A Travellerspoint blog

August 2012

Onto Sorata and the Cordillera Real

semi-overcast 65 °F

Sorata, July 14 -16

An hour on the bus from Copacobana took us to the small town of Huarni on the eastern shore of Lake Titicaca. The plan was to catch a micro or bus from there over the mountain to Sorata. After 45 minutes or so of watching jam packed buses and micros sail by us in a cloud of dust, I could sense the anxiety level rise as memories of our Quime to La Paz debacle sprang up. A taxi driver came by and sensing an easy target inquired if we needed a ride. At 300 bvs for the 2 ½ hour trip, I’m sure that we paid at least double the regular rate but he was a very nice guy and provided some history of the area and stopped for several photos as we drove up over the pass in the shadow Mount Illampu at 6,000 meters or just shy of 20,000 feet.
It so happened that we arrived in Sorata for the festival Virgen de Carmen


as well as the 203rd anniversary of the state of La Paz in addition to the last weekend of a two week mid-winter break for school so the town was packed with revelers from the many nearby villages and everyone was primed for a party. That evening the party got into full swing with a large march around the Plaza, followed by speeches from local officials with entertainment provided by two Latin Techno-pop bands that worked hard to determine who had the loudest sound system. Fortunately, our hostel, Casa de Piedra, was located down the hill from the main plaza so we were shielded from the primary onslaught. We thought that was the main celebration, but the next morning, there were more marches around the plaza, and more speeches with the whole thing repeating itself several more times throughout the day. It became clear, that in addition to being very religious and patriotic, Bolivians really like to march needing little excuse to throw a party.

We had a couple of days hiking around Sorata, caught up on some laundry, and Monday evening we moved to Altai Oasis a small eco-lodge 15 minutes out of town where we met our guides from Andean Epics the company that would take us two days mountain biking from the mountains above Sorata at 4675 meters to the gold mining town of Mapiri at 800 meters followed by three days on a river boat to the town of Rurrenabaque.

Posted by White Buffalo 19:48 Archived in Bolivia Comments (1)

Sorata to Rurrenabaque - Mountain Bikes to River Boat

Mucho Gusto Cipro


Sorata to Rurrenabaque July 17 – 22

We met our guides, Maricio and Alejandro for breakfast at 6:00 a.m. The other couple signed up for the trip cancelled due to stomach problems so it was just us and our guides. We all loaded up into a Landcruiser Travel-All type vehicle you can only find in the third world because they are far too practical for the states and began a two hour drive up the mountain on a steep and narrow two-track. It had rained the night before making it slick and muddy. We left Sorata in the clouds, under a slight drizzle, but as we ascended the mountain we began to see patches of blue and soon broke through the clouds to a bluebird day. As we neared the top of the pass, the views of Illampu were stunning with the surrounding low-lands bathed in clouds.large_P1040608-1.jpg
After 45 minutes or so of sorting out gear we were ready to begin our descent. The bikes with dual suspension and hydraulic brakes were surprisingly modern and well maintained by any standard much less Bolivian standards. With Maricio in front and Alejandro driving the sag wagon, we began a six hour descent to the small mining town of Conzata. Beginning above treeline, the 80 Km descent that day would bring us to the rain forest. Heading down the mountain, there was simply no-way that I could keep up with Maricio. I thought it must surely be a sign of my age, but when I found out that Maricio had been Bolivia’s BMX champion as a child and was currently Bolivia’s downhill mountain bike champion, I didn’t feel so bad.

The descent down the mountain brought us by herds of llamas and sheep. Descending lower, small villages popped up supported by herders and the increased mining activity that we saw along the way. Bolivian mining is generally not a very pretty site, but the lack of mechanization diminishes the impact substantially to what you might find in a more accessible locale.
Conzata marked our first really sketchy sleeping quarters highlighted by the bano in which a look out the window revealed a sewer pipe extending straight out the side of the building over an embankment that led straight down to a small creek below. There is nothing quite like flushing the toilet and watching exactly where it all goes.

