"Downtown" Sabang
"Downtown" Sabang
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

Sep 112011

Tusker.  That’s what the locals call Sri Lanka’s indigenous pachyderm.  Actually, the term refers only to the male tusk-bearing variety which make up a mere 6% of the population.  We learned that fact and many others on our evening visit to Minneriya National Park.

The park is located about an hour’s drive west of Polonnaruwa and you need 4WD to visit.  By Sri Lankan standards, visiting the park is by no means cheap.  We weren’t able to find any other tourists to accompany us in the jeep so we ended up paying the whole 4,500 rupee (US$41) ourselves.  Upon arrival in the park you are escorted into the visitor center to pay the 2,600 rupee (US$24) entrance fee per person.  Nearly $90 for a three hour tour is pretty expensive for our budget but we are glad we did it.

Sri Lanka’s elephants actually migrate around the island but our visit coincided with the time they spend in Minneriya.  They spend most of their day in the shade of the forest but come evening they move into the nearby grasslands and lakes and this is of course the best time to visit!

A slow and bumpy drive through the bush followed our brief stop at park HQ.  Eventually we broke out of the forest onto a huge open grassland with a small lake.  Off in the distance we could see elephants and lots of them!  Our driver took us pretty close to them but I noticed he always made sure he was ready to make a quick get-away (engine running, vehicle pointed away from the animals).  I suppose you don’t want an elephant to go after your jeep/livelihood!

When we arrived there were perhaps 50 but that number grew to close to 200 as the evening wore on.  Given that they all must eat about 10% of the body weight each day, you really start to get the picture as to how much space and resources these giants need.  The total population of elephants in Sri Lanka is estimated to be around 5,000 individuals and they are listed as an endangered species.  Habitat encroachment by humans in mostly to blame.

Watching them graze was particularly interesting.  They use their trunks, of course, but they don’t simply tear off grass and stuff it in their face.  They seemed to tear it off bit-by-bit and form a small pile of grass on their ground.  They also use their front feet to help break grass free from the ground.  All the while they are rolling around their slowly-growing pile of grass with their trunk.  Maybe they do this to get the dirt and sand out of it?  Our guide/driver’s English was insufficient to find out.

Another highlight was getting to watch the baby elephants.  There were two small ones that might have been twins who were constantly wrestling with each other.

Another even younger baby was keeping himself entertained by pulling the tails, ears and trunks of the adults around him.  He was surprisingly energetic considering his size but eventually he just collapsed and fell asleep.

Getting to see them in a wild setting was an excellent experience.  They are fascinating creatures and it’s a shame that they are such a threatened species.  Hopefully the funds they get from tourists like ourselves helps to keep parks like Minneriya up and running.

Minneriya Park
Rugged late 70's Misubishi jeep
Rugged late 70′s Misubishi jeep
Some bats hanging out in the information center
Some bats hanging out in the information center
Pea fowl
Pea fowl

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

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


May 282011
Driving out on to the Salar at dawn.
Driving out on to the Salar at dawn.

We woke up at some crazy hour again on the fourth day of the tour so that we could see the sunrise over the Salar de Uyuni.  You can read all about the Salar over at Wikipedia but the basic idea is that it is huge plane of salt (4000 mi²) that is incredibly flat (less than 1m elevation difference across its entire area).  During the wet season the Salar is flooded with a few inches of water.  This was the case when we visited and I have to say that driving out on a mirror-like plane of water at dawn was pretty cool.

We first drove to a salt hotel out on the Salar where we could mill about and take in the sunrise.  It was cold, below freezing without a doubt.  While we were waiting for the cook to prepare breakfast, we enjoyed watching the sunrise and started to take some crazy photos the Salar is known for.  The lack of recognizable objects (trees, cars, etc) in the photos allows you to play all sorts of fun perspective tricks with the camera.

After breakfast, we drove further out on the Salar to get away from other tour groups.  Our guide then helped us take all sorts of fun photos.  Some of the more ambitious backpackers had brought props all the way from home for the occasion but we had to make do with what was on hand.  Fortunately, the guide had some good ideas!  Be sure to check out the gallery below for many more.

A bunch of gringos out making fools of themselves in the middle of the salt flats.
A bunch of gringos out making fools of themselves in the middle of the salt flats.

Two hours into our ”fotos locas” shoot, we packed up and headed for a couple of other sights around the flats.  We stopped in one area where salt miners were working away to harvest salt and in another area where some of the Salar’s trapped brine bubbles to the surface (the Ojos del Salar).  Finally the tour wrapped up with a quick visit to Uyuni’s train cemetery where dozens of turn-of-the-century steam trains have found their final resting place.

