Jungle time … from Macas to Yasuni National Park, the most biologically diverse spot on Earth!

Sangay.

We’d been to or through Macas a couple of times over the years, and this time we would pass through on our way to a  remote part of Ecuador’s Amazon basin, to see Alex’s Uncle Jorge. It’s also known as the “Emerald of the East”, due to its location just east of the Andes mountains.  Few tourists actually make it to the town with so few tourist trappings, but it’s raw, it’s real and it’s worth a look-see. We ate some decent food and went on some lovely walks with Jorje, from where we could see the perfect snow-covered cone of Volcan Sangay (5230 metres).  It’s Ecuador’s seventh’ highest mountain and one of the world’s most active.  It can be glimpsed on a clear day … we saw it in all of its glory.  Lady Luck was on our side!

Catching up with Eduardo.

It was lovely to relax, eat, catch up with Jorge, go for casual walks, observe the people and the way they lived.  Sometimes it’s not just about seeing and doing but about absorbing and letting things ‘just happen’ … it’s then that the magic really begins.  Like when we went for a walk along the river and ended up being invited into a Swiss lady’s house for coffee and cake!  She heard my accent, assumed that I was a foreigner (on the mark there) and invited us in.

The port in Coca.

After recharging our batteries, and saying our farewells to Jorge (we would see him again in Quito as it’s where his family lives), we made our way to Puerto Francisco de Orellana, or simply Coca, as it’s known in Ecuador. Located in the Amazon Rainforest at the confluence of the Coca and Napo rivers, Coca really is a rather charmless city. In the 1990s, the town was transformed by the oil industry from a tiny river settlement with dirt roads into a hot, teeming mass of concrete!  Need I say more! Having said that, it really is unavoidable if you want to engage in some of Ecuador’s most fascinating jungle tours, namely Yasuni National Park, arguably the most biologically diverse spot on earth!

Napo River, Coca.

First things first, we looked for a place to stay and after inspecting several places ended up at Hostal Santa Maria in the centre; basic, clean and friendly it would do us until we found a way to do Yasuni independently! And so our adventure to try and find the Holy Grail would begin! Seriously, I never thought that it would be so difficult!  The tourist information in town was shocking, in fact it was so bad that we went to the tourism directive to complain! All we wanted to do was a tour that was not upscale and was not going to cost us hundreds of dollars a day.  So we asked around … Frank recommended we speak to Bob … Bob to George … George to Frank, and voila, there we were full circle and none the wiser!

More gorgeous views along the Napo River.

Alex the Birdman.

Persistence pays off they say? Yes it does!  We certainly did not come to Coca to turn around and leave! Finally, someone at Hotel El Auca (Coca’s most ‘upscale’ hotel) gave us some decent information and what seemed like a reasonable contact. In no time at all, we were visiting Patricio Juanka of Amazon Travel, right near the waterfront.  Honest, friendly, down-to-earth, he told us what our options were.  We wanted remote, seriously remote!  We did not come here to throng with the masses, and so it would be … the next morning we would take off for what would end up being one of the most exhilarating, mind-blowingly beautiful experiences of my life!  Let the long-awaited Yasuni journey begin!

Local life along the Napo River.

I will try my best to describe our next five
days, five of the best days of my life! The first day was mostly spent on a slow boat, which took around ten hours on the Napo River and which would take us to the Ecuadorian/ Peruvian border town of Nuevo Rocafuerte.  The ride was long, but it was amazing to take it all in.Unfortunately, despite the fact that the Ecuadorian government said that Yasuni would never be touched, we saw plenty of evidence to contradict this.  Drilling for petrol is alive and kicking! This is possibly one of the most off-the-beaten-track adventures I have ever been on … ten hours by boat to reach the depths of the Amazon is no mean feat!  We were met by our guide Roni Cox (I know, a nice, easy Ecuadorian name!) who took us to our accommodation, Hotel Chimborazo, for the night.  He told us where we would be having dinner and breakfast, and added that we should be ready at 8.00am the next morning, when the ‘real’ Yasuni adventure would begin.

Watching the world go by, Napo River.

Oropendola, Nuevo Rocafuerte.

I rather liked Nuevo Rocafuerte, it had that ‘where no man dares go’ kinda feel! The freaks were back! We walked around the tiny town, just observing and taking it all in. Dinner was fine, the usual suspects of rice, beans and patacones prevailed.  We met a Brazilian guy whose aim was to travel around South America for free.  You meet all sorts!  Time to go to bed.

And so, the adventure would begin.  We got up nice and early; after a night of alluvial downpour (hey it’s a rainforest after all!) we were off.  The next two days were exhilarating, and we camped in tents on both nights.  We saw pink dolphins, giant otters, oropendolas (birds native to the area) and a range of other birds as well, went on mind-blowing hikes, saw mystical lagoons, and took in the breathtaking beauty of an area which is virtually untouched by man. So few make it here, but the hard work was paying off … we had the jungle to ourselves!

It’s a nutria (giant otter).

With Roni, getting ready for one of our many hikes.

Roni was an awesome guide.  I even helped him cook some vegetarian food, which he quite enjoyed.  On our first day we were also accompanied by Eriks, a Latvian guy, who was doing a shorter version of our tour. A lovely guy who invited us to visit in Latvia … quite possible with us! I could go on to describe this paradise, but for once in my life (and it doesn’t happen often!) I will let the cascade of photos do the talking. These days provided us with one magic moment after another.

Monkeying around!

It all happened too quickly, and before we knew it, we were back in Nuevo Rocafuerte. Roni, you were the bomb! You made this one of the best experiences of our lives! Absolutely unforgettable and a world highlight. We would spend another night in ‘town’ before embarking on the long ride back to Coca the next morning. As we were travelling upriver this time, the ride would take almost 14 hours. Relax and reflection time!

Went out one night in a small boat looking for caymans.

We finally made it back!  The next day, we would also see another smaller, and much more touristy area of the park (only ten minutes away by boat) for a couple of hours, complete with the guide dressed up as a Shuar.  Nice, but only just that, after what we had just seen and experienced.

Amazon plant life.

Amazonian bird life.

Indeed all good things must come to an end. The footprint of this experience will forever be stamped onto my heart and soul. Another mission accomplished!

Ombi

Not a stick insect, but a leaf one!

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where 
there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Next: Alausi and the infamous Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) train ride. Would we in finally get to ride that train?  This was going to be my fourth attempt since 1999!

Huayruro seeds, also used in jewellery.
The Ecuadorian Amazon … full of breathtaking views.
Street art, Macas.
Amazonian beetle.

Cruising the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Centipede.
Cruising one of the many tributaries of the river around Yasuni. 
A furry friend of a different kind.
Chillin’!

On the boat to Nuevo Rocafuerte.

Postcard views abound.

With Juanka on our return. Tired but elated!
On our way back from Yasuni, near Coca.
On the long ride back from Nuevo Rocafuerte to Coca.
Napo River ferry.
Camping … part of the Yasuni experience.
Roni takes us around to some amazingly pristine places.
The amazing energy of a tree with a million stories.
An interesting looking tree, hey!?
Amazonian fungi (one of many sorts).
The elusive Amazonian Pink Dolphin.
A butterfly gears up for take-off.
Oropendola.
Add caption
Yasuni … mystical, magical, breathtaking!
Sunset around Yasuni.
Yasuni plant life.
I finally succumbed to botox.




WOW sums this one up!
Napo Valley express.
It’s a Bug’s Life.
Taking it all in.
Going through the thick of it … Yasuni.
This trip was simply a series of postcard picture moments.

The Amazon … Ecuadorian style!

Zamora street art.
Zamora.

It was now time to get off the beaten track.  We had seen and done so much in Ecuador over our various trips over the years, but had never been to the south-eastern part of the Oriente (Ecuador’s Amazon, where the Andes meet the lowland areas of rainforest in the Amazonian basin). We looked at a map and said, “Right, where to”? For all of Ecuador’s beauty and fascinating places to see, the government does an appalling job at promoting tourism, and information, especially on places not oft visited is scarce.  But we were determined!  Ummmm, Zamora?  We were able to scrounge some information from the internet: “The bus ride here is itself worthwhile, with the road snaking down from the sierra past numerous waterfalls, giving occasional views onto miles of densely forested hills.” SOLD!

