Pampas

We left Rurrenabaque the next morning for a 3 day trip into the Pampas. It’s a good job we were up early as the Navy (don’t ask me why Bolivia has a navy when it does not have a coast line or why they are based in the middle of the country) were up with their brass band playing at 7 in the morning.

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The Pampas are a wetland that stretches from where the jungle ends all the way into Brazil. They are very similar to the Pantanal in Brazil. We headed out for the 3 hour drive along a dusty dirt road. While the road was lined with farms there was still plenty of wildlife around and along the way we saw Caiman, Capybara, Rhea and even a Sloth.

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We eventually arrived at a slow moving brown river and the last 15 minutes of the journey was by boat to the rustic lodge. One of the reasons we had done the trip is we had heard it was possible to see Pink River Dolphins. We thought that if we were lucky we might catch a glimpse of one but as soon as we arrived there was a small group of them swimming in the river. Over the course of the next few days we saw lots of them. Mind you they are terribly difficult to photograph as they only surface for a second and have gone by the time the camera has focused.

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Over the next few days we did a lot of patrolling the river in a boat. As well as the dolphins there was fantastic bird life and we saw numerous Caimans including a couple over 4m. With such large reptiles in the river we politely declined the opportunity to swim with the dolphins!

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One morning we headed out to walk into the swamps to look for Annacondas. It was tough walking in the swamp but we were rewarded with seeing a couple of smaller Annacondas.

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We also tried our luck at Piranha fishing and were successful in catching some of these little fish with sharp teeth.

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We even went on the river early in the morning (not popular with Alisha and Lucy) to see sunrise and at night to see the Caimans eyes in the water. It was lovely been on the water at this time to listen to the sounds from the wildlife, to see the stars and in the case of the sunrise trip to watch the mist lift off the water.

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On our last morning we did another cruise up the river. The highlight this time was spotting a troop of Spider Monkeys. As we slowly brought the boat into the bank we were surprised how unafraid of us they were. They were curiously looking at us and then in the next instance they jumped onto the boat and were looking to see if we had any food. This meant they were jumping on our lap and even on our heads. Lucy and Alisha loved this and were squealing with laughter. I think the monkeys could smell a banana the guide had although we did not feed them anything.

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We thoroughly enjoyed our Pampas trip. The weather had warmed up which helped. The Pampas is very much about seeing wildlife and it certainly delivered in that respect with the river dolphins and the spider monkeys been a particular highlight. We even had wildlife in our room having found a large frog hiding in our toilet bowl.

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The bird life was also fantastic. While it is more difficult to see wildlife in the jungle, the jungle is much more about the experience of been in the jungle. We were all very glad that we had decided to do both trips and experience the different sides to them.

We headed back to Rurrenabaque to the same hotel for one more night before catching the little plane back to La Paz where we were reunited with the truck.

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The Amazon

The Amazon. An essential part of any year long visit to South America but since we arrived here, we’ve been discussing the best place to experience it. Initially we thought we’d put the truck on a barge and float down the Amazon River in Brazil but we missed out Venezuela due to the political situation and therefore Northern Brazil was out. We’d been warned off the Colombian and Peruvian parts for the former for being too dangerous and the latter too touristy. In Ecuador we’d been focused on the mountains and the Galapagos. We’d been recommended the Bolivian part but the road down is in a terrible state and would take us 24 hours drive in, then we’d have to retrace our steps out. To top it off the road is also currently only open at night, so they can do roadworks during the day. Once in the town of Rurrenabaque we’d have to ditch the truck anyway and get on a boat for several hours. So in the end we decided to park up in La Paz and take a 40 minute flight to bypass the terrible road. From the highest international airport in the world (4000m) a 16 seater plane took us over snow capped peaks and then over a lazy meandering brown river in the dense rainforest. The tiny plane was more like a minibus, as soon as the passengers were on, the pilot closed the door and off we went. The pilot turned on his ipad, attached to the windscreen once we were airborne for navigation and the copilot took selfies of himself and the pilot as they flew over the Andes!!! The film “Alive” came to mind…….

