A Travellerspoint blog

Greyhound opens new branch in Bolivia

Arrival in the Pampas and a tour I shouldn`t have booked

overcast 28 °C

First, the good news: the bus only took 18 hours (during the wet season it can take up to 30), I managed to get some sleep, the man sitting next to me was a friendly and kept to himself, the babies on board only cried for 10 minutes combined, and the ride cost less than 20 USD. The bad news: the TV hanging from the cieling didn`t actually turn on, the rumored bathrooms didn`t exist, the bus only stopped twice, and the road was unpaved (in good Bolivian spirit). All things considered, I was pretty pleased with the ride when I jumped out into the sleepy town of Rurrenabaque a few minutes after 3 AM. I walked to the nearest hostel mentioned in my guidebook--about 2 blocks away--got a $4 room, took a shower, and napped until the rest of the town woke up. At 9 AM I climbed into a jeep to head out for a 3 day tour of the Bolivian Pampas, the wetlands. Quick turnover, eh?

My hasty decision and lack of research bit me in the ass immediately. An hour down the once-again-unpaved-road, the back left tire of the jeep blew out. My newfound Israeli, Sweedish, and Bolivian friends and I were stranded 2 hours from our destination in what looked like a dustbowl, with the occasional cloud of smoke from the forest fires this time of year. The driver said we´d be picked up by another jeep in the next 20 minutes. 2 hours later, our rescue vehicle showed up. And another 2 hours later, we boarded the boat down a river that we would soon realize was dry. Well, almost dry.

The first thing that caught our attention, 8 tourists virgens to the Pampas, were the scores of crocodiles lining the banks of the river, mouths wide open. ´They´re waiting for their food,´Jimmy--our guide--told us. A lazy way to eat, I thought to myself, but suspended judgement as I knew nothing about reptiles and even less about crocodile feeding habits. Only after about 10 minutes of wildlife watching (crazy colorful birds in the trees, water turtles, water snakes, giant hamsters whose actual name I don`t know), our boat hit the first sand bank. `Time to push!`said Jimmy. You`ve got to be kidding, I thought to myself. He was not in fact joking in the slightest. We would all spend the next 3 hours, one of which in absolute darkness, hauling our boat out of exceedingly shallow waters in order to make it to our cabins. This would have been no problem had we not just been watching slews of reptiles crawling these same waters. Nevertheless, we had no choice. We were too far out to turn around... not that we wanted to go back anyway. One doesnt usually fork out the cash for a tour with the intention of turning back after a few hours. So we pushed, and pushed, and pushed. Around 7PM touched onto shore, legs free of crocodile bites.

The next day started out fairly smoothly, with a hearty breakfast (eggs, fried bread, fruit salad, coffee, etc.) before our trek through the Pampas. Lightly lathered with sunscreen and eyes protected by fake Ray Ban sunglasses, we followed our guide away from the cabins each with a liter of water in hand. Over the next couple hours, we would see several more beautiful birds, cows, crocodiles, snakes, and the oh-so-anticipated anoconda. The most stunning of all, however, was the jaguar we spotted for just a split secont through the brush. Apparently Jimmy had only seen 2 prior to this one in the last three years he`s been leading these tours. The excitement from the jaguar quickly wore off when we all realized we were out of water and and two hours from the cabins. Not to mention it was around noon, the time of the day in the Pampas intended soley for hammock lounging. Just as we realized that we might be in a bit of trouble, our guide disappeared. `Well, I guess we better stay here until he gets back,`my Israeli companion said, `he`s probably just out looking for anacondas`. We all agreed that we had no choice but to stay put, so we tried to make ourselves comfortable in a shaded clearing, waiting for Jimmy to reappear. Finally after 30 minutes of debate-- Did he get bitten by something? Is he lost? Is he hurt? Should we try to find our way back to the cabins alone? We`re out of water, how much longer can we last in this heat?--Jimmy appeared in the brush like it was no big deal. With a mixture of disdain, frustration, and relief, we followed him back through the wetlands for the next two hours until the campsite came into view. Dehydrated and exhausted, we went directly to the kitchen in search of water only to find out that we had just 2 liters left for the next two days. Between the six of us.

Luckily there was a bar down the river so a small delegation of us paddled over to buy some bottled water and beer. Crisis averted.

