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By this Author: lonsdale77

Adopting island time in Fiji

A week of doing very little

sunny 30 °C
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White and turquoise - need more?

White and turquoise - need more?

With only seven nights in Fiji, an effect of there only being two flights onto Vanuatu each week, we hadn't planned on doing too much. Originally we had booked into the Hilton for all seven nights, but then we realised that we wanted to see a bit more of the country, so we reduced our stay to four. This would allow for two nights on a small island away from the mainland. We booked into the Hilton as I had collected a lot of reward points from my work travels which meant free nights! After 11 months on the road, a super-comfy bed, a powerful shower and a bit of organisation were a treat we much appreciated. We settled down on the fluffy towels and comfortable sun-loungers by one of the seven pools and didn't move much more. We thought about a few tours but nothing really appealed so we stuck it out by the pool, with the odd glass of rosé or Fijian beer, and did a bit of blog writing and fish photo sorting. We did make it out of the hotel to the nearby marina where we could buy a few supplies (mostly sun cream), find a cheaper restaurant and free WiFi (the Hilton's internet pricing is about 10 years out of date). But we didn't go any further.

Utterly relaxed

Utterly relaxed

The Hilton, and most of the other luxury hotels, are located on Denarau island, which was recovered from mangrove swamps and linked by a short bridge to the mainland to form a new peninsula. There is a beach but it's not pure white sand with coral growing just offshore (we had seven pools, we survived). We decided we wanted to see at least a little bit of those postcard perfect beaches so planned on heading to the Yasawa or Mamanuca islands for our next two nights. Stretching north of Denarau, these are two island chains which must contain over 30 resorts. We had a read about our options and chose a place called Octopus Resort on the island of Waya in the southern Yasawas. It was meant to have good snorkelling, came at a relatively reasonable price and was highly recommended by guide books and review sites. The big catamaran out to Waya stopped at several other islands on the way so we got to see a few more pretty beaches from a distance. In 2.5 hours we reached our own destination and we transferred onto a little speed boat to be taken ashore. Here we were greeted by the staff, singing a welcome song, as we stepped on to the beach.

Purple coral and its chaperon

Purple coral and its chaperon

It really was a pretty spot. White beach, turquoise waters all backed by green peaks. The snorkelling was good too. You could swim over a large area of coral at high tide or follow walls when the sea was lower. We managed to catch up on generating fish photos after not taking any back on the mainland. The food and service were excellent and good value too. The resort offered a variety of activities around the island, but we kept to a simple life of sun loungers and snorkelling with a couple of massages. We did participate in the welcome kava ceremony, where we got to test the locals' favourite drink. Kava is a cold tea made from the root of the pepper tree and has anaesthetic properties – it certainly put my tongue to sleep after a few sips. We also joined a merry quiz night, which culminated with us building a human pyramid (meant to represent a Christmas tree) whilst singing “O'Christmas Tree” in German (6 out of our team were German speakers). We watched the basket weaving and the elder telling stories from afar, but the early morning hike to the summit of the island was outside parameters and was saved for another time.

Preparing the kava

Preparing the kava

All too soon we had to return to Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji. We were quite happy to hear the catamaran back was running late. It meant a bit longer on the beach and our flight wasn't until the next day. The ferry eventually showed up 4 hours late and got us to port at 11pm, 6 hours late in total. A final example of Fiji time, or maybe just bad engine maintenance. We really enjoyed staying at Octopus and for anyone heading to Fiji we'd recommend getting out to any of these islands as soon as possible. You only need to hang around Denarau's resorts if you're up for total pampering (or it's free and you've been on the road for a long time). We did feel a touch guilty about not seeing more of the islands, but we were well rested and knew we'd have a busier time in Vanuatu. Click here for more photos from Fiji.

Sunset from the Yasawa Chugger

Sunset from the Yasawa Chugger

Ps: Merry Christmas all. We are now in Vanuatu, it has been busier, but Christmas day has been designated 'relaxing beach day'.

Posted by lonsdale77 21:22 Archived in Fiji Comments (0)

Happy Samoa

Bye-bye tomorrow

sunny 32 °C
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Bye-bye tomorrow

Bye-bye tomorrow

All too soon it was time to leave Latin America. Ten and a half months had flown past as we travelled between Antarctica, Costa Rica and many points in between. When we had originally booked our flights we had routed our path home through a few Pacific islands. We hoped it would provide a nice rest and gave no further thought to it. So even after our long journey via Los Angeles (where we caught up with Lecia for 24 hours) and Auckland to Samoa (crossing the International Dateline twice) we still hadn't made any plans. There were new films to watch on the plane, photos to sort, and yes we managed to visit a vineyard during our 12-hour wait at Auckland airport. At least we had purchased some snorkel gear in Los Angeles as we were expecting to see a fair bit of beach, and waited to see what this friendly island full of large Pacific islanders would be like.

