La Paz to the North of England

As far as memorable departures go, leaving La Paz by air is as dramatic as any in the world. We were at the airport early, I mean before 3am, to check in and deal with immigration. We’d overstayed our residency visa by several days and although people more experienced at this sort of thing had told us not to worry, we were expecting trouble. In the end we were allowed to leave with a stern ticking-off and a US$45 fine – each.

After sitting around for an eternity in the world’s smallest international departures lounge, we finally boarded our American Airlines flight to Miami and our connection to London. The real joy of this flight all happens minutes after take off: the sun had just risen and from the window of the plane you get a birds-eye-view of the vast, snow-capped Andean peaks of the Cordillera Real. Its a mesmerising sight and a fitting farewell to a mesmerising country.

If you want to know how huge these mountains really are, I give you the picture below…there is a plane in the picture, I promise.

A plane, looking tiny and insignificant, flies over Illimani, Cordillera Real, Bolivia

A plane, looking tiny and insignificant, flies over Illimani, Cordillera Real, Bolivia

The Cordillera Real seen from 5400 metres on Chacaltaya, Bolivia

The Cordillera Real seen from 5400 metres on Chacaltaya, Bolivia

A little over thirty hours later we arrived in London. There was no time for jet lag – we had things to do and people to see. Three days in London flew past in a whirlwind of lunches and drinks with friends and family (very expensive lunches and drinks after living in Bolivia). Before you could say, “How much is a pint a Guinness?” in a tone of utter surprise, we were off again for a brief stop in Great Malvern.

A couple of days later I finally departed for the frozen wastes of the north – summer doesn’t always make an appearance in this part of the world and the sun was making very little effort to shine the day I arrived.

Farleton Knott, a huge wedge-shaped lump of limestone, Cumbria, England

Farleton Knott, a huge wedge-shaped lump of limestone, Cumbria, England

Living in London I always knew I was back in my part of north west England when I saw Farleton Knott, a wedged-shaped hill that is a local landmark letting you know you’re back in the county of Cumbria. The village where my family lives nestles in the Knott’s shadow, and there is always something welcoming in its unusual shape.

On a good day, and in good weather, from the top of Farleton Knott it is possible to see for miles: to the west the Isle of Man is visible across the Irish Sea; to the north the mountains of the Lake District; and to the east Ingleborough, the highest peak in the Yorkshire Dales. This time, glimpsed from the train window, the sight of Farleton Knott was like the full stop at the end of our adventure to Bolivia.

The view over southern Cumbria from Farleton Knott, England

The view over southern Cumbria from Farleton Knott, England

Although I would have loved to have been in Latin America still, after fourteen months away I was happy to see this old acquaintance again, and immediately decided I needed to get my walking boots out of the bottom of my bag.

Latin America…14 months in 14 photographs

Its almost impossible to sum up our experiences in fourteen photographs, but these represent some of our favourite places and events from our time in Latin America.

Bolivia’s most colourful and unusual fiesta in San Ignacio de Moxos

San Ignacio is a small town, little more than a village really, in the Bolivian Amazon. Today it is a sleepy place, largely inaccessible during the rains, which acts as a hub for cattle ranches in the surrounding countryside. Its Amazonian history plays an important part in the fiesta, and combines traditional Amazonian beliefs and dress with Catholic beliefs. One of the more extraordinary elements of the fiesta are characters known as Achus who bring mayhem to the village during the fiesta. One trick they play is to attach fireworks to their hats and then run wildly through the crowds. This photo is of an Achus doing just that.

The Bolivian South West

Its almost impossible to imagine the raw beauty of this region in the south west corner of Bolivia. High mountains streaked with colour are reflected in lakes, that themselves range from turquoise to blood red, where flamingos make their home and Andean foxes roam. Set at altitudes that rarely drop below 4000 metres, it is a region that leaves you breathless. In the north lies the vast salt flats of Uyuni, and in the south, Laguna Verde, tinged blue-green by chemical reaction. In-between lie hundreds of kilometres of the most dazzling landscape. It has to be seen to be believed.

