Epilogue: Cold Turkey.

1 04 2009

It’s very strange to be back home. I miss South America incredibly: the culture, the people, the food and the joy of backpacking and the unknown. When you are backpacking, no two days are the same. For now, I’m happy reflecting on the amazing time I had; the experiences, the lessons learnt, the friendships forged and the memories gained. However I know in the not so distant future, the itchy feet will return, and I shall escape once more…

I hope you have enjoyed reading about my Escape to South America. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to email me: mattjks@hotmail.com. Or perhaps you want to offer me a job, or maybe publish my writing, thus allowing to me earn a living doing what I love – to travel and to write – to inspire people, whether they are new to travelling, or have travelled extensively, to fulfil their desires and take time off from their normal lives. From six weeks, to four months, to two years – to discover and experience the world; whether to work, volunteer or simply explore.

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La Cidade Marvilhosa

3 03 2009

A short bus ride later we had arrived in Rio, or as the 10 million locals call it – Cidade Marvilhosa. First appearances seemed to support this: huge skyscrapers merged with jungle clad mountains, and were surrounded by golden stretches of sand and cool turquoise waters. Some of the world’s most iconic landmarks and scenery can be found here: the impressive Sugar Loaf Mountain, the famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches and the spectacular Christ Redeemer, standing on top of Corcovado Mountain, ever watching over the city.

On January 1st 1502, a Portuguese Captain, Andre Goncalves, steered his craft into Guanabara Bay, thinking he was heading up the mouth of a great river. The City takes its name from this event – Rio de Janeiro means the ‘River of January’. When gold was found in nearby Minas Gerais in the 1690’s, the city became the epicentre for the gold trade, and the sugar cane economy bought yet more wealth into Rio. By the 18th Century, the majority of Rio’s inhabitants were African Slaves, and almost nothing in the city remained untouched from their influence. This can still be seen today, in the music, cults and cuisine.

In March 1808, Dom Joao VI of Portugal became so taken with the city, that he proclaimed it “The United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves, of this side and the far side and the Guinea Coast of Africa”. Along with this mouthful of a title, Dom Joao’s reign also saw the introduction of paved and lit streets. With the boom of the coffee trade in the area, the late nineteenth century saw Rio start to develop as a modern city: trams and trains were replaced with automobiles, the first sewer system was introduced, and a tunnel was opened through the mountains, paving the way to Copacabana and beyond.

During the 1930’s, Rio enjoyed a reputation as home to the first generation of jet setters and Hollywood glamour filled the air. This in tow brought with it a wave of modernisation that saw Rio transformed into the city that exists today.

The only thing that seemed to be lacking on first impressions was the quality of hostels. There are so many hostels in the city, and the nice ones are far and few between. Having been unprepared, we ended up spending our first night in a not so nice one, which consisted of another Rio staple – rooms that sleep around 30 people, complete with three tier bunk beds! These are definitely not advisable after a few caipirinhas, or if you have a tendency to sleepwalk, or suffer from vertigo. Also air conditioning was at a premium, so sleeping on a third tier bunk, like I ended up having to, having drawn the short straw, was like sleeping inside a dead camel left out in the desert sun – not pleasant!

Fortunately it was only for one night, and we checked into a lovely hostel for the duration of our time. The Mango Tree was recommended to us by Jane, and had a lovely bar outside in the garden, a nice social atmosphere, hammocks and most importantly normal size bunk beds with fans and air conditioning! Another blessing was the lack of exposed wiring, plumbing and general lack of severe subsidence we had seen in some hostels…

Our first two days were spent just walking around and chilling out on Ipanema Beach. I would definitely recommend staying near Ipanema, as it’s generally a bit safer, the hostels are nicer and it’s a little more relaxed.

The beach itself is split into a number of sections, each allocated a number and defined by the clientele that frequent it. We stayed in the family section, having heard tales of some of the other areas…

The first night in Rio, we went out for drinks in nearby Leblon, one of the more affluent and trendy areas in the city. We also had our first food by the kilo meal; something I’ve only ever heard of in Brazil. Similar to a buffet layout, but your plate gets weighed at the end and you get charged by the kilo. I found it particularly hard to be restrained and to remember that it wasn’t actually an all you can eat buffet.

When we checked into the Mango Tree the next day, we met another couple from the UK; Steve and Iola. As we got talking we discovered that Steve had set up a company whilst at home, along with a friend, called the Tea Appreciation Society. (http://www.teaappreciationsociety.org/tea.asp?page=home) They had designed some T-Shirts, one of which was for the clothing company howies, who Claire works for. Another reminder that it’s a small world we live in! With time being of the essence, we decided to skip the beach for a few days and get about exploring the city.

We began at the Praca XV de Novembro, the former hub of Rio’s social and political life. Today its home to one of Rio’s oldest markets, on Thursday and Fridays, were its stalls are packed with traditional food, clothes and handicrafts. We then visited the Paco Imperial; these has served many purposes, from the Governor’s Palace, the Headquarters of the Portuguese Government in Brazil, and later the Department of Post and Telegraph. It was also here, on May 13th 1888, that Princess Isabel proclaimed the end of slavery in Brazil. Today it’s a popular meeting point and library.

We took a trip towards Rua Uruguaiana, whwere we found a concentration of shops known as Saara. Traditionally the cheapest place to shop, it was originally the centre for the Jewish and Arab Merchants, who moved into the area after a ban prohibiting their residence within the city centre was lifted in the eighteenth century. In the narrow maze of streets, you can find anything and everything.

From here we headed to Largo de Carioca, which is home to the Igreja e Convento de Santo Antonio; the oldest church in Rio, built between 1608 and 1620.  Rising up behind the church, is the unmistakable shape of the Nova Catedral. Standing at 83m high, the cathedral resembles some futuristic tepee. Built between 1964 and 1976, it can hold up to 25,000 people, and regardless of what you may think of it, is an incredible feat of engineering. The space inside is enhanced by the lack of supporting columns; four huge stain glassed windows dominate your attention, each measuring 20m by 60m. Its like no other building I have ever seen, particularly any other Cathedral.

Getting around Rio is very easy; there a large number of buses and subways, and you can buy tickets that combine the two. The day next day we headed across to another of Rio’s bairros: Santa Teresa. As it clings to the side of the hill, it necessary to catch the tram up to top, winding upwards, through its labyrinth of cobbled streets and early nineteenth century mansions and walled gardens. You also cross over the mid eighteenth century Arcos da Lapa, a monumental Roman style aqueduct.

Whilst there isn’t a huge amount to see in the area, the views over the city are spectacular, and there is a rather bohemian atmosphere to the place. Its home to many of the city’s artists and intellectuals, and the streets are full of galleries and little boutiques. There are also a number of good café’s and restaurants, one of which we found ourselves, passing the afternoon, drinking some cold local beers, eating some local snacks, and taking in some live jazz.

Rio’s favelas cling precariously to the hillsides, no matter where you are in the city, their prescence can always be noticed. Whilst not exclusive to the capital, the appearance of the slums seems harsher, in stark contrast to the glitz and beauty that surround them. In no other city have I seen such an explicit reminder of the divide between the rich and poor.

Every Friday in the area of Lapa is a massive street party. The street is lined with clubs and bars, and people spill out onto the streets and dance the night away to the live samba bands that play under the arches of the aqueduct. We decided to go that night with a group from the hostel. Whilst it’s definitely something that needs to be seen and experienced, its worth keeping your wits about you and remembering the old mantra, of safety in numbers. We had great fun dancing in the streets, but it quickly took a turn for the worse when a few locals started on one backpacker near us, and I found myself grabbed round the neck by a street seller for refusing to purchase some sweets from him. I’ll never forget the desperation in his eyes, as he demanded the equivalent of 10p of me. This was the point we decided it was time call it a night.

With only a few days left we decided to have a little splurge and treat ourselves; so we booked to go and do something we had always wanted to do; hangliding over the city! We went with Jane and her boyfriend, and it was a whirlwind experience. We got picked up early in the morning and taken over to the base of the mountain, a coupe of beaches round from where we staying. After a quick safety talk and we had signed our lives away, we barely had time to stare, wide eyed, up at top of the mountain that we would be running off, before we found ourselves in the car on the way up. It wasn’t until we saw the huge colourful gliders, and the 2 metre ledge jutting out of the mountain top did it sink in what we were about to do.