The next day we loaded up the bikes and drove along the river to reach the next high point where we would begin our descent. Our path soon became obstructed by a large trac-hoe slowly making its way down the “road”. With no place to pass we decided to unload the bikes and ride up to the next pass. Between the heat and humidity we soon discovered why they typically drive up this incline but given the previous days continuous descent it felt good to settle into a good long climb. After a two hour ascent we were happy to reach the pass and begin the descent into Mapiri. Descending down the road, with a steep river valley below, we passed numerous side drainages where the mining impacts had all but destroyed the drainage with large alluvial fans depositing tons of the highly erosive soils into the larger river below.
After a long day of descending from the rainforest into the jungle with a stop at a very pristine side stream for lunch and a swim, we arrived in Mapiri, a larger town on the banks of the Rio Tambopata where we would meet our river boat for the 3 day, 200 km descent to Rurrenabaque.

At about 8:00 a.m. the next morning we walked down to the “dock” to meet the boat. With two boatmen, a cook, our guide Alejandro, and several villagers catching a ride three hours downriver to Guanay, we loaded our gear into the 30 foot river boat and began our descent. Mining remains the chief economic driver of this region of Bolivia and the improved access and increased mechanization has resulted in environmental impacts I’ve only ever seen in texts and journals.
After three hours on the river, we entered the Rio Kaka and stopped for additional supplies in the larger town of Guanay. With some trepidation, we ate lunch at a small Bolivian kitchen just off the river the likes of which we normally avoided but Alejandro assured us that it was a usual stop. By the time we arrived at our first campsite that evening my gastronomic distress became evident. By 10:00 o’clock the high fever and chills set-in with all the symptoms of a full-blown case of Salmonella . With the outhouse situated 50 yards up a steep incline punctuated by a treacherous descent, by the six or seventh trip I actually knew the route well enough that I could still remain half-asleep without killing myself.
The next morning I took a Cipro in an attempt to repair my damaged gut but skipped the hike up the mountain to catch a view of the river below. I did manage the 30 minute hike up to the waterfall as well as the two hour hike in the jungle later that afternoon despite several deep breaths and pit stops along the way.
We camped one more night on the Rio KaKa before the confluence with the larger Rio Beni and on to Rurrenabaque to complete the 200 km on the river portion of the trip. Several jungle hikes along the way revealed a large ground tortoise, some night monkeys that looked very slow and sleepy in the mid-afternoon sun and a herd of wild pigs that have a musk gland in their shoulders enabling them to emit a rancid awful smell when frightened. We rolled into Rurrenabaque at about two in the afternoon, got settled in our digs at the Oriental Hotel, a lovely place that was cheap and clean with a nice courtyard full of hammocks to lounge in the heat of the jungle winter sun.

Posted by White Buffalo 20:47 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Madidi National Park - Birder's Paradise in Pristine Jungle