The path less travelled. Zamora-Chinchipe

The bus ride was indeed spectacular! As we got lower we could feel the vegetation becoming increasingly lush and giant ferns were hanging over the road.  At 970 metres above sea level, Zamora has a gorgeous sub-tropical climate, quite different to the Andean climate for which the country is known. Zamora sits at the confluence of the Zamora and Bombuscaro rivers and the backdrop of steep, emerald green hills rising over its rooftops gives the town a lovely feel.  We liked it as soon as the bus rolled in.

Back to information … what information?!  The tourist office looked like it had died a slow and prolonged death years ago!  Whilst Alex sat with the backpacks I walked around to see if I could find something, someone, something … and I found Inza Coffee, a cafe run by a gorgeous Colombian couple … who also had loads of information on what to do in the area. Colombians aren’t just known for their good coffee … they also excel at customer service. Sorry Ecuador, they leave you for dead on that front!  I called Alex over and we had a coffee whilst chatting to Linda and …….. about places to stay and things to see.  Great coffee guys! We would be back.  Our mission was to first find a place to stay.

Hanging out with Linda and Julian, Cafe Inza, Zamora.

Downtown Zamora.

What an interesting little town! The town centre is not necessarily physically appealing, but most certainly interesting.  Its main function was to service the local gold-mining industry. Absolutely full of Chinese workers, we had been told that they were employed mostly as engineers working on  number of hydroelectric plants; there’s a a lot of water down this way.  Although not a place to spend days, it was still a nice spot to explore, with its markets, rivers and Shuar and Saraguro Indians milling around the neighbourhood, the latter in their distinguishable black shorts. We can highly recommend Hotel Iruna, which was spacious, clean and comfortable, with very helpful owners.

The highlight of the area really is the lowland part of Podocarpus National Park.  We spent a couple of days walking around and in it and it was indeed beautiful.  And what makes it even more so is the total lack of tourists.  It was a pleasure to walk around and take in the beauty with peace and serenity. Bubbling streams, enticing rivers, the sounds of exotic birds, rumbling waterfalls, paradise!

Podocarpus National Park.

Exotic fungus, Poducarpus National Park.

Days were spent hiking and taking in the area’s beauty and nights at Inza Coffee where the lovely Linda would not only provide us with excellent coffee, but equally excellent food! To boot, she was a wealth of information on where to go and what to do in the area. Ecuadorian tourism offices move over! She mentioned Nangaritza.  Who’d ever heard of it?  And then she showed us some photos. OMG!!!!  We had to go there! The information on how to get there was scarce, but we were going to give it a crack!

Around Guayzimi.
Around Zamora.

It appeared that Guayzimi was going to be our next port of call then! We had asked around and from the small amount of information that we were able to collate, it appeared that we would be able to do it ourselves … maybe.  We grabbed a bus and took off.  A small and unassuming town, with a small town square, our first job was to find a place to stay.  It was not that hard as we had so few places to choose from.  We ended up at Hotel Cueva de los Tayos.  It was run by the gorgeous Noe, and we were officially the first guests.  Brand new, modern, clean and safe, we had a blast there.  Noe was helpful and kind, and ended up taking us around to see things and offer us everything from breakfast to afternoon tea.  Tourists?  We were it!  With barely a sliver of information on the town or its surrounds who was about to embark on the unknown?

A lesson on how to make patacones with Rebeca.

Restaurants?  Good luck!  At night there was a little agachadito, or stall, from where you could buy some simple, but tasty, food.  It was there that we met the hospitable Juan and Rebeca. On our first night in town they took us for a walk to the cemetery, from where we were afforded some lovely views of the little town.  Over the next few days they would invite us to their house, just off the plaza, several times. I got to help Rebeca cook (and eat!) patacones (fried green plantains), yum!  They also have a little farm only kilometres out of town.  Rebeca would visit daily and tend to her chickens and garden. We also visited her there.  She cut us some sugarcane (the plant looks similar to bamboo) and we chewed on chunks.  Yum!  Unlike processed white sugar, it’s far healthier for you, basically because it’s not processed.

Around Guayzimi.

The area was lovely just to wander around, with beautiful views and some interesting, and small Shuar communities. The Shuar are an Amazonian indigenous people of Ecuador and Peru. The only tourists on the (very untouristic!!!) block, we definitely raked in some attention.  It was interesting to walk through their villages and chat to them. Although reserved, they were happy to chat when they could see that could speak Spanish and were making an effort. As is often the case in Ecuador, it’s interesting to see the surprise on their faces when Alex tells them that he’s Ecuadorian. They always think he’s a gringo, or foreigner; it’s the look, the clothes they say.  Too long in Australia, hey!?

Alex drinking ‘chicha’ with the Shuar, in Shaime.

Determined to visit the area around Alta Nangaritza with or without a guide, we took off early one morning on a day trip.  Las Orquideas is approximately 20 kilometres and only an hour away from Nangaritza, on the border of the Peruvian Amazon.  We arrived at about 8am.  A tiny, tiny town situated tight on the Nangaritza River, we chatted to a few people and finally organised a day trip with a local with a boat.  This would end up being one of the most spectacular days in our entire South American journey.

The river itself was spectacularly beautiful, surrounded by high sub-tropical mountains, breathtaking waterfalls and Shuar villages. We did it all! We went on a walk through lush vegetation, high up above the river and passing trees older than our brains could cope with (7000 years!). We were often up to our knees in mud (thankfully we were lent gum boots), but the views still blew our socks … right out of our gum boots!  To say WOW would be an understatement. I felt like an extra in an Indiana Jones movie! We also visited Shuar villages, like Shaime (and drank the local fermented alcoholic fruit drink known locally as ‘chicha’), and a number of waterfalls such as the Cascada Los Dioses (Waterfalls of the Gods). Wow, wow, wow, wow! Ecuador, seriously, you need to start promoting this hidden gem. We also walked within metres of the Peruvian border.  Set in the thick of the Amazonian jungle, this was once a war zone, and there are still live mines.  We saw the signs to prove it.

Day trip to Alto Nangaritza Reserve.
The labyrinth of a thousand illusions.

The day was not over yet … we also visited the Laberinto Mil Ilusiones (the labyrinth of a thousand illusions), also set in the jungle.  The name says it all really!  More WOW factor … mystical, exciting and eerily beautiful, I felt like I was now emerging as the protagonist in what could be the next Indiana Jones movie … the title could simply be ‘The Labyrinth of a Thousand Illusions’. I was feeling so incredibly blessed and lucky to see this enchanting place. Wow, wow and more wow! The day did finally come to an end, and we were soon enough back on the bus to Nangaritza.

Noe took us around with his car and showed us a few other places locally.  We also spent a Sunday with his daughter, Marlene, and her children who had come down from Zamora. One of the greatest pleasures of travelling is always meeting and spending time with the locals.

With Noe and his family, Guayzimi.
Waterfall of the Gods.

Our next point of call would be Macas (not of the hamburger kind!), also in the Oriente, and where Alex’s uncle Jorge works. We would have to take a bus from Yantzaza.  As Noe has a house there, and goes often, he offered to drive us. The overnight bus would not be leaving until almost midnight so Noe allowed us to leave our backpacks in his house and explore the town until we were ready to leave.  A quaint little town with a not a lot to do, it was still interesting to walk around and observe the ‘local life’. It’s often these opportunities that give you an insight into the real culture of an area or country.

Ombi

“If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” – Milton Berle

Dedication:  To Noe, Marlene, Rebeca and your families.  For taking us into your homes and treating us like family.  Some people you remember, others you forget. You are the ones that leave a permanent imprint on our hearts. Thank you.

Dedicación: Para Noe, Marlene y sus familias. Para dejarnos entrar en sus hogares y tratarnos como familia.  Hay alguna gente recordamos y otros que no.  Ustedes son de los que dejan una huella permanente sobre de nuestros corazones. Gracias.

