Archive for December, 2009

Report and photos from the Bolivian Amazon

As you may know from previous postings, I decided to take advantage of the the downtime between Christmas and New Years by taking a quick 4-day trip up to Rurrenabaque in Northern Bolivia, a jumping-off point for tours to the Bolivian Amazon basin. After much wrangling and dithering I finally secured a flight for first thing Sunday morning via Amaszonas, a tiny regional carrier. So I found myself at at La Paz airport at 05:15 on Sunday, bleary eyed and unprepared for the 2-hour wait which ensued. Patience was tested but eventually we found ourselves on the tiny 20-seater plane (apologies for quality, this is a camera phone picture): 

The cockpit was open to us, and provided much in-flight entertainment and occasional anxiety as beeping alarms punctured the din from the twin propellers. Needless to say we were all very happy when we finally landed on the grass strip at Rurrenabaque. Heat, humidity, and thick air all hit us as we spilled out onto the grass. First impressions were of a one-building airport, and a comically simple baggage claim. It was when I went out the front door – to the separate toilet building – that I came across a scene straight out of Central Casting for podunk, third-world airports. Next to the toilet blocks were old, decaying airline equipment including a row of airplane seats and a set of boarding steps for a larger airliner from a presumably more successful past. What made the scene though were the herd of cows grazing around all of this. 

All the plane’s passengers boarded the shuttle bus into town and were dropped off at various tour agencies as we went. I befriended another solo traveller, Leftie (short for Leftira, as he was a London-born Greek) and together we headed for Bala Tours, which had been recommended both in the various guidebooks and by other agencies as one of the “good guys” – i.e. they practice responsible tourism and don’t run circus shows for tourists. This was up our alley, and we decided on the pampas (grasslands) tour as conventional wisdom has it that you see far more animals that way. We were told that we were the only visitors that day, so we would have their dedicated eco-lodge to ourselves. 

While the kind folks at Bala got their act together, we had a bit of time to hit the Sunday market and explore the town of Rurrenabaque a bit. I got a strong vibe of a Southeast Asian beach town off the place. It had the right combination of easy-going street life, heat, and the kind of bars, restaurants, and cafes that tell the visitor that they will be spending a lot of time outside – even when they are inside. 

Time came to hit the road. We met our guide for the 3 days, a mestizo named Alexander, and also Hilda the cook. I would tell you the name of our driver but he was a surly bastard who barely uttered a word. What followed was a jouncing 3.5 hour punishment of a drive in a failing Land Cruiser which had clearly had a Hawaiian longboard surfer as a previous owner. What I know is that on the eternal, sun-blasted dirt track through tropical lowlands, we had one total tire blowout (irreparable) and a following slow leak in the spare tire that required a couple of pumping stops. 

Finally we arrived at a boat ramp on the Yacuma river, out past Santa Rosa. We loaded up a long boat with a 15hp outboard and made a short 5 minute trip down the river to Bala’s camp, an idyllic setting called the Caracoles Lodge. Pretty basic accommodation really (dorm beds and mosquito nets) and all electricity provided by solar and batteries. But it had hammocks. By the river. We have a winner. 

What followed was three-ish full days, mostly on the long boats, and two very peaceful and restful nights (well once you got used to the jungle sounds all around you, that is). Some highlights included:
  • Seeing more wildlife in three days than I had in three months previously – pink river dolphins, caiman, alligator, egrets, herons, turtles, hawks, huatzin (prehistoric chicken-sized birds) and many more
  • Taking the controls of the boat for a bit  – my canal barge experience from the UK stood me in good stead – and now I can say I have have piloted a boat in the Amazon (get me)
  • Spending a pleasant afternoon fishing – mostly for catfish, which were delicious fried up later – and every so often having to fight off piranhas from stealing our bait
  • Going for a swim with pink river dolphins nearby – in the same caimain and piranha infested river 
  • Going for a shower back at the camp – and having both a toad and a tree frog for company
  • Burning through 16GB of memory cards on my SLR. And then deleting most of it, as there are only so many pictures of panicked birds’ arses that one needs in life. 

