Dessert wines and cheeses on the way but I was stuffed.
Dessert wines and cheeses on the way but I was stuffed.
Jackel
Jackel

The Trip Home

Bolivia, Chile Comments Off
Jul 292011

As I had mentioned in earlier posts, we ran into some problems with entering Peru due to a mining protest that closed the Bolivia-Peruvian border for a number of weeks.  The detour we selected was to travel back to Chile by bus and then fly to Lima with a stopover in Santiago.  We would have preferred to stop in Lima instead but there was no award availability so we just had to make due with Santiago.

After our visit to Lake Titicaca and Isla del Sol, we returned to La Paz and spent one last day there.  The next day we were booked on a 10-hour international bus from La Paz to Arica, Chile so of course this had to be the time when I was to come down with some sort of stomach bug.  Fortunately the bus was mostly on time and we had saw some nice volcanoes along the way.  The only glitch was an extra hour at the border thanks to some older Bolivia lady who thought she could bring a huge load of merchandise (snacks, bottled drinks, etc) into Chile without paying import duty.  Removing her and all her merchandise from the bus took far longer than it should have!

The reason for our lengthy delay at the border.
The reason for our lengthy delay at the border.

Arica, the northernmost city in Chile and just a few miles from Peru was pretty nice as border towns go.  The city has a lively harbor with more than its share of sea lions and pelicans.  We found it entertaining to watch the fishermen feed fish scraps to the sea lions as well as the pelicans’ unrelenting efforts to steal some for themselves from the clumsy yet powerful beasts.

Me hungry!
Me hungry!

Flying from Arica to Santiago was uneventful.  It was a late-night flight with LAN Chile that departed around midnight and arrived around 2AM.  It was still much better than a bus ride, that is for sure!  In Santiago we had a day to kill so we visited one of the produce markets.  Lots of vendors were selling fresh fruit juices so we ordered up some lucuma – a new fruit for both of us.  This may sound strange but the juice tasted like cake batter with maybe a hint of maple syrup.  It wasn’t tangy at all nor was it overly sweet.  Lucuma is truly strange fruit and I have to say I rather liked it.

The tourists watch the sea lions while the pelicans watch the tourists.
The tourists watch the sea lions while the pelicans watch the tourists.

We took another flight with LAN Chile to get from Santiago to Lima.  This time around I discovered that I could request upgrades through the LAN website prior to check-in thanks to my recently-comped Comodoro status in the LANpass mileage program.  I was shocked when I checked in and was given a business class boarding pass because we were traveling on award tickets issued using British Airways miles.  Normally, when you redeem miles for free flights they are strictly non-upgradeable.  Maybe it was a glitch, but either way I wish I had known to try this before our flights out to Easter Island and back!

Plaza de Armas, Santiago, Chile
Plaza de Armas, Santiago, Chile

Our connection in Lima was an 8-hour overnight one so we opted to camp out in the airport.  We were able to use the airport’s shared lounge (Sumaq) but unfortunately some displaced passengers from a delayed Delta flight had already occupied all of the nice sleeper chairs in the lounge.  All in all, it was a pretty sleepless night but we did get to take some showers just prior to boarding our flight to Miami.

My very first flight on American Airlines! Lima to Miami
My very first flight on American Airlines! Lima to Miami

We arrived in Miami and within the first two hours of being “welcomed” home we experienced a lengthy immigration queue, enhanced pat-downs, and a full-on TSA meltdown whereby they yell for everyone on the concourse to freeze where they are until the alert is over.  I sure hadn’t missed this circus over the past few months!  What I had been missing, however, was some tasty American fast food.

...and an enormous hot dog with a couple piece of deep-fried macaroni and cheese as its wingmen.
…and an enormous hot dog with a couple piece of deep-fried macaroni and cheese as its wingmen.
The Trip Home
Food poisoned on the bus, again.  At least I had some Coca-Cola in a little bottle.
Food poisoned on the bus, again. At least I had some Coca-Cola in a little bottle.
The reason for our lengthy delay at the border.
The reason for our lengthy delay at the border.
The tourists watch the sea lions while the pelicans watch the tourists.
The tourists watch the sea lions while the pelicans watch the tourists.
Me hungry!
Me hungry!
Arica, Chile
Arica, Chile
The coastline around Arica
The coastline around Arica
Plaza de Armas, Santiago, Chile
Plaza de Armas, Santiago, Chile
My very first flight on American Airlines! Lima to Miami
My very first flight on American Airlines! Lima to Miami
At last, a burrito the size of my head.
At last, a burrito the size of my head.
...and an enormous hot dog with a couple piece of deep-fried macaroni and cheese as its wingmen.
…and an enormous hot dog with a couple piece of deep-fried macaroni and cheese as its wingmen.


Isla del Sol was undeniably beautiful and it is no wonder why it is one of the biggest attractions in all of Bolivia.  After our stay in Copa we made the two-hour boat journey out to the island.  Legend has it that the island was the birthplace of the Incan sun and it is riddled with all sorts of archaelogical wonders.

The docks at Copacabana
The docks at Copacabana

The boat ride was simple enough to arrange.  We rolled down to the docks around 8AM and purchased tickets from one of the many marineros who were walking about.  We ended up on a small (maybe 25ft) boat with about 20 other people, a mix of tourists and locals.  Most of the tourists opted to sit on the roof but Amy, myself and the locals sat below.  The crystal clear skies and the 14,000ft of altitude make for some pretty harsh UV rays and neither of us were too keen on getting burnt.  Our capitán, a wrinkled old man with a Dick Tracy hat manned the boat’s two outboard motors the whole two hours to keep us on course.  It looked pretty uncomfortable to me but he looked as if he had been doing it most of his life.