Parque Nacional Sajama, Bolivia

Bolivia’s oldest national park is home to herds of llama, alpaca and vicuna, which roam this barren region and have provided a livelihood for generations of people living here. The park is also home to several volcanoes, including the highest mountain in Bolivia, Vulcan Sajama, which can be climbed during the dry season. It is also home to some amazing colonial-era adobe churches and numerous chulpas, pre-hispanic funerary towers that are fascinating in their own right.

The Virgen de Guadalupe festival, Sucre, Bolivia

Three days and nights of dancing, singing, music and costumed parades…not to mention delicious street food and drinking with wild abandon. The Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe is one of Bolivia’s most important. It winds its way around the streets of Sucre from early morning to late night. Performers spend several hours dancing their way towards the city centre before the dance troupe routines come to a climax in the Plaza 25 de Mayo. The culmination of festivities is at the cathedral where the statue of the Virgen de la Guadalupe, resplendent in silver and semi-precious stones, awaits the tired performers.

Trekking in the Corillera Real, Bolivia

A multi-day trek through this vast Andean wilderness, passing glacier fed lakes and tiny llama farming villages, all the time overshadowed by giant, snow-capped mountains, is an extraordinary experience. At the end of a hard day’s walking, wrapping up warm and watching the galaxies appear in a night sky untouched by neon makes all the effort worth it. You’re more likely to see llamas than other human beings, but that’s what wilderness trekking is all about.

Watching the sun rise from the summit of Huyana Potosi, Bolivia

At 6088 metres in altitude, Huyana Potosi is considered to be one of the easiest 6000m mountains in the world to climb. ‘Easy’ is a relative word when it comes to mountains, and reaching the summit of Huyana Potosi was an endurance test like none I’ve experienced before, particularly since the last 300m of the climb is along a narrow ice ledge with sheer drops off both sides. The exhausting climb and freezing temperatures were rewarded with absolutely stunning views over the Cordillera Real as the sun rose to illuminate a world wreathed in snow and mist.

Driving through the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile

Without really understanding the immensity of the Atacama Desert, we decided to hire a car and drive ourselves around this amazing region. The photograph is of the Mano del Desierto, a sculpture that suddenly appears in the midst of the sun-bleached desert like a beacon of hope to weary drivers. The Atacama is the driest place on earth, some areas haven’t received rain in thousands of years, yet humans have also eked out an existence in this region for millennia. Today that tradition continues with miners working in some of the most inhospitable conditions known to humankind.

Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Northern Chile is dominated by the Atacama Desert, yet dotted throughout it are desert oases, abandoned nitrate towns, cosmopolitan ocean-side cities and pristine beaches formed along the mighty Pacific Ocean. Head away from the ocean and you suddenly find yourself climbing into a high altitude world where mountains and lakes are brightly coloured by chemicals in the soil. It is here you’ll find the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, a place of exceptional beauty, and the chances are that you’ll have it to yourselves – hardly anyone makes the journey to reach this remote area.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Perhaps the best known archeological site in the world, I was worried Machu Picchu would be something of a disappointment. I needn’t have feared. Set high on a plateau and overlooked by towering mountains, this lost city of the Inca is a magical place. The photo below is taken from the Sun Gate which forms part of the Inca Trail. Even if you can’t do the trail itself, its worth walking to the Sun Gate to get the view most Incas would have had as they approached the city.

Nazca cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Nazca is known for its monumental pre-Hispanic lines in the desert, yet they form only one (albeit stunning) remnant of the former civilisation that lived in this inhospitable region for thousands of years prior to the emergence of the Inca empire. Drive south of Nazca into the desert and you will come to a huge site where the Nazca culture buried their dead. What makes the cemetery so poignant and moving, is that the remains of the dead are so well preserved and yet surrounded by nothing but desolate desert.