Next: Catching up with Jorge in Macas and visiting Yasuni National Park, deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon.  Remote, exotic, mostly untouched by tourism.  One of my dreams about to come true!

Boat ride along the Nangaritza River.

Flora of Podocarpus National Park.

Walk to Podocarpus National Park.
Zamora street art … minus Alex!

Practising English with the Guayzimi locals.

Rebeca cutting us some fresh cane sugar from her property.

Alex and Noe enjoying a wine.

Serious looking local fauna.

The walk around Alto Nangaritza Reserve.

Alto Nangaritza Reserve, the trunk says it all!

Breathtaking Nangaritza River.

Podocarpus fern.

Locals crossing the Nangaritza River.

Local boy, Las Orquideas.

Revisiting my second home, Ecuador.

It’s always fun times hanging out with my soul mate!

As soon as we crossed the border I felt totally at home.  It’s usually like this when I set foot on the country that has become my second residence, and which I have visited countless times since 1999. You know that, sigh, I’m back kinda feeling! I was meant to be with Alex, I was meant to be here. This was just always all meant to be!  Macara is the border town on the Ecuadorian side, and it has always  held a special place in my heart.  Why?  Because when I backpacked South America in 1999, it was the place I crossed the border from Peru into Ecuador;  the locals were so helpful, friendly and generous that I have never, ever forgotten.  It was one of those travellers’ minties moments that I have always carried around in my heart.  Little was I to know that only weeks later I would meet my soul mate and love of my life!

Rice fields of Macara.
Christmas with the family.

After taking a quick look around we ended up at Los Arrozales Hotel. The room was big, airy, clean and had air-con, which was fantastic given that it’s both hot and humid in Macara.  It ended up being the perfect place to charge our batteries for a week or so. Alex has family that are from Macara, and so we spent some time with them.  For Christmas we were invited to his Aunty and Uncle’s house, where we had a great night eating, drinking and hanging out with all of the cousins.  It was a really fun night.  Alex’s Aunty Gladys and cousin Volney also came down from Quito.  It was lovely catching up with them too. Lazy days, relaxing, lots of eating (the food’s good down here!), walking, visiting … this is the life!

Strret art and family.
Living to a ripe ol’ age in Vilcabamba.

We really wanted to visit the south-eastern part of Ecuador’s Amazon, so it was clear that we were not going to get to Quito for New Year, but we did need to get moving.  Heading east we made our way to Vilcabamba.  Again, last time I was here was on my 1999 trip. My how it had changed!  The first thing I noticed, as we walked through the central plaza, was how many foreigners there were!  It really was ‘pick the Ecuadorian’!  Vilcabamba has a reputation for breeding humans who live to a ripe old age and is very popular amongst tourists … clearly! 

Vilcabamba home.

To be honest, I was a little shocked at how much it had changed and how many tourists there actually were (although I was one of them!) The area has over recent years attracted hippies and bohemians alike, both from afar as well as nationally.  The marijuana-chuffers and drunks always seemed to be sitting in the same place, at the same time, every day. I would often look at them and wish they’d disappear. I know these comments are highly judgemental, but visiting far-away places to see this just isn’t my gig really!

Vilcabamba.

Having said that, nobody can take away from Vilcabamba  that it is set in a historical and scenic valley with spectacular views and a superb climate.  Once out of the central plaza, there really is a lot to see and do. We spent many days strolling around, drinking good coffee (OK, that was around the plaza, but sometimes you have to make exceptions, hey!), and going on some breathtaking walks. 

Podocarpus National Park.

We visited Parque Nacional Podocarpus, which has one of the most biologically rich areas in the country.  It protects habitats at altitudes ranging from 3600 metres (near Vilcabamba) in the paramo to 1000 metres in the steamy rain forests near Zamora.  We did the former and a few days later the latter too! The day we visited the Vilcabamba side of the park it rained, and rained, and rained.  But then, that’s nature.  Still very, very beautiful!

The ‘widows’ playing soccer.

And yes, we did end up spending New Year in Vilca, as it is now fondly referred to by both locals and foreigners alike.  All the usual Ecuadorian New Year’s traditions and customs abounded, such as the burning of effigies at midnight and the ‘viudas’ or widows dressing up to signify the death of another year. The viudas are hysterical; men provocatively dressed up as women give everyone a good laugh!  I loved watching the viudas play soccer too.  Another custom is that when the effigies are burnt at midnight, you are supposed to leap over the flames ensuring a great new year! I was happy to simply watch others doing this and cut my losses, hoping that my following year would be reasonable even if I didn’t straddle these great balls of fire!

With Nick.

New Year’s dinner was at Pura Vida and I must say that the food was truly good.  Really, really, really (really!!!!!!) good olive oil. Seriously, South America does not really do olive oil, and what’s imported is usually not much more than average.  One of the owners here is Spanish, and she brings in the good stuff! Good food and good company … I finally got to meet you Nick Vasey!  You are great on Face Book and even better in real life!

Thanks for having us at your gorgeous property Nick. Just outside of the centre it’s a true getaway.  Beautiful, relaxing, tranquil, spectacular views and … the amazing coffee was a bonus!  I have  a lot of time for people who ‘get’ good coffee!

PS  Found a nice little coffee place, Del Paramo. Excellent coffee!

Ombi

“Fun is good.”– Dr Seuss

Next:  Ecuador’s southern Oriente, where the eastern slopes of the Andes meet with the lowland areas in the Amazon Basin.

Macara river, dividing Ecuador and Peru.
Christmas with the family.

Macara by night.
Macara local.
Yogurt and ‘pan de yuca’ (casava bread).

Macara life!

Alex cathing up on the food he loves.

Out and about in Macara.

With the family.

Some of the Macara locals.

Wasn’t going to stop until he tried all of his faves!

With Tia Gladys and Volney.
Family pic.

Fresh mangoes … from the tree to our mouths.

Yum … with Alex’s cousin Tamara.

Christmas with the family.
New Year masks for the effigies.
Getting ready for the New Year.
Happy 2015!!!!
Supposedly jumping over the burning effigy brings you good luck!
Beautiful Vilcabamba surrounds.
Vilca street art.
Podocarpus National Park.
Nick’s pet peacock.
Some more of Nick’s ‘housemates’.
Malacatos, close to Vilcabamba.
Peacock at Nick’s.
Alex and cousin Volney, Macara.

Peru … the whirlwind tour.

Alex vs ‘Sexy Woman’.

Our aim was to get to Ecuador by Christmas time, but we were running out of time. So, having already done Peru a couple of times, we decided to make our way directly to Cuzco. Home and base to the infamous Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, yes it’s touristy, but it never disappoints. We got in nice and early, as ridiculously early.  We dumped our stuff in  a cheap and cheerful hostel and then made our way to Saksayhuaman (known as Sexy Woman on the gringo tourist trail). A two kilometre uphill climb from (the already high 3300 metre high) Cuzco, the sprawling Inca site is truly impressive and offers arresting views over Cuzco, especially at dawn when we arrived. Whilst Cuzco is gorgeous, the government has totally jumped on the tourist bandwagon and charges an arm and a leg for everything! Not if you get there early and evade the opening times though!

Sacsayhuaman with Cuzco below. 
Sacsayhuaman.
Central square, Cuzco.

Saksayhuaman was eerily peaceful and tranquil so early in the morning, and although we were tired it seemed to recharge our batteries.  I have always maintained that the energy around Cuzco is simply amazing. Despite its monstrous size, today’s visitor still sees only about 20% of the original structure. Our friends, the Spaniards, tore down the walls soon after the conquest and used the blocks to build their own houses in Cuzco.  Despite this, the town of Cuzco is simply delightful.  It’s aesthetically gorgeous!

Alex and Paula eating some fresh corn.

