Las Pampas of the Yacuma River, Rurrenabaque

On the first day, cloudy as it was, we spotted at least one alligator, as well as a few capybara, dozens of squirrel monkeys and strange birds. At night, we went out on the boat and saw the unsettling red reflection of the gators’ eyes everywhere we looked. The next day, when the sun shone bright, hardly thirty seconds would pass without spotting an alligator or caiman. Pink dolphins occasionally flashed their rounded fins, more like humps, out from the murky water. The anaconda was harder to find, and took a whole group’s eyes, struggling through thick mud and rotted wood. If you go on a Pampas tour in Rurrenabaque, you WILL see animals.

Can you spot the alligator in this picture?

We went with Fluvial Tours, 550Bs per person for 3 days 2 nights. The price was the same as other companies providing budget tours and the standard was good for a backpacker choice.

See also our post about the journey to Rurrenabaque.

A postcard from the Salineras in Maras, Peru

The Incas receive so much praise and attention around Cusco that people often forget that they weren’t the only clever ones. A visit to the Salineras in the Sacred Valley is a good reminder of this. Long before the Incas, the people of this region diverted the flow of salty water from an underground stream into shallow pools that evaporate in the sun and leave salt behind. These pools are separated into terraces along a hill in an impressive and photogenic bit of engineering. At the site you can touch the water, even lick it if you’re so inclined. It’s salty (duh). Be careful not to fall in (Rosie almost did).

Cost: 7 soles

How to get there:

There are a few ways to get to the Salineras. The easiest, but most expensive, is to take a taxi from Cusco or Ollantaytambo. Be sure to negotiate the price beforehand. It’s a good idea to include a visit to the agricultural terraces of Moray in the same trip.

Another option is to go with a tour group (tours leave from both Ollantaytambo and Cusco). A half day tour from Cusco costs about 12 soles. There are also horseback and cycling tours available.

There is also public transport from Urubamba, but you will still have to hike from Maras, or the intersection of Urubamba and Ollantaytambo.

Flying La Paz to Rurrenabaque

There are two airlines that fly the 45 minute La Paz-Rurrenabaque route. TAM is slightly cheaper than Amaszonas, but they have fewer departures. You also have to go to the military airport, which is next to the normal airport in El Alto (a 20Bs taxi ride from outside the civilian airport boundary fence or a 50Bs ride from within). I wasn’t sure what to expect, but TAM was like any other airline. Actually, it was better because we were given a sandwich and drink, which American Airlines has failed to provide on a five hour flight! The plane was small, but nothing compared to the tiny 19-seater that I returned on with Amaszonas. Before taking off, pigs had to be chased from the grass runway.

I met a guy on our jungle tour who’d had his flight turned back just before landing because of bad weather in Rurrenabaque. In his words, “it was like a cheap sight-seeing flight”. Take off begins at 4,000m and it’s all down from there. But first you have to cross the Cordillera Real and the views are spectacular. I’ve never flown at the same height as a mountain peak before!

Unfortunately my TAM plane did not look like this.

We were greeted to a rainbow after a delay due to weather conditions.

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Mount Illimani towers over El Alto, the largely indigenous town (and site of La Paz’s airport) which sits above the city on the altiplano.

For information about what we did in Rurrenabaque, see our blog post.

Two books to read in Patagonia

In a tiny little shop in the middle of route 40 in Argentinian Patagonia, I saw a book that catalogued the entire archaeological record of the area. I really wanted to buy it, except I had no cash. Stupidly, I didn’t write down the name because I assumed they’d sell it in all the tourist shops once we reached El Calafate. They didn’t.

But I did find another book instead: “The Captive in Patagonia, or Life Among the Giants” by Benjamin Franklin Bourne (free ebook available here). Published in 1853, it’s the true story of an American who was captured by a group of indigenous people in southern Patagonia. The memoir details his capture, life amongst the Tehuelche people, and finally his escape.

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Now, I said it’s a true story, but it definitely needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Let’s have a look at his description of the people:

“The average height, I should think, is nearly six and a half feet and there were specimens that could have been little less than seven feet high…They exhibit enormous strength, whenever they are sufficiently aroused to shake off their constitutional laziness and exert it.”
(Page 54-55)

Even in a simple physical description, Bourne can’t help adding in a moral judgement. And this is really nothing compared to what else he claims in the book. He tells the story through a very biased lens, but what makes it interesting, and amusing, is that he turns this lens on everyone, not just his captors. Here’s his description of one of the sailors on his ship:

“Our mate, who was a sensible young man, of good education, had two foibles; he was a decided grumbler, and, in his conviviality, he was a little too far from total abstinence.”
(Page 211)

Whilst the accuracy could be called into question, the book gives a glimpse of life (both the Tehuelche’s and Bourne’s) that is fascinating and entertaining. It was the perfect book to read whilst I sailed on the Navimag Ferry through the endless islands of southern Chile.

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It wasn’t until I got to Bolivia that I found the perfect companion book. “Tierra del Fuego” by Sylvia Iparraguirre, is based on real historical events that took place in the 19th century. It’s almost the exact opposite of Bourne’s story as here Iparraguirre chronicles the kidnapping of a Yámana boy, Jemmy Button, by Europeans and the ultimate consequences of this action.

Although narrated by a fictitious historical character, it’s written with a very modern sensibility and provides a wonderful counterpoint to the cultural superiority and colonialist attitudes exhibited by Bourne.

“Two years later in England, when Button was..speaking English fluently, I learned..that the impression I had made on him during those first weeks had been rather unflattering…It would have amused his people to see how someone so proud of what he knew..would turn into a know-nothing as soon as they left him on land…I was offended, but Button was right.”
(Page 66-67)

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The narrative doesn’t always flow well, but knowing the eventual outcome of when Button was returned to his native land, made me keep reading to see how all the events led up to this. It also sent me to Wikipedia afterwards to learn more – something that a good historical novel should do, in my opinion.

The two books together give a great introduction to this period of history in Patagonia. I was fascinated with the artifacts and black and white photos in the museum in Bariloche, but with only Spanish labeling it was hard to understand everything. These two books gave me a different kind of understanding of these people and their way of life.