Happy that I get to go down the Escalera del Inca (Incan Stairway) this time around!
Happy that I get to go down the Escalera del Inca (Incan Stairway) this time around!

The boat dropped us off at the south end of the island near the village of Yumani which perched on the ridge of the island, a good 400ft elevation change above the dock.  Amy stayed with our bags while I dashed up the hill to remind myself of how thin the air is at 14,000ft.  Thanks to the Peruvian border issues it was easy to find a room from one of the many guesthouses in Yumani.  It even came with a nice view!

At the top, we rewarded ourselves with some fresh OJ with a view.
At the top, we rewarded ourselves with some fresh OJ with a view.

There are no cars on the island and all of the “streets” are narrow cobblestone affairs which act as superhighways for the island’s hard-working donkeys and the occasional flock of sheep.  Most of the supplies that arrive from the mainland, everything from fruits to concrete, are hauled from the docks into town either on the backs of people or donkeys.  In fact, when we were huffing and puffing our way to the guesthouse with our backpacks a group of sprightly old men (in their 60′s?) passed us with 40 kg bags of concrete on their backs!  I am sure they had a good laugh at us flatlanders.

What the island lacks in cars it makes up for with donkeys
What the island lacks in cars it makes up for with donkeys

Since most places on the island don’t have running water, the donkey’s have the added chore of hauling water from the island’s springs to the water tanks at each house.  Each morning just after sunrise we could see from our room the trains of donkeys with blue water canisters on their backs.  We made it a point to take short showers after seeing this!

Our big day out on the island consisted of walking the length of it from north to south.  We charted a boat to take us from Yumani to Challapampa in the north.  Initially we thought that we could just hop on one of the ferries from Copa that docks at both villages but not-so.  I am not sure if it was because of the less-than-normal crowds due to the border closing or if it was because of the mariners union but we were told that the only way was to charter.  We ended up paying about $20 which is a small fortune in Bolivian terms for the ride but we had the boat to ourselves and the views were spectacular.

At the north end of the island we visited Chincana, a large complex of Incan ruins and had a small lunch (trout, yet again for me!) in Challapampa.  One thing that seemed unusual about Challapampa was the fact that there were pigs roaming around on the beach.  We found out later that was because the village was have a bit celebration the next day – RIP, piggies.

The steep hike out of Challapampa was brutal, especially right after lunch, but once we got up on the island’s ridge trail the walk was much easier.  The trail itself was about the width of a one-lane road and it had been meticulously paved with cobblestones long long ago.  The views in all directions were amazing and we passed a few locals along the way.

The hills were brutal with the thin air!
The hills were brutal with the thin air!

I woke up at about 6AM on our last morning on the island to a nice orange glow coming through the windows.  I jumped out of bed and fumbled around to get my camera just in time to capture an amazing sunrise.

The sun rising over Bolivia's Cordillera Real.
The sun rising over Bolivia’s Cordillera Real.
Lake Titicaca – Isla del Sol
The docks at Copacabana
The docks at Copacabana
Climbing an Incan staircase to find a place to stay.
Climbing an Incan staircase to find a place to stay.
At the top, we rewarded ourselves with some fresh OJ with a view.
At the top, we rewarded ourselves with some fresh OJ with a view.
Isla de la Luna
Isla de la Luna
What the island lacks in cars it makes up for with donkeys
What the island lacks in cars it makes up for with donkeys
Grains growing in the Incan terraces
Grains growing in the Incan terraces
The ruins of Pilko Kaina
The ruins of Pilko Kaina
Piedra Sagrada
Piedra Sagrada
The Chincana ruins
The Chincana ruins
Overlooking the village of Cha´llapampa at the north end of Isla del Sol
Overlooking the village of Cha´llapampa at the north end of Isla del Sol
The main “highway” on the island.
The main “highway” on the island.
The hills were brutal with the thin air!
The hills were brutal with the thin air!
Isla de la Luna and the peaks of Cordillera Real
Isla de la Luna and the peaks of Cordillera Real
The sun rising over Bolivia's Cordillera Real.
The sun rising over Bolivia’s Cordillera Real.
Happy that I get to go down the Escalera del Inca (Incan Stairway) this time around!
Happy that I get to go down the Escalera del Inca (Incan Stairway) this time around!

Copacabana, Bolivia
Copacabana, Bolivia

During our last week in Bolivia we made a trip out to Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake at 3800m.  The lake is shared between Peru and Bolivia but thanks to the ongoing border dispute we were only able to visit the Bolivian side.  The good news was that most of the tourist sites were mostly empty!

After returning from Rurrenabaque we overnighted in La Paz and then caught one of the tourist buses to Copacabana.  The tourist buses are slightly more expensive but you get to travel in a proper bus as opposed to a small van overloaded with about 20 people – a worthwhile investment for the three hour trip.  The only downside to the tourist bus is that it provides hotel pickup.  Sounds good, right?  The pickup is nice but sitting on the bus for an extra hour as it fights it way through the clogged streets of La Paz is not so nice.