We decided to skip all of the paid and touristy stuff on this trip, but still delighted in walking around the town and doing a few other things close to town. We found a brilliant vegan restaurant called Green Point, close to where we were staying, where the food was so good and well-priced that we went back several times.  Sooooo good that I believe that they opened up their second store in March of this year. Let me repeat, soooo good, that even the carnivores were going back for more!!!! I am not going to lie, after months of mostly below average food in Bolivia … fried food (which I mostly don’t eat), bread and pasta (which I don’t eat), fried chicken (which I don’t eat) … this was like the bomb! The market food, juices and produce was also great here. Ah, to be able to eat well again.

Folkloric dancing.

A hub of cultural activity, one night we went to a free concert presented in one of the halls in the central plaza of Cuzco.  Put together by the Faculty of Geological Engineering and organised by the Cultural Group of Folkloric Dances the event was called “Dances of my country”. It was a great night!

Cuzco by night.
The salt ponds of Maras.

Over the years I have been back to Peru, and especially Cuzco, several times. I have been fortunate to have done the Inca Trail twice and Machu Picchu three times. I had never seen Maras and Moray, so in a bid to do something a little different, along with our Brazilian friend Paula, who we had met up with again in Cuzco, we visited them both.  About 40 kilometres from Cuzco, the road passes through the infamous and breathtaking Sacred Valley, the heart of the Inca Empire. Maras is known for its salt ponds perched up on a hill.  Used since Incan times, they are still being used by locals today. You can also buy the rock salt from them, which leaves most of the packaged stuff you buy today for dead!  Moray, on the other hand, is a set of concentric circles, or depressions, which were most probably used as an irrigation system in Inca times.  Unfortunately, we only got to see the latter from the side of the road, as we were not allowed to purchase a ticket just for the one site, and the administrators were adamant that we should pay the USD$27.00 to see the site!  The ticket was to enter four sites, but I had already seen the other three over the years.  Yes, I did strike up an argument!  How unusual! Over the years the Peruvian government has become very greedy, and it would be fair to say that prices, especially around Cuzco, have jumped up exorbitantly! Even the locals were telling me that it was a rip off.  Ah, the price you pay for tourism!

The concentric circles of Moray.
Pisac ruins.

Pisac, about 33 kilometres from Cuzco and in the Sacred Valley, is also a spot that never disappoints. Sunny Pisac is a bit lower than Cuzco at an elevation of 2715 metres.  It has traditionally been known for its market (which has become way too touristy for my liking!) but its real pull are the ruins and Inca Fortress perched up on the hill above the town. This Inca citadel lies high above the village on a plateau with a plunging gorge on either side. There’s a steep path running to the top … we know, we did it! But if there was ever a worthwhile sweat it out walk, this had to be it!  The views were nothing short of WOW! And so few tourists or travellers actually do it, unlike Machu Picchu, which I have been told is coated with tourists 24/7. We felt like we had the entire place to ourselves.

Around town we visited the fascinating Coca Museum history.  Where else would you find a one-stop-shop on the history, use and influence of the coca leaf? No visit to Cuzco would be complete without walking past the infamous 12-sided stone, probably the finest example of Inca masonry. Having said that, we could do without the dude dressed up as an Inca!  He’s there all the time, and I reckon he’s making more money from photos than his Inca counterparts ever were!

Our first few nights were spent in a hostel whose owners really had no idea about, well, how to run a hostel!  We got pots with holes in the kitchen, and the rain almost flooded out our room one night!  We did have spectacular views of the city from the rooftop though as well as meeting a gorgeous German family travelling with their two kids, whom we really hit it off with. Florence and ……. were about six months into a two year trip around the world with their kids.  Travellers from way back they had decided even before they had children that they would ‘invest’ in the travel experience when they would have kids by travelling around with them.

Alex and Sonia.

We ended up moving to Casa Sihuar, owned by our lovely friends Sonia and Luis and run by their family. The hostel is up the hill near San Blas, in a gorgeous neighbourhood.  It had been years since we had seen Sonia and the gang.  It was lovely to hang out with them and reminisce. As always, they treated us like family.  We spent a few days there hanging out, cooking, chatting and drinking coffee.  It was here that we met Antonio, an Italian who was starting up a pastry business with some of the gang at Sihuar …Ayni Pasticceria Fina is an Italian/ Peruvian fusion. Whilst we were there we tried their panettone (a traditional Italian sweet bread) … it was to die for.

We could have spent another few weeks here, but time was flying, and Christmas approaching.  We had originally planned to stop in Lima for a few days (it has never been my favourite city!), but after a night bus over and it taking us a couple of hours just to get from the outskirts of Lima to the central bus station we decided to move on.  Lima is usually busy, but with Christmas less than two weeks away it was mad.  People, buses, everything everywhere.  Where to next? We asked a few questions and buses were filling up fast, with some destinations already virtually impossible to get to.  We looked at our map and decided on Chiclayo That would take us close enough to the Ecuadorian border.

Valley of the Pyramids.

I had been to Chiclayo before, but it was Alex’s first time. After Cuzco’s cold climate, Chiclayo was sunny and warm and only 13 kilometres away from the beach.  It was a nice spot to stay in for a few days. The city centre is colonial in style and lovely to just walk around and absorb the culture. Its real drawcard, though, is the surrounding archaeological sites. We spent a day at Tucume, the Valley of the Pyramids. A short bus ride from Chiclayo, it’s actually the largest pyramid complex in the world. It covers an area of over 540 acres and encompasses 26 major pyramids and mounds.  Of course many of them cannot be clearly seen.  The site pre-dates the Incas and was occupied by the Lambayeque/Sican (800-1350AD), Chimu (1350-1450AD) and finally the Inca (1450-1532AD). We spent an entire day walking around ‘some’ of the massive site, and although tiring it was well worth it.

The Valley of the Pyramids, Tucume.

Pimental Beach.

We had to go to the beach … or did we?  We ended up at Pimental and spent a couple of hours there, walking along the beach.  I thought it was a great place to take in the culture and watch the fishermen, but as far as a beach goes … I am a snob!  I am Australian!

And so, it was time to go to Ecuador!  After a bit of a runaround in Chiclayo as to where we needed to catch a bus from to get to Ecuador, we finally made it, only days before Christmas! Northern Peru is very, very, very arid!  The odd thing is that literally as soon as you cross the border the scenery changes dramatically to lush.  It was also interesting to note Peru’s very poor north to Ecuador’s rather comfortable south.

Let the Ecuadorian adventure begin!

Ombi

‘We met for a reason, you’re either a blessing or a lesson.’ – Frank Ocean

Crossing from Bolivia to Peru.

The many colours of Bolivian corn.

These little piggies went to market.

Porridge with coca leaf powder.  No, it’s not cocaine!

Cuy … pet or dinner?

Pisac.

View from Maras.

With Sonia, Casa Sihuar.

With the family at Casa Sihuar.

New friends in Cuzco.

Goodbye Sonia … I will miss you!

Finger Lickin’ Good … Peruvian chocolate!

Peruvian street art.

Fishermen on Pimental Beach.

Lake Magic at Copacabana!

Lake Titicaca magic!
Island of the Sun.

Who could ask for more … at the Copa, Copacabana!  But it’s not what you think.  Bolivia has its very own Copacabana  (Copa to the locals!)  …  it’s the main Bolivian town heading north towards the Peruvian border and the town that lies on the rim of Bolivia’s side of the infamous Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. Again, one of those places I had done before but was so happily about to do again! Lake Titicaca straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru in the Andes Mountains and at 3182 metres above sea level it really does feel like you are on top of the world! It is said to be the highest navigable lake in the world. At 190 kilometres long by 80 kilometres wide there are spots whereby, once on the actual lake, it is so big that it appears to be like an ocean; you really can’t see the shore! It’s said to be the birthplace of the Incas, and with its many scattered ruins it really does have that mystical feel about it.

Spectacular Lake Titicaca.

Meeting the locals.

