Hunderburton Adventures

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A record of wanderings through Latin America

Archive for January, 2012

Welcome to the Jungle!

Saturday, January 28th, 2012

After our return from Copacabana we boarded the first available flight to Rurrenabaque (Rurre), a remote village in the depths of the Bolivian Amazon. The plane was a 40 seater twin-propellered contraption which felt well overdue for cleaning and maintenance; it creaked a lot and the sealing was pealing off all the windows. After a turbulent takeoff the flight was beautiful, passing over the edge of Bolivia’s alpine plain and into the lower mountainous jungle of the amazon basin. Unfortunately, the windows were so encrusted with filth and dust to the photo opportunities were limited.

Rurre’s airport was a tad more rustic them I’m used to (in fact I quietly suspect it was once a house whose driveway was extended to form a runway) with dense jungle only a few meters from the landing strip. Exiting the plane we were met by 35 degree tropical humidity which was a welcome change after the dry, cold and thin air of La Paz and the other mountainous places in which we have spent our last 2 months.

Rurre

Rurre itself felt much the same as I imagine most towns in tropical wilderness feel- Comparisons can be drawn to most villages in Cambodia or Vietnam, with little thatched roof houses, temporary junk stalls on every street corner, and about 20 small motorbikes in any possible field of vision. The native people even look surprisingly similar to South-East-Asians. Having never been to true jungle myself, it was still a novel experience, though this said, Hollywood has made the jungle feel very familiar; driving on the dirt road through the Amazon between the airport to the Rurre I half expected to be stopped be a group of Sudanese Militants armed with AK47′s (fortunately this didn’t happen).

Stacked turtles in Rurre

After a few days of doing very little other than basking in the heat we had all been missing, we decided it was time to venture out into the real jungle. On our search for tour information we made friends with a Brazilian jungle guide, Daniel, who turned out to be a great source of highly dubious jungle knowledge. For instance, he informed us with great confidence that the amazon river dolphin was the smartest animal on earth and was able to read past, present and future human emotions. He also told us that they could directly communicate with ‘mongoloid children’ (seeing as ‘mongoloid’ has been considered an offensive term for Down-syndrome, for some years, I suspect he may not have been up to date with latest the peer-reviewed research in the area). He pretty much constantly smoked enormous joints which he rolled from paper torn from a notebook, so I think he was either a bit addled from all the pot smoking, or at least saw things in some spiritual way which didn’t directly correspond with the way that we see reality. He was a good guy though generally, and ran a pretty legitimate tourism agency, but most importantly was about the only person in town who spoke a word of English. So, we let him talk us into a three day tour of ‘pampas’, a kind of flooded savannah which is not really the ‘jungle’ per se, but is actually home to most of the animals which are generally thought to live in the jungle; anacondas, jaguars, monkeys etc.

Our boat on the way to the pampas

The tour turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done. The camp where we slept and ate was a Venice-like mini-village held above the water on pillars. The wildlife would move in and around the camp, seemingly un-bothered by the people there. The camp had a ‘pet’ 2m Caiman which you could pat and feed things to, and sometimes massive Black Caiman (A crockodilian creature which can get up to about 6m) would swim around under the kitchen building looking for scraps. We also saw many many monkeys and on a side trip saw a baby anaconda, not to mention a lot of bizarre and interesting bird species.

Mark playing with Antonio the caiman

The camp

the second day we swam with the pink river dolphins. At first I thought we would just be in the same water somewhere near them, but the dolphins seemed to actually like people and come over to play with the swimmers. Its amazing because these dolphins are totally wild, they have never been fed humans and are in no way confined, they just seem genuinely curious. Some people rode them around for a bit, holding onto their fins. I only touched them a few times, but they loved Mark and Anna and gave them both a lot of attention.

A howler monkey in our camp

Some young capybaras- the world's largest rodent

Toucan!

Squirrel monkeys in the camp

After we returned from the Pampas tour, we thought we had best see the true deep and dense jungle, so on Daniels advice went on a jungle walk to a ‘zipline’ (flying-fox) facility thing. The one we went on was supposedly the highest in South America, reaching up to 50m. It also had some of the longest lines, some around 300m. All the lines were attached to enormous trees and between turns, we had to wait on these little swaying platforms above the canopy. It was a little terrifying but seemed safe and the locals running the operation were very professional and proud of their system.

