Rain in Rurrenabaque

Our flight from La Paz to Rurrenabaque had been delayed due to a storm and when we arrived in the tropical, river-side town, the clouds still hung low and the streets were slick with run-off water. The next morning we piled into a jeep and began driving along a flat, dirt road to the village of Santa Teresa (where we would get on a boat and spend three days on the Yacuma river). Wedged into the front seat between Jon and the driver, I watched the half submerged landscape as we drove through sporadic showers and the windows slowly steamed up from our perspiration.

We passed huge holes and ruts dug deep into the road surface which had been softened by the rain (this is one of the main trade routes to Brazil). Lorries tried to manoeuvre around them but were sometimes forced to drive through. We saw more than one that was stuck – the front cabs easily sunk 6 feet deep into chasms of shiny, sucking mud and the trailers sticking out the back like giant discarded lego bricks. And then there were cows.

So many cows! It had to be thousands, as we sat there waiting quite a while for the bovine river to pass us. And then we continued on, reaching Santa Teresa just as the rain stopped.

On the way back, the weather was scorching. The water had dried up. The holes in the road were being filled with big stones and wooden planks. The water meadows that were visible before had receded (although not completely). And the mosquitoes had come out.

We stopped at a gas station to use the toilets, which consisted of concrete cubicles with occasional doors. They were across a paved courtyard and as we began to walk towards them, a cow appeared from no-where. Three stray dogs also appeared and began chasing it, snapping at it’s heels and growling with hackles up. The cow ran back the way it had come, but the dogs were riled up and chased us instead. We didn’t make it to the toilets. For the guys this wasn’t a problem; they just peed on the side of the road. Us girls had to get back in the jeep and endure another bumpy, thirty-minute ride before we spotted a track leading off to the side that was somewhat sheltered by bushes. As I waited my turn, clouds of mosquitoes swarmed around my face and the girl ahead of me in the bushes yelped and cursed as her exposed parts were bitten by the little blood-suckers. Needless to say, I tried to do my business as quickly as possible.

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Peru to Ecuador: La Balsa border crossing

We’d heard travellers’ tales and internet forums warning of dodgy happenings at the border between Peru and Ecuador and I was a little nervous (I even started planning how to hide cash in my shoes!). In the end though, as our journey took us to Chachapoyas, we crossed the border at La Balsa, the one place we’d heard was safe. It was an uneventful two days, if a little surreal.

la balsaJose at Chachapoyas Backpackers drew us this map and outlined the route we should take. Using a combination of combi (minibus), taxi, mototaxi (rickshaw), ranchera (truck-bus hybrid) and bus. we travelled from Chachapoyas to Bagua Grande to Jaen to San Ignacia. We stayed the night in a cheap hotel and the next day travelled to the border, crossed, and continued on to Zumba and finally Vilcabamba.

Here are some things that stuck in my head about the trip.

