Saturday, 25 January 2014

Welcome to the Jungle

After a few day off at the Casa de Ciclista in La Paz it was time for a side trip into the Amazon jungle. I've had the opportunity to visit the Amazon ever since Colombia but I had been advised that the trips are best value in Bolivia and the jungle is "relatively" accessible from La Paz. The town of Rurrenabaque is about one full days bus ride from La Paz and is one of the main staging points for Amazon tours. (Or less than an hours flight if you have a slightly bigger budget.) Simon, Olivia and I staggered off the rickety old bus about 21 hours after leaving La Paz, yep pretty much a full days ride. Despite the humidity we all still had our raincoats on as there were several leaks in the roof of the bus letting a steady stream of water in from the rain outside.
The two main options in Rurrenabaque are a trip into the jungle with varying degrees of difficulty ranging from staying in a jungle lodge with all food supplied to trekking through the jungle for three days eating only what you catch. The other option is a trip to the "pampas" which isn't the jungle but you spend most of your day in boats on the river and you are far more likely to see a wider range of animals such as snakes, pink dolphins and caymans. Olivia had been unfortunate enough to have twisted her ankle for the second time in a week so herself and Simon opted for the pampas trip which involved less walking and I opted for the jungle. Tarzan.

The huge river Beni

For me the boat ride up along the huge river Beni was actually the highlight of the three day trip. It felt like something out of a Vietnam war movie heading up river, deeper into the jungle (...the horror). Among the touring cycling community there are chats about how much gear one carries and what is essential and non essential kit. I certainly wouldn't be travelling the lightest but I was glad to still have my mosquito net which covered the upper half of my body but which I had probably used only once since northern Canada. Clearly essential kit! I was some sight in my wellies, waterproof trousers, rain coat, hat and mosquito net. Not taking any chances I even had my cycling gloves on to cover up my hands so the only bit of me exposed was the tips of my fingers. Too much info probably but I was also some smell by the end of the three days trekking around covered up in all the gear in the high humidity. Before leaving La Paz I had heard of some pretty nasty infections and parasites one can pick up in this part of the Amazon as well as the usual malaria and dengue fever. I wasn't going to take any chances. Me not Tarzan.

No seriously I love nature.... and stuff..... and mosquitos... and spiders.... and snakes....
I'm a cyclist, get me outta here!
Over the three days I got to see some ants, (yep pretty cool), actually lots and lots of ants. Also saw puma footprints, some loud and pretty macaws and a very colourful Fake Coral snake. Not that it's not a genuine snake but a coral snake is venomous whereas the one in the photo is a fake Coral snake and not venomous. Apparently the rhyme goes: red touches black, venom lack. Red touches yellow kills a fellow. (Info thanks to my Canadian pals Karen and Mike who conveniently happen to be biologists when they aren't busy cycling the world. See )

A fake coral snake 
Ant junction

Two Macaws kissing in the trees
Drying out the wellies

Part of our camp
When I met back up with Simon and Olivia ( ) they had some pretty interesting stories of Olivia nearly getting bitten by a highly venomous baby cobra hiding by the toilet and a bunch of guys sinking their boat when they all decided to jump up as it looked like one of their guides was going to lose control of the cobra he was trying to catch and drop it into the small boat below.
We didn't hang around Rurrenabaque after we got back from our respective tours and managed to get the last three seats on a bus heading for La Paz that evening. Unfortunately being the last three seats they were right at the back of the bus making for an extremely bumpy ride. Numerous times we were launched several inches into the air and for once it wasn't because of team farts usual antics.
Less than an hour into our journey, after it had become dark, we had to get out our head  torches to make sure we could believe what we were seeing. Some extremely intoxicated guy standing in the aisle was in the process of urinating against one of the seats with someone in it! There were a few shouts when people realised what was going on but he wasn't put off the bus and of course went for a second attempt a hour later. Better put the rain coats back. Not much sleep was had that night. 
At around the half way stage at 8 am in the morning we were all dumped off the bus and told that we wouldn't be continuing until 5 pm because the road ahead was closed to clear a landslide.We were not happy campers with little to do in this tiny village for the whole day.
We were loaded back onto the bus shortly before five pm for our second bumpy night journey. There was a minor uprising when the bus stopped two hours later for a food break with half the bus wanting to continue straight through after the delay and the other bunch not wanting to arrive into La Paz in the middle of the night with nowhere to go as apparently it can be dangerous at that hour.

The skull of a cayman on the table in the office where we booked our tour

It was a relief to have finally made it back when we disembarked at around five in the morning. We were freezing outside the Casa by 6 am with no keys but thankfully Karen heard our second round of bell rings. It was just after sunrise and most definitely time for bed!
I've been lucky enough to do some amazing things on this trip but I'm not sure if my trip to the Amazon was worth the hassle!

