After being in South America for about six weeks, I´ve just found out that the word I learnt for “computer” at school many years ago is now hopelessly outdated. Everyone says “computador” instead of “ordenador” these days. I´ve essentially been going into internet cafes and asking “Can we use two difference engines please?“
Within seconds of introducing ourselves to an American tourist at our lodge in the Amazon.
American: “I know a great website for scopes and all sorts of gun accessories.“
Me: “We’re British. We don’t do guns.”
American: ”What about muskets? Are you allowed to have muskets?”
After we finished our tour of the salt-flats, we got a night bus the same day to La Paz. After two days in La Paz doing nothing (Mr Beet was still recovering), we flew on to the town of Rurrenabaque. We flew with the Bolivian military airline in a plane that looked as though it had seen better days. It was a great flight though, as we were flying through the Andes mountains and could see the snowy tops of the mountains above us.
Rurre is a base for people exploring the Amazon rainforest and we were staying in a place called Madidi Jungle Lodge, which is run by an indigenous tribe. It was a three-hour boat trip up the river to get to the lodge. Fantastic steamy jungle scenery on the way and lots of birds to spot including bright red macaws.
We were the only guests at the lodge and were very well looked-after with three-course meals three times a day. Our guide Henry would take us on a couple of walks through the jungle each day, to see what we could see. The rest of the time we spent napping (it was hot and we had full tummies).
Before we’d even left the lodge we’d seen lots of brightly-coloured butterflies and hummingbirds. Once into the forest, Henry told us about some of the trees, their medicinal uses and the folklore of the forest. They have a tree that has bark that smells like garlic, and they say that it wards off evil spirits. Just like garlic and vampires – there must be something in it!
On our first walk we managed to spot two species of monkey, including noisy capuchin monkeys, and peccaries. The peccaries are wild pigs that live in herds of a hundred or more. They smell terrible, so you can smell them first, then you can hear them chomping and snorting, both long before you can see anything. Henry gets us to stop when we can hear pigs on both sides. After a couple of minutes of standing quietly the pigs cross over the path in front of us so that we get a good view. Only the last couple seem to spot us. One stares at us for a long time, as if caught in a “fight or flight” dilemma. Once he starts to look like he might seriously be considering the first option, Henry sounds the metal of his machete on a tree and the pig turns tail and runs off to join his herd.
On our second day we visit a salt-lick which is visited by birds, monkeys, pigs etc. Here we see a vulture and we get a great views of the pigs; including two stripey little babies that are no more than a couple of weeks old.
That evening we go on a night hike to try to see some nocturnal animals. We see the gleaming red eye and hear the big splash of a cayman, which is about as close as I want to come. While we are all distracted by trying to brush fire-ants off our trousers, Henry suddenly leaps about three feet in the air. He’s just trodden on a red, black and white-banded coral snake, which was understandably annoyed by this and rears up before slinking off into the undergrowth. They are poisonous, but Henry is wearing quite sturdy rubber boots (which I am teaching him to call “wellies” but that is hard to pronouce) so is safe.
Day three we see toucans and red howler monkeys. The monkeys should really be asleep at this time of day, but we are lucky enough to get in the middle of a noisy face-off between the dominant male and a challenger.
In the afternoon we go fishing. Armed with a length of line and a hook with raw meat on the end, we are trying to catch piranhas. As we are unsuccessfully casting our lines in the river, we turn around to see a mother and baby tapir swimming across the river. This is an incredibly lucky spot – you are more likely to see them at night and yesterday I was excited about seeing a tapir footprint, let alone the real thing. Even Henry has never seen a baby before.
After seeing the tapirs, our luck changes or at least mine does. I hook a catfish and a piranha. Both go back in the river as they are only tiddlers though.
On our way back Henry points out the tapir footprints and also that there are lots of jaguar footprints in this area. Jaguars like to eat baby tapirs, I hope the one we saw manages to avoid becoming a late-night snack.
That night we have a farewell dinner of catfish (bigger ones than the one I caught) cooked in banana leaf. We think that on our last day we will just be heading back to Rurre after breakfast, but Henry has other plans for us. We have our longest hike yet and then we float back down the river in rubber inner-tubes. Then we get the boat back to Rurre, spotting a capybara with three babies on the riverbank. They are quite cute, but only if you call them “capybara” and not “giant rats”.