  • In Peru it was dusty and hot. In Ecuador it was humid and hot.
  • None of the bus stations are located anywhere vaguely useful. That is to say, if you don’t bring food with you, you will be stuck with whatever you can buy at the bus stations (which was not good) because there are no restaurants or shops nearby.
  • On the plus side, transfers between buses are fairly easy because the bus stations are close to each other. Or, there are mototaxis waiting to drive you from one station to another. Buses also run frequently so there isn’t much time spent waiting around.
  • Not having much time to wait around means finding a bathroom is tough. Once you’ve found a bathroom, depending on how clean it is, you may not want to use it.
  • There were roadworks all the way from Bagua Grande to the border (August 2013). For future travellers this is great. It means the road surfaces will be improved and the roads will be wider, making the journey quicker. For us it made the journey much, much slower. And dustier. Did I mention Peru was dusty?
  • It’s disorienting to turn up in San Ignacio and not know where anything is and have to ask a taxi driver to take you to a cheap hotel. It’s also confusing to try and find something to eat after dark because wherever we ended up was kind of deserted. It was even weirder to finally sit down to dinner only to be told all dishes with beef were off the menu. It was bone-crunchingly bizarre to order fried rice and find pieces of chicken diced up but still on the bone. I don’t recommend doing anything in San Ignacio except getting the hell out of there.
  • But to San Ignacio’s credit, it has at least one very cheery and helpful mototaxi driver who was the only person on the streets at 4 am.
  • You don’t need to be at the bus station in San Ignacio by 5am. You probably don’t even need to be there by 6am. Nobody started to do anything until the sun rose. And then they put your luggage in a taxi and wait for more people to join you so they can get the full fare.
  • The border doesn’t open until 9am. Or rather, the official who has to stamp your passport on leaving Peru doesn’t start to cook his breakfast until 9am. He will communicate with you through a closed door and tell you he’ll open up in half an hour.
  • While you’re waiting, there is a restaurant where you can eat breakfast. You should do this while you have the chance because on the other side of the border they are eve more ‘relaxed’ and you will be stuck because nothing else is open.
  • You can exchange money too, but you might be lucky and find a pair of Australian cyclists who are crossing over from Ecuador and willing to exchange their dollars for your soles, without charging commission.
  • You need to get a policeman to fill out some kind of form and stamp it before you can go though Peruvian immigration. The police station is a little way back up the road form immigration, and down a slight slope towards the river.
  • After crossing the bridge you find the Ecuadorian immigration official who cheerily gives you your entry stamp.
  • Then you wait. Despite a restaurant being open and taking your order of ‘chicken’ (which is the only thing they say they are serving), you wait until midday without said chicken materialising, only to finally jump on a ranchera which is the first transport you’ve seen on this side of the border.
  • The ride is scenic, if bumpy. You also have to squash you bags in between yourself and whoever’s seated next to you and their luggage (which could be a live chicken in a bag or a giant sack of produce). You also have to get off and show your passport at a police checkpoint. Try not to bang your head on the hard roof of the ranchera as you climb in and out. If you sit on the outside of the ranchera, you’ll be able to get in and out easily, but you’ll also get much wetter when it rains.
  • The station at Zumba is pleasantly modern and with luck you’ll be able to transfer straight onto a waiting bus (with air-conditioning, no less) and head to Vilcabamba. You’ll be exhausted and hungry when you arrive, but you will be in a familiar hippie-traveller environment and getting food and a place to sleep for the night will be easy.

Have you been to La Balsa? Or have you had a memorable experience crossing a border somewhere else?

 

Mi Teleferico

This month, La Paz opened the first phase of it’s new cable car commuter system. Once complete, it’s going to be the longest urban line in the world.

Whilst living in La Paz last year, I saw government ads with photo-shopped images of cable cars hovering inexplicably above the steep slopes of the city. It didn’t look very convincing. Most people told me that it was just another one of Evo Morales’s grand ideas, meant to distract people from the real issues. Others said that even if they did start building it, it would never get finished. Considering the fact that it took them 6 months to resurface the road outside my house, I was inclined to agree.

20140421-235243.jpgThis was four months into the job. It was at least better than the gaping six-foot hole that had been there for the past two months.

They also said that the bus drivers wouldn’t stand for it – after all, they would potentially lose revenue if people rode the Teleferico instead of the buses. And this being Bolivia, there’s nothing like a good protest to let the world know that you feel threatened. The image below (which comes from the news website noticiasfides.com) shows the federation of drivers dragging down a carriage while a startled condor watches them.

But just before I left La Paz last July, I heard from someone who had met an Austrian guy who worked for the company which was going to build the Teleferico. It was a friend of a friend. Really. And I started thinking, maybe it was actually going to happen.

And now, less than a year later, it has. I’m going to have to assume Austrian efficiency had something to do with it.

I’m pretty disappointed that I never got to ride on it. I mean, it’s bound to be the cheapest cable car in South America, and, if I do say so myself, probably the one with the most stunning (or, at least, unique) view. But I keep remembering some advice given to me by Gil, the friend we stayed with in Brazil: “You know how London has the London Eye? If you see something like that in South America, don’t go on it. For safety.”

Thoughts on visiting the pampas and jungle in Rurrenabaque

Rurrenabaque sits on the edge of the Madidi National Park and Pampas del Yacuma protected area, on the edge of the Amazon Basin. It is one of the cheapest places in South America to visit both the rainforest and the wetlands (pampas) that eventually drain into the Amazon river. Needless to say, I was super excited to visit. I was also wary because I was curious as to how the tour would be carried out in terms of sustainability and ethics.

Pampas 3 days, 2 nights

Activities:
We spent a lot of time riding in a small boat down calm waterways, spotting lots of birds, alligators, caimanes, capybaras and pink dolphins. We tried to fish for piranhas but caught only two tiny catfish (later fried up as an addition to dinner). We also donned Wellington boots and waded through swampland looking for anacondas, as well as swimming with the pink dolphins.

