Springbok
Springbok
Kudu
Kudu
A seat AND a bed!
A seat AND a bed!
Nov 072011
Are those donuts?
Are those donuts?

We decided to only make two major stops in Cambodia since our visit was a mere ten days in length. Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city at 140,000 was our second destination. The city has some nice colonial buildings but the main attractions lie a short tuktuk ride outside of town.

The fastest way to Battambang from Siem Reap is to take the bus. A more interesting but slower and more expensive way of making the trip is by boat. The trip started with a van transfer from our guesthouse in Siem Reap to the boat docks on the shore of Tonlé Sap Lake. I think this part of the trip is usually pretty fast but we had to forge some pretty deep door-seal-testing flood waters along the way. Ironically, the flood waters also cut our boat journey short at the other end of the trip as our boat was unable to pass under some of the bridges near Battambang.

At some point on the river, we broke down. I think this is par for the course on this ride; the guidebooks warn about it. This time one of the steering cables broke but our crew fashioned a splice out of a pair of knock-off vice grips. The breakdown was actually nice because for once we could enjoy the peace and quiet of the river. Best I could tell, our boat had a very minimal exhaust system – straight pipes seem likely. All I know is that it was really loud whenever the engine was running!

Eventually we entered the delta of the Stung Sangker river and passed a number of floating villages. They are quite a remarkable sight. Pretty much everything: houses, gas stations, stores and schools are floating. Some of the houses even had floating pigpens and chicken coups. The only permanent structures I could spot were the numerous cellular phone towers anchored to cement pylons.

Once we arrived in Battambang we tuktuked into town (an extra 8 kilometers thanks to the flooding) and found a nice room at the Lux Guesthouse for $18 per night. Surprisingly enough, we heard that Battambang had some good vegetarian restaurants. Starving from the boat ride we immediately went and checked one of them out (Mercy House).  Faux meat dishes aplenty on the menu and those proved to be one of my favorite things to eat during our three night stay in Battambang. Lunch or dinner for two people came to $5 on average. Great food at a cheap price.

Loaded up in the tuk tuk and ready for a day of touring
Loaded up in the tuk tuk and ready for a day of touring

The big thing to do when visiting Battambang is a tuktuk tour of the surrounding countryside. The tuktuk driver who picked us up at the boat seemed like a nice guy but despite emailing and calling I couldn’t reach him to scheduled a tour. Instead, we ended up with one of the guys who works for our guesthouse.

When you come across another train, one of them has to be dismantled.
When you come across another train, one of them has to be dismantled.

One of the first stops on our day tour was the bamboo train. Although there are plans to revitalize it, the Cambodia railroad system is currently defunct. This hasn’t stopped the locals from continuing to make use of the tracks. Makeshift bamboo carts with small engines are used to transport people, goods and tourist along the tracks in this part of the country. The carts are easy to disassemble so anytime another “train” is encountered the one with the lighter load must yield the way. Apparently these were also used when real trains were plying the tracks!

We blasted a few kilometers down the tracks at what felt like a very high rate of speed. The train tends to scare the insects living in the grass around the rails so you are constantly pelted with grasshoppers and the like along the way. Amy wasn’t too fond of this!

The steps leading to Phnom Banan
The steps leading to Phnom Banan

Next we drove to Phnom Banan, a temple perched nicely on a hill surrounded in pancake-flat brilliantly green rice fields. From the dropoff point it is a 358-step climb to the temple which was a good way to work up a sweat in the Cambodian heat.

The final stop of the tour was at the killing caves of Phnom Sampeau. The Khmer Rogue dumped hundreds of bodies in these caves and nowadays the site has been converted into a memorial. After the climb to Phnom Banan we weren’t too keen on climbing another mountain so we hopped on the back of a couple of motorcycles.

I spent quite some time chatting with one of the motorcycle drivers. He was a young kid, maybe in his late teens and his goal was to become a tuktuk driver like the one who was showing us around that day. He explained that it is a very highly paying job – they earn approximately $15 for a day tour. They usually spend one day searching for a customer and then spend the next touring with them; at least that is the way it can be in high season. It doesn’t sound like much money but in Cambodia it is way above the average.