With 30+ hours of travel since leaving Los Angeles we slept well into the morning on arrival in Apia. So when offered breakfast at 12am, we just asked for coffee and toast. Instead our table started filling up with fruit, eggs and even a sizeable steak as the old ladies at our hotel fussed around us in their happy way. We were then given a lift up the hill so that we could wander around the old house and pretty garden that Robert Louis Stevenson built when he moved here. It was interesting to look around the house and see the old pictures and exhibits being pointed out by the guide. Then a second guide started taking us around again, shooting lots of photos of us and then finally inviting us to his village on the next Sunday for lunch and church (unfortunately we couldn't take him up as we'd be on the other side of the island). When he gave us repeated rounds of good-bye hugs and his telephone number in case we changed our minds over the lunch offer, Samoa was upgraded to very, very friendly.

The last cannibal king

The last cannibal king

After walking back into Apia, exchanging Talofa (hello) with most people we passed, we had a look around the small capital city of this tiny set of islands. There wasn't too much of note to see along the waterfront so we settled down for a beer and started making some plans for the nine days we had there. We soon spotted there was a traditional show, a fiafia, at one of the main hotels. The show involved a band playing guitars and wooden drums and much singing and dancing. Women danced in a floaty style with little hand waves, whilst the men were more active – running, stamping and jumping about, wearing their short skirts and a bit of foliage. At the end there was a fearsome fire-dance where one of the men spun a flaming war-axe around. The show was a lot of fun, staged by the hotel employees and whilst being very much a tourist event didn't feel too cheesy – we enjoyed it and the performers seemed to enjoy it too.

Fiafia show at Aggie Grey's

Fiafia show at Aggie Grey's

Whilst in Apia, the other two worthwhile activities we found were the Palolo Deep Marine Reserve and the Museum of Samoa. The marine reserve is just a small area of coral reef, in the next bay along from the port, that has been designated as protected. It was only a short swim off the beach to the trench which sloped down offering views of coral and fish at different depths. It may not have been first on Cousteau's list of destinations but for our first experience of Pacific island snorkelling it was a great start. However, we were glad we had checked the tide tables and visited at high tide, I'm not sure that it would have been easy to swim over the first section of coral to the trench in shallow water. It would have been nice to spend some more time on the little beach relaxing, but we had promised ourselves that we would visit the museum. Whilst small, it did prove to be informative and we spent nearly 2 hours in the three rooms reading explanations on the history, culture and environment of Samoa. I also liked the presentation of different styles of wood carving from around the various Pacific islands and the description of a traditional tattoo, applied from the lower back to the knees. It sounded very painful.

Moorish Idol at Palolo

Moorish Idol at Palolo

On our third day it was time to leave the “city” and seek out those perfect beaches which Samoa is rightly known for. We first planned to take a local bus to Lalomanu on the eastern tip of the island. We didn't really know when the buses were meant to leave, or if there was a proper schedule. Our questions on the subject were often answered with a “yes”, even when “yes” was not a logical option. It seemed to be considered impolite to say you don't know, so we had to learn to ask questions carefully, leaving the “yes” option to be taken as “not a clue”. Anyway, when we headed down at 9am, we found a bus at the bus station due to go in the right direction in possibly two hours time. We happily sat down, thinking it was better than expected. The bus slowly filled, seats were swapped and bags were passed around and stowed near someone else's seat. After 1.5 hours, we finally started on our way. However, we headed to the other bus station in town (a slow 10 minute walk or drive), waited for 10, then headed back to the first bus station to check no one had been forgotten. We waited a little longer before surprisingly leaving at the time first promised when we had boarded the bus– maybe there was a schedule after all!

Squeezed on a Samoan bus

Squeezed on a Samoan bus

Our ancient bus with wooden benches, open windows, and a sound system played at a reasonable volume, started to chug out of town. But before clearing the outskirts of town, the bus stopped at a petrol station so that everyone could buy more fizzy pop and crisps. It was a busy bus with people and bags changing regularly, and given most Samoans do look like rugby players (I'm not just talking about the men here), it felt like a squeeze at times although it was always relaxed. The bus first followed the pretty coast, all turquoise water and waves breaking over the off-shore reef, before crossing through some green hills and reaching Lalomanu after a bum-numbing 90 minutes. The ride was a great trip in itself, feeling like a giant family day out. That said, given we then needed to take taxis to continue around the rest of the island (rather than taking a bus back to Apia and back out again), a hire car would have been more practical. When we later crossed to the second island of Savai'i we did hire a car and enjoyed being able to explore a bit more. However, we would still recommend taking one bus journey in Samoa.

