A Travellerspoint blog

Three weeks in the Amazon

Or how to survive in one of the most amazing areas of this planet..

all seasons in one day 30 °C
View South America 2007 on miromar's travel map.

It seems rather strange to write about the Amazon from the comfort of the luxury apartment I’m living in Buenos Aires at the moment. It also seems quite impossible that these to locations are part of the same continent, the same world.

I left Tarapoto, and its quiet atmosphere, at 4am in a shared taxi heading to Yurimaguas, the town I was catching the first boat to begin my sailing time in the Amazon River. The road to Yurimaguas was started to be paved few years ago, but in Peruvian time that normally takes a while, so we were driving in concrete for few kms, and then back to gravel for another few. I tried to get some sleep, but the proximity of the other 2 men I was sharing the back seat with, together with the bumps in the road, was making the task rather difficult. Also at some point, the thickest fog ever, decided to come down from the mountains to join us for the ride. And if that wasn’t enough, when the fog disappeared, it was replaced for a scary storm and all the rain that someone can imagine. At this point, sleeping was out of the question, specially, after we got hit by falling rocks from the mountain due to the rain. Great.

After 3hs of this crazy ride, I was quite happy to see we were arriving in Yurimaguas, even though I was really tired! I tried to leave the car and I was rapidly surrounded by 7 or 8 guys trying to sell me something: a hotel, a taxi ride, a jungle tour, and so on. At that point, I had to shout to all of them to give me some space and to stop talking to me. There is something I had already noticed since I arrived in Tarapoto a couple of days before: the presence of a white woman, travelling alone and luckily speaking the language, was something apparently very unusual in this area and worth paying attention to. That was for the locals only, so imagine the locals that are trying to make a living out of the tourist in one way of another. I can’t describe the feeling, but I’m sure in some countries the way they followed me around CONSTANTLY would be considered stalking.

Once I organized my stuff, and had my backpack in place, I chose one of the mototaxi drivers to take me to the port. Of course, he knew how to do his job well, so he told me the next boat to Lagunas, my next destination, was departing at 11am, and if I needed to buy supplies for the journey, he knew where to go. I let him take me to the market, to buy a hammock, some cutlery, a Tupper to use as a plate and some food, and eventually made it to the port, where my boat was waiting. The first impression is hard to describe, because in between the tiredness, the weight of all the stuff I was carrying, the craziness of the port activity, the mud covering my boots, and the comments of the workers around me, made me feel I was in the middle of a strange dream. I managed to climb to the boat without falling and making a fool of myself, and got to someone who looked like he had some sort of control in that mayhem. He asked me to go upstairs to the second deck, and told me the price of the ticket. I did as I was told and climbed to the second floor, that was only occupied by a mum with a child, and another family. I tried to copy what they had done, and attempted to hang my hammock in the same way. It took me a while to get it right, but hey, im only a beginner! :D

I also put all my gear together, locked it to a metal bar, and decided to take a little nap in my newly adquired “bed”. When I woke up, the situation was not like before exactly: hundred people at least had arrived, and they were hanging their hammocks REALLY close to each other, and they were piling LOTS of stuff everywhere. Also, dozens of vendors, walked up and down, selling the basics such as tooth paste, cutlery, soap, and stuff like that. I took a look outside and they were still loading cargo non-stop: from fruits, to cows, from big boxes, to a mototaxi. It didn’t seem to me that there was a weight limit for the cargo, and I wasn’t too sure this old boat could handle it. But hey, as I said before, I was only a beginner in the “sailing the amazon in crappy boats” world, so who am I to question that?

We left eventually about 7hs late, when I didn’t think that an extra orange could be loaded without sinking, or a single person could be added without running out of air. At that point, I had about 10 different guys coming to ask me where I was going, and after finding out I was heading to Lagunas, trying to sell me a tour in the Pacaya-Samiria Natural Reserve. I thought they would leave me alone after we left the port, silly me, I thought they would stay in Yurimaguas. I was not pleasantly surprise when I realized they travel to Lagunas, and that they DON’T STOP in their attempt at any time. I had a tantrum when 2 of them followed me to the toilet and where waiting for me when I opened the door. “Cant you just leave me alone to pee at least????” That scared them off for a while, but not permanently. I found out there were 3 israeli girls looking for a tour as well, and we decided to take it together and bring the price down a bit, using the Jewish technique of bargaining and my language skills. Once I had a tour booked, I finally could enjoy some peace for the rest of the journey. When it was time for dinner, you grab your cutlery and your tupper, and you head to the “kitchen” were, after queuing for a bit, you get given the food: some rice, a piece of chicken, and a fried banana. Ummm, not too bad. Not specially tasty, but better that I thought it would be. After dinner, it is movie time: Terminator (the first one) dubbed badly in the most ridiculously sounding Spanish. Oh well, it kept then entertained, so at least they were quiet and I went to sleep. I woke up about 4am, when the boat was stopping, and my tour guy came to inform me that we were at Lagunas.

Lagunas is a very small town at the edge of the Pacaya-Samiria Natural Reserve, and it is used as a jumping point for jungle tours there. This town can only be reached by boat, and it is literally in the middle of nowhere. The arrival of the boat, even in the wee hours, is the most interesting event of the day. Disembarking was quite chaotic, but with a little help from guys that work for the tour operator, climbed the muddy hill and left the port. This is a place where there is no electricity from 12am til 5am, and the roads are not paved (of course not!), but I still decided to walk to the office, cause it felt safer than the mototaxi (which did actually broke down and the girls had to walk as well). The office was in fact the “manager”’s house, and his wife left bed to welcome us. We were offered a couple of beds (that is not exactly the word for that piece of wood covered by a mosquito net that we were offered, but I cant think of something else) to rest, until the departure into the reserve in the morning.