Helmets on and safety harnesses in place, we had small amount of time to practice our run. My instructor told me to place my arm around him, stare at the horizon, and keep running. On no account must I stop… simple huh! Then we were strapped into the glider, my hands clutching the cold metal bar, and my eyes focuses on the huge drop in front of me. I got the news that I would be first up… I’m not sure what it worse. Either way I couldn’t back out now, not with everyone watching. 3…2….1…

I ran as fast as I could, my feet pounding the hard gravel beneath me, my eyes not moving from the distant line of the horizon, topping the vast blue sea in front of me. Suddenly I looked down, my legs still moving, but no longer was there any ground beneath me, only my shadow metres below, laughing up at me, as I glided across the Rio sky. The feeling was immense – fear and adrenalin quickly turned into euphoria and a strange feeling of tranquillity as if I had done this before. The beach stretched out below me, the white crest of the waves playing below me. I could see roof top swimming pools with Rio’s elite taking a morning dip, cars moving below like ants, and the City’s great landmarks everywhere I turned. At one point, a flock of birds in V formation flew below me, as the thermals arising from the city, helped me soar higher and higher. Eventually we could fly no more, and it was time to feel the ground beneath my feet once again. We circled around and glided down onto the makeshift runway on the beach, my legs turning to jelly and struggling to gain traction as I drifted to the ground. I stood there, watching up as the others finished their peter pan moments and came back down to earth to join more.

We spent the rest of the day on the beach, sampling the delights on offer and soaking up what we had just experienced. The choice of food on the beach is unreal; no matter what you fancy from pizza, brownies, or even an Indian, it can be found from one of the street vendors roaming up and down.

There were also staggeringly high waves that afternoon, and still feeling a tad invincible I swam out to play. At around double overhead (12ft) these weren’t what you’d see on the average day in Aberystwyth. I swam into them, feeling their power take me back into the beach, before ducking under and back out again. I did this a number of times, before getting a tad too cocky and trying to body surf the wave too far: unable to duck back under, I found myself being dragged across the sandy beach, the fine sand leaving a friction burn the size of a two pence piece on my spine.

As I walked back onto the beach, a little dazed and my head full of seawater, I felt a warm trickle of blood drip down my back. I headed up the bar hoping to get a napkin to wipe it with. Instead I was told to turn around, which unwittingly I agreed to do, only to feel to sharp shearing burn as the vendor poured a large measure of Rio’s finest cachaça in an effort to sterilise my wound: a tad unconventional, but effective none the less.

Before we knew it, it was our penultimate day away before flying back to blight and reality. The world of 9-5 was just around the corner… We still had a few things left to tick off though before we had to face all that, so we headed back to Lapa: this time to visit the famous Lapa steps.

The Lapa Steps, are on of Rio’s lesser known landmarks, and are the brainchild of one man, a Chilean artist called Selaron. He came to Brazil in 1983 and fell in love wit the place, and a few years later, began work on the steps, as a tribute to his adopted country.

Originally the 215 steps were covered in blue, green, and yellow tiles, the colours of the Brazilian flag. However, now they are constantly changing, as people from every corner of the globe send in their contributions. Selaron spends every day tending to the steps, and laying the new tiles down.

The tiled stairway has graced the cover of everything from National Geographic to Playboy, it has even been in a number of music videos. Selaron calls the steps his ‘great madness’ and will not seize work on his piece until the day he dies.

From here, we headed up the last sight on our list, and one of the most famous: the statue of Christ Redeemer. It can only be reached by bus up Corcovado, and then tourist tram or bus to the top. We went on a tour that took us to a selection of viewpoints, thus affording us the opportunity to take some fantastic photos of the Rio’s skyline. From the top you can see the whole city, and standing at over 30m high, the whole city can see the statue which was finished in 1931.

That evening we treated ourselves to a fantastic meal at Zuka, a Brazilian fusion restaurant. It was the last supper on our South American adventure, that saw us take in everything: from the snow capped peaks of Patagonia to the mystical waters of the Amazon, and everything in between.

We checked out the next day; settling the bill with the last change we had, leaving not a penny in our account. There was still time for last drama though: the bus taking myself (Claire was booked on a later flight unfortunately) to the airport was very late, and we had to sprint down Ipanema to catch it as it shot past the stop I was waiting at, fortunately pulling in 100 metres down the road. As we reached it, in a hurry to quickly get the bags in the bus, I completely failed to see the old gentlemen cycling past, and as I swung my bag off my shoulders, I took him cleanly out: his bike flying onto the sand, and leaving him in a heap on the floor. I barely had time to apologise in broken Portuguese and attempt to help him up, before the bus driver shouted at me that he was leaving. I had no choice but to board, leaving my last memory of the city, of a crowd of angry locals raising their fists and shouted at me in a language I still had yet to get to grips with. I turned to wave out of the window at a rather wide eyed Claire, surrounded by the speedo clad vigilantes, as I headed out towards my final destination – the UK.





Bloca, beaches and Bardot.

19 02 2009

Arriving in Santa Cruz in the early hours, we got ourselves in the queue to buy our train tickets… Some say its called the Death Train because of the amount of people who died whilst building the line, others say its because locals hitch rides on the roof and fall asleep and drop off to their untimely demise… the most credible explanation though is because early on in the last century, when the region of Santa Cruz was suffering an epidemic of yellow fever, this train line was the line used to transport the dead bodies out of Santa Cruz and into quarantine areas. Hence the Death Train.

The train runs from Santa Cruz to the border town of Puerto Quijarro. There are three different train running – Regional, Expreso Oriental and Ferrobus. I would not recommend the Regional, as you there is the strong chance of you actually dying – either of boredom or being eaten alive by mosquitos. The Expreso Oriental though is half the price of the Ferrobus, and only 2 hours slower. We opted for Super Pullman seats (cheaper again) and were not disappointed. Our carriage was air conditioned, the seats were ample sized and comfortable. (more info can be found on www.ferroviariaoriental.com/ and www.chiquitania.com/pantanal_and_brazil.html)

The journey was great; watched our last few films in Spanish and got bombarded at every stop by hordes of children selling every type of meat imaginable, more often than not by dangling it inches from our sleeping faces to try and entice us… There were also a number of passengers dressed in traditional clothing, speaking in a Germanic dialect, with a word of two of Spanish in between. We found out that they were Menonites; (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mennonite) a group of Christian Anabaptist denominations named after Menno Simons, some of whom settled in the Bolivian Savannah in the 19th Century.

After a while, the gentle rocking of the train lulled us into a deep sleep, that no amount of charcoaled meat was going to wake us from. When we woke up it was daylight and we were approaching the last stop. A short taxi ride from the train station and we found ourselves at the border crossing into Brazil! A stamp in the passport later and we were through. We now needed to catch a taxi over the Rio Paraguary to the town of Corumbá, where we could catch a bus to the city of Sao Paulo. Fortunately we found a taxi to share, as they can be quite expensive, and we didn’t fancy taking our chances on the back of a moped!

The change in Brazil was multifaceted: firstly we once again felt like incompetent tourists as our grasp of Portuguese left a lot to be desired, we had to resort again to elaborate charades and slowly spoken Spanish. Secondly; everybody was very helpful and didn’t expect cash for their services. Lastly, however, it was much more expensive than any of the countries we had visited so far!

Fortunately for us, we met a local lad named Bruno who was on the way home to Sao Paulo after 6 months travelling. He very kindly arranged the most economic bus for us to take, and offered to teach us a bit of Portuguese and a bit about Brazilian culture and his home city on the journey.

Our hostel, O de Casa, was handily right near Bruno’s flat, so he helped us negotiate the subway and walked us to the door before saying his farewells. The hostel itself was very chilled, and had a homely atmosphere with a nice garden and large living room. Upon arriving we met two more local guys – Thiago and Leandro. They had just set up a new enterprise, to show visitors, the real sights and sounds of Sao Paulo. (http://www.soulsampa.com/sao_paulo/index.php) We booked ourselves a spot the next day.

