Viewing the wildlife along the rivers of the Pampas del Yacuma

Sunset in the Pampas

I’m not a big fan of wellington boots, but there I was, wading ankle-deep through the swamp waters of the Pampas del Yacuma. Not only that, but we were searching for anacondas. This is their natural habitat. Luckily, our guide failed to find any. It’s the end of the rainy season, which means the water levels are still high, giving the snakes plenty of space to hide.
Me in my wellies
When I arrived in Rurrenabaque after my overland jungle trip from La Paz, it was gloriously hot. This river town on the Rio Beni is small and laid-back and has low rise buildings. Surprisingly, there is an outpost of the Bolivian navy here with a command centre right next to my hotel. In fact, it’s surprising that Bolivia even has a navy, given that it has no coastal access. But the river here does go all the way to the border with Brazil, so if Brazil decides to invade, I guess they’re prepared. 

The best way through the swamp is by boat

Jungle mountains loom to the south of the town. To the north lies a different ecosystem, that of the Pampas, where the dense jungle gives way to open grasslands and swamps. Cattle farming is the main activity here, but tourism is also important. And unlike the jungle, you are almost guaranteed sightings of wildlife. This time I signed up for the easier option of staying in a lodge for two nights with Mashaquipe, a community-based organisation. It’s not the cheapest operator around, but it was definitely good value for money.

Howler monkeys

On the three-hour drive to the lodge based on the Rio Yacuma we saw a sloth, some caiman, a rhea (similar to an ostrich) and many birds. After lunch on the first day we had the opportunity to swim with the river dolphins, but for some reason they seemed shy and uninterested. Occasionally, they bobbed up in the distance, but didn’t want to play.

A sloth

The next few days passed peacefully by on boat trips along the river, observing howler monkeys, capybara (a kind of huge rodent), caiman at night and many different species of birds. The sunsets were also out of this world.

Squirrel monkey

The rain set in as we were leaving the lodge and the dirt road back to Rurrenabaque was churned up with mud. I never expected to be cold in the jungle. It’s supposed to be hot, humid and sweaty, right? But I’ve been wearing my fleece and boots and the owner of the Hotel Oriental here on Rurrenabaque’s main square handed out blankets. Apparently a cold front occasionally comes in bringing low temperatures and rain. And that’s happened just as I’d planned a few relaxing days swinging in a hammock, recovering from my expeditions to the jungle and pampas.

Dusk in the Pampas

The sun came out briefly, so I hopped on a moto taxi up to Oscar’s Bar which has a swimming pool and panoramic views of Rurrenabaque. But then the clouds appeared again and the temperature dropped. Although it’s a great place to relax with traveller-friendly cafes, I get the impression that a certain level of lawlessness lurks beneath. For example, I noticed that many vehicles don’t have licence plates. Apparently, these are all stolen and the local police seem to turn a blind eye – for a fee I’m sure. But when I’m back in bustling La Paz tomorrow, I know I’m going to miss the relaxed pace of the jungle.

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The sound of silence in Sajama National Park, Bolivia

 

Volcan Sajama
 
The last light of the day glistened on the ice-capped peaks of the surrounding volcanoes and, as the sun dropped quickly out of view, the temperature plummeted alarmingly fast. The altiplano village of Sajama in Bolivia stands at 4200m above sea level. At this altitude it’s freezing cold at night and the air is thin and in short supply. But none of that seemed to worry the players in a five a side football match who were running around in shorts. I was out of breath just trying to pull my socks on. The crowd of supporters looked smugly warm in their layers of alpaca shawls and rugs, while my nose went red and my feet seemed to go dead in my shoes.

 

The twin volcanoes
 
The match, somewhat oddly, was accompanied by a small band of musicians, drums crashing, cymbals clashing and horns doing whatever horns do. I’d arrived that afternoon on the long haul by bus up from Arica on the Chilean coast. The village is just a small collection of primitive adobe thatched houses and it’s hard to tell which are the streets and which are people’s yards. After dinner I was in bed by 8.30 trying to get warm under heavy layers of alpaca blankets. My traditional adobe hut seemed designed to trap the cold in.