By this time, I was tired, sweating as a result of the humidity, but mainly overwhelmed by this entire new world, specially the conditions these people live in. Their houses are shacks that a simple storm would blow, they have not toilet, only a whole in the ground at the back of the garden, there are no rooms in the house, only different spaces separated by tiny curtains. And they have chickens running around the kitchen, which make company to the biggest pig I’ve ever seen, named “Sebastian”. All these things have to be seen to be believed, trust me.

We left in the morning with our 2 guides, which are native jungle people, that speak a rather poor Spanish as I know it, but that I managed to understand and therefore, translate to the girls in English. The moment I stepped in the canoe, in the small river we were about to navigate through the jungle, I experienced a sensation of freedom and peace I was in need of for a while. Luckily I was by myself in the canoe, with the guide, that only spoke to point something of interest out, and that gave me the opportunity to experience the sound of the jungle, the smell, the heat, making me feel I was in the most remote area, far from all the rest of the world as I know it.

The tour was amazing, we managed to see quite a few animals: lots of different birds, tarantulas, monkeys, even a sloth! We went crocodile hunting at night, and found a few! But even more exciting than the crocodiles, was navigating through the river in complete darkness, with the only company of the shiny moon, and the thousands of sounds of the jungle night. It is a surreal feeling. We also got blessed by a couple of jungle storms, that left us completely soaked, and fearing the sinking of the canoe in a river full of piranhas, crocodiles and electric fish. Tempting.

After these 3days in the most austere way of living (no toilet, no shower, sleping on the floor of the lodge and eating rice, pasta and potatoes ONLY) I was more than happy to go back to civilization. But Lagunas cannot be exactly considered that, even though I managed to get a room in a tiny hotel, and had a well deserved shower and time to organize my stuff before catching the second boat, heading to Iquitos, that was meant to arrive at 10pm that same night. For once, the boat was on time, and after a VERY difficult boarding, going downhill in the mud with all my stuff (this time no help was available) and jumping into the boat trying not to fall into the river, losing my belongings and my dignity, I found a spot in the 3rd deck, which had plenty of space around, a luxury in these boats.

It wasn’t very clear how long it would take to get to Iquitos, as everybody said something different, but moreless, it would be a day and a half. I went to sleep straight away, and woke up with the sight of pink dolphins following the boat whilst the sun was rising. It was the most beautiful view, and made me understand how stunning is this part of the earth, that people keep trying to destroy. Breakfast was served, and even though it was only a weak hot chocolate and a ham and cheese sandwich, seating there, with that extraordinary view, I realised how lucky I was to be there.

The rest of this journey was very nice, as I met really nice people (locals and a gringo), the boat was kept really clean, the food, although repetitive (rice rice and rice) was tasty, and in general everything was good. Especially the arrival at some port in the middle of nowhere, where all the inhabitants of the village would be waiting for the boat for one reason or another: to leave, to meet someone arriving, to receive a package, to sell us something. The boat means the only contact they have with the world, especially in this smaller village were there isn’t even contact by phone…

On Sunday, about midday, our card game was interrupted by the sudden stop of the boat in the middle of the river: we had hit a sand bank. Another boat tried to help us move, with no result. The hours were passing and nothing was being done. Apparently a boat was meant to be coming to help, but as I have mentioned before, Peruvian time differs from the rest of the world. So myself and Richard, the British guy, decided to leave the boat and jump into some smaller fast boats that were offering transfer to Iquitos to the passengers like us, stuck in the middle of the river for god knows how long. That was probably one of the best decisions I have made in this trip, because I found afterwards through other traveller that the boat was there for almost 12hs until it managed to get away from the sandbank, and in that time one of the cows that had slipped with the rain and fell on the floor with a broken hip, had been sacrificed, and chopped into pieces in front of everybody. A show I’m glad I saved myself from witnessing.

Iquitos was a nice place, and even though it is not conserved as it should be, you can still see from the buildings that there was a time when money and power were in every corner. The rubber boom brought wealth, and took it away again when things changed. Being the biggest city in the world that can’t be reached by road, everything in Iquitos must be shipped or flown, adding cost of living, but at the same time, conserving a special feeling of desolation. The highlight was without a doubt, the visit to Belem, the floating shantytown, that in times when the river is low, it is simply a muddy, filthy area, with football pitches where normally there is only river water, and the most outrageous market I’ve ever seen (I don’t think I will ever forget the sight of a chopped turtle for sale)

After a couple of days of chilling and recovering from “rice poisoning” by eating only meat, it was time to catch the third boat to get to Santa Rosa, located at the triple border (Peru, Colombia, Brazil). In Iquitos I bumped into 3 guys I met in the Natural Reserve, and luckily one of them was heading my way, so myself and Yair, my Israeli friend, head to the port together. The port in Iquitos is huge compared with any of the previous ones. It is also a lot more chaotic and a dirtier. It was clear from the minute we saw the boat that we wouldn’t be travelling alone on this one, as even though we were early by 2hs, the boat was filling up quickly. We met a Spanish guy that hanged his hammock with us, and whilst I was talking to him, Yair realized his small backpack, containing money, traveller’s cheques, Ipod and such, had been taken. I started asking around loud, and a lady said she has seen someone taken it. I was furious. Why didn’t she say anything??? I asked, and she said she wasn’t sure it was ours. Well, it was clear it wasn’t the thief’s! Yair was in shock, so I grabbed him to try to find the bugger in the port, whilst we left Hugo looking after the luggage. After no luck, I told him that he needed to report it to the police, for insurance reasons, and so we did. To make a long story short, everything was against us: the nearest police station was far away, we had to beg for the report to be done, we were running out of time, and eventually, in our way back to the port, our mototaxi got stuck in the mud so had to jump off it and run to our boat, which luckily was still there (for once, I thanked god for Peruvian time). But that wasn’t the end of the adventurous evening. When we entered the boat, we literally had to jump over people to get where we left Hugo. The poor thing was relieved when he saw us, as he was fearing the boat would leave without us but with our luggage! In the meantime he had been fighting to maintain some space for us, as people were cramped in the boat in a way I didn’t think it was possible to transport human beings. I had a hammock over me, and all my belongings underneath my hammock, so no possibility of movement, whatsoever. The line was crossed when someone tried to hang another hammock in between me and Yair, even though we were already literally sleeping in the same vital space. NO WAY, GO SOMEWHERE ELSE! I guess in this occasion I was really glad I could speak the language, because I made use of all my bad words to keep them away from OUR tiny space.

