A Travellerspoint blog

Into the Jungle

After chilly La Paz it was a bit of a shock to arrive in hot and sticky Rurrenabaque (or Rurre) after just a half an hour flight. Rurre, a nice little river side town, is a gateway to the Amazon and is driven by tourism with many tour agencies lining the streets. Tourists come here either to do a Pampas tour or a Jungle tour. As we have plenty of time to play with we chose to do both. The pampas tour is the one to do for wildlife spotting as it´s set in a more open wetland area while the jungle tour is set in the dense Amazon. After some extensive research online we went with one of the better companies for these tours called Mashaquipe as their guides are from communities who live in the jungle and the company practices ecotourism unlike many of the others. We booked in 3 days in the pampas and 4 days in the jungle.

We set off for the pampas first with the hopes of spotting all sorts of exotic animals - the elusive jaguar being on top of our wish list. Unfortunately we were visiting at the end of the wet season which makes it harder to spot wildlife as the water levels as higher covering many riverbanks where the animals are commonly seen in the dry season. We had a 3 hour bumpy car ride to our lodge and on the way our guide, a young guy called Eloy, spotted a caiman (similar to an alligator) in a muddy puddle of water by the side of the road.

The lodge itself wasn´t exactly what we were expecting but the front area was set in an idyllic spot overlooking the river where we could see pink dolphins playing and many birds swooping around in search of fish. After lunch we set off with Eloy for our first outing. One advantage of going in the off season was that we were the only 2 in the group for the entire pampas tour. We got in a long, skinny boat with a small motor and slowly made our way up the still Yacumba river. The weather was absolutely perfect and we were quite happy just kicking back and enjoying the cruise through the many skinny sections of river with lush green vegetation on either side. This first arvo probably proved our most successful in terms of seeing wildlife. Almost every log we passed was occupied by a turtle happily sunbaking. We saw a family of black howler monkeys followed by some capuchin monkeys swinging through the trees. Both of these monkey species proved to be relatively common sighting throughout the pampas tour and later in the jungle. We stopped at a spot on the river where there were a group of pink dolphins and after Eloy assured us that where there are dolphins, there are no caiman, we jumped in. The river was so dark that we could only see the dolphins when they came to the surface which they did more frequently when we threw a small ball in for them to play with. They were very playful and liked to brush up against our legs and nibble on our feet. On our way back we were very fortunate to see a group of 15 capybara on one of the few riverbanks as they are a rare find in the wet season. The capybara is the largest rodent in the world and they are funny looking things. Unlike other animals we saw, they were completely unfazed by our presence and we managed to capture some great photos. That night we hopped back in the boat for a brief night expedition in the hope of spotting some red glaring caiman eyes in the dark but we didn´t see much other than a few quick glimpses.

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The next morning we went on a trek in search for anacondas although our hopes weren´t high given the season. We didn´t see any snakes but we did have an encounter with some howler monkeys who weren´t overly impressed with our presence. They saw us coming from a few hundred metres away and started their monster like growl or `howl´which is the most unearthly sound used for territory protection. We got a good look up at them and a few quick snaps from under the tree but kept our distance once they started peeing and throwing branches down at us.

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In the afternoon we drove out to lake Rogaguado where another boat was waiting for us and we cruised around the perimeter mainly in search of more monkeys and birds. The only different sighting here was a red howler monkey and a one second glimpse of a distant flying toucan. We tryed a spot of piranha fishing in a few different places but a pesky pink dolphin kept following us who would have scared away all the piranhas. On the way back we caught a stunning sunset over the lake before heading back to the lodge.

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We awoke early on our final morning in the pampas and set off to find the only species of monkey we hadn´t yet seen in the region - the squirrel monkey. We ventured much further down the river than our previous outing and after 2.5 hours of seeing not much apart from a small caiman and many birds, Eloy finally spotted a group of about 20 squirrel monkeys. They were very small and cute and were much lower down and more friendly and inquisitive than the other monkeys we had seen. They were jumping all over the place and we spent about 20 minutes following them as they made their way from tree to tree along the river. Some of the younger ones even hopped one the boat and scurried across it trying to pinch a banana we had on board.

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On the drive back to Rurre we spotted our last animal for the pampas tour, a sloth perched high atop a skinny tree doing what sloths do best, sleeping. We spent the night back in Rurre before setting off for the jungle in the morning.

Our journey to the Mashaquipe ecolodge in the jungle was also 3 hours but much more comfortable this time by means of boat. Our party consisted of a great group of 2 English couples and an couple from Melbourne.To break up the ride, we stopped off at a remote family home on the river who produce sugarcane which they sell every Sunday in the markets in Rurre. We were shown how to extract the juice from the sugarcane and were surprised to get about 8 litres of sugarcane juice out of just one stick. We were even more surprised at how good it tasted with a squirt of fresh lime but were disappointed to find no one had any rum on them to make a caiprihina or mojito.