 

Sajama National Park
 
Sajama is in fact also the name of the national park which is close to the Chilean border and is still pretty much off the beaten track. It’s quite difficult to get to and lodgings are basic, plus, did I say how cold it gets? After three nights I still couldn’t get used to it, but the sublime scenery more than compensated.

 

Rush hour heading out of Sajama
 
On the first day I walked along the dirt track heading north out of town to some natural hot springs. To the right was Volcan Sajama and to the left a large plain with many alpaca (although they could have been llamas, I still can’t tell the difference) and behind that the twin volcanoes of Parinacota and Pomerata, both towering over 6000 metres. The sun was fierce during the day and the altitude made each step hard-going, so after six hours I was glad to get back to the hostel. But then the sun went down, and, did I tell you how cold it gets?

 

Church in Sajama
 
I felt more acclimatised on the second day and walked west of town past the little stone church and across the plain towards the twin volcanoes. After about an hour I entered a beautiful valley and a few miles further on I came across the geysers. I stepped gingerly between them, trying to be as sure-footed as the alpacas (or llamas). The waters bubbled, steam rose and the edges of the holes glimmered red and orange.

 

Geysers
 
On both days trekking what struck me the most was the wonderful sound of silence. It felt so far from anywhere and I saw only a few other determined tourists. I spent 3 nights there and would like to have stayed longer, but the cold was getting to me. Apart from having been overawed by the landscape, I also came away with a huge admiration for the people who live with such extremes of temperatures and altitude. It’s a harsh life and I was lucky that I could just dip in and out.

  

Fish, bingo and Winston Churchill, from Caldera to Antofagasta

 

Sea lions in Caldera
 
“Fish,” the man cried in English. I looked around me. I was in the fish market in the coastal town of Caldera in northern Chile surrounded by glistening wet fish. I nodded in agreement and smiled. “Yes, fish.” The man repeated,“Fish!” and grinned. “Yes, a lot of fish, ” I replied and tried to move off, but the man wasn’t letting me go that easily. “Fish!” he exclaimed, even more vociferously. By this time a curious crowd had gathered. I wasn’t sure if the man was trying to sell me fish, practise the only word in English he seemed to know, or maybe he was the village idiot.

 

Paila marina
 
In fact, fish is one of the great delights in Chile. My favourite dish so far is Paila Marina, a kind of soup piled high with all types of shellfish, some of which are not easily recognisable, but still delicious. After I’d managed to escape from the most repetitious conversation of my life, I had lunch in a restaurant in the market next to the port. And yes I had fish. Below the market sea lions basked in the sun on the rocks below waiting for … fish.

 

Sea bird in Caldera
 
Caldera is a slightly rundown town, but has a certain quirky charm, especially in the off season. Just down the coast is Bahia Inglesa, where there is a small and pleasant beach which certainly doesn’t live up to the excessive praise the guidebooks give it. It’s pleasant but nothing special. But then, you don’t really come to Chile for the beaches. In the 17th century English pirates came to sack the place, hence the name Bahia Inglesa (English Bay).

 

Bahia Inglesa
 
 The coastline from Caldera all the way up to Antofagasta is certainly striking, but in a rugged, desolate kind of way. There are few sand beaches, just rocks and cliffs. The inaptly named Pacific Ocean batters the shore with huge waves and in many places a persistent fog lingers over the coastal areas. The road hugs the coast for much of the way making for a spectacular journey.
It’s desert here, but not the rolling dunes of Lawrence of Arabia. This is desert in the sense that nothing grows. The towns and villages are small and the buildings are rarely more than a few storeys high. They’re surrounded by dust and have an unkempt feel. And everything looks brown. Very brown.

 

Harbour in Antofagasta
 
I was anxious to get to San Pedro de Atacama, but it was a long haul by bus, so I decided to break the journey in Antofagasta, despite the fact that the guidebooks don’t give it much of a write-up. Guess what? It’s actually okay for a night, with a dramatic sea front in the suburbs with waves crashing in and a nicely renovated pier in the centre.