 

Mark on the zipline

After nearly a week of activities and restaurant eating, we thought we had blown enough money, so, in a retrospectively terrible decision, we decided to take the bus back to La Paz for $10, rather than spending $80 on the return flight. I think our journey can best be described as the ‘bus trip from hell’, and I strongly recommend that anyone who isn’t the most extreme kind of masochist catch the plane to and from Rurrenabaque.

We should have gotten the hint when we heard that the trip was 18hours, but only covered 450km, averaging a speed of something like 25km/h. The road was so bad that riding on it felt like operating a jackhammer on a boat in turbulent waters, continuously, for about 22 hours (it took longer than it should have). Most of the trip was on roads similar to the death road, about 3-4m wide, and with a rockwall on one side and a 400m drop on the other.

Though the trip would have been just awful in the best of buses, our bus was probably one of the worst. To begin a long list of terrible qualities, the bus had no toilets, and would go for 10 hours at a time without bathroom breaks. After about 8 toilet-breakless hours, when I felt like my bladder was going to explode, or at least suffer permanent damage, we asked the driver to please stop, but he refused, telling us not to worry and that we would only have to wait another 2 hours… Next, for some reason someone had torn off all the arm rests (I guess to cram more people onto the seats, or to make it easier for Bolivians to take their cages of chickens or other inappropriate things on the bus) which left these jagged metal stubbs jutting from between the seats. The roughness of the road caused us to be thrown into these metal pieces frequently, leaving us all with gashes, and nicks pants torn. To make it even worse, at some point during the trip my seat broke, so rather than being that nice slanted L shape that one expects of a bus seat, it became a perfectly straight slope running directly into the floor.

Oh, and also they completely overbooked the bus, so there were about 5 people standing at any time, often falling onto the seated people at a sharp corner or bump. Many of the families brought children for which they didn’t buy seats, and then decided to put them to sleep in little beds they made up on the floor of the bus, making any movement on the bus virtually impossible. On two occasions on Bolivian buses I have accidentally stepped on a sleeping child, one of which burst into tears immediately- I got a nasty look from the mother for this- and the other just kind of whimpered…

All in all it was a horrible experience. While Bolivia is an amazing country, if you want to travel here and be left with a generally positive view of the place, I strongly suggest you stay clear of the public transport system. The Amazon though was absolutely incredible though and if the plane wasn’t available – and I say this from the comfortable position of lying clean a hotel bed – it would actually still be worth taking the awful bus.

Sunset in the pampas

Copacabana

Saturday, January 28th, 2012

We’ve been out of internet reception for a while so this post is over a week late, but we thought we ought put it in for the sake of recording an accurate chronology of events. Ill warn you now that is also covers one of the less exciting chapters of our travels, so ill forgive you for skipping over this one.

One of the biggest tourist attractions of both Peru and Bolivia is Lake Titicaca, a 200km long water body covering much of the Peru/Bolivia border. At an altitude of roughly 3800m, it is both the highest navigable lake, and the largest alpine lake in the world.

Lake Titicaca

Mostly due to convenience, we decided to visit the lake from the Bolivian side, on which Copacabana is probably the most popular tourist town. Copacabana is a small and beautifully situated town on a peninsula which juts out a few kilometers onto the lake. Unfortunately, Copacabana also turned out to be about the most poorly organized town I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, for example there is not a single ATM which takes foreign cards within about 100km of the town- so in a town which survives almost completely on tourism, we could only spend about 2/3 of the money we would have liked to because we ran out of cash.

Copacabana from a view point

The town was nice otherwise, and had a good selection of waterside walks. We took advantage of the relative remoteness of the area and set of some huge fireworks on the beach. On the second day, we went on a boat trip to ‘Isla del Sol´ which is a small island a three hour and freezing cold boat trip away from Copacabana. The island is the setting of the Inca creation myth, wherein the sun and the moon burst from a large rock on the top of the island. Supposedly adjacent to the cavities of the sun and the moon is a human face with a prominent tongue, though despite our best efforts none of us could see any semblance. The island also holds the very intact ruins of a small Inca village built around the 15th century AD, which Is surrounded by agricultural terraces, an Inca invention which greatly improved the farming potential of mountainous terrain. This allowed them to cultivate the potato, for example (supposedly the Irish stole it from the Andeans)

The highlight of our trip to Copacabana was the relaxed beach-side atmosphere, and our great hotel which was considerably enhanced by some tiny and adorable 8 week old kittens which would sneak into our room and fall asleep on our beds when we let our guard down (or just felt like kittens on our beds).