It was upon arrival, that we would meet Paula, our new friend from Brazil whom we would spend the next couple of weeks travelling with. We hit it off instantly and as she and Alex chatted in the plaza, I went and looked for a place to stay. After checking out numerous places I decided on Hostal Sonia, cheap, clean, comfy and with amazing rooftop views.  It had a kitchen as well, which is always a bonus as we do a lot of cooking in-house. I’m not going to lie, Bolivian food has mostly done nothing for me; chicken, chicken, chicken, rice, beans, lots of fried food an negligible salad or veggie portions!  Adversely, the markets have an amazing array of both fruit and vegetables; they became my best friend in Bolivia! My checking of hostels had provided me with a mini-tour of the town.  It was really just as I had remembered it, but with more shops and more tourists!  This is what happens, hey!

Temple of the Sun.

We spent a great few days here doing everything from the infamous Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) to the less travelled to Isla de la Luna (Island of the Moon).  I had not been to the latter before. The Island of the Sun is a short boat ride away and despite its proximity to the mainland can still only be traversed by foot, no roads or cars and only paths to walk on, which is what makes it special really. The terrain is rocky and the island is inhabited by the traditional Aymara people.  Scattered with ruins, it is a delight to walk around. Upon arrival by ferry at the dock village of Yumani, you are greeted by a lovely hanging garden along what is known as the Escalera de la Inca (or Inca’s Staircase) culminating in a beautiful rolling waterfall.  And it just gets better from there really! A walk around the island will make you feel like you are the Queen or King of the Castle and that you own the world.

Temple of the Virgins, Island of the Moon.

Much less visited, but I was determined to do it this time, was the Island of the Moon.  Much smaller than the Island of the Sun, this island is known for its mythological significance to the Incas and is home to the ruins of the Temple of the Virgins.  It is inhabited on the Western side by a small village of about 80 people.  The locals are friendly, the atmosphere tranquil and quiet and the island is still without electricity.  Both islands have places to stay, which was definitely not the case on my last visit.  One can only hope that tourism ‘progresses the cause’ and does not damage it.  We can only hope … and wait and see.

At the top of Calvary Hill.

We also did lots of things in and around Copacabana. No trip to the area would be complete without a walk up to the top of Cerro Calvario, or Calvary Hill. Close to the centre of town it’s approximately a 30 minute walk up the steep hill.  The steps make it a little more comfortable but it’s steep nonetheless.  The views at the top are extraordinary!  In front of you lies Lake Titicaca in all of her splendour and glory!

Calvary Hill views.

Blessing of the cars.

It’s impossible to escape the imposing Moorish-style Church of the Virgin of Copacabana.  It’s one of the most important and visited churches in Bolivia, its construction having been started in 1601. Some days, and particularly weekends, are devoted to the
Bendicion de Movilidades‘, where people go to bless their cars.  It truly is a sight to behold!  Each day cars jam the cobble stoned streets, decked out like children awaiting baptism, and a priest walks around sprinkling water on them. Once the ritual is complete the owners crack open a bottle of champers and head down the road with a renewed sense of well being. Given the country’s crazy traffic and cliff-hugging roads, its understandable that some may want to seek divine intervention!

Virgin of Copacabana church.
Chani Islands.

One of my favourite spots was the Horca del Inca, a pre-Inca astronomical observatory built in the 14th century. Visited by very few tourists, it’s a climb that requires both decent fitness and shoes, but oh what a view!

We also visited the floating islands of Chani, very close to the town centre.  Not nearly as big or as touristy as those in Puno, on the Peruvian side of the lake, they were still pretty and worth a look see. Surrounded by some pretty high rocks, we scrambled up some of them for yet some more rewarding views.  the locals make a living here by feeding the locals fresh fish direct from the source!

A world with a  view, Chani Islands.
With the Uruguayan travellers.

Another day was spent walking along the shore of the lake and chatting to the locals as well as the ‘foreigners’ who had come across the border from Peru.  We also met a Uruguayan couple travelling South America in their little car.  Love these moments.

We had had so much fun in Bolivia! An amazing country with so much to offer, the highlight was the many amazing people we had met and shared good times with.  It’s hard to believe that we had spent almost two months here.  The next country awaited us.  Peru … are you ready for us!!!

Ombi

Peru … here we come!

“Live each day as if your life had just begun.” – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Next:  Peru … the whirlwind tour!

Bolivian street art.

Island of the Sun.

With Paula on Island of the Sun.

Island of the Sun.

Being offered beer by the locals.

Travelling the world.

Life is for living!

The highest navigable lake on Earth.

Festivities in Copacabana.

The festivities continue …

Nature.

Blessing of the cars.

The Fountain of Youth, Island of the Sun.

Cholitas, Virgin of Copacabana church.

Travelling with my soul mate.

Bolivian pride.

Chulumani … another hidden gem.

On the road to Chulumani.

The road to Chulumani was bumpy, very bumpy!  But we were excited; a place I had not been to before and we had heard so many good things about it … primarily that it was not touristy.  Let’s go! The four hour ride presented us with some spectacular views and scenery and although not the Death Road, there were still some bits where it was quite narrow and the sheer drops, quite literally, took our breath away.

Out and about in Chulumani.
Alex and Javier … “nos prestamos plata”.

Upon our arrival, we could see that it was a quaint little place.  Mostly indigenous folk, not that big, a Chulumani.  Apart from the fact that the rooms were gorgeous and comfortable, the place surrounded by foliage and birds, and that it had a swimming pool and felt like a retreat … the owner absolutely made it!  Javier, originally from La Paz, was beyond knowledgeable about the area and with his effervescent personality and desire to show and tell us what to do and see we had an absolute blast and ended up staying there for over a week.  I loved the fact that until the last day we were the only gringos in the ‘hood!  Days were spent exploring, yeh and sometimes even just relaxing by the poolside, and nights were spent deep in conversation with  Javier who has since become a great friend … as he likes to say “nos prestamos plata” (“we now lend each other money”, which he says only happens between really good friends).  Having lived in the States, he also has excellent English.  Javier lives in this gorgeous place with his equally gorgeous daughter, Lupita, who besides going to high school, also helped out around the hostel. Lupita … bright, excellent English, smart and a conversationalist … we loved you! If only 1% of the worldwide teenage population could be like you.  And to boot and excellent violinist!
central plaza and lots of unpaved dusty roads.  Had we just hit the Wild West?  It instantly had that homely, ‘welcome home’ vibe about it.  We asked around for accommodation (the places to stay can be counted on half a hand and struggling) and ended up at Country House.

The way to chill out at Countryhouse Chulumani.

A house with a (breathtaking!) view.

Chill out time.
Rural town life.

We went on some great walks and saw some amazing things.  The only foreigners around, the spotlight was often on us, but the people were really helpful and chatty.  We chatted to lots of locals who were more than willing to tell their stories as well as invite us into their humble homes.  There is no price one can place on this. We visited many little towns and one of my favourites was Chicaloma. This tiny place is home to many of Bolivia’s Afro-Bolivian population. The thing that really blew me away was to see some of the women dressed up in indigenous garb.  I was used to seeing indigenous people in these clothes, not black people! Ocobaya was another tiny but pleasant spot as was Irupana, where we found organic coffee and people drying their coca leaves on the road.

This is the way you dry your coca leaves.

Being invited into the home of some locals.
Alex showing Lupita how to make patacones.

The real beauty and intrigue of the entire area was to simply ‘be’ … to walk, to breathe in the country air, to take in the spectacular scenery, to talk to the locals, to absorb the culture, and to spend some truly amazing time with Javier and Lupita.

Lupita is a truly talented young lady and is part of the Chulumani Symphonic Orchestra, a group of young and talented musicians who gather weekly and practice.  Despite the fact that the teacher comes all the way from La Paz weekly and that the local council has tried to make their existence difficult (I will not get into the politics here) they all continue to get together and play their instruments. Alex and I went to visit the group and chatted to them about the importance of believing in themselves and following their dreams.  Dreams only come true when you believe in them! There is nothing quite like inspiring young people to be positive, to try and achieve their best and most of all push forward with vigour in the face of adversity. It was great to spend a couple of hours with them.  This culminated in a ‘performance’ for us that simply blew us away!  We were touched to tears! I hope that in years to come these kids will look back and think … we met two people who believed in us!

