Tuesday, October 25, 2005

They speak Spanish in Bolivia, right?

Two posts in one day, you lucky lucky people. And it includes a piccie too (though not a proper travelling pic, just a screenshot).

Just to give you an idea of some of the weirdness that affects internet cafes and general life here. Here´s a screen grab of the blogger comments screen that I got when trying to reply to a comment a few minutes ago.

Spanish is the official language of Bolivia but there´s several indigenous languages that are very common. You see them on shop signs etc, looking like Arabic of Hebrew. The guy using the computer before me must have preferred one of these languages and changed the setting. Of course, I´m not sure what to click to get it back to Spanish. Oh well.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Rumble in the Jungle

We did manage to get to Rurrenabaque and it was a pretty intense few days. Just got back from there this afternoon (Monday). The place is fantastic. A very small town kitted out mainly for tourism now with plenty of places to stay, eat, drink and book tours.

Okay, let´s start at the beginning. The flight out went okay. A very small plane with space for just 12 passengers. Eva and I sat at the front with the pilot and co-pilot immediately in front of us. The co-pilot had to move his bags from behind his seat so I could sit down. It´s great sitting there as you can watch them go through their checklist and look at all the instruments as you go along. No procedures for what to do if the cabin pressure drops as it´s not pressurized. The pilot gets to have a small oxygen mask that he wears all the time and that´s it. Mind you, if anyone get´s an oxygen mask I prefer it to be the person who´s going to fly and land the plane.

Rurrenabaque is only an hour away by plane but 21 hours by bus. We flew over some amazing mountains completely covered in trees / foliage / jungle and then landed at the most basic airport I´ve ever seen or can imagine. The runway was a long field of grass and the building was just a couple of rooms. They dump your luggage on the grass and you get to pick it up yourself. There were toilets but, hmmm.... number 1s only I think. Oh, and of course there´s a few cows wandering around outside as well just to give the full rustic atmosphere. No taxis to town, just a minibus that runs when a flight arrives.

Got into town and went straight to Hotel Beni (it´s by the Beni river) as it was recommended in our books but it turned out to be a mistake. The room was a bit crappy but we´ve stayed in worse and it was for one night only (was going on tour next day). I think I got about an hour´s sleep between going to bed at 10pm and getting up around 6am. Because it´s so hot and humid there, there are no windows in the window frame, just mosquito nets. You hear everything, from the guy snoring loudly next door, to the bloke that´s fallen asleep and left his tv on full blast, to the karaoke bar down the street, to Eva waking me up to tell me there´s a huge cockroach in the bathroom (ooh, more on cockroaches later).

After we had checked in to Hotel Beni, we went to a couple of tour agencies to book a 3 day tour into the Pampas. It was $25 per day per person, not the cheapest one but they seemed professional and better than the one that didn´t have any showers or electricity. Actually, where we went just had a generator that they switched on in the evening for a few hours, but it was enough.

The Pampas tour starts off with quite a journey to get you into the thick of things. A 3 hour drive by jeep across terrible roads followed by another 3 hours in a small narrow boat (with the most incredibly uncomfortable wooden bench seats you have ever known). Our jeep was driven by a man that looked incredibly like Vicky Pollard / Matt Lucas (?), but he was great at spotting things on the road and managed to show us an anteater wandering about. We stopped for lunch at some roadside restaurant which had cats, dogs and chickens scratching around the tables.

By the time we got to the boats we had made friends with the other 3 guys in our jeep and then teamed up with 4 girls that made up the rest of our group. We all got into the boat and set off for a journey that would leave us amazed at the scenery and wildlife, and amazed at how much our bottoms could hurt.

The wildlife is the key thing for the Pampas trip and we weren´t disappointed. Even before getting into the boat we saw an alligator (or croc, I can never remember which one´s which) on the other bank of the river. There were loads of alligators, caymans, capibaras, birds of paradise, etc. Loads of weird birds. A small tribe of tiny monkeys and howler monkeys (they really have the most horrible howl that sounds like some sort of dinasour that freaks you out in the middle of the night when you don´t know what it is).