semi-overcast 82 °F

Madidi National Park, July 23 – 26

Rurrenabaque is a larger town of about 20,000 people and surprisingly, one of the most touristy we encountered in Bolivia. It is cleaner than most Bolivian cities but the preponderance of pedestrian obstacles with the potential to maim or kill reminded us that despite the numerous tiendas catering to turistas and the absence of any cholitas it is still pure Bolivia.
At 8:00 a.m. our guide Raul met us at our hotel and walked us down to the boat dock for the ride upriver to the Madidi Jungle Lodge in Madidi National Park. After an hour riding up the much larger Rio Beni we entered the Rio Tuiche and motored for another 2 hours before reaching the lodge. The Madidi Jungle Lodge is run by native people that live in the park and is supported by several international conservation organizations working to enable the locals to profit through the health and success of the park. We arrived in time for a typical 3 course lunch that is the standard for trekking in this part of the world. After lunch we rested a bit before embarking on a three hour hike in the jungle. Our guide’s ability to spot birds and other creatures great and small was really something to behold. It made me feel a little like a blind person stumbling through the wilderness by comparison.
The sound of the jungle may be more memorable than the many species of birds and animals that we saw along the way. Tiny birds like the Motmot that mimics almost everything and has the biggest voice in the jungle. The variety of bird whistles, booms, and tremolos produced a wondrous jungle chorus. As you may have guessed, our guide knew every bird call and could usually find the culprit often high in the canopy without the aid of any binoculars. Over the next four days we spent 3 hours hiking in the morning and two hours each afternoon. Along the way we saw numerous species of parrots large and small, toucans, hawks, falcons, storks, and terns; cappuccino, howler, and spider monkeys; caiman; and butterflies of every color many as large as small birds; large herds of wild pigs, capybara, and numerous prints of jaguar and ocelot. Trees like the walking palm that moves up to six feet per year infused a sense of magic on the place.
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We spent one morning fishing in a small side drainage of the Tuiche, hooking several fish but Bridget was the only one to land one. That afternoon we motored a ways up the Tuiche to fish some more. Our guide was the only one to catch a fish, a large giant piranha with a set of teeth deserving of the reputation but our guide assured us that they are not aggressive. Between the caiman and the piranhas we declined the invitation to go tubing on the river for our last morning opting for a last long hike in the jungle. After lunch we loaded up into the boat for the 2½ hour trip back to Rurrenabaque. Along the way we stopped at some high sandstone cliffs where several dozen pairs of red macaws are nesting. After working so hard to see the birds we could often only hear in the jungle canopy, it felt almost like cheating with the large raucous parrots so close at hand.
While at Madidi we met one of the few Aussies that we ran across during our stay in Bolivia. Shane McCarthy is one of the few wanderers I’ve ever met truly deserving of the moniker. An elementary school teacher from Melbourne in his 50’s, over the last 30 years or so, his program is to work for 3 years or so and then he usually takes 18 to 24 months to travel the world. A master of languages, he speaks English, French, Spanish, Vietnamese, and some Arabic. He is also an engaging storyteller, and he kept the kids rapt with many stories of his travels throughout the world. With their suburban, U.S. upbringing the kids found him an unusual and mysterious creature unlike any they had ever encountered. I couldn’t help but hope that his carefree carpe diem attitude might be catching.

We returned to Rurrenabaque in the late afternoon of the 4th day, had dinner with Shane and thanked our lucky stars for our plane ticket to La Paz the next morning instead of the 20 to 30 hour bus ride depending on weather facing Shane. Raining hard as we left for the airport prospects for leaving seemed to dim, but then the clouds broke and our plane landed and we arrived in La Paz before noon that day.


Posted by White Buffalo 09:12 Archived in Bolivia Tagged madidi Comments (3)

Back to Civilization - Of Inca Brilliance and Tourist Hell

semi-overcast 73 °F

La Paz, Cusco, Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo - July 27 – August 2

We had a brief stay in La Paz, enough time to get some laundry done and round out the mountain of regalitos we had been acquiring along the way. At 7:30 a.m. we made our way to La Paz’s central bus station for the 12 hour ride to Cusco. The border crossing offered an unexpected 2 hour delay in the form of a huge line around the block on the Peruvian side facilitated by an official in the front padding his salary by moving his patrons to the front of the line.

We arrived in Cusco about 9:15 that evening, managing to find a supermarket open despite the independence day holiday celebrations that had closed most things up. Despite Cusco’s long history as the Incan capitol, it is relatively modern by Peruvian standards with stunning architecture and more magnificent churches than you can count. Serving as the gateway to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, it is also the tourism capital of South America. Think West Yellowstone in mid-July. After seven weeks in Bolivia, the contrast was a bit overwhelming.

We spent 3 days in Cusco seeing the many incredible Incan ruins, museums and other sights, and confirmed details with our guide service, Cusco Native, for the 4 day trek to the Lares Valley following our visit to Machu Picchu.
At about noon on the fourth day we caught a micro to Ollantaytambo and then the train down the Urubamba River to the town of Aguas Calientes which sits at the base of Machu Picchu. Aguas Calientes is a nice little town sitting along the banks of the Urubamba River that reminded somewhat of Calistoga in a cloud forest, not very Peruvian and definitely not third world.