The San Blas Islands, Panama

Picture perfect islands floating in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. There has been little development on the islands because they are controlled and governed by the indigenous peoples who inhabit them. Don’t expect luxury hotels and all-inclusive spa packages, do expect peace and quiet, good seafood, white sand beaches without anyone else and bathwater warm sea in which to swim and snorkel. A small slice of paradise.

Cartagena des Indias, Colombia

It is difficult to describe just how lovely Cartagena des Indias on the Caribbean coast of Colombia is, but after a few hours of strolling around the city it had captured our hearts. Cartagena is an extraordinarily well preserved colonial city, with a history as long as Europeans have been involved in the Americas. It has been the scene of pirate attacks, terrible torture under the Spanish Inquisition and suffered at the hands of colonial Spain for declaring its independence long before the rest of Colombia. Walk its beautiful streets, day and night, and absorb the atmosphere and history as you go.

Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

We fell in love with Nicaragua, and if we could spend a year abroad again I suspect Nicaragua would be very high on the list of places we wanted to go. We visited the delightful colonial city of Granada, perched on Lago Nicaragua; time stopped and so did we in Pearl Lagoon; El Castillo and the Reserva Biologico Indio-Maiz were wonderful places to spend time. In the end though, Little Corn Island was paradise itself – delicious fresh seafood, incredible beaches, relaxed locals and, best of all, not a single motor vehicle anywhere.

The Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

I agonised over having another photo from Nicaragua, but in the end you can’t leave out one of the natural wonders of the world. The Uyuni salt flats are simply amazing. A vast salt pan burned white under the intense Andean sun, it scorches your eyes just to look at it. It is impossible to truly imagine what the salt flats look like unless you’ve been there, an endless alien landscape that is like nothing else on earth.

Goodbye Bolivia, so long and thanks for all the Aranjuez

So this is it, my last Bolivian blog. We’ve been in Bolivia or travelling around South and Central America for the last fourteen months…apparently all good things do come to an end, even if you don’t want them to. It has been an amazing year and I’m grateful we’ve had the opportunity to spend time in such a wonderful country and travel through this incredible region.

We’re very sad to be leaving warm and welcoming Bolivia, leaving our new friendships and new associations behind, for the time being; but we have to return to London. Dreary old London. It will be lovely to see our families and friends again, but that doesn’t lesson the sadness we feel…even though we know we’ll be back one day.

Our hearts will remain in Latin America even if our minds have to return to reality in London…

A heart in the Atacama Desert, Chile

A heart in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Viva La Paz, countdown to departure

La Paz is a city like no other. Snow-capped mountains form a surreal backdrop to the city, while gravity-defying houses tumble down the side of the crater in a way that is both beautiful and terrifying. In the bottom of the crater the city sprawls north and south down roads clogged with fume-belching, horn-blaring buses and taxis, the drivers of which have absolutely no respect for pedestrians or other vehicles. Its a miracle there aren’t more fatalities.

Bolivian coat of arms, Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia

Bolivian coat of arms, Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

La Paz with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

Houses and Illimani at sunset, La Paz, Bolivia

Houses and Illimani at sunset, La Paz, Bolivia

The streets are filled with bowler hatted chollas, their huge skirts swishing as they walk; coca leaf-chewing campesinos rub shoulders with suited businesspeople; tattooed and pierced young people fill restaurants to eat traditional food; shoeshine boys inquire about polishing your Habanas; and the street markets sell everything from a hundred types of potato to dried llama fetuses and magical powders that make people fall in love with you.

A woman walks past street art, La Paz, Bolivia

A woman walks past street art, La Paz, Bolivia

Bowler-hatted Chollas in La Paz, Bolivia

Bowler-hatted Chollas in La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz street scene, Bolivia

La Paz street scene, Bolivia

La Paz street art, Bolivia

La Paz street art, Bolivia

All of this frenetic activity takes place at the breathless altitude of 3600m. In winter it is bitterly cold once the sun disappears, in summer it rains so hard that almost every year houses and roads are washed away – often with the loss of life. There is great poverty, especially in El Alto, and extravagant wealth on display almost everywhere you look. My first few days in the city left me feeling disoriented.