We had a great guide called Louis who took us everywhere and amused us with his guitar renditions of Hey Jude and showing us how to see the poison from the huge wasps buzzing around our common area. The main activities included erm... going down river a bit to get a beer and watch the sunset, star gazing, alligator eye hunting (shine a torch in the night and their eyes reflect bright red), treking to find anacondas (found a 2 metre one after much squelching around through stinky swamps and fields), pirhana fishing (caught one but it was too small and I threw it back), eating the big pirhanas, swimming with pink dolphins (the river is full of aligators and pirhanas but the dolphins eat the pirhanas, so if they´re there, it´s safe to swim). Oh and of course quite a few mosquitos. It was baking hot too so everyone was covered in several layers of mossie repelent and sunblock. Unusually, I got away quite lightly with the bites, though I had a reaction to a bite on my left hand that made my whole hand swell up. A truly great time that the pictures won´t do justice to. You can see the wildlife brilliantly but getting close enough (or getting the boat to be still enough) to take a picture is very difficult.

On getting back from the Pampas we booked into the Hotel Tucan, which although being the same price as Beni, was like a palace. Well, maybe a palace with no glass in the windows, hammocks, breakfast and a roof terrace. Excellent.

After the Pampas we booked a one day tour into the jungle. It´s not a lot and the books say it´s not worth it but we really enjoyed it. Saw a tarantula, lizards, catapillars, loads of butterflies and lots of weird trees that can either heal or kill you with their sap. Drank water from chopped vines, ate the driest meal ever, sweated about 20 litres, swam in a river in my underpants (careful how you read that bit, there was a river, we swam in it, we wore underpants), waited on the beach for the boat back that was 1.5 hours late (though we did go through all the party tricks including the broom handle / long branch around the body thing.

The group gelled together over the past few days and on the last night, those that remained (some went for a 3 day jungle trip) all went out for a meal then drinks at the Mosquito Bar and onto a terrible dive of a club. There was a bit of a kerfuffle in the streets on the way back to the hostel when a group of drunk locals took a shine to the girls but nothing really happened and we all got back safely.

The flight back wasn´t as smooth as the one there but that might have been due to the fact that we were going back up to a high altitude. A few people felt sick including Eva and myself. Seems to be getting better after a few hours now. Oh and coming back to this height also caused some problems with bottles of stuff (soap, shampoo etc) so we had to repack some things before leaving the airport.

Got back to our old hotel, though we´re not staying the night. We´ve confirmed our bus tickets and tour of Uyuni. We leave today at around 9pm, sleep on the bus down there. Trying to figure out what our next step might be. After Uyuni we should be going to Peru but we have to book our entrance tickets to Macchu Picchu and we´re a bit worried they might be sold out. Also wondering if we should come back through La Paz or make our way there by some other route. But right now, I need lots of sleep. Hopefully it will be a comfy bus and good roads.

So out of contact again for another few days probably.

-- Oh, I almost forgot to add the extra bit about cockroaches. I´m sure you´ve seen films where the someone gets into a rustic South American town and there are dogs and chickens running about on the streets, the bars look filthy and the glasses and cutlery are dirty, but the town is some pioneer stop so has lots of people passing through etc. That stereotype town is Rurrenabaque, all set against a backdrop of amazing green mountains. Back to the cockroach. In the mosquito bar (where all the gringos hang out, drink and play pool) we saw the biggest cockroach ever. Slightly different and slower than the roaches back home but at 15cm long, I was very impressed. Got a picture of it so I can prove I´m not exageratting.

Updated with photos (29-Nov-2005) - Click for pics

There's already been a post with creepy crawlies so go there if you want wildlife pics. Below are some general ones from the Rurrenabaque trip.

The plane

Space is a bit tight inside

The airport at Rurrenabaque isn't that big either

An anteater makes it's getaway

Basic boats get you closer to the action, and the water

Ours was just one of 3 broken down vehicles. The roads are that bad (if you can call them roads).

The tree that says, "don't eat me".

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Making Plans For Nigel Timbo (II)

Did I say it was hard to make plans in Bolivia already?

Didn´t get to Rurrenabaque yesterday. Turns out that the airstrip at R can´t handle bad weather like rain. Beautiful day in La Paz yesterdsay, but rain in R, so no flights. When we got to the airport we met people who had had their flights from the day before cancelled and had been waiting in the airport since 5.45am that day. They were ganging together to try to charter plane to a another town nearby R and then take the bus from there. The plane would only take 10 people so we couldn´t join them.