We finally left port, and the thought of spending 2 and a half days in that floating piece of s**t, was not ideal. I couldn’t think at that point that it would get worse, but it did. There are so many things I could tell you about those two days that I won’t even get into it, because I don’t want to keep you reading more than necessary, but just imagine that we only had 3 toilets for over 200people that I calculated could be travelling on board. Those toilets were not cleaned even once in that time, nor the sinks. I stopped washing my hands in the sink because I could not bear the idea of touching the taps. I began using baby wipes that, thanks god, decided to buy before leaving Iquitos, “just in case”. The food was not only rice, but bad rice. It was given out in plastic plates that were thrown to the river once finished, because the crew on this boat didn’t think that bins were necessary when you have a huge river you can throw everything into. People spat on the floor, because they couldn’t be bothered to leave their hammock to do it overboard. And for some strange reason these people spat more than anybody I’ve seen in my life. So, I guess that at this point I can stop giving you gross details about my life on those two days, before you get sick :)

To add a bit more interest, we survived 2 storms, that even though I’m sure you won’t believe that a river can become an ocean in a matter of seconds, with the strongest winds, the biggest waves and rain that would freak anybody out, you should believe THAT is possible. People began to put on the few lifejackets available (of course not enough for everybody, and Peruvians don’t believe in that “women and children first” thing) and I began to fear that maybe, there was a possibility that we wouldn’t make it. So I put my money wallet on, with my passport inside, just in case I needed to be identified at some point after the sinking. Yes, at this point I was pretty sure that would be the end to this boat. But as so far during this trip, I still keep my “lucky star stuck to my ass” as we say in my country, and survived that one too.
By the time we arrived to Santa Rosa, I was ready to leave the river and never come back! But after I got to immigration I realised what I was ready to leave, was Peru. As a closing show, after 5weeks in the country, when I got to the immigration officer and realised that when I entered the country, on the 26th of July, some not very concentrated immigration officer had stamped my passport with 26th of May date, making me totally illegal for overstaying in the country, I was fuming. I had a couple of hours waiting for the problem to get solved, and that was enough time to think that after hypocritical politicians, useless immigration officers, dirty boats, nosy people, hundreds of tour sellers, and thousands of looks and “hola bonita” comments every time to cross a man in the street, I was ready to leave the country. I don’t want to sound negative, and give a bad impression of this country, in which I’ve had an awesome time and I’ve met wonderful people, but I guess things towards the end were pointing me the “exit” sign.

And probably for that reason, when we arrived in Leticia, the Colombian border town, I felt relieved. It was a chilled little town, were for the first time in weeks I could walk around without feeling an animal in a zoo. And we went to a nice hotel, where I could have a shower, and sleep in a bed! And eat normal food, and all those little things you learn to appreciate in only a couple of days. I crossed into Tabatinga, the Brazilian border town that is practically a continuation of Leticia, to get my passport stamped, and to have a look at the next boat, which seemed to me at the time, like a luxury cruise compared to the other one. And it was really clean, and new, and it brought back my liking for sailing this amazing river.

After a couple of days in Leticia, I left in boat number 4 by far, the best one. It took us almost four days to reach Manaus, but I was having such a great time, that I wouldn’t have mind to spend some more time there. I met really nice people, and had time to read, to sunbathe, to relax observing the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets I’ve seen! Food was served in turns, and we could seat down in a table! Wow! And had decent showers (even though I suspect the water was straight from the river, cause it felt weird, but hey, no complaints) and clean toilets. We left the amazon river and entered the Rio Negro (the black river) where Manaus is located. I must say that the river is literally black, and it is a change from the chocolate colour of the Amazon, but also very beautiful.

Manaus was my last stop in my Amazon adventure, and after over 2500kms of sailing the mighty river, I can say I have had the pleasure of getting to know one of the most fantastic areas of this planet, in the way that the locals do, which is very different to what we see in National Geographic channel. In Manaus also, I had the pleasure to attend a concert in the Teatro Amazonas (the famous opera house) which is the most beautiful theatre I’ve been to in my life! I liked it so much I returned the next day for a contemporary dancing show, just before heading to the airport to catch my flight to Buenos Aires. Whilst watching the show I could not help but think how random is my life and how much it has changed in the last 3months, which by the way have passed SO quickly, that I think it is all part of a dream.

I left the jungle, the river, the humidity and the 40degrees, to land in the biggest city of south america, at 10degrees and looking as dark as England in a winter afternoon. A bit of a shock, but I guess, the sight of my parents, after all this life changing experiences, compensates the lot.
So, this is me now, living in the most expensive neighbourhood of this awesome city, in the most amazing apartment ever, and living again with my folks after 5years of living by myself. It has been hard at first, because I was in need of a “reinsertion back to society” program, but I’m getting there. I guess having a hot shower for the first time in 3weeks, and wearing high heels again after three months it is as hard for anybody as it is for me, right?

Hasta Pronto!!

Posted by miromar 06:59 Archived in Peru Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

My peruvian Adventure

From the party town of Cuzco to surviving a major earthquake...

all seasons in one day 20 °C
View South America 2007 on miromar's travel map.

Im sorry it has taken me a while to update this blog, my time in Peru has had bit of everything, and sitting in front of the computer was not one of them... So i must apologize for the length of this entry, and i hope the adventure are interesting enough to keep you reading...