Our bus making its way across the Strait of Tiquina
Our bus making its way across the Strait of Tiquina

The only notable item about the bus ride wa stopping at the Strait of Tiquina so that they could load our bus on a rickety barge powered by a 20hp outboard.  Us passengers were sent over to a small ticket desk to purchase our ~$0.50 tickets for the small passenger ferries.  It is probably less than a kilometer across the strait but the stop provided a nice break for stretching the legs.

Plenty of opportunities for renting a paddle boat in Copacabana.
Plenty of opportunities for renting a paddle boat in Copacabana.

We found Copacabana to be a pleasant little town.  It has a sweeping beach and waterfront park where hired paddle-boats and kayaks are a dime a dozen.  Above the town to one side is a hill with an ancient Incan observatory and on the other side is town with some crosses and a great overview of the lake.

The famous church in Copacabana where locals bring their cars to be blessed.
The famous church in Copacabana where locals bring their cars to be blessed.

Copacabana’s enormous Moorish-style cathredral is another fun attraction.  The cathedral is famous for its Benediciones de Movilidades (blessing of the automobiles) where people come from all over to dress up their cars and pour beer on the tires.  Given the state of many of Bolivia’s roads I suppose this practice can’t hurt!

Trout: a local favorite
Trout: a local favorite

The food in the lake region, in particular the trout, made for some excellent and cheap meals while we were there.  Where else are you going to snag soup, salad, fresh grilled trout, a side and dessert for under $4?

All in all, Copa made for a nice two-day stop and we found that to be enough to wander the city and nearby sights.

Lake Titicaca – Copacabana
Our bus making its way across the Strait of Tiquina
Our bus making its way across the Strait of Tiquina
Like an ocean at 13,000ft!
Like an ocean at 13,000ft!
Copacabana, Bolivia
Copacabana, Bolivia
The famous church in Copacabana where locals bring their cars to be blessed.
The famous church in Copacabana where locals bring their cars to be blessed.
Automobiles being blessed.
Automobiles being blessed.
An older lady pours beer on each tire of this bus.
An older lady pours beer on each tire of this bus.
Trout: a local favorite
Trout: a local favorite
Complete and undivided attention.
Complete and undivided attention.
Sunset over Titicaca
Sunset over Titicaca
Apparently this is some sort of Incan astronomical instrument.
Apparently this is some sort of Incan astronomical instrument.
Puffed corn products are big in Bolivia, as are bowler hats!
Puffed corn products are big in Bolivia, as are bowler hats!
Plenty of opportunities for renting a paddle boat in Copacabana.
Plenty of opportunities for renting a paddle boat in Copacabana.

The Pampas

Bolivia Comments Off
Jul 112011

Second to Madidi Park, the most popular attraction for visitors to Rurrenabaque is Bolivia’s vast grasslands known as The Pampas.  A guided tour seemed to be the way to go so we organized one from Rurre and it came to about $145 for a two-day, one-night tour – quite pricey for Bolivia!  The guy at the tour company, a real slick used car salesman type, told us that we had to meet at the office at 8:30AM sharp the next day for our departure.  He said we needed to make sure that we left on time to beat the other companies and to avoid the dust.  Certainly an intriguing reason for an on-time departure.

After a restless night of sleep in one of the dumpier room offerings in Rurre we walked over to the tour company for our 8:30 appointment.  A small SUV was waiting for us and there was a bit of commotion as the guide’s underlings strapped stuff to the luggage rack.  The salesman neglected to inform us that there was very little space in the vehicle so I had to quickly pull some essentials from my pack before storing it in the company office.

The road to the pampas.  A bit dusty, no?
The road to the pampas. A bit dusty, no?

Leaving Rurre the road quickly went from pavment to cobblestone to dirt.  The next 50 miles of bumpy road looked as if it was made of ground-up brown chalk and each passing vehicle, pedestrian, and cow stirred up an impressive amount of the stuff.  The calm winds that morning made the dust just linger over the road and many many times our driver plunged our vehicle into dust clouds we couldn’t see through.  Three hours to go 50 miles – yep, still in Bolivia.

An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.
An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.

At the camp near San Rosa, our guide told us that there would be a bit of a delay before our rooms and lunch were ready.  He suggested that we go relax in the hammocks for a bit.  Thirty minutes passed, and then an hour before lunch was served.  After lunch the guide told us that our first boat trip into the Pampas would start at approximately 4pm.  At this point Amy and I were pretty frustrated with this tour company.  We booked a two-day tour and we burned almost the entire first day in a car or hammock.

After the lengthy siesta we loaded up in one of the motorized canoes and headed up the river to see the pink river dolphins.  The winding river was flanked by short water-loving trees and there were large wading birds everywhere we looked.  The terrain reminded me of the Florida Everglades but the density of wildlife was seemingly much higher.

Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)
Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)

It wasn’t long before we spotted some capybaras, the world’s largest rodent, as well as some monkeys.  The capybaras, which top out at around 100 pounds, were surprisingly calm around us photo-snapping tourists.  At one point Amy got within just a few feet of one that was grazing on the riverbank.

Pink river dolphins, too, were easy to find but photographing them proved difficult.  They would frequently break the surface with their fins and snouts but it was next to impossible to predict when and where they would come up next.  We were given the option to swim with them but Amy and I declined and left that to the two Australians that were with us.