He told me that he had to leave school prematurely in order to help his parents run their restaurant near the killing caves. He takes tourists up the mountains as a side job to help support the family and to save for a tuktuk. What struck me about this guy was his mastery of English – much better than most Cambodians we met during our visit. I complimented him on it and we left him a nice tip for showing us around the caves. I really hope things work out for him.

On our third morning in Battambang we rose early and schlepped our bags over to the bus station to catch a Bangkok-bound bus. Actually, there was no direct bus to Bangkok but we didn’t know that until we were dumped in some obscure town along the road to Poipet. Watching the morning “rush hour” while we waited for our second bus of the day was good entertainment.

A textbook example of proper horsecart weight-and-balance technique.
A textbook example of proper horsecart weight-and-balance technique.

At the border things moved very smoothly for us but some of our fellow backpackers apparently had issues leaving Cambodia. Something about their entry visas not being legit – shocking. I think we were waiting on the Thai side of the border for a good hour before they found their way to the minivan.  Then we had to wait longer for them to get food because they were starving.  Classic.  In retrospect, we should have just bought a bus ticket to the border and then a second ticket from the border to Bangkok. Less wait and less hassle!

Spicy green papaya salad
Spicy green papaya salad

We had no idea if it would be problematic to get out of Cambodia so we had padded our schedule with an extra day. This left us time to gorge ourselves on more Thai food and run an important errand: buying winter clothing. Next stop, Mongolia.

Battambang, Cambodia
Floating gas station
Floating gas station
A floating flood vendor
A floating flood vendor
Sunset with a thunderstorm
Sunset with a thunderstorm
Battambang's central market
Battambang’s central market
Three kids on a bike in a torrential rainstorm.
Three kids on a bike in a torrential rainstorm.
Loaded up in the tuk tuk and ready for a day of touring
Loaded up in the tuk tuk and ready for a day of touring
Are those donuts?
Are those donuts?
Riding the bamboo train
Riding the bamboo train
When you come across another train, one of them has to be dismantled.
When you come across another train, one of them has to be dismantled.
I hope this bridge had a few more wooden ties back when real trains came through.
I hope this bridge had a few more wooden ties back when real trains came through.
Bamboo lever is used to slide the engine and make the belt taught.
Bamboo lever is used to slide the engine and make the belt taught.
Cane juice! One of my favorites.
Cane juice! One of my favorites.
The steps leading to Phnom Banan
The steps leading to Phnom Banan
A good reason to stay on the path.
A good reason to stay on the path.
One of the killing caves where the Khmer Rouge disposed of countless people.
One of the killing caves where the Khmer Rouge disposed of countless people.
Checking out some abandoned German and Russian built tanks.
Checking out some abandoned German and Russian built tanks.
Cambodian gas station (soda bottles filled with gas)
Cambodian gas station (soda bottles filled with gas)
Old Pepsi factory that wa abandoned when the Khmer Rouge took over.  Oddly, the lawn is still maintained.
Old Pepsi factory that wa abandoned when the Khmer Rouge took over. Oddly, the lawn is still maintained.
Chicken is always on the menu in SE Asia
Chicken is always on the menu in SE Asia
The horse quite nearly took to the air as the trailer was loaded. I'm glad this guy isn't loading cargo into the jumbos at BKK.
The horse quite nearly took to the air as the trailer was loaded. I’m glad this guy isn’t loading cargo into the jumbos at BKK.
A textbook example of proper horsecart weight-and-balance technique.
A textbook example of proper horsecart weight-and-balance technique.
Thailand has some great vegetarian options
Thailand has some great vegetarian options
Sweet dessert made of sticky rice, coconut milk and sweet beans.
Sweet dessert made of sticky rice, coconut milk and sweet beans.
Spicy green papaya salad
Spicy green papaya salad

Aug 262011

Once we finished our diving and snorkeling at Sibuan, we headed back to Semporna and bought tickets for the overnight bus to Kota Kinabalu.  Completing three dives that same day left me exhausted and I was certain that I would sleep like a baby regardless of the conditions on the overnight bus ride.  Naturally, I was proven wrong.