All in all, we really enjoyed our time on the four day tour of Bolivia’s southwest.  Our traveling companions were great, the guide was excellent, the driving was responsible, and the food was delicious.  At only $160 per person it was an absolute bargain and we would strongly recommend Tupiza Tours to others!  Next up on the blog, the cities of Potosí and Sucre.

Slowing sinking into the desert.
Slowing sinking into the desert.
Southwest Circuit Day 4
Driving out on to the Salar at dawn.
Driving out on to the Salar at dawn.
A salt condor!
A salt condor!
A duel
A duel
Amy having some mate
Amy having some mate
A Pez dispenser
A Pez dispenser
The vegetarian eats the omnivores
The vegetarian eats the omnivores
The evolution of man.
The evolution of man.
A bunch of gringos out making fools of themselves in the middle of the salt flats.
A bunch of gringos out making fools of themselves in the middle of the salt flats.
Our guide was quite skilled at creating fotos locas.
Our guide was quite skilled at creating fotos locas.
Ojos del Salar
Ojos del Salar
Salt mining (for human consumption)
Salt mining (for human consumption)
Some of the Salar is flooded at this time of year.
Some of the Salar is flooded at this time of year.
The last stop was the train graveyard near Uyuni
The last stop was the train graveyard near Uyuni
Slowing sinking into the desert.
Slowing sinking into the desert.
Our final meal on the tour.
Our final meal on the tour.


May 262011
Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada

Day 3 started with a visit to Laguna Colorada a short 10km from where we stayed the night before.  The laguna is one of the largest flamingo habitats in the world and three of the six species of flamingos feed here.  Like just about everything else on this tour, the lake sits at high altitude (4,270m).

James's Flamingos
James’s Flamingos

We spent about an hour marveling at the flamingos and the nonstop chatter with one another.  There are three distinct species that live in this lake but they can be tricky to tell them apart.  To be honest, I am not really sure which of the three we saw.  One group was definitely the James’s Flamingo but who knows about the other two types (Chilean and Andean).

After Laguna Colorada we drove to the overly famous Arbol de Piedra.  It’s a big rock that has been eroded away at the bottom and looks vague (very vaguely) like a tree.  Like all the other tourists, we stopped and took photos wherein we pretend that it is about to fall on us.

Driving northward from the Arbol de Piedra, we passed a string of five high-altitude lagunas.  I tried to take panoramic photos of them but only three of them worked out.  By the fifth lagoon everyone in the jeep had that “oh boy, another laguna…” sarcasm about them but, in retrospect, they were all incredibly spectacular.  One tends to lose track of how incredible the landscape really is when faced with it day in and day out.

Laguna Ramaditas
Laguna Ramaditas
Laguna Honda
Laguna Honda
Laguna Cañapa
Laguna Cañapa

Our lunch stop was in another rock-littered valley, conveniently named the Valle de las Rocas, that was also home to a bunch of viscacha.  Chasing them about to get good photos proved to be quite a challenge.

Another viscacha!
Another viscacha!

A couple hours after lunch we rolled into the town of San Cristóbal.  We stopped right in the center and had a brief walk around.  My first impression of the place was “Civilization!  My money is actually good here…I could BUY something if I wanted to.”  I guess that is pretty normal after three days out in the middle of nowhere.  San Cristóbal is a mining town and is home to Bolivia’s largest mine.  Workers at the mine work 12 hour shifts for three months straight (no weekends off) and then get two weeks of leave.  A hard life that must be.

Nothing spells Bolivia quite like loading a tractor trailer with salt using a shovel.
Nothing spells Bolivia quite like loading a tractor trailer with salt using a shovel.

Colchani, a small town with about 500 people, was our resting place for the third night.  The town is located on the shore of the Salar de Uyuni and seems to eek out its existence on tourist dollars and salt production.  Our accommodations for the night were in a lodge made almost entirely out of salt.  The walls were salt, the floor was salt, and the beds were salt.  Pretty weird.  The main downside was that there was no running water which meant we were on our way to our fouth showerless day!

