The food in Peru and Bolivia is generally rubbish and for a pescatarian man and gluten free woman is very limited indeed. The daily dinner pattern goes something like this. Omelette, fried trout, omelette, fried trout, omelette, fried trout. On arriving in the metropolis of La Paz, Bolivia's capital, I was more hopeful and ordered a vegetarian pizza. I questioned the waiter as to why one of the ingredients was ham and he gave me a disdainful look and answered me slowly, as if I were a child, 'but it has vegetables too'.
In Bolivia it seems that their President, Evo Moralez, enjoys popular support. One of the bizarre things about this country is that one of the ways its citizens show that support is by writing pro government graffiti around the cities and even the small villages. It doesn't seem right, it's hard to picture Banksy spraying complementary pictures of Nick Clegg accompanied by 'we support the coalition', except I suppose in a satirical way, but I'm pret-ty sure that's not what's going on here.
We spent some days in La Paz, and at just short of 4000m it's not easy going. We made some interesting discoveries, such as pollo means not only chicken but also cocaine and must make for some interesting explanations at customs. We initially stayed in a beautiful hostel with a balcony overlooking San Francisco church. On the third day we were unceremoniously kicked out following some confusion over dates and spent the next night in my least favourite hostel so far, the Maya. The springs in the bed had been unsprung many Mayan moons ago and it didn't so much dip in the middle as sink all the way to the floor. The sheets smelt like Michael Moore after a night on Buckfast and I had to whittle away the never-ending night time hours playing Suduko, trying to read and watching Easy Rider. Sunrise took a lifetime to come but when it did I shook Fay awake and was out of there faster than a llama chasing a banana.
The 'Mayan experience', as well as not being able to breathe hastened our departure and we arranged for a bus then boat to take us downriver into the jungle. After much hot and dusty desert in Peru and the dirty busy city of La Paz, we were grateful as the bus started it's descent into the rainforest. We were looking forward to seeing some weird and wonderful wildlife. The first animal we saw was a seagull, in the middle of landlocked Bolivia. The bus drive there used to be along 'death road' so named because of its remarkable safety record. Thankfully 'new road' had been built and we were even more pleased when our minibus driver started off at a surprisingly sedentary pace. At some later point he must have remembered he was Bolivian and tried his very hardest to make up his earlier safety conscious behaviour.
We stopped for one night in Coroico and it is the most relaxed and beautiful of jungle towns. The views from the hostel across the jungle were wonderful and there was a carpet of mountainous green as far as you could see. The wildlife here alone was fascinating and there was a spot along an otherwise uninteresting path with more butterflies than I'd ever seen and some as big as a face (not my face obviously).
The following day we boarded our river boat and met up with our guide Ivan and his crew. One of the crew looked the spitting image of Gaddafi, and had a sinister looking Prosthetic limb (I later managed to tactfully (?) find out this was from a dynamite fishing accident as kid). He was the Classic bond villain, complete with aviator shades, open buttoned shirt and an evil laugh.
After three days camping in the jungle and some dubious explanations and animal identifications from Ivan, we arrived in Rurrenbaque. It wasn't that we were expecting a red carpet, but we hadn't expected to see two locals beating the life out of each other on the landing beach. The fight was broken up by another local, but it made me wonder what would happen if no one broke fights up? Presumably as the anger wained and the ferocity of the punches diminished, it would all end up a bit awkward?
The jungle we were visiting is called Madidi National Park and has been designated a protected zone by the government since 1995. We had previously travelled through some of the non protected parts and they were being heavily mined for gold and there was a serious amount of logging. One of the most depressing sights was a village we visited which had a huge rubbish tip on the bank of the river, washed directly away downstream. In Madidi itself all such activities have been outlawed with good success and it's one place where tourism genuinely seems to have helped. There were plans to build a dam to flood the area to sell electricity to Brazil but those have been lain dormant. There are now plans to exploit the area for it's oil, and the plans are supported by Evo Morales, so it seems there will always be a battle. Most worrying is that the German government help the park financially and that funding runs out in two years. Without further assistance it may be the end of the park which is said to host an abundance of animal and plant species, many of which ares still undiscovered.
We moved onto the community owned Agua Pollo lodge, three hours upriver and in the heart of the jungle. We met our new guide for the next four days, also called Ivan. This guy really knew his stuff, and was able to make the strangest of sounds to call the animals. His English was very good apart from failing to pronounce the 't' in 'peanuts' when we asked him what was in our soup. The Lodge was a great place and as we were out of season we had the privilege of being the only two there. We had our own entourage, excellent chef, guide, driver, assistant driver, the 'Cap-I-Tan' and one other known enigmatically as 'the oldest man' who looked like he had been relying far too heavily on the local 95% brew for the last half century.
Normally when someone shouts 'TARANTULA' or 'DEADLY CORAL SNAKE' the first thing that comes to mind is 'RUN'. However on this trip we had to get our heads round running towards these animals. Although there were old hunting trails that spread out like a web from the lodge, mostly the animals came to the lodge whilst we were taking a siesta and so when Ivan whisper-shouted 'GIANT ANTEATER' or the names of many other wild visitors, I usually had to run to see them in my pants and flip flops whilst rubbing the sleep from my eyes, probably scaring the poor chef, Ella Louise, half to death.