Posing for a photograph with pigeons in Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia

Posing for a photograph with pigeons in Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia

A woman sits outside a church in Plaza San Pedro, La Paz, Bolivia

A woman sits outside a church in Plaza San Pedro, La Paz, Bolivia

X-ray llama, La Paz, Bolivia

X-ray llama, La Paz, Bolivia

Campesino women with children, La Paz, Bolivia

Campesino women with children, La Paz, Bolivia

Electrical cables, La Paz, Bolivia

Electrical cables, La Paz, Bolivia

Alcohol and sex sell, La Paz, Bolivia

Alcohol and sex sell, La Paz, Bolivia

The more time I’ve spent here though, the more I have grown to love the city and its people. It is a place that slowly gains your affection, and although we chose to live in more genteel Sucre, it is La Paz that, to me, encompasses and defines all of Bolivia. It is also a city where you don’t have to look far for a photo opportunity. I spent a couple of days just wandering the streets in-between packing our bags in preparation for our return to London.

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia

Posters, La Paz, Bolivia

Posters, La Paz, Bolivia

A bar advertising John Lennon's "Let it beer", La Paz, Bolivia

A bar advertising John Lennon’s “Let it beer”, La Paz, Bolivia

Street advertising, La Paz, Bolivia

Street advertising, La Paz, Bolivia

Chollas and street food, La Paz, Bolivia

Chollas and street food, La Paz, Bolivia

The other great thing about La Paz is that you can walk around and suddenly find yourself embroiled in a local fiesta. Several times we came across bands and costumed performers playing and parading just in their own barrios. These events are frequently accompanied by heavy drinking; there was one man in the fiesta below who, despite the best efforts of his family to sober him up, was so drunk he could barely walk.

They like to party in La Paz…viva Bolivia.

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

The drunkest man in the parade…moments after this he just collapsed and the parade went on without him.

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Leaving the Amazon…time for drinks by the pool

The Amazon is an amazing place, but lets face it…biting insects and not a single margarita in sight. There is only so much time you can spend in a place under those circumstances. We headed back to Rurrenabaque knowing that our time in Bolivia would soon come to an abrupt end. Within the week we’d be on an American Airlines flight that would, via Miami, return us to London and a world of rain and austerity. Not a pleasant thought.

Meanwhile, back in London...

Meanwhile, back in London…

Luckily, we had a couple of days in Rurrenabaque to hunt out a swimming pool, sun loungers and a few cold beers. Even luckier, we’d met Jo and Neil in the Amazon…two kindred spirits from Australia willing to share a cold beer with us. We’d see out our last few days in good company and good style, including an amazing meal at Gustu (the restaurant in La Paz set up by the chef from the world’s best restaurant, Noma).

We still had to get out of the Amazon though. That meant another couple of hours motoring down the Tuichi and Beni rivers back to Rurrenabaque. Under deep blue skies we navigated through rapids, past more amazing Amazonian landscapes, spotting water birds and a group of the reddest howler monkeys I’ve ever seen.

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Holwer monkeys, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Canoe and people, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Canoe and people, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Clothes drying, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Clothes drying, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Crane, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Crane, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Canoe and washing, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Canoe and washing, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Back in Rurrenabaque, we quickly slipped into the tropical mindset and collapsed by the pool, with occasional ventures to the bar. Rurrenabaque is a pleasant place to spend some time, everything seems to take place in slow motion and time happily slides past you, imitating the brown waters of the Rio Beni flowing nearby.

Pool and loungers, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Pool and loungers, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Sunset, Rio Tuichi, Amazon, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, into the Amazon rainforest (part 2)

During the four days we spent in the Amazon rainforest we walked through the forest once or twice each day. It is a humid place and for long periods of time you don’t see much other than the flora all around, but it is absolutely fascinating to be inside the forest itself.

Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, Bolivia

One of the great pleasures of being there is just to stand still and listen. The sound of the forest is captivating, there is little wind to obscure the bird calls, the sound of insects and occasionally the noise of the larger inhabitants of the forest. One day we heard, and smelled, a large group of peccaries moving through the forest thirty meters away. We never saw them but the noise was tremendous – they sounded like a giant creature crashing through the undergrowth, and the musk and urine smell was overwhelmingly powerful.

Its impossible to capture the feeling of being in the forest without a soundtrack, but I hope these photos give a sense of place.

Giant 500 year-old tree, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Giant 500 year-old tree, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

A brown and yellow snake, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

A brown and yellow snake, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Butterfly, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Butterfly, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Squirrel, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Squirrel, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Red-bellied Trogon, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Red-bellied Trogon, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainbow Boa Constrictor, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainbow Boa Constrictor, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainbow Boa Constrictor, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainbow Boa Constrictor, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

We occasionally saw a young tapir that had been orphaned and raised by the families who run the lodge. It was semi-wild but had little fear of humans, which meant you could watch him at fairly close quarters. Tapirs have spookily human faces, especially the eyes, but generally are quite odd looking creatures. One night he gave everyone a real scare by charging around in the undergrowth behind the cabanas, in the darkness it was a terrifying.

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tapir, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, into the Amazon rainforest (part 1)

One of the reasons we wanted to visit the Madidi National Park and the Madidi Jungle Ecolodge, was the opportunity to see some of the incredible wildlife that lives and thrives within the dense forests and along the rivers that make up the park. This is one of the most perfectly preserved and biodiverse areas in the world, a vast 19,000 square kilometre area ranging from tropical rainforest to the mountains of the Cordillera Real.

Scientists believe the area protected by the Madidi National Park contains the greatest variety of species anywhere on the planet – giving Madidi serious bragging rights. The statistics are mind-boggling, particularly as new species are still being discovered: the park is home to 867 species of birds, 156 mammals, approximately 109 reptiles and 88 species of amphibians. There could be upwards of 300 different species of fish. The variety of flora is off the scale.

Rainforest and river, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainforest and river, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

That said, your chances of spotting most of these species are pretty remote. Many are rightly keen to avoid contact with humans, many others only come out at night, quite a few live under water, while others keep to the tops of trees when they aren’t flying above the forest. Still, we were hopeful of some success in spotting wildlife, mainly thanks to our highly trained guide and native of the forests, Norman.

Norman, our guide, explains about the 'walking palm', Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Norman, our guide, explains about the ‘walking palm’, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

What Norman doesn’t know about the plants and animals of the forest could be written on the back of a stamp. He spotted an ocelot as we motored up the river from Rurrenabaque, and during our four days in the Madidi he led us on daily walks through the forest spotting numerous others beasties. When not spotting animals, Norman gave us the lowdown on medicinal plants that have been used by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon for thousands of years.

Rainforest, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainforest, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Toucans, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Toucans, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Toucans, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Toucans, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Flower, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Flower, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Spikey tree, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Spikey tree, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

On our first walk through the forest Norma suddenly stopped and motioned for us to be quiet (I thought we were being quiet, but apparently we sounded like a herd of elephants crashing about). He led us off the trail and we found ourselves in the midst of a group of tamarin monkeys. Tamarin’s are squirrel-sized and very agile, they didn’t seem to be bothered about our presence and we watched them moving from tree-to-tree, grooming and eating for 20 minutes.

Tamarin monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey with baby, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tamarin monkey with baby, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

On ocelot and tamarin monkeys on the first day….but there was much more in the forest for us to see.

Tree with vine, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Tree with vine, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Red-bellied Trogon, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Red-bellied Trogon, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fallen tree and fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Fallen tree and fungi, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Howler monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Howler monkey, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Poison dart frog, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Poison dart frog, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainforest, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Rainforest, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Capybara, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Capybara, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, the darkest dark in the noisiest night

It’s hard to describe the sensation you feel when the lights go out in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. The noise of frogs, toads, cicadas and millions of other critters chatting to each other in the night is loud and pretty overwhelming; but, to people conditioned to the all-pervasive neon glow of the city, it is the total lack of light that most affects the senses.

