Another tick for the bucket list- we’ve conquered the Amazon jungle and it was FANTASTIC (well, for me anyway.)
On Thursday morning we took a very scenic flight from La Paz to Rurrenebaque- if we’d taken the bus it would probably have taken over 20 hours on unpaved roads- no thanks. From there it was on to a lovely hotel with views not unlike those on the Mekong Delta and a pool. So nice. Bright and early the next day off we went on a 5 hour boat ride up river to a wonderful place called Chalalan Lodge. The ride itself was great- amazing views the whole way and we were sat at the very front so had uninterrupted views:
Chalalan Lodge is a community owned and run model for eco tourism, set deep in the Madiri National Park, one of the most bio diverse places in the world. It was set up 20 years ago to encourage community sustainability and educate tourists on the need to protect the park (it’s a pretty big area- over 19,000 sq km.) Although Chalalan does cost more than the privately owned resorts, 50% of the profits go directly to the community so that they don’t need to hunt and cut down trees in order to earn money. It has a capacity of only 30 people although when we were there there were only about 10 of us, which was really nice as it wasn’t crowded. We stayed in a ‘luxury’ cabin (see below for the jungle version of luxury) with lovely hammocks to lie in during the afternoons when it was too hot to go out.
It’s always an early start followed by a 3 or 4 hour ( very hot and very sweaty) trail. After lunch it was time for a siesta and then around 3.30, it was out again for either another trail or a canoe ride to see cayman (a cross between an alligator and crocodile,) monkeys swinging through the trees or amazingly weird looking birds. After dinner, it was back out again in the pitch black on a night hike to see a completely different side to the jungle- huge spiders, deadly frogs, freaky looking insects, pirhanas and more monkeys (there were many many kinds.) Sam was not a fan of the night hikes- it turns out that he and the jungle are not destined to be friends.
The trails were awesome- we learnt so much from our fantastic guide, Ronny. He grew up in the community which runs Chalalan and seemed to know absolutely everything about the Amazon. He could recognise every kind of animal, bird or insect from listening to it from far away (when we couldn’t even hear the sound.) Ronny showed us all of the different types of trees used to make traditional medicine and could spot poisonous spiders from about 20m away.
Now onto the bullet ants and big brave Sam.
Think of an ant, x it by 10 and add a massive venomous sting. This is what stung Sam on his foot as he stepped out a hammock. I’ve only seen him in pain like that once before, in Bali when he slammed a bit wooden gate onto his fingers. Sam described his foot as being both on fire and broken simultaneously. It took 5 hours for the pain to subside and the staff were on the verge of giving him snake venom antidote to try and help, after all of the traditional medicines and painkillers did nothing to help. We found out afterwards that usually the sting from a bullet ant can make your whole foot swell and the pain normally lasts 24 hours. Ouch.
So, although not such a successful trip for Sam, I absolutely loved the Amazon jungle and would go back again tomorrow if I could. Even the mosquitoes (of which there were many,) could not dampen my spirits!
So, that’s Bolivia done and dusted. At times it’s been challenging as we’ve been so tired but overall it has been a fantastic country to visit and we’d encourage anyone to go. Although still very much a developing country and having terrible wifi, it’s got so much going for it- from stunning architecture in Sucre, to the wonders of the the salar and the amazing diversity of the jungle.
Due to family circumstances, we’ve had to put our Peru and Ecuador plans on hold and return to the UK. We hope to resume soon as we have so much we still want to see but for the moment we won’t be updating the blog.
So for now, it’s bye from us!
I’m very fortunate that it’s my turn to write this post as it should be a nice easy one- we’ve just had 4 of the best days of our trip. When we were originally planning the trip we both knew very little about Bolivia, the main things being that (a) it has a really famous salt flat that’s the biggest in the world, and (b) it has a steam train graveyard. Those 2 items alone justified our entire foray into this country, and are very closely placed together in the south of the country in a place called Uyuni.
Although it’s obviously possible to do tours from Uyuni, we’d heard mixed reviews about the quality from there. We (aka Laura) did some more research and found that tours also went from the town of Tupiza, several hundred kilometers away. Although the town itself has nothing much to speak of (it didn’t have anywhere to even get a coffee,) we did get lucky with a really tasty pizza at some random place that wasn’t on TripAdvisor. La Torre tours offered a 3 night/4day tour which had great reviews. We couldn’t book until we got to the town and were very worried we’d be stuck a day or two to get on a tour but we were fortunate and got on a tour the next day.