I got to Cuzco late on the 26th of July, after the difficult task of leaving Bolivia. My first impression of Cuzco was that it doesnt matter how many times you hear how beautiful is this city, still manages to surprise you! The first mission was trying to get tickets on the train to Machu Picchu, cause as much as i wanted to do the inca trail (or an alternative one, cause the original inca trail it is booked til the end of october!) unfortunately i cant, cause of my sinusitis problem that doesnt let me walk in high altitude, as i have find out during my treks in Bolivia. So, the train was the option, and after few hours in the queue and paying an outrageous amount of money, i got my ticket for 4days later, which it wasnt too bad, cause this particular weekend is the peruvian "fiestas patrias", or national festivity, so i had plenty of time to enjoy the multiple parties going on during the next few days... (there are quite a few pics from those days spread around the internet, if you find any let me know... what can i say, messy weekend! :D )

By monday i have recovered and managed to visit few places around the Sacred Valley, and finally tuesday got to Machu Picchu! What can i say? No words would make justice to this site, that although very much crowded, manages to keep a certain sacred feel, it is amazing!

Once back in Cuzco i met up again with Greta and Dava, my kiwi family, and together we leave behing the craziness of Cuzco nitelife and head south to Arequipa "the white city", our next stop. We got to Arequipa when the sun was beginning to rise, and the view of the Misti volcano, which overlooks the city, takes your breath away, standing at over 6000ms of altitude.

Arequipa surprised me being a gorgeous city, with quite a lot to do, and of course with lots of party going on! We were there at a particular good time, cause the first 2weeks of august are Arequipa´s foundation festivities, so lots of parades, and celebrations going on here too! Our hostel here is awesome, with a nice sunny garden, really nice people and lots of drinking games at nite! We even went to the circus one day, as a hangover remedy!

The following day i visited the museum that has the ice mummy, Juanita, that was found 10 years ago in a nearby glacier, and because of the ice was kept in perfect condition even though is 500 years old! The museum is really interesting and explains how the incas did their sacrifices to the mountains , as they believed they were gods, and had to make offering from time to time in the form of young children that were killed and buried at the top of the mountains.

Also went to visit the Santa Catalina convent, that is huge and it is like a city built within a city! if that is what convents look like, i might consider becaming a nun (yeah right!) but it wasnt just the visit to the convent that i enjoyed that day, as when you go outside right in front, the BEST chocolate shop is located. If there is any food i will always remember from this trip, that will be Arequipa´s chocolates. OH MY GOD, so good!! I think they are only comparable to peruvian cheese puffs.. which believe it or not, are incredibly tasty!! (and the best remedy for hangovers...)

Just before leaving Arequipa, I visited the Colca Canyon area, getting there in probably one of the most horrendous buses i have been so far (and there are many of those) in a journey that i will never forget, but the visit to the canyon (the second deepest in the world) and particularly the sight of the condors (the biggest birds on earth i believe) was well worth the journey! Those animals are SO beautiful! and they fly really close to people, they make it more beautiful even... When i grow up i wanna be a condor :D

And last day was time for white water rafting! i have never done it before, but certainly after trying it is not gonna be the last time! The river had category 2, 3 and one 4 rapids. Apparently the cats go from 1 to 5 , so it was pretty cool! We got REALLY wet, and it was quite cold, but so much fun! We even lost Dave overboard at some point, but managed to recover him :D

That same nite, and with the clothes still wet in a carrier bag, we left for Nasca, in a very posh bus cause we decided to treat ourselves... i must be jinxed, cause this one also broke down, and had to wait 2hs to get repaired, and afterwards the driver was speeding like hell, so we could not get any sleep fearing we would go down the Panamerican highway and into the Pacific!

Got to Nasca in the morning, which is an ugly town that happens to be the junping point to visit the Nasca Lines, those famous geroglyphics and animal figures (spider, hummingbird, monkey) made in stones that can only be seen from the air in a light airplane, and they are WELL impressive! there are several theories about how they made it thousands of years ago, including alien theories.. im not sure what to believe, but there is certainly something misterious about them...

We left Nasca the same day heading north along the coast to Ica, or more specifically Huacachina, located 4kms from Ica, and home to the biggest sand dunes i have seen in my life!! This place is very random, with a lake in the middle, and very famous for being the best place to do sandboarding (and also having a hostels that gives you weed for free :D ) We took a trip on a sand buggie, and had a go at sandboarding, which is SOOO cool! we loved it so much we rented boards the next day and tried to go solo, really good fun! (although a month later im still findind sand in my backpack...)

We left Huacachina 3days later, leaving the warm weather behind and heading north in a very dodgy bus to Pisco, jumping point to visit the Ballestas Islands (known as the poor galapagos) and the Paracas National Reserve nearby. The islands are amazing, with thousands of birds and sea lions (and lots of bird poo around that used to be expòrted for making fertilizers in Europe!)

After the visit, I said goodbye to Greta and Dave, as they were heading back to cuzco for the inca trail, and i was going up north, to Lima. It was sad to say goodbye, cause we wont be able to see each other until i got back to UK, and after all the adventures, i knew i would miss them! Ironically, we didnt think at that time that we would see each other sooner than expected...

I got to Lima late and very tired, and stayed in the posh neighbourhood of Miraflores, and believe me, after 8weeks of not being in a big city, i was overwhelmed!! Mcdonalds? KFC? shopping malls??? It is amazing how you can forget in a relatively short time the advantages of a big city :D WEnt out the following nite, with a bunch from the hostel, and had a great time, although it was hard to go clubbing with trekking boots... so not glamourous! But im getting over that now, who cares?? :D

