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!