The tours work like this; there are 6 people in a Jeep- the guide, the cook, and 4 tourists. We were very lucky to get paired with a lovely Belgian couple, Hortense and Louis, who were amazing company and really helped to make the trip be extra fantastic. We spent a lot of time in the car- we were covering 150-300 km every day so it gave us a lot of time to get to know each other, plus we were eating and staying in a room together! I can only imagine how horrid it would be if you got stuck with people you didn’t like; there were 2 Jeeps going from our company and most the people in the other Jeep would have made terrible companions. We were surprised by the amount of Jeep time as we thought there’d be more walking but it didn’t turn out to be a problem. The scenery was non-stop stunning and constantly changing and made for really beautiful driving.
The main attractions of the salt flat and the train cemetery were saved for the last day which is one of the reasons the tour works so well in this direction; the scenery and attractions get better and better each day. The photos do not do it justice, but it was a truly special experience. You’re really out in the very middle of nowhere, and quite how the driver knew where to go was beyond us. Still, he never got us lost! Neither the chef nor guide spoke any English, but we managed to muddle by with our limited Spanish and a lot of help from Hortense and Louis (thanks guys.)
It’s really interesting because the lunch stops and evening accommodation all provided a kitchen for the chefs, but the chefs had to bring everything else; gas, food, drink etc. There were entire buildings set up with these kitchens and communal dining areas. Very weird, but it seemed to work. We were certainly impressed with the evening accommodation. The tour operator had repeatedly warned us that the accommodation was very basic and low quality, and Laura had seen pictures of mattresses on floors, so we went in expecting the worst and were pleasantly surprised. The beds were all comfy (Laura had the best sleep in months on the first night) with plenty of warm bedding, and we only had to share between the 4 of us so it wasn’t like a massive dorm. We were always well fed (with plenty of snacks in the day too), and all of this came in under our usual daily budget as well!
I guess the most obvious question is “What did you see for 4 days in a Jeep?” It’s hard to articulate as we saw so much, we really did see everything amazing that nature has to offer. Valleys that looked like the moon, hills that looked like Mars, and so so many lagunas we lost count. Most with flamingos- which did not stand on one leg contrary to popular belief. Each day offered something new, particularly with the changing altitude- at some altitudes the plains were full of shrubbery, in others we were in fully arid deserts. We even got to go into a geothermal hot pool, as well as seeing pluming gysers firing up non stop clouds of sulfurous smoke. We took over 1000 photos, although we’ve managed to narrow it down to 300 or so (and Laura will narrow that further for the blog!)
I’ll let the photos do most of the talking, but I really do need to cover the Salar. It’s truly insane. It’s over 10,000 sq. meters in size, which meant that after our 4:30am wake up call on the last day we had to drive for over half an hour to get to the middle- the whole thing is perfectly flat and made up of patterned white salt, You can see nothing for miles and miles to the horizon, which made some brilliant mirages of floating islands. There’s so much salt that our last night accommodation was in a salt hotel; they compress the salt into bricks and built a hotel! It was really very special.
This also completely messes with perspective, which means you can end up with cool perspective shots like this:
The final stop of the tour was the steam train graveyard. As you can imagine, I was quite excited, but even Laura enjoyed it in the end. Uyuni used to be the centre joining point of trains from Chile and Argentina, but when demand dropped they basically parked up all the trains and left them there to rot. It’s an incredible site, and made a great adult playground with everyone climbing on top for some awesome photos.
Whilst I think we both agree that Inca Trail remains our favourite activity, this has definitely been a close second. And in a couple of days we fly to the Amazon! This kind of sums up how we feel:
NB: This was written about a week ago- but internet in Bolivia is almost as bad as in NZ so takes forever to do anything!
Here we are in Potosi, the highest city in the world. It sits at about 4300m above sea level and we thought we’d really feel the altitude but I think, because we’ve been at high altitude for over a month now, our bodies have adapted. That’s not to say we’re not struggling sometimes, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it was when we got to Cusco or climbed the volcano in Chile.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ve been in Sucre for about a week, relaxing and not doing a lot. That’s not to say we didn’t do anything- we went to see the world’s largest collection of dinosaur footprints, which was amazing. We also visited Tarabuco, famous for its textile market (stay tuned for photos of my new alpaca wool jumper. It’s so stylish.) We ate some fantastic meals here too- amazing steaks and super strength red wine, yum yum. However, by the last day in Sucre, we were definitely ready to move on and headed 3 hours up through the mountains to Potosi.
