Month: June 2014

JUNGLE IS MASSIVE

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Given how brilliantly cheap Bolivia is we decided to ‘do’ the Amazon jungle in Northern Bolivia. After LOTS of research (read: Angela scoured the internet whilst I read my book), we decided upon 3 days in the pampas and 2 days in the actual real-life jungle with a company called Mashaquipe.

Getting there was an adventure in itself. We flew on the SMALLEST plane ever made to Rurrenabaque, which is 45mins north of La Paz – and a whole other world. It was like we had landed in a Lilt advert.

Our tiny tiny plane

Our tiny, tiny plane

Up close to the pilots...

Up close to the pilots…

Rurrenabaque airport

Rurrenabaque airport

After a four hour drive and boat trip we arrived at a small collection of huts on the riverbank with parrots in the trees and alligators resting by the boats – our home! We had the whole place to ourselves, which was lucky given there were only two hammocks (humble brag).

We had our own guide, Ron, a latino version of Bruce Parry/Steve Irwin, who could spot a toucan sitting in the trees a mile off. Ok, maybe not a mile, but easily 400 metres away.  Thanks to him, from the comfort of our small boat, we saw: an actual real-life SLOTH;  pink river dolphins; monkeys; the aforementioned toucan; parrots; giant guinea pigs called capybaras; alligators; piranhas, well, actually we went fishing for them (I caught three, Angela caught four and Ron caught 24); turtles; and many many birds, including amphibian ones.

An actual alligator. We had been swimming a mere five minutes away.

An actual alligator. We had been swimming a mere five minutes away.

SLOTH

SLOTH

One of three captured piranhas.

One of the three captured piranhas.

We saw the river at sunrise, sunset and also at night, which was truly, truly wonderful and a little bit scary. It was so intensely dark that the sky, heavy with stars, felt like it might fall in on us. The trees echoed with the sounds of creatures of the night rustling, singing and croaking and we drifted through the black, only occasionally flicking on our torches to pick out the reflections in the alligators eyes bobbing along the banks.

After three amazing days, we left our life on the river behind and travelled to the rainforest, which was every bit as green, but also humid and much harder work. We actually had to WALK rather than sit in a small boat. Imagine.

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Ron took us on treks through the jungle, showing us all the weird and wonderful trees, explaining which bark or sap could cure which ailment and which could kill us instantly. Every so often his ears would twitch or he’d pick up the sent of a passing wild pig and we’d be off: running through the jungle; hopping over vines; jumping down river banks; and ducking under fallen trees. Or, in my case, falling over in a variety of stupid ways. Once we had finally caught up with said wild pig, Ron beckoned us to get a closer look. We creeped through the undergrowth, straining to get a peek at these wild animals we had tracked for a good 20 minutes. That was until I stepped on a twig: a CRACK bounced off the trees, which sent the pigs running. Ron’s look of dismay was priceless…TOURISTS, eh?

We ventured out into the night to look at tarantulas and listen to Ron’s stories of pumas and wild cats. We didn’t last long out there – pitch black has a whole new meaning in the jungle. Our final day was spent trekking to a viewpoint to watch flashes of red and blues as macaws flew past us and then rafting back down the river to our huts.

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I still can’t quite believe that we’ve been to the Amazon. It’s a place Attenborough wanders through on documentaries, but you would never believe that one day, you’ll be swimming in it surrounded by strange pink dolphins, or standing dwarfed in the roots of a 100 year old tree and well, don’t even get  me started on the ants…

Soldier ants (I think): these guys carry these leaves a hell of a long way back to their ant house.

Soldier ants (I think): these guys carry these leaves a hell of a long way back to their ant house.