I would highly recommend Madidi Jungle Lodge. The location, accommodation, guides and food were all fantastic. The company organised everything for us including flights to and from Rurre and a hotel in Rurre. We even had someone meet us in La Paz to go through all the arrangements with us.
More pictures of the Amazon on Mr Beet’s flickr page.
From San Pedro in Chile we would be whisked over the border to Bolivia as part of our three-day tour of the Bolivian salt-flats.
It was an early start and our first task was to go through the formalities at the rather informal Bolivian border crossing.
Then we transferred from our Chilean minibus into our Bolivian 4×4. The driver welcomed us to Bolivia “Land of the Potato” (unless my Spanish comprehension was letting me down). We had already organised ourselves into a little group; Stefan and Rebecca from Germany, Willie and Annabel from New Zealand, and us representing the UK.
Our first stops were a couple of lakes, full of minerals that give them distinctive colours. The unimaginatively titled Laguna Blanca (White Lake) is full of borax and Laguna Verde (Green Lake) is full of copper.
Next we whizzed past Dali’s Desert, so-called because the rock formations here are in surreal, melted-candle-wax shapes. We only saw it from a distance though.
We were in a rush because we wanted to get to the hot springs. At this altitude (4,500m+) it was hats, coats and gloves weather, especially early in the morning. But it was lovely in the hot water.
The highest point of our trip (4,900m) was next as we went to see some geysers. They were pretty eggy-smelly, but very impressive.
Final stop for the first day was the bright red Laguna Colorada. The colour comes from millions of algae in the water. Crabs eat the algae, and turn pink themselves, then flamingos eat the crabs and turn pink in turn. I assume that if I ate a lot of flamingo I would also turn pink!
As we were busy taking dozens of flamingo photos, we turned around and saw a herd of llamas coming over the ridge towards us.
Wow! The Laguna Colorada was the most spectacular in what had been a pretty full day of natural wonders. But now the sun had gone down the temperature was dropping rapidly as we were still at 4,600m. Our accommodation was nice but didn’t have much by way of insulation or heating, so it was chilly. We hired sleeping bags, which when added to three blankets, leggings, woolly socks, three t-shirts and a fleece, made us cosy enough.
Day two was off to a bad start as Mr Beet had become unwell over night. A dicky tummy, plus the effects of the altitude and the cold meant he was in a bad way. We dosed him up with all sorts of tablets and he spent most of the day in the car being chatted to by our driver Richard (who was having none of Mr Beet’s “not speaking Spanish” nonsense and was merrily having a one-sided conversation).
So Mr Beet missed out on the delights of day two, which began with more rock formations, including the impressively precarious Stone Tree.
Lots more high-altitude frozen lakes, with plenty of flamingos feeding in the non-frozen sections.
After lunch, Mr Beet had managed a banana and was feeling a bit better for our trip to a volcano and the old lava flows.
Everyone else was scurrying over the lava rocks for photos, but Mr Beet was still a bit delicate so he just found himself a nice little spot for a rest.
We also spotted a vizcacha, a bit like a hare but with a long tail.
Finally we went to the “little salar” which looked pretty big to us, which was bisected by the Chile-Bolivia train line.
One of the other 4X4s in our convoy had a mechanical problem here. We thought Richard was going to stop and help, but he just sped by leaving them eating our dust. Richard liked to get everywhere first. But this was good for us as it meant we arrived at our hotel first and got first dibs on the rooms – a double room for me and Mr Beet, which was appreciated as he was still sick and very cold. Our hotel was right on the edge of the big salt-flat. It was built entirely of salt, including chairs, tables and bed frame. Plus it was surrounded by great big cacti.
After a dinner of what may or may not have been llama meat, we headed to bed. We already knew that we weren’t going to be getting up at 5.30am to watch the sunrise as some people were planning to.
This was the big one – heading out onto the salt flat itself. At first there was a salt road and it was flooded on either side. The mountains in the distance are reflected, so they look unreal and you feel like you are in the middle of the sky with cloud underfoot.
The salt here is in big crystals shaped like pyramids.
We wanted to do a classic group jump shot, but it took a few attempts.
We then drove out into the middle of the salar, where you get the perfect frosted salt hexagons and nothing else for miles around.
This is where we played around with the “hilarious” perspective shots that everyone does in the salt-flats, but we didn’t have the imagination or the patience for anything very elaborate.
We were getting better at the jumping shots though – cracked it first time!
After we have exhausted ourselves with all the jumping, we go to another part of the salt-flat where they harvest the salt. This involves making lots of little piles, to be scooped onto the back of a van at a later date.