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The lodge was fantastic, nestled in a true jungle setting with very basic but adequate facilities. Plenty of hammocks were waiting for us where we would spend midday siesta times relaxing with a book while listening to the sounds of the jungle. We broke off into 2 groups for a 3 hour afternoon hike and set off into the jungle with our guide Billy. We learnt plenty about the jungle during our hike and tried many of the jungle fruits and even tasted parts of trees which acted as natural remedies for malaria, amnesia, sinuses and stomach bugs.

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The first few days consisted, for the part, of a morning trek, lunch time siesta, following by an afternoon hike. There was usually some sort of trail but Billy was quite fond of taking us off it and using his machete to create his own path. His life story was fascinating and had many stories about growing up in the jungle from being lost on his own overnight as a 9 year old to a terrifying 2 hour encounter with a protective mother jaguar and her 3 babies. We didn´t see as much wildlife as we did in the pampas but throughout our time in the jungle we birds, huge tarantulas and golden spiders, a yellow tail snake, spider monkeys and wild pigs which stunk something terrible.

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One evening we did a short uneventful night trek and one afternoon was spent at the lodge making jungle jewelry which was a nice change of pace even though we still managed to break out a heavy sweat just doing that.

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For our third night we decided along with 2 of the other couples that we wanted to spend a night camping in the jungle. Billy and one of the other guides took us out straight after breakfast and we trekked all day deeper into the jungle. Close to our camping spot we climbed up to a lookout point with a brilliant view where we saw 4 blue and red macaws flying across the contrasting lush green landscape. A magnificent sight! When we arrived at our camping spot we had probably lost a good few litres in sweat and were covered in dirt and mud along with mozzy and ant bites. Luckily we could bath in the river to clean off a bit. We didn´t have any tents, just a paper thin sleeping mat and a mozzy net. Scott slept on the end as the sacrificial lamb for any predators and going to sleep was slightly unnerving given we had found some fresh puma tracks a few hundred metres away. Needless to say we didn´t have the best night sleep. Bugs managed to make their way under the net, we got bites through the net when we leant up against it and our backs were as stiff as planks when we got up but we did survive the night and it was cool to hear the sounds of the jungle at night out in the open. At breakfast we had never seen so many mozzys and our 28% DEET didn´t quite cut it so we got eaten alive.

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Instead of hiking back to the lodge we built a raft using large logs and Billy cut up some bamboo strips which acted as rope to tie them together. The current was very strong and it took us just 1 hour of floating downstream to reach the lodge. The rafting was good fun and was a good chance to cool off for a bit. We had a couple more hours to relax and take a much needed shower at the lodge before taking the boat back to Rurre. We are currently spending an extra rest day here before flying back to La Paz. We never saw a jaguar but did see many amazing things and learnt a lot about the Amazon. Another highlight ticked off the list!

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Georgie & Scott xxx

Posted by Scott-Georgie 20:03 Comments (0)

Action Packed La Paz

6 days of fun..

semi-overcast 15 °C

Our next stop, La Paz is the largest city in Bolivia. It reaches an altitude of 4,058m making it the highest capital city in the world. This entry covers the 6 busy days we spent in La Paz prior to flying to Rurrenabaque. We will fly back to La Paz and spend another night here after our jungle adventure. During our time here we explored the witches markets and galleries; watched a Cholitas Wrestling show; dressed up as superheros and bounced/walked/free-fell face forward, twice, out of a hotel; went to a soccer World Cup qualifier match - Bolivia vs. Argentina; Scott cycled down the World´s Most Dangerous Road (which he has written as a separate blog as he had lots to say on it); and Georgie took a tour of Tiwanaku. So much to do here!

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Several streets in the centre of town are covered with hundreds of vendors selling handicrafts, most of these are alpaca wool products as ponchos, jumpers, beanies, gloves and scarves - all different colours and styles. Along with jewellery, bags, wallets, art and the list goes on. We both purchased some items to get us through cold La Paz but plan to get a few more things after our return flight from the jungle. We have found so many amazing presents that we want to buy you all but will have to wait until later in the trip as our bags are already huge. The witches markets were quite interesting selling many items for rituals, luck and herbal health remedies. The most fascinating item we found in all of these shops was dried llama foetuses, all hung out the front of the store as the most important item - poor little things!