Antofagasta has an interesting history and some old buildings survive from its prosperous past as a major export centre for the mines in the interior. It used to belong to Bolivia until Chile captured the area and Bolivia then also lost its access to the sea in the War of the Pacific in 1879. The British had a strong presence here too and the main square has a clock tower that is allegedly a replica of London’s Big Ben. Well, there is a British flag on it next to the Chilean one.

 

Antofagasta’s Big Ben
 
Most bizarre thing I saw in Antofagasta: two scantily clad women salsa dancing in a bingo hall of all places. I wonder how many distracted patrons missed that all important number.

Most interesting thing I saw in Antofagasta: in a temporary exhibition on the railroads there was a telegram from Winston Churchill thanking the city for the good wishes it sent him on his 90th birthday in 1964, just a few months before his death.

Tea and tsunamis, from Santiago to Coquimbo

  Tourist gaffes, we all make them. Whether it’s pointing your feet at a Buddha statue in Asia or wandering around a strict Muslim town in a bikini, I’ve seen it all. My little faux pas was tiny in comparison. After a strenuous day exploring the sites of Santiago, I was desperate for a cup of tea and so staggered into the first place I saw. I ordered my drink and then asked the waitress where the chairs were, not realising it was a famous stand up only  bar, a café con piernas, coffee with legs. Not only that but the waitresses are dressed in skimpy mini skirts to show off their legs and it’s the kind of place where bored businessmen come to drink coffee, do business, and, well, ogle. The tea was great, though.
 

 It’s all very retro 70s and very politically incorrect. But I also saw families with kids and respectable old ladies there. No one seems to mind. In a way it summed up my impressions of Santiago. It’s changing a lot and there’s a huge amount of construction going on, but there are still characterful barrios or neighbourhoods with tiny hole-in-the-wall shops and bars. The bland uniformity of globalisation has not yet swept away independent stores and cafes, and you can still see shopfront signage that hasn’t changed in 50 years. It reminds me a little of Madrid 20 years ago. 

 

 The setting of Santiago at the foot of the Andes is wonderful and the flight over the mountains from São Paulo was breathtaking. And yet it’s the little details that really strike you, the square and fountain you come across by chance, the little streets with graffiti, the friendliness of the people.

 

 As I headed north to the coastal town of Coquimbo, I began to realise how different Chile is from Brazil. And it’s all down to geography and the Andes. The mountains here are brown and stark, instead of the lush tropical green of Brazil. The seafood is spectacular, a result of the colder waters of the Pacific. The coastline is rugged and dramatic and the weather drier. This is a semi-arid desert landscape. And it’s also prone to earthquakes and tsunamis. The last one in September 2015 wreaked a lot of damage and the rebuilding work is still ongoing. You can see signs showing you tsunami escape routes. Basically, don’t head for the beach, run up the nearest hill.
Like I’m going to be reading instructions when a huge tidal wave is rushing towards me. 

   
Coquimbo is a grimy industrial port city next to the neighbouring twin city of La Serena which is much more attractive but Coquimbo is cheaper so I’m staying there. But the Barrio Ingles has been nicely restored and is a testament to the presence of the English here in the 19th century when the city was a huge copper exporter. In the centuries before that, however, English pirates had sailed up and down the Chilean coast ransacking cities.  La Serena itself was sacked by the pirate Bartholomew Sharp. 

 

 When you think of Andean Latin America you might think of the usual cliches like llamas grazing by high-altitude lakes, perilous bus journeys across mountain passes, men in colourful ponchos playing panpipes and women in bowler hats selling coca leaves. So far Chile has none of that. The capital has a distinctly European vibe and Coquimbo has the out of season feel of Blackpool, but that’s okay. For the moment I’m enjoying great food, pisco sours and a sense of security that is often absent in South America. However, I’m also looking forward to getting into the high Andes. I might even buy a poncho….

   

An ending and a new adventure

Pico do Papagaio 3
Pico do Papagaio, Vale do Matutu

Tomorrow everything changes. I’ll have no job and nowhere to live. But I am lucky. Because I planned this. I’ve been planning it for months. I’m giving up my life here in Brazil after six years, leaving the house I’ve stayed in for the last 18 months, saying goodbye to friends and setting off on the biggest adventure of my life. I plan to travel for as long as I can – or until the money runs out. It’s exciting, and terrifying.  But it’s just what I need.