Good points:
It was relaxing! I didn’t expect it to be, but there was very little physical exertion and not as many mosquitoes as I dreaded. We saw wildlife everywhere. I didn’t expect to see this much, nor this close. The food and accommodation were quite decent. I think because they’re used to cooking for foreigners, they served more vegetables than is usual in Bolivia.

Bad points:
While hunting for anacondas, the guides and some tourists were smoking and dropping ash, although they took the butts back with them. When we finally found an anaconda, it was passed around for people to take pictures with it. I’m no expert, but the snake seemed pretty pissed off by the end of this. At one point, we joined another group whose guide was feeding a black caiman – so regular an occurrence that it had almost become a pet around this particular location.

What I thought:
It’s clear that the guides judge their success (and thus their earnings from tips) on how many animal encounters they can give their tourists. But this is a self-perpetuating cycle.To expect no human contact with wildlife is somewhat naive. After all, people live and go about their daily lives on this land, as was evidenced by the fields and farmers we saw. At our lodge, the leftover food was thrown out and, quite naturally, animals came to eat it. Whilst I believe some behaviors (like those I mentioned above) certainly have a negative impact, I think the experience could have been more interesting if we had viewed ourselves as part of this whole ecosystem and been aware of our impact. But I guess that’s too much to ask for on a budget tour.

Jungle 2 days, 1 night

Activities:
Short hikes, including one at night, with a choice to go fishing which we declined. Learning the traditional uses of plants for medicine, dyeing etc.

Good points:
The ride up the river to the lodge was beautiful and once in the jungle it was surprisingly not as humid or hot as I expected. We didn’t see as many animals as in the pampas, but we did have a group of wild pigs come into our camp area and get very close. Learning about the different plants through demonstrations was interesting. It was much more informative than in the pampas.

Bad points:
Even wearing long sleeves and trousers, everything still managed to bite me (for some reason ants kept going for my knees). This was doubly unpleasant on the night hike. I also had a cockroach down my top and two days later found a tick on me. So yeah, lots of insects.

What I thought:
There are lots of different options for visiting the jungle and it seems to me that this might be a time to spend more money and go for one that gives you a higher level of comfort and/or a better context. None of our camp workers were actually from the jungle. Some ecolodges are located on the land of indigenous communities who act as guides and run the programs themselves. In two days, there’s very little you can do, so staying longer and getting to know the place more would be better if you are actually interested in the rainforest. If you aren’t, then you’ll probably agree with the girl in my group who said “I’m glad I came, but two days is long enough.”

I traveled with Fluvial Tours. Each tour cost 550Bs for one person and included all food, dorm beds with mosquito nets and transport. The guides spoke little English. Additional costs for entry to the protected areas were 125Bs for Madidi and 150Bs for Yacuma.

There is a Green Action programme promoting responsible travel in Rurrenabaque. They include a list of tour operators on their website who participate in the programme.

Have you been to Rurrenabaque or taken a tour in the Amazon? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Also check out our photos from the pampas and our journey to Rurrenabaque.

Islas Ballestas

The Islas Ballestas are a group of three rocky islands 18km off the coast near Ica, in Southern Peru. They are part of a protected reserve and are sometimes called the ‘poor man’s Galapagos’. Boat trips take you around the islands, but you can’t step foot on them unless you’re collecting guano, which happens every seven years (did you know there is even a bird called the ‘guano bird’?). I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere with so many birds. Or anywhere that smells so much of bird.

On the way to the islands, you pass a giant geoglyph known as The Candelabra (or The Cactus, or The Trident). It’s age and purpose is unknown, but one theory sees it as a giant signal for fishing boats.

Humboldt Penguins and Boobies

The guide on the boat said these were called ‘moustache birds’.

Birds aren’t the only wildlife here.

On the way back, we saw a gazillion birds flying back to the islands. Their flight formations rippled like a ribbon.

A half-day tour costs 60 Soles, with an early pickup in Huacachina. The actual boat ride is only two hours, but that’s pretty standard. Most hostels in Huacachina offer the same tour, with a small difference in price.