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We made friends with a lovely couple from Belgium, Ellen and Harman, who we spent most of our time in La Paz with. We went to the wresting and survived the Urban Rush and enjoyed several meals with them. We all went off to the Cholitas Wrestling show together not know what to expect. The show went for 3 hours and we were all in stitches throughout. The wrestling was in the style of WWF and the wrestlers were dressed in crazy masks, there was a wolf, a clown, satin, women were dressed in the traditional bolivian dresses with braids, and there was even a midget! We could not believe action-packed and physicalness of the show, the wresters got thrown over the metal barriers onto the laps of the front row audience causing their complimentary popcorn and coke to go flying everywhere. Scott even got kicked in the head by the crazy clown! As the performance went on the crowd got rowdier throwing bottles, food and even chairs at the performers. We were very glad to see that the people in the audience who were overdoing this were targeted by the wrestlers and receiving bottles, human bodies and humiliation back.

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Tiwanaku is the most important archeological site in Bolivia, it is UNESCO World Heritage site. The tour I (Georgie) took part in involved a detailed guided tour of 2 archeological sites and 2 museums, transfers, and a 3 course lunch which I got to try Llama again. Tiwanaku´s significance lies in it being recognised as the most important precursors to the Inca Empire, dominating as the capital for around 500 year in the pre-Columbian period. Unfortunately many of the structures were destroyed by the Spanish to build their own stone churches and buildings close by. Satellite technology shows that there are many structures that are yet-to-be discovered via further excavation to this site.

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We kept seeing posters for some "Urban Rush" thing when we first arrived and after reading about it we thought, we must be part of this. Basically, the Urban Rush is located at the top of the Presidential Hotel, on the 17th floor, in the centre of La Paz. From here you can walk out an open window frame, absail the traditional way or go face first. You have the option of walking, running, boucing and/or flipping and after reading reviews people say that you must have 2 goes as it is so much fun and so you have enough confidence to do the crazier things on the second go. On arrival we had the choice of wearing a boring orange suit or dressing up as a number of superheroes. Scott dressed up as Spiderman, while Georgie chose to be Cat Woman but unfortunately the head piece of her costume was missing so she just looked like Olivia Newton-John in Grease. We were convinced into doing, not just the second, but both jumps face-forward which was a great suggestion along with doing a 25metre free fall to just above the ground for both jumps. The most difficult thing was taking yourself from a vertical position with your feet on the edge of the window frame, and lowering your body by pulling up the rope and releasing yourself until you achieved a horizontal position with your feet still on the window ledge. From that position it was time to walk, slide, bounce, flip, and then free fall down the 17 floors while people on the street watched probably thinking we were idiots. Hehe.

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From the Urban Rush we took a taxi straight to the Football Stadium where we had tickets to the World Cup Qualifying match between Bolivia an La Paz. Outside the stadium we got a green Bolivian scarf and shirt before entering the packed stadium. We were going for Bolivia although we didn't like their chances. Argentina are a much stronger team and Bolivia had been shown up 5-0 a few days prior against Colombia. However, with the highest stadium in the world, Bolivia hold a massive home ground advantage with the away teams struggling with the altitude.

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Bolivia started very well an had all the best chances until they opened the scoring after about 30 minutes to the elation of the home crowd. Argentina equalized just before the half in a goal expertly set up by the superstar Lionel Messi. The second half was less entertaining with Argentina seemingly content with the draw as they are sitting atop of the South America ladder and almost assured World Cup qualification. The game ended 1-1 and Bolivia was unlucky not to win having created plenty of chances and playing with more flair than Argentina. Seeing Messi play was a real highlight and although he didn't get much of the ball, when he did he was a class above the rest.

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We are now in the small town of Rurrenabaque, gateway to the Amazon. We did encounter some troubles getting here. We spent over 6 hours at the airport and drove around the tarmac in our tiny aircraft before el capitano announced that our flight was cancelled as the sun was going to set in 20 minutes and our flight time was 35 minutes. We had read this was a pretty normal occurance so weren´t to surprised and for this reason we had nothing booked in Rurre. They put on a new flight for us this morning and after 30 minutes in the air we hit the runway and el capitano annouced ´welcome to the jungle!´.

Posted by Scott-Georgie 14:41 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

The World's Most Dangerous Road

Downhill Cycling

rain 15 °C

In La Paz I (Scott) cycled down the World´s Most Dangerous Road. I have done a separate entry for this one as it's quite long.

The 'WMDR' or 'death road' got its tag in 1995. It is estimated that up until an alternative road was built a few years ago, between 200 and 300 people a year would die due to vehicles falling off the edge. Now that there is an alternative route to Corioco, very few vehicles use the road which makes the road an ideal for downhill cycling.

After looking around a few different companies, I settled on Barracuda Biking to guide me down the WMDR. I had an early start and the group met at the English Pub at 7am. We had a group made up of a fun bunch of Aussies, Poms, Swiss, Canadians and a Ugandan. We had an hour and half bus ride to the starting point and there was plenty of banter on the way up. I copped a bit of stick from the boys when I got the street food fried chicken at our food stop as they all thought I would be in some strife for the death road but my stomach held strong.