Speaking of pictures, of course I have a few to hand:

All in all, well worth the experience, a magical few days to be sure. 

Yesterday afternoon it was then back along the bumpy road to Rurre and a somewhat anxious evening as I only had 200 bolivianos (under $30) on me and that had to cover food, lodging, and transport to the airport in the morning for my flight back to La Paz. But a look at the trusty Footprint guidebook pointed me at my first proper budget accommodation of the trip, a 20-boliviano hostal. That’s less than the price of a cup of coffee. That sorted, we had a few beers and dinner at the “famous” Moskitto Bar, which was struggling a bit with a lack of tourist trade and looked slightly sad and empty. I don’t think the bar owner took too kindly to our request to change music from the inescapable-on-the-gringo-trail Bob Marley mix to something slightly less cliched. Ah well. 

So back in La Paz now, and out for the last night of the 4 Europeans tonight (Shane, Eiza, Sibylle and myself) with some accomplices. Sibylle leaves tomorrow for New Years Eve in Buenos Aires, and Shane, Eiza and myself stay on in La Paz for what promises to be a big night here….

Connected again

Just a quick note – internet cafe is closing down around me – but I am back in Rurrenabaque after an amazing 3 days out in the pampas of the Bolivian Amazon. Too many pictures to count (much deletion ahead) but we saw caiman by the dozens, hawks, howler and squirrel monkeys, prehistoric birds aplenty, and the famous pink river dolphin, who was having none of our attempts to swim with himself. The fact we were swimming in a caiman- and piranha-infested river I am sure had nothing to do with it.
More recollections and photos when I next have proper internet access, probably back in La Paz tomorrow.
Categories: South America

Landed safe in Rurrenabaque

Just a quick one from the tour agency computer to say I have landed safely and am about to embark on a 3 day tour of the 
pampas in the Bolivian Amazon. I have no cell coverage here and there will be no internet or telephone where I am staying (an eco lodge) so I will be out of contact for the next 3 days. I am taking a tour with Bala Tours and it should be really good. 

Categories: South America

Another early morning, another flight

In what is becoming a theme of this trip, I was out in La Paz last night, and had to get up at stupid o'clock this morning to be at the airport by 5:15AM for my flight up north to Rurrenabaque. This time is slightly less traumatic, with 3 hours' sleep fuelling a very short (50 minute) flight. It beats 0 hours' sleep and a 12- or 18-hour journey by a fair way. So maybe I am (slowly) learning from my past errors of judgement?


My night was cut a bit short last night as the nightclub we were going to enter (once again, La Gitana in Zona Sur) wouldn't let Eiza's brother in, not specifying why. But one suspects his slightly goth look, and his ponytail were not the "look" the bouncers were after. I had already gotten in by this point but exited immediately upon hearing this. A couple of us left in solidarity with him, and went next door to a different, somewhat low-rent nightclub. Where we got a full-frontal dose of La Paz's mestizo middle classes grinding onto one another in what could only be described as heavy petting. A couple of drinks there was enough to get the picture, and we made an early (1AM) exit. Which is why I stand a chance of feeling vaguely human today.

Of course, I haven't heard one way or another if the grass landing strip at Rurre is operational today or not. Fingers crossed…

Christmas in Bolivia, and further adventures

We had a great family Christmas in La Paz with the Irazoques, enjoying a midnight feast as the 24th turned into the 25th, courtesy of the family patriarch, Don Felipe. The main course was a delicious rich soup of chicken, beef and pork, served with potato dumplings and corn. Yum yum. Generally the local food is pretty decent here and I have enjoyed such varied dishes as trout with lemon butter and ceviche (raw fish "cooked" in lemon juice and spices). 

Last night (Christmas night) I had dinner with my old colleague Peter Hahndorf in central La Paz. It was great to meet up, swap old stories and geek talk. Then I headed back over towards Achumani, our "home" neighbourhood, for an impromptu night out with everyone in a nightclub called La Gitana (The Gipsy) where we consumed copious amounts of whiskey, and it seemed only natural to go on to a karaoke bar. Until 6AM. This put somewhat of a crimp in my plan.