Yay, we get to travel in First Class tonight!
Yay, we get to travel in First Class tonight!

The bus left at around 7:30PM and by 9PM the air conditioning had stopped functioning.  Air con buses are great but air con buses with a broken AC unit are ten times worse than a bus without AC because the windows can’t be opened!  We spent the next few hours tossing and turning along with the other 47 people on the bus.  Around midnight we came screeching to a halt at some nondescript roadside eatery out in the middle of Sabah’s palm plantations.  Half the passengers and the drivers jumped out to take a break.  Since neither of us was managing any sleep in the sauna-on-wheels, we stretched our legs.  What happened next was quite unexpected.

Just as we were about to leave, the ticket guy from our bus came over and said we should move to the other bus.  Nobody else was moving but he said we could go “same seats, same seats” he proclaimed.  I double, no, triple-checked to make sure the bus was also headed to KK.  Indeed it was and he was just moving us because there happened to be open seats on their other bus (from Lahad Datu, another east coast city, I presume) and the AC was working.  I was mighty impressed by this gesture!

We arrived in KK at some horrid hour…3:30AM or thereabouts.   The second bus was much more comfortable from a temperature standpoint but the legroom was painfully minimal.  Making matters worse was the fact that they guy behind me wouldn’t let me recline my seat at all.  No sleep for me that night but at least we were out of Semporna!  Our hotel in KK was completely locked down so we had our choice between a 24-hour KFC and a 24-hour McDonalds.  We mooched McD’s wifi and enjoyed a couple of beverages for the next three hours.

Ferry boat for Kota Kinabalu to Pulau Labuan
Ferry boat for Kota Kinabalu to Pulau Labuan

Brunei, one of SE Asia’s more obscure countries, was our next destination on the trip.  Brunei has two small slivers of land on the north coast of Borneo and is home to about 400,000 people.  Huge amounts of oil have been discovered in Brunei and this has developed the country and made it one of the richest in the region.  Apparently, it is possible to get to Brunei overland from Sabah but it is a huge pain.  The easier route, and the one we selected, was to take a boat from KK to Pulau Labuan and then switch to a second boat bound for Brunei.  We left KK a little late in the day which unfortunately forced us to overnight in Labuan.  We found some decent Indian food there but there was little else of note.

The next day we made the quick one-hour crossing to Brunei’s port of Muara and caught a bus from there to the country’s capital – Bandar Seri Begawan.  Our immediate impression of Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB, for short) was that it is strikingly similar to Singapore.  Not in the sense of there being huge glamorous high-rises and crazy shopping malls – there isn’t anything of the sort, but rather, in the sense that the place was impeccably clean and well organized.  We just barely beat a tropical rainstorm to the hotel.

Downpour on arrival in BSB
Downpour on arrival in BSB

After settling into our room we walked to the city center and hired a boatman for a quick spin through Kampong Ayer, the nearby stilt village which many call the “Venice of the East.”  Apparently, Kampong Ayer is one of the largest stilt villages in the world and the nickname makes sense to me.  It is a bewildering labyrinth of canals and wooden houses and shops all strung together by wooden walkways.  What makes it particularly interesting is how the government has officially embraced its existence.  Our boatman kept pointing out schools, police stations, and even fire departments that were built into the village.  Additionally, many of the houses have drinking water and city sewage service.  Very cool!

From the boat, we also got a brief glimpse of the Sultan’s enormous palace which has 1,788 rooms!  It’s too bad we weren’t visiting Brunei a little later in the month because at the end of Ramadan, the palace opens for everyone to visit and feast.  One of the locals we met later in our stay told us that he goes with his family each and every year and that it is a party not to be forgotten.  If you are on Borneo for Ramadan, make it a point to be there – that was the message.