Afternoon tea with salt
Afternoon tea with salt
Southwest Circuit Day 3
Our digs for the second night of the tour
Our digs for the second night of the tour
Laguna Colorada, dotted with flamingos
Laguna Colorada, dotted with flamingos
Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada
Flamingo footprints
Flamingo footprints
James's Flamingos
James’s Flamingos
The overly-famous arbol de piedra (tree of rock)
The overly-famous arbol de piedra (tree of rock)
Laguna Ramaditas
Laguna Ramaditas
Laguna Honda
Laguna Honda
Laguna Charcota
Laguna Charcota
Laguna Hedionda
Laguna Hedionda
Laguna Cañapa
Laguna Cañapa
Valle de las Rocas
Valle de las Rocas
Another viscacha!
Another viscacha!
This is the “condor rock.”  I like the real ones better.
This is the “condor rock.” I like the real ones better.
A brief stop in a real town!  San Cristobal
A brief stop in a real town! San Cristobal
Lots of salt in these parts
Lots of salt in these parts
Nothing spells Bolivia quite like loading a tractor trailer with salt using a shovel.
Nothing spells Bolivia quite like loading a tractor trailer with salt using a shovel.
The crazy Dutch pig whisperer showing off his skills.
The crazy Dutch pig whisperer showing off his skills.
Afternoon tea with salt
Afternoon tea with salt
Our room at the salt lodge.  Walls, floor, beds and headboards all made of salt.
Our room at the salt lodge. Walls, floor, beds and headboards all made of salt.

Desierto de Dali
Desierto de Dali

Day 2 started off nice an early.  4:30 or thereabouts, definitely within what is called the “madrugada” in Spanish.  None of us slept well that night thanks to the well-below-freezing temperatures and the 4,200m of altitude.  I slept in long-johns, a tshirt, a long-sleeve shirt, my fleece inside of a sleeping bag under three heavy wool blankets and I was still pretty cold.  Our driver loaded our stuff on top of the jeep while we chowed down on some breakfast.

We pulled out of San Antonio de Lipez around 5AM and headed for the ruins of a deserted town.  Along the way we had to forge a number of frozen-over streams.  The old mining town was one of the many places where the Spanish forced the Incans to dig for silver.  The story has it that the town is now haunted.  Visiting the town in the pre-dawn twilight gave it an even creepier feel.  The only remaining resident is this nice fluffy viscacha.

A viscacha!
A viscacha!

We pressed on through a 4,855m mountain pass with a great view of Lago Morejon and Volcano Uturuncu (6,0008m).  Frost on covered the ground that was shadowed from the sun by the small hearty shrubs that manage to flourish at this altitude.  Walking just a few yards on level ground proved to be enough to make us winded.

We descended from the pass and crossed a few more rivers – one of them was quite deep and I was happy that the door seals on our Toyota were in good shape!  Temperatures remained quite low but the intense sunshine made being outside much more bearable.  We visited another high-altitude lake where borax mining was underway.

Passing by the settlements of Quetena Chico and Quetena Grande, we entered the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Fauna.  The  lunch stop was at some hot springs at the aptly named Aguas Calientes.  We could bathe if we wanted although I just put my feet in the water.   Once lunch was finished we crossed the Desierto de Dali and reached the shore of Laguna Verde.  The lake is free of wildlife because of the naturally-occuring arsenic in its waters.  The element gives the lake its color.  The stop at Laguna Verde was the southernmost point on our tour and we were just a short distance from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile where we had traveled a few days prior.

Laguna Verde with Volcan Licancabur (5950m) behind
Laguna Verde with Volcan Licancabur (5950m) behind

Heading back north we made a stop at Geisers Sol de Mañana, a geyser field just below 5000m altitude.  Most of the activity is steam vents but there are also a few boiling mud pots to be seen (if you dare go close enough).  The highest point on the tour was just a little further ahead at 5,000m (16,400ft) and we got there just in time to see another tour jeep broken down on the road.  Despite the fact that it was a competing company, we stopped (along with seven others) to lend a hand.  These guys definitely work together when things go wrong!

We made it to the village of Huaylljara just before sunset and prepared for another cold night.  Dinner was pique macho, a traditional french-fries-covered-in-everything-unhealthy dish that hit the spot.  Afterwards, we all competed around the camp’s single wood stove while we learned a new card game from our Dutch friends.  And that was that, another great day in Bolivia.

Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada
Southwest Circuit Day 2
Incan ruins
Incan ruins
A viscacha!
A viscacha!
Morning frost
Morning frost
Forging rivers
Forging rivers
Middle of nowhere
Middle of nowhere
Hot springs
Hot springs
Lunch at the hot springs.  Meat balls, pasta, veggies and salad
Lunch at the hot springs. Meat balls, pasta, veggies and salad
Driving across the Desierto de Dali
Driving across the Desierto de Dali
Desierto de Dali
Desierto de Dali
Laguna Verde with Volcan Licancabur (5950m) behind
Laguna Verde with Volcan Licancabur (5950m) behind
When a truck breaks down, all the tour operators chip in to help.
When a truck breaks down, all the tour operators chip in to help.
Laguna Colorada
Laguna Colorada
Traditional Bolivian food for dinner: Pique (french fries topped with meats and eggs).  There was veggie pique for Amy as well!
Traditional Bolivian food for dinner: Pique (french fries topped with meats and eggs). There was veggie pique for Amy as well!