During our 10 days in Samoa, we toured around the two big islands of 'Upolu and Savai'i, staying in four locations. The beaches were always made of pretty white sand, though could disappear at high tide; the water was always warm and beautifully turquoise, and often sheltered by an outer reef; and there were always lots of interesting fish in the coral to see when snorkelling, which we did nearly every day. At each location, we slept in simple huts built in the traditional fale-style. These are covered platforms and were the traditional houses here. Privacy is inversely proportionate to tradition and simplicity with fales, so we often opted for the slightly more expensive ones which came with walls, or at least curtains.

Beach fale at Taufua

Beach fale at Taufua

We first stayed two nights at Taufua in Lalomanu, which was great value for money and had the prettiest beach of all, though the coral had been seriously damaged in the 2009 tsunami and was only starting to grow back. They also had a fiafia show on the Saturday night. This was excellent as it was performed by a local troupe who often entered competitions. I was hauled up to join one frantic dance, but with many other palagi (foreigners) there, I wasn't the one one looking total out of his depth. On the south coast of 'Upolu, we stayed at Virgin Cove which felt very remote and allowed for a good meander along the coconut lined bays where we only saw one fisherman in two hours. After crossing to Savai'i and hiring a car, we started to loop around the island and were able to stop at the lovely Lauiula Beach Fales for a curry lunch. We moved on to Manase on the north coast to spend our first night. Here there were several accommodation options and Barbla chose Jane's Beach Fales for their pretty pink and yellow huts right on the beach. We had a good evening there, chatting with Brett who had checked in for a week of very little after the hustle of Sydney. For our last two nights we stayed at the Aganoa Beach Resort which, without an outer reef protecting, allowed for amazing snorkelling over a marine wall only 30 metres from the beach where we spotted a beautiful green turtle swimming and eating. Aganoa is also a known surf spot (though there wasn't a lot of swell at the time) so dinner was spent with young surfers from Australia and Norway.

In the wild with a green turtle

In the wild with a green turtle

Away from the beaches and the underwater world, there weren't too many sites to see. Our rule of thumb was that sights with water were invariably better than those without. Between Lalomanu and Virgin Cove we stopped at a wonderful place called To Sua Ocean Trench. We arrived expecting some reef-snorkelling, but found a great hole in the ground 30 meters away from the sea-cliff edge which was fed by the ocean through underwater caves. We descended into the hole by ladder to swim, surrounded by steep walls and overhanging vegetation. It felt very tranquil, though occasionally the water would surge back and forth when big waves hit the cliffs outside. After climbing out of the hole, we walked to the edge of the cliffs to observe a few blowholes spurting water into the air as waves crashed against the shore. The two sights were both surrounded by well kept gardens and we could easily have spent a longer time there relaxing.

To Sua Ocean Trench

To Sua Ocean Trench

On Savai'i we drove all around the perimeter of the island. Again the more enjoyable sites involved water. The Alofaaga blowholes threw up some good amounts of water even with a tranquil sea-state and the Afu-a-au falls were a set of fresh water pools that were lovely to cool off in. On the western point of the island we stared at the horizon past the remains of a church, a ruin from a village destroyed by cyclones in 1990 and 1991. There wasn't much to see beyond the ocean, but the International Dateline is drawn 37km off the coast so locals say you can see tomorrow. At midnight on 29 December 2011 Samoa is going to redraw that line, skipping the 30th of December to the 31st, to become one of the first places to see in each new day and the 2012 New Year. I think it makes sense for Samoa to move into a similar time zone to its trading partners of Fiji and New Zealand (though it puts a day gap to American Samoa). Anyway, I guess people will get used to staring at yesterday from the eastern tip of 'Upolu instead.