Potosi is famous for its silver mining- hundreds of years ago, over 80% of all of the silver in the world came from here and men still mine it today in Cerro Ricco. It’s really dangerous and reportedly has horrendous working conditions, but over 20,000 still go everyday to mine. There are tours you can do but with my claustrophobic tendencies, we decided it would be a waste of money for us. Instead, we went to Casa de Moneda (the money house) to learn about Potosi’s rich history of coin production. Interesting fact: Due to the volume of silver from Cerro Ricco, money from Potosi was exported to Spain and then around the world. That’s right, I paid attention.
We were able to snag a visit to the cathedral when it was empty so we got to explore on our own- it was really cool to go up to the bell tower and see out across Potosi- it’s another UNESCO heritage site and as such, the buildings, for the most part, have been preserved so it’s beautiful to look out over.
We’ve managed to score ourselves anther great Airbnb apartment so we could cook- this was great until we realised Potosi doesn’t have the best supermarkets and we kind of had to scramble meals together (resulting in a very grumpy Sam last night.) It’s really polluted here- like a smaller version of La Paz and so to counteract it, we headed away from town, into the mountains to find some Lagunas. It was so beautiful up there and apart from the hundreds of alpacas roaming around, was deserted. It felt so good to be hiking again although we’re both suffering now.
Tomorrow we’re on the move again, 7 hours down the road to Tupiza for (hopefully) just an overnight stay so we can book our Salar de Uyuni trip from there. Then it’s 4 days over salt flats to the steam train graveyard (guess who’s excited about this) followed by an overnight bus to La Paz (unavoidable) and then flying on down to the Amazon for 4 days of adventure in Anaconda Central, yippee! (My mum is not happy about this at all. Helpfully, Dad keeps referencing anaconda films and all the things that could happen during Skype calls. Mum is not taking this well.) We only have a 30 day visa for Bolivia so we need to be out and back into Peru by the 12th April- extending our visa seems to involve a lot of faffing at the embassy so we want to avoid that if we can.
Although it will be met with howls of derision from those of you with real jobs, Laura and I are pretty exhausted from all this travelling. We’re 9 months in now (and over half way in our South America trip) and the slog of night buses and changing beds is taking its toll. So, to try and mitigate it we’ve had a rather relaxing week!
As Laura mentioned we weren’t fans of La Paz, but it did pick up a bit with the cable cars. It’s the only city in the world with cable cars as the primary form of transport (I’m full of fascinating knowledge) and they’ve got to be one of the most beautiful commutes to work anywhere. Plus, each part of the journey only costs 3 Bolivianos (which is about 30p). We spent about 2 quid total riding the whole line for well over an hour!
We also found some nice sections of La Paz, the old Colonial bits which were much nicer to walk around and explore. The apartment we were in was incredible though, and was well stocked with DVDs and we took advantage of having a living room to relax a bit and do some cooking.
Following this we jumped in a cab for about 40 minutes to go and stay in a Teepee! I’m still not sure how Laura found this place but it was very nice. Quiet and peaceful and with plenty of hammocks around, and a kitchen so that we could cook for ourselves which is always welcome. We’ve been exceptionally lucky with the weather (seasonally it should be chucking it down, but the El Nino phenomenon means the weather has gone topsy turvy in our favour) which meant we could catch some rays and do some reading. We also managed a walk to “The Devils Tooth”- great for me as a taxi takes you to the top and then it’s a downhill walk, but Laura wasn’t as keen. The path was quite overgrown, we got lost in places, and there were some parts where the path had split leaving a cavernous gap to be overcome. We got back safe and sound (if not a little grumpy) though.
Our next destination was Sucre, which involved another night bus. We’d splashed out for the Cama seats (“180 recline” my arse) which were relatively nice, however we’d accidentally chosen the seats right next to the stairs which meant I spent the night worrying about people going through our stuff. We had extra fun as the driver was whipping around corners at incredible speed which at one point sent Laura’s yoga mat torpedoing at the assistant conductors head downstairs. Oblivious Laura slept quite well. I did not.
Fortunately, we had a big treat waiting for us at Sucre. Our guide book had said that this was the place to splash out as you could do so cheaply and boy, they were right. We went to stay at the number one hotel on Trip Advisor, a luxury place about 40 minutes out of town. It only has 2 rooms and there was no one else staying and we had the place to ourselves! It was built and run by a US/UK couple, Ed and June, who couldn’t have done more to help us out. June acted as our personal chef and went all out- we got Shepherds Pie on the first night which I was really chuffed by as it’s always the first dish I request when we head back to the UK. We had a giant room with robes (something me and Laura always love in a posh place,) a huge shower room, a proper bath, and panoramic views of the mountains. We also had a huge swimming pool and hot tub, along with hammocks to lounge around in. Best of all they had 2 dogs and a cat who were all really needy which we enjoyed having been so long without pets!