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At the start point, Juvie our leader went through a safety speech with most sentences ending with the words 'or you will die'. We were given our hydraulic brake, full suspension bikes and we all had to pour some 98% alcohol on our tyres as a sacrifice/gift to Pachamama in the hope that he will spare our lives. We then took a small swig which I was hoping never to have to do again after doing the same before entering the Potosi mines.

The road in total is 64 kms but the first 20 odd kms is on normal tarmac road to get used to the bikes. We flew down this section in about 15 minutes and as soon as we hit the start of the death road the heavens opened. The death road is completely unpaved and very bumpy and I was very glad I had opted for a company with full suspension bikes. We did the road in about 7 or 8 sections and at each stop Juvie told us stories and warned us where the most dangerous corners were coming up and when we were about to approach rivers to ride through and where common landslide areas were with bigger rocks to ride over. He also showed us the section of road where the the Top Gear lads famously passed a car with mms of road between their wheels and a 600 metre drop.

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Although in Bolivia cars drive on the right, road laws state when on mountain roads, the driver going down hill must be on the cliff drop side so for much of the ride we were 1 metre from the edge of a 300 – 600m straight drop where we could see the remains of cars, trucks and busses. The width of most of the road is 3 – 4m.

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The scenery was stunning throughout as we rode from an altitude of 4650m to 1200m. The ride was 95% downhill and it quickly warmed up as we made our way down the mountain. After the first half an hour it stopped raining but we continued the get wet as we passed under about 6 waterfalls that crashed down on the entire width of the road.

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After the first few sections I started to feel pretty confident and had a couple of heart in my mouth moments when I was going a bit fast and getting a little competitive with some of the boys. At one point a guy in front of me took a corner too fast and went flying over the handlebars and 20 seconds later I rode past another guy who had come off his bike. Luckily they were both away from the cliff edge at the time. I spoke to someone at our hostel who had a guy on their tour fall over the edge but luckily not at a straight drop section so they climbed back up. Our Belgium friends Harman and Ellen said their tour had about 10 crashes with 4 from the same guy. About half way down the road, Juvie said in the 14 years these tours have been running he reckons about 24 people have died falling off the edge.

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Once we reached the bottom we had a few celebratory beers for reaching the end and grabbed a late lunch before making our way back up on the bus. The bus ride was almost more scary than the bike ride as we went back after dark and a bus is much wider than a bike. Thankfully we only encountered one car coming the other way and as we were going up, we could pass on the safe left hand side. I got back to La Paz at 11:30pm exhausted but excited for an equally adventurous day the following day.

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Posted by Scott-Georgie 13:42 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Studying Spanish & Volunteering in Sucre

The White City

sunny 22 °C

Our last 3 weeks have been spent in the constitutional capital of Bolivia, Sucre. Before we arrived in South America we never intended to stay in one place for this long but after a few days into the trip we decided we really needed to spend a bit of time brushing up on some Spanish. We settled on studying in Bolivia for 2 main reasons. Firstly, the cost of living here is dirt cheap so we could spend weeks here studying Spanish and spending next to nothing. Secondly, Bolivians are known for speaking slower and more clearly than their Chilean and Argentinean neighbours which is more ideal for learning the language. We chose the City of Sucre as it is renowned for quality Spanish schools and has a better infrastructure and a lower altitude than most other towns in Bolivia.

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We liked Sucre immediately and we were very happy with the prospect of living in this City for 3 weeks. The streets of the inner part of the City are lined with beautiful classic white buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. The City is surrounded by lush green mountains which in turn is surrounded by mountains.

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The mercado central (central market) was our favourite part of Sucre. It is absolutely massive and we bought everything from there that we wanted in our 3 weeks apart from milk. There are sections solely dedicated to fruits, veg, juices, spices, meats, cakes, eggs, bread, etc. We quickly discovered the lunch rooms upstairs which served huge hearty meals from $0.50 for soups to $1.50 for seafood. Most of our lunches were had upstairs at the market on the long wooden tables with the locals followed by a fresh fruit juice or fruit salad down stairs from one of the many fruit vendor ladies. There were so many options that we could try a different juice every day if we wanted. The strangest combination we tasted was a juice with fruits, egg, beer and a mystery powder and even that one somehow tasted good. Usually we opted for a massive fruit salad which had about 20 different fruits and cream & yogurt for $1.