By the Afu-a-au falls

By the Afu-a-au falls

Of the places we visited without a water theme, one of the better ones was a star mound on the south coast of Savai'i. An hour's walk through a coconut plantation finally led us to the Pulemelei Mound, a 12 metre-high platform built of stones. The mound is about the size of two tennis courts and provides a great view back to the turquoise water on the south coast. These ancient star mounds found in Polynesia are thought to have been used by village chiefs for practising their favourite sport of pigeon catching. We also visited a few sights created by a large lava flow between 1905 and 1911 which affected a fair proportion of Savai'i. First was the remains of a church where the lava had flowed but left the walls standing. The second was a lava tube (a cave under the lava sheet) inhabited by swiftlets. Both proved to be quirky distractions on our travels around the island, but I was more impressed with how much greenery had grown over this old lava flow – villagers who had rebuilt houses over the flow seemed able to grow a reasonable amount of fruit trees and plants in their rocky gardens. A walkway in some recovering rainforest sounded interesting until we found it was only one bridge that led to a tree house and a viewing platform in an impressively large banyan tree. Though we enjoyed it, it still didn't quite feel worth the WST20 per person (USD8). Worse was Moso's footprint, a small hole in the ground, which could have been at least fun if the story of the giant stepping from Fiji to Samoa had been retold instead of a request for additional money for car-parking and the ushering of some children into the photo shot. I understand the rights of locals to make some much needed tourist dollars but at one or two of the places you seemed to be expected to hand over cash for very little.

Evening volleyball game

Evening volleyball game

Anyway, we loved the drive around Savai'i, seeing both the beautiful coastline and village life. Throughout the day, as we drove past children (and occasionally adults), we'd be greeted with waves and shouts of “bye-bye” - somewhere the teaching of hello and goodbye seems to have been confused. Whilst the villages would seem very sleepy in the day, with people dozing in the fales[i], they would wake up in the late afternoon to games of volleyball and touch-rugby which took place on ever piece of grass. Village life is very important in Samoa, even more so on Sundays when church is fervently attended (small villages could have several churches catering for various denominations) and large lunches are prepared for the extended family. At Taufua's Beach Fales in Lalomanu, they were very proud to invite all guests to a free Sunday lunch where they served typical Samoan foods (which we had also tried after the [i]fiafia in Apia). Traditional dishes include: baked taro root (manioc-like, much improved when topped with palusami, smoked taro leaves containing coconut cream), oka (a ceviche-like raw fish with coconut cream), poke (raw tuna in soy and sesame oil; from Hawaii so not so traditional but very tasty), and the little piglets you see running around the villages all week – well, several of those would be served too, beautifully roasted with crackling skin – no Yorkshire puddings though.

Super blue waters

Super blue waters

Along with the green countryside and the entertaining villages, we were also enchanted by the traditional attire. I thought the lava-lava (a skirt for men or women, like a sarong) looked pretty cool and practical. It was regularly worn in the fields or to the office with a bright Hawaiian shirt. Barbla liked that dressing up for her involved sticking a pretty flower behind the ear (right to show you were in a relationship, left if free). I think she was also sizing up whether she could try the language in its pretty singsong manner. However the best parts of Samoa were undoubtedly the beautiful beaches surrounded by the stunning turquoise waters teaming of tropical fish and coral, and of course the very relaxed lifestyle prompted by the lovely people. We left Samoa charmed by the place and very relaxed, and landed in Fiji (two hours later, but it was the next day) hoping for much of the same. For more stunning pictures of Samoa click here.

Departing Samoa

Departing Samoa

Posted by lonsdale77 03:30 Archived in Samoa Comments (3)

Volunteering in Guandera forest reserve

Two weeks labouring in a 3,000 metre high cloud forest

semi-overcast 14 °C
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Arturo, the secret garden driver, eventually deposited us at the office of Jatun Sacha. It really wasn't too easy to find in the suburban sprawl of Quito. The meeting only involved completing some papers and handing over our contribution. It felt a bit unnecessary and could have been done remotely but maybe it's appropriate for their younger volunteers. We then checked into a hostel and quickly headed out to shop for the few things we needed for our upcoming work – gardening gloves and rubber boots. Our hostel was on the edge of the Mariscal Sucre, the night-life quarter of Quito. Many funky restaurants and bars are concentrated around the few blocks that make up this area which is enjoyed by both locals and tourists. That first night we were able to find a long-awaited Vietnamese restaurant, called Uncle Ho's, and run by a friendly Irish guy (his old business partner was American-Vietnamese). They were out of spicy squid but we found some other dishes that turned out to be a pleasant surprise, including a good phó (typical Vietnamese soup).

On the renovated La Ronda

On the renovated La Ronda

The next day we explored Quito's old town, another jewel of colonial architecture. We liked the picturesque streets, some of which had been charmingly renovated. We also liked the busy plazas and two of the many churches. The first, La Compañia de Jesús, was stunning inside with lots of gold leaf, the extent of which we hadn't seen since Salvador de Bahia (Brazil). Annoyingly, you couldn't take any pictures despite the pricey entry fee, fortunately the San Francisco church provided a few for the photo album instead. In comparison, the Basillica del Voto Nacional had little ornamentation but did have big Gothic turrets and spires and was adorned with gargoyles in the shapes of jungle animals. You could climb all the way to the top of one of the 72 metre clock towers passing a souvenir shop, a café and then using metal ladders to reach the very top. The height could cause a touch of vertigo, even from inside the stone towers. You could also cross a bridge, running over the main nave and just below the external roof. That lead to another tower into which you could climb via a small metal staircase. This staircase was a little exposed, venturing outside of the main wall. I popped up, but by this point Barbla had had her fill of heights. In any case, we had run out of time and the church was closing. For more photos of Quito, click here.