Edifício Martinelli 5
The concrete jungle of São Paulo

What have I learned about living in a foreign country for so long? The main thing is that living and working in a city is totally different from visiting as a tourist. The same things that got me down in London (the journey to work, overcrowded trains, a dull routine) also started to affect me in São Paulo. After years living here I also learned to see what ordinary Brazilians have to put up with, things you don’t see when you’re just passing through. Like the frustrating bureaucracy, the non-existent customer service, a surprising lack of respect and the appalling way that many employers still treat their employees.

As Ilhas 1
As Ilhas, along the Paulista coast

But there’s so much I’ll miss about this country: the friendly people, the vibrant, spontaneous culture, the music, Carnival, the national parks and the glorious beaches. And I don’t yet know if I’ll be able to survive without my fix of açai na tigela – a frozen pulp of an Amazonian berry with granola and other fresh fruit sliced on top. Luckily, caipirinha can be found most places around the world these days.

Prainha Branca
Prainha Branca, just a few hours from São Paulo

I plan to visit India and Bangladesh later this year and go trekking in the Himalayas, but my first trip takes me to Chile and Bolivia and then the Brazilian Amazon before flying back to the UK in June. I’ll be arriving in Santiago and then making my way northwards, zigzagging between coast and mountains, before crossing over the Andes into Bolivia and La Paz. I’ll be heading into the jungle from there and exploring as much of the country as I can. I then plan to take a boat from Trinidad down the Rio Mamoré to Guayamerin from where I’ll be able to cross the border into Brazil and visit two remote states I have never been to before – Acre and Rondônia.

Sambodromo 48
Rio Carnival

Brazil is going through tough times right now, with the recession biting and more and more corruption scandals surrounding politicians and Petrobras coming to light every day. But things will improve and it’s a place I’ll want to keep coming back to for the rest of my life. Right now, though, the rest of the world beckons.

Trilha Dois Irmãos 6
I’ll really miss Rio …

 

 

Why it’s fine not to like every place you visit

Wei Sheng Chang House 1, Pingyao
Wei Sheng Chang House, Pingyao, China

Two years ago I went on a wonderful six-month trip around Asia. But I didn’t like China. It was a huge disappointment for me. I think it’s okay not to like a place, though. In fact, maybe it’s good not to like some things. We live in an online world where we “like” things at just a click of a button and without much thought and where we crave “likes” in return. We document our lives for public approval and we want to give the impression that we are all leading fabulously exciting lives. This is certainly true of travel writing and blogs. After all, we’ve sometimes paid a lot of money for that airfare and visa, so we’re going to make sure we like it. Even if we don’t.

Tian Yi hostel, Pingyao
Street in Pingyao, China

I have visited over 60 countries and spent months on the road at a time and I haven’t enjoyed every place and I have certainly had some bad days along the way. But surely that’s normal? If we simply like everything and everywhere, then doesn’t it just devalue the “like”. It’s good to have a bad day – chances are the next day will feel so much better. It’s normal to dislike a place for whatever reason – we are all different and have different tastes.

Kuta Beach, Bali 1
Kuta beach, Bali – not the exotic beach you might expect!

I have lost count of the number of times I have arrived in a place, lured by hyperbolic descriptions in the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, only to discover after half a day that it’s really not that great and there’s not a lot to do. Of course, that’s only my opinion. Conversely, I have often gone to a place I didn’t intend to visit with little in the way of write-ups and discovered a gem. And that’s what makes travelling such fun. The thrill of the unexpected.

Sacred Monkey Forest, Bali 12
Sacred Monkey Forest, Ubud, Bali

The very name Bali conjures up images of an exotic paradise, but for me the reality was dirty beaches, being blatantly ripped off and hassled. However, the next door island of Lombok was relaxing and beautiful. I arrived on Gili Air planning to stay a few days and stayed a week.