Huacachina

Huacachina was one of those places we just decided to visit on the spur of the moment. I wasn’t really looking forward to this ‘backpacker oasis’, but the chilled-out atmosphere, delicious seafood and huge sand dunes, not to mention another spur of the moment decision to go sand-boarding, meant I ended up loving our short time here.

An oasis in the middle of sand dunes, Huacachina felt, and looked, like a film set.

Getting to the area where we went sand-boarding was like a roller-coaster ride. All the different drivers were competing with each other to make their tourists scream the loudest.

Sand-boarding on the belly is a lot easier than trying to stand up.

I ended up with pockets full of sand and very bruised hips. But it was worth it.

A two hour sand-boarding trip costs 35 Soles.

Machu Picchu: a guide to visiting

You’re probably already familiar with the site of Machu Picchu, having seen a million photos like this:

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But actually seeing the ruins in their real-life location, surrounded by jagged green peaks, is something you can’t fully appreciate until you’re there. The fifty bucks entrance fee is expensive, but if you’re at all interested in history or architecture it’s worth it.

To reach Machu Picchu you can either trek in along the Inca Trail or enter through the nearby town of Aguas Calientes.

If you want to travel independently, you must buy tickets in advance, which can be done online in Spanish (instructions on how to use it in English). The site is pretty straightforward to use and helpfully shows how many tickets are left of the 2,500 allocated for each day. In high season, you might want to buy them well in advance. And by the way, with a valid student card you get 50% off Machu Picchu entrance and other archaeological sites in Peru. However, you can only buy your tickets through an agent (not online) and be forewarned that in Cusco they would not accept our ISIC cards because we are over twenty five years of age!

Should you take the train to Aguas Calientes?

There are two train services: Inca Rail and Peru Rail.

I like trains. A lot. But I was not impressed by Inca Rail. It’s way over-priced (the cheapest ticket was $50 one way, starting in Ollantaytambo, and it is still cheaper than Peru Rail). The seats are comfy enough and you get one free drink, but honestly, on a journey of a mere hour and a half, you don’t need all that. I would have been much happier to forgo the luxury and pay less. Plus the carriage shook quite badly at some points, which for some reason made me a little motion sick.

Unless you have mobility or time issues, I would not recommend spending money on the train. Instead, trek along an alternative trail or take the ‘back door’ route.

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Should you take the bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu?

It’s expensive, but it’s also a long slog uphill to Machu Picchu (also it’ll be in the dark if you’re going early). In my opinion, if you’re going to splurge at any point on your trip, this could be the time to do it. It costs around $10 one way but it allows you a bit more time in bed. Get to the bus stop by 5:30am to join the queue and get on one of the first buses of the day. On the way back it’s all downhill so you could save money by walking.

Should you go at dawn?

You’ll be told to go early to avoid the crowds. I was there, ready to enter when the site opens at 7am. Considering how many people were lining up, I didn’t think it could get much more crowded. But it did. And then some.

During the first couple of hours after opening, it’s possible to walk around the site and find spots with very few people, if not places where you’re entirely alone. Later in the day, the site operates on a one-way system and you get stuck behind big tour groups with surly guides and cameras clicking left, right and centre.

So yeah, it’s worth getting up early to avoid at least some of the crowds. (The end of the day is another time you might get some space to yourself).

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Should you stay in Aguas Calientes?

If you’re going at dawn, you’ll have to. Other than this, there’s no reason to spend time in this tourist town. Unless of course you like 4-for-1 happy hours and over-priced restaurants that slap a ‘special tax’ on your bill at the end.

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Should you climb Huayna Picchu or Cerro Machu Picchu?

If you enjoy hiking, then climbing one of these peaks is definitely worth it. Not only do you get spectacular views, but you also get to escape the crowds a little. You can’t climb both in the same day, so you have to make a choice (or pay entry for two days). For me, climbing Huayna Picchu was the best thing about the whole day. Just don’t go if you’re afraid of heights.

Since tickets to these two areas are limited, you need to buy them in advance (easily done online when you’re buying your Machu Picchu tickets). Make sure you plan at least a few days in the area to acclimate as the last thing you want is to get sick and not be able to use your non-refundable ticket.

If you don’t mind the hotter temperatures, I’d recommend taking the later time slot (10-11am) for entry to Huayna Picchu so that you have more time at the main site in the pre-crowds early morning. For Cerro Machu Picchu you can enter at any time.

Should you bring your backpack/tent/sleeping bag to Machu Picchu?