We waited around a little bit until it was sure there were no flights that day and then took a taxi back into town. Now here comes another Bolivian experience.

Turns out that there´s a bit of a gas problem going on at the moment. Bolivia supplies gas to several different countries (Argentina, Chile, Peru) and there have been protests about the supply to these countries and the supply to the domestic market. Basically, Bolivians can´t get the gas they need. If I read the news right, there was a protest a few days ago and the supply was frozen completely, the police were sent in to break up the blockade, some people were killed but the supplies were restored. Now enough with the background ...

Yesterday there were more protests about the lack of gas and on the way to the airport we could see tens (if not hundreds) of people queueing in the road with small gas canisters (like the ones in standalone gas heaters). But we got to the airport fine. On the way back the blockades started. The 3 lane road back into town was blocked where we wanted to go so the driver just swung into the oncoming lanes and drove that way (bit scarey driving the wrong way down a motorway). Then it became obvious that the normal road into town was blocked so we took some side streets. Of course, not really paying attention to which direction the one way streets were meant to be going. We got stuck for a few minutes at one place where I thought it was just going to be forever. Then after a couple more streets the taxi driver announced that there was no way to get to the hotel. He dropped us off and we walked about 4 blocks to our place (carrying full packs, going up hill at this altitude was a bit tiring).

We will try to leave again today. Calling up the airline to see if planes are flying. If not then we might go for another option that was offered to us this morning. Go by jeep (plus driver) straight to R. 12 hour drive instead of a 1 hour flight but it will at least get us there and give us some time to do a tour there. We´re already out of time to do a jungle tour, but we can still do a tour of the Pampas where the wildlife is meant to be fantastic.

Bolivia. A totally different world.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Making Plans For Nigel Timbo

When they say it´s hard to make plans in Bolivia, it´s true.

Turns out we´re not going to Uyuni today, nor tomorrow. After trying to sort out buses (either fully booked or running from different towns for no apparent reason) and trains (blocked because of strikes in one of the towns), we gave up and delayed that trip for another week when the bus should be running properly.

This means we´ve switched our schedules and will travel to Rurrenabaque tomorrow. Of course that wasn´t too easy to plan either as the plane we wanted to take only flew on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The other airline company that flies there was booked, but it turns out that they had two spare seats on a later flight tomorrow so we grabbed them straight away (lucky too as when we said yes, another group was trying to get on that plane).

So now we fly on Tuesday afternoon to Rurrenabaque in a little 12-seater plane and then once we get there we´ll have to sort out some accomodation and a 4 day tour through the Pampas to see lots of wildlife. Maybe a jungle trip as well but there might not be that much time for it and they say that 1 day trips into the jungle just aren´t worth it. We´ll sort it out when we get there.


Another interesting thing for today. It turns out that today is the 2nd anniversary of the change of government. Let´s just say that the old government didn´t go too quietly and over 50 people were killed in the demonstrations. Our hotel is just off the main square and when got out this morning and turned the corner we noticed a definite increase in the number of police. Turned another corner and the roads were blocked with riot police in full gear (a couple seemed to be discussing how to get the most out of shotguns and teargas canisters).

Further down the road the people came, marching and chanting with huge banners to comemorate the people that died. There were lots of load (hopefully) firecrackers and the police were definitely on there toes (and the fierce police dogs were also jumpy).

The marchers were blocked from entering the main square where the presidential palace and parliment are. Instead they were re-routed down to the big main streets. Apart from the firecrackers it was all fairly peaceful, but it was an experience to witness. Also an experience to squeeze between the police and duck under one of the road blocks to get to the other side (it was the only way to get out in that direction).


Walked up to one of the lookout points in the city. It has the great name of "Killi Killi". Walking uphill is still a bit of a breathless experience but walking down again is like walking on air. Great views from the top. You can see the whole city crammed into the valley, sprawling from the depths and right up to the side of the mountains in a kalaidoscope of colours. Oh, and throw in a snow-capped mountain to top it all off. Looks great, and the air was clean up there too.

Got back down from the hill to take some money out and found that I´m already over my daily limit. Which it shouldn´t be, but maybe there are different rules for Bolivia. I wouldn´t be surprised.