Some kids from the orchestra.

With the Chulumani Symphonic Orchestra.

With the Chulumani Symphonic Orchestra; Lupita far left.

With Lupita and Javier.

And as so happens on our travels, it was time to leave and move on.  This time, however, with a somewhat heavy heart.  Javier, Lupita and Country House Chulumani had made an enormous impact on us.  Would we see these people again?  Yes, I think we will!  Lots of hugs all around, tears in my eyes, and with a heart full of gratitude and joy we were off on our next adventure!

As we walked away from the hostel, I looked back at the waving Javier and Lupita and, with teras in my eyes, blew them kisses.  This is why I travel … THIS is why I travel!

Ombi

With Javier, Lupita and Vaughn (the only other tourist we saw in the week).

Goodbye Countryhouse.

I will miss you Javier!

“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” – Marcel Proust

Dedication: To our ‘charming gardeners’. Javier and Lupita’ you are the charming gardeners who allowed our souls to blossom. You made us happy and you became our friends! We will never forget you both and this spectacular part of our journey.  Friends forever!  You are always welcome to visit us and stay with us in Australia.  When our journey is done and dusted, it is people like you that leave a footprint on our hearts.  Those footprints will always remain! We thank you profoundly!

Dedicatoria: A nuestros ‘jardineros encantadores’. Javier y Lupita ustedes son los jardineros encantadores que permitieron que nuestras almas florezcan. Nos hiciste feliz y se convirtieron en nuestros amigos! Nunca olvidaremos a los dos y esta parte espectacular de nuestro viaje. Amigos para siempre! Siempre estarán bienvenidos visitarnos y quedarse con nosotros en Australia. Cuando el viaje  esta terminado es la gente como usted que dejan una huella en nuestros corazones. Estas huellas permaneceran siempre!  Te agradecemos profundamente!

Next:  Copacabana and Lake Titicaca.

A local on her walk.

Nature.

Amazing scenery.

Walks in off-the-beaten-track places.

Out and about.

Everyone deserves some rest time.

Ahhh, the tranquility.

Beauty … and no beast in sight!

“Long live the holy leaf”. (Coca)

Local life.

Yin and Yang … cultivation coca leaf style.

Farmers cultivating coca leaves.

The colours of Mother Nature.

Beauty and the Beast!

The Countryhouse dogs saying goodbye as we leave.

Chulumani … butterfly wonderland.

Drying coca leaves.

Up and down in La Paz!

Hello La Paz!

Oh La Paz … you’re high, you’re cold, you make walking around difficult, you have witches’ markets, good coffee, indigenous women wrestling, amazing museums, spectacular scenery and amazing markets! I could finish the blog here really!  Oh you do do delight, and the best part about you is really that you are just you and that simply walking around you is a delight!

Nuestra Senora de la Paz (Our Lady of Peace), or La Paz, as it’s more commonly known sits in a bowl surrounded by the high mountains of the altiplano and sits in elevations of between 3200 and 4100 metres above sea level. Although very cold at night, it’s not uncommon to be walking around in a t-shirt and pants during the day whilst looking out to the triple-peaked Illamani in the distance; always snow-covered and it can be seen from many parts of the city.

Illimani, La Paz’s guardian!

I was back!  I felt like I had found my long-lost sister. First things first … finding a place to stay. We arrived nice and early and it was indeed nice and cold.  I had forgotten how frenetic and full-on La Paz was, but I will confess to quite liking that vibe.  Although we headed for the centre and checked a few places out, we ended up at
Arthy’s Guesthouse.  Despite being on a very busy road, what lay behind the bright orange door which was its entrance was a veritable clean, cosy and tranquil oasis.  The owners were helpful and treated us like their family.  The kitchen was a winner.  I am not going to lie, I have not been overly impressed with Bolivia’s mostly fried-fare but the markets have some of the greatest variety I have seen anywhere in the world.

La Paz street art.

La Paz has grown and expanded over the years, and most certainly since I was here in 1999.  El Alto used to be the ‘slum-city’ that sat five kilometres away on the outskirts of La Paz.  The urban sprawl has grown so much that this once suburb of La Paz is now really just part of it.  It’s one of Bolivia’s largest and fastest-growing urban centres. It’s also the highest point of La Paz at a little over 4100 metres above sea level. The views from El Alto are breathtaking, needless to say! It has a very interesting history and past; populated largely by Aymara (Bolivia’s two biggest indigenous groups are the Aymara and Quechua) migrants from the surrounding Altiplano it was officially recognised as a separate municipality from La Paz in 1986.  It instantly became the fourth biggest, poorest and fastest growing city in Bolivia.  Along with this were included all the problems of a poor city that grows that fast! It actually has a bigger population than La Paz!

El Alto Sunday market.

Aerial transport, La Paz style.

La Paz has done something brilliantly.  It has created Mi Teleferico (My Cable Car), not as a tourist attraction but as an aerial cable car urban transit system.  It was actually planned in order to address a number of problems, the most prominent being a precarious public transport system that simply could not cope with user demands.  Built by an Austrian company, and opened only last year in 2014, there are currently three lines in operation and six more are in the planning stage. The first two lines, the Red and Yellow, connect La Paz with El Alto and blow-your-socks-off views are afforded.  As it’s not a tourist attraction (yet!) and a means of public transport, we had lots of fun using the various lines several times.  It was not just the views that blew our socks off but also the sheer size of La Paz which continues to grow like it’s on top-end baby formula!

El Alto Market … something for everyone!

Needless to say the cable car is how we got to El Alto’s famous Sunday market. Market?  It was a ‘suburb’ of street to street vendors selling everything from llama  foetuses to top-end Bose sound systems. You name it, they have it!   It was absolutely chockers and it just went on and on and on and on.  These once-poor-people have carved themselves out a decent income and good on them. It reached a point where it was just too hard to take it all in.  Without a doubt one of the biggest markets I have ever seen … and with a brilliant view of la Paz to boot! With its dusty streets and sweeping views, it looks like something out of a wild, wild west movie! Keep in mind that it’s the world’s most active ‘rebel’ city and the scene of frequent protests and crippling  strikes!

El Alto is also home to La Paz’s Lucha Libre or ‘Cholitas Wrestling‘ as it’s more commonly known and I can highly recommend it. Much more than entertainment and profits however, Cholita wrestling is a way for Bolivian women to prove their worth in a ‘man’s world’.  Having been abused, humiliated and discriminated against throughout history, the ring is one place where indigenous women can hold their head high, do their job with pride and be on equal footing with men!  You go girrrrrrls!!!!!!!

That’s the way gals!

This is both an absolutely hysterical as well as bizarre event where women in their indigenous attire go out and wrestle.  Locals and foreigners alike love it!  I don’t normally like to do ‘tacky’ things on the tourist trail, but I succumbed and we went.  Inspired by the USA’s World Wide Wrestling and Mexico’s lucha libre, this is really more about entertainment than skill.  Nobody gets hurt and I must say, good laughs are provided all around! There are a couple of different places that you can go to; we went to

La Paz, you were so much more than spectacular scenery, markets and dizzying heights!  Every nook and cranny was packed with culture, information and protests! The Mercado de Hecheria, or Witches’ Market, sells everything from herbal and folk remedies to toucan beaks! Interesting to walk around and watch the vendors doing rituals for everything from the purchase of a new house to getting rid of unwanted negative energy.

Llama foetuses anyime?

Or perhaps a potion of some description?

Charangos.

Plazas, churches, museums … La Paz abounds in all.  One of my absolute favourites, however, was the Museum of Musical Instruments.  This place has an exhaustive hands-on collection of unique musical instruments, including those that are specifically Andean.  It’s a must see for musicians and we lay-people alike. A private museum, it was founded in 1962 by famous Bolivian ‘charanguista’ and the inventor of many musical instruments, Ernesto Cavour. Every Saturday night the museum holds a concert, showcasing some of La Paz’s and often Bolivia’s most seasoned musicians.  The concert room is very small and the entry fee is around USD$3.50.  Anywhere else in the world this type of talent would cost a fortune! Underrated, understated!