The mid nineteenth century expansion of coffee plantations from Rio de Janeiro saw Sao Paulo’s fortunes start to rise. The region’s rich soil was perfect for coffee cultivation, and from around 1870, the city went under a massive transformation into a bustling business centre. As the local population could not meet the demands for workers for the ever increasing factories, the ‘coffee barons’ began to turn their attention to immigrants.

Sao Paulo is a city built by immigrants, whose arrival is largely responsible for making it the second largest city in the country. Conditions were initially appalling for the immigrants, with many dying of yellow fever or malaria whilst waiting in the port before being transferred. In response to the criticisms, the government opened the Hospedaria dos Imigrantes. Here vast dormitories, designed to hold around 4,000, were home to an estimated 10,000, crammed in together like cattle.

The population kept on rising, and the city is now home to around 12 million, and has a thriving cultural scene, as a result of its multicultural community. The food is fantastic too!

First stop on our tour was the city centre, where we visited the Praca da Se. The square is dominated by the Catedral Metropolitana. From here we headed up towards the Teatro Municipal, then on towards the Praca de Republica and the Triangulo. This is the business hub of the city, and home to one of the most important landmarks – the edificio Martinelli, which was built in 1928 and was modelled on the Empire State Building. We also took a tour of some of the street art, and visited some vintage record shops, where we learnt about some of Brazil’s musical greats, and the different styles of music inherent to Brazil and Sao Paulo. After which it was time for lunch – we were treated to some traditional brazilian food – I tucked in to a bowl of Feijoada; which is a stew of beans with beef and pork meats. As to which bits of pork and beef – its best not to ask! It tastes fantastic regardless!

It was Carnival time in Brazil, and sadly due to lack of funds we were unable to spend in the motherland of carnival – Rio de Janeiro. However, all was not lost in Sao Paulo. After lunch we headed out on the subway to one of the suburbs to a large community centre. Here there a large family event, with local samba bands and people of all ages dancing away and enjoying the mix of traditional and modern tunes. It was great fun, and a real chance to enjoy something away from the usual tourist trail.

The party continued into the evening, after heading back for a quick rest and some beers and pizza, we were back out on the streets for the local Bloca. Basically a street party and procession, which follows a selection of floats and bands through the streets: dancing, singing and drinking the night away. We stumbled into bed around 4am, our feet sore, but more than worth it!

The next day, after a considerable lie in, we headed down a great antiques market, just one block away from the hostel. We spent hours perusing the items for sale, wishing we had more money and a place of our own to put on the cool things we wanted to buy. On returning to the hostel, we came across Beth, an aussie girl who we had met in Mancora. That evening, we headed out once more, with a large group from the hostel, to a slightly salubrious end of town on recommendation from another local staying with us. A crazy night ensued… many caipiranhas were consumed! The Caipiranha is the traditional Braziliain cocktail – similar to a Pisco sour, yet much more sweet. It is made with lime and plenty of cachaça, a sugar can rum. More sugar is then added!

We decided it was time to head on, as we only had around two weeks left. We had planned on going to Ilha do Mel, but after checking the weather and seeing heavy rain forecast, we decided to head north towards the sunshine, and settled on Buzios. As the bus wasn’t until the evening, we spent the day in the park. Having decided to walk there with a picnic, we took a slight detour and turned up with a rather wilted lunch, and in desperate need for an ice cream. However with an ice lolly in hand, we spent the rest of our time in Sao Paulo relaxing by the lake, before heading to the bus terminal.

Arriving in Buzios, we checked into the Yellow Stripe Hostel. From first appearance, it looked like the most clean and stylish hostel we had stayed in during our time in South America. First impressions were not wrong; not only that, but it was owned by a great couple and had fantastic facilities. Our dorm overlooked the swimming pool. They also had a large living room, complete with Wii and the largest film collection to date, plus a great kitchen, BBQ and free beach equipment!

Buzios, once a quiet fishing town, was made popular by none other than Bridgette Bardot, who stumbled upon in whilst touring the area in 1964. As a result during the peak seasons, it can get very busy; however with 27 beaches, all within walking distance, or minibus service, you can be sure to find a suitable to relax on the beautiful white sand, or cool off or snorkel in the crystal clear waters.

Another thing we had to start doing now in Brazil was to cook for ourselves again. As with Argentina it is far cheaper to buy food and cook for yourself, and most hostels will have good kitchen facilities. It was great though to experience once again the social side to cooking in hostels – everyone sharing tips and compliments, and eating together. Another pointer as well for Brazil is the problem with the ATMs – only certain banks seem to accept foreign cards and also at certain times of the day.

Our week in Buzios absolutely flew by: we met a fantastic group of people, including Jane, a lovely Canadian girl. We went on a boat cruise, ate chocolate pizza, drank cocktails at sunset, feed the fish, drank out of a coconut, got attacked by giant moths, had fantastic crepes and beer, went to the most expensive club and regretted it, had the best BBQ since Argentina and got seriously addicted to Guarana.

It is the second soft drink brand most sold in Brazil, behind only Coca-Cola. Currently, it is ranked among the 15 brands most sold in the world! It tastes so good! We also had our first bowl of Acai – another Brazilian phenomenon. Blended with ice and served with Granola, it had become a staple diet for every Brazilian and backpacker alike… I however was not a fan.

Our week in the sun though had to come to an end eventually… and so we boarded a bus, with Jane in tow, to our final stop on our Escape to South America: Rio de Janeiro.





Mines, Markets and Muerte.

12 02 2009

Arriving in Sucre in desperate need of a shower and a fresh set of clothes, we headed out to catch a taxi to our hostel. This proved harder than it should have been due to Sucre’s taxi drivers being the first in South America to refuse to barter in any way. Furthermore they must be the only taxi’s in the world who are more expensive, the more people you have in the car – I assume this only applies to Gringos, but they all were in cahoots and stated that they charge per person…eventually we succumbed to our own body odour and begrudgingly paid for a taxi to La Dolce Vita hostel.

The hostel is perfectly situated in town, close to the market and main plaza. Whilst slightly more expensive than other hostels, it has a very homely feel and the owners, a lovely Swiss French couple, made sure we had all the information we needed on the local area. We paid a little extra and had a private room with ensuite and balcony; it’s definitely nice to have your own space every now and then, to spread your things out and not worry about other people.

Founded in the mid fifteenth century, Sucre’s official title was Villa de la Plata (City of Silver) due to the large amounts of silver found nearby. The first half of the seventeenth century was the city’s golden age, as wealth produced from the mines from nearby Potosi saw the construction of lavish palaces, extravagant churches and stately administrative buildings. After independence, La Plata was made the official capital of the newly founded republic, and renamed what we know it as today – Sucre. However the city’s economic importance slowly began to decline and the Civil war in 1899 between La Paz and Sucre, which resulted in the seat of both congress and the presidency being moved to La Paz, only served to confirm the long established reality that Sucre had had its time in the spotlight. Nonetheless it was still allowed to retain the title of official, or constitutional capital, and today remains a tour de force of immaculately preserved colonial architecture, and is widely considered the most beautiful and sophisticated city in Bolivia, particularly by locals.

Sucre is home to some of Bolivia’s finest museums. We decided to first pay a visit to the Casa de la Libertad. Situated of the northwest side of the Plaza 25 de Mayo, it it where the Bolivian act of Independence was signed on August 6th 1825: it now houses a small but very informative museum dedicated to the birth of the republic. On display is the original signed document proclaiming Bolivia a sovereign and independent state, as well as a gallery of portraits of almost all of Bolivia’s presidents; there certainly have been a lot of them!

Sucre also serves as the administrative and market centre for the Quechua speaking indigenous communities that live in the mountainous hinterland, who are particularly renowned for their beautiful weavings. The next museum we visited pays homage to their traditions and the importance of their needlepoint to their society. The captivating Museo de Arte Indigena is dedicated to the disitinctive weavings of two local indigenous communities, the Jalq’a and the Tarabuquenos. The museum was set up as a large project that aimed to bring about a revival of indigenous art and turn their weaving craft into a source of income for hundreds of desperately poor campesino families. As a result of cheap imitations and also a decline in interest, the skills that had been passed down for generations, were in danger of being forgotten, as both men and women left their rural towns in search of work in the city.