Stone armadillos on Basílica del Voto Nacional

Stone armadillos on Basílica del Voto Nacional

In the evening we headed to a posh Japanese restaurant to satisfy our sushi cravings. These turned out to be very creative with many including lots of components, one involving plantain, and another one representing a volcano which was flambéed on our table. The next morning we were off early to reach our forest reserve, Guandera. We weren't too sure how long it would take but we knew we needed to be there in daylight. In the end it wasn’t too bad a journey. Five hours on a bus towards the Colombian boarder, stopping at the town of San Gabriel, and a 20 minute taxi to the village of Mariscal Sucre (not including the 10 minutes waiting for the taxi driver's wife to join us). There we met Jose, director of the station and our boss for the volunteering work. We took the chance to lighten our rucksacks of non-essential gear at his house in the village. Next, we took a small truck up more hills for 20 minutes, saving a good 1.5 hour hike. It's a collectivo, but as we ordered it and paid the full USD6 for the journey, any locals going that way got a free ride. That left only a 45 minute hike to our home for the two weeks. We walked through the beginning of the reserve, following the river through cloud forest, and started to appreciate the beauty of the place. We made it in time for cafécito (afternoon tea rather than a small coffee, in this case) – some home made herbal tea, bread and jam. We met two younger volunteers who'd already been there for some time and would outstay us too; Sophie from France and Daniel from Germany. There was also Daisy, Jose's daughter, who was acting as the temporary cook. The last of the family were Faffy, a feisty cat, and Beethoven, a super-friendly Rotweilller.

Guandera is one of the five private forest reserves owned by the Jatun Sacha foundation (www). It is relatively small, but has some very special habitat with 500 hectares of cloud forest, including the fairly unique Guandera tree (more later), and above that 500 hectares of páramo (high-altitude moorland, previously seen near Cuenca). The reserve ranges between 3,000 and 4,500 metres, with the house at 3,300 metres. The reserve, with pre-appointment, is open to visitors, welcomes volunteers to help with the maintenance and scientific work there, and houses Ecuadorian research students as well. As I hope the photos show, it's a special, beautiful place and we were very glad to contribute a little.

Guandera reserve in sunshine

Guandera reserve in sunshine

Guandera house

Guandera house

The next morning we started work properly. A bridge needed building as the previous one had been washed away by a flood a few months back. The new main beams had already been laid across the river, but we needed planks to build a more substantial walkway. So we spent the day cutting and splitting logs from trees which had fallen in the flood. Given the trees were oak, it was hard heavy work, compounded by blunt saws. During the day I broke a small bow-saw blade and we didn't have nails to secure the planks. Both would need to wait for the following week when Jose would get some money from the foundation. To me, it felt frustrating they were so cash-strapped that there wasn't a spare blade (USD 2.50) and a supply of useful bits and pieces around the house, but Jose was used to it. In fact he was very happy to have got so much done that day, and we felt good but tired for the successful hard labour. We had enjoyed being in the forest, worked well together and chatted our way through the day in Spanish, English with Barbla and Sophie slipping into a bit of French.

The weekday routine at the reserve had long been set. Each morning we'd be up early for breakfast at 7am and start work by 8am. We would work through to lunch at 12pm and start again by 1pm until around 4pm for cafécito. Dinner was at 7pm and it was a rare night for people not to be heading to bed around 9pm (it would normally involve Jose getting excited by a game of Uno). Food was necessarily simple, both for cost and because it had to be carried in by horse each week. We would eat mountains of soup, rice and potatoes to sustain us in the work. But it was dull, really dull. We could only add interest by adjusting the mix of rice-soup-potato in each dish and then throwing in a major amount of aji (local spicy sauce, approaching tabasco). One lunch time when a tuna salad was served I was over the moon with excitement. And Barbla ate the over-cooked pasta, provided one evening, with gusto. However, despite the dullness, the food was always prepared well and much appreciated.