There were a few more glitches in the Pampas tour (namely our boat motor broke so we had to wait until 11 AM this morning to leave the campsite, at which point we had to skip dolphin spotting to get back to from the tour on time), but nothing as noteworthy as the above. I learned a valuable lesson from this tour: wildlife is cool, but it`s no fun to live on someone else`s watch, especially when they don`t organize things properly. There`s a reason this is the first tour I`ve done here in South America. If I`m not going to take the time to research these things well, I shouldnt go at all. Although I have to say, that jaguar was pretty sweet...

Posted by pack_it_in 16:11 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

The back door to Bolivia

Escape from the Brazilian Amazon

sunny 34 °C

The ferry from Brazil to Bolivia, from Guajara-Mirim to Guayaramirim, was beautiful in so many ways. First, I´ve finally wiggled out of the tight Amazonian embrace. Second, I got almost 4 bolivianos for each reais I exchanged. And most importantly, I can now say more than 10 words in the local langauge. Phew.

If you can´t tell already, the last week has been a bit of a struggle. I left Manaus under the impression I was getting a direct boat to Porto Velho, a city just south of the Amazon region with buseso Bolivia. Once on the boat, the captain informed me that in fact the boat was stopping in Manicore, a small riverside town where Id have to spend the night before boarding a connector boat to Porto Velho. To dampen the bad news, this boat was twice as crowded as the last. I literally had someone sleeping directly on top of me, and every time I moved during the night I nudged this creepy man in the head. Oh, and did I mention everyone on the boat spoke only portuguese?

Two days of ´me-time´ later, we pulled into Manicore. I decided to go for a walk and explore the town with this Brazilian grandfather type who looked like he could be Milton´s cousin from the movie Office Space (the red stapler freak). Unfortuantely Manicore had little to offer besides street meet, Mototaxis, and a lone internet cafe. So I parked there for an hour, told my parents I was alive, and ran back to the boat to watch my backpack, shower (now that gross Amazon cruise showers feel like home...), and sit as still as possible in my hammock to avoid sweating again. The next morning as promised, I threw my bags over to the next boat over, climbed over the railing, and strung up my hammock for the third time. Shockingly this boat left on time. A good omen.

That afternoon I made my first Brazilian friend: Tatiana, a 23 year old woman from Porto Velho, married for 8 years with 3.5 kids (shes pregnant with her 4th). Her husband paid a dowry to take her as a wife. Could her life be any more different than mine? We became fast friends, although my Portuguese is lame and her English is nonexistant. Over the next two days, we would spend countless hours on the deck chatting--or trying to chat. She told me about her life, her kids, Porto Velho, etc., all while she and her husband downed 10 beers before 2pm. Impressive, eh? I refrained from telling her pregnant women shouldnt drink or smoke, although middle school health class would scold me endlessly. It wasnt my place, as a 21 year old childless foreigner.

The last night of our cruise, Tati and I sat on a hammock just under the captains cabain overlooking the endless Rio Madeira: black water, a house every 10 minutes on the shore, and more stars than I could ever see in Philadelphia. ´Come stay at my house in Porto Velho, Gabrielle´, Tati offered. Sounds like a plan, I thought to myself. Hang out with a friend in a potentially dodgy city, meet her family, and have someone to tell me where the bus station is. I dont know what I expected to find at her house, but there was no way I could prepare for this. Tati lives in a rundown, 3 room structure off a main street in Porto Velho. There are no windows, no doors, no locks. And Porto Velho is not the safest of places. Her three kids run around the ´yard´, which is more of a dirt lot, all day every day. The lot is littered with beer bottles, countless cigarette buts, a few rats, and heaps of flies. Its not exactly a childs´paradise, at least not an American childs´.

Nevertheless, I was a guest in there house, so no matter how shocked I was I had to surpress any indication of it. Tati was so excited to have me in her home--she was all smiles, introducing me to the whole family and showing me around. Her 7 year old got me a coffee. I bit my lip, made friends with the kids, respectfully declined beer and cigarrettes, and hung out. After a couple hours the shock wore off and I settled in, getting used to sitting on a cardboard box as a chair and drinking water out of a jar. At around 8pm, bed time when you´re riding on a boat, I started to fade. Tati quickly pulled out the matress (all their beds are matresses stacked against the wall until its sleepytime), handed me a towel to use as a pillow, gave me a hug, and shut the door so I could sleep. This morning she and her husband gave me a lift to the bus terminal and saw me off to Guajara-Mirim. It was a heartfelt goodbye, especially since Tati doesnt have internet or a mailing address, so Im doubtful that I will have a chance to speak to her again unless I wander back to Porto Velho. If you happen to be in the neighborhood, let me know so I can give you her cell number and a note and a hug on my behalf.

