Posts filed under 'South America'

Amazon Jungle Tours

One of the ‘must see’ bullet points on our list was an Amazon tour which we thought we’d do in Brazil.  Little did we know that everything in Brazil costs the earth, and after speaking to various people who’d visited the country, we decided to stay in Bolivia and do a few jungle tours along two of the Amazon tributaries – Rio Beni and Rio Yacuma.

Our first tour began in a freezing cold La Paz, being picked up at 4:45am and joining 5 American students in a people carrier with our cook sitting up front with a box on her lap.  When the box emitted a meow sound, we all looked at each other thinking that we hadn’t had enough sleep.  But sure enough, a little white kitten crawled out of the box to greet us.  Meet Dragon the kitty! We set off up into the snow-capped mountains surrounding La Paz with temps dropping to -6 degrees before dropping down into more bearable temperatures.  After the cold Salt Flats and a few days in La Paz, we were so looking forward to the humid tropical jungle!

We had originally wanted to do the cycle ride along the ‘Worlds Most Dangerous Road’ but after the drive we had along the half-a-lane road creeping around mountain corners, we felt that we had probably ticked that experience off the list.  Once we’d got to the river, our guide told us that the boat needed some repairs and that they’d pick us up in the morning.  So we found a great spot on the river and set up camp, while Dragon the cat explored the area.

Setting up camp on the side of the river. Drago the cat making sure there's no rats or scary monsters under our beds..

Day 2 and we headed downstream on the boat.  Lots of amazing things to see!  We stopped at one point and walked through the rain forest (while it rained) and hiked up along a little river and stopped for a swim at one of the awesome waterfalls – the water was a bit chilly but we needed a bit of a bath anyway.  Back into the boat after lunch and a quiet cruise down the river.  We stopped at one of the villages to top up supplies and then continued down the river to find a suitable spot to set up camp for the night.  No matter how much bug spray we put on, we got eaten alive!  But we enjoyed sitting around the fire and a bit of stargazing.

So good and clean and fresh tra-la-la. Dyl having a jungle shower. Good water pressure to boot.

Up early on day 3 to avoid the sandfly invasion and off down the river to a section of forest that Ivan, our guide, wanted to show us.  On the way we saw howler monkeys, river otter, squirrel monkeys, macaws and capybaras which are basically enormous rats but they look rather cute.  Our walk through the jungle was informative and good fun – Dyl being the master spotter of everything managed to point out a few monkeys and we learned what to do if a jaguar came chasing after us: hide in the massive roots of a walking palm tree.  All good things to know!  Back to the boat to make our way to our destination – the bustling metropolis of Rurrenabaque.

Another riverside panorama. Thats our boat in the bottom left corner - we had to stop here to sign the national park guest register.

It was so good to be back in a shorts and vesti!  Rurrenabaque is a tiny little jungle village on the banks of the River Beni and consists of about 6 streets packed with tour companies.  We arranged our Pampas tour for the following day and then went out for a few cold beers.

Day 1 and we met up with the rest of our tour group which consisted of some nice people + a 2 year old child.  Yes, the mom had decided that 3 days deep in the jungle with alligators, hunting for anacondas and piranha fishing was a great idea…  We set off and stopped for lunch at a restaurant that resembled a bit of a zoo.  We ate lunch with a macaw, squirrel monkey, 2 bush pigs, chickens, cats and dogs.

On our way to the Pampas tour, we stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch. This parrot was just walking around, minding his own business.

We eventually made it to the boats and met our guide, Juan-Carlos.  He showed us to our narrow little boat and after we had loaded all the food, water and bags, we started to meander down the little river.  We’d heard that there would be a few alligators along the way – they were all out in force!  All shapes and sizes sunning themselves on the banks, or keeping an eye on us from the water.  We were lucky enough to spot some tiny baby alligators, probably only days old – so cute!  The river was bursting with all sorts of wildlife – capybaras chilling with the alligators, terrapins sunning on the driftwood, herons, paradise birds, squirrel monkeys and pink dolphins!  The water was a nice shade of dark brown so we couldn’t see much of the dolphins, but they swam with us for a bit.

A couple of cheeky buggers who tried to steal hails lollipop..

Our campsite was awesome – a welcoming sign saying ‘Sunset Bar, we serves cold beer’ was all that we required.  The camp is built on stilts and consists of a few private double shacks, 4 large dorms sleeping about 15 – 20 people, the kitchen and dining area, and then a large bar complete with hammocks and a viewing platform built up in the trees with a few deck chairs.  We enjoyed a delicious dinner and then joined the other groups around the fire for a few cold beers before crashing.