Not much longer than a week after we returned from our trip to Rurrenebaque, the river Beni burst it's banks flooding the entire region, leaving more than 100 people dead and tens of thousands of cattle wiped out with Bolivian president Evo Morales declaring a national emergency. This area of Bolivia suffers from heavy flooding every year during the wet season but it was heavier than usual in 2014.

A large tree that we passed floating down the river Beni.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Lake Titicaca – Isla del Sol and on to La Paz

Lake Titicaca
 It did not take us long on the road in Bolivia to discover that paved roads in Bolivia aren’t as good as in Peru, dodging plenty of pot holes in our first few hundred metres. But it was only an hours ride from the Bolivian border to the very touristy town of Copacabana. For a small town the place seemed to have a huge number of tourists, mainly backpackers by the look of it. We didn’t hang around in the town for too long keen to try and get out to Isla del Sol that afternoon. The regular boat didn’t run until the following morning but thankfully a group of enterprising Argentenians managed to get enough of us together who wanted to head out that afternoon to make it worth the boat operator’s effort. Off we went. Not having anywhere to leave the bikes in Copacabana we decided it would be best to bring them with us despite the inconvenience of having to lug them and the many pannier on and off the boat. 

A few Colombian and Argentinian pals I met on the boat
Once disembarked at the village of Challapampa on the north of the island it didn’t take us long to find our way through a few streets and to a pretty beach where there were already about 12 other tents set up. It looked like there wouldn’t be much problem camping here… little did we know. Just after dark as we were setting up our tents along arrived four boys probably ranging in age from 10 to 14. They had spotted our bikes and they wanted a go on them… and they weren’t going to stop plaguing us until they got them. Poor Simon and Olivia were hit first giving me enough time to put up my tent and put everything bar the bike inside. After literally half an hour of pestering Simon and Olivia over they marched for my turn. I made the mistake of speaking Spanish to them so they knew I understood them. They continued to badger me for a go on my bike. They didn’t have a very pleasant tone and I told them there was no way they were getting my bike! It had the effect of dampening our initial excitement at seeing all the other tents on the beach, of course we were the only ones with bikes! Whenever I camp I am always very careful to secure my bike with my two heavy locks and a few bungee cords but for the first time on the entire trip I decided to try and take my bike inside my tent! Although I have a relatively spacious two man tent it was quite the squeeze but I managed it. I also locked my tent from the inside. 

Plenty of fellow campers on the beach
Well it's certainly cosy
Have those 12 year old bullies cleared off yet?!
Simon and Olivia didn’t have the luxury of bringing their bikes inside so by 7 o’clock the next morning they were woken up to the sound of kids ringing the bells on their bikes which they had secured to a nearby lamppost, being plagued by more kids…. “POR FAAAAVOOOOR”
Olivia gave the people what they wanted, or in this case gave the kids what they wanted and let them cycle her bike around the local basketball court, carefully supervised! She also decided to check out alternative accommodation options and came up trumps with a very cheap room overlooking the beach about 30 metres up the hill. I didn’t take any convincing! It was like being in a different place, no more harassing kids, the sun came out and we even had a picnic table!

Don't let go of my bike Simon! ... POR FAVOR!

The lady who owned the room where we were staying was a talented knitter
We got up relatively early the next morning with what we thought was plenty of time to catch the 8.30 am ferry but we missed it by an hour. We had forgotten to put our watches forward when crossing the border into Bolivia two days previous!

This little girl seemed fascinated with all the tourists
Checking out the local chocolate, not great
One for the road

Church in Cococabana
Once back on the main land we passed some stunning scenery by the side of Lake Titicaca as we wound our way up out of Copacabana and into the pampas. We got a stunning camp spot that night up in the hills overlooking the lake. It was time to return the favor and I invited Simon and Olivia over (to my tent) for dinner. A kind of quinoa, vegetable soup to start by the guys and I followed up with pasta, carrot, tomato and tuna. We certainly didn’t go hungry that night.

Picnic time

We camped in this families front garden
Within two days we had reached the outskirts of La Paz. We decided to bunch up and keep an eye out for each other as we negotiated our way closer to the centre in what seemed to be ever maddening traffic. We missed the autopista which would have had a decent shoulder on it so we took a proper zig zig down from El Alto which is a city in itself, through the various neighborhoods built up along the mountain sides and into the city centre which is located lower down in the middle of the valley.  I think we were all relieved to make it to the Casa de Ciclista in one piece. 

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Altiplano here we come!

