Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Amazon Jungle

My next adventure was in the Amazon Jungle. For two weeks, Chris and I took separate paths, as I had booked into a retreat near Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon. Chris’s adventures took him down a mine in Potosi, and to the world’s largest salt pans near Uiuni (both in southern Bolivia), before heading to Arequipa in Peru (where he took a trip to the Cotahuausi Canyon). Then he spent a few days in Miraflores, the posh bit of Lima, where I met him after flying back from Iquitos.

To get to Iquitos, I flew from La Paz to Lima, then to Iquitos. The flight to Lima was awesome, with clear views of Lake Titicaca, and many of the mountains we’d been to, as well as the canyon country around Arequipa. The flight onward to Iquitos was a necessity, as Iquitos is the largest city in the world to have no road connections to it! The flight was again scenic, and seeing unbroken jungle for nearly an hour with no signs of human activity is a wonderful thing - there are still some unspoilt places left in the world.

Iquitos is a noisy, warm and humid city on the banks of the Amazon, built with wealth from the rubber trade. The city centre has some interesting buildings from that era, including a steel building in the main plaza made by Gustav Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame). An amazing market in the district of Belen sold hundreds of types of fish (many which would sell for a fortune in aquarium shops in the West), and hundreds of unusual tropical fruits. I sampled lots of these fruit - some delicious, some I never found out which bit was supposed to be eaten!

There were various things of interest to do around the city. The Butterfly Farm was my favorite - Not for the butterflies, but for the animals they had rescued from the pet trade. I fell in love with a Capuchin monkey called Toni, who for my entire visit draped herself around my neck and made happy noises in my ear. She was a bit jealous though, and attacked any women who came too close!

My main reason for being in Iquitos was to go to Blue Morpho, a jungle retreat, where traditional Amazonian plant medicine is taught. It was an amazing and truly eye-opening experience, which was too bizarre to go into details in this post (Anyone wanting to find out more, please contact me). Suffice to say it was the best 9 days I’ve ever spent, in beautiful jungle, with simple but lovely accommodation, great food and great company.

After Blue Morpho, I flew back to Lima and met up with Chris again. The next day we took the bus to Huaraz, some 7 hours bus ride to the north, in a valley between the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Negro ranges. Huaraz is a pretty place which is the gateway town to the Cordillera Blanca, a long range of big (6000m+) pointy granite mountains covered in glaciers. Our objective was to trek in the mountains, so the next day we took a collective to the smaller town of Carez (north of Huaraz) and then another collective to the small village of Cashapampa, where the popular Santa Cruz trek starts.

Lots of trekking companies take tourists on the Santa Cruz trek, but this time Chris and I were doing an unsupported walk, and were carrying all our own camping gear and food. The trek started by heading into a steep gorge which breached the otherwise impenetrable-looking cliffs. After a few minutes, we found a level grassy area by the river to camp. Perfect, except for the sandflies (which reminded me of New Zealand!). Unfortunately, nights are long in Peru (12 hours) which is longer than I like to sleep, but that aside I had a good night.

The next day we climbed steeply up the gorge, which had a wonderful flora of cacti and bromeliads. (The climate in the Cordillera Blanca is wetter than in Bolivia and southern Peru, so the vegetation was much better!). Then the valley opened up into a flattish U shape valley with lakes, and vertical valley walls.

Our second night was by one of these lakes, a beautiful but somewhat windy spot. Some purple lupins sheltered us a bit. The following day we continued up the valley, now with pointy ‘Matterhorn’ like peaks, all snow covered, on each side of us. Quenoa tree forest (Polylepis spp.) grew at the lakeshore- one of the most beautiful trees in the world, with peeling papery red bark on gnarled trunks, and leaves like small rose leaves (to which it is related). Quenoa holds the record for growing at the highest altitude of any tree in the world - over 4500m in some places.