What a collection of instruments.

Add caption

We were fortunate in that the night we visited, we saw the master himself!  What a truly talented man. His speciality, clearly, is the charango, a small Andean stringed instrument. Along with a couple of other artists, including Franz Valverde who played the muyu-muyu (like a guitar with strings on both sides!) and Rolando Encinas on the pan pipes, we were totally entertained over a couple of hours. The museum also happens to be on Calle Jaen, La Paz’s finest colonial street; cobblestoned and free of traffic, it’s like an oasis of tranquility in a chaotic city!

Of course we visited many markets and parks, but we also took some time to hang out and simply take in the La Paz life.  I have seen lots of changes in the 15 years since I was here last.  Without a doubt there is still a lot of poverty, bit this seems a world away from suburbs like Sopocachi which abounds in lovely restaurants and funky cafes.

Central Park .. a view ‘above’ the rest … La Paz.

La Paz by night.

La Paz has been described as chaotic, frenetic, dirty and dangerous, but we loved it!  It charged our batteries and with a renewed zest, we were ready to move on. Coroico is usually the next stop on the tourist trail, which is what I did in 1999, but I had heard that it had become super-touristy.  La Carretera de las Yungas, the road between La Paz and Coroico, is known as the most dangerous road in the world.  I know!  I did it! “It’s estimated that 200 to 300 people travelling on it die each year.  the thin road climbs jungle-clad mountains to a height of 4650 metres, winding and turning all the while with nauseatingly deep canyons below. Dozens of vehicles went off the road each year, and with vertical drops of up to 1000 metres over the edge , annual fatalities reached into the 100s”. No thanks, been there done that.  These days, it’s mostly used by cyclists on Death Road cycle tours. Fortunately, there is an alternative road to Coroico … some use it, some don’t.  I played Russian roulette on this road once and I was not going to do it again!  Some things in life are to be repeated and some just are not!

Rooftop view, La Paz

Soooooooo,  we looked at the map … and chose Chulumani close by … it would prove to be one of the best choices we made, and a South American highlight!

Ombi

“I have found that if you love life, life will love you back”. – Arthur Rubinstein

Next: Chulumani and Lake Titicaca.

Street art.

Around La Paz.

Cholitas.

Cars, buildings and protests, La Paz.

Out and about in La Paz.

A night of entertainment.

Jaen Street.

Bolivia’s sad past.

Artists draw it as it is! Or was!
Expanding La Paz.

Precarious living?

It’s a hot air balloon?  No, it’s a cable car!

La Paz … houses everywhere!

Cable cars run over the top of the entire city.

Evo … patria o ratria?

Cable cars, La Paz.

La Paz just keeps growing!

Women looking for justice.

Everything’s up for grabs at the El Alto market.

With our Swedish friends Sara and  Mark at Arthy’s Guesthouse.

Lucha Libre.

The La Paz shoe shine ninjas!

More street art.

Saying goodbye to Reuben at Arthy’s.
View of La Paz at the top of the cable car line.

Shopping at El Alto.

Fruit juice anyone?


Cochabamba … life’s good at the top!

Cochabamba street art.

On the way back from Toro Toro National Park we decided to stop in Cochabamba for a few days, seeing that we had to pass through it on the way to La Paz anyway. Besides, we had been told that it was Bolivia’s food capital! Sold! Synchronicity!  How I love it! We had only just arrived and found ourselves in the central plaza discussing potential places to stay, when we were greeted by Raquel.  We had recently met Raquel and her husband in Samaipata.  Lovely people, Raquel is a batik artist and Roy Querejazu Lewis is a university professor and Andean rock art specialist. Raquel invited us over for lunch the following day.

After lots of walking  and checking of places (I am very fussy, I know!) we finally ended up at Hostal Colonial.  The owners were never going to win the hospitality award, but it was a quiet, safe and comfortable place, which would serve us well for a few days.  Good eating, relaxing and reading.  A few years ago my wonderful friend, Linda Drew, gave me Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America to read. A book which analyses Latin America as a whole, I believe it’s a must read for all Latinos and indeed anyone who is passionate about Latin America and its history.  So, I bought the book in Spanish and thought I’d give it a crack!  Amazing reading!

The next few days were really just about chilling out, eating good food, drinking good coffee (Bolivia has really impressed us!), partaking in one of my favourite pastimes (visiting markets, of course) and simply taking in the city sights.

Almost at the top!

We visited the Cristo de la Concordia, which effectively looks like Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.  We caught a cable car to the top of Cerro (hill) de San Pedro, where the statue sits atop of and were offered sweeping views of Cochabamba and its surrounds. And here’s a bit of information; both statues are 33 metres tall because Christ supposedly died when he was 33 years old.  After some chill in’ at the top, we took our time walking down.


It’s a good life at the top!

View from the top!

More sweeping views from the top.

Meanwhile, back at the bottom, we did some exploring of the city!

A variety of potatoes!

Looking up to Cristo de la Concordia.

Cochabamba’s central plaza by night.

Street art; what some had to say about the church!

Cochabamba’s central plaza by night.

Bolivian weavings.

Veggies anyone?

Local bus.

Gorgeous little boy, sadly begging!
With Roy, Raquel and Mariel.

The highlight of our stay in Cochabamba was our lunch with Roy, Raquel and Raquel’s daughter
Mariel. We had a wonderful time chatting about a multitude of things from politics to the many books Roy has written on rock art.  He has even published a book on Bolivian flora.  He gifted us two books and signed them both.  These are the magical travellers minties moments!

Alex and Roy having a beer.

Roy’s work in an Australian Rock Art journal.

The girls; Raquel, Mariel and I.

After a few truly wonderful days, it was time to move on.  La Paz awaited us!  I wondered how much it would have really changed since my last time here in 1999?  But then I suppose a lot has changed since then!  Last time I was in Bolivia I was only weeks away from meeting my soul mate and the love of my life in Ecuador.  We have now forged a brilliant life together and are exploring the continent of his birthplace together.  Ain’t life grand!

Ombi

“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it”. – Michelangelo

Next:  La Paz you did not fail to impress!

Always ready to take a good shot!

A room with a view, cable car to the Christ.

One of Cochabamba’s many plazas.

Not everybody is having fun!

Goodbye coffee with Raquel.

Dedication: To Raquel and Roy.  Meeting people like you is what makes our trip truly special!  Thanks for offering us your friendship and an insight to your country that no guidebook could ever do. 

Dedicación: Para Raquel y Roy.  Encontrar gente como ustedes es lo que hace que nuestro viaje sea verdaderamente especial.  Gracias por brindarnos su amistad y darnos una mirada adentro de su país que ninguna guía de viajes te pudiese haber dado.





Where the dinosaurs walked more than 120 million years ago!

Toro Toro

In the streets of Toro Toro.

An overnight bus took us to Cochabamba, in central Bolivia,  from where our plan was to go to Toro Toro National Park, ‘relatively’ close by. As can sometimes be the case in South America, we were sent to the wrong place, and had to back track in order to get to the right point. Oh well, at least we got to see some of Cochabamba along the way.

Toro Toro National Park is only 135 kilometres southeast of Cochabamba and its drawcard is its dinosaur tracks, spectacular geological formations, caves, hikes and ruins.  We had met some travellers along the way who had told us that it’s a Bolivian must-see, highlight and hidden gem as well as not being touristy.  SOLD!  We were  also told that it’s only accessible by bumpy gravel roads and riverbeds, which takes seven hours in the dry season and much longer in the rainy season when sometimes the road becomes totally impassable. Information on this place is scarce, as for many off-the-beaten-track places in South America, but we determined to do it!

That’s a pretty big foot print!
Dinosaur foot prints.
Welcome to Toro Toro.