Multi-shot panorama of our campsite. Our cabin was off to the left, roughly in the middle was the kitchen and dinning area with the campfire in front of it and the place behind the washing line was the bar with the river just past it.

Day 2 started with a rude awakening – baby crying at 5am.  At 6am the other groups went out to catch the sunrise, so by 8:30am when we sat down to brekkie, we’d been up for a while!  It was then anaconda hunting time, and after we donned our gumboots, we walked through muddy river beds and bits of jungle and open plains before reaching a few smaller dams.  We came across a dead alligator lying in the mud, so we had to have a few pics with hime before moving on. At the ponds, Juan-Carlos then told a few of the boys to walk through the water slowly and to let him know if they spotted anything slithering through the water.  No probs says Dyl and off he goes.  He was determined to spot an anaconda first.  And he did just that!  What a little beauty it was, sleeping in some grass next to the water, and was a bit annoyed with us as we crowded round to have a goot look.  At 2 meters, it wasn’t a big anaconda but we poked it until it decided to head into the safety of the water.  None of the other groups had managed to find one, so Dyl got extra points that morning.

Rough guestimates put it at around 2 meters in length, maybe 8cm thick at its thickest. Its not gonna eat houseboats like in that movie but its still a pretty sizey snake!

Following a delicious lunch, we went off for a spot of piranha fishing.  Now, because the water is so dirty, you can’t see a thing.  So when we baited our lines with leftover meat, we were hoping for a few good bites at least.  Well, as soon as that hook touched the water, that meat was gone in a flurry of about 20 fishes all trying to grab it!  The trick was trying to pull the line quickly to actually hook one of the little blighters and bring him in.  I managed to catch 4 fish during the afternoon but unfortunately they were too small to make the grade.  Dyl caught one of the keepers, and we ate him later that evening with the our dinner.  Those little teeth are nasty!

Fried piranha for dinner snacks!

Last day on tour and we were up at 6am to watch the sunrise over the jungle which was amazing, although we were being circled by a mozzie that was the size of a small bird… After brekkie we cruised out onto the river to find the pink dolphins. Some of the guys had a swim and Juan-Carlos got out to feed one of the alligators some fish.  It was hysterical to watch as he splashed the water and called ‘Pedro!  Come Pedro!’ as the alli waddled over to him and devoured the fish.  I must say that at this point, the mom had her 2 year old kid in the water paddling around while 8 alligators looked on from their various sunspots along the river…  live bait anyone?

Dolphin watch.

Tour over and we made our way back to Rurrenabaque where we decided to spend the rest of the week lying around the pool and topping up the tans before flying back to freezing La Paz.  Ahh, we love the jungle!

And here comes our flight! Look its not so rural, there's even the ping-pong bat guy to direct the plane in.

There’s a lot more photos in the gallery below, all nicely captioned and ready for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!

 

 

Add comment August 26, 2011

Bolivian Salt Flats

Think these were the tracks of the bus from nowhere.

At the beginning of July we made our way over to Uyuni on the Bolivian Altiplano to do a tour of the famous Bolivian salt flats. We nearly had to cancel at the last minute due to an unwell feeling Hayley, but on the day we were due to leave La Paz (when she was feeling so awful) we couldn’t find any private-room accomodation, only dorm rooms. As we’d already paid for our train tickets and booked into a nice looking place in Uyuni, I eventually convinced her to face the dread of a day of public transport and for us to make our way down there. She managed to put on her brave face and we made it up to the bus station and over to the town of Oruro 3 hours away without mishap. From there we transferred onto a train which would take us the remainder of the way to Uyuni.

View out the train window - vast wetlands with lots of water fowl.

As soon as we left the town of Oruro we knew we’d made the right choice in how we got to Uyuni – the train journey started off along a raised dyke of dirt through these vast shallow pans. We scared off flocks of water fowl and the odd couple of pink flamingo before we reached the edge of the water and started traversing the great open grasslands of the Altiplano. To our amusement the conductor turned on the TV’s and put on a Mexican opera. Complete with symphonic mariachi bands and authentic costumes. It was hard to draw our eyes away from this unusual feast for the senses, but the view out the window was amazingly even better and we just couldn’t draw our eyes away from it. Just before sunset we passed a huge rain storm in the distance, our photos didn’t do it any justice at all but even with her feeling so rubbish, Hails agreed she loved the train trip out too.