I wouldn’t expect any sane person to take camping equipment all the way up when there’s absolutely no possibility of you being able to camp there. And yet I did see people walking around with huge backpacks full of stuff. Do yourself a favour and leave your big bags at your hostel in Aguas Calientes. They should have free storage even after you check-out.

All you need to bring with you are your passport (they check it against data on your ticket), sun and/or rain protection, water and snacks or a packed lunch (unless you want to pay for over-priced food). It all fits in a daypack. That’s it.

Have you visited Machu Picchu? Do you have any advice or recommendations to add? Share your experiences below.

Check out more photos of our visit to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.

Flying over the Nasca lines

When we first got to Nasca, we went to both the natural and man-made lookout points to try to view the famous lines. However, if you have the money, flying is really the only way to appreciate these huge geoglyphs. It´s a dizzying flight in a very small plane, and although you get to see the lines well, taking good pictures is another matter.

view towards the natural mirador from the man-made look-out tower

whale

trapezoids / arrows

man / alien / astronaut

monkey

dog

hummingbird

spider

condor

parrot

tree and hand / frog (and man-made lookout tower)

pelican

heading back to Nasca – in the background you can see Cerro Blanco, at 2, 078m the highest sand dune in the world

For another small plane flight, see our trip to Rurrenabaque. For more on the experience of flying at Nasca, see here.

A postcard from Nasca airport

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Nasca airport. A grey strip of concrete in a dusty, grey desert landscape. I’ve just returned from a twenty-minute flight in a tiny plane to see the Nasca lines. Staring out the window as the plane tilted dizzyingly to one side and then the other, the pilot’s crackly voice announcing which image we could see, I traced the familiar images with my eyes.

You see, I’d wanted to visit the Nasca lines since forever. When I was young, I had a book called ‘The Unexplained’ (which I read to the point of obsession). The lines were in a pseudo-archaeology section about Earth Mysteries. When I found out they were real and I could actually see them (unlike fairy paths and ley lines), I was amazed. When I decided to go to South America, I realized I actually had a chance. And so we went to Nasca and I took an expensive plane ride to see what I had already envisaged so many times before.

Despite studying archaeology at university, I don’t know much about the lines. They were created by removing rocks from the surface of the desert to reveal the different colored soil underneath. Their use is unknown: current theories suggest they’re processional paths used in water and fertility rituals. Or astronomical calendars. Or irrigation systems. You can see why they might end up in a book of The Unexplained.

I suppose my imagination tends towards grandiosity so I was surprised not at the lines themselves, but because the desert was so small. From up in the plane I could see green river valleys and irrigated farmland. I had no idea that the lines were built on a plateau. What was even more surprising is that earlier I had walked a couple of kilometers between the man-made and natural miradors and couldn’t see the curve of the road only a few kilometers ahead, let alone the edge of the desert. Walking from the hills on one side to the edge of the plateau on the other would have been hot and dusty, but looked completely doable.

I wonder how the people who made the lines viewed the landscape, how far they travelled and how regularly. Seeing the lines in situ has transformed them into something far more concrete to me than they ever were before. But they’re also now more intriguing.

I flew with Aero Paracas for $85, in July high season. Flights run from 8-11am and it’s possible to turn up and get a flight same day.

Waste disposal and recycling

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This sign on a bus in Ecuador says, ‘Don’t vote for trash out the window.’

[Obviously it’s supposed to say ‘Don’t throw trash out the window’, but despite Spanish being one of the easiest languages to spell, I often see people mixing up votar and botar. But that’s another story.]

While it might seem like common sense, or at least common courtesy, not to throw rubbish out of a moving vehicle, it isn’t in Bolivia, Peru and, to a certain extent, Ecuador. But at least Ecuador puts up signs like this one and provides bags for rubbish on bus journeys. And since I’ve only seen someone throwing rubbish out the window once, I’ve got to assume it’s working.

This behavior seems incredibly selfish and ignorant to me, and I get really mad when I see people doing it. However, the other side of it is that people make a living sorting through rubbish and recycling salvageable material. If someone is always ready to go through your waste for you, then you don’t really have any need or incentive to do it yourself, let alone think twice before littering in a public place that will get cleaned up quickly.

If you’d like to find out more about recycling and the informal economy, this interesting article explains about the system in Lima (which is very much like that in La Paz). For a look at Uruguay’s recyclers, see our blog post.