We decided to do a side trip (from the main trek route) up a side valley to Alpamayo base camp. This was a highlight of the trek, as once in the hanging valley, the views of the surrounding mountains was much better. The valley was stunning too, with red mistletoe (indistinguishable from New Zealand red mistletoe) flowering in huge quantities (introduced possum have all but wiped out mistletoe in NZ). Alpine meadows were full of alpine flowers too, and the head of the valley was a full semicircle of glaciers and peaks of 6000m or more. We finished the day heading back to a beautiful (if cold) campsite in the main valley, at 4200m.

The next day we crossed over a pass at 4700m, into another valley system. Different mountains, new and exciting plants… Heaven! Then a last camp, before finishing the trek. However, the excitement had not finished - the Collectivo van we caught to take us back to Caraz had sheared 2 wheelnuts on one wheel, and negotiated another spectacular 4600m pass (and steep twisty roads) with frequent stops to check the wheel, tighten the nuts, and even (once) change the wheel. So it was late in the day when we finally got back.

Our last adventure in the region was a ‘plantaholics pilgrimage’. I wanted to see the world’s largest bromeliad, the giant Puya raymondi, which is endangered, and only grows in a few spots in Peru and Bolivia, including a site at 4200m in the Cordillera Negro above Carez. To do this, we hired bikes, and got a bus to a high pass in the mountain range, then cycled a few kilometers to the site.

Bromeliads covered the mountain slope, which was otherwise bare of everything but small cacti and brown grassy stuff. They grow for 70 to 100 years, before flowering and dying, and form enormous, spiky rosettes up to 10ft across on trunks up to 10ft high. Magic! After this, we had a 42km freewheel to Carez, losing 1900m of altitude!

Back in Lima, we stayed with Eric, a Peruvian dancer who Chris had become friends with during his previous stay. We had a magical 3 days stay with him, going to dance performances, meeting his friends, and best of all, being filmed for a music video which Eric was dancing in (Andy appears for 3/4 of a second at 1:33 and Chris appears for half a second at 4:02!!). The video was for a talented singer/ songwriter called Damaris, who is an up and coming pop star in Peru, and sings in the native Quechua language. I can recommend her CD if you can find it! More songs of hers on YouTube.

Finally, we returned to NZ via Buenos Aires. Now I’m back, life is full (too full!), and I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time at our ‘bach’ (holiday cottage) near Ruapehu, the volcano in the centre of the North Island. It’s a beautiful place, and I’ve got 60 trees to plant next week!


Saturday, August 16, 2008

More photos added....

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Up mountains & off to Chile

In this post, the highs and lows are sea level to 6439m..... And I´m much happier!
Since the last communication, the four of us (Me, Chris, Fred and Hazel), with the help of Jesus the mountain guide, took a trip to Ilamani, the highest mountain in the Cordilleria Real, the range next to La Paz, and the second highest in Bolivia after Sajama (more about that later).
We started with a jeep trip- four hours through windy roads up and down deep valleys, to a village at about 4000m on the slopes of the mountain (and only about 30km as the condor flys from La Paz). From there, our luggage was carried by mule to a flat paddock area by a stream- a lovely base camp. Several other parties were also camped there. Although only 4400m, and warm before the sun went down, my watch registered a temperature of -17 degrees C overnight under the tent fly!

The next day we walked up screes and rocky buttress to High Camp at 5400m. I felt I was going up at a good pace, but then our porters ran past us carrying our heavy packs....(I wouldn´t have liked to do it without the porters!!!)

Not a pleasant place to camp, at the edge of the snow and ice- with a few rocky tent spots, and no running water (and it takes a long time and lots of fuel to melt snow for cooking and brews). Even colder at night, but I didn´t check the temperature. I didn´t sleep either- and we had to get up at 1am for breakfast and a 2am start up the mountain. Fred was at his altitude limit, so didn´t attempt the climb. Jesus led all the rest of us on one rope. It was more of a plod than a technical climb- with the steepest bit only 50 degrees. I felt quite good at the altitude, and it wasn´t until the last couple of hundred metres that I was really gasping. The biggest problem was the cold- probably -30 degrees- my hands and feet kept losing circulation. Hands I could warm in my armpits, but feet I could only wiggle. (They didn´t get frostnip, but I have lost sensation at the tips of my toes- I think it will take a few weeks for the nerves to regenerate).