At night it got pretty cold, made worse by the damp weather. We were sleeping with four blankets piled on top of our sleeping bags, and whilst there was a hot shower, you didn't want to use it too late at night as the water would cool down rapidly with the chilly air temperature and feel cold by the time it reached you. So we were a bit shocked to find they only occasionally lit the open fire in the kitchen. The chimney didn't draw well and the fire-wood was damp so fires were saved for very cold evenings only. Anyway, Barbla and I decided this was one routine that would be changed for our two weeks there. I would usually get the fire going each night, but it was a busy job to sustain it for the evening hours with damp wood. However, it did warm everyone up a bit, dry our work-gloves and add a bit more cheer to the room. Each afternoon, after cafécito, I went to work on the wood pile, cutting more and smaller pieces so they could dry better. I also started a stockpile by the fire to dry it for the following nights. It helped, which left me time to make suggestions on how to improve the chimney design.

Barbla and Faffy by the fire

Barbla and Faffy by the fire

In that first week we also re-dug a trout pond beside the river which had been filled by the flood. Over two mornings we were able to shift several cubic metres of sticky mud and stones, then re-lay rocks at the bottom. Jose hoped to get some baby trout in there soon and, in time, augment the food at the house as well as sell some to the village to supplement income for the forest reserve. Over lunch I tried to sell him on the idea of building round ponds and creating a vortex to force the trout to swim harder, an idea I'd seen somewhere else in Ecudaor, but my conceptual physics explanation didn't translate too well and he liked his simple approach. Other tasks included rebuilding sections of paths, and weeding around the house and the small gardens which exhibited local orchids, bromelias, and plants of the páramo. Even in these surroundings I find weeding mega-dull, so I would plug into my iPod and look forward to the more heavy duty jobs (or run off to carry a few firewood logs). The weather could be variable, swinging between sunshine and showers. Extended heavy rain would have us retire to the workshop for sign-making or other indoor tasks. Barbla and I knocked out a few signs for path directions and Sophie was completing a mammoth welcome sign. Dan was identifying, drying and presenting specimens for the herbarium (and so was happy for the evening fire to help with this).

A new trout pond

A new trout pond

With no permanent cook, Jose had to disappear several times down to the village in search of a new one. The previous cook had been sad to leave but needed to return home as her kid was starting school. Jose was having trouble convincing people to come join him in a forest for 5 days a week. One lady did arrive one evening and we tried to make her feel welcome with a prime spot by the fire and a game of Uno, but she had changed her mind by the morning. By the time we left, Jose thought he had found someone to join soon. I hope so as Daisy wanted to get back to her normal job in Ibarra. It was a shame Jose was away so much as he was always enthusiastic and chatty, with much information about the forest and life there.

One night when Jose was away, Beethoven decided he wanted to see how hedgehog tasted. We woke up to find him very upset with a mouthful of spines which meant he couldn't eat. We tried a few times to hold him and remove the spines but he would never keep his head still. We even tried to mix up a bit of a sleeping pill in water and shoot that into his mouth, but he wasn't having it. We were balancing up whether to try to drag or carry him down to the village veterinary, or wait for him to get hungry and weaker. Jose returned and with the extra pair of hands we had another attempt. This time Sophie had found a large rubber band to wrap around his muzzle and keep it stable whilst nurse Barbla pulled the spines out with large pliers. The other four of us held him off the ground as he thrashed around and whimpered. He also chose to show his displeasure by pissing on my leg, an act I’m sure is considered lucky in certain parts of southern Germany (you know, at least he didn't sink his teeth into you). It was probably only 10 minutes, but that's long enough to try to hold a strong Rottweiler off the ground. With all the spines removed, he soon forgot all about it and returned to following us around the forest as we worked.

Dave and Beethoven

Dave and Beethoven

Towards the end of the first week, the dull food and cold evenings were starting to drag for me (Barbla was maybe closer to revolt) and our minds wandered to the forthcoming weekend. We planned to visit Otovalo, and in my mind at least, the cafés there started to seem like they would kick any Parisian Michelin starred place into the gutter. In the end, I probably wouldn't recommend Otovalo's cuisine over Paris, but the change was much appreciated and you could take a beer or glass of wine with it (alcohol is prohibited in Jatun Sacha reserves, and to be honest I wasn't that interested in carrying it up and down all that way). The town itself is famous for having the largest indigenous craft market in South America. Each weekend, the whole centre is covered in stalls selling pretty handicrafts - jewellery, paintings, carved wooden items, alpaca weaving and much more. There's plenty of local food on sale too. A large chunk of whole roast pork, served with four types of corn, was a top Saturday lunch treat and was followed by fresh fruit juices. Many of the locals are decked out in traditional dress, and the whole place is good fun for the weekend. We enjoyed the day perusing and haggling over some souvenirs and presents. We were also able to get some very dirty laundry done, clean ourselves up and catch up on news, emails and the blog. For more photos of Otovalo, click here.