The museum is well laid out and displays a collection of tools, photos and maps that explain the weaving techniques, the method used to the make the natural dyes, as well as explaining the weavings themselves and their relevance. Each weaving tells its own story and its style is distinct to the group it was produced by. There is also the opportunity to watch first hand some of the weavings being produced; it was fascinating to witness these women produce an intricate work of art, out of what was originally appeared to be two rolls of coloured string wrapped around a frame. Their tiny weathered hands delicately picking at the strings in an instinctive manner, as they slowly wove their story into life. I was so impressed, and felt so fervently that these skills should not be forgotten that I purchased a distinctive Tarabuqueno piece for myself from the shop that is on site.

The historic city centre was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1991, and strict building codes means most of it has been preserved as it was over a hundred years ago. Neon signs are banned, and regulations require all buildings to be whitewashed once a year mainlining another of Sucre’s ostentatious titles: “La Ciudad Blanca de Las Americas” – the White city of the Americas.

There is not better place to view the ‘White city’ than from the mirador (viewpoint) at Plaza Pedro de Anzures that affords brilliant scenic views across the terracotta orange roofs and steep cobbled streets, and further onto the sloping highlands that surround the city. There is also a great café that serves fantastic tea and cake, and pasta dishes which you can eat whilst playing chess and taking in the sunset over the city.

We also ventured to the food market to buy dinner for one evening. The market is just off the main square and is a rich cornucopia of smells and colours. Herbs and spices of every variety, bloody slabs of meat of every description, five storey blamanches and every fruit and vegetable under the sun makes the trip to the market an un-missable experience, not only for the sensory attack, but also the fact that a three course meal costs the same as dodgy kebab back home.

After we cooked our delicious (and cheap) dinner we went for a drink at the Joy Ride Café, a typical backpacker bar, but it has a nice atmosphere with both locals and travellers socialising together and enjoying the good music and wide selection of beers. On our trip home though, as we were crossing the square, there was a definite party atmosphere. The square was packed with people, all carrying…. water guns and water balloons. Before we could even say ‘anorak’, like vampires to fresh blood, the word gringo was alive in the air. The H2O civil war was halted and the forces united on a full gunned assault on their foreign counterparts. Young and old took great glee in launching water balloons from less than a metre way straight at our heads. It was great fun though, fruitlessly trying to dodge the attack, and as we were quickly soaked through, we just took up arms and joined in, even if we were slightly outnumbered!

One of the most popular trips from Sucre is to the small rural town of Tarabuco, famed for its Sunday Market, where the local indigenous communities come to sell their wares. Whilst it’s beginning to become a bit of tourist trap, there is still plenty of scope to grab a bargain, or two! I took the opportunity to purchase some presents for everybody back home and stock up some llama socks for the cold British weather. It’s also a good place to buy silver, which is straight from the infamous mines in nearby Potosi. A few minutes walk away from the main plaza takes you to stalls selling basic supplies such as agricultural tools, huge bundles of coca, huge steel drums of pure alcohol and sandals made from old tyres.

We decided to leave Sucre and head up to Potosi. Potosi is a city of tragic faded grandeur, its magnificent colonial architecture tainted by the blood that was shed to build it. Set on a desolate windswept plain, at almost 4100m above sea level, Potosi is the highest city in the world. It’s a wonder why it was ever built at all, until you see the huge conical peak of Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) that rises imposingly over the town; which was, (and many believe still is…) the richest source of silver the world has ever seen.

The Silver rush was started in 1545 by a Llama Herder who was caught out after dark. In order to keep warm he lit a fire and was staggered to see a trickle of molten silver run out from the blaze. News of this discovery quickly spread to the Spanish, and the rush began. Over the next twenty years, Potosi flourished, its population expanding rapidly to over 100,000, making it easily the largest metropolis in the Americas.

By 1600, Potosi was home to over 160,000 and boasted a large number of impressive colonial churches, theatres, dancehalls, gambling dens and brothels. As with any boom, quality of life was fantastic for a select number. However for the indigenous workers and African slaves who were conscripted to make their masters their fortunes, the conditions were beyond appalling. Over three centuries of mining beneath Cerro Rico has seen the sad demise of over nine million lives.

Like all booms, it had to cool eventually. By 1650, Silver production entered a century long decline that saw the population drop to around 30,000. Bolivia gaining its independence saw more and more people moving away to chase new opportunities, and the population dropped further to around 9,000. Mining moved towards that of tin, yet the 1980 crash of the tin market, marked the end for Potosi, that in reality has never recovered from the decline of Silver production 300 years previously.

We decided to pay a visit to the mines. It was an ethical dilemma whether to visit them at all: on one side many question the ethics of making a tourist attraction out of something where the state of affairs is so catastrophic. For those that work in the mines it is a question of earning a living, it is the only job they have ever known, and the only work available for miles around. Why would I be willing to put myself at risk unnecessarily, to witness people working in such appalling conditions?

Conversely, I was perfectly happy to purchase the cheap silver as gifts for those at home, and happily use my laptop and car, of which some components have been made from materials mined here in Potosi. Suffice to say the money never makes its way back to those that risked their lives producing it. Based on this we decided to take a tour: we booked our tours with the hostel where we were staying. Koala Tours are run by experienced ex miner multilingual guides, with 15 percents of each mine tour sold going toward improving health-care facilities for the miners.

Before we drove up to the mines themselves, we stopped off at the Miners Market to purchase some gifts for the miners. You can buy coca leaves, cigarettes, fizzy drinks, pure cane alcohol, and dynamite! Our guide informed us that all would be appreciated and told us all about the dynamite used and where it is produced. We even sampled the pure cane alcohol; a drop on the tongue was enough to warm your insides and make your eyes water profusely.

Next stop was to get kitted up; we were provided with overalls, safety helmets and flashlights and also a dust mask. We also had to sign a disclaimer: safety precautions in the mine are predominantly left to fate. There was every chance we might be hit by falling rocks or a speeding mine trolley. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little anxious, but it was something I had decided I wanted to do.

As we headed up the slopes of Cerro Rico, you could see the signs of centuries of mining – scree was everywhere, in an array of hues of reds and yellows. The sides of the mountain were blemished where thousands of tunnels had been dug in the hope of striking lucky. There is no map or enforced regulations as to where you can dig, even today. The mountain is maze of interlocking and overlapping tunnels, all metres underground.

With our lights on and masks firmly in place, it was finally time to enter the tunnel. For the first 50 metres we were able to stand up straight; occasionally having to duck under the support rafters. We followed the train tracks deeper into the mountain. At the end of 50 metres there was a museum, in a small lit room, built into the side of the tunnel. It detailed the history of the mines and also the statistics, from how much silver has been mined to the fatalities and causes. Our guide then answered any questions we had.

Sandro, our guide, told us how he used to work down the mines; as did his father and his father before him. He went on to tell us emotional account of his father’s final years before he died. Due to years spent underground, like most miners his lungs were destroyed. If a tunnel collapse doesn’t get you, then the chances are you well fall victim to lung disease, more often than not Silicosis, caused by inhaling the silicon dust. The miners work 6 days a week and usually for 10 hours straight. Whilst the legal age limit is 16, many start as young as 13. The average life expectancy is around 15 years.

Sandro’s father lived much longer than most, but he could barely speak in his last final years. Sandro recalls that he was a changed man once he could not longer work. He could barely string a sentence together without breaking out in a long and appalling coughing fit. At nights he hardly slept as he struggled to breathe. Medical treatment was out to the question, it was both too expensive and too late in the day. When Sandro’s father final passed away; his brother and he decided that they would try to escape the mines.

They were fortunate enough to get jobs as guides. Whilst they still have to enter the mines each day; it is only for a couple of hours. On top of this Sandro told us that he was training to teach English at the University in La Paz. The guides gave him a chance to perfect his English. There is so much bureaucracy in Bolivia that the process could take up to a year; Sandro was further hindered by the fact that he was born in the highlands. There is serious class rift in Bolivia, and the prejudices that are held by those in power make it sometimes impossible for people like Sandro to ever escape their circumstances.