The next morning we arose at 4:30 to catch the 5:30 bus up to Machu Picchu. Arriving at Machu Picchu at 6:30 for the opening, the mountain was bathed in mist. The mist and the rising sun created a surreal effect right out of tourism promo. The light really couldn’t have been much more perfect. After spending two hours with a guide touring the ruins, we made the two hour climb to the top of Machu Picchu Montana, the high peak that overlooks the ancient city.

By 2:00 the crowds had magnified to nearly unbearable so we caught the bus back to town and then onto Ollantaytambo for two nights before leaving for the Lares Valley.

Posted by White Buffalo 08:09 Archived in Peru Tagged machu picchu Comments (1)

Above the Sacred Valley - Walking with the Quechua

sunny 68 °F

Ollantaytambo – Lares Valley Trek Aug 2 – 6

We caught a taxi at 5:45 to make the 45 minute trip to the town of Calca where we met our guide Miguel, our cook Mario, and an assistant cook, whose name I cannot remember in part due to the fact that he only spoke Quechua but smiled just about all the time. We drove for about an hour and half up a steep narrow canyon to the small village of Quishuarani where we met Roberto our Caballero. _DSC6166-1.jpgThe 1 to 1 ratio of personnel to clients seemed a bit excessive but it is really standard operating procedure in this part of the world. After an hour or so of gathering up gear, we started our hike to the small village Cuncani about 10km over the mountain. Our previous weeks at high altitude in Bolivia served us well and the walking wasn’t too strenuous despite the pass at 14,600 ft elevation. The biggest challenge would prove to be not eating too much at lunch. The standard for trekking here is a 3 course hot meal for lunch every day. My guess is that the early trekkers were well healed folks out more for sightseeing rather than hiking and it created a tradition that could just as well be forgotten.
Descending from the pass that afternoon we saw our only Andean Condor of the trek soaring at high altitude. We rolled into camp at about 3:30 and the arrival of gringos immediately brought out 4 or 5 girls age 16 to 18 with bundles of goods to sell. First we bought a couple of beers and soon it was a scarf to beautiful and cheap to pass up and within half an hour or so managed to buy at least something from everyone. Looking at the bare feet and sandals that are standard issue for all both young and old despite the freezing temperatures at night we were happy to help anyway that we could.
The next morning we headed off to the village of Huacahuasi. My first hint that our guide wasn’t completely with the program came as we left camp walking entirely the wrong direction from the route that we had planned. When I asked him about it he told me that that route was much too difficult. Since I had picked the route mostly through research on the internet, who was I to argue? We discovered later that he just didn’t want to take the more difficult route despite the fact that it was not overly demanding. Besides our crummy guide, the rest of the crew was super nice and really bent over backwards to make the trip as enjoyable as possible. We passed several small villages along the way, giving out pencils, candies and small pins as regalitos for the many children that we passed along the way.
A notable difference between this region of Peru and most of what we saw in Bolivia was far less garbage. This may also have been due to the lack of road access for goods from the outside. These are all subsistence farmers and herders. They make most of their own clothes and apart from bare essentials rely on very little from the outside.
We camped that night above Huacahuasi instead of Lake Ispaycocha as we had planned. In the morning, it took us about 1.5 hours to reach the pass at 15,000 feet. We then descended past Lake Auraycocha for lunch at Lake Yuraccocha, two beautiful high alpine lakes both filled with large trout. We camped that night at a very forgettable campsite at Pucara not more than an hour from our final destination. I realized on this trip and others that there is tendency among guides to keep things simple, and if you want to really get off the beaten path you’ll like need to remind them of your intent and plans at every turn along the way. Despite our disappointment at the abbreviated route, the country was spectacular and the people were very friendly and curious about the aliens in their midst.

Posted by White Buffalo 20:50 Archived in Peru Tagged valley lares Comments (1)

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