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We stayed at La Dolce Vita for our entire stay in Sucre which is more of a guesthouse than a hostel. It is run by a friendly German/French couple and we were extremely comfortable there for our 3 weeks with a huge room with studying table and ensuite. Although the guesthouse was often full, it was always very quiet which suited us well as we had homework every day from class and wanted a break from meeting other travellers. La Dolce Vita was in a perfect spot for us – 2 blocks from our school and 1 block in the other direction to the central market.

On our first full day we commenced classes with the Fenix Spanish School which, after much research, we decided was the school for us. Fenix is a not-for-profit school and the money it makes from Spanish classes goes solely towards helping the disadvantaged in the community and providing free English classes for locals. We also chose Fenix as they can help students with volunteering opportunities and organise home-stays with Bolivian families (which we were planning on doing before we decided we were too comfortable at La Dolce Vita).

We had the option of doing group classes or doing private lessons with just the 2 of us and the teacher. At $5.50 an hour each, we thought the private classes would be worthwhile. We started off doing 4 hours a day, 2 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon with weekends off. Once we started volunteering, we just did the 2 hours in the morning which was more than enough for our poor brains. Our teacher Mariela was fantastic! She was very patient with us and taught us a lot in a relatively short space of time. We found it all quite challenging and it was frustrating to find that the Europeans at the school were picking it up much quicker than us. We met one girl from Germany who started primary school teaching in Sucre after just 2 weeks of classes. After 3 weeks we have progressed to have basic conversations using present, future and past tense. We can read and write fairly well, we can talk ok, but when someone talks to us in Spanish we struggle to filter the words through our brains into something we can comprehend. Hopefully what we have learnt will hold us in good stead for the rest of the trip and we will continue to improve as we interact more with locals.

Fenix organised a few extra activities we could partake in. On our first Saturday arvo, Scott went down with a bunch of students to play a few games of Wollyball which essentially is indoor volleyball in a squash court with the allowed use of walls and all parts of the body to hit the ball. Lots of fun! We also did a cooking class one Wednesday night, though we weren´t really shown how the dish was made – we were just given a vegetable each to cut up and the chef did all the cooking. While the food was in the oven we were shown a stange ritual where sacrifices were made to the spirit Pachamama. This involved the lighting of a 7 wicked candle in the shape of a dragon, with the group making a wish for the lighting of each. If we wanted to make an individual wish we could place a coin on the plate next to the burning dragon and pour wine around it and get our heads covered in confetti while a frog figurine smoked a cigarette.

After a few days of classes we approached Fenix about the possibility of volunteering in an orphanage which was our first preference of volunteering with the other options being helping in schools, hospitals and aged care centres. We were told the orphanages prefer volunteers to stay for a minimum of 2 weeks and there was a process of applying including submitting our resumes and a cover letter stating how our skills can be used. It was surprising, but good to see that they don´t just get anyone in to work with the kids in the orphanages. We quickly handed in our necessary documentation and before we knew it we were told we were starting the following day after only 1 week of classes. We were given separate orphanages to work in, Georgie at an all girls and Scott at an all boys. We were both quite nervous as we had hoped to have a few more classes behind us and were not confident at all conversing in Spanish.

Scott´s Orphange:

At the boy´s orphanage Hogar Sucre, I was completely thrown into the deep end and put out of my comfort zone. Patti from Fenix took me up to the gate, rang the bell and left me to fend for myself. One of the ladies who worked there opened the gate for me, introduced herself, lead me through to where some of the boys were and disappeared. I met a few of the boys and tried to figure out what exactly I was supposed to do. Eventually I found out that most of the boys have to do homework until 4pm and after that most of them like to play soccer. They had got me in primarily as the soccer coach based on the skills I had put on my cover letter. That first afternoon I wasn´t really prepared but I got them into 2 teams and we played a 5-a-side match for a few hours on the cracked concrete futsal sized court. It was a bit of a shock after coaching kids of similar ages in Australia. These boys were highly skilled and much more aclimatized to the altitude so I had my work cut out for me. I suppose it´s not surprising when they play for hours every single day. The following day I learnt how to explain some drills to them in Spanish and was stoked to find they responded really well to them. The only problem was many of the drills I had imaged doing with them were either too basic for them or too difficult for me to explain in Spanish.

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To be honest, the first few days at the orphange were not overly enjoyable and it was just a relief to get through the day. It took me a few days to figure out the routine and how things operated and I found it really hard communicating with the boys and the ladies who work there. I also found it physically very hard running around for 3 hours straight at a decent altitude. For the first few days I would arrive back at the guesthouse absolutely shattered and go straight to bed. Once everyone realised they had to talk very slowly and with basic words to me and I built up a bit of fitness I started to relax and really enjoy my time there. Every day was more or less the same except for Saturdays where I worked in the mornings as the boys had matches against other orphanges at an indoor centre.