The Sultan's palace
The Sultan’s palace

The main attractions in BSB include the strikingly beautiful Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and the Royal Regalia Museum.  The pictures of the mosque speak for themselves, it is an incredible structure and it is unfortunate that we weren’t able to visit the interior (closed to visitors during Ramadan).  The Royal Regalia museum was also quite interesting.  Photos weren’t allowed inside but you can imagine what is inside: all sorts of fancy royal clothing, huge parade chariots pulled by a 30 men, and of course the many gifts the Sultan has received from other governments.

On our second day in BSB we rode on a speedboat to Brunei’s Temburong district which is isolated from the rest of the country by a small piece of Malaysia (Sarawak).  The Lonely Planet highly recommended the ride even if we didn’t have a specific reason to go to Temburong and they were right.  The boat held about 20 people but had two 150-hp outboards strapped to the back.  Jetting through the narrow channels through the mangroves was lots of fun!  Once in Temburong we wandered a bit and then grabbed some cold drinks at a restaurant before heading back to BSB.

On the ride back, and I’m sorry I wasn’t fast enough to get a photo, we saw a huge crocodile sunbathing along the bank.  Now as a Floridian I feel that I am relatively well-qualified to make statements about the size of water-borne reptiles.  When I say huge, I mean HUGE.  This thing was far larger than the largest American alligators that I’ve seen back home.  The Wikipedia article on the matter informs me that water crocs can reach 20ft in length and top the scales at 2,000lbs – it also provides some scary narrative about their feeding behavior.  I believe every bit of it and I am sure glad that we weren’t kayaking the mangroves!

Seafood noodles
Seafood noodles

We found some delicious food in Brunei.  Much like Singapore, the local cuisine is a mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian foods.  As we often do in our travels, we quickly found a convenient and favorite place to eat and we returned for a number of meals over the course of our three day visit.  The roti canai cooked up at this place for breakfast was mighty tasty and we also had some excellent noodle dishes for dinner.

Only in Brunei can one find a control tower with gold all over it!
Only in Brunei can one find a control tower with gold all over it!

BSB’s airport is one of only two on Borneo that is served by Star Alliance airline (on their own metal, at least) and available for award redemption.  Since flying out of Kota Kinabalu would have involved backtracking to Seoul, we booked two business class seats on Singapore Airline’s twice-weekly widebody service from Brunei.

Massage chairs at Royal Brunei's Sky Lounge
Massage chairs at Royal Brunei’s Sky Lounge

Brunei’s international airports departure lounge has vaulted ceilings and some small koi ponds scattered about that gave it a slightly Changi Airport (SIN) feel.  After thoroughly exploring the curbside section of the airport, including the very nice rooftop “waving gallery” that has tarmac views, we headed through passport control to get showers in Royal Brunei’s Sky Lounge and have a few snacks.  The flight to Singapore was a short 2-hour hop and we had a good view of the Sultan’s palace shortly after takeoff.

Brunei
Yay, we get to travel in First Class tonight!
Yay, we get to travel in First Class tonight!
Ferry boat for Kota Kinabalu to Pulau Labuan
Ferry boat for Kota Kinabalu to Pulau Labuan
Downpour on arrival in BSB
Downpour on arrival in BSB
Fancy hotel room in Brunei
Fancy hotel room in Brunei
The direction to Mecca.
The direction to Mecca.
This is what happens when you go from an aircon building into the humid outdoors in BSB.
This is what happens when you go from an aircon building into the humid outdoors in BSB.
The Sultan's palace
The Sultan’s palace
Central BSB
Central BSB
Our ride to the Temburong district of Brunei
Our ride to the Temburong district of Brunei
Ginger drink
Ginger drink
Seafood noodles
Seafood noodles
Tasty roti canai for breakfast
Tasty roti canai for breakfast
Pizza Hut, even in Brunei!
Pizza Hut, even in Brunei!
Downtown BSB
Downtown BSB
There is a great observation deck on top of BSB airport.
There is a great observation deck on top of BSB airport.
Only in Brunei can one find a control tower with gold all over it!
Only in Brunei can one find a control tower with gold all over it!
Coi at Brunei's Airport - it's like a minature Changi airport!
Coi at Brunei’s Airport – it’s like a minature Changi airport!
Our plane for Singapore
Our plane for Singapore
Massage chairs at Royal Brunei's Sky Lounge
Massage chairs at Royal Brunei’s Sky Lounge
The Sultan's Palace
The Sultan’s Palace

