided the best mode of transport was to fly. This meant a forty minute flight instead of 20 hours by bus arriving back in La Paz at 6am and spending the last best part of the night on the 'Death' road. It was a tough choice for me as a flight cost 60 US dollars and the bus cost less than $10, but value for my life brought me down on the side of the plane.
However on reaching the airport, just a shed at the end of a long field and checking in our baggage (to the same man that sold our tickets, drove us to the airport and would check our boarding passes!!) the plane arrived. I can only describe it as a tin can with wings it wasn't much bigger than a large car, once inside (and seated in one of the 18 seats) it was possible to see out of the cabin window as it was so close in front.
I could hardly contain my excitement as we set off, not the same sentiment shared by Doug and Sarah (my travel companions) they were both a funny shade of grey as we bounced down the grassy run-way. The scenery was amazing, we took off from jungle terrain- slow moving brown rivers making their way through densely forested gentle slopes and before i could blink the scene changed to barren altiplano punctuated by snow capped mountains- 40 minutes later we landed, all rather breathless at 3600m in La Paz airport (the highest in the world).

lost in the jungle....

Back in Rurrenbaque you might think i'd have a day of relaxing after the pampas trip but no you'd be wrong. And an example of how i'm also a model of calm and stylish-ness in all situations..
We decided to go for a walk in the jungle up to the top of the nearby mountain that over looked the town, well we couldn't exactly find the right path so after 3 attempts we took one which we thought was correct. we walked for about an hour and by this time my entire t-shirt is soaked through- doug doesn't even look warm.
we are walking along a dry river bed and it seems that the path will curve above our heads and turn back - so in order to take a short cut we begin to climb up the bank of the river bed (proper climbing using both feet and hands, gripping tree roots) at the top i'm even more sweaty and now muddy and even worse there is no path just more jungle. we continue to climb, less steeply now and continue climbing for an hour or so.
Then in one particular risky move i have to jump to catch the nearest tree root cos the ground collasped after doug walked there.... and i grab hold of the biggest insect i've ever seen. its as big as my whole hand, from wrist to finger tips and i totally freak out, but only quietly so that he doesn't think i'm a total wimp. but we look around and we can see no trace of a path or any idea of which direction to go in, so we just have to keep going.
I think i might cry.
After about 40 minutes and a treacherous downhill section we reach the river bed once again- never in all my life have i been so relieved to see a dried up river!!! we wander back into town with me looking like some kind of war victim and get more than a few odd looks as we sit down in a cafe for lunch.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Termite bites and snake poo

The morning after the 'death road' i took the bus to Rurrenbaque in the jungle- the bus took 14 hours along dirt roads, and if i had found the bike ride wearing on my nerves the bus ride was even worse. The road was narrow and winding and looking out of the window it was actually impossible to see the road below only the cliff edge and the rocky river beneath; but the worst bit (much much worse than the threat of impending death) was just how uncomfortable the seats were! I arrived in Rurrenbaque at 6am, tired, slightly dazed and in desparate need of somewhere just to lie down- making myself easy prey for the persuasive hostel owners. The hostel room i finally found myself could actually be a shed! (but it'll do and it only costs a pound a night and i even get hot water for that too.)
The reason for coming was to go into the jungle or pampas as its more correctly called. (for those interested the pampas is flat marshy lands that stretch up to Venezuela but has few trees, making spotting animals much easier); so after a day chilling out i found a tour agency and booked my tour for the following day. i turned up the following day finding my group consisted of austrailians, new zealanders, a canadian and 2 israelis- great we can all talk English. Everyone was very friendly and most had just returned from a proper jungle tour and weren't in the least scared of what we may encounter on this next tour. (unlike me who was terrified).
We all piled into the jeep, I had to share the one front seat with our guide and the long bumpy ride to the river began, 3 hours later we unfolded our limbs and virtually fell out on the river bank and found our next mode of transport- a long narrow dug out canoe. We jumped in, clutching our rucksacks and supplies and our adventure began.
Immediately after turning the corner there was wildlife everywhere- aligators, huge huge birds, capabara's (huge, huge guinea pig type creatures) and a bit further down the river, pink dolphins! It was amazing, we spent another 3 hours working our way towards the camp (on stilts to keep the aligators at bay!) and i was totally overwhelmed by the abundance of animals that we saw. That evening we went to a neighbouring camp to borrow some wellies and on the way our crazy guide decided to catch an aligator (what a mentalist!), we found them by looking for the reflections of their eyes in our torchlight.
The following morning we went snake hunting, not before our guide showed us what he called the 'fire' tree. Looking for a volunteer he grabbed my arm and tapped the tree bark- literally thousands of ants appeared, he plucked one from the bark and then squished it into my arm, until the 'fire' ant bite me. Ha Ha, very funny for the rest of the group i'm sure.
After several hours of tramping through muddy marsh land (my wellies had a hole in the bottom) our guide spotted 2 massive cobras getting jiggy in a nearby pond. He was off, Steve Irwin-esque, silently moving toward them then suddenly he made a grab for one and after much jumping and flailing of the snake, he subdued it and brought it over to us- it was giant- about 2.5 metres long! and guess what, i even dared to hold it! It seems however that the snake was much more scared than me and promptly raleased its bowels the moment anyone picked it up and let me tell you snake poo is very smelly indeed.
Whilst we were busy looking at (or terrifying- which ever way you look at it) the cobra, another guide had gone off alone and now seemed to be returning carrying an equally enormous anaconda, again we all had a 'turn' holding it and again we were all covered in snake poo, the hot sun baking it dry almost instantly. We soon, had had enough and wanted to head back to camp for a well deserved lunch- the walk back was just as interesting as finding the snakes, we passed a birds nest had seemed to contain birds that were about as big as me, many exotic plants and finally another cobra (i think now our guide was just showing off at how excellent he is at catching snakes!!).
After lunch, armed with miles of fishing line and about half a kilo (-a lb for those older readers!) of raw monkey meat (!) we headed back out on to the river to catch pirihana fish. Not being an expert fisherman i hadn't expected to be any good, and the technique seems a bit hit and miss ("just pull hard when you feel a bite and flick them out of the water") but today i was in luck- i caught six, the most of any of our group (yeees!). After sufficient fishing we headed to a location for watching the sunset (a shed in a field selling beer with a football pitch- what more could you ask for?), we then set about educating the guides in the rules of touch rugby; this became rather more physical then it should and very sweaty in the tropical heat but lots of fun. Then back to camp to eat our catch- pirihanas are very tasty but a little lacking of meat (i think i ate about 5!)
The next day, our last we got up early to watch dawn. Floating down the river watching the animals wake up was lovely but it was too cloudy to actually see the sunrise so we witness the grey sky lighten slightly- then back to bed for an hour before breakfast; afterwhich we went in search of river dolphins but the grey clouds hadn't cleared and soon the skies opened, we got soaked and decided to head back to camp and dry off.
After the rain stopped and we had packed up camp we began our leisurely return down the river- we found the dolphins and most of us jumped in to have a swim. The brown water filled with unseen pirihanas and banks lined with evil looking aligators didn't make for the most relaxing swim but we were told the dolphins would protect us and as we all returned safely i can only assume its true.
After the 3 hour river return we all had to get back into the jeep for the long journey home. If i had thought this would be a good oportunity to get a nap i was severely wrong... the bumpy mud road made for very numb bums very quickly. The lack of windscreen wipers and fluid meant that periodically the driver had to drive by leaning out of the side window and used all the available bottled water to squirt out of the window in an attempt to clean the front (a manouvere which he managed without slowing down). A couple of hours into the journey he stopped for petrol and in our rush to find the bathroom we failed to notice that the driver didn't in fact fill up with petrol (they had run out!!); unfortunately the driver failed to notice a dog lying beneath our car so pulling out of the station was a noisy sticky process (i was nearly sick). As we had no petrol predictably we ran out of petrol before reaching the town but we didn't need to wait long before another passing truck gave us some (syphoned into an empty water bottle used originally to clean the windscreen), these 2 litres managed to get us to the next petrol station and we gor back without further incidence.
I'm learning the moral of the story is perhaps not to economize so heavily when purchasing a tour!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Death Road