That’s almost the end of the tour. All that’s left is to drive to Uyuni, which is not as much of a dive as everyone says and boasts its own “Train Graveyard” full of extremely rusty trains, which all the tourists clamber over like kids in a playground.
More pictures of salt, lakes, flamingos, trains etc on Mr Beet’s flickr page.
Chilean food consists of:
Breakfast – bread
Lunch – meat and potatoes with more bread on the side
Onces – “afternoon tea” consisting of something savoury like a hot dog, or some cake (aka kuchen from the German immigrants)
Dinner – we never made it this far – always too full after lunch and onces.
Lomo a lo pobre – Mr Beet’s favourite dish: steak, chips and fried eggs.
The guide book kept banging on about delicious “arrollado” so I order some. It’s pork wrapped in pork fat. I’m not a fan.
Mr Beet celebrates eating five steaks in five days.
Churrasco palta – steak and avocado sandwich
Hot dog “completa” – tastes of nothing.
Apple strudel for onces. Was actually quite nice despite my expression.
An empanada. That which we call a pasty by any other name would taste as sweet (except they hide an olive in there to keep you on our toes)
You always get bread and a spicy dip on the side of your lunch. Often this is the nicest bit of the meal.
Swordfish at a restaurant that was rather too fancy for us.
Alfajor – a shortbread-type biscuit with dulce de leche sandwiched in the middle.
The most typical Chilean dish you could get. Meat and potatoes, and the meat was marinaded in pisco.
Huesillos pudding of fruit and barley in alcoholic syrup of some kind.
The biggest empanada in the world?
There was a good selection of beers to be tried and tested in Chile.
Kunstmann – try pronouncing that after you’ve had a few.
Not a beer, but he had to try a Pisco Sour at the distillery in Pisco Elqui.
And the winner is…Cristal (even though, or maybe because, the bottle was nearly as big as Mr Beet).
Elqui Valley is pretty dry and dusty, but seemed damper than a UK bank holiday weekend in comparison to our next destination. San Pedro is slap-bang in the middle of the Atacama Desert (the driest place on Earth) and the Atacama salt-flats. At first glance, it appears to be a rustic, wild-west type of place. But then you notice all the tourist agencies, internet cafes and the fact that the town plaza is a wi-fi hotspot. It´s quite the bustling tourist hub, but has retained it´s frontier town charm.
San Pedro is near the Bolivian border, and will be our base for organising our tour of the Bolivian salt-flats. We have heard various horror stories regarding these trips: bad food, extreme cold, altitude sickness, drunk drivers etc. So we do some research by looking at the hilarious complaints book at the tourist information office. One person complains that the driver left them behind at some geysers. With five other tourists in the 4×4, I can´t help feeling that the driver might not be entirely to blame, and maybe this guy was just unpopular.
We have banded together with a German couple and a Kiwi couple to form a full 4×4. We speak to a couple of agencies and it turns out that I am the only Spanish-speaker (using the term in the loosest possible sense) so I will be responsible for translating while we negotiate a deal and when we are on the tour. What´s the Spanish for “uh-oh“? Mr Beet keeps saying that my Spanish is really good, but since his grasp of the language consists entirely of a few foodstuffs, I´m not sure how he has reached this conclusion.
Anyway, once we´re all booked in for our Bolivian tour, we set about making the most of our final few days in Chile. We enjoyed our star-gazing trip in New Zealand so much that we have another go in San Pedro. They are building the world´s biggest set of telescopes nearby, but we are content to just look through some outdoor telescopes. Plus, all the stuff we learned in New Zealand is still fresh in our minds so we can answer the guide´s questions and look really clever! Cleverer at least than the woman who pointed excitedly at the sky and shrieked “Oh my God, what’s that?” at a plane.
Our final day in Chile is spent visiting the Salar de Tara, a little salt-flat that is tiny compared to the Bolivian ones we will see in a few days, but still very pretty and worth a visit. We get picked up early in the morning in San Pedro (2,400m above sea-level) and within an hour we are at 4,800m. It is cold, but since we don´t have much to do except stroll around taking a few pictures, we don´t feel the effects of the altitude too badly.
We see some volcanoes, vicunas (wild llamas), frozen lakes, big rock formations, the salt flat and some cute little marmot-like animals that our guide said were called “chululu” or something like that.
More pictures from San Pedro on Mr Beet’s flickr page.