Dawn dawned while we were on a steep bit- Incredibly beautiful, but I daren´t get the camera out! We summited at 8am, but didn´t hang around long, as a breeze really sucked heat. ( I never want to be in a storm on Everest!!! Even a 10km/h breeze is bad enough...).

On the way down, I ´Hit the Wall´ as marathon runners call it- my legs gave way several times from lack of energy. Not fun... force feeding myself chocolate was hard, and I didn´t recover until a rest and food at High Camp. Then back to base camp for the night - a 2000m descent.

Back in La Paz, and Hazel had her sights set on climbing Sajama, the highest in Bolivia (100m higher than Ilamani). Sajama is close to the Chilean border, and I suggested going to Chile to renew our visas (as we had a 30 day limit and the alternative was to spend a day renewing them at a government office in La Paz, with the exchange of $$). So I booked to Putre, a town on the Chile side, for all four of us.

Then Fred got gastroenteritis, and was really sick (Sounds familiar??). So we changed our plans, and scrapped the idea of climbing Sajama (Chris and I weren´t too disappointed- the mountain has a reputation for windiness). But Chris, Hazel and I still needed to renew our visas, so took the bus anyway, leaving Fred (who didn´t need to renew his visa) in La Paz.

As the bus approached the border, the scenery became more than beautiful- more like stunning- some of the best scenery I´ve ever seen! National parks covered both sides of the border, and the high (4500m) altiplano had lakes covered in giant coots, ducks and the odd flamingo, with herds of Vicuna (llama like animals) grazing the edges. Massive and perfect snowcapped volcanos backdropped the scene, and the air was the clearest I´ve ever seen, with deep blue sky. (Am I going on a bit?). The only downside was a slow border crossing with Chilean customs making New Zealand´s look slack. Chris forgot about a tomato he´d left in his rucksack and was lucky to avoid a fine.

Dropping down to Putre (3500m), we were dropped off on the roadside , and had a mile walk across a desert gorge (a botanist´s paradise with cactus and desert flowering plants) to the town, where we booked in a cheap backpackers. The next day, we took a tour of the Park National Lacuna, spending more time in the amazing scenery I´ve just described, and also visiting Parincota, a village with a cute church built some 400 years ago. Hazel, unfortunately, was sick with (guess what ?) diarrhoea and vomiting, so didn´t get the most out of the tour.
Unfortunately, it seemed to be impossible to book buses back to Bolivia from Putre- the options were stand at the side of the road and hope a bus with free seats would stop, or get a bus to Arica (on the coast 2 1/2 hours away) and book back from there. Hazel was keen to rejoin Fred in La Paz, but after the experience of an Australian family (who stood at the roadside all day with no buses stopping), she decided to join us in visiting Arica.

The bus dropped from Putre (and scrubby vegetation with lots of cactus) to more arid conditions as the altitude dropped and we approached the Atacama desert. We passed a narrow band where the only vegetation of any sort was the Candelabra cactus- a wierd thing which has a juvenile growth of a single, thick and very spiny trunk to about 3 metres, then explodes into a writhing tangle of spineless stems. After that, the landscape was bare, sandy hills until we reached the valley floor, where a river from the high Andes allowed irrigated agriculture. An hour later, we were at the coast, and the small city of Arica.

We stayed at a wonderful backpackers ( The End of the Road ), which was far more like a homestay (and way the best place we´ve stayed so far ! ) run by an American called Franklin. It was 2 minutes walk from the beach in Arica´s suburb´s. Hazel just stayed one night before returning to La Paz, but Chris and I stayed two nights, so we could see a bit of the area, and paddle in the Pacific Ocean.