From here on out, I´ll be writing from Bolivia. Oh, and by the way, if you´re trying to sneak into the country from Brazil this is the way to do it. There was no immigration on the way in. Just a little ferry across the river, a sign that says Bienvenido a Bolivia, and an old guy selling bolivianos at the harbor. Im actually here illegally right now. Immigration was closed today because it´s Sunday. Got to love Catholic countries!

Posted by pack_it_in 14:50 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

Cruise down the Amazon: $20 per day, all-inclusive

Tabatinga to Manaus

overcast 29 °C

We got to the boat terminal 3 hours early (well 4, actually, but you cross a time zone at the Tri-Border) thinking that would be plenty to set sail down the Rio Amazonas on time at 2pm. Once again, we suffered from naive gringoism. The Brasilian police proved to be ten fold crazier than the Colombian police we had encountered on the other side of the border.

First they lined up all the bags in lines through the terminal and sent canine units sniffing for cocaine. Then we were all patted down one by one while our bags were opened up, emptied, and searched thoroughly. I asked a Peruvian man behind me in line why they were being so strict. Apparently these boats are hotspots for drug smuggling into Brazil. In fact, just a week before, someone had been caught with 2 kilos of cocaine. He ran, and the police shot him down right there in the streets of Tabatinga. These cops are no joke. They are all dressed in camoflouge, strapped with machine guns, hand guns, knives, and backup amunition.

The chaos of the boarding process accurately foreshadowed the chaos we were about to experience once on board. Just imagine: 250 people, equal number of hammocks, tons of luggage, lots of people with matresses, heaps of platanos, onions, pototoes, even a dog. Oh yes, and about every other passenger was under 3 years old. We strung up our hammocks on the top deck, tied our packs together (so thiefs cant run off the boat with your stuff), and waited to get moving. About 3 hours later, Tabatinga was finally in the distance.

Over the course of the next 4 days, we would get to know about half of the boat by face and smile. There were about 10 of us gringos on board, a large group of Haitians, and a handful Peruvians and Colombians. The rest were Brasilians communting downstream to visit family or on business. People were generally very friendly, eager to teach me some portuguese, and to know what the hell I was doing on the Rio Amazonas.

Some noteworthy characters on board:
1. A small Brasilian artisan girl traveling with a stray dog who pooped under a friend´s hammock.
2. A woman, normal at first glance, who carried around a pile of shriveled vegetables.
3. A little boy with a near-death baby bird in the back of his toy pickup truck.
4. My neighbor, an old lady selling her evanglical preaching on CD.
5. The chess master. A Colombian graphic designer who beat everyone on board in 5 moves.

All in all, there were plenty of people to talk to, plenty of people watching opportunites, and few moments of boredom. Most of the rumors about the boat were true: the bathrooms were subpar (no lightbulbs, limited toilet paper, and smelly after the first 2 hours on board), the weather was sticky, and the food was monotonous, but we brought plenty of rum to keep us from dwelling too much on the little things. Everything went smoothly until the last day, when the Brazilian Forca Nacional halted our progess to Manaus for a routine control di seguridad. About 15 miliary men, once again loaded up with weapons they would never use on a boat filled with women and children, pulled up next to our boat and climbed on board. People once excited for our imminent arrival in Manaus suddendly went silent, and women retreated to their hammocks rocking their children in their laps. The cops were no better than in the Tabatinga terminal. They went around checking all passports, scrutinizing them for falsification. Then they started opening up everyones stuff all over again. The guy next to me had a wooden table he was carrying with him to Manaus. The cop yelled to his colleages for a drill, and proceeded to puncture holes in the wood, allegedly looking for cocaine. When he didnt find anything, he returned the broken table to its owner and proceeded to the next hammock over. How humiliating.

A few minutes after 10:30pm, 8 hours later than expected, we said goodbye to our river friends, hoisted our packs back on our shoulders, and strolled into Manaus. I had survived the 4 day less-than-luxury cruise. Now I have something under my belt when I go back to the Port in a couple of hours to buy a ticket for Part 2: another 4 days to Porto Velho.