The following day, whilst recovering from the nite before, i started planning my route for north peru, went shopping, and prepared to leave the next day, as I have been to Lima before, so no point staying any longer than a couple of days. In the afternoon, i was tired so went for a nap before dinner. It was 18.40 when i woke up thinking that someone was climbing up the top bunk, cause my bed was moving strongly. i got the head out ready to tell the person off (hey enough!) when realised that there was nobody there! the bed KEPT moving, and at that point i realised it was an earthquake. I ran to reception, cause even though im used to earthquakes (very common back home in Granada) there was something different about this one, so thought i should find one of those areas "safe for earthquakes" that are usually advertised by a sticker. By the time i got to reception, the building was shaking SO MUCH, that the option of staying inside, was not an option anymore. We all run downstairs, and when we got to the street, the ground was moving like if it would just open under your feet. It is impossible to describe the feeling, even though that still today if i close my eyes i can live it all over again. It was apparently only 2mins long, but it felt forever. Finally when i got back to the building, leaving the people crying and praying behind me, but still shaking, i began to realise how big the whole thing was. When i started seeing the news, i was petrified, the sight of Pisco, Ica, and all the other places i have been only few days before, completely devastated, was shocking. I was lucky, but there were so many people in need of help, i couldnt ignore that. I decided to volunteer, and even though bureocracy sucks, and polititians are hypocritical everywhere, i managed to join the Civil Defense Agency, and work for 2weeks in an emergency donation center set up in a public square. It was hard, worked lots, but i couldnt even feel the tiredness at the time, cause there was no time for that. I also met so many nice people, i actually have fantastic memories of my time there. People from all over the place, together with locals, that joined together, without a common language, and worked hand on hand for hours and days. We even managed to have a good time, in the middle of all the tragedy. It is so different when yo live something like this so close than when you see it in the news...

I finally left Lima on sunday the 26th, after a couple of crazy last nights out, and after seeing Greta and DAve once again, before they were leaving for Brazil. It was great to see them again! I landed in Tarapoto, in northwest Peru that night, ready to begin my time in the amazon, and ready to have time to think about all the things that happened in the previous weeks, as so far it hadnt soaked in. Life can change so much in so little time... 2mins..

x x x Miriam x x x

Posted by miromar 12:54 Archived in Peru Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The rest of Bolivia

Cochabamba - La Paz - Lake Titicaca

sunny 20 °C
View South America 2007 on miromar's travel map.

So, i decided to stay in Cochabamba for a couple of days to chill out, warm up after the chilly temperatures in the mountains, recover from a dodgy cough and why not, also recover from the drunken marathon of sucre... Cochabamaba is a city with a student feeling to it (they sells books everywhere here) and with an all-year around temperature of 25C, which gives it the nickname of the "city of the eternal spring". After a couple of days, i ventured to the bus station to find out about the bus times to La Paz. I can not explain the feeling that you normally get in any of the soutamerican bus station i have been so far (that it is something that can only be experienced personally) but i can not certainly explain the state of the bus station in Cochabamba that day: people everywhere (even on the floor), shouting, screaming.. a chaos! and the worst bit: signs everywhere saying: "There are no tickets to La Paz. Do not insist". Ok, there we go again. Of course i try to ask someone about it: no answer, not even a "fuck off" from the ticket desks, nothing. Great. I got back to the hotel and decided to watch the news to see if the give any info. And if trying to talk to bolivians was frustrating, watching the news is even worse. After a whole hour of shit about really random and non important news, all i got out was that "people from cochabamba trying to get to La Paz, might find difficulties trying to do so..." But why? strikes? road works? and for how long?.. AGH!

it is then that i realize one of the biggest problems in bolivia, which is communication, or lack of it. Other backpackers always comment on hhow lucky i am that i speak the language. Trust me, in Bolivia, speaking spanish is pointless, as the problem is not the language, is the fact they dont use it, even amongs themselves or in the media. I bet most of the people in that station didnt even need to get to La Paz, but the panic takes over, and if they say it might be impossible to get there, they just HAVE to go..

I tried again the next morning, and eventually found a company that would operate services that same night, so without thinking about it i kick every bolivian person out of my way (in this cases it is good to be taller) and manage to get a ticket. To celebrate i decide to treat myself to a muffin from the bakery next to the hotel (which are heaven) and surprise surprise, walked in the bakery and it is completely empty. What is going on? I asked. No bread, she replied. YES I CAN SEE THAT, but why?? I think. But then i remember that one of the random news from last nite was the bakers in cochabamba would be on strike for 2days. Ok, is it that difficult for her to tell me that??? Apparently so...

Eventually made it to La Paz, and the location is AWESOME. Founded in the middle of a valley, and as it grows, the houses are being built on the side of the mountains, and they look they are gonna fall down! I get to the hostel and the nite porter tells me there are no beds and that they didnt get my reservation. It is probably the biggest hostel in La Paz, not a single bed for a little one??? So I ask him if there is something he can do, and he start looking at papers, and then the board, and then again the papers.. It is 4.30am, im exhausted and i have my 15kg backpack still on me. Not Happy! At this point an english girl gets to reception as she is leaving for the airport. And she says, if you dont mind sleeping in my sheets, you could take my bed, as it is paid until 1pm. Great! and the nite porter goes: no, you cant do that. And I have a "miriam moment" then: listen if you cant do anything better than that im taking that bed and i´ll come to speak to reception in the morning. So he has no choice :D

When i wake up at 9am i realized 2 things:

1. There are two empty beds in my dorm.
2. The bed i was sleeping in is full of dog hair.

The first thing gets sorted when i go to reception and they apologized cause they did have empty beds, and dont really know why the guy didnt give me one. Then i also find out about the second thing by my roomates. The hairs belong to the hostel dog, which apparently got on really well with the girl and SLEPT THERE EVERYNITE. She could have mention that little detail before she left i guess... Only left to say is that i dont like dogs sleeping in beds, and definately not that dog, that looks quite vile to me, so io close the door all the time and the dog cant get in, therefore, the dog hates me for the rest of the week and tries to bite me at every opportunity...