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Although most of the time was spend down on the soccer court, I would usually have some time at the start to help with their homework. I tried to spend this time with the younger ones who weren´t old enough to play soccer with the bigger kids. I mainly helped with handwriting and spellling homework but the little ones kept getting distracted by wanting to play with my beard. One particulary hot afternoon no one wanted to play soccer until it cooled down so I help 3 of the boys in the kitchen bake bread for the next few days.

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The conditions in the orphange were better than I imaged they might have been and they appear to benefit from helpful donations. The boys all have decent clothes and the ones who play soccer have pretty good boots. Their rooms and beds looked particulary comfy. Their afternoon teas of a piece stale bread and sweet tea weren´t very exciting however. The grounds of the orphange is huge with more than enough room for the 25 odd boys there. Somehow the orphange sits on some of the best real estate in Sucre, perched on the top of La Recoleta with stunning views of the City. The boys in general are all very happy and are like a big family of brothers - always fighting, but always looking out for each other. The 2 weeks flew by and on my last day it was quite sad to say goodbye.

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Georgie´s Orphange:

I worked in an orphanage called Calor de Hogar with 12 little girls between the ages of 6-14. The orphanage normally allows children between the ages of 6-12, but in the circumstance of the girl who was 14, she was allowed to stay on here as she had the mind compacity of a 6yo and had no parents. As with both of our orphanages the start was daunting not being able to speak much Spanish along with arriving and being dropped in a room with the girls with no direction of what was expected of us and what their routine was. The first afternoon consisted of helping the girls with homework and playing with them. I soon learnt that my role was just to help the girls with homework, get them to do their cleaning duties, play games, take them to the park, or to the soccer competition for all of the orphanages held every Saturday.

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The girls asked quickly if I had a phone and their favourite thing to do was take hundreds of blury photos and videos on my iPhone. This often caused fights or tantrums of who's turn was next or if I said only after their homework was finished. I soon learnt some good Spanish disiplinary phrases to help, along with not bringing my phone each day. The girls also loved to be danced with, play barbies, tip, and other games.

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I met the orphanages´ Psychologist after a nearly a week of working there. Luckily he was wanting to practice his English as he was hoping to work in Australia the following year. This gave me the opportunity to ask all of the questions I had been wanting to understand regarding the girls backgrounds and about the orphanage. I found out most of the girls actually did have parents but they were either too poor to look after them or had abused them. I was sad to learn that many girls moved through this small orphanage as parents may want them back and the girls generally didn`t want to go. I asked what happened when they turned 13 and discovered the places are limited for older orphanages meaning a lot of these girls would go back with there families or just out into the wideworld at such a young age.

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At the orphanage the girls have such a great setup, it's like a little boarding school house but not as strict. They are around friends all of the time, they get fed very well, have the biggest selection of donated clothing, get help with their homework, taken on trips, have a TV, DVDs, a computer, books and toys - I can understand them wanting to stay here.

I was so nervous the first few days that I would not be able to assist the girls with my lack of Spanish but shortly learnt it didn't matter. A smile could be brought to their faces by the simplest of things as just spending time with them. I left the orphanage everyday filled with joy as I adored spending time with the girls, I found self-worth and got a lot out of the experience as I hope I gave to them a bit too.

My last afternoon was sad, tears were shed by the girls and they all said a little speech for me, which I really was not expecting after such a short time. I would have loved to have spent longer with them. I can understand the debate of it being harmful or beneficial to volunteer at orphanages but I hope that the time I did give made a little difference in these girls lives.

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Tarabucu is a small town 65 kms out of Sucre which is known in Bolivia for it´s open air Sunday market. On the 3rd Sunday of March an annual festival takes place where members of the Pujllay indigenous community gather for Mass. As this date fell during our time in Sucre we asked for the day off and went along. It was a good day looking around the markets before watching the indigenous folk parade, dance and sing through the steets in their colorful traditional costumes.

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After a testing overnight bus journey, we now find ourselves in the bustling capital of La Paz. There´s plently going on here and we have a jam packed few days coming up here but we´ll leave all that until the next post.

Georgie & Scott xx

Posted by Scott-Georgie 15:46 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Salt, Sand, Serenity - Bolivia

Tupiza to Uyuni to Potosi

sunny 30 °C

Hola!

Our last entry was up to our first day in Tupiza, Bolivia. On our second day we decided to do a 5 hour horse riding trail to experience some of the magnificent scenery of the Rio Tupiza Valley. Our 16 year old tour leader showed us many hills filled with different coloured uniquely eroded rock formations and cactus dominated flats. One of the landscapes we visited was the apt setting for the demise of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. We had asked for one `fast´ and one `slow´ horse for Scott and Georgie, both of which lived up to their requirements with Georgie´s a little too much at the end when it bolted. For Scott´s second time horse riding he proved to be a real natural trotting and cantering the horse on numerous occasions.