The next day, after a wonderful breakfast at our accomodation, Chris and I hired bikes, and cycled up a valley to an archeological museum (which displayed mummies and other artifacts fouund in the desert). The valley floor was irrrigated and grew olives, tomatos, mangos etc, but the hills to the side were pure rock and sand, showing no signs of erosion at all- not too surprising when it only rains every 10 to 15 years!

Despite being a desert, the sea breeze from the cold sea keeps the temperatures like an eternal spring- nice for cycling!

We lunched at the port, with pelicans, shags, and South American sea lions for company, sunbathed on the beach, but then ran out of time to cycle down the coast to the sea lion haul out. (A shame - I´d have liked to compare them to my more familiar NZ sea lions....).

We took the bus back to La Paz yesterday, and Chris got sick- foul belches indicating an anaerobic bug, so I cured him quickly with a strong dose of Flagyl (metronidazole).... so hopefully we can continue our adventures tomorrow !

Thanks to everyone who sent me e-mails - good to hear everybody's news !

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Update from Fred

Currently I´ve just been resting up in La Paz due to some bug or other, while the others have hi-tailed it off into Chile to do their version of Ru hunting minus a gun, whilst conveniently renewing their short lived Bolivian visas (us Brits can stay indefinitely).

When they arrived at the bus stop, Putra, the little town they were headed to, turned out to be a Pueblo (village) on the other side of a couple of ravines, with no bus terminal or bus booking system.

Now Hazel has the bug and, having survived the Ru hunt, will get a bus from Putra further into Chile, stay the night and then book a bus direct to La Paz. I suspect I will be doing some home cooking whenshe finally gets here. No doubt Chris and Andy will turn up at some stage.
Meanwhile I have had a lovely time visiting some very interesting museums and reading up on Bolivian history.
There is a referendum in a few days (dont ask me why), and so they have been having the usual political activity leading up to it - far more interesting than apathy and the leaders telling lies on telly as in England -
For instance today the miners (of minerals) have been in town in force and as I was sauntering up the hill from downtown they were parading down the main street in their thousands. As they came on their leaders were shouting slogans and then the rest shouted their replies. Every now and then one of them would fire a tripple banger into the air. It would sail up and then explode either in the air or on the street. The usual crowd on the pavement were often a bit cowed by the noise and uncertainty of it all. Occasionally an extra loud one would go off.
There isn´t much danger of things getting out of hand as there is a very large army and police presence in La Paz. Yeaterday I counted over thirty police lazing in a plaza in full uniform with rubber bullet guns and huge cartridges on their belts and large perspex riot shields. According to the locals its all normal. (Of course Bolivia is not noted for the longevity of its governments)
Apparently Bolivia relies on minerals for a good share of its income but does not help the miners with injuries or diseases (eg lung disease)
The Incas apparently had a social welfare scheme of sorts so things may not seem that good to the campesinos.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Illimani - report from Fred & Hazel

Yes we´re already back from our latest jaunt.
Getting to Illimani starts with a 4 hour drive by 4wd through mountainous terrain (only 46 kms), and finally arriving at a tiny village at the end of the road where the main occupations are growing papas (spuds) and other crops, and supplying porters and mules for the fairly frequent expeditions. From there mules took our packs up to base camp at 4400 metres. Next morning Andy measured the air temp at minus 17 deg C. Its a very dry cold so we were cosy at night. (Every day is sunny and hot in the sun and every night is clear and cold and it is usually not very windy - this is Bolivian weather from about May to September. The rest of the year it is wet - ie topsy turvey when compared to most other countries)
The next day we carried our day packs up to high camp at 5400 metres (at the snow line) while we trudged up with our day packs.
The high campsite had about 20 people in a small space when we arrived. Luckily most of them were on their way down so we had somewhere to pitch our tents. Hazel and I were very comfortable on the snow.
Unfortunately for me this seems to be the limit of my energy so I stayed behind while Hazel, Chris, Andy and Jesus, our guide headed up the snow at 2 am (so as to be back before the sun softens it). They finally reached the summit (6400 metres) at 8 am. It was apparently very cold up there so they set off back down straight away and got back to camp at about 11 am.
Meanwhile I had been melting snow for 2 hrs to have enough water for drinking and cooking. Our petrol stoves worked well.
After an hour to recover we set out for base camp again, where we stayed last night, and this morning headed back to La Paz.
Its been a very exciting mini expedition but nice to get back to the comforts of the hostel, and a couple of days to recuperate.
All the Best