Without any electric light, and what light there might have been from the moon and stars blocked by the dense forest, it is the darkest night I’ve ever experienced. The old saying about not being able to see your hand in front of your face is, in the Amazon, literally true. I tried it, even when my hand was on the end of my nose I still couldn’t see it.

Misty morning, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Misty morning, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

To experience this sensory overload firsthand, you have to get into the middle of the Amazon rainforest. We were staying at the Madidi Jungle Ecolodge, a lovely set of cabanas accommodating only eight guests, three and a half hours in a motorised canoe up river from Rurrenabaque. Located on the Rio Tuichi and surrounded by primary forest, this is indigenous community-run ecotourism at its Bolivian best.

The morning we set off from Rurrenabaque to reach the Madidi Jungle Ecolodge started cloudy, and although cool by Amazon standards it was still pretty humid. As you travel up the river you pass small communities, fishing boats and lots and lots of rainforest; by the time we reached the Ecolodge the sun had burst through the cloud.

Misty morning, Madidi National Park, Amazon, Bolivia

Misty morning, Madidi National Park, Amazon, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, Amazon, Bolivia

Madidi National Park, Amazon, Bolivia

Misty morning, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Misty morning, Rio Beni, Amazon, Bolivia

Run by four families from the indigenous community of San Jose de Uchupiamonas, the ecolodge is in the middle of the 210,000 hectares of rainforest that is the traditional home of the community and of which they are custodians. The cabanas we stayed in were definitely at the luxury end of the market, but all the proceeds remain in the community and go towards protecting the forest and the wildlife that lives in it.

Boat mooring at the Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Boat mooring at the Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Steps into the jungle at the Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Steps into the jungle at the Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Path to Madidi Jungle Lodge, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Path to Madidi Jungle Lodge, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi Jungle Lodge, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Madidi Jungle Lodge, Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Despite the number of biting insects – even 100% DEET didn’t seem to work at times – staying in the forest is a fabulously relaxing experience. The outside world rarely makes an appearance and days pass swiftly with walks through the forest tracking animals, talks on medicinal plants and the traditional uses the forest communities have for them, fishing for piranha or crafting jewellery from tree nuts.

It is often hard to spot mammals in the dense forest, and people sometimes feel cheated if they leave without a photo of a jaguar. Luckily for us, our guide, Norman (I know, it doesn’t sound like a traditional Amazonian name), was excellent. Over the four days we were in the forest we saw four types of monkey, coati, a semi wild orphaned tapir, capybara, snakes, a large number of birds and the rarely seen ocelot. While we didn’t see peccaries (wild pigs) we definitely heard and smelled them…they absolutely stink.

Capybara, Madidi National Park, Amazon, Bolivia

Capybara, Madidi National Park, Amazon, Bolivia

One of the single most magical sights we saw during the time we were in the forest was an ocelot running along the river bank and then scrambling up the bank and darting out of sight into the undergrowth. Rare and magnificent.

Ocelot, Madidi National Park, Amazon, Bolivia

Ocelot, Madidi National Park, Amazon, Bolivia

Ocelot, Madidi National Park, Amazon, Bolivia

Ocelot, Madidi National Park, Amazon, Bolivia

All-in-all, it was an exhilarating experience, one that will be hard to forget….we even had the opportunity to ride down the Rio Tuihchi in an inner tube. Despite floating in a fast flowing Amazonian river it was relaxing, although I might have been less relaxed if our guide had told us about the Amazonian stingrays before we got into the water!

Tubing in the Amazon, Bolivia

Tubing in the Amazon, Bolivia

Tubing in the Amazon, Bolivia

Tubing in the Amazon, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, gateway to the Bolivian Amazon

Arriving in Rurrenabaque from La Paz is like being transported to a different planet. Everything about this small and sleepy Amazonian town sitting on the banks of the Rio Beni screams different. It drips with tropical heat, is surrounded by lush, forested hills and, the final touch, parrots and parakeets fly screeching overhead. The only things that screech in La Paz are the infernal horns of the micros and taxis.