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The following morning we awoke excited to start our 4 day 4WD Salares de Uyuni tour to see the famous salt flats and other natural wonders. We booked this tour along with the horse riding through our hostel we were staying at. We had two others on this trip, Sophia and Julian, a Swedish/Aussie couple who we got along well with. We also had a driver/guide and English speaking guide/cook; Panchito and Carla, who were outstanding. Honestly we couldn´t have asked for a better group! This tour covered well over 1000km/s of only dirt, bumpy roads, stopping off at Sillar Ruinas, Aguas Termales, Laguna Verde, Desierto de Dalli, Geisers, Laguna Colorada, Arbol de Piedra, San Juan, Museo Momias, Isla vel Pescado, Salar de Uyuni and many other coloured lakes, snow peaked volcanoes and desert landscapes.

Day 1 Photos

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Our first 2 nights were spent in small traditional villages, with us sleeping in a mud-brick room. This accommodation had no basic utilities such as hot water and power for the most part. As both villages were at an altitude of 4200m it was absolutely freezing once the sun went down and we all suffered minor affects of altitude sickness. We enjoyed the chance to see how these local country folk live everyday and to actually think about how lucky we are to have the basic utilities that we take for granted. The third night we had the choice of staying in similar accommodation on the salt flats but Carla suggested we stay in the town of Uyuni with power and hot water, although we didn´t end up getting a shower anyway. The starts were dark and cold with us having to get up at 4am, 5:30am and 4:30am on the 3 mornings to get ahead of the other tour groups and see the sunrise over these picturesque landscapes. On day 2 we did get to warm up in the hot springs and this counted as our one shower over the 4 days

Day 2 Photos

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Carla and Panchito went our of their way to make this tour a highlight of our South America trip. Carla was particularly nervous being quite young and it was the first time she had ever cooked for a tourist group, however every meal was outstanding. She got bullied quite a bit in the kitchen by the older cooks due to her inexperience but we built her confidence up by over complimenting her cooking. She was always so happy to please us. Panchito was a funny little man with basic English and heaps of experience and knowledge and was always enthusiastically taking novelty photos for us. Panchito took us to several locations that other bigger tour companies did not go to such as Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanco (green and white lagoon) and right to the base the Llicancatiu mountain which had its roots half in Bolivia and half in Chile. Panchito explained that he would not take tourists up this 5,950m mountain anymore as it could erupt at anytime, which we agreed was a very wise idea. Our favourite secret spot was an area covered with hundereds of unusual rock formations or varying shapes and sizes which Panchito called ´The Flintstones Land´. This place looked like it was from a fairy tail in which different animals and people were frozen in stone for all eternity. We saw rocks that looked like sharks and pirate ships. Some of these rocks were huge, awkward shapes standing off the ground on other tiny ones, which seemed unbelievable. Panchito had many photo-poses with the rocks for us to take part in. We enjoyed visiting graveyard of the trains when we arrived in Uyuni on our third afternoon. This site is home to some of the first old steamtrains in Bolivia.

Day 3 Photos

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Inside and outside of the national park we saw many animals such as vezcachas, llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, goats, donkeys and flamingos. We were forever having to stop on the road waiting for llamas to move out of our way The flamingos were a highlight as we had only seen 1 or 2 in the lakes in Chile. Here we were lucky enough to see 4 different types in several of the colourful lakes; 2 Bolivian, 1 Chilian, and 1 Peurvian species. Some of the lakes were covered in hundreds of flamingos all gracefully searching for food and chattering away to each other.

On the final morning we visited the highlight, Salar de Uyuni (salt flats of Uyuni). This is the world's largest salt flat which spans across an incredible 12,106 sq km of white nothingness on an altitude of 3653m. As it is currently at the end of the wet season parts of the salt flats are covered with water giving the landscape an illusionary effect of an endless sky. We arrived at Salar de Uyuni just before dawn and experienced the sunrise above distant mountains and across the flat, white, salt spanse with the light throwing different colours all around the horizon. Truly stunning! After sunrise and breakfast we all partook in the must do illusionary perspective tourist photos. Once again Panchito proved to be a pro, being able to choreograph our desired poses and props. The morning went fast as we were having so much fun! An early lunch was served in Uyuni before the bumpy drive back to Tupiza.