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Highs and lows

Hi Everyone
Since my last post, Chris and I arrived in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, expecting to meet friends Fred and Hazel. However, they hadn´t arrived. And they didn´t the next day, or the next day. Finally, 3 days late, they arrived. Through no fault of their own, they missed a connection in Miami and American Airlines left them stranded with no compensation at all, having to queue daily for stand by flights. They camped in the departure lounge!

Meanwhile, we got fairly sick of La Paz- metaphorically and physically. Its a cold and very smokey city in a valley where pollution can´t escape. Walking the streets is like smoking 20 cigarettes! Why they can´t tune the deisel engines properly, I don´t know. We saw all the sights we wanted to see ( shops selling dried Llama foetuses, amongst other things- apparantly to bury under the foundations of new houses to appease Pachamama, the Earth Mother Goddess. They do this despite being nominally catholic).

Then, about the time Fred and Hazel arrived, we both got very sick with the worst cough/ flu thing I´ve had in years, so we were stuck in bed for another 3 days or so, sounding like tuberculosis sufferers ( we were told). Finally, a week after arriving in La Paz, all 4 of us escaped to the cleaner (and thicker) air of Sorata, at 2500m ( a thousand metres lower than La Paz). Sorata was lovely, a relaxing place where we spent 2 days before all heading up to Laguna Chiliata ( a lake at 4200m on the flanks of Ilampu, a 6300m mountain). We hired a couple of mules to get our gear up, which really helped!

Chris and I camped just one night, and returned to Sorata the next day (due to a cycling thng we´d booked on the following day), but Fred and Hazel went higher, to 5000m for a few days to acclimatise.

Chris and I had booked on a 5 day trip- 2 days mountainbiking and 3 days down the river thru jungle, to the Amazon town of Rurrenabarque. The first day mountainbiking was amazing! Jeeps took all 9 of the people booked on the trip to 4800m above Sorata, a dry, windswept and (in places) snow sprinkled mountaintop, where we were given rather heavy, full suspension downhill
bikes. The rest of the day was spent tearing down 4WD tracks, thru villages, along ridgelines, and finally down to the river at 800m altitude- a 4km drop! The vegetation changed from tussocks and flocks of Llama to a beautiful dry landscape of many different cactus, bromeliads and agaves (succulents). The jeep then picked us up and drove the last 15km down the valley to Consata, and in 15km the vegetation changed from desert to tropical rainforest, the most dramatic vegetational change I think I´ve ever seen!

The next day was hot and rather cross- country, so was less fun- but ended at Mapiri, a town having a fiesta, with many dancers and rival bands trying to drown each other out! The next day, we took a riverboat downstream- along a very silty river, with small goldminers every few hundred metres sucking up river sediments with small petrol powered dredges. More unpleasant were the huge chunks of hillside washed away by miners, silting up the river. We camped at a rubber tappers camp, and the next morning, walked up to some delightful waterfalls
and plunge pools on a side valley for a swim. Unfortunately, I was unwell again with the squits- a hazard when travelling- which made me feel rough for the next day or so.

The next 2 days we boated through Indian reserve, then National park, with regular walks in the forest. Unfortunately, the wildlife kept a low profile-plenty of tapir, peccary and puma tracks were seen, but no actual animals. The biting flies, on the other hand, were evil.