La Paz turned out to be this really cool place, where i had a FAB time. I was not expecting much of the place, so i guess that it is a good thing, cause everything surprises you much more. Also, the people meant a lot here: I met Greta and Dave (NZ) and Darryl and Andy (SA) again here, the guys from the Uyuni tour. And also, i met up again with Auri, the girl from Granada i met at the bolivian border that was living temporarily in La Paz. She took me to really cool places (including to a çn aymara witch that read the future with coca leaves at the witches market) and introduces me to many local people that were awesome! I must say that another good thing about my stay here was the hostel irish bar, that gave us many good laughs.. (that meant that at some point everynite i was running from an irish drunk or from the vile dog) It was also here in La Paz i found out about results from UNi, and turned out to be a first!! me! a first!! im still getting over the shock, and of course it was great to have an excuse to get pissed :D

Apart from the alcohol, I actually found time to do other stuff, believe it or not, and that includes being part of one of the biggest protedtd ever in Bolivia (people from La Paz want the city to become the capital of the country, and they were concentratring in the highest part of the valley for it. Every single office and business was closed that day, and 2.5million people made it to the demonstration. We tried to walk up there but eventually realize that 10kms uphill it is a bit too much, so end up taking a ride in a local truck to the top, with all the locals looking at us and thinking "what the f***k do you care about this matter" whilst we sang to the himn!

Next day me and Auri went down the "most dangerous road in the world" on bikes, and that was amazing! The road was named like that cause it did have the highest accident rate in the world, and although there is a new road now for the main traffic, the 64kms downhill on the dirt road, going from 4700ms to 1200ms, it is soooo impresive!

Although loving La Paz, it is time to leave the next day, and head to the next stop, Copacabana, a town in the shores of Lak Titikaka. The bus ride was hell, and i think the fact that i was stupidly hang over had something to do with it.. And to make it even better, at some point during the journey we stopped and lots of people disembarked and started walking towards the lake that was in front of us. And then i look at the rest of the bus and see that only the gringos are left.mmmm not a good thing. Asked the driver and he tells me that we all need to leave and take little boats to go to the other side. But what about my lugagge?. Leave it on the bus and run to get those boats before they leave, is his answer. So i turn around and shouted to my fellow gringos " everybody gets off and run top the boats!" and like a joan of arch, i lead the way... we made it to the other side of the water, and believe it or not, the bus floated all the way to the other side too... ! Eventually made it to Copacabana, and was a nice little town, very touristy, but still charming enough to spend a couple of days chilling out after the madness of La Paz. After that i decide to visit the "island of the sun" the island 2hs away from Copa where the incas believed the sun was created and still to this days is considered a sacred place. I leave my backpack in the hotel, and told the guy i would be back the following day, as i was spending the nite at the island. The island was awesome, did some trekking there and visited the sacred sited and stuff. Came back to copa, changed all my money to peruvian, as i was crossing to peru next, got my bus ticket and headed to the hotel to pick my backpack, just to find out the hotel is CLOSED. Ok, dont panic just yet, i think. Walked in the bakery next door, that shared the building woth the hotel and asked, what is going on?. Oh, nothing, today is wednesday, and it is the manager´s day off, she says. And he closes the hotel??, i asked again. Oh, when there are guests, he leaved the key with me, but there werent any, so he went home across the peruvian border and wont be back til the next day. S**T, i think. she sends me to talk to the guy at the restaurant in front, and that one to the one next to it. And so on. Nobody knows anything, and nobody has keys. So i go to another hotel, check in for another day, after changing the money again, and getting a refund for the bus ticket. Go shopping for a new jumper as the one i have stinks already, and use the emergency underwear from my daysack. Stay cool i think, tomorrow I´ll get back at him for this.

I wake up at 7am, make my way to the hotel all ready to give him the bo****ing and STILL CLOSED. Which means i will miss the morning bus to Peru AGAIN. I come back at 10.30 and still closed, but this time the bakers and one of the restaurant owners are around the door, obviously talking about me. And then i have another "miriam moment": "if the guy is not back at midday im kicking the door down, cause it is a shit door anyway, and then he can come and find me in Peru if he f***ing wants to" as loud as i can in the middle of the street. All looking at the poor gringa that has lost the plot. And im about to go when i hear a quiet voice saying "miss..." "Leave me alone!" i say to this timy guy from the restaurant to the side and carry on walking, when i hear "blablablabla.. backpack....", "what did you just say!!?!?!: and he replies.. are you looking for a backpack, miss? OF COURSE IM LOOKING FOR A BP! I shouted, and he goes inside and turns up with my backpack!!!

What i said to him afterwards cannot be written here, but the fact that he saw me yesterday and did not say a thing, cause he keeps insisting that he didnt know it was mine, still makes me angry! but what can you do¿ welcome to Bolivia my friend... Managed to make it to the border in a shared taxi, and to Puno, the peruvian city where i could catch the bus that i missed already in another shared taxi... That is how i leave Bolivia after 3weeks, taking with me all this unforgetable experiences, the surreal landscapes, the llamas, the incredible quinua soup, and of course, the memory of the most incredible sky at night, full of stars so close you could reach them.. cause the truth is Bolivia might be poor in many aspects, but it has the most incredible sky at nights...

Hasta Pronto!

PS. By the way, for those of you on facebook, i have decided to put the photos there, cause it is easier, so if you want, you can have a look and see pics of La Paz (mostly drunk, sorry), the protest, the death road, the crossing to copacabana and the lake!)

Posted by miromar 17:43 Archived in Bolivia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Southwest Bolivia

Tupiza - Uyuni - Potosi - Sucre

sunny 25 °C
View South America 2007 on miromar's travel map.

Im becoming a lazy writer. there are so many things that I see, I hear, I smell and I live here, that I would like to describe them one by one so you could live them with me. But instead, I leave them for another day, and then more and more details are accumulating, therefore, I write less...

So, i will try to summarize the last 10 days as good as i can, although it wont be easy! it is funny how ten days back home could be described in a paragraph, and now it seems so impossible...