Day 4 Photos

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After the tour we spend one more night in Tupiza before catching a bus to Potosi the following morning. Potosi is the world´s highest city at an altitude of 4070m. We couldn´t walk very far before we became out of breathe and it made us feel very unfit. Potosi is listed as a Unesco World Herritage Site to preserve the many centuries of incredible history. Potosi was foundered in 1545 after the discovery of ore deposits in the mountain Cerro Rico. This city rose to become the wealthiest city in Latin America for a large period of time and is said to have been more wealthy than London and Paris in it´s hayday. These silver mines with their terrible conditions are in use today with 150,000 people currently working there.

A Potosi silver mine tour is a considered to be one of the most memorable experiences for travellers in Bolivia. Because of certain dangers the tour presents, Georgie decided to give it a miss and Scott set off with Sophia and Julian and some others to see what life as a Potosi miner is like. A small bus first took us to the tour company´s base where we were provided with helmets, boots and other protective gear and had a quick briefing on what we were about to go through. Our guide made us have a shot of the same 96% ´alcohol´ that the miners drink before we took off to the miners´markets to buy some gifts to give some of them. Recommended gifts include alcohol, cigarettes and generally things that are not good for them. I bought a bag of coca leaves (that all Bolivian´s chew to decrease hunger and fatigue and to help with the altitude) as well as a stick of $3 dynamite as it´s not something you can buy every day. Since cooperative mines are owned by the miners themselves, they must produce to make their meager living. All work is done by hand with explosives and tools they must purchase themselves. The silver extracted from the mines has been mostly depleted now and most live in poverty.

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Down in the mine we witnessed by far the worst working conditions I have ever seen. We went down 3 levels. The first wasn´t too bad but the 2nd and 3rd involved, for the most part, crawling on hands and knees through muddy passageways, climbing down ricketty ladders, crawling along single wooden planks with deep holes below, and dodging full carts of rocks which kept wizzing past. With a lethal combination of no ventilation, large amounts of dust and being at an altitude of 4300m, it was almost impossible to breath after 30 seconds of walking. The furthest part we ventured into on the 3rd level had three miners drilling with a jackhammer. It was impossible to see further than 2 metres because of the thick dust and the photo I took on my camera came out completely white from the dust. These drilling workers may get paid better than most at about $10 an hour but usually die from silicosis within 10 to 15 years of entering the mines. The most inexperienced miners get paid as low as 50 Bolivianos ($8AUD) per day and many work 24 hour shifts. It is estimated that around 8 million miners have died from their work since work in the mines commenced in the 17th century. The miners are exposed to all sorts of noxious chemicals and gases and cave-ins are all too common. After 2 hours, we were all quite happy to be out of the mine and breathing fresh air again. The overall experience was very eye opening even though I had read what to expect. Despite the atrocious lives these men (and sadly many boys) live, most seemed in high spirits and stopped to have a chat. The next evening we both watched the movie ´The Devil´s Miner´ at our hostel in Sucre which is a documentary of a 14 year old boy working in the Potosi mines. Well worth a watch to get an insight if you can find it back home, otherwise I think there are some clips of it on YouTube.

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While Scott was on the mine tour, Georgie decided to visit what is said to be the best museum in Latin America, Casa Nacional de Moneda (National Mint). I found this museum to be extremely educational as it housed a collection of Colonial paintings; the first and sequential coins produced for Spain, Bolivia and Argentina; and machines and processes used to mint coins from 1773 to 1951. I also saw in the museum a collection of silverware, sculpture, wooden architecture, archeology, ethnography, mineralogy, and weapons.

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We cannot understand why the majority of travellers we have met have complained about the food and accommodation in Bolivia?! People have said they had to live off m&m´s for a month or all there is to eat is chicken and rice. We have found the food to be much more diverse and the produce to be of a much better quality than in anywhere else in South America and for a fraction of the price! We have been getting 4 course meals for under $2 and if you were not feeling like traditional food you can easily find a place that sells other types of dishes from around the world for next to nothing. All of our accommodation, apart from on the tour, has been better than anywhere else. We have been in a massive double room with a private bathroom, huge bed, and a TV for A$10 a night! We are living like kings in Bolivia.

We have found the Bolivian traditional clothing to be quite interesting. While the men dress normally, all the women in the countyside and many in the cities wear a pollera, a big, long floral skirt with ruffles and a black bowler hat. We were quite amused to learn that this tradition arose from British railworkers introducing the bowler hat to Bolivia back in the day. A large shipment of the hats arrived all in a tiny size so only the women got one. From then on, only the women wore the bowler hats. Also Interestingly, all Bolivian women wear their babies on their backs by means of some fabric sling called an aguayo. Seems quite dangerous to us but it seems to work for them.

We are now in Sucre where we are spending the next 3 weeks studying español, volunteering and hopefully doing a week home-stay with a Bolivian family at the end. We love it here for its colonial buildings, huge Central Market, and endless choices of tasty dirt cheap restaurants.

Posted by Scott-Georgie 11:22 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

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