 

Kittens!

 

Cheesy tourist shot with alpacas

Salar de Uyuni

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

Hello hello!

So yesterday morning we returned from a three-day, 4WD tour of the southern Bolivian salt flats and surrounds. The tour started from a creepy little town called Uyuni, a twelve hour bus trip south of La Paz. Uyuni is a bit like what I imagine, from the movies, Mexico might be like; the land is dry and expansive, dotted with low lying shrubs, lots of old cans, and the occasional abandoned vehicle beside the dusty, bumpy roads. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a British company sponsored railways from mineral rich Uyuni to the Pacific Ocean, but the mining industry collapsed early, and now the trains sit in the Cemeterio de Trenes, the “Train Cemetery”. Its just a few kilometers out of town, but it feels like the middle of nowhere, and the rusty old trains stretch for hundreds of metres.

Cemeterio de Trenes Uyuni

Cemeterio de Trenes Uyuni

The council has added a couple of see-saws and a few creaky swings, perhaps to cheer it up a bit. Its a really cool place actually, and we had a lot of fun climbing along, above and through the trains, but creepy none the less. In the town center the city has erected statues made of wire and old engine parts – it really could be the setting of a horror movie!

Creepy Statue 2, Uyuni

Creepy Statue 2, Uyuni

Creepy Statue, Uyuni

Creepy Statue, Uyuni

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now, the main reason that people go to Uyuni is its proximity to the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats. The salt flats cover 10.5 thousand square kilometres, and almost entirely flat. In fact, it is so remarkably flat that it is used by satellites to calibrate their altimeters (measures of altitude). The salt is very reflective, particularly now in the rainy season, and so the first thing that we noticed when approaching the salt flats was what looked to be floating mountains. Because the salt reflects the sky so well, it can be almost impossible to tell where the horizon actually lies. This quality, and the white shiny uniformity of the surface, lends itself to the forced perspective photographs which are very popular with tourists (and which you may have seen). Nick and Mark were ideologically opposed to such frivolity, so I have no photos of a mini me perched on someones shoulder or the like. Though they did (bless ‘em!) condescend to take this one…

A Lesson in Forced Perspectives

A Lesson in Forced Perspectives

Impressed? Mark took great care to get the angle just right.

The only building in the salt flat is a hotel built entirely of salt, and so aptly named the Salt Hotel. The beds (though you´ll be pleased to hear not the bedding), walls, furniture is all made of salt bricks. Very neat.

Salt Hotel, Uyuni

Salt Hotel, Uyuni

We spent day number two driving between surreal volcanic rock formations (affectionately named the Salvador Dali Desert), and lagoons filled with flamingos.

A rock near the Salvador Dali Desert

A rock near the Salvador Dali Desert

Flamingos are a very beautiful species of bird. They were the only visible life in the lagoons (and for that matter anywhere nearby), and looked very tranquil resting on one leg meditatively in between skimming for micro-organisms. Its hard not to think of the Queen of Hearts swinging her croquet mallet in Wonderland though…

Una Laguna con Flamingos

Una Laguna con Flamingos

Our favorite lagoon was the last of the day; it was enormous, 4300 metres above sea level, nestled in mountains and the water was entirely red. There were flamingos here too (“siempre flamingos!” – always flamingos! our driver would chuckle at every new lake), and also lots of native camels called vicuñas.

Vicuñas, Flamingos and a Red Lagoon

Vicuñas, Flamingos and a Red Lagoon

The final day was spent hopping between different areas of thermal activity. At the first stop sulfurous gas burst from the ground either in enormous clouds or perfectly formed towers.

Sulfurous Towers

Sulfurous Towers

The second stop was for warm thermal pools, a god send at 4900 meters (read: COLD!), and after three nights without showers… The setting was lovely too!

Hot Springs near Salar de Uyuni

Hot Springs near Salar de Uyuni

We actually got as far South as the Chilean border, where we dropped off the two Korean girls we were traveling with who were bound for a 24hr bus to Santiago. On the way back up the only thing of real interest (and Nick may debate its interest!) was a little town called San Cristobal. I’m not sure who Saint Cristobal was, but his name is everywhere (you might remember the giant Virgin Mary statue on the top of San Cristobal hill in Santiago, there’s also San Cristobals in Argentina, Mexico and Ecuador that we know of). We’ve come across a couple of other names that are obviously beloved for reasons that I am ignorant of, for example “Colon” – we’ve seen Colon streets, suburbs and – my favorite – “Colon Cafe”.