In part the shock of arriving in Rurrenabaque is down to the short, dramatic flight to get there. Leaving El Alto airport at an altitude of 3800m, you fly between the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Real feeling very small in an eighteen seater plane and, forty-five minutes later, you are deposited in the tropics outside Rurrenabaque’s tiny airport terminal, where the air temperature is thirty degrees hotter than in La Paz.

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

The Rio Beni in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

The Rio Beni in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

You can travel by bus to Rurrenabaque, a journey that takes twenty-four hours if you’re lucky, and which takes you over some of Bolivia’s worst and most dangerous roads. I’m sure the bus is one of those experiences that you’d look back upon retrospectively with a mixture of delight and pride, but at the time it would be a small slice of hell. There was no way I was going to subject my rear end to such a trial.

Inside the Amazonas plane en route to Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Inside the Amazonas plane en route to Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Amazonas plane at Rurrenabaque airport, Bolivia

Amazonas plane at Rurrenabaque airport, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque airport, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque airport, Bolivia

The runway at Rurrenabaque airport, Bolivia

The runway at Rurrenabaque airport, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque is the gateway to the absolutely stunning Madidi National Park, one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. Jaguars and ocelots rub shoulders with tapirs, toucans and five types of monkeys; the diversity of insects and flora is staggering. The town is full of travellers heading out to spend a few days exploring the vast rainforest and absorbing the rhythm of life away from the distractions of the modern world.

The Madidi National Park is home to numerous indigenous groups, many of whom still live deep inside the forest. A number of these groups have embraced ethno- and eco-tourism since the creation of the park, and small, community run lodges can be found in the forest allowing travellers to experience a unique way of life first hand. That’s the reason we’d dragged ourselves away from freezing La Paz for eight days…not that we needed much convincing.

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque itself is a town low on energy and big on relaxation…the heat and humidity won’t allow for anything else. The best way to enjoy the town is to find a hotel with a swimming pool and a few hammocks. Luckily, Rurrenabaque has plenty of both and you’re rarely in danger of not relaxing. Bring a good book and a flexible schedule.

The town sits at a point on the Rio Beni where it splits and forms an island in mid-river, providing open vistas and stunning sunsets across the river. Surrounding the town, the forested hills have been carved into sugarloaf shapes by wind and rain, reminiscent of South East Asia. The town’s inhabitants reflect the cultures of the Amazon – physically they look different and they dress differently to the highlands of Bolivia.

The Rio Beni in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

The Rio Beni in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Life slowly floats past on the Rio Beni en route to other parts of the Amazon, with occasional canoes stopping in Rurrenabaque with giant catfish for sale. Other than that, the lifeblood of the town is the steady trickle of tourists that daily turn up in the hope of an Amazonian adventure, and intent of thawing their bones after spending time in Bolivia’s altiplano highlands.

"I'll have the checken to the fantasy." Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

“I’ll have the checken to the fantasy.” Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

We would be leaving Bolivia in less than two weeks and we’d saved this delight for our final few days in the country…I’m glad we did, it’s a lovely part of the world and a fitting place to sign-off our time in Bolivia.

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Beni, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Plunge into the Yungas

Awe inspiring. There is no other way to describe the journey from La Paz to Coroico. The road winds out of La Paz to the mountain pass of La Cumbre; it snakes between snow-capped mountains at a breathless 4800 metres in altitude; it plunges 3600m downwards, taking in a series of hairpin bends and tunnels, before reaching the crystal clear waters of Rio Huarinilla in the valley floor. It then climbs several hundred metres upwards to reach Coroico.

If the small, sleepy village of Coroico defies logic by balancing impossibly on the side of a mountain, the change of landscape, flora and fauna from the high altiplano to the Yungas is even more dramatic. You literally go from ice-capped mountains outside La Paz to the humid, sub-tropical forested hills with colourful birds and butterflies surrounding Coroico…in less than two and a half hours. Its an amazing journey.