We arrived finally at Rurrenabaque, a pleasant small jungle town with fantastic cafes and restaurants. Here we booked a Pampas tour for the next 3 days. These had been recommended by many people, but when we arrived at the pampas after 3 hours bumpy jeep ride, we were dismayed to see a hundred or so backpackers gathered around boats on a small muddy creek. Oh no! I thought.... Mass tourism! I needn´t have worried- the people went away in small groups of 6 or 8 on dugout canoes. We were last to go, and from then rarely saw other boats. And the wildlife was ultra - stunning! Yellow caiman (a crocodile about 3m long) virtually smothered the creek sides ( at least one per 10m of creek), with the odd, much larger black caiman. Capybara (giant guinea pigs the size of a large sheep) lazed on the banks, and loads of Boto (Amazon pink dolphin) swam around- How could this muddy creek, no more than 20m wide, support so many predators? Well, there were masses of fish- later we went pirana fishing, and the water did boil as soon as we dropped out hooks baited with meat in the water. (Catching them was more tricky, but we did end up with a nice feast of Pirana and several other fish varieties to eat). We also swam with the pink dolphins twice (and with the caiman and piranas, but we weren´t eaten. In fact, we never met anyone who had been eaten).

The bird life was incredibly diverse too- at least a dozen sorts of heron, darters, kingfishers, Jabiru stork, cormorant, hoatzin (a primitive bird with claws on its wings), and many others. A small anaconda and a big poisonous snake were found in the camp. Red howler monkeys and black howler monkeys and squirrel monkeys all hung out arround the camp too- all totally
unafraid of humans. Just shows what wildlife should be like when its not hunted.

Altogether, we had a great, relaxing time in the Pampas, marred only by the jeep breaking down on the way back to Rurrenabarque. Today, we flew back to La Paz, where we will meet up with Fred and Hazel and attempt to climb Ilamani, a 6400m peak looming over La Paz. Watch this space!



Saturday, July 19, 2008

Bolivia - Fred & Hazel

Hi all

Here we are back at Arthy´s Guest House after fun in the Sorata area (to the West of here).

Sorata is 1000 meters lower and therefore a lot warmer than here - you can watch the humming birds hovering and feeding off flowers.

We stayed at a little paradise, camped amongst the trees, with llamas tethered here and there, quietly mewing and grazing. The Bolivian owner is a very friendly fatherly figure and makes everyone so welcome you want to stay on.

From there we had 5 days in the surrounding mountains, which we accessed with packs on mules, you know, hands (and back) free. A day later we headed without mules up to a glacier lake at 5000 metres asl, where we acclimatised for three days, wandering around, practicing with ice axe and crampons on the glacier, and taking in the fabulous views. What we confirmed is that that is about my altitude limit whereas Hazel seems to have plenty of go left.

I have had lots of practice with my Spanish, including a long conversation with the police at the Sorata Police Station about the why´s and wherefores of our camera being ´stolen´. At any rate we have lost it. Two elderly women had their boots stolen from under their tent fly at about the same time, and one of them had to descend 1000 metres of rocky paths in her socks (the other was lent a pair of shoes by a muleteer). Needless to say the local situation is a bit edgy, and some
of the locals don´t like tourists going anywhere without a guide (money) which goes against the grain with independent minded tourists who are pumping money into the economy in all sorts of other ways.

Bolivia has a very large population of campasinos, the people who predate the Spanish by millenia, and are still the vast majority. Typically they are a friendly lot, not excitable, better drivers than the Indians (in India), and full of confidence. Many of the rural women look just like the pictures in magazines, with long black platted hair under bowler hats and with multilayered colourful gathered skirts and shawls. The total presentation is what was imposed on them by the Spanish 500 years ago (taken straight from current spanish dress), we are told. They are extreemly proud of this ´traditional dress´ now.

The men by contrast wear ordinary clothing but often have a close fitting wool hat and a padded or leather jacket, not surprising considering the change in air temperature at night on the altiplano at 4000 metres.

Amongst others we have met two young New Zealand couples staying at this Hostal, on their way to the Northern Hemisphere for work.

All the Best

Fred and Hazel