We carried on down the mine, the passageway get increasingly narrow, with tunnels regularly jutting off to both sides. We headed down ladders and crawled through crevices; due to a mixture of the altitude, the heat and the difficultly in breathing, some of the group decided that enough was enough and headed back to surface. I kept on going, the sweat by now readily dripping of me, due to exertion and the heat. The heat is caused by the oxidisation of the arsenic and other chemicals such as asbestos that coat the tunnel surfaces. Its no wonder that life expectancy is so low in these tunnels.

The miners work in families of around 10, each taking it in turns to dig, fill the cart and transport the load, which ways normally around ½ ton, back up to the surface. We greeted the miners as we passed and gave them our gifts. The group that remained followed Sandro down to the fourth level, sometimes having to crawl on our hands and knees, our helmet scraping the roof of the tunnel, and the muddy water soaking our overalls. We had to keep checking the time as we were close to the end of the working day; this was a serious matter as the end of the day is when the dynamite is brought out to blow open new tunnels. We did not want to be underground when this began.

Once back in the fresh air, feeling the sunshine once again on our skin, it was time for a little bit of fun. A few of us had bought some extra dynamite for ourselves, which Sandro promised us we could use afterwards to blow a few things up, namely piles of dirt and scree. He showed us how mix it, and to light the charge, but insisted on being the one to run and lay the explosive. It was typical boys and their toys; once lit we had around 5 minutes; plenty time to pose for a few quick photos brandishing out dynamite, much to the horror of our better halves. Once they had been planted, we waited with anticipation, our cameras at the ready hoping to capture the explosive moment. A countdown commenced… concluded by an almighty bang that resounded across the valley and dirt and mud rained from the sky.

That evening we all went out for dinner together; it was a great restaurant just 3 blocks up from the hostel, and incredibly cheap. It was a chance to reflect on the unforgettable experience we had all just had, and to appreciate how fortunate we all were. After dinner we headed down into town to La Casona where we consumed a quite a few alcoholic beverages, followed by an impromptu karaoke session at a lock in a nearby bar. The locals looked somewhat bemused at 5 semi inebriated gringos bellowing down the mikes, but by the end we had them all singing along to the karaoke classic ‘Hey Jude’.

At breakfast the next day, all feeling a little worse for wear; we met 5 lads who had cycled up from Patagonia: now that is a journey and a half! For now though we decided stuck to buses, and despite not wanting to leave to soon, we had a bus to catch to Santa Cruz. As a result of there being a dengue epidemic in Santa Cruz, something we didn’t know until we were on the bus there, I was forced to cover up every inch of skin, not very pleasant in the 35 degree heat! However we didn’t plan to spend longer than a day here, as we were due to catch the train to Brazil. El Tren de la Muerte to be exact – The Death Train!





New photos!

4 02 2009

Just a quick one to say that I have uploaded new photos aswell! Just click the link to the right!





Sun, Skulls and Sacrifices.

31 01 2009

Slowly the headaches began to subside and my joints began to ache less. Thankfully, being in Baranco, One Hostel is about a 5 minute walk from the sea. As my strength began to return I would spend most evenings watching the sun set into the water, and the surfers cramming in a last few waves before darkness fell. Baranco has a much more authentic feel to it than Miraflores; it is far less touristy and retains much of the area’s original charm and character from when it was the Capital’s seaside resort. It is scattered with Old Mansions and bars clinging to the clifftops, buzzing with artists and intellectuals. Claire and I found a wonderful bar right on the sea front, where we could sip a cold beer or Pisco Sour and watch the sunset from the comfort of large leather sofas; it was bliss! As always the sea air did wonders for my constitution (as did Claire’s cooking and tlc), and finally I felt well enough to continue on with my South America adventure.

There a few things I wanted to do in Lima though before we left; I wanted to visit the Water Park and also the Catacombs! The first day I felt well enough we had a big picnic tea in the hostel, Frances and Gillian joined us (both whom provided great company and DVDs during my recovery – so thank you!) – we covered the table in plates of food – we even had egg mayo sandwiches! We followed this up by paying a visit to one of Frances’ friends who owned a Bakery. It was on the way to the Water Park, so it seemed very rude to say no… furthermore there was zero chance I was going to pass up the opportunity of cake now I was on the mend!

Berta’s cakes was the final piece in my recovery (http://www.dulceriaeltaller.com/) Not only were the cakes heavenly, but she was also a fantastic host. Once we had eaten our share, we caught a taxi to the Circuito Magico del AguaParque de la Reserva. If you have been to Vegas – think the Bellagio: the park is full of amazing water fountains, with the centre piece being a water show set to music with video clips of Peru played on the water itself. It also has the highest water jet certified by Guiness records at 250 ft. Some of the fountains you are free to run around in, something we took great joy in doing, getting soaked to the skin in the process. It was innocent care free fun at its best, and a great way to celebrate being back in the land of the living.

The next day we booked a bus onwards towards Lake Titicaca, our next destination. As the bus wasn’t till the evening we said our sad goodbyes to everybody at One Hostel and after dumping our bags at the bus terminal, we headed to the San Francisco Monastery. Just up from the Plaza Mayor and the Palacio de Gobierno (both worth taking a look at), the San Francisco Monastery is wonderful seventeenth century construction, that has stood the test of time fantastically. Tour runs daily, and I definitely recommend taking one. Not only do you get to see the Library and central courtyard, but you also get go down into the Church’s vast crypts; only discovered in 1951, they contain the bones of over seventy thousand people. There was decidedly eerie feel to the place.

Afterwards we still had some time to kill, and I was also keen to the watch the first of the Six Nations rugby matches, so we headed across from the Monastery to a small eaterie that was incredibly popular with the locals. After a brief battle with translation we managed to negotiate a table at the back and control of the remote control. Over some food and a couple of cold beers, we passed the afternoon watching Wales v Scotland, whilst repeatedly trying to explain the rules, and that it wasn’t American football, to group of old boys who had joined us.

It was finally time to catch the bus out of Lima and onwards with our journey. To avoid a relapse we decided to make one last stop over in Cusco, before heading onto Puno and the Lake Titicaca. We had enough time for last meal at Jacks before hitting the sack and catching the early bus on towards the border.

As on the way into Peru, this leg of the journey was terrible. As the number of people on the bus began to deplete, so did the comfort and safety levels, until three buses later we found ourselves in a rickety old mini bus held together with duct tape, with our bags held onto the roof by old fishing nets. As I pulled my trout smelling bag off the roof in Puno, I was praying we had arrived in time to catch the connection across the border… we hadn’t. To make matters worse, as we were paying for our connection for the following day, the ATM decided to have a snack and swallow Claire’s debit card; so were now down to one source of funds for the remainder of the trip…mine.

After much haggling we managed to negotiate a taxi into town and found a cheap hotel for the night. In between checking in and heading out for dinner, the sky’s had opened and rain was lashing down over the streets of Puno, putting a slight dampener on the marching band that had been parading around. However, not being able to ignore our grumbling stomachs any longer, we had to don our anoraks and head out into the elements.

Puno was once the capital of the region and served as the main port of Lago Titicaca and important stop on the silver trail from Potosi. Four hundred years later however, it is a tad run down, and has suffered noticeably from the recent droughts. We were only here for one night though and our aim first and foremost was to get some food.

Arriving at Pizzeria del Buho looking like drowned rats, we quickly tucked into some delicious pizzas washed down with a couple of local cervezas. We then headed across the road for an equally delicious hot chocolate, before tiredness kicked in and it was time to hit the sack. On the way back to the hotel though we were repeatedly attacked; unable to hide our gringo status, numerous locals, young and old took great glee in soaking us in shaving foam and water balloons. This was our first, but by no means last experience of this kind – Carnaval was approaching!

Our bus the next day was booked with Tour Peru, it was a far cry from our experience the previous day, and before we knew it we were across the border and back into Bolivia once more. Arriving in Copacabana, we wasted no time heading down to the port and catching a boat out towards the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), where we planned to spend the night.