Coroico, Bolivia

Coroico, Bolivia

Coroico's main plaza, Bolivia

Coroico’s main plaza, Bolivia

The road we travelled is famous because it was built to replace the World’s Most Dangerous Road, which runs along the mountainside on the opposing side of the valley. While the World’s Most Dangerous Road is now largely the preserve of cyclists and the morons from Top Gear, the new road takes most of the traffic but is no less dramatic – and is a remarkable feat of engineering.

Despite the engineering, landslides still occur. We had to divert off the road onto a dirt track to avoid a partially cleared landslide. Travelling in a minibus on a narrow dirt track without safety barriers, zig-zagging around hairpin bends down a mountainside with 2000m drops, and, at one point, performing a three point turn to get round a particularly vicious corner, is a terrifying introduction to this mesmerising region.

Views of the Yungas and Cordillera Real from Coroico, Bolivia

Views of the Yungas and Cordillera Real from Coroico, Bolivia

Views of the Yungas and Cordillera Real from Coroico, Bolivia

Views of the Yungas and Cordillera Real from Coroico, Bolivia

Once you arrive, Coroico is a really lovely village with a mild climate and spectacular views of the mountains and road we’d just travelled down. At weekends it gets busy with people from La Paz, during the week, when we were there, its a quiet place to spend a few days reading, relaxing, walking local trails and swimming. Coroico probably has more swimming pools per head than anywhere else in Bolivia.

Views of the Yungas and Cordillera Real from Coroico, Bolivia

Views of the Yungas and Cordillera Real from Coroico, Bolivia

Views of the Yungas and Cordillera Real from Coroico, Bolivia

Views of the Yungas and Cordillera Real from Coroico, Bolivia

Views of the Yungas and Cordillera Real from Coroico, Bolivia

Views of the Yungas and Cordillera Real from Coroico, Bolivia

The village itself isn’t very pretty, but it has a nice central plaza which is the focal point for local life. From the plaza there are a number of walking routes that take you out of the village and either up mountains or down to beautiful rivers with natural swimming holes. I decided to climb Cerro Uchumachi, a 2500m mountain that has unbelievable views of the village and surrounding mountains.

View of Coroico from Cerro Uchumachi, Bolivia

View of Coroico from Cerro Uchumachi, Bolivia

The route up Cerro Uchumanchi, Bolivia

The route up Cerro Uchumanchi, Bolivia

Views from Cerro Uchumanchi, Coroico, Bolivia

Views from Cerro Uchumanchi, Coroico, Bolivia

It was a hard walk straight up the mountainside, and you pass through densely wooded areas that are very humid. By the time I reached the top I was soaked in sweat. When I started, the top of Uchumanchi was covered in low cloud, but by the time I got to the summit the cloud had cleared and there were wonderful views reaching all the way to the mountains of the Cordillera Real.

Views from Cerro Uchumanchi, Coroico, Bolivia

Views from Cerro Uchumanchi, Coroico, Bolivia

Views from Cerro Uchumanchi, Coroico, Bolivia

Views from Cerro Uchumanchi, Coroico, Bolivia

The summit of Cerro Uchumanchi, Coroico, Bolivia

The summit of Cerro Uchumanchi, Coroico, Bolivia

The sign at the summit says Uchumanchi is 2480m in altitude, but I met an Argentinian woman at the top who had an altimeter saying it was 2517m. I could definitely feel those extra 37m in my legs!

Coroico had one more surprise for us before we headed back to La Paz, a spectacular sunset that set the sky alight in oranges, pinks and reds…all with the mountains of the Yungas and Cordillera Real as a backdrop.

Sunset over the Yungas from Coroico, Bolivia

Sunset over the Yungas from Coroico, Bolivia

Sunset over the Yungas from Coroico, Bolivia

Sunset over the Yungas from Coroico, Bolivia