Another view from the train window - it is the middle of winter and these plains should be dry but due to the snowmelt, they stretch to the horizon.

Around midnight we pulled into Uyuni station. We were immediately greeted with sub-zero temperatures as we stepped from the train and could still see remnants of snow on the ground in places. After getting our bags from the bunfight of the luggage claims area, we made our way out to catch a taxi to our hostel only to find we were literally in a 1-horse town and the horse had gone home to bed for the night. Luckily we’d checked out where we were supposed to head on a map before we’d left and Hails had perked up a lot on the train so we just set out on foot. It was only about a 10 minute trek and she made it fine and before we knew it we were snuggled up in bed under a massive feather down duvet with a heater at the foot of the bed nicely warming up the room.

We’d originally planned for the next day to be a day of missioning round checking out the various different tour agencies and what tours they had on offer but decided instead to have a nice lazy day of relaxation and getting back up to strength – the last thing you want is to get sick out on the salt flats hundreds of kilometers from anything. We did do a couple of short walks to explore the town and that evening made our way over to Minuteman Pizza inside the Hotel Tonito. Wow, best pizza we’d had on the road by far. Thin, wood fired crispy base pizza with all the proper toppings. The restaurant had an awesome atmosphere and the owners were super friendly. Their menu also had the breakfast buffet options they offered (free for hotel guests) and we were sold immediately – the next day we moved over to the Tonito Hotel. Hails was back to normal by then so we spent some of the morning sussing out the various tour agencies we’d seen recommended on the internet and by other travellers.

The news wasn’t great though – the remnants of the snow turned out to be from a very rare (for Uyuni) snowfall which had actually lasted more than a day. And the reason that it had lasted more than a day was because the salt flats and in particular the higher grounds past them with the coloured lagoons, mud springs, thermal hot springs and volcanoes had been burried under a massive dump of snow. By some accounts nearly a meter of snow had fallen up on the higher bits, which is incredibly rare for one of the driest desert areas in the world! It meant that the typical 3 day tour to see the salt flats then the coloured lagoons and volcanic area was out of the question and the companies we spoke to were generally offering just a 2 day / 1 night option to go to the salt flats and then head up north to see some mummies before returning back to Uyuni. One company though did say they would be willing to give the southern, 3 day route a try but couldn’t guarantee anything.

With the slightly depressing news at hand (we had been keen for the 3 day tour) we retired to the central plaza to a bench in the sun to review things. Seeing a group of backpackers at a nearby restaurant we figured we’d better start asking around to see if anybody at all had managed to get out on a 3 day tour recently and went over to grill them. Turned out it was a group of 4 Brit students on a summer holiday trip abroad and they had just got to Uyuni themselves and were keen on a 3 day tour too. After a bit of chatting and sharing of trip and tour company info, we all agreed on the spot to join up and make an attempt on the 3 day tour. What a great collision of the fates that day turned out to be! We ended up back at Red Planet Expedition www.redplanetexpedition.com, and even though they cost a little more than the competitors they were super flexible and agreed to try out the 3 day route for us. Their vehicles and gear also seemed in a lot better condition than the other tour companies we’d checked out and the guides we chatted to seemed nice and friendly and could speak english well. And having so many good recommendations on the internet sealed the deal for us. So at a nice leisurely 10am the next morning me, Hails, Doug, Sabrina, Sarah and Amy met up at the tour company office, piled into a Toyota Landcruiser and excitedly set of on our 3 day tour.

Standing on the stacks of salt - the salt miners scrape the salt into these piles to drain excess water.

First of all it was off to the salt flats themselves. Along the way we stopped off in a little village for one last stab at getting us to buy some local curios, then to check out a household salt packaging factory to see how the locals refine and package the salt they mine off the flats. A couple of minutes later we were finally driving onto the flats. Whoah what a sight!! Over ten thousand square kilometers of (according to wikipedia) a salt crust up to a couple meters thick floating on a lake of brine water. Because of the fact its floating on the brine and that the surface is made up of a material that is water soluble, the surface is incredibly flat. We got there during the supposed dry season, but the freak snow had melted leaving a layer of water a couple centimeters deep. Not deep enough for large ripples or waves to form, so in effect you are driving over the worlds largest mirror.

The salt museum, literally in the middle of nowhere.