A plate of pork and corn in Otavalo's market

A plate of pork and corn in Otavalo's market

Refreshed by the weekend we returned to work with new enthusiasm and enjoyed both the work and the conditions a bit more. In the second week, we managed to finish the bridge with the newly acquired nails. Even with me being responsible for nailing the thing together, that solid oak bridge should last a good 10-15 years as long as there isn’t another major flood. One day was spent slicing and collecting old rotten wood from the forest and a specific type of moss from more open areas. Both are used for the cultivation of orchids, which is one of the income streams for the foundation. As well as growing his own orchids, Jose would send these materials to the other Jatun Sasha stations so they could cultivate their local orchid types. All stations would send these plants to Quito for sale. Later in the week, we visited Jose's orchid garden behind his house in Mariscal Sucre and the range of plants he had growing in such a small place was impressive. That day we had a lighter workload as we tended to his organic garden in the village. This was much appreciated after the previous day slogging away on a heavy piece of road repair. With all the recent strong rain, the access road to the start of the station had become seriously rutted and it was very difficult to pass even with a 4x4 truck. We re-dug the drainage ditches on both sides of the road with large hoes , moving the material into the centre to fill those ruts. Jose would later ask for the municipality's road-roller to come compact it down. I was so knackered after this that I probably didn't speak during lunch. So that afternoon I was ecstatic to learn we were going to work on the potato fields. After three more hours of turning over soil at 3,300 metres, I was truly spent. At dinner lifting the fork to my mouth seemed a chore!

The new bridge

The new bridge

Whilst we worked very hard for the first four days of each week, Friday was set aside for exploring the reserve. Both weeks we took a similar circuit, the first time was ably led by Daniel. The second time Jose joined us and provided a running commentary on the forest and plants we passed. On the journey, we put up a few more of the new direction signs. I also took a machete to clear some fallen debris we'd seen on the first week's trip. By this time I was improving with this excellent tool, though I couldn't hack through 5-10cm branches as quickly as Jose would. Anyway, this walk first took us steeply up through the cloud forest to the area of Guandera trees at around 3,500-3,600 metres. The Guandera trees are fairly unique. They are able to grow to 30 metres high at this altitude (though very slowly; 1-3 cm per annum). They deploy air-roots too so provide a dense habitat for wildlife, orchids, bromelias and mosses. Jatun Sacha's Guandera reserve holds some of the last remaining super-high Andean forests and as such is very special. Above the forest we quickly transitioned into the páramo and continued to walk up to around 4,000 metres. Taking a rest, just off the top of a ridge, we saw more chupayas with pretty blue flowers but slightly different to those we'd seen in Cuenca (see previous posting). Dependent on the cloud movement, the view over the valley could be grand. Volcanoes would occasionally be visible on the horizon. The region is very agricultural, and up to around 3,000 metres, there are well-kept fields mainly growing potatoes or raising cattle. Páramo topped similar hills, but forest was sporadic. Though it's difficult to grow much above 3,000 metres (our tiny organic potatoes were evidence of this), forests have still been lost over time so the reserve had an important habitat to preserve. On these walks, we had really hoped to see the endangered Andean spectacled bear, but maybe we need to put in six more months at the reserve to earn such a treat. We then started our descent to head home, I at least had some more path clearing to look forward to.

Chupaya and frailejones in the páramo

Chupaya and frailejones in the páramo

Towards the end of the second week, we realised we had settled in better and were enjoying it much more than the first. We would quite happily have stayed for another week or two to work with Jose, but Colombia was next and we had appointments to keep there too. It wasn't just the physical work in a beautiful forest, I also had ideas for that chimney, wood store and trout ponds to test out. It felt we had done a lot in the two weeks but had seen there was always more to be done. We never actually planted new trees, which is something they do there. A lot of our work was catching up on the effects of the flood. We had originally thought we would work four weeks for Jatun Sacha but had swapped two of those for the whale research, and we felt perhaps a little guilty that the whale experience was more of a holiday than this more physical contribution. Anyway, we decided to pay for a chainsaw for Jose. Despite his vitality and fitness at 70, an old shoulder injury was causing him some problems and he'd talked about saving money for a chainsaw several times. He was hoping to buy one next year if he saved up carefully. The USD400 he needed was around the same we would have paid for those extra two weeks so it all seemed to fit. It was a happy final lunch when we gave him the cash, plus our boots and gloves for subsequent visitors or volunteers. We left that afternoon to walk all the way down to the village, where we luckily timed it right to catch a direct bus to Tulcan (Ecuador's last town before Colombia). Whilst we crossed the border the next morning, Jose and Sophie headed to town to buy that chainsaw, and thanks to Sophie, we soon had pictures of him testing it back in the forest. For more photos around Guandera, click here.