All in all, La Paz is growing on me. Maybe it´s because we´ve managed to be more productive today but at the same time, take it easy in coffee shops and walking around. The good night´s sleep might have helped as well. The weather has been, let´s say, changable. It can be freezing cold at night, but nice and warm during the day. When we got out this morning, it was a lovely sunny day but in the afternoon it was pouring with rain, now in the evening it´s good again.

Right, off to get some food. Stomach can´t handle a lot of food nowadays. The glory steak days of Argentina are over. Now it´s simple sandwiches and maybe a muffin too.

Updated with photos (29-Nov-2005) - Click for pics

Police van

Stepped up police presence for the demonstrations

View from the Killi Killi lookout point

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Breathless in Bolivia

We´re now in La Paz, Bolivia and boy is it different. First of all let me get some boring travel details out the way.

We had a flight booked (back in Hungary) for Salta to La Paz, which sounds sensible enough. However, the route was bad. It was actually 2 flights; Salta to Santa Cruz and then Santa Cruz to La Paz. The first flight went via Cordoba (Argentina). This is like flying from Budapest to London via St. Petersburg. It was way out of the way. Oh well, we got here in the end.

We knew we were arriving late and weren´t sure how we´d get on in Bolivia so we booked a room ahead of time and then got a taxi straight from the airport.

Now, I´m just going to write this down as it comes into my head so I apologise if it´s a bit garbled.

The connection in Santa Cruz wasn´t that bad. We weren´t that sure what was happening to our bags but it did give us a chance to get some money out. Turns out our bags were having a good old time romping around in the mud. When we got them, they were absolutely filthy, and of course they made us filthy when we put them on our backs. Never mind.

Taking money out is a bit odd as it seems to be common knowledge that it´s hard to pay for stuff with a Bs100 note, but the cash machines only give multiples of 50 so you´re going to have loads of them no matter what you try to do. 1 USD is about 8 Bolivianos.

Before we got to La Paz we repacked our bags with altitude in mind. We´d heard stories of exploding shampoo and the like. So all the bottles of liquids went into the small carry on bags. When I checked them upon landing, they did indeed make a farty protest noise at being so bloated.

La Paz is apparently the highest capital city in the world. The airport is above it at over 4,000m is the highest commercial airport in the world. Carrying your bags out is a breathless experience. We got a taxi down the side of the hill to the town which is at a smidgen over 3,500m.

Almost forgot. When we left Salta the temperature was around 20-something C. When we changed planes at Santa Cruz it was 24C. When we touched down in La Paz it was 6C, and it felt it.

Checked into the hotel which is a bit of a grand term for a basic half-basement room with no heating (oh, yes, it´s cold). But they did have a toilet and shower with hot water (shower only, basin is only cold water). No towels or toilet paper but we´re prepared. Didn´t sleep too well though as it was noisy, freezing cold, I couldn´t breath properly and the pigeons outside our window woke me up around 5am. Oh well, not doing anything today, just taking it easy and getting used to the altitude. Sucking on cocoa leaves and drinking Mate tea seems to help.

We´ve booked a tour of Salar de Uyuni. It´s a 4 day / 3 night trip round great countryside and includes a visit to the largest (and yes, the highest) salt lake in the world. Apparently you drive across white salt with maybe a bit of water on top, making it seem like a true out-of-this-world experience.

Back to where we are right now, La Paz and my first impressions are, big, noisy, dirty, smelly, steep, poor, breathless, tiring, bustling.

The hotel is just off the main square, Plaza Murillo (named after a revolutionary president who was dragged out of his home and hung in the square). The square has got the parliment and presidential buildings on the sides and when we were there this morning they had a great military brass band belting out tunes. Some guy in a white uniform sang a great song and the tune could have just been some Henri Mancinni (?) film classic, it was so cool.

We then walked downhill to the main road which was partly closed due to more celebrations and stalls etc (not sure what they´re celebrating yet). The streets are full of people selling stuff from stalls (part of the celebrations) but then there´s also a load of people trying to sell you all sorts of crap on the streets, some are begging, some offering to clean your shoes. There are lots of the stereotype old bolivian mamas with leathery faces and weird bowler-type hats.