Lake Titicaca, or Lago Titicaca, is the largest high altitude body of water in the world. Making our way across its sapphire blue waters, we chatted freely with a group or Uruguayan lads about our travels, mentioning our experiences of their home country. They assured us that we had gone to the wrong parts i.e the capital, and promised us, if we ever decided to go back, that they would change our perception of their country. We agreed to discuss this further over drinks later that evening.

Lake Titicaca has always played an important role in Andean Religion: the Inca’s believed that the creator god Viracocha rose from its waters to call forth the sun and the moon to light up the world. Thus the two islands are named Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna.

The area around the lake is the heartland of the Aymara people, who despite centuries of domination, first by the Incas, then by the Spanish, have maintained their language and culture. To this day they still continue to cultivate the maize on the ancient terraces that span the surrounding mountainside, and grow barley, potatoes and quinoa on the fertile plains. Every you look you will find herd of llamas, alpacas, sheep and cattle. Time has not robbed these people of their identity or heritage, and this is something very unique to this part of the world, particularly so in Bolivia. This I feel has a lot to do with the current President, Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, who is making sweeping reforms to give rights back to the native tribes.

The Isla del Sol is about 12km northwest from Copacabana. It was once considered one of the most important religious sites, but is now a relatively quiet island, populated still by the Ayamara people, with settlements dotted over the island, interspersed with mysterious ancient ruins.

All the boats make their way their first stop at Yumani, on the on South side of the Island. It was here that we wanted to spend the night, however we planned to get off on the North, at the northernmost settlement of Ch’allapampa, and walk the four hours back across the island; a walk which we had been told would afford us the best views of the Island and also meant we could visit the Sun Gate which I was especially keen to do.

On the second boat that took us across to the other port at Ch’alla, we met three girls from the UK who were planning on walking the same path as us, so we joined up and set off together. After a shaky start, where after a mistranslation we ended up getting slightly lost and attempting to climb a sheer rock face, we found our bearings (and a very helpful local child who showed us the right way…) and headed off towards Ch’allapampa. It was about an hours walk to Chicana where the ruined Inca complex was situated. The sun was starting to set, but I figured we still had enough time to make the walk before it became pitch black. The boats had taken longer than expected. However it was hard to be too worried. The island itself was beautiful; there was a strong Mediterranean feel to the place. The secluded beaches, cerulean waters and hilly landscape; it was hard to think that we were in the middle of a lake –the water stretched to the horizon in every direction. We walked past numerous tiny settlements and had to repeatedly get out of the way of a stray donkey or cow that was meandering along the path: it was very tranquil.

Eventually we arrived at Chicana, and spent some time walking through the rambling interlinking rooms and passageways that were purposefully built around the Sacred Rock: the spot where Viracocha, the creator god, is believed to have created the sun and the moon. As with the Inca trek, there was a mysterious air to the place, and it was easy find yourself transported back. Nearby there was also an Inca sacrificial table- it was like something out of the Chronicles of Narnia.

The rest of the walk continued in the same vain, we walked, we chatted and we soaked up the beautiful surroundings. Sadly we missed the sun setting into the water as we didn’t make the viewpoint in time, but it was great none the less. However we were still an hours walk away from where we planned to spend the night, when the sun finally had its last encore and left the stage for the day. We completed the last section of the walk in thick darkness, thank goodness for head torches which I thankfully had remembered to pack!

Finally we saw lights ahead, and we knew we were almost there. By this point we were all starving so first objective was to find a restaurant to recharge and share a bottle of wine or two before bed. The restaurant we eventually settled on promised us “chef’s trained at Bolvia’s top food college and organic food”… we were too tired to be sceptical and headed in to order.

Over two hours later our food arrived, all cooked ‘fresh’ by one woman. I assume my trout must have been caught fresh; sadly though my veg was clearly from a tin and there was also a side order of hair which I don’t remember ordering. However I was hungry and wolfed it down, minus the furry garnish. After dinner, we checked into the same hostel as the girls: thankfully they had room as it was late and we were very tired and achy. It had been a great day though and I had survived my true first bout of exercise since the Amazon.

We were due to catch the ferry back in the morning, however due to forgetting the one hour shift in time since crossing the border we very nearly missed it. It was pouring with rain as we checked out and quickly headed down the authentic inca stair case (La Esclaera del Inca) that leads down the hillside to the port. As with Machu Pichu it was incredibly steep and at times I came very close to full backside over breast in our rush to catch the boat. It must have been the magic that is supposed to come from the natural springs on the Island, or simply Bolivian attitudes to time, but the boats were late so we were ok. Nobody could work out which port the boat was due to dock in, and it was an amusing sight to behold to watch everybody run from gangway to gangway in the hope of being on the right one and securing a spot inside the boat. On this day we were fortunate.

We made it back in time to catch our bus onto our next stop – Sucre.





Hammocks, Huts and Hallucinations.

10 01 2009

Once we had arrived in Chiclayo, we then had to catch another bus onto Tarapoto. From here we would head to Yurimaguas, where we would board a boat that would take us all the way to Iquitos, a journey covering 3 days. It was hard to ignore the fact that it was rainy season once we decided to head inland. Each night, and most of the day we were subject to the heaviest rain that we had come across in the entire trip; you were soaked to the skin in the blink of an eye. With a day to spare in Tarapoto we decided to buy our supplies for the boat; the essentials such as Pringles, chocolate, fruit, water and the most crucial item – a hammock! With 3 nights on the boat, unless you planned to spend it sleeping on the metal deck, a hammock was a must! I was getting excited; this was shaping into a real South American adventure!

 

With the supplies packed, the next day we headed onto Yurimaguas, and once there, we caught a tuk tuk to the port. The port was alive with peddlers, pushers, touts and tourists, and the ground was rich with knee deep mud and sawdust. Yet thankfully there were the remnants of a thin plank walk way through the midst of it all. We precariously carried our stuff along and onto our home for the next 3 days – the reasonably ship shape looking “Eduardo III” – alongside Eduardo II though it looked like the Titanic so we were extra thankful for that. There are five ‘Eduardo’s’ in total, each taking it turns to make the round journey to Iquitos and back.

 

The ground deck was already filling with live chickens, plantain, oil, vegetables and numerous other interesting items. We made our way up the top deck; after some research online we deemed this to be the best deck on board, and judging by the fact that it was the most expensive, the shipping company must have deduced the same thing. Not only is it the furthest from the engine, and thus the noise and heat that it produces. It is also has open sides (plastic sheeting is secured over it at night and during rain) so you can sit and look out, and a nice breeze at night that helps lull you to sleep. It was also the least crowded as well. Once on deck, a deckhand kindly offered to put our hammocks up, and in return we kindly offered to place some money in his out turned hand… With them firmly secured though, and our bags safely locked up and padlocked to a pole, we headed off to explore the market and get one last dinner on dry land.

 

We found a quiet little restaurant just 5 minutes from the boat, and ordered the fish of the day with rice and chips. We watched as it was freshly prepared and smoked on the fire outside, before being served. The fish had awfully sharp teeth, and resembled a piranha! However I was told by the old man running the place that it was in fact a relative of the piranha, and not the real McCoy. It tasted good though and we wolfed it down and headed back on the boat as the ships horn began to sound warning us of its impending departure.

 

I love boat life! The next three days consisted of sleeping, eating (food is provided on the boat – 3 meals a day and very good quality!) sleeping some more, a game of chess or scrabble, reading, dozing, chatting to our hammock neighbours from Portugal, playing with the kids on deck and watching the river go slowly by. The sun would rise and set on the river. Occasionally we would pull into port, and more bananas would be piled on deck, and interesting smells would pass my nose, as numerous different dishes were brought on deck to tempt us. I spent most of the time though, when we were anchored trying to dodge water balloons!

 

At every stop, the local kids would be standing with buckets filled with copious amounts of water balloons, filled from the river itself, waiting for an unsuspecting backpacker, fresh from a hammock induced doze to stumble clammy eyed to the side rail to look out at the new surrounding! Then with great glee, they would launch a bombardment that would have made Churchill proud – balloon after balloon catching the wide eyed tourist (me…) square in the chest, face, and once even my Pringles! Big mistake… Soaking wet and fuming, I tried to catch a balloon so that I could launch my own attack and frantically grab back some pride… I failed.