The next morning we were up early for our second boat ride on the river.  With howler monkeys howling away in the distance we loaded into the boat just before the sun came up.  A short while into our ride we heard something crashing through the trees along the river.  Our guide pulled over to the side and before we knew it yellow squirrel monkeys were running around on our boat.  Unfortunately, some of the tour groups feed the monkeys so as soon as they see a tour boat they jump on board and look for food.  They must have been disappointed in us though because we didn’t give them any more than stares.  One of them managed to catch and devour a huge water bug while we were stopped.  Crunch, crunch, crunch!

Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect
Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect

The variety of birds that we saw during the ride was absolutely incredible.  All sorts of herons and ibis plus a few storks and spoonbills as well.  Rounding each corner of the snaking river revealed more and more birds.  Equally plentiful were the caiman sunning themselves along the banks.

By midday we had all had enough of the boat riding.  Hours in a rickety metal seat in the blaring sun was enough and we were happy to return back to the camp.  After a quick lunch we loaded up in another vehicle (this time even more packed) to make the three hour trip to Rurre.

Black Caiman
Black Caiman

All in all, I would say that the Pampas are a great place to visit if you want to see lots of wildlife in a hurry.  By Bolivian standards, the tour was very pricy and it makes me wonder how much money one could save by traveling independently to San Rosa and arranging boat trips from there.  The next post will be my last on Bolivia and then the blog will take a turn for the South Pacific!

The Pampas
The road to the pampas.  A bit dusty, no?
The road to the pampas. A bit dusty, no?
An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.
An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.
Red-headed buzzard with a rainbow
Red-headed buzzard with a rainbow
Cappuccino monkey
Cappuccino monkey
Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)
Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)
A large male (you can tell by the shiny bump on his snout)
A large male (you can tell by the shiny bump on his snout)
Not Jaws but rather a friendly pink river dolphin.
Not Jaws but rather a friendly pink river dolphin.
Oropendola nests
Oropendola nests
Tropical comorant
Tropical comorant
Caracara and friend
Caracara and friend
Caracara
Caracara
Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect
Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect
Yellow squirrel monkey
Yellow squirrel monkey
Monkey on the boat!
Monkey on the boat!
Rufescent Tiger Heron
Rufescent Tiger Heron
Black Caiman
Black Caiman
Caiman
Caiman

Jun 302011
Gray-necked Wood-rail (Aramides cajanea)
Gray-necked Wood-rail (Aramides cajanea)

On our second day of the park tour we left the San Miguel de Bala community and headed up river to Madidi National Park.  After about 30 minutes of motoring we stopped at a small hut along the bank of the river that serves as the park ranger station.  We paid our entry fee (125 Bs, $18) and continued to the point where the Rio Tuiche branches off from the Rio Beni.  Despite the recent flooding there were many shallow areas along the way and it was entertaining to watch our guide fight his way around the rocky spots.

White-Lipped Peccary (Tayassu pecari)
White-Lipped Peccary (Tayassu pecari)

Eventually we pulled up along a rather nondescript section of the river bank and unloaded our bags. Our guide told us that he could smell chanchos (wild pigs) and that we might get to see them.  Sure enough, after we walked the half-mile to the ecolodge we came upon a group of a couple of dozen milling around the camp – talk about stinky!

We spent a total of two nights at the ecolodge in the park.  The accommodations were a little less sophisticated than what we had in the community but let’s face it – we were in the middle of the jungle.  The sleeping area consisted of a building divided into three rooms and the bathroom was a separate hut with running water.

Our fleeting glimpse of a tamarin.  Saddle Backed Tamarin (Saguinus fuscicollis)
Our fleeting glimpse of a tamarin. Saddle Backed Tamarin (Saguinus fuscicollis)

The main activity at the ecolodge was going on hikes through the surrounding jungle.  Over the two days we completed 5 or 6 hikes with our guide who had an uncanny ability to spot, smell and hear animals.  On our first walk through the woods we darted off the path after he heard the high-pitched whistling sound of a saddle-backed tamarin.  We eventually caught up to the small primate but he (or she?) was still really difficult to see high in the canopy.

Poison frog
Poison frog

Even though the monkeys and colorful birds are the most popular sights among tourists I found the smaller wildlife equally interesting.  Everywhere you look there are strange types of insects, lizards, plants and fungi on just about every surface.  Our guide pointed out a nest of bullet ants which are inch-long insects that get their name from the pain associated with their bite.  One of the teenagers at the community mentioned that he had been bit by one and spent the subsequent hours weeping in agonizing pain from the bite.  The Wikipedia article on the subject states “waves of burning, throbbing, all-consuming pain that continues unabated for up to 24 hours.” Note to self: avoid bullet ants.

Leaf-cutter ant superhighway
Leaf-cutter ant superhighway

The famous leaf-cutter ants were good fun to watch.  Spotting them is easy: you just look for the foot-wide river of leaves floating along the ground.  The pieces they carry dwarf the ants themselves.  Did you know that leaf-cutter ants are farmers?  They take the leaves back to their nests where they decompose and serve as fertilizer for a fungus that the ants in turn consume.

We found plenty of feathered friends in the jungle.  The toucans were a favorite and we came across the channel-billed variety on a couple of different occasions.  There were also various birds of prey, woodpeckers, water birds, etc.  Check out the thumbnail pictures below for more birds.

Male howler monkey
Male howler monkey

Monkey-wise the jungle treated us well.  It took about five walks and lots of effort but eventually we found some howler monkeys.  Hearing them is simple since their calls carry for miles through the jungle but getting close enough to see them through the dense foliage is another matter.  On our last day, as if out of spite, a large group of them came straight to the ecolodge and hung out in the canopy eating leaves for a couple of hours.  The males are strikingly large compared to the females.