Hi All – Hails here to continue the story…

Close to the edge where we entered the salt flats, we stopped to view the other part of the local salt industry – how they actually refine and package the salt.  Big piles of salt are dug up so that that the water can drain out, then it is transported to the local village where it is heated over big fires to dry out completely.  A little crusher is set to work and the refined salt is poured into a corner on the floor where a local scoops it into little bags and seals the plastic over a flame.  And there you go!

Outside the 1st salt hotel out in the middle of the flats, now a museum.

Back onto the flats and a quick drive to the first ‘salt hotel’ (it was shut down due to environmental concerns about what they were doing with their waste water, so now its a salt museum of sorts) to try find batteries for one of the girls who’s camera had just run out and after a few pics with all the flags, we all jumped into the Jeep and set off for Fish Island for lunch.  What a stunning view over the flats!  White water as far as the eye could see.  And then just as you think you’re on another planet, a local bus comes flying past…

Thats Fish Island up ahead, our lunch stop for the day. You can see the 'salt cracks' under the water in the foreground which are from when the flats dry out.

Fish Island was something out of a science fiction movie – hundreds-of-years old cactus and coral everywhere… So after a delicious lunch of quinoa, meat and salad (on a salt table), we went exploring.  The cactus take 1 year to grow 1cm, and some of these were standing at 7 meters.  The views from the top were breath-taking and we all took a moment for it all to sink in.

Getting ready for lunch - note the salt table top.

After a few more hours drive, we reached our overnight spot – a fabulous salt hotel in the middle of nowhere.  The walls tasted delicious!  It was freezing and we were very grateful for a hot soup starter followed by chicken and potatoes. There were 2 other groups staying overnight as well, so we chatted about all the amazing things we’d seen and were treated to a few drunken antics later on.  As it was so cold, I decided to sleep in all my clothes, inside my sleeping bag, under the blankets. Little did we know that the following night would be a lot colder…

View down the west wing with bedrooms on the left.

We were really keen to get to the National Park although with all the snow, the chances were slim.  We drove through  some awesome mountains and got out on a few occasions to play in the snow.  We drove up as far as we could and got up to 5000m (15000 feet) in altitude but unfortunately the snow was too deep and we had to turn back and head to our overnight stop.  After a few hours, we arrived at a small group of mud houses and pulled into a small courtyard.  It was about 6pm and it was already -2 degrees.  We unpacked quickly and were shown our room – 6 beds in a room and the toilet was outside and downstairs.  We were given a small hot water bottle each, and we knew then that we were in for a chilly night.  After a dinner of spaghetti with tomato sauce and half a bottle of red wine between the 6 of us, we decided to call it a night and crawled into our sleeping bags, fully clothed as it was too freezing to remove anything.  Apparently it got down to -20 degrees that night, and the water bottles we’d left in the car overnight were frozen solid in the morning.  Nothing like brushing your teeth in ice cold water – my fillings nearly walked out of my mouth in protest.

Hails putting the mushroom rocks into perspective. Quote of the day had to be "wow, check how loose these slabs of rock are.." Not a great observation to make when one is standing under said mushroom rock..

Day 3 and we went to find some bushmen paintings.  On the way, we found a little dam which was frozen over – this was a LOT more fun than looking at bushmen paintings.  So, we spent the next hour doing fabulously silly things on this little dam e.g. skating, sliding, ice hockey, poking at fishes underneath and finally jumping to see how quickly one would fall in.  Good times!

Definitely more fun than the rock paintings.

After lunch we started to make our way back up to Uyuni and stopped in at the Train cemetery.  Uyuni used to be a distribution hub for trains carrying minerals on their way to the Pacific Ocean ports, however in the 1940′s, the mining industry collapsed and many trains were abandoned.  For all the antique enthusiasts out there – you would have loved this place!

For the steam buffs out there, a nice classic example of a late 19th century 4-8-2 steam locomotive.

We decided that we wanted to see the Salt Flats again and to get a chance to take some cool photos.  Since there are no distinguishing features on the flats, something cleverly positioned closer than another object plays tricks with your depth of field perception, and you land up with some great pics.  This is easier said than done, and with a little pocket camera, not so effective, but we did try!

Man those other dudes in the car hated our giant can of pringles. Definitely worth it for the shots though.

Sadly our Salt Flats tour had come to an end but we were looking forward to a hot shower and warm bed!

[Editors note: We have heaps more photos that we'd like to share than we could fit into this blog post, so check out the gallery below. Promise there's some really good pics in there!]

Gallery of all the good photos from our salt flats tour:

 

 

Add comment August 25, 2011

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