Still on my adventurous streak i decided to take a bike ride down the worlds most dangrous road-
At the hostel i was staying in La Paz many people had done the road and told me it was great fun- The best (and safest) company was called "Gravity", however due to a couple of budget problems i decided not to pay the $75 at Gravity but find a more economical option- i paid $31! Bonus i thought. This wasn't the opinion shared by others i told of my bargainous find- sucicidal seemed to be their thought, with the exeption of a canadian who offered to accompany me. Its a road, i thought how scary is it going to be?..
the day of the ride arrived, the first issue was that our tour operator wasn't picking us up from the hotel but we had to make our way to the office for 7.30am. At the office we found that we were sharing our intial transport with another company- thats not really a problem just a little more environmental i figured. We reached the site for the start of the ride, all the bikes were unloaded and extensive checks were made on them- all of them except for 2 that is. Guess who whose belonged to? It turns out that my budget company wasn't to interested in checks. We put on our 'all weather' gear ( i now resemble an orange teletubby) and set off whilst the other group was beginning their safety talk. The wide road was smooth and fully paved, the guide shot off and we followed close behind- this is easy i thought. At the first stopping point he guide pointed over the edge to show us the remains of a bus and a car that had taken a corner too quickly, still i wasn't too worried the road was wide, with little traffic.
After riding some more and stopping at the top of a 'what seemed to last forever' up hill section (now think sweaty teletubby) we stopped, had some refreshments and waited for the other group to arrive. Our guide mentioned something about the road starting just ahead and sticking to the left side now (instead of the right) i vaguely nodded, not quite understanding fully what he was talking about. The other group arrived and this time we too listened the safety talk (this time in english) and i realised we hadn't even started the death road. We set off again...
And in moments reach, what can best be described as a dirt track steeply descending the mountain side, no saftey barriers and an abyss of several hundred metres to my immediate left. gulp. it'll be ok i think, the guide told us we'd take it easy and all stay 3m apart- whoosh, the guide and the more adventurous boys leave me in a cloud of dust, i set off in an attempt to catch up and just as i'm getting close i hear shouts of stop, stop. We all skid to a halt just as a huge truck hurtles around the corner leaving us gasping for air, but this time i'm ready for the quick start and manage to keep up with the others. We all fly down the road (me slightly faster than i want due to fairly unresponsive brakes) at each hair pin bend there stands a man (or more often a boy of about 8) holding a big square of plastic- one side red and the other green, acts as a sort of human traffic light- i just hope they keep paying attention.
I'm beginning to enjoy this and find as long as i'm not looking down its fun and not actually scary. I find my own pace and realise i don't have to be right behind the boys all the time, then just as i turn a corner expecting more open road i see the rest off my group, one of the boys completely covered in dust and two others hauling his bike back from over the edge.... Going far too fast one of them had slid his bike over the edge but managed to jump off in time before following it over himself! The guide didn't stop and so after dusting himself off we all set off again- this time only slightly slower.
We made our way down without too much further incident (that same boy did fall off once more however!!!- looney) and i wasn't even last. At the bottom after a final and very dusty head count we got a lift up the hill to the small town of Coreico for a well deserved shower, lunch and swim in the pool of a lovely hotel (where i stayed the night before continuing on to the Jungle).