So that wraps up our visit to Madidi National Park.  We returned to Rurre in the boat on our forth day and worked on booking the next adventure.  Heading the other direction from Rurre it is possible to visit Bolivia’s Pampas or grasslands.  It is an area not too different from the Florida Everglades that is chock full of birds, caiman, and monkeys.  More on that in the next post.

Madidi National Park – Part 2
Bullet ants
Bullet ants
Tayra (Eira barbara) tracks.  This critter sort of looks like an otter.
Tayra (Eira barbara) tracks. This critter sort of looks like an otter.
Our first capybara sighting
Our first capybara sighting
Macaws
Macaws
Orinono geese (neochen jubata)
Orinono geese (neochen jubata)
Gray-necked Wood-rail (Aramides cajanea)
Gray-necked Wood-rail (Aramides cajanea)
White-Lipped Peccary (Tayassu pecari)
White-Lipped Peccary (Tayassu pecari)
Solar panels and papayas
Solar panels and papayas
Fresh papaya juice in the making
Fresh papaya juice in the making
Poison frog
Poison frog
Some sort of turkey
Some sort of turkey
Some of the local plants are traditionally used as skin pigments
Some of the local plants are traditionally used as skin pigments
Vine snake?
Vine snake?
Our fleeting glimpse of a tamarin.  Saddle Backed Tamarin (Saguinus fuscicollis)
Our fleeting glimpse of a tamarin. Saddle Backed Tamarin (Saguinus fuscicollis)
Massive trees!
Massive trees!
Termites: They prefer to travel in these mud tunnels.
Termites: They prefer to travel in these mud tunnels.
Two beetles rolling a ball of mud (dung?)
Two beetles rolling a ball of mud (dung?)
Taking pictures of mushrooms
Taking pictures of mushrooms
Leaf-cutter ant superhighway
Leaf-cutter ant superhighway
Walking Tree - these trees can actually move themselves!
Walking Tree – these trees can actually move themselves!
Owl butterfly
Owl butterfly
Baby tarantula
Baby tarantula
Channel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos vitellinus)
Channel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos vitellinus)
Footprint of a jaguar
Footprint of a jaguar
Female howler monkey
Female howler monkey
Male howler monkey
Male howler monkey
Macaws
Macaws

Jun 132011
Our guide
Our guide

Visiting Madidi National Park is a multi-day process once one makes it to Rurrenabaque.  Wandering the streets of Rurre we passed dozens and dozens of agencies offering tours of the park.  We had read online that it was best to avoid the cheapest options in order to get a responsible company that treats both the park and the animals ethically.  We also heard recommendations for a number of community-run park tours: Chalalán, San Miguel de Bala and one other.

In the end we selected San Miguel de Bala.  While the Chalalán eco-lodge is the best known, it is a long five-hour boat ride from Rurre and was also quite pricey at over $400 per person for a four-day inclusive tour.  San Miguel de Bala’s pricing was lower ($300 per person, 4-day inclusive) and their jungle lodge is only about 2.5 hours by boat from Rurre.  The specific tour that we booked allowed us to stay in their village for the first night (about an hour upriver from Rurre) and then the second and third nights in their jungle lodge off the Tuiche River inside of Madidi National Park.

We departed from Rurre at about 8:30 in the morning on Day 1 and made the quick trip up to San Miguel de Bala.  The lodge was actually a collection of buildings on stilts.  There was a kitchen/dining building and a communal gathering building that were quite close to the banks of the river.  The guest cabins, which each  have their own bathroom, are further up the mountainside.

Typical house in San Miguel de Bala
Typical house in San Miguel de Bala

After we settled in to our nicely appointed bungalow, we headed off with our guide Simon to see his hometown – the village of San Miguel de Bala.  The village is home to about 30 familes of Tacana Indians and is a short walk down the river from the eco-lodge.  Simon showed us his childhood home, the homes of some of his siblings as well as the village’s church and school.  At one point we stopped to squeeze some sugar cane juice which we mixed with fresh lime – exceptionally tasty!

Squeezing sugarcane
Squeezing sugarcane

At the end of the village tour, one of the community’s dugout canoes picked us up at the village and took us to the eco-lodge for lunch.  The tourist facilities are quite large at San Miguel – I think they can host upwards of 40 or 50 guests but that day Amy and I were the only ones.  Following proper Latin American procedure, we climbed  in the hammocks for a short siesta after lunch.

Siesta time!
Siesta time!

The afternoon tour was to a rock canyon that is about 20 minutes down the river.  The canyon was only about 2-3 feet wide and was filled with bats.  Between the bats, the worms and the huge spiders it was definitely pretty high on my list of creepy-crawly places!  We also got to see some nice birds in the boat along the way.  All in all, a good first day on the tour!