 

Finally the port of Iquitos loomed into sight. Iquitos is the largest city in the Peruvian rainforest, with a population of 370,962. It is generally considered the most populous city in the world that cannot be reached by road. Once off the boat, we were bombarded with offers off a lift into town, and as our sea legs hadn’t quite adjusted, we consented. After five minutes we began to wish we hadn’t. Our driver wove recklessly in and out of the traffic, and to top it all off initiated a road rage induced tuk tuk war – at traffic lights our driver cut another up, so he in turn lashed out with his boot at our driver covering him with mud, so our driver attempted to push him into the line of oncoming traffic… as passengers we could only sit, opened mouthed in horror, with our hands tightly grasping the side. Luckily we reached our hostel in one piece (no tip for him!) and checked into the delightfully named, Hobo Hideout. Our room was up three flights of stairs, and was mostly thatched with an actual bear skin rug on the floor!

 

The reason we had come to Iquitos was to find a guide who would be prepared to take us further up the River Amazon and explore the Peruvian Selva (the Jungle). We spent the first day in Iquitos exploring and attempting to book a tour to depart in the next day or so. We were lucky enough to come across a man named Alex who ran a tour company called Ecological Jungle Trips (Opposite The Yellow Rose restaurant if you are ever in neighbourhood.) We had looked at many different trips, and the biggest downfall was that many had prescribed itineraries, and the accommodation was pretty fancy. We wanted to rough it in the jungle and to do what ever took our fancy. Alex was our man. Our tour was for five days and five nights, the accommodation was a choice of a hut or camping in the jungle, and we were free to pick and choose our activities as we pleased; and all for a very reasonable price.

 

We had a day in hand before we left to on our trip so decided to take a boat across to a place that had been recommended to us: it was an animal orphange and butterfly farm called Pilpintuwasi. Heading down to the port we came across a bizarre sight; one man was transporting his cow across to his village in his little boat! There was barely enough room for them both, it was very amusing to watch them navigate the busy waterway.

 

After haggling the price down we too headed out in a boat of our own (animal free). The ride to the park was around 50 minutes. Once there it was a further 30 minutes to the sanctuary itself.

 

Arriving we headed up the main path to be greeted by a small monkey, screeching at us and jumping around; I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little alarmed. Anxiously tip toeing around him we headed up to look further around the park. My guard was up though; I wasn’t going to be jumped by a monkey again! The first place we looked in was the butterfly enclosure. It was amazing seeing them fly all around, their vivid iridescent wings shining in the sunshine. My favourite were the Blue Morpho butterflies; their great aqua marine wings caught my eye everywhere I turned, as they played around head. We got to see the chrysalises squirming about with life, and were even lucky enough to witness a butterfly hatching before our eyes and make its first flight into the cool jungle air.

 

After the butterfly enclosure we headed down to see the Cheetah. The conditions in the sanctuary are about as good as they come. The animals have all been rescued from far worse situations, and the guides are very knowledgeable about them. On the way down to Cheetah, we were joined by a little friend – the monkey we when we arrived! He followed us along the fence, seemingly calm after our aggressive introduction. Without warning he suddenly jumped down towards Claire, and climbed up her leg, and onto her shoulder. He stayed there as we looked at the jungle, attempting to undo the string on her shorts. His human like hands picking at the knot until it was undone.

 

After he got bored of that he jumped onto my back and undid the zip on my bag. Before I even realised what he was up too, he had taken a box of matches and jumped into a tree. I did not want to be responsible for burning down an Animal Orphanage, so frantically tried to coax him down with the offer of food. He refused, and spent the next 20 minutes shaking the box and throwing them around the jungle. Thank goodness for safety matches! The rest of the trip passed with out incidence, or almost did We saw Anteaters, McCaws and many different types of monkeys, including some very cute marmosets and pygmy marmosets. Right at the end of trip just before we were going to leave, I started talking to a very sad looking monkey who was missing some fingers. He was fascinated by my watch, and reached for my wrist to take a closer look. He then began to inspect my hair for any bugs. I let him do so, and he thoroughly began a search for anything that might be lurking there. After around 5 minutes though, he suddenly flipped: he started shrieking and running about. Something still haunted him from his life before the Sanctuary, and he was very distressed by something, hopefully not something he found in my hair… The guide anxiously signalled for us to walk away slowly and we made our exit.

 

When we got back to Iquitos, we made sure that we had copious amounts of mosquito repellent packed and that our camera batteries were charged and ready to go. That evening, we decided to head to the cinema as tickets were ridiculously cheap. Popcorn in hand, we decided to watch a particularly dire teen/horror film (in hindsight, I hasten to add – I don’t make a habit of choosing films I know are rubbish…) However it was one of the more interesting cinematic experiences I have had. Half way through the film I could hear squeaking and the flutter of wings, and looked up 5 minutes later to see a couple of bats flying around the auditorium; even more noteworthy given the subject of the film – Vampires! I definitely recommend the Iquitos cinema for their avant garde approach to cinema.

 

The next morning bright and early we headed off to begin our Amazonian jungle adventure. We were picked up by Alex and driven to nearby town of Nauta. From here we would go on a 3 hour boat trip to our final destination. In Nauta we were introduced to Lucio, our guide. Lucio was born in the village near where we would be staying, and had lived in the jungle all his life. He spoke no English at all, so we had to get by on our limited Spanish and a lot of hand gestures. In the jungle though, this proved to be no problem. You don’t really need to talk much in case you scare the animals away, and when we did we got by perfectly.

 

We arrived at our base camp by dug out canoe, again sampling the delights of drifting lazily down the river. Our base camp consisted of wooden food hall and kitchen, 5 smaller bedrooms connected by walk way, each equipped with a two mattresses and mozzie nets, a small toilet away from the main building and a football pitch in the middle. All around us we could make out the weird and wonderful noises that made up jungle life – our imagination began to run away with us. What was out there!? Over the next 5 days our senses were attacked by a five prong charge. We were determined to make the most of our Amazonia jungle experience.

 

Our guide Lucio was great. He was the Master of Machete and could rival Doctor Dolittle when it came to making animal noises. He taught us a great deal about his home, the medicinal properties and the animals. We even learnt jungle folklore. The first day we arrived, after an hour or so to get our bearings and collect our wellys, we headed off into the jungle to see what lay around the camp. We didn’t follow a path, simply used the machete to mark the way, occasionally checking the sun to know where we were. Lucio pointed out numerous trees and plants on the way, occasionally cutting of the bark to show us its medicinal qualities. There were treatments for everything, from diabetes to cancer.

 

When we got thirsty, Lucio cut away at a large tree root, shaping a section about a metre long, before handing it to us. By tipping it up, we were able to drink the nutrient full water that lay inside. It was fantastic! The only problem we had was with the bloody mosquitoes! Pardon my French, but they annoy me more than anything in the world. They serve no purpose only to irritate and spread disease… Lucio spread some orange goo on us from one tree that was supposed to prevent getting bitten. This was on top of the regular applications of DEET that was already warming my flesh. Not that it did any good! They were ruthless in the jungle, biting any exposed section possible. Some were so full of blood they had trouble flying away, lazily hovering from side to side, eyes glazed over in a blood drunk manner. I took great joy in killing as many as I could, hoping the message would spread, that if you drunk from me, then you had better understand it would be your last supper. Either they didn’t understand or were just too addicted they couldn’t help themselves, but they kept on biting, and I kept on slapping.

That night, covered in DEET, dead mosquitoes, mud and also my own blood, I relished the idea of a good scrub in bath. The bath being the River Amazon itself! It was fantastic, although at first a little apprehensive! I had been assured that there were no piranhas around, but then my Spanish wasn’t perfect… Lucio assured me that whilst dolphins were swimming in the water, there would be no Piranhas. Soaping myself up I timidly dipped a toe in, (note – Claire was happy to let me try first!) Toe still intact, I took a running jump, a sharp breath in, and landed with a splash in the cool refreshing water. It was heaven, the dirt left my body, and I happily swam about, relishing the experience. As I lay floating, looking up at the sky, I heard a noise approaching from my right and flash of something moving through the water. Momentary panic though was soon replaced by astonishment, as I witnessed the dorsal fin of a river dolphin breach the surface.