I bumped in to Jo and Vern in Tupiza again, as they had also decided to take the tour from there too. When searching for tours it is true that "the more the merrier", so we managed to get a good price from an agency which guy named himself Freddie Kruger. Random. But he promised he would find 2 other people to join us for the next day, and he did! So the next day the family was formed now by us three, plus Claire from Southafrica and Hugo from France, the driver-guide and the cook. There was also another car from the same agency that travelled with us all the time, formed by two guys from Southafrica and a kiwi couple. I must say, at that point i didnt think that the people who travel with you in a 4 day tour can make such a difference, but it does. Everybody was so nice that the experience was even better. I guess I should be grateful to Freddie kruger for that :D

During the following days we had the opportunity to see one of the most amazing landscapes i could imagine: From deserts to high snowed peaks, the green and red lakes, the volcanoes, the flamingo communities, the "llamas"... everywhere you look there is something amazing. And in addition you are travelling at an altitude of up to 5000m above sea level, and the feeling is rather strange: you cant breathe, you can only walk for few meters before you are tired, your head is aching and if it gets worse, you are also very sick and unable to eat. i was pretty lucky, i didnt get too sick, unlike some of the other guys, that were badly affected by "soroche" (altitud sickness).

Every night we would arrive at a lodge, which was described as "very basic" and was very basic indeed: little village in the middle of nowhere, no heating, no hot shower and limited light. Funny enough these people live like that their entire life, and it is difficult to imagine how they survive. Most of them are "llama" shepherds, and they spend their lives up and down the altiplano, running really fast with no map.. it is quite an amazing sight..

Talking about llamas, they are one of the cutest animals i've seen, quite funny really. the hardest part was when we have spent the whole day taking pics of the animals and then the cook served us llama meat for dinner. Pretty bizarre feeling, but quite yummy nevertheless. From here I apologize to the llama community.

Also talking about photos, i send you a couple here. not the llamas, im afraid, cause the good pics are in my other camera, so you'll have to wait for those...

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And yes, is REALLY coold, the first night was about -5 degrees, but the second got to -10! At some point you get use to the fact of wearing 2pairs of trousers, 3 jumpers and a jacket, and 3pairs of socks, even while you sleep..

The last day is dedicated to the salar de uyuni (the biggest salt lake in the world), and boy, isnt that impressive? It is so inmense it is impossible to explain... by the way, we slept in salt beds the last night too (pretty cool, but not extremely comfy...)

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and here is the vehicle we spent the 4 dyas, going through sand, snow, stones, salt...

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when we finally got to Uyuni, after all the laughs, the emotions and the "dulce de leche" we had for breakfast, it was kind of hard to say goodbye to the rest of the family! my plan was to go straight to Potosi, so i got my ticket for the evening bus.

And now is when my personal experience with Bolivian buses begins. i must mention at this point that every single traveller you find along the way, has a bolivian bus story. Everybody. And of course, i was dying to have my own. Now that few days have passed and im a professional bus rider, i need to say, this trip would not be the same without the bus stories! So i decided to include a pic from my first bus:

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My backpack is somewhere on that roof, next to the million things that bolivians take on a bus. The best part is not that, no. They obviously think their valuables are that, very valuables, so the roof is not good enough for them, so they take them IN the bus with them. We are talking about sacks of seeds, and stuff like that. Together with the kids that women carry in their backs, which are not that little anymore. Even better, I have an allocated seat, as im going to the end of the journey (which by the way is 7hours), but for the people that are only travelling for 2hs or so, dont get a seat, they pay less and seat in the aisle, if they are lucky, on top of a sack or huge bag. My favourite detail, the sticker next to the driver which says: dont spit. I love it! And to think there are people in this world they find a charter aeroplane too cramped...

Still wondering how the buses manage to routes, seriously. Potosi is the highest city in the world at 4100ms and all those up hill moments are nervebreaking in the bus!

I got safely to Potosi at midnite, still amazed of getting there and also by the sight of "Cerro Rico" (the rich hill) the reason Potosi was founded there in the first place, as the mines inside the hill have been providing minerals (and sorrows) for the last 500years. Visiting the mines is the highlight of the visit to the city, which is very nice, even though is not well preserved. You can tell when you walk around that there was a time this city was really powerful. So here is the view of the city and the mountain itself (once again, apologies for the quality of the pics!)

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The opportunity to visit the mines is unique. There are no priviledges for tourist, nor a special treatment. You go where the miners go, there are no lifts, no big galleries, nothing. you get your helmet, your light, your overall and you sign a declaration of responsability cause ANYTHING can happen (i got hit by a little rock by the way). And even though you have an idea of what you are about to see, you cannot have the feeling until you do. It is shocking and incredible.

First you get to visit the factory where they take the minerals and the miners market (i had breakfast there, so you can see me at my best silly outfit, glass in hand)

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The miners work in cooperatives and they are responsible for buying their own materials, including the dynamite (which by the way can be bought by just anybody in the market, freaky thought)

They bring us here so we can buy little gifts for the miners when you see them inside: coca leaves (which they chew constantly to help them with altitude and taking the hunger away), cigarretes (made of coca too), soft drinks and stuff like that. I tried coca at this point and it tastes like chewing tea leaves, so not my thing...

We went down 3 levels in the mine, which is about 100m, and the temperature there is about 35degrees. You are constantly out of breathe, between the heat and the dust. We crawled the galleries (as they are bolivian size) or you go down a wood slide that is normally where they bring the carts up and down. You even have to be shouting constantly while you go down the ramp, cause you just never know wehre the next cart is coming. Sometimes you are walking and you hear them coming with the cart, so you have to literally run for your life! When you bump into a group of miners you can talk to them and you normally leave them a little gift, which makes them really happy.

The visit to the mine has been one of the bigest experiences in my life. When you speak to the miners, it makes you realize how lucky you are to have your job, cause ANYTHING is better than this. They enter the mine as young as 10 years old and their life expectancy is around 50yeras old, as silicosis (the miners illness) normally kills them sooner. I was lucky enough to meet one of the oldests workers in the mine, which has been there for 21 years. When you see him you would think he is 75, only to find out he is only 36. When you get out of the mine, not only you are covered in dust (see picture below) but you have inhaled so much i was coughing for the next 2 days. And i was only there for 2hs, imagine them...