We finally did get to the ‘place’ where small pick-ups take you to Toro Toro … when full!  OK, so we had to wait a couple of hours, or three!  Patience!  All good things take time, or so they say. After making friends with a gorgeous French-Canadian lady called Audrey and her lovely partner and child, we were off. The road was bumpy (more like a dirt track … OK gravel road!) and it took around five hours to cover approximately 140 kilometres.  The town is tiny, barely a central plaza and a few surrounding streets. We searched for a place to sleep and found a basic, but clean place on the ‘main drag’, run by the delightful Maritza and her two year old Santiago.  What the place did not have in mod-cons it made up for by the warmth of its host.

Toro Toro … serene, tranquil, breathtaking!

Santiago.

Toro Toro National park protects a remote and sparsely inhabited stretch of the arid Bolivian Andes. It is the country’s smallest national park but with a huge wow factor! What it lacks in size it makes up for with its powerful scenery and varied attractions. The park encompasses everything from hanging valleys to eroded canyons, ringed by low mountains whose twisted geological formations are strewn with fossils, dinosaur footprints and labyrinth limestone cave complexes. We spent a couple of days doing some day trips exploring the area and were well and truly blown away. The main attractions and indeed highlights are the limestone Umajallanta Caves and the waterfall-filled Torotoro Canyon.

Umajallanta Caves … not for the fainthearted.

The caves most certainly were not for the faint-hearted. I was half-expecting an easy-going guided tour, but this was all about crawling on your hands and knees and doing in Bear Grylls style. After more than two hours I emerged a little shaky but truly blown away by the grandeur of what I had seen. In comparison, despite the dizzying height, the canyon was far more sedate and the Vergel waterfall and surrounds nothing short of spectacular … and a lovely spot for a swim, might I add.

Umajallanta Caves …window to another world.

Toro Toro Canyon.
On top of the world … City of Itas.
City of Itas.

We also visited the  City of Itas, 21 kilometres out of the town centre. At 3800 metres above sea level it is an area of majestic and huge rock formations which really does look like a city made of stone. Huge caverns with arches that look like baroque churches have been carved out by Mother Nature, but in parts there is evidence of ‘human tampering’ in the form of rock art. It was a drizzly day when we visited and so the overall feeling was simply one of majesty and grandeur.  Without a doubt, this entire area has been a South American highlight.  Still virtually unknown on the gringo-tourist-trail, I reckon this is the time to be here.

This has been without a doubt, a major highlight of our trip.  Laid-back and lazy with very few ‘tourist mod-cons’ yet a veritable geological wonderland. When the tourists get a grip of this I am sure it will provide Machu Picchu with some decent rivalry!

Ombi

Bye, bye Santi … off to our next destination!


“Fear is the cheapest room in the house.  I would like to see you living in better conditions”. – Hafiz

Off to school.

City of Itas.

Morning walk.

The town with a splendiferous back drop.

Vergel Waterfall.

We did it!  Umajallanta Caves.

Toro Toro life.

Toro Toro stroller.

This is the way we wash the clothes.

Alex and Santi.

Out and about.

Toro Toro local guide.

Land of the dinosaurs.

On our way to Toro Toro Canyon.

City of Itas.

I want to ride my bicycle.

Walk to Vergel Waterfal.

One of the locals.

Coming down … to tropical Bolivia!

Sleepy Samaipata.

We were umming and ahhing about where to go to next.  I had done much of the Andean side of Bolivia all those years ago and wanted to also see some things that I had not seen before. A tip off on Samaipata; sub-tropical climate, not that far from Sucre and set in the stunning wilderness in the foothills of the Cordillera Oriental (parallel mountain range to the Bolivian Andes). And at 1650 metres above sea level. I repeat 1650 metres above sea level!!! That may not seem like a big deal, but considering that we had spent the last several weeks in very high altitude (equals cold and hard to breathe) this was a more than appealing option. Next destination SOLD!  Buses being buses in Bolivia, we arrived at our destination at 4am.  Luckily it was a small and safe enough place for us to hang around in until dawn broke and the hour was reasonable enough for us to go and look for some accommodation.

We finally settled on La Posada del Sol.  We only stayed a night as we felt that it was overpriced for what it offered.  A gringo(foreigner)/local partnership, perhaps they had gotten a little too comfortable and forgotten about what really mattered.  You couldn’t do this and you couldn’t do that; it was totally geared at money, money. And don’t, I repeat don’t do your own laundry! Having said that, we did meet a wonderful couple at the cafe there; Roy and Raquel from Cochabamba.  Roy was a professor and specialist in Andean rock art and Raquel a batik artist.  Really lovely people whom we spent hours chatting to.

We ended up spending the next few days at the friendly, family-run Residencial Kim. Basic and clean rooms with a lovely courtyard and kitchen (always a deal-clincher for me) with lovely and helpful staff.

Fresh fruit at Residencial Kim.
Samaipata.

Yum!

The place to see in Samaipata is the mystical pre-Inca site of El Fuerte, or the Fort. Just an uphill from the village but most easily accessed by public transport. We had also made some new English friends at La Posada, so we decided to go along together.

With Cat and John on the way to El Fuerte.

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in December 1998, it is not actually a military fortification, but is generally considered a PreColumbian religious site built by the Chane people, a pre-Inca culture of Arawak origin. The sculptured rock is known as one of the most impressive examples of rock art in the world. Extremely well kept it took us a couple of hours to walk around and take it all in.
Sweeping views of Samaipata.
El Fuerte.

El Fuerte.

Up close and personal.

A Room with a View.

El Fuerte.


El Fuerte.

Perspective, El Fuerte.

Samaipata flora.

Beautiful Samaipata.




Next stop, a couple of days in tropical Santa Cruz. Many years back we met a Bolivian/ English couple in Melbourne, who now live back in England (love to you both Raquel and Bodhi); Raquel’s family hail from Santa Cruz.  We told Raquel we’d go visit them, but she insisted that we go stay.  All I can say is that her parents, Emma and Angel, have got to be two of the most hospitable people I have ever met, and that goes for all of Raquel’s family, who simply could not do enough for us in the few days that we were there.  Angel went out of his way to cook for us, and various family members to show us around.  And the mangoes from the tree in the backyard … OMG! These are the ‘travelling magic moments’!


Climate wise, what a difference from the Bolivia we had seen thus far, it was both hot and humid. And so we spent the next few days just hanging out with the family; a relaxing difference from the usual sight to sight that we have been doing over the last few months.

Plaza 24 de Septiembre.
Plaza 24 de Septiembre by night, with the cathedral in the background.
With Raquel’s mum Emma, sister Lorena and little niece Mishell.

Thanks for cooking for us Master Chef Angel.

Showing us around Santa Cruz.

A day trip to  Porongo with the family.
Yucca pancakes (tortillas) in Pongo.
Alex getting ready to eat sonsos, made of yucca.
In Rio Pirai.
Angel with little Mishell.

Saying goodbye to the family.
With the emblem of Bolivia, painted by Angel.

At the Santa Cruz bus terminal … baby it’s hot inside!


And so another adventure had come to an end.  To see and experience new and different things is great, but it’s really the people that you meet that make that experience extra special. With a smile on our faces, off we went to our next destination. Cochabamba and Toro Toro here we come.

Ombi


Next: National Park Toro Toro (one of Bolivia’s hidden secrets) and Cochabamba. 


Dedication: To the wonderful, wonderful Burgos family who let us into their home and treated us like their family. You went out of your way to feed us and show us as much as you could in the few days that we were in Santa Cruz.  We want you to know how much we appreciate your kind, warm and loving gestures.  You will always occupy a very special place in our hearts.  Angel and Emma your family should be honoured to have you!
Dedicacion: Para la linda, linda familia Burgos, que nos permitieron entrar su hogar nos trataron como su propia familia. Hicieron de todo , darnos de comer y mostrarnos la ciudad y alrededor en los pocos días que pasamos en Santa Cruz. Queremos que sepan que apreciamos muchísimo sus buenos, calurosos y amorosos gestos.  Siempre ocuparan un lugar muy especial en nuestros corazones. Angel y Emma su familia deben estar honrados de tenerlos en sus vidas.

Don’t count the things you do, do the things that count.” – Zig Ziglar