Aug 242011
Pulau Sibuan
Pulau Sibuan

At the far eastern end of Sabah lies the town of Semporna, the gateway to Tun Sakaran Marine Park.  The park, which includes Sipadan Island, is widely regarded as one of the world’s best dive sites.  We arrived in Semporna on a hot and humid afternoon and without any specific plans as to how to visit the park or where to stay.  Finding some accommodations was pretty easy even through the tourist season is in full swing.  After some food, we dropped off our laundry at the laundromat and went shopping for a dive operator.

Singamata Reef Resort
Singamata Reef Resort

Most of the dive outfits have accommodations on islands in the park that you are allowed to use if you book dives and/or courses.  Mabul Island is the most popular and the most highly recommended places to stay (at least in the budget category) were booked up.  We came across a place called Singamata Reef Resort that seemed to be a nice alternative.  Instead of being on one of the islands in the park, it is located on a reef a few miles offshore from Semporna.  Their prices were reasonable (US$33 per person per night, full-board provided) and they still operated dive trips to the park.

We wanted to escape Semporna the very next day but our laundry wasn’t ready yet so we were forced to stay another night.  Laundry places in Malaysia are full service – you can’t wash your clothes yourself even if you want to!  Semporna isn’t exactly the nicest of Malaysian towns so we mostly hid out in our hotel room (with AC!).  The main activity for that day was a lunchtime visit to the open-air food market.  Semporna itself didn’t seem to have all that many restaurant options.  Maybe that was because it was Ramadan, or maybe that is because we didn’t know where to look.

Murtabak vendors
Murtabak vendors

The food-market had quite a bit to offer.  There were numerous drink vendors whose beverage selection covered every color of the rainbow.  There were also quite a few vendors with grills covered in fish and chicken.  Personally, I ended up grabbing a vegetable murtabak which is a stuffed roti served with curry.  Roti is a flakey flatbread made of flour and ghee that is cooked on a grill.  I also noticed that quite a few stalls were cooking up large pancake-looking things that were filled with peanuts.  To drink, I got a plastic bag of super sweet orange juice.  The problem with the market was that there was no place to sit and enjoy your food – it was purely a takeaway operation so we headed back to the hotel room and I very carefully tried to eat my murtabak and curry without spilling it all over the place.  A tasty lunch for about a buck.

Vegetable murtabak with curry
Vegetable murtabak with curry

The next morning we reported in at the Singamata office at 8am for the morning boat departure.  The ride out to the resort was less than 10 minutes and they quickly showed us to our room in one of the stilt-houses.  Amy and I chatted with a Swiss couple who were staying a few doors down and we learned that they were both dive masters staying at the resort.  For those unfamiliar, the basic setup for dive masters is they get free housing in exchange for leading dive trips.  It’s a good way to do lots of diving on the cheap but of course you have to pay for all those certifications first!

The view  out our room's door.  Qualifies as waterfront I would say!
The view out our room’s door. Qualifies as waterfront I would say!

At Singamata there are a couple of options for diving.  First you can just go diving at the “house reef” which is literally just below the resort.  These dives cost RM80 (US$27) and can be made more or less spontaneously, subject to dive master availability.  The second option is one of the full-day island trips where you get three dives, lunch, and boat transfer for RM300 (US$100).

Nudi branch
Nudi branch

Since it had been many years since my last dive, the dive masters recommended a check-out dive for the house reef that afternoon.  Four of us went that day, two dive masters (Eric and Nat from Switzerland) and another diver (also Swiss, I think).  We dove to about 12m and had a poke around for 41 minutes.  The coral in that area isn’t all that spectacular but as a “muck diving” site there was lots to see – mainly small creatures like shrimp and colorful nudibranch.  One of the dive masters has an underwater camera so I am happy to be able to share some photos from the dive.  Given our proximity to the town, visibility was quite good – around 10m.