3 days really wasn’t enough but Laura couldn’t be persuaded to stay longer (neither could our budget.) However all is not lost; we’ve come to the best hotel in town now, which is still cheaper than most of our accommodation in Chile was. It’s a beautiful old Colonial building and we have views across the whole of the town. We’re about to go down for breakfast so fingers crossed.
The town itself is a Unesco world heritage site and law specifies all the buildings be whitewashed annually (although the flaking paint and graffiti tell another story.) It is a compact grid system and very pretty, and as usual with these places it’s packed full of nice churches. We’re here during Easter weekend which is a very big deal over here apparently, so hopefully we’ll see some fiestas whilst we’re around. So far though we’ve discovered that most stuff has been closed, and that was just on a Thursday. Today is the bank holiday so I can imagine there’s going to be even less open. Hopefully that means more relaxing for me although Laura is keen to get running around again.
The plan today is to go and see dinosaur footprints; Sucre has one of the biggest collections of them in the entire world just out of town. Should be exciting!
After a couple of weeks in Peru, we’ve (temporarily) left to zoom on over in Bolivia. First stop was Copacabana- no, not the Copacabana from Barry Manilow fame, but rather a small backpacker hangout 9km over the border. This felt more like SE Asia than anywhere we’ve been so far (apart from actual SE Asia.) Lots of 21 year olds (“oh my god, I was literally so wasted last night. I just have so much love to give when I drink.” Get a grip. Wake up. Stop irritating the rest of us. Noone cares.) There were loads of terrace cafes, average Mexican food, exceptional pizza and good vibes, as well as beautiful coast lines such as this:
Copacabana sits on the other side of Lake Titicaca, which is where we were when we went to the floating islands last week. This lake is so big that it’s shared between Peru and Bolivia. The water was gorgeously clean although very very cold.
The main reason we stopped in Copacabana was to visit Isla del Sol- described by many people we’ve met as a ‘must do.’ Like the Inca trail, it did not disappoint.
We took an incredibly badly organised but cheap boat out to the island, which sits 2.5 hours out into Lake Titicaca. From here, we hiked around 5 hours from north to south via another Inca trail and were treated to views like this pretty much everywhere we looked:
In hindsight, we should have stayed over on the island as there were some lovely looking hostals but due to our poor planning, we were unable to cancel our hostal booking back in Copacabanaa (a very very nice little place that was only $25 a night inc breakfast. My, how we’ve changed!) We’ve got to pass back through Copacabana when we go back to Peru so we might come back to the island again and stay.
After a couple of lovely days, it was time to catch the bus to La Paz, the de facto capital of Bolivia. After about an hour on the bus, we were told to get off so that we could cross the lake in a speedboat whilst our bus went on this:
It wasn’t until we were on the speedboat that I realised all of our luggage was on the bus. I could see this also dawning on other people.
Nothing could have prepared us for La Paz. It’s been about 8 weeks since we were in a busy city and we’d somehow forgotten what they were like. La Paz is BUSY. To me, it’s on a par with Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam although Sam doesn’t think it’s as bad. Luckily, we’re staying in a really nice leafy part, called Sopocachi- a mostly residential area with nice cafes and AN ACTUAL SUPERMARKET (at this point in the trip, we actually miss ParknShop in HK.) We found an amazing Airbnb, which Sam is in love with. It’s a 3 bedroom apartment with so much light, a welcome basket, A WASHING MACHINE (unheard of) and a gorgeous terrace. All this for only $35 a night. Bargain!
Right now, that’s one of my only positive impressions of La Paz. We walked for hours and hours yesterday exploring the city, only to find it was dirty, polluted and crazy busy. Some friends had recommended a walking tour so we joined that in the afternoon and, in fairness, there are some interesting parts such as the witches market (dried Llama foetus anyone?) but overall we just weren’t impressed and actually left the tour early. We didn’t even take any photos- this NEVER happens. Even in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, we took a few (read our post to find out the striking impression it left on us.)
Today we’re going to take a cable car and explore the area we’re staying in- there’s no way I’m going back into the craziness of the centre. Tomorrow it’s (thankfully) out of La Paz into the mountains to stay in a teepee for a couple of days before we head down to Sucre for RELAX time!
Some great news- USA is booked! 6 weeks of adventure to finish our trip in style- NY (with the Dixons in tow to hopefully treat us to some nice meals- hint hint Mum and Dad,) Washington DC to catch up with some lovely people we’ve met over the past few years of travels, New Orleans, Santa Monica and San Fran! Yippee!