One of the many birds we saw were wild turkeys. An impressive looking bird which was not easy to see. We saw them though with both Ivan's and when we pressed each of them for more information, expecting a response along the lines of whether they live in primary, secondary forest etc, both guides simply licked their lips, rubbed their tummies and said 'delicious'. We also saw egrets, herons, macaws, toucans, parakeets, various types of monkey that we would chase through the forest as they jumped from tree to tree, a large cat called a taira, (that later turned out to be a bush dog) packs of wide lipped peccary (similar to wild boar), cayman, capibara (world's biggest rodent) and a tarantula. (fuller list at the end for those that care).
Probably the best experience was at the 'salty mud place' which was essentially a big muddy bath. Some animals, often peccaries, go there to 'wash' and eat clay. There is a naturally occurring elevated platform above it which we crept to, as quietly as we could. We sat there silently, hidden by the bushes for a very sweaty half hour. We settled in for the wait. We had to be absolutely still. The signs were good, no animals been yet that day. I asked Ivan if you could hear the peccaries from far away and he replied that they were very quiet and appeared suddenly, as if from no where. Then, right on cue, they entirely failed to appear. The next day however we returned and almost immediately a pack of about 100 of the ill tempered hogs waded into the muddy bath and 'washed' and ate, all within about 4m of where we silently sat.
On our last night we went to Santa rosa lake where the community keep a dug out canoe. No visitors had ever stayed the night there so we agreed to be their guinea pigs (a favourite food of some of the more dangerous jungle animals). In the lake were piranha and cayman. Fay was concerned about these maneaters and asked Ivan if the cayman might come into our camp in the night. She wasn't overly reassured when his response was 'don't know'. And when she questioned whether they might attack us in the night, he gave the even less reassuring response 'maybe, I have a stick' and later, 'you can try and run away'. None the less the lake was a very very beautiful place, and we set off in our canoe at sunset with a backdrop of the mountains in the distance, and caught some piranha for dinner.
It was a welcome relief to be on the lake, the heat and humidity on land is oppressive and everything is trying to bite or sting you. I self diagnosed myself as suffering from a mixture of heat exhaustion, sunstroke and malaria many times per day. You don't take your clothes off there, you peal them off. But an amazing place.
Another first was that we were to head out into the lake at night and search for cayman. We paid tributes to Pachamama beforehand in order to ensure our safety, although I would probibly have forfeited the tribute for a life jacket and health and safety briefing. The tribute itself is fantastic, a canny forefather many moons ago had decreed that Pachamam was a big fan of the 95% local liquor, pall mall cigarettes and chewing cocaine leaf. We both took part and I smoked my first cigarette in 8 years. They believe that if the ash on the cigarette burns upwards it's good luck, and if down, it's bad. I'm sure I remember something similar at school. Anyway we set off in the canoe moving in virtual silence. The only sounds were of bats, insects or the bailing of water from our 'slightly sinky' canoe, that was 'made from wrong wood'. After a short time we started to see some red eyes reflected from our torches which would slip silently under the water as we approached. There was considerable tension in the boat. One of the few reassuring thoughts was that having tourists eaten by crocs would be very bad for business, although on retrospect the crocs were very unlikely to take this into account. Fay asked Ivan how big the canoe was, '7m', 'how big are the cayman?', 'Spectacled cayman only 2m and not dangerous to humans', 'that sounds ok, any other cayman?', 'yes black cayman, up to 6m', 'But not in this lake?', 'Oh yes in this lake, it's very big.' We saw more eyes and glided near, far too near and were then virtually on top of one in very shallow water. It remained completely still and we were withing touching distance, the water so shallow that we could clearly make out the whole beast, a mere 2m or so but plenty big enough. We were a little suprised when Ivan gave it a prod with the oar, but thankfully it didn't take the 'bait', or 'us' as we had begun to think of ourselves. There's nothing like a good dose of fear to start believing, and I kept the tribute of coca leaves in my mouth the entire outing, hoping that Pachamama would be kind.
As is fairly obvious from me writing this blog, we made it back safe and sound and the next morning our nerves had recovered. Our guide and his staff were fantastic people and were always laughing with each other and seemed genuinely happy most of the time. Towards the beginning of the trip I tried a few jokes here and there that were met with distant expressions, but as time went on I began to understand their sense of humour more and more. Essentially all I had to do was compare one of them to an animal. Something along the lines of 'How big is a spectacled bear?', 'About the size of cap-I-tan', 'So cap-I-tan is a spectacled bear?'. Cue raucous laughter, holding tummies and my nomination for Rurrenbaque comedian of the year.
If a seagull is an oddity in landlocked Bolivia, a naval base in the tiny frontier jungle town of Rurrenbaque must be a joke. In fact, Bolivia used to need a navy. They had a small coast, but in 1883 they tried to flex some muscle and deport the Chileans living there. Their larger neighbour Chile wasn't impressed and won a the Pacific War against Bolivia and Peru and annexed themselves some more beach in the process, leaving Chile landlocked. Hence the Bolivian Navy's motto 'Grrrrrr that Chile' accompanied by a picture of a sailor shaking his fist. Now however the naval base wins the award for the world's most ineffectual. Each morning they have a procession and bugle call, but it's a despondent display, understandable given the circumstances.
We've moved on now for a few days rest in Cochabamba, and then to start a ten day paragliding course which is almost unbelievably, dangerously cheap. But it's ok, I have my 95% liquor, 20 pack of Pall Mall and Coca leaf and hope that Pachamama looks after the skies too.
Some of the animals we saw:
Black spider monkey
Brown capuchin monkey
White throated toucan
Red and green macaw
Chesnut fronted macaw
Green and yellow macaw