LA PAZ, YOU FILTHY MINX

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In our seven weeks in Bolivia we went to it’s unofficial capital, La Paz, three times and, on each occasion, the journey down the valley full of mud brick homes was both impressive and terrifying. In fact, the first time we saw this beast of a city – literally crammed into a valley between snow-capped mountains – we didn’t want to get off the bus. I imagined stepping into the concrete maze and immediately being kidnapped and held for ransom. This fear probably had something/everything to do with the warning in the Lonely Planet, but, brilliantly, it turns out that both the book and our first impressions were very wrong.

La Paz is busy, strange, frantic and hard work, but we ended up liking it. We got weirded out by the llama foetuses hanging in the doorways of the witches market, went to a very good modern art gallery, ate many delicious saltenas, stayed in a very cold hostel that was a bit like a prison and Angela used her newly learnt Spanish to get her hair cut.

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LAKE TITICACA

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Of course I’d heard of Lake Titicaca but I wasn’t sure if it actually existed or where to find it, a bit like Timbuktu or Coventry. However, it turns out that not only does it exist, it does so in a stunning way.

Titicaca sits high up in the Andes mountains at 12,500 ft and at its longest stretch is 190 km long. It contains a number of islands that people continue to live on and some of those “islands” are made of reeds which float on the water.

The lake is plonked across the border of Peru and Bolivia. We decided to boat out to Isla del Sol from the Bolivian town of Copacabana – not the one from Barry Manilow’s classic hit, but weirdly, for a town thousands of feet above sea level, they have cultivated a little beach town vibe where Barry’s song wouldn’t be too out of place.

Isla del Sol is a proper island made out of rock and not one of the floating variety. There are about 800 people living on the island, farming the land and providing basic services to tourists like Maura and myself. The locals are as rustic as you could wish for, to the untrained eye they look as though they haven’t changed their lifestyles for centuries. The women wear traditional dress, with a hat firmly on at all times, even when coaxing laden donkeys and tired children up the steep sides of the island.

There are llamas waiting around corners to surprise you as you trek around the island, plus the aforementioned donkeys, the usual array of farm animals, some of which have the freedom of the island, and various birds of prey circling and swooping overhead, presumably eyeing up the tiny piglets wiggling about.

The real gem of this place is the expanse of beautiful blue water which has the sun beaming down on it all day. Add to this the backdrop of the Andes peaks and the feeling you can reach out and almost touch the thick blanket of stars in the evening and you’ve got yourself a place that feels quite mythical.

MACHU PICCHU

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Machu Picchu was one of those places I had dreamt about visiting ever since I knew it existed, making it top of my list of things to do whilst travelling.

Before leaving the UK I bought our tickets for site entry, by that time the tickets for the Inca Trail had sold out, but in all honesty that didn’t bother us as it was the ancient city we wanted to see.

To get to Machu Picchu we drove from Cusco to Ollantaytambo and from there took a train to Aguas Calientes. This journey alone was epic.

On the drive we passed through snow capped mountains. We had a couple of hours in Ollantaytambo which is a tiny town/village where the locals mill about without any apparent regard for the impressive Inca remains towering over them. The train from there cuts through the mountains along the valley floor, following the path of a fast flowing river – at times we were uncomfortably close to the river edge. We saw glimpses of people living on the lower edges of the mountain and valley floor in what seemed like an impossible place to inhabit but also impossibly beautiful. The cherry on the top for me was when horses appeared out of nowhere to gallop alongside the train.

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Agua Calientes has no roads and is only accessible by train. In fact the town is little more than 2 rows of buildings either side of the tracks. When a train went past it sounded as though it was coming through our hostel. The first time this happened my life flashed before my eyes (and I might have jumped into Maura’s arms).

We decided to get up at 5am to get the first bus up to Machu Picchu in an attempt to see the site before too many people turned up. So we trudged up the road from our hostel in complete darkness only to join the hundreds of other people already standing in the bus queue!

However, we were soon winding our way up to the site on what felt like a roller coaster climbing to its peak before it chucks you down the other side; either that or my adrenaline had gone into overdrive with the prospect of fulfilling a childhood dream. Maura was calmly sitting next to me taking everything in her stride.