Mt Rinjani, Gili Air path
Sand track on Gili Air, Lombok, Indonesia

Twelve years ago when I was taking a boat down the Amazon from Manaus to Santarem I had no plans to visit Alter do Chão, a small town on the Rio Tapajós, as it was barely mentioned in my guidebook. Two fellow passengers told me they were going so I joined them and discovered a thrilling off-the-beaten-track destination, very laid back with seductive beaches.

Sunset, Gili Air 6
Sunset on Gili Air

Nowadays, it’s one of Lonely Planet’s Top 20 Things to Do in Brazil. It’s probably very different. Time changes places and it also changes us. We can have different reactions to places depending on when we go.

Great Wall 5, Beijing
The Great Wall, Beijing
Great Wall 6, Beijing
The Great Wall, Beijing

I also find that, as I get older, I am not drawn so much to the buzz of cities, but want to spend more time in the countryside. And that may be one of the mistakes I made with China. I had a month there and spent too much time in the cities, Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an. Maybe if I’d gone further south or west I would have seen a different China, but the one I experienced was not pleasant. The pollution was as bad you have probably seen on the television. In four weeks I barely saw the sun as it remained hidden behind a sickly grey haze. I felt like I was travelling in a gigantic building site. As you travel by train, you look out not onto the idyllic landscapes the guidebooks show, but cooling towers belching smoke into the air. In the cities you can smell the new concrete dust as the government rushes not to restore historic buildings and sites but demolish them and rebuild them in the ‘original style’.

Terracotta Warriors 4, Xi'an
Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an, China

China is also not cheap and you can spend much more than you planned. The ancient city of Pingyao, for example, charges £15 to visit the old houses and temples. In other cities you may pay £5 or more per site. In Beijing I simply couldn’t afford to visit all the attractions and so was left disappointed. The crowds you encounter at just about every tourist attraction can be unbearable. And then there’s the food. One of the things I love about travelling is experiencing the cuisine, but I found the food in China horrendous, so much so that I frequently ended up at fast food joints which I never go to anywhere else. But they were the only places I could find anything remotely edible. If you get hungry at tourist sites or on trains, you need to develop a taste for hotdogs and pot-noodles. Of course, if I had been able to read the menu in Mandarin or had had more money, then maybe I would have had a different experience.

Street 5, Xi'an
Street food in Xi’an – no thanks!

China wasn’t all bad, though. I found it fascinating as well as challenging. The people on an individual level were always friendly and sometimes went out of their way to guide me as I struggled to find my hostel. The Terracotta Warriors are amazing, even though I had to strain to see them through crowds 5 people deep and was frequently pushed out of the way. At Luoyang I decided to visit the Longmen Caves at dusk. The crowds were smaller and it proved to be a very different experience. On my way to the Great Wall I met a local guy who was also going to hike there and he invited me to join him on a part officially closed to tourists. It had not been restored and was free to access. This proved to be one of the highlights of China for me.

Longmen Caves 4, Huoyang
Longmen Caves at Luoyang
Longmen Caves 5, Huoyang
Longmen Caves at Luoyang

So I don’t regret going to China, but I have to admit I won’t be rushing back soon. Travelling is a very subjective experience and we can’t all like everything all the time. But it’s always fun making up your own mind. Let’s just not pretend we “like” everything.

West Lake 4, Hangzhou
West Lake, Hangzhou – one of the highlights

 

A trip to a funeral in Tana Toraja

Trek from Palawa to Batutumonga 9
Tongkonan in Tana Toraja
I went to Rantepao to attend a funeral. Not the funeral of anyone I knew; any old funeral would do. Rantepao is a town on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia and home to the Toraja people. “Do you know of any funerals happening in the next few days?” I asked the guides hanging around my hotel. It felt an odd question, like I was enquiring about a rafting expedition or a trek up a volcano. But here death is a way of life and tourists come just to experience and learn about the local culture.