King Vulture
King Vulture


Madidi National Park – Part 1
The booming metropolis of Rurrenabaque
The booming metropolis of Rurrenabaque
Setting out on the 90-minute boat ride from Rurre to San Miguel de Bala
Setting out on the 90-minute boat ride from Rurre to San Miguel de Bala
Jumping fish
Jumping fish
Leaf cutter ants
Leaf cutter ants
The center of the village: football field, school, church.
The center of the village: football field, school, church.
Typical house in San Miguel de Bala
Typical house in San Miguel de Bala
Squeezing sugarcane
Squeezing sugarcane
Refreshing sugarcane with lime.
Refreshing sugarcane with lime.
Rigging a trap to smash some chanchos (wild pigs)
Rigging a trap to smash some chanchos (wild pigs)
Siesta time!
Siesta time!
The river is thick with fish.
The river is thick with fish.
A spider for ever rock along the river bank.
A spider for ever rock along the river bank.
Buzzards and their king fighting over a couple catfish carcasses
Buzzards and their king fighting over a couple catfish carcasses
King Vulture
King Vulture
I am a giant (with awesome boots)!
I am a giant (with awesome boots)!
The entrance to the rock canyon
The entrance to the rock canyon
Bats
Bats
Our guide
Our guide


Flying to RBQ

Bolivia Comments Off
Jun 082011

When I told a good friend of mine that I flew to RBQ, his first comment was “Isn’t that the name of a sandwich at Arby’s?”  Indeed, it is the name of a sandwich at Arby’s (the Arby-Q) but RBQ is also the airport code for Rurrenabque, Bolivia – Bolivia’s gateway to the Amazon Basin.

Rurre is about 150 miles from La Paz as the condor flies and there are two ways to get there.  Option 1 is a long bus ride that takes 18 hours in the best of cases and often as much as 30, and as a bonus, having a ticket doesn’t necessarily mean you will have a seat.  Option 2 is a short 40 minute flight.  Advice from other travelers was unanimous: take the plane!

For about $150 with picked up round-trip tickets with Amaszonas (Z8 to us airline nerds) in their Fairchild Metroliner 23 which makes the trip to RBQ seven times daily.  Check-in at La Paz’s El Alto International Airport was much like the process for any other airline at any other airport in the world.  ID check, a few questions about baggage and the selection of seats.  After paying the departure tax we headed through security for a efficient-and-respectful (read: outside-of-the-USA) security check.

Nice tow for the powercart!
Nice tow for the powercart!

Our aircraft arrived about 30 minutes late and the ground crew set to work on the turn.  Much of this was fairly normal, although, I was entertained when they pulled the power cart up with what appeared to be rust-colored late 80′s Fiat Uno.  Refueling, a walk-around by the new crew, and baggage loading took all of twenty minutes and soon after they called us for boarding.

We had seats in row 9, the very last row of the 19-seat aircraft.   The last row is actually three seats across but the middle was unoccupied so all together we had 18 passengers, a captain and a first officer.  After everyone was onboard the captain yelled something to the passengers in the first few rows.  It may have been about the huge backpack in Mr. Seat 2A’s lap or it could have been a safety announcement, I am not sure which.  Either way, it must not have been too important because a few seconds later the engines started up and we started to roll.

The takeoff roll down runway 28L seemed exceptionally long but I guess most of that was due to the thin hot air at El Alto’s ridiculous 13,400ft (I guess that means most jumbos have to de-pressurize before landing here!).  Once airborne, we climbed to the west for a good while and caught a glimpse of Lake Titicaca before turning back to the east to shoot the pass through the Cordillera Real.  The views through the desolate and glaciated mountains was spectacular though the ride was quite bumpy.  Mere minutes after passing the Cordillera, it was as if the Earth just fell away as the Altiplano gave way to the Amazon Basin.

Just before arrival in Rurre we passed over a couple smaller mountain ranges covered in jungle as well as the town of Rurre itself.  Touchdown on RBQ’s runway 32 was nice and smooth and I got to experience my first dirt taxiway a few moments later (complete with horses roaming about).

Turning on to the downwind leg.
Turning on to the downwind leg.
RBQ
RBQ

Our return trip, one week later, was much the same although the weather was rainy and dreary and we suffered a 3-hour delay.  I am happy to report that the open-air RBQ terminal has a proper complement of stray dogs, a detached eatery and the most outhouse-like bathrooms I have experienced at any commercial air terminal.  My biggest regret is that I didn’t ask the guy running the show if I could come up into the small control tower to get a picture!

RBQ toilet and eatery
RBQ toilet and eatery

When it was time for us to go, we found out that we had to load ourselves back in the bus that had brought us from downtown Rurre.  The dirt taxiway we had used the week before was impassable thanks to the soggy ground so the bus took us out on the runway to meet the plane.  Inboard passengers got to stand in the drizzle while their bags were unloaded then we traded places with them.  Amaszonas doesn’t refuel at RBQ (they carry enough fuel from La Paz) so the turn was nice and speedy, I bet the plane was on the ground less than 15 minutes!

Aircraft servicing on the runway (due to muddy taxiways)
Aircraft servicing on the runway (due to muddy taxiways)

The 40-minute flight back was surprisingly smooth considering the violent thunderstorms we had had the night before.  My window fogged over pretty badly thanks to the humidity so I did the best I could with the photos.  The view of the Cordillera was again spectacular and before we knew it we were touching down on 10R at El Alto.  All in all a great trip, although, I will admit I was a bit nervous flying a rural Bolivian airline!  Next up on the blog will be our tour through Madidi National Park.  More photos below, just click the thumbnails.

