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!



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