But back to San Cristobal in Bolivia. It was a tiny little town of 350 people, until one of the world’s largest silver deposits was discovered beneath. The result was that a Canadian mining company paid for the entire town to be moved 17km to a new site. San Cristobal had a beautiful old Colonial church (well over 350 years old), and this too was moved stone by stone and rebuilt in the new settlement. Here it is:

San Cristobal Church

San Cristobal Church

So, that was our last few days. I think we were all struck by the beauty and diversity of Bolivia. My bet is that in the next ten years or so, tourism in Bolivia is going to absolutely boom. There’s an album below with a few extra shots from the trip, enjoy!

 

Yungas Road

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

The Yungas Road connects the city of La Paz to the town of Coroico. For some time it was the only route to Coroico, and claimed around 200 to 300 lives a year, earning it the title of Death Road. Naturally this sort of danger attracts a variety of thrillseekers, many of whom choose to navigate the road by mountain bike. We decided to give it a shot as the biker mortality rate was comfortably low, 18 cyclists having perished since 1998.

The route is a 63km downhill ride, descending through the Yungas Valley to Yolsa village (1100m).

The ride starts at Cumbre Pass (4700m), the highest point on the Yungas Road. The surrounding area is part of the Bolivian Altiplano, sparse rocky mountain ranges just below the snow line. Visible from La Cumbre is the nearby snow-capped mountain Huayna Potosí (6,088m).The first section of the road was in surprisingly good repair, the asphalt surface allowing speeds of 30-40km/hour.

The Yungas Road is notable for its decent through distinct climates/environments. It wasn´t long before we left the asphalt of the Altiplano and entered the steamy Yungas rainforest. It was apparent that we were now on the true Death Road as the surface shifted to dirt and gravel. This section of the road is characterised by shear drops (up to 1000m) to the left side of the narrow track and cascading waterfalls and rocky overhangs to the right. It was difficult to keep eyes on the track with the incredible scenery spread out before us but somehow we managed to appreciate the vistas while avoiding hurtling over the edge.

After awhile the temperature became too tropical (around 15º warmer then when we started) and we had to shed some layers. The track progressively grew hotter and dustier during the final 1000m decent and by the end we were well in need of a swim. Luckily a dip in the local hotel pool was included in the package. The 63km bike ride lasted 3 hours and brought us to a point 3500m lower than where we started. We were quite proud of not dying and we each got a horribly fitting ProDownhill t-shirt to commemorate our achievement.

While this doesent really relate to the content of this post, we recently went to a place called ¨Moon Valley¨ which provided some pretty spectacular scenery and unique rock formations.

La Paz

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

¡Hola!

So we’ve spent a few nights in La Paz, Bolivia, and its been quite an experience so far. La Paz has to be one of the most unusual cities in the world. Geographically, the city is literally like no other. The area surrounding looks a lot like savannah, with perfectly flat grassy windswept planes stretching into the distance further than the eye can see. Whats so strange about this plane, however, is that it is uniformly 4100m above sea level. La Paz is situated in a kind of bowl naturally cut into the plane which drops down to about 3600m at its lowest point (its still the highest ‘city’ in the world), so looking out from the center of the city it feels like you’re in a mountain range. La Paz is north of Cairns (its almost exactly the same latitude as Port Douglas) but due to the altitude, the temperature all year round is from about 5-20 degrees daily.

Bolivia is a landlocked mountainous country with little economic capacity to exploit its natural resources, and little in the way of possible legitimate agriculture. It does, however, have the perfect climate and altitude for growing high grade cocain, and consequently has become the worlds largest producer of the drug. To appease the United States and International drug control agencies, cocain has been made illegal, but coca leaf growing is permitted for cultural reasons. The locals really do use coca in milder forms a lot; every cafe serves coca tea, a drink which has a similar effect to coffee, and at present 90% of Bolivians chew coca leaves daily. The money, though, is in the international export of stronger products. The result of this massive coca industry is that pursuit of the national interests of the country do not align with its laws, and corruption and bribery, and a generally ineffective law enforcement system has developed. I’d guess this tension is a large factor in how the ‘anything goes’ attitude of Bolivia developed. Now there are ‘illegal’ cocain bars which are publicly advertised, and dangerous weapons, dynamite and metre tall fireworks can be purchased from street vendors. Its all very bizarre.