On the second day we had hoped to do a three-dive day trip.  The weather overnight was absolutely miserable.  Violent thunderstorms, strong winds and plenty of rain.  When we rose it was still drizzling and windy and I didn’t feel comfortable going out to one of the islands, particular if lightning was a possibility.  We stayed behind and I completed another house dive late in the afternoon.

Pulau Sibuan
Pulau Sibuan

On day 3 the weather improved and we took the full-day trip to Sibuan Island.  The boat ride out was about 40 minutes and we completed two of the dives before the lunch break.  Amy split her time between snorkeling off the beach of the island and snorkeling from the boat when it took us to dive sights.  For me, the best experience of the day was getting to swim alongside of a huge green sea turtle (3-4 feet across the shell) while he/she grazed on the bottom.  Amy also managed to spot a sea turtle while snorkeling.  Other highlights of that day included a black frog fish which I never would have spotted had it not been for my able dive master.  Unfortunately the dive master didn’t bring the camera along on the day trip so I don’t have pictures of my turtle encounter.  Visibility for all three of the dives that day was quite good, at least 15m!

In the end we were very happy with the Singamata Reef Resort.  The food was nice, the rooms were clean and the location was a welcome change from the stifling heat in Semporna.  It’s too bad about the weather on day 2 as I gladly would have done another full-day dive trip. but we had to move on.  I am glad to get back to the diving hobby and hopefully this trip will carry us through other good diving locations in the coming months.

SCUBA at Sibuan Island
Semporna's food market
Semporna’s food market
I was intrigued by these peanut pancake things so I bought one.
I was intrigued by these peanut pancake things so I bought one.
Some sort of sweet pancake with peanut filling
Some sort of sweet pancake with peanut filling
Murtabak vendors
Murtabak vendors
Vegetable murtabak with curry
Vegetable murtabak with curry
One of the common shower annoyances: a broken showerhead holder. This one I fixedw ith bungee cords.
One of the common shower annoyances: a broken showerhead holder. This one I fixedw ith bungee cords.
Another nice traffic circle
Another nice traffic circle
The view out of our room's window
The view out of our room’s window
The view  out our room's door.  Qualifies as waterfront I would say!
The view out our room’s door. Qualifies as waterfront I would say!
Heading out on my first dive in many years!
Heading out on my first dive in many years!
Nudi branch
Nudi branch
Another nudi branch
Another nudi branch
Smile!
Smile!
Crocadile fish
Crocadile fish
Lizard fish
Lizard fish
Razor fish
Razor fish
Nudi branch eggs
Nudi branch eggs
Singamata Reef Resort
Singamata Reef Resort
Pulau Sibuan
Pulau Sibuan
Pulau Sibuan
Pulau Sibuan
Amy snorkeling in the “aquarium” at the resort
Amy snorkeling in the “aquarium” at the resort
Amy snorkeling in the “aquarium” at the resort
Amy snorkeling in the “aquarium” at the resort

Our mode of transport for the three days of the excursion
Our mode of transport for the three days of the excursion

Kinabantangan.  That’s a mouthful but it rolls off the tounge once you get used to it.  It’s the name of a river in northern Sabah that has recently been protected as a wildlife refuge.  It is indeed chock full of animals but the underlying reason is a bit sad.

Soon after we left the highlands around Kinabalu the land flattened out and we rode through endless fields of palm trees.  Malaysia is the world’s largest exporter of palm oil and much of it comes from Sabah.  As the demand for palm oil rose over the last century the rainforests of Sabah were cleared to make room for massive palm oil plantations.  One of the few areas untouched by this development was the sliver of land carved out by the Kinabatangan River.

We arranged a three-day, two-night trip with the Greenview B&B in Sukau, a little village along the river.  The tour included all meals, transport from Sandakan, accommodation and a smattering of boat tours and hikes.

Day 1 of the trip included a boat cruise in the late afternoon.  We motored along the river for a while and spotted a few hornbills flying about.  Eventually we turned down a narrow canal that emptied into the river.  It wasn’t long before we started to see monkeys – lots of monkeys.  The most common were macaques (both the long-tail and pig-tail variety) but the most popular among us tourists were the proboscis monkeys.  Proboscis monkeys, specifically the dominant males, have a nose of cartoon proportions that photographs well.