Finally, we arrived. We clambered up the side to the top and saw the view that draws so many pilgrims to this other worldly place. The adrenaline subsided and was replaced with awe and contentment. I won’t describe Machu Picchu other than to say it lives up to the hype and suggest you take a look at our pictures as they will do a much better job than me.

Road Trip
Road Trip
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CUSCO: CENTRE OF THE WORLD

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Cusco, with it’s cobbled streets, rolling hills, gorgeous buildings and pretty little white and blue Spanish quarter is easily our favourite place in Peru (at the time of writing…)

According to the tour guide on our free walking tour (which was pretty good) Cusco is the centre of the world/universe. It certainly felt like it: every day groups of school children dressed in traditional clothes would perform dances around the main square. We took approximately a million photos and a few of them can be viewed here:

A big white Jesus looks out over the town, so one afternoon in the blazing sun and dealing with the altitude of 3300m we decided to climb the rocky road to our Lord. I dealt with the mini-trek with style and grace by having small tantrums and a little sit down every ten steps. But, it was totally worth it – the view of the terracotta topped town hugged by the mountains was stunning and Jesus was pretty impressive too.

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Cusco also included Angela’s first meat and potato on a stick experience, lots of wandering, people watching and pootling around the market. Here are the remaining photos of the dancing kids plus some more from gorgeous, gorgeous Cusco:

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HUANCAYO: THE LAND OF BIG SKIES

We arrived in Huancayo after the most HORRIFIC night bus journey from Lima. Well, for me, anyway. Whilst the bus was amazing – pillows, blankets, the lot – the roads were bumpy and climbed to an altitude of 3000 metres. This all meant I was suffering from travel AND altitude sickness. Woo-frickin-hoo.

When we arrived the first thing we noticed was how the mountains had the most incredible backdrop of huge blue skies, a relief after the grey of Lima. Huancayo, the capital of the central highlands, is a nice enough town and a great place to take some much needed Spanish lessons and get used to the altitude.

The highlight was definitely a trip to a local animal market, a mini-trek to some ancient ruins and a lunch of meat cooked under ground.

AND SO IT BEGINS…

Mmm...pollution

Mmm…pollution

Lima was a thousand car horns, grey polluted skies, packed mini-buses blaring latino music, questionable meat, actual vultures circling the sky, cold showers and…we loved it.

Here are some bits and bobs from our three days in Lima:

  • The fountain park: my personal Lima highlight was the world’s biggest fountain park (not sure if this is official, but I’m going with it). It’s lit up at night and has a whizzy laser show. Ah-maze. Here is some photographic evidence:
  • The buses (not as geeky as it sounds): the streets are full of small vans which race through the traffic stopping for two whole seconds to let people on and off. Seats attached to the floor? Optional.
  • The skies: the pollution is pretty oppressive and means that you cannot see the sky at all – not even a glimpse of the sun. However, we did become a bit obsessed with the small black vultures which circled our heads instead.
  • Bones arranged in geometric shapes at the Monasterio de San Francisco: after all, who doesn’t want to walk through tunnels under a massive monastery and look at a 15ft deep pit of skulls arranged neatly in circles?
  • Carbs (particularly the potato): Peru loves a potato. Apparently they invented it. They are definitely still excited about this because every meal includes potato of some kind. Oh and rice. Double carbs – why not, eh?
  • The market: we stumbled upon the central market whilst looking for the Spanish Inquisition Museum (underwhelming) and it was to become our favourite part of most towns – oh the market, a hot bed of crazy. Guinea pigs in cages in the MEAT AISLE not the pet aisle, chickens (insides sold seperately), thousands of types of potato and a little man blowing a whistle every 3.4 seconds for no real reason.

Here are a few more photos from Lima:

Monasterio de San Francisco
Monasterio de San Francisco
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