The shoe cleaners are scary. They wear full-face balaclavas (maybe to stop breathing in all the chemicals they use, but not sure). They walk through crowds and they look like really dirty guerilla fighters or something. Tried to get some pictures of the people on the street but they´re not too keen and they don´t look like people I want to cross.

The streets are full of police in full military garb. Not sure if that makes me feel safer or not. I think I´d like to think they weren´t needed. When we were down on the main street we saw one drunk guy get shuffled (manhandled) off the streets to somewhere unknown. We´ve heard that it´s probably best not to deal with the police if you can. Apparently quite corrupt but on the plus side, that means that you can buy them if you get into trouble. Hope we don´t find out if this is true or not.

That´s my brain poured out for now. Maybe another post before we do our 4 day tour, but most likely to be silent until we´re back.

Updated with photos (29-Nov-2005) - Click for pics

Police band in the La Paz main square. Parliment in the background.

Che's pretty big here.

A street seller rats on me, pointing me out to a shoe cleaner.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Some more pics at last...

Puerto Natales

Torres del Paine National Park

Another one from Torres del Paine

Osorno volcano

Bariloche lakes from the top of the ski lift

Vina del Mar, looking out onto the Pacific.

That´s pretty much the order we´ve been traveling in.

Currently in Salta which is a great place. Yesterday was spent going around in a 4x4 (yes, a real Landrover Discovery this time). Our guide plus another couple went all over the same sort of route as the Train to the Clouds. Saw amazing coloured cliffs, salt lakes, llamas, and of course plenty of clouds.

Salta itself is beautiful with great buildings, churches etc. Also lots of cafes to chill out in. Will take another look around now before heading off to Bolivia this afternoon.

Updated with new photos (29-Nov-2005) - Click for even more pics

Following the train tracks.

Cactus in ruins

Ruins at 4,000m

Salt flats near Salta

Getting the salt for your supper

Driving through the clouds with hairpin bends and almost zero visibility

Multicoloured Mountains

Elephant feet apparently

A steak so big that the camera has trouble focusing on it.

The Pain of Internet Cafes

The hostel computer can´t behave itself as it is so old that it doesn´t have usb ports. That meant that I couldn´t download the pics from the camera.

Went around the corner to a proper internet cafe and spent about an hour (well, about half an hour then left it with a guy there and came back later) getting the pics off the camera and onto a CD.

Ran out of time to put pics up yesterday so popped in now with the CD to do it. Turns out that there´s only one computer in the whole place with a CD drive and some kid is using it.

I really am trying to get the pics up. It´s just a huge, frustrating pain sometime.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Simmering in Salta

It´s been a hectic few days or maybe just hours that seem to be like days. We´re now in Salta. It´s hot. We´re back in good weather country and it´s meant to be about 34C today. Dug the shorts back out.

We managed to catch the bus from Osorno to Santiago and traveled through the night (quite comfy and got food plus films as well). Santiago was big and smoggy but worth the visit. Spent one day wandering around town and climbed up a rocky hill right in the middle of it. The next day was spent getting to Valparaiso and Vina del Mar. Beaches on the Pacific Ocean. Great. Got my feet soaking wet again by a rogue wave but still good.

Then flew via Buenos Aires to Salta. The plane from BsAs to Salta was delayed by a couple of hours. Though it gave us some time to phone ahead and reserve a room at a hostel and sort out Eva´s drink problem.

We had a bottle of Picso Sour from Chile. Half full/empty. It was in Eva´s small bag. She plonked it down outside BsAs airport while we waited for the bus and then a few minutes later someone gesticulated that the bag was leaking. Everything was soaked in Pisco Sour. A distinct smell plus a large degree of stickiness. The bag was also ripped inside. We transfered everything to plastic bags and dumped the original.

Dried everything out in the hostel and we´re off to buy a new bag now.

I´ll try to write more about Bariloche, Santiago, Valpairso, Vina del Mar and Salta later. Not much time right now.

Photos, yes I know. I might be able to sort something out later today if the hostel computer behaves itself.

Updated with photos (29-Nov-2005) - Click for pics

Santiago Smog as seen from the Santa Lucia Hill

And here's that hill

A view of Valparaiso's port

There was a huge photo exhibition in Valparaiso celebrating the human body. Here's one example.

Vina del Mar's beaches were nicer. Though I wouldn't want to swim in the water.

Waiting at the airport, a hornet says hello.