My plan, in a word, was to get up and try to get on the waiting list for a 6AM flight up north to Rurrenabaque for a trip into the Amazon. Obviously that went out the window and I was forced to postpone my trip for a day. But I have bought tickets for the 6AM flight tomorrow and weather permitting (the landing strip at Rurrenabaque is grass) I will be in the Amazon tomorrow morning.

Quick shots from Lake Titicaca

These are a few shots of Lake Titicaca from yesterday. More to come when time and internet connections allow.

Night view of Copacabana and Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca

Aymara Family on Isla del Sol

Much to be thankful for on Christmas Eve

We are on the bus back from Titicaca to La Paz, which traverses the scrub plains of the Altiplano. Along the way has been a constant stream of unimaginable poverty. At the beginning of the trip, entire Aymara families camped by the side of the road, with wretchedly miserable children holding out tiny hands in hopeless solicitation as buses like ours raced past them, oblivious and without a thought of stopping. That was before we got out onto the Altiplano proper and the storm hit. Our biggest problems have been a leaky bus and a washed-out road. Whereas, outside, for mile upon mile, hundreds of small blue bumps in fields by the side of the road revealed themselves to be groups of two, three, four or more Indians huddled under tarpaulins, shivering in the mud, wind, and rain, trying to keep an eye on the one or two pathetic farm animals nearby. Soon, we will be warm houses, while they will likely spend the night filthy, miserable, and cold.

And it’s Christmas Eve.

Categories: South America

Knackered and photo-less

I am utterly cream-crackered after today´s hike across Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca. We had a very patient guide, but you haven´t lived till you´ve tried a 1 in 4 grade in the beating sunshine at 4000 metres. Didn´t vomit, which I attribute to the presence of the ball of coca leaves that we all had tucked into our cheeks. But it was an utterly great experience, we learned a lot, saw some jaw-dropping views and caught some more sun. Clearly, I also took a lot of photos. We learned from our Aymara guide that the proper Tiwanako name for Titicaca is actually Titicarka, and that Titicaca was a bastardization of the Conquistadores, likely meant as a sign of disrespect.
Apologies for the lack of pictures the last couple of days, I have run into a variety of internet bandwidth and hardware issues. Sure they will be up before too long, though I may have to drip feed them.
Back to La Paz for Christmas with Shane and Eiza and Eiza´s family tomorrow, then I am giving serious thought to going up to Rurrenabaque, in Northern Bolivia, to see some proper jungle, then returning to La Paz for New Years Eve.
Categories: South America

To Isla del Sol

We are presently on a small boat heading out into Lake Titicaca for a day trip to the Isla del Sol, the legendary birthplace of the Inca people. We have, perhaps foolishly, signed up for a 5 mile walking tour from the north to the south of the island. I say perhaps foolishly as we are finally suffering some effects from the altitude. Lake Titicaca, at 12,700 is only 700 feet higher than La Paz, but it seems to make a difference to us. A walk of 50 feet with a few steps leaves you panting. So 5 miles will be interesting. A number of our fellow travelers have brought along (legal) bags of coca leaves which, when placed in the cheek, give one a coffee-level buzz which may serve them well on the journey today.

Categories: South America

The Chicken Bus Boat

So here we are, still on the bus, in manner of speaking. We got to the edge of Lake Titicaca where there was a ferry landing and most people disembarked the bus, clearly knowing something we didn’t. I got off to investigate (also needing a pee) and found the other passengers buying separate tickets to cross to the other side on a launch rather than waiting for the bus. I queued for a ticket only to see the bus pull off in the other direction with Sibylle and all our bags still onboard. I had to peg it after the bus, and by the time I caught up it was being loaded onto a very rickety looking single-space ferry platform. I hopped on and managed to get the somewhat surprised bus driver to open up for me, but by then the platform was disembarking and we were stuck onboard. We chalked this up as one of these travel experiences. But it doesn’t change the fact that we are crossing a lake in a bus with bits of lumber underneath. Backwards. And I still have to pee.

And from underneath one of the seats ahead of us, comes the unmistakeable clucking sound of a pathetically frightened chicken.

Categories: South America