LPB-RBQ
Inbound aircraft arriving at El Alto Airport
Inbound aircraft arriving at El Alto Airport
Nice tow for the powercart!
Nice tow for the powercart!
All loaded up!
All loaded up!
Turning on to the downwind leg.
Turning on to the downwind leg.
Passing Rurrenabaque and the Beni River
Passing Rurrenabaque and the Beni River
On bumpy final into RBQ.
On bumpy final into RBQ.
RBQ
RBQ
Very happy to be on the ground.
Very happy to be on the ground.
The return trip started on a rainy day after a three-hour delay
The return trip started on a rainy day after a three-hour delay
Hand-written boarding passes!
Hand-written boarding passes!
One of the competing carriers.
One of the competing carriers.
RBQ toilet and eatery
RBQ toilet and eatery
Aircraft servicing on the runway (due to muddy taxiways)
Aircraft servicing on the runway (due to muddy taxiways)
Seat controls (luz, not working)
Seat controls (luz, not working)
Parking next to some classics
Parking next to some classics
Happy survivors!
Happy survivors!

Nothing terribly exciting to report about La Paz.  We arrived by overnight bus from Sucre, a ride which was surprisingly comfortable given it was on a Bolivian bus.  We looked into flying but the prices were high and the day we wanted to leave were sold out.  The 12-hours on a discarded Argentine bus (full-cama) went by quickly enough.

Houses coat the walls of the valley
Houses coat the walls of the valley

We stayed at a hotel called Cruz de Andes that smack bang in the middle of the tourist ghetto and co-located with the Mercado de las Brujas (Witch’s Market).  Having to walk past dried llama feetuses to get to/from our room was a bit annoying but the location was convenient enough.  On the morning of our arrival we dropped by the Museo de Coca which addresses the controversial plant.  Coca has been cultivated traditional in this part of the Andes for thousands of years and is usually chewed or brewed in a tea by the locals.  This was all well and good until somewhere figured out how to refine it into cocaine (and other drugs).  Nowadays there is a heated controversy whether the Andean people should be allowed to continue their tradition.

Big mean Dodge minibuses.
Big mean Dodge minibuses.

Walking around in La Paz is a pain!  Aside from the annoying hills and altitude, the sidewalks are completely cluttered with all sorts of wares.  Blankets, hats, fried nuts, fruits, etc.  There is very little room to move around.  Crossing streets is also a bit of a challenge.  Few streets in La Paz have traffic signals so most intersections are a free-for-all.  The minibuses, micros, taxis and common cars all continuous fight for right away and I can assure you that pedestrians are not a high priority for any of them.  Entertainingly, along the main thoroughfare in La Paz one can see crossing guards that the city has hired to help people cross the road – they even make them wear zebra costumes!

Crossing guards / zebras
Crossing guards / zebras

Well that is about it for La Paz.  Like I said, nothing all that special – just a big city.  After La Paz we took a trip to Rurrenabaque to see Madidi National Park.  The photos are quite good we think (hint hint: monkeys and toucans!) so stay tuned!

La Paz, Bolivia
The witch's market near where we stayed.  Plenty of dried llama fetuses if you are looking for one.
The witch’s market near where we stayed. Plenty of dried llama fetuses if you are looking for one.
Point-to-point wiring.  Not as bad as some I've seen but a commendable effort.
Point-to-point wiring. Not as bad as some I’ve seen but a commendable effort.
Houses coat the walls of the valley
Houses coat the walls of the valley
Big mean Dodge minibuses.
Big mean Dodge minibuses.
Crossing guards / zebras
Crossing guards / zebras
Reject Bluebird school buses also roam the streets.
Reject Bluebird school buses also roam the streets.
A friendly ice cream dealer at Plaza Avaroa
A friendly ice cream dealer at Plaza Avaroa
Not the best, but not bad.
Not the best, but not bad.
Illimani looms over La Paz - 21,122 ft
Illimani looms over La Paz – 21,122 ft
Old ladies at kiosks sell cheap ($0.14) soda all over La Paz.
Old ladies at kiosks sell cheap ($0.14) soda all over La Paz.

Farm machinery is very uncommon in Bolivia.
Farm machinery is very uncommon in Bolivia.

Leaving the thin air in Potosí was a welcome change.  The bus ride to Sucre was an easy three hour affair that took us through some scenic Bolivian countryside.  Since we started our trip in the mostly desert-like southwest, this was the first glipse we had at Bolivian agriculture.  The small fields of wheat and corn were familiar sights but what was amazing was the lack of farm machinery.  I can’t recall any other time that I have seen people out harvesting wheat by hand.  Bolivia may be a poor country but the land is fertile and the people certainly work hard.

Visiting the town’s market was good fun.  Fruit juices are very popular in Sucre and the market’s selection did not disappoint.  The market also had lots of old ladies selling every type of potato you can imagine and then some.  Did you know that there are literally hundreds of types of potatoes in Bolivia and Peru?

Japanese buses!  This one was from Shinjo - near Sendai.
Japanese buses! This one was from Shinjo – near Sendai.

The narrow streets of Sucre and clogged with small buses, many of which are surplus from Japan.  Most of them still have the original paintjob complete with Japanese lettering, phone numbers, etc.  What I haven’t been able to figure out is how they convert them from left-hand drive to right-hand drive while still maintaining the original paint scheme.

Sucre, Bolivia
Sucre, Bolivia

Amy had her turn with food poisoning one of the days we were in Sucre.  That was the day we had planned to go to Tarabuco, a small village about an hour away, to see the once-weekly market.  I headed out there on my own and decided to use the local transport (shared vans) instead of the tourist bus.  It was a cheap ride but the legroom was painfully limited!  On the way home I talked my way onto a tourist bus for the price of shared van.  Go me.