la paz bolivia

The streets of La Paz

The remoteness of La Paz has also preserved an interesting Indigenous culture. Most local women over the age of about 30, wear the traditional garb which consists of about 10 layered dresses which have so much material it makes even the thin ones look obese. Apparently they are so hard to remove and wash that the women reak of urine in confined spaces – I haven’t noticed this personally yet though, something to look foreword to I guess! The dresses are accompanied by these strange, rigid bowler hats which have a tiny circumference, so they perch on the crown in a precarious fashion and seem to serve no functional purpose. In markets, one quickly sees the Indigenous influence, as a good number of stores sell mummified baby llamas, or llama fetuses, presumably used for some spiritual reason.

dried llamas

A punnet of dried llamas

Today we walked to San Pedro Prison, another of the unusual sights in La Paz. San Pedro is the setting of the book ‘Marching Powder’ which some of you may have read, about an English drug trafficker who was sent to jail there for trying to move five kilograms of cocain to London (I recommend the book – its really interesting). Because of the level of corruption in the system, the jail as well as being a jail, functions as an enormous cocain processing factory, and has a system where inmates have to purchase their own cells (some even live in two story mansions built within the walls). Anyway, if you turn up at the right times you can actually bribe your way into the jail and take a tour around inside for about $10. The most powerful gangs control these tours, so its supposedly quite safe, as news of a harmed tourist would ruin the gangs lucrative business. Having all read the book we thought it would be neat to just go and check out the front gate and building but when we got there we ran into another group of tourists who were in the process of bribing their way in. When they asked if we wanted to come along, we thought we’d give it a shot. The jail sounded like a pretty scary place to be, but everyone says its such a great experience so we thought it could be worth it. So we waited for a while to see if this connection they had with some lawyer they had met that morning was going to work. Unfortunately (or fortunately- I’m not actually sure that I really wanted to go in) their connection failed and we got ordered to leave by a prison guard. It was an interesting experience though.

The gate of San Pedro- the people entering are the family members of inmates, many of whom live inside the prison

I think we’ve going to have a lot of fun here. Everything is really cheap (yesterday we got a 3 course meal with bread for $1.40) so we can afford to do all the crazy activities we couldn’t in Patagonia. Tomorrow or the next day we are going on a bike tour which is 67 kilometres of continuous downhill. It goes from the top of some mountain at almost 5000m down to wetlands.

Ooh yeah.. and Mark joined us yesterday! I thought I should throw that in somewhere…

¡Chao!

 

 

Farewell Patagonia!

Friday, January 6th, 2012

Hey Friends!

So we left Patagonia this morning, and are now at Santiago airport waiting for our connecting flight to La Paz, Bolivia. Anyway, we thought we’d sacrifice some of our precious 10 airport hours here to put up a final post and some of the best photos from our last week here.

After our failed hike we decided to head back into Argentina and see the Perito Marino glacier, an offshoot of a Patagonian ice-sheet which is the worlds third largest store of fresh water. The massive reserve of ice fueling Perito Marino causes this enormous glacier (over 50m high) to move incredibly fast by glacial standards (this is probably still only something like 3m a year). As a result of its blazing speed, one watching for more than about 5 minutes can reasonably expect to see a piece of ice the size of a bus tear off the face and plummet into the glacial lake below. Its extremely impressive, even after seeing half a dozen other glaciers in the past fortnight.

Perito Merino Glacier

A Patagonian Fox we saw near the glacier

From Punta Arenas (the most southern ‘city’ in the world- it has maybe 100 000 people) we went on a tour to see colony of penguins. Penguins are REALLY adorable, and the Patagonian variety seem to have virtually no natural predators, and consequently no flight response to large creatures approaching them. Anna got about 20cm away from a baby one before its parents decided it shouldn’t be so close to strange women and started squawking aggressively (Anna backed down but I recon she could totally have taken that penguin).

Anna and penguin

More penguins

So we will be in La Paz in about 10 hours, and if the stories we’ve heard from other travelers represent the place properly, it should provide us with some good blog material (apparently its one of few places where one can purchase sticks of dynamite from roadside stalls, for instance). More on that soon!