Luckily we made it in one piece to Rurrenabaque. There had been a light dusting of snow on the ground in La Paz but in the jungle it was hot and steamy. The town is beside the Beni river and the following morning we set off for a 6 hour boat ride into the heart of the Madidi National Park in the Amazon Basin. We’d chosen a small community run ecocamp that took just 8 guests that was furthest into the park. The boat powered its way through the muddy brown waters, we swerved this way and that to avoid the shallows. It is the dry season so the river was very low, about 4 hours into the journey we ran aground. We had to abandon ship, carrying the girls to a shingle island in the centre, while we all pushed. Luckily the water was only knee deep and with just 30 minute delay we were back moving. From the boat we saw capybara families (the world’s largest rodents, like a huge guinea pig with a square muzzle) sunning themselves on beaches, turtles, herons and other birds.20140731-100416-36256923.jpg

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Barraco del Maddidi is owned by the soft spoken Pedro, who was our excellent guide for the next 5 days. The indigenous community of San José de Uchupiamonas were trailblazers over 20 years ago getting their tribal lands turned into a National Park and working with an NGO to set up a sustainable Eco-tourist lodge. It has since grown since then with 2 further smaller lodges to help support the 370 member village 3 hours upstream. We had 2 comfortable tents on a platform set in amongst primary rainforest, it was just what we were looking for remote and pristine. As always in the jungle we heard far more animals than we saw, Pedro was great at showing us plants and animals that we would have easily missed. There were several groups of peccaries (wild pigs) that could always be heard snuffling and crunching seeds, then they could be smelt, one of the most pungent aromas I have ever encountered, before we could see them. Capuchin, spider and large ginger coloured howler monkeys could be seen swinging high above us in the canopy. Many jaguar, tapir and puma tracks could be seen along the muddy tracks.

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It was fascinating hearing about how the park and lodges came about and traditional life in the forest and village. It used to take 12 days paddling to get to the village just 12 years ago but now it takes just 9 hours by motorised canoe. The part the girls liked best was making traditional jewellery out of palm nuts and seeds.

Unfortunately we weren’t lucky with the weather and on the second day the heavens opened and it rained solidly for nearly 24 hours causing the temperature to drop to about 10 degrees Celsius. I know we were in the rainforest but the amount and ferocity of the rain even surprised the locals, it is the “dry” season here after all. It was cold and wet for the 4 further days we were there which put a dampener on many things. Many animals holed up in the cold and the going down the river on a traditional balsa wood raft wasn’t such a attractive option any more. Despite the rain, thick mud and cold we still had a great time hiking, fishing and exploring. We were so pleased with our choice of place to experience the Amazon, it really felt we were in the heart of the rainforest with people whose home it is.

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Lucy and I got carried away looking at all the amazing types of insects, especially the caterpillars of all different colours and the leaf cutter ants. Lucy made a short video project about what she saw.

It was a cold slightly wet ride back to Rurrenabaque where we spent the night before we headed in the opposite direction to the Pampas, a wetlands area on the edge of the jungle.

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One Year On The Road

Today we celebrate one year since we set off. In that time we have driven 41,000kms, through 14 countries, from Halifax, Canada to La Paz, Bolivia. It has been a great time with innumerable special moments and things that we have seen. And we still have a lot to see!

We are all doing well and have adapted to life on the road. The girls have finished a year of schooling and are doing well even if there are the odd moments of drama during the teaching. I think I can say we are all thoroughly enjoying it and everyone is keen to continue at this point.

So what have we been up to since our last blog?

Well after leaving Puno we crossed the border into Bolivia. The border was very quiet and even though we crossed at 11.30 I think we were the first vehicle to cross that day. The process went very smoothly and we were through in an hour. I passed on the offer to pay the policeman for a stamp I needed to continue as I knew it was just a rouse. Once he could see I was not paying he just stamped the paper anyway.