The market was quite touristy but it was still fun to have a look around.  I ran into our Dutch friends (from the salt flat tour) in Tarabuco and we grabbed some lunch.  My soup had a nice surprise!

Why hello there Mr. Chicken.
Why hello there Mr. Chicken.
Sucre, Bolivia
Farm machinery is very uncommon in Bolivia.
Farm machinery is very uncommon in Bolivia.
The courtyard at our guesthouse in Sucre.
The courtyard at our guesthouse in Sucre.
Bolivia's shield is carried by the mighty condor!
Bolivia’s shield is carried by the mighty condor!
Plenty of fruit juice vendors to choose from!
Plenty of fruit juice vendors to choose from!
Japanese buses!  This one was from Shinjo - near Sendai.
Japanese buses! This one was from Shinjo – near Sendai.
Sucre, Bolivia
Sucre, Bolivia
Generous legroom on the one-hour ride to Tarabuco
Generous legroom on the one-hour ride to Tarabuco
Coca leaf vendor
Coca leaf vendor
A statue of an indigenous person tearing the heart out of a Spaniard.
A statue of an indigenous person tearing the heart out of a Spaniard.
Traffic in Tarabuco
Traffic in Tarabuco
Why hello there Mr. Chicken.
Why hello there Mr. Chicken.
Foosball in the street, a common sight in Bolivia
Foosball in the street, a common sight in Bolivia
Some traditional snacks at Salón de Té: Las Delicias
Some traditional snacks at Salón de Té: Las Delicias

Potosí, Bolivia

Bolivia Comments Off
Jun 022011

Once our salt flat tour wrapped up, the primary mission was to get out of Uyuni.  In all honesty, the town is a trashy dump that seems to exist solely for tourism (although it was once an important railroad interchange).  There were two highlights of our brief stop in Uyuni: 1) having a pizza at Minuteman Pizza (owned by a guy from Amherst, MA) 2) leaving town.  It was raining when we woke up but fortunately it was only a five minute slog over to the bus.

The snowy mountains outside of Uyuni
The snowy mountains outside of Uyuni

The bus was not exactly a fancy double-decker Argentine bus but it was fairly new and the seats were in good shape.  It lacked a video system which meant we wouldn’t have to endure hours of terrible movies.  Of course, there were other factors that made the six hour ride a bit suboptimal.

Climbing out of Uyuni it didn’t take long until the drizzle of rain turned into snow.  We passed Pulacayo, a once-mighty mining town and a few other small villages high in the mountains.  I had hoped that the bus would warm up after we got moving but it just kept getting colder and colder.  The weather outside toggled between rain and snow as we climbed and descended through the mountains.

Our rest stop on the way from Uyuni to Potosí.  Snow/rain/slush and some very meager food options.
Our rest stop on the way from Uyuni to Potosí. Snow/rain/slush and some very meager food options.

About halfway through the trip we stopped at some dumpy settlement high in the mountains.  There were a couple of adobe buildings and a small shack for the pigs that lived there.  Conditions were cold and snowy and even the pigs couldn’t be bothered to come out to see us.

Is this really South America?
Is this really South America?

Closer to Potosí the weather got even worse.  Heavy snow and, being in Bolivia, I wasn’t exactly expecting to see battalions of snow plows.  Sure enough, on a few of the passes we came to a complete halt while the motorists attempted to clear the road with shovels.  The music track for this comedy was dueling music between passengers: one guy in the back with a boombox versus two guys in the front with cellphones.  A fun ride indeed!  Fortunately, we made it safely to Potosí and to a nice hotel in the center of the old city.

Potosí was once one of the most productive silver mines in the world.  Most of Spain’s silver came from Cerro Rico, the mountain adjacent to town.  Apparently hundreds of thousands of people have died in dangerous mines.  The most popular tourist activity in Potosí is a visit to these mines which are now run by local cooperatives.  We had heard mixed things about the mine tours and decided against a visit.

Potosí, Bolivia - Cerro Rico, the silver mountain at left.
Potosí, Bolivia – Cerro Rico, the silver mountain at left.

Despite skipping the mines, we still got a good taste of what the Spaniards really wanted with the town.  We visited the Casa de la Moneda, Spain’s former coin mint, and saw everything from the crude machinery used to make the coins to the horrific conditions that both people and animals were forced to work.

Next up on the blog, Sucre, Bolivia’s white city.

Potosí, Bolivia
The snowy mountains outside of Uyuni
The snowy mountains outside of Uyuni
Our rest stop on the way from Uyuni to Potosí.  Snow/rain/slush and some very meager food options.
Our rest stop on the way from Uyuni to Potosí. Snow/rain/slush and some very meager food options.
Is this really South America?
Is this really South America?
The central market in Potosí
The central market in Potosí
Buying some salteñas (the local take on empanadas)
Buying some salteñas (the local take on empanadas)
Rotary-dial pay phone.  Only in Bolivia.
Rotary-dial pay phone. Only in Bolivia.
Potosí, Bolivia - Cerro Rico, the silver mountain at left.
Potosí, Bolivia – Cerro Rico, the silver mountain at left.
Our guesthouse in Potosí...
Our guesthouse in Potosí…
...and the courtyard inside.
…and the courtyard inside.
Beer is nice and fizzy at 4,060m!
Beer is nice and fizzy at 4,060m!
Buying some fresh OJ
Buying some fresh OJ

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