A male proboscis monkey.  The most famous nose in Borneo.
A male proboscis monkey. The most famous nose in Borneo.

After a long while staring at the monkeys, our boat driver received a call on his cell phone.  Yeah, we weren’t exactly way out in the wilderness.  Regardless, the phone call was to inform him that some of the area’s pygmy elephants had been spotted nearby.  I can’t say that I have received a phone call about elephants but it seemed like an everyday thing for the guides.  We sped off down the canal at a rate which  made me feel sorry for the other tourists who were just arriving.

A family of proboscis monkeys
A family of proboscis monkeys

Closer to the village we pulled up along the bank and saw some of the trees and bushes moving around.  Inside the guide promised were “some” elephants.  A short while later we heard the distinctive trumpeting of an elephant.  There was a rather large group of them in the forest but we could only see a few that were nearest the river bank.  Apparently, we were lucky to see them at all and they are definitely one of the rarest mammals we’ve seen in the wild – only a few thousand individuals are estimated to remain.  As adults they only stand about 2 meters tall, much smaller than normal elephants.

Borneo pygmy elephants
Borneo pygmy elephants

After a buffet dinner back at the B&B we went on a night boat ride.  We spotted quite a few owls, a reticulated python and a few kingfishers.  Photography was pretty tough but the guide’s spotlight helped us get a few good shots.

Reticulated python
Reticulated python

The next morning we rose early and took another boat ride.  Some eagles were out fishing in the river and we passed a “school boat” filled with kids on their way to school.  A short while later we got another glimpse of the pygmy elephants, this time it was an immature female.

Pygmy elephant, an immature female
Pygmy elephant, an immature female
Rollie-pollie bug...the size of a ping pong ball!
Rollie-pollie bug…the size of a ping pong ball!

We stopped at one point and went on a short hike through the jungle and found a number of huge insects.  When I think of a rollie-pollie I think of a small insect the size of a pencil eraser.  In Borneo, their rollie-pollies are the size of ping pong balls!  We also spotted some nicely camouflaged insects like this leaf bug.

A leaf bug
A leaf bug

All of the tourist material about the Borneo jungle gives some information about the leeches.  Fortunately for us, our visit was well-timed during the dry season and they are much less active.  We only saw one during our stay and it was happily attached to the back of one of the other tourists staying at our B&B.  Despite their vile reputation, apparently the leeches in this area really aren’t all that dangerous as they don’t host diseases like mosquitoes.  Nevertheless, I was happy not to have been bitten!

Night walk through the jungle
Night walk through the jungle

On our second night of the tour we completed a nighttime hike through the jungle behind the B&B.  We wore waterproof boots to deal with the muck and very slowly made our way through the jungle.   Thorny vines were the main bother and the mosquitoes really weren’t all that bad.

We saw some really crazy looking bugs during the night walk
We saw some really crazy looking bugs during the night walk

Overall we were only moderately impressed with the tour.  Then again, we have both been on some really good boat tours on this trip so the competition is a bit steep.  Being able to see the pygmy elephants in the wild was certainly the highlight for both of us.  Both the guidebooks and the local tourist literature flaunt the Kinabatangan as a haven for bird spotting but our tour, and I suspect many of the competing outfits, are just not setup for this kind of tourism.  There are simply too many people visiting a very small area of land.  This aspect of the tour left me disappointed.

Lots and lots of tourists visit the Kinabatangan
Lots and lots of tourists visit the Kinabatangan

The biggest take-away for me from these three days was the environmental impact of the palm oil industry.  What this industry has done to the landscape of Borneo is very sad and I will certainly be more conscious in the future when I see products at the store containing palm oil.