Billy and Mike (photo thanks to Karen;
Both Simon & Olivia and Mike & Karen were heading south in the same direction as me so we had decided to leave Cusco together. On 30th Dec the five of us left the hostel to quite the fanfare with our fellow travellers giving us a great send off. We left slightly later than initially planned thanks to one of us taking slightly longer to pack up than planned… but who could that have been?!
The first 25 km out of Cusco seemed to be all downhill so it was fun to be cycling as part of a bike posy as we zipped out of town. That night we stayed in the front room of a family who kindly offered to put all 5 of us up. I wasn’t used to asking a stranger to put 5 cyclists up. It didn’t turn out to be the best nights sleep as once the lights went out out came the mice!
... and they all rolled over when the mice came out..!
Posse on their way into town
Picnic time on a rare find of a picnic table - well spotted Mike Dog
The following day involved more climbing and we stopped in a tiny place called Aguascalientes which is famous for it’s hot springs. It was New Year’s Eve so we spent the early evening in the hot springs and then had a drink or two in our room. We were all exhausted from our days cycling and lying in the warm baths for a few hours which meant we were all asleep by 10 pm. A relaxing and refreshing way to bring in the New Year!
The following day a few of our number seemed to have picked up head colds probably due to sitting in the roasting hot water in the cold air. By the afternoon we had made our way up onto the Altiplano. I was thrilled. It meant that the massive mountains of Peru were finally behind me and it was also great to take in some different scenery. We all had to wrap up when we got to the pass at 4,300 metres.
Poor Olivia was really feeling the cold at the top of the pass. Doing a good impression of 40 Coats.
Chilly at the top of the pass
Simon and Olivia love getting to the top of the pass

Camping out the back of the firestation
That night I introduced Simon and Olivia to their first night staying in a firestation!
We bid farewell to Mike & Karen the following afternoon as they were headed around the opposite side of Lake Titicaca in the coming days where as the rest of us were heading the main route as we wanted to check out Copacabana and Isla del Sol once we made it into Bolivia. We knew we would probably seeing Mike and Karen again once we all made it to La Paz.

There were some spectacular sunsets on the Altiplano

That night Simon, Olivia and I wild camped out on what are known as the pampas which are kind of open fields up on the altiplano. I hadn’t taken me long to figure out that both couples seemed to put a bit more effort and a bit more imagination into their camp cooking. Luckily I haven’t grown bored of the pasta, pasta sauce and tuna that I’ve been cooking up most evenings for the best part of a year and a half. That said, it was a pleasure to share a delicious stew (VEGTABLES and CHICKEN!!) that evening with Simon and Olivia. I think it was my first time to be invited over for dinner by fellow tenters so thankfully dress was casual. The next morning as we were slowly packing up a 14 year old boy came up and randomly gave us all hats! We know he was fourteen because the poor fella showed us his ID when he must have sensed that we didn’t believe him when he told us his age, he looked a bit older! Olivia returned the favor by gifting him her nice cashmere sweater that she had been planning on getting rid of. I gave him a biscuit.
Muchas gracias amigo!
What's up?
We were grabbed for a photo by some of these guys and their friends
Striking sculpture sticking out of the side of the cliff

My used looking carrier bag
Later in the day some clown told us that it was all downhill to our destination of Puno. Of course it turned out to be mostly uphill with a headwind for the afternoon with a small stretch of downhill at the very end. I think Simon was considering turning back to have a few words with the friendly gent who told us it was downhill all the way! It was fantastic however when we made our way to the top of the final ridge to lay eyes on the spectacular Lago Titicaca for the first time.
We then had a day off the bike in the lakeside city of Puno in order to go out and visit the famous floating islands of Uros. Despite being one of the biggest tourist traps I’ve ever come across it was still very interesting to visit these indigenous communities who have been living for centuries on these man made reed islands. 
On our way out to Uros floating islands just off Puno on Lago Titicaca
Uros - floating islands
One of the boats around the Uros
The next day back on the bikes was our last full day in Peru but unfortunately one we’d remember for the wrong reasons due to insane drivers with not one but two extremely close shaves, one by a car and one by a truck.

Ou la la! This couple from the South of France knew the three French cyclists ( I met on my very first day up in Prudhoe Bay.. un petit monde!
The sheet covering my bike managed to collect a lot of water after the night time down pour, pity the sheet is so dirty. 
As we got closer to the Bolivia border the landscape got rockier, it was like Connemara in the West of Ireland
On 6th January 2014 Simon, Olivia and I crossed into Bolivia. Not quite in convoy as I had unwittingly overstayed my 90 day allowance in Peru so had to peddle back to the previous town to make a three USD payment and return with receipt. Then the guy goes on to tell me that he needs 3 photocopies of this passport page and 4 photocopies of that passport page. Unfortunately I had made sure to spend every last Sol of the Peruvian currency I had left so had to pay in dollars for a few photocopies. As can often be the way at these border crossings the guys wasn’t the easiest to deal with so I was quite happy to be finally cycling over the border and into Bolivia and onto a new challenge. I was using the Peru Bolivia border as the three quarter mark of my journey. Although I now only have three countries left to cycle they are three big countries with plenty of challenges to go! Peru – Tick – Phew!

Mmmm cold oats