May 222011
Loading up in Tupiza.  There were four of us, the guide/driver and his wife the cook.
Loading up in Tupiza. There were four of us, the guide/driver and his wife the cook.

Most tourists to Bolivia come to see the enormous Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat.  Many of my friends who have visited have told stories about excellent “multi day Salar tours” that let you experience the flats and the surrounding landscape.  What neither of us realized is that these tours are mostly about the surrounding landscape and you really only spend one day on the Salar (though it is the highlight).

There are loads of companies offering tours of the Salar and you can start these tours from any number of places in Chile and Bolivia (the flats are near the border).  We had heard mixed things from other travelers about the quality of these tours and we quickly arrived at the conclusion that paying a little extra was well worthwhile.  Tupiza Tours and La Torre Tours quickly surfaced as the leaders for tours originating in Tupiza, Bolivia.  We ended up booking the 4 day, 3 night tour with Tupiza Tours for about $160 per person (included transport, food and accommodation).

Vicuñas
Vicuñas

Logistics for the tour was as follows.   We traveled in a group of four plus a driver/guide and a cook.  In our case, the driver and cook were a very pleasant husband and wife team.  We opted for a Spanish tour, though English ones were available for an extra fee.  The company paired us up with a couple from Holland, also in their late 20′s, and we turned out to be a great match.  Transportation was in a Toyota Land Cruiser with a third row of seats and our backpacks were loaded with the cooking gear and extra gasoline on the roof.  Accommodations, though rustic, were completely adequate.  We stayed in small villages along the way where they had beds, electricity, and shelter (though not always running water).  Total driving distance for the four-day trip was about a thousand kilometers and 90% of that is off-road.

Lunch time somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
Lunch time somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

The first day of our tour took us from Tupiza to San Antonia de Lipez.  Shortly after we left Tupiza we checked out some nice read rock formations (iron content, I think they said) and then started our climb into the mountains.  The average altitude on the four-day tour was 4,200m (13,800ft) and it wasn’t long before we were cruising away at altitude.

Shortly after we got up into the mountains we spotted a group of a dozen condors.  As it turned out, they were all feasting away on a vicuña carcass!  We stopped for a while and watched them watch us.  After the condors we found a nice place for our lunch in the middle of a large dry riverbed.  The highlight of the meal for me was some llama tamales.  At the first meal the cook seemed a bit surprised that Amy was a vegetarian despite the fact that we had explicitly told the office where we booked.  Apparently they neglected to relay this on to the cook!  Fortunately, our cook was able to adapt to this request and later meals in the tour were more vegetarian-friendly.

San Antonio de Lipez, our stop for the first night.  (4,200m)
San Antonio de Lipez, our stop for the first night. (4,200m)

In the afternoon we stopped in to visit the village of San Pablo de Lipez as well as a few nice mountain vistas along the way to San Antonio de Lipez, our stopping point for the day.  We had an afternoon tea/coffee/mate break when we arrived and finished just in time to see the first snowfall of the year.  An excellent dinner was served a short while later we called it an early night (8PM!) due to the altitude and having to get up at some crazy time the next morning.

Our first dinner with our new friends from Holland
Our first dinner with our new friends from Holland
Southwest Circuit Day 1
Loading up in Tupiza.  There were four of us, the guide/driver and his wife the cook.
Loading up in Tupiza. There were four of us, the guide/driver and his wife the cook.
The rock formations of Palala just outside of Tupiza
The rock formations of Palala just outside of Tupiza
Lllamas
Lllamas
Vicuñas
Vicuñas
A lizard!
A lizard!
Lunch time somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
Lunch time somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
Tamales with llama meat.  Tasty!
Tamales with llama meat. Tasty!
It was a bit windy on this ridgeline.  I think they called it the Paso de Diablo.
It was a bit windy on this ridgeline. I think they called it the Paso de Diablo.
We interrupted lunch (a vicuña carcass) for a group of a dozen condors.
We interrupted lunch (a vicuña carcass) for a group of a dozen condors.
The village of San Pablo de Lipez
The village of San Pablo de Lipez
Vicuñas
Vicuñas
San Antonio de Lipez, our stop for the first night.  (4,200m)
San Antonio de Lipez, our stop for the first night. (4,200m)
A storm was rolling in when we arrived.
A storm was rolling in when we arrived.
The first snow of the year in San Antonio de Lipez
The first snow of the year in San Antonio de Lipez
Drying adobe bricks
Drying adobe bricks
Afternoon tea just after arrival.
Afternoon tea just after arrival.
Our first dinner with our new friends from Holland
Our first dinner with our new friends from Holland
Not a bad spread for a tour out to the middle of nowhere!
Not a bad spread for a tour out to the middle of nowhere!

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