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The next day is time to carry on, on my way to Sucre now (the real capital of Bolivia, even though everybody in europe thinks is La PAz). Sucre surprises me been a beautiful city, old colonial buildings in white and big enough to have many things going on, but not as big as a capital city. My original plan was to spend a night there only, but end up staying 4days and loving it. time goes so quickly when you are happy i guess.. The hostel was great, but not as good as the people that i met there. Quite a few are spending a long time there learning spanish, so they showed me the city tricks, as if they were locals. They took me out (i was in serious need of night out, not anymore after 3 nights!), to the markets, to watch the football... I even end up meeting again Jo and Vern, and Dave and Greta (my kiwy couple!) and it felt i belonged to the place, you kind of knew people and got to know th city well...

Finally i decided to leave on sunday, after the amazing victory of Brazil over Argentina in the copa America, and the greasy meal we were having at the bar whilst watching the match. After a 10hs bus journey i got to Cochabamba, further north and a lot warmer (about 25degrees, yeepa! no more layers of clothes!!) I must add another note for the bus journeys. at some point in the middle of the night, the driver stops, and looking outside the window i can see a big fire, and lots of people. Got a bit stressed until i realized the driver was chating to the locals and it was only a local party. So we waited for 30mins until he had a drink with their friends and we carried on. Only hoping the drink was not alcoholic...

x x Love x x

Posted by miromar 09:32 Archived in Bolivia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The long way to Bolivia

... Or the joys of the unexpected...

sunny 10 °C
View South America 2007 on miromar's travel map.

It was meant to be easy. Go to the station, buy a ticket to La Quiaca (argentinian border town), cross the bridge to Villazon (bolivian border town), go to the station, buy a train ticket to Uyuni and then arrive to Uyuni, nice and ready to visit the "Salar" (the salt lake). Easy. Or that is what we thought.

Myself and Christian (my new argentinian travel companion) decided to go early to the station to pick some good seats in the bus to La Quiaca. The plan was to catch the 2am bus so we would arrive early at the border with plenty of time to buy the train tickets. And that is when we find out the news: the services are suspended because the road is cut. Ok, that kind of sucks, bearing in mind that if we miss the train in Villazon we might get stuck for a couple of days there. So we asked around, and somebody eventually said that one of the companies is operating a service at 23.45. And Im wondering (and im sure you are too), if the road is cut, how can they have one service?? The ticket lady explains: The road is not cut by works or something like that. It is a demonstration. But not a demonstration like the ones in Europe, no, one of those that people camp in the road with fires and wont let anything pass through. Apparently they want money from the government. Ironically, I WANT MONEY TOO, but i dont cut any roads, do I? (I might do sometime soon though...) But that is not all. There are actually 2 cuts, separated by 2kms. And the plan apparently is this: We get on this bus, we drive to the first cut, we disembark with our bags, we walk the 2kms (bear in mind this will be at 2 or 3 am) in the dark road until we get to the second cut, and there is meant to be a bus waiting in the other side to take us to La quiaca. Or so they say.

I began laughing, big time, cause this seems taken from some random movie instead of being real life. I looked at Christian, who, even being argentinian is also shocked with the travel plan and has began laughing too. And he looked at me. And we thought: what the f##k! Lets do it! And we bought our tickets choosing the best seats, as the original plan was.

We couldnt sleep, although we thought it would be a good idea as we didnt know when we would be able to sleep again, but the tension of not knowing when the bus journey would finish and the walk would began, made it diffcult. But at some point we felt sleep and only woke up when the bus stopped, engine included. "This is it" I thought, and looked at my watch: 4am. And then looked at the window, and i dont see a bunch of people with weapons in the middle of the road, as predicted, but a bus station with a sign: "La quiaca". So there was no road cut at the end, and because nobody was in the road due to the cut, we have arrived earlier than ever. Great, now we have to wait in the station for 3hs until the border opens. The station is not the nicest place to sleep either. Well, it could be, but the best spots have been taken by several argentinian and bolivian families that have SU MUCH stuff, that there is no room for a couple of gringos to share.

Those were the three coldest hours of my life I would say. Or maybe not, but it felt like it. Eventually made our way to the border, and after some stupid bureocracy, we got into Bolivia at last! At this point we have met few other travellers at the inmigration office, and we are all walking happily together to the train station. We got there at 8.20am, and the ticket office opens at 8am. Perfect. Or so we thought, cause the lady says there are no tickets left. How?? They didnt have the time to sell them in 20mins and they are not supposed to take bookings, so How?? It is pointless to ask her again, cause she is not even looking at us anymore. So we have to think of a Plan B (im loving these plan b situations). At this point is 10 of us in the train station with the same problem: two korean girls, one spanish girl, three argentinian girls, a british couple and me and christian. Random group walking towards the bus station hoping to find a bus.

When we get there, we get told that all the morning buses to Uyuni, have left already. The next ones are to Tupiza (half way through) at 2pm. The idea of waiting 5hs in this not-so-nice town is not good. But suddenly this lady comes over and says that she has now a service to Tupiza leaving at 9am, if we are interested. We look at the bus and realized that they are taking some electrical equipment in a bus to Tupiza as is too much to take it in a car, and with this gringo group, they can make extra money in a bus that was going empty. Fine for us! as we get a whole bus for ourselves!

The road goes through a very interesting scenery, and I realise already how different Bolivia is from everywhere else I have been so far. When we arrive in Tupiza, the same situation arise: Buses to Uyuni have left already, and the only way of getting there now is waiting til the next day, or hiring a private jeep to take us all. We decided for the second, but at this point, 2 other argentinian girls have joined the group, which means that 12 people and all the backpacks in a jeep, seems a lot to me (although for bolivian standards that is just fine). The british couple (Jo and Vernon) decide to stay, and so do I. I wanna get to Uyuni, yes, but in one piece. Besides there are tours to the salar that begin here, so, I will ask around and see what is on offer.

I say goodbye to the rest of the group, Christian included, and prepare myself for some "tour hunting"... (even though I havent slept in 30hs and im feeling soooo tired...) So, watch this space...

x x x Hasta Pronto x x x

Posted by miromar 12:54 Archived in Argentina Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

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