From the border we headed to Copacabana which is a resort like town on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Although it was sunny it was pretty cold only reaching highs of 12 degrees. Still I suppose it is to be expected when you are at nearly 3900m. The town was a little tacky and even had a beach which was popular with local tourists.

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We had a wander around and visited the cathedral. At the cathedral it was even possible to have your vehicle blessed. We decided not to do this although the cars looked funny in their finery.

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The next day we headed out across the lake on a boat to the Isla de Sol. This is the island from which the Incas believed the sun was born. It is a pretty island in the lake about 12 kms long and only a couple of kms wide. There are no cars on the island so you need to walk everywhere. We decided to do the walk along the ridge at the top of the island and walk along most of its length.

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The walk was very beautiful with views of the lake and across the lake to the mountains of the Cordillera Real.

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We stayed in a basic hostel for the night. It was an early night as it was very cold and there was no heating although the massive thick duvets meant we were warm for the night.

The next morning we headed back to Copacabana and a relaxing afternoon. The hotel where we were parked had a mini golf course so we decided to have a game. Little did we know Margaret (Gilly’s Mum) was an expert and she won easily.

The evening before we left there was a large thunderstorm and it rained heavily. We could see that further up on the hills this had fallen as snow and on our drive that morning we passed through a light falling of snow.

But first we had to get out of the car park. With it being Saturday night the car park was a little full. One of the local minibus drivers had decided to park his minibus in the car park for the night but rather than park it sensibly had parked it blocking our exit. A car could have squeezed through but there was no way we could. After asking around no one knew where the driver was or when he would be back. So this is where there is an advantage in having a 10 ton truck. Out came my tow rope and I just hauled his minibus out of the way. We did not stay around long enough to see his face when he came back to find his minibus in a different position. The hotel staff said it would teach him not to park so stupidly in future.

Driving to La Paz we had to cross some straits between two parts of Lake Titicaca. Unfortunately there is no bridge to get across but only some smallish wooden barges. The only alternative route was to cross back into Peru and then back into Bolivia. As we arrived at the “dock” we were waved onto one of the barges. I advanced slowly with trepidation. I was comforted by the fact that I could see a coach on another barge. When we were on board the boatman said “you are heavy, look how low in the water we are”.

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It was only about 650m across but it seemed to take quite a while. On arrival we had to reverse off the barge while hoping it would stay attached to the bank.

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We arrived in La Paz, the highest capital in the world on a Sunday morning. Initially the road was quiet but as we hit the ring road it became clogged with minibuses jostling for space. Gilly kept shouting “careful you are too close to the vehicle next to you” but if I pulled back 30cm another vehicle would just try and squeeze in. So I had to drive just like everyone else pushing my way through the throng. Again size can sometimes help here but it was pretty daunting.

We eventually arrived at Hotel Oberland a well known stopping spot amongst overlanders travelling in South America. The hotel has a car park that is well kitted out for overlanders. On arrival it was pretty empty but during the afternoon another 3 vehicles arrived. We knew 2 of them having spent time with them before. Tania and Max also have 2 children so the kids were quickly off playing.

We headed down into La Paz to see the markets. It was pretty quiet with it been a Sunday. The main market we wanted to see was the Witches Market. Here you could buy all sorts of things including dried Llama foetuses which you bury under your new house for luck.

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La Paz is set in an interesting landscape. Around the city there are strange rock formations which give a rather lunar landscape. The city is set in a bowl underneath these formations.

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That evening we had a nice meal with Margaret as it was her last night. We were joined by most of the other overlanders so it was a good night.

Gilly and I were up early the next morning to see Margaret off. The girls have loved having their Grannie with them and Margaret has easily fitted into the overlanding lifestyle.

The rest of the day was spent relaxing, obtaining insurance for the truck and getting ready for our next adventure, a trip to the Amazon jungle.