Posted by pack_it_in 13:19 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

Monkey Business

Jungle treks and exotic pets

sunny 32 °C
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Puerto Nariño, home to less than one thousand Amazonian indigenas sits on the banks of the river an hour upstream from Leticia. It's probably the cleanest 'third world' town I've ever set foot in. There are recycling bins on every corner, it's 100% pedestrian friendly, and the women of the town go around every morning collecting anything polluting the pristine walkways. The only way to arrive to Puerto Nariño is by boat, and the only place to go from there is into the jungle. So we dropped our bags at a residencia and found ourselves a guide.

With over 5 liters of water, long pants and hiking boots, our guide led us down a narrow path into the greenest, most dense forest I've ever seen in my life. I want to describe the variety of sounds suddenly surrounding us, but I wouldn't know the first thing about how to do so. For instance, there's one bird (I didn't know it was a bird until the guide told me) that sounds like dripping water. Then there's this rattling noise that apparently comes from the town's official plant. I found this surprising, since where I come from plants are mute, but in the jungle you really have to suspend your western judgement. It just doesn't apply out here.

We were going to be walking for a while, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to get to know our guide and pick his brain a bit. He would pick up spiders (dead or alive), brightly speckled frogs, giant caterpillers, point out snakes, birds, monkeys, and trees. The abuelos, he said, used one tree as a holding cell for prisoners: the trunk is pyramid shape with lots of prickly branches jutting out diagonally. Many of the vines hanging down from the canope are hollow, collect water in the rainy season, and then the locals cut them down to drink. The most interesting by far, however, is the tree the guide called the mother of the forest. It's a giant structure, probably over 40 meters, with a complex root system and grandiose trunk. Inside this tree lives an animal, a human-like creature with a single eye in the middle of his chest. His 'feet' are bound together into one super-foot, where one foot points forward and the other backward. When people wander in the jungle by themselves, deep into the forest, the creature comes out of the tree and transforms into someone the wanderer will recognize. If the creature successfully dupes the person, he will attack and kill his prey. To protect yourself there's only one thing you can do: if you are in the jungle alone and see someone you think you know, you have to immediately look at his/her feet. The creature can transform everything about himself (even his eye), but his double foot.

These sorts of myths are abundant out here in the Amazon region. Sure, they sound crazy and right out of a Garcia Marquez novel, but as a gringo in a potentially dangerous biosphere you have no choice but to believe what they tell you.

A few hours of jungle stories, balancing on several sticks/branches to cross streams, killing slews of mozzies, and picking up insects on the path, we got on a canoe to cross the river to San Martin, an indigenous community of 200 people. I was exhausted after the trek, and although the fresh pineapple the locals gave us was delicious, it wasn't enough to convince me to go back out to explore the town. I hung out for a bit in the forest, listening to the birds, plants, insects, and rubbing deet all over myself to avoid getting Dengue. Then we took a boat back to our residencia where I met my new best friend: a monkey named Mateo.

I can hold Mateo in the palm of my hand, but he prefers to sit on my shoulders. He wraps his tail around my neck whenever people try to remove him, screeching in my ear to scare everyone around him and mark his territory. At first Mateo was adoreable: he would hang out with me for hours in the tree house next to our cabin, sometimes climbing up the palm tree to meet up with his monkey friends, but always returning to his perch eventually. Then he pooped on me, promptly ending my love affair with this cute primate.

The divorce was ugly. He would refuse to get off my shoulders, screeching more loudly than I knew an animal of that size ever could. If I managed to pull free from his five-fingered grasp, he would chase me around the cabin until I gave in. This morning was especially tough because I wanted to take a shower before leaving Puerto Nariño. Since Mateo was being stubborn as usual, I had no choice but to walk to the shower house with him on my back. And then the miracle: Mateo doesn't like cold water. The second I turned the shower on he scurried away into the trees.

Overall, I learned heaps from my stint in the Colombian jungle: don't trust forest creatures, bring as much Deet as you can get your hands on, and take cold showers to get rid of unwanted pets.

Posted by pack_it_in 11:14 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

Mototaxi to Brasil: 3.000 pesos

Leticia, Tabatinga, and the Rio Amazonas

sunny 32 °C
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The moment I stepped off the plane and gathered my things in the single room airport in Leticia, I :
1. Traded my hiking boots and socks for sandals
2. Stowed my rain jacked (dry season here in the Amazon), and
3. Lathered on some 98% Deet bug spray

Downtown Leticia isn't anything spectacular. A bunch of shops, mostly set-meal restaurants, some panaderias, the juice man on the corner, and a handful of barbershops. There are, however a couple of exceptional aspects of this nondescript town. First of all, the muddy Rio Amazonas runs parallel to the main strip of Leticia. Second, if you cross the river, you're in Peru. If you walk 15 blocks north, you're in Brasil. This triple border region, where within minutes street signs change from Spanish to Portuguese, and currency changes from reais to pesos to soles, is pretty neat in my opinion. To drive the point home, last night we walked to Brasil for Caiparinas, paid in pesos, and got change in reais.