Trek from Palawa to Batutumonga 10
Trekking from Palawa to Batutumonga in the Tana Toraja
The Toraja are a fusion of animist and Christian. When the Dutch were in this part of the world, like so many other misguided colonial powers, they attempted to “civilise” the local communities and so missionaries were dispatched to convert. Many of the old traditions were lost and today the people worship in church, but when it comes to dying, the old ways survive. The Toraja believe the spirits of animals accompany the deceased into the afterlife and many buffaloes are sacrificed, depending on your status. I saw 20 being slaughtered at one funeral, and with the average buffalo fetching over a thousand pounds  you can imagine the costs involved.

Day of Buffalo sacrifice at funeral 5
Parading the buffaloes for slaughter
Hot and sticky Makassar is a good entry point for Sulawesi and after a night in the city I took a ten-hour bus journey to Rantepao, the main tourist centre. It’s a dusty, scrappy, not particularly pleasant place, but the beauty of the surrounding scenery more than makes up for this. Tongkonan are the local buildings and these extraordinary structures with boat-shaped roofs rise dramatically out of the emerald green rice fields.

Ke'te Kesu 1
Tongkonan at Kete-Kesu
After a first day exploring the vibrant and extremely muddy buffalo market, I spent a whole day trekking in the north along the slopes of Gunung Sesean, a dormant volcano, where paddy fields cascade down endless terraces. I took a guide as it’s quite hard to find your way around and he took me to places I would never have gone on my own, fording streams and climbing the terraces strewn with ancient volcanic boulders.

Pasar Bolu livestock market 4, Rantepao
The buffalo market in Rantepao
The next day it was time to get to grips with the local culture, or, more specifically, death. When a relative dies, the body is embalmed and kept in the house for days, even months, while the family saves up enough for the funeral which takes place over several days. My guide took me first to one on its third day and the family were pretty wealthy, judging from the number of buffaloes to be slaughtered. I had mixed feelings about watching this. On the one hand, it’s part of a unique local culture and the buffaloes are eaten so it’s not a wasted activity. However, the butchery is quite barbaric and the animals die slowly. I watched the first buffalo bleed to death in front of me. It’s a deeply distressing thing to look into a creature’s eyes as it dies. After a few more I’d had enough.

Day of Buffalo sacrifice at funeral 8
A buffalo about to be sacrificed

First Day funeral 1
Singing around the coffin
The second funeral was in its first day and involved moving the coffin to a temporary pagoda for the few days of the ceremony. A group of paid singers surrounded the coffin for a song and then lunch was served. Afterwards, the pall bearers carried the coffin uphill to the pagoda, but it was a perilous journey as the ground was extremely muddy. The ornate roof of the structure housing the coffin then got stuck in some overhead wires and had to be sawn off. With the proceedings threatening to turn into farce, the bearers set off again, but on the slope up to the pagoda, they encountered another problem. Even with the top now removed, it was still too big to fit inside and it caught in the entrance and tipped precariously to one side. There was an audible intake of breath as the pall bearers lost their hold on the coffin and it almost went tumbling to the ground. For a few moments I simply couldn’t bear to watch, but finally, after more sawing, the coffin was finally in its temporary resting place and the ceremony could continue.

First Day funeral 14
The coffin almost takes a tumble
Later my guide took me to see various burial places around the region. At Lemo, an old site, the bodies are buried in stone graves carved into a cliff overlooking rice fields. Also present, are tau tau, wooden effigies carved to resemble the dead. At Tampangallo the coffins were placed on shelves in a damp cave, but over the years the wood has rotted and bones have fallen to the floor. Unable to afford another funeral, the families have kept the remains in the open. Most disturbing of all was Kambira, the site of a decaying ancient tree where babies were buried in hollowed out cavities.

Stone graves and tau tau at Lemo 1
Stone graves and tau-tau at Lemo
It may all sound a bit gory and macabre, but I think the Toraja have quite a healthy and positive attitude to death. It is very much part of life here and funerals are big social occasions. As a tourist you are made to feel very welcome and, most importantly, you don’t feel like you are intruding or being ripped off in an event staged only for tourists. You are encouraged to take some gifts. If your budget won’t run to a buffalo, cigarettes are also accepted. It’s a unique and fascinating culture and well worth the trip.

First Day funeral 10
Dressed up for a funeral