Kinabatangan River
Our mode of transport for the three days of the excursion
Our mode of transport for the three days of the excursion
After about an hour I concluded that this lifevest was far more valuable as a cushion than as a floatation device.
After about an hour I concluded that this lifevest was far more valuable as a cushion than as a floatation device.
Hornbills
Hornbills
A male proboscis monkey.  The most famous nose in Borneo.
A male proboscis monkey. The most famous nose in Borneo.
Oriental Darter
Oriental Darter
A family of proboscis monkeys
A family of proboscis monkeys
A female proboscis and her child
A female proboscis and her child
Bornean pygmy elephants
Bornean pygmy elephants
Borneo pygmy elephants
Borneo pygmy elephants
“The Lion King Photo” according to a Dutch guy on our tour.
“The Lion King Photo” according to a Dutch guy on our tour.
Plenty of geckos around our guest house
Plenty of geckos around our guest house
Reticulated python
Reticulated python
Kingfisher, the smallest species in Borneo I was told.
Kingfisher, the smallest species in Borneo I was told.
Early morning sighting of a red-haired monkey
Early morning sighting of a red-haired monkey
Boat cruise at dawn
Boat cruise at dawn
It's the school boat!
It’s the school boat!
Pygmy elephants again, this is an immature female.
Pygmy elephants again, this is an immature female.
Pygmy elephant, an immature female
Pygmy elephant, an immature female
Oriental darters
Oriental darters
Water monitor lizard - about 5ft long
Water monitor lizard – about 5ft long
Rollie-pollie bug...the size of a ping pong ball!
Rollie-pollie bug…the size of a ping pong ball!
A large hive of bees
A large hive of bees
A leaf bug
A leaf bug
It looks like smoke but it is actually fungi spores coming out of a log.
It looks like smoke but it is actually fungi spores coming out of a log.
Elephant ear - a type of fungus.  Literally the size of an elephant's ear.
Elephant ear – a type of fungus. Literally the size of an elephant’s ear.
A walking stick
A walking stick
Proboscis monkey
Proboscis monkey
Lots and lots of tourists visit the Kinabatangan
Lots and lots of tourists visit the Kinabatangan
A quick glimpse of a very shy otter
A quick glimpse of a very shy otter
Night walk through the jungle
Night walk through the jungle
We saw some really crazy looking bugs during the night walk
We saw some really crazy looking bugs during the night walk

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


Valparaíso

Chile Comments Off
May 042011
The view from the top of Ascensor Polanco
The view from the top of Ascensor Polanco

After the trip to Easter Island we had a five day stopover in Santiago worked into our award ticket.  We had hoped to spend about half that time in Santiago and the other half in Valparaíso.  Unfortunately, the Easter holiday spoiled those plans.  The man at our guesthouse in Santiago warned us of the difficulties associated with getting there and back again.  He said it wasn’t uncommon for the bus ride to take upwards of 5 hours when it is normally under two.  We took his advice and made a day trip out there on the Tuesday before Easter.  Getting from Santiago to Valpo was a quick and easy process.  A short trip on the Santiago metro followed by a 1 hour and 45 minute ride.  Weather was cloudy and gloomy when we arrived around 10AM but that slowly burned off during the day.

Valparaíso is a stunning city.  The surrounding hills drop steeply to the water’s edge where there is a busy shipping port and a naval base.  The hillsides are covered in houses of all colors that are seemingly stacked one on top of another.  Many of the slopes are steep enough that funiculars, many of which date from the 1900′s, are needed to hoist tourists and locals up and down the hills.

Ascensor Artillería
Ascensor Artillería

We passed most of the day by wandering around the city, riding the funiculars, and enjoying the spectacular views of the harbour.  The neighborhood of Cerro Concepción, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was particularly beautiful.  We also found a huge variety of street art in Valpo.  Even more than we found back in Buenos Aires.  A few people responded positively to my Buenos Aires graffiti post so we made it a point to snap lots of photos to capture Valpo’s street art scene.  Hope you enjoy!  Next up, Santiago.

Valparaíso, Chile
Exploring a market in Valparaíso
Exploring a market in Valparaíso
He needs to find a bigger box to sleep in.
He needs to find a bigger box to sleep in.
The view from the top of Ascensor Polanco
The view from the top of Ascensor Polanco
Ascensor Artillería
Ascensor Artillería

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