 

Later that evening we played chess by the river and had our first jungle meal, consisting of fish, rice and fried plantain. We hit the sack before the mosquitoes ate us alive. The next morning we were paddling down stream to camp, so needed to recharge our batteries. For the first night, we fell asleep to the sound of the jungle.

 

For the next three days we planned to camp in the forest. Each morning we awoke early and paddled further down stream. Our camp consisted of a fireplace, and three hammocks complete with mozzie nets. Each day we went for a paddle as the sun rose up, declaring each day open. We watched keenly as the animals came out to feed. After which we too headed back for a quick breakfast of fresh mango and deep fried pancakes (not so nice…) before heading out into the jungle. We walked for miles, and saw an abundance of wildlife. During our trip we saw a vast array of wildlife, from monkeys and porcupines, right through to pink dolphin!

 

At night we went for walks in the area around our campsite. One night Lucio came to get us from our beds where we had been reading to show us something. We slipped on our head-torches and headed to where he was standing; right on the tree in front of us was a large, incredibly hairy tarantula. It was around 2 hand spans! Right above it was something even more daunting: a scorpion spider! 8 legs, teeth and scorpion like pincers! Some things I’d rather not see, particularly when my bed was literally metres away… We also took the dug out canoe to look for crocodiles. When we had spotted a few, Lucio took us closer up and actually grabbed one from the water so that we could get a closer look. It was very… thoughtful of him!

 

We ate under the stars before heading off each night early as the mosquitos were even more prevalent when the sun had gone down. Each night we had to do a tedious check of every inch of the inside of our mosquito nets! Just one of the little devils in and you would know it in the morning!

 

Two of the three days we went fishing for piranhas for dinner! For bait we had to search for a particular seed pod. After lopping of the top of one from the floor with the machete, we would tap it to find a number of fat grubs inside. Lucio was a master at knowing which ones contained them, Claire and I kept finding empties. After we had sufficient supplies, we collected our lines and headed off into piranha territory! Lucio taught us that Piranhas live in the cloudy sections of the water – areas that he described as café con leche (coffee with milk). Remember this if you are reading; who knows it might one day save your life! Claire turned out to be a dab hand at fishing for Piranhas, much to my envy and Lucio’s awe. She netted a whopping 8, to go alongside my measly 3 and one baby that I had to put back.

 

On the last day, we took our left over bananas and paddled to a spot where we could see some more monkeys. Sitting under the trees where they sat, Lucio instructed us to hold up our bananas. I stood open mouthed as they made their way down, pushing past each other in a rush to get a snack. They jumped into our boat, using their small little human like hands to quickly peel the skin off and get to the good stuff inside.

 

One monkey in particular ate his too quick and ended up with hiccups. I watched as he sat there all confused as to what was going on, before turning to Claire for some help. She is like the Monkey Whisperer, or just a kindred spirit. Claire took to burping the monkey, like you would a baby, and he sleepily fell asleep in her lap. It was an absolutely magical experience!

 

The final night we headed back to the main camp. I wasted no time in stripping off and cleaning myself up in the river. After swimming out to the middle, the sky suddenly turned black and commenced to open up and pour down on me. I could see nothing around me except the rain; feeling it penetrate the surface of the water like bullets from the sky. It was incredible; I don’t think a conventional bath will ever be the same again!

 

The final evening was upon us, and we still had one last thing to experience; A Ayahuesca ceremony. Made from the roots and leaves of numerous plants in the jungle, Ayahuesca is a psychoactive infusion. It is used largely as a religious sacrament, yet it is also used for its purgative properties. Many refer to it as la purga, “the purge”, for reasons that we would soon discover. There are no long lasting effects at all.

 

We prepared ourselves in the way that we had been instructed. We had refrained from eating that day, and had kept our diet free from spices and such like. We also attempted to clear our minds and prepare any questions that we might want answered. I was curious as to the effects and keen to try new experiences. We had spoken to many locals who had taken the substance on a number of occasions, and there was a certain mysticism that surrounded it that I was curious to understand better. The ceremony itself was done in the main hut, with our guides present to ‘look after us’. There were three Chilean guys who had arrived that day who were taking it with us. We spoke to the Shaman, a weathered man in his sixties before hand. He answered any worries that we may have had, and made sure that we were fully relaxed and understood what was going to take place.

 

It began with sitting in a circle, in front of a bowl that we would need later… There was a lit candle on the floor and the Shaman was in traditional dress. We sat focusing on the candle for 15 minutes, before passing around a medium sized glass. We each were instructed to drink the thick brown, foul smelling concoction in one go, and then wash it down with something equally horrid tasting. We then sat there for a further 30 minutes. I was sceptical for a while that nothing was happening, when I suddenly felt my hands go numb, quickly followed by the rest of my body. Suddenly before my eyes, the area around appeared as if looking at it through a kaleidoscope. Vivid colours and shapes danced before my eyes.

 

The next four hours was like a rollercoaster. After half an hour, the first person began to vomit. We had been warned this would happen, and shortly one by one we joined him. I found myself emptying my stomach contents into the provided bowl for over half an hour. It was an incredibly unpleasant experience, but one I had been forewarned about. Afterwards I slipped in and out of lucidness. I found myself shaking hands with shadows and getting invited for a walk in the jungle by a little girl, who then began to stroke my hair. I saw insects, heard voices, all from inside my mind. I found I could grab handfuls of light, feeling it flow through my fingers, rippling with my touch…

 

Would I do it again? Probably not: the vomiting and other reactions were pretty violent and unpleasant. But I don’t regret the experience, and am glad that I tried it when and where I did. I certainly will not forget it.

 

The next morning, after our last jungle breakfast, and a number of goodbyes, we paddled back to reality. That night we found ourselves back in civilisation, drinking beer in a restaurant in the Iron House. Built by Mr Eiffel, it is a symbol of what Iquitos was once, and a stark reminder of the life we had lived the past 5 days and the one which we had come back too.

 

That night I developed a terrible headache, which quickly turned into a violent fever. I was burning up and began to hallucinate. Luckily we were staying at the Casa Pescada, and the owner instructed Claire to get me to Hospital. Thankfully the owner came too and translated it all for me. I had a number of tests run, and was placed on a drip. The results came back within the hour, confirming the owner’s prognosis – I had caught Dengue Fever.

 

The WHO says some 2.5 billion people, two fifths of the world’s population, are now at risk from dengue and estimates that there may be 50 million cases of dengue infection worldwide every year. The disease is now epidemic in more than 100 countries, many of these being in South America.

 

Dengue Fever is caught from day time mosquitoes, and I estimate that I must have caught it sometime whilst on the river boat up to Iquitos, and not in the jungle where I received more bites than I thought humanly possible. It is a mixture of flu like symptoms, ranging from headache, dizziness, loss of appetite, high temperature. It is also known as Breakbone Fever as a result of the joints swelling and stiffening up. I could barely move my head, and everything ached. It can develop into serious complications, such as haemorrhaging, if regular fluid in take is not maintained. All in all it is extremely unpleasant!

 

The next day we were due to fly to Lima. We checked into One Hostel, and it was the best decision ever. Melissa and her family treated me like one of their own. The hostel is a lovely place; a perfect home from home, just what the doctor ordered! Over the next month I slowly got better. I had lost just under two stone, and was incredibly lethargic. The symptoms began to disappear around the two week mark, and then it was a question of gaining my appetite and strength. If it hadn’t been for Claire being the perfect nurse and the kindness of the Tola family I might still be ill now. The hostel was right next to a large supermarket so I had plenty of fresh fruit and veg for when my appetite returned. The hostel also had a large sofa, complete with blankets on which I could wrap up and watch TV and the numerous DVDs they owned.

 

With time counting down though on my escape to South America, I was anxious to get better quickly, yet determined to allow myself time to completely get over the illness so as to avoid a relapse. It was an immensely frustrating time; there was still so much I wanted to see!