Today was set aside for organizational chores. This morning we walked to the airport to get our Colombian exit stamps, and then to the border for Brasilian entry stamps. I thought the process would be a little hairy, as the Lonely Planet said Americans need visas (which sometimes can take up to 2 days to process). My plan was to swap my passports at the border, getting the exit stamp with the American passport I entered with and going to Brasil on my internationally superior EU passport. Some people said this was no problem; others told me this would be impossible. So naturally I tried my luck.

The officer at at immigration didn't even look through my passport. He gave me a visa for 90 days, an official stamp, and said 'Do not lose this paper. Welcome to Brasil, Gabrielle'. That was that and so we hopped mototaxis back to Colombia to investigate Amazon tours. That'll occupy us until early next week. Then we'll start getting ourselves ready to string up our hammocks and relax for a few days until we dock in Manaus.

Posted by pack_it_in 11:09 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

Coffee in the land of plenty

Salento and Valle de Cocora

overcast 22 °C
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I knew Salento would be special just based on Lonely Planet recommendations, but there was no way to prepare for this Colombian gem. We arrived in Armenia, the department capital, just after 5am. The alleged 8 hour night bus took less than 6, which would have been awesome other than the fact that it robbed me of a good night sleep. But it didn't matter, we were in the Zona Cafetera, so we bought a cheap coffee at the bus station and boarded a colectivo for Salento. A little while later, we pulled into a charming colonial plaza: brightly painted houses, a couple of palm trees, and a few shop owners yawning as they opened the doors to their corner stores. Just lovely.

We got off the bus and found our way to Plantation House, an English-owned hostel at the far end of town. Since the rooms wouldn't be vacated until at least mid day, I dropped my stuff at the reception and headed for 'Finca Don Eduardo', the hostel's own coffee plantation just a few minutes down the path. The plantation sits on the side of the hill, fully saturated with a variety of crops. The cash crop, the owner later explained, is the coffee, but he plants the other stuff to keep the coffee shaded from the sun. There's a small bamboo forest (from which he built a house on the finca just a few months ago), some pineapple plants, and loads of banana and avocado trees. He also has a bunch of berries growing somewhere on his 12 hectar plantation, but I didn't stumble upon those while wandering down the hill. I guess they're well hidden.

Almost an hour later, weaving down the overgrown dirt path though the plantation, I found the stream that runs all the way down the valley. According to locals, this same path was once the main road to Bogota in the days of Simon Bolivar. Funny to think of el Libertador crossing the stream on horseback. I decided to tread through the water in my Chacos to cool down before tackling the hardest part of the trek: the way back to the top. It was a lot steeper than I had remembered... reminiscent of years of cross country training, I jogged back to the top, calves burning but satisfyed with my excursion.

For the rest of the day we hung out at the hostel, got an official tour of the coffee plantation and a tour of the coffee roasting process, all free of charge. With my saved up pesos I had a beer with a new Peruvian friend. He's almost through with his own version of the Motorcycle Diaries. Soon thereafter I turned in for the night, exhausted and realizing I'd be up early to explore the Valle de Cocora.

This morning just after sunrise, we went back to the center of town to hop a jeep to Cocora. The valley is famous for their wax palms, a type of palm tree that can grow up to 60 meters. They are quite mystical trees: it's pretty hard to understand what they are all doing in that valley, clustered together and towering over everything else. Someone proposed a theory that they had to grow to such impressive heights to get sunlight, and when people brought cattle (there are cows all over the place), most of the brush was cleared away leaving only the wax palms.

Pictures of these trees to come, unless you are impatient and prefer to Google them.

Long story short, Salento has been a perfect getaway from cosmopolitan Bogota. I wish I could stay longer, reading on the porch of Plantation House, drinking fresh coffee and eating 1000 peso avocados, but I've got a flight to catch. Leticia on Thursday. Helloooo Amazon.

Posted by pack_it_in 13:13 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

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