Jose and new chainsaw

Jose and new chainsaw

As I said above, by the second week we had become more accustomed to the conditions and were relishing the tough but useful work in this little reserve. We had really enjoyed working with the small group of Jose, Sophie, Daniel and Daisy and seeing that an extra two pairs of hands can make a difference. It felt better suited for me than one of the larger Jatun Sacha stations, where you can join up to 40 others clearing the same patch of land of invasive plants (e.g. the San Cristobal experience, as we understand it). It was a pleasure to work in such beautiful surroundings (rain permitting) and learn a lot about the forest and life in the area from Jose. I highly recommend this station as a great volunteering experience for those with an interest in nature. You may also get to loose a bit of chub too with the simple food and honest labour (Barbla thought it was the best weight loss programme ever)!

Sophie's new welcome sign

Sophie's new welcome sign

Posted by lonsdale77 16:22 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

Amazon – part 2

A last look at the jungle, and a chance to donate more blood to the insect kingdom

sunny 30 °C
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After getting some cooked eggs, coffee and juice in a little café in Iquitos, we were ready to find a hostel. We walked the few blocks to the main square where most hostels were located, but the town was eerily quiet – the roads were closed in preparation for the national day parades. Groups of police, army, fire-fighters and street cleaners were forming up into lines ready for their annual march. We soon found a hotel that met the all important requirement of having hot water. Important given we'd shunned the dubious pleasure of a shower on-board the boat, the toilet-cum-shoower rooms had really not appealed and we were well provisioned with wet-wipes (our usual festival tactic). So after getting thoroughly clean and eating two massive burritos for lunch (it took a long time to get clean), we went hunting for a jungle trip. Barbla had a list of lodges she wanted to check out so we headed around their offices to ask a few questions. However in Iquitos, you very easily can be picked up by a local who is determined that you also look at some of his friend's lodges (or those where he may get a commission from). Whilst friendly, it is a bit tedious to be followed around for the afternoon.

Our jungle lodge

Our jungle lodge

Anyway, with a fair few options available we eventually picked one of the cheaper ones. Except for a remote lodge which was also a biological research station, there didn't seem to be many additional benefits of going to one of the more expensive lodges. So we signed up for three nights at the Renaco lodge up the river Cumaceba for a surprisingly cheap price of 130 soles (47 USD) per person, per night. As it was the day before the independence day holidays, the airline offices closed early and we had to go to an internet café to see if we could find a flight out of Iquitos for after our jungle trip. Iquitos is the biggest city in the world without road connections. Given we didn't want several more days on a boat, we needed a flight to northern Peru which would allow us to get to Ecuador and our appointment with the Pacific Whale Foundation in Puerto Lopez. We did find a flight, a day or two later than we hoped for, and surprisingly we were able to book it immediately – this really wasn't expected after our experiences in Brazil.

Drinking from a liana

Drinking from a liana

The next morning we were up early to start our trip to the lodge, first an hour in a car to the village of Nauta before taking a motor-canoe for 3 hours to the lodge. First up, we met our guide Victor and as we were the only people leaving that day. It effectively meant we'd have a dedicated guide for the trip. Victor would prove to be friendly and enthusiastic, once he got a few more hours of sleep – it seemed he'd found quite a party to start the national day holidays the previous night. We arrived at the lodge in time for lunch and whilst eating we got chatting to the few backpackers who'd already been there for a day or two to see what they had been up to. That afternoon Victor took Barbla and I on a first walk through the jungle, principally to show us some of the medicinal and useful plants that could be found. Most handy was the liana (a hanging vine) which contains an awful lot of drinkable water (I think Victor said there are around15 types of liana like this). You can cut a section off and water will drain out with a slightly strange fizzing sound as the water percolates through the aerated structure. There was also a liana that tasted like garlic. Of less appeal were the large white larvae found in a nut, I did try and thought they tasted fairly creamy/fatty. Barbla decided to skip this gastronomic treat, though they are apparently more interesting fried with chilli and garlic. Otherwise, it was a pretty walk through the forest though it is difficult to see bird and animal life in the thick undergrowth. Returning to the lodge we were grateful for the shower to cool off before dinner. That evening we returned to the forest for a night-hike looking for snakes, spiders and other night-time wildlife. After a slow start it turned out to be a fruitful hunt. We found a tarantula who happily walked along our sleeves, scorpion spiders which have a very strange front pair of legs and long antennas and several other spiders of varying size and hairiness. There were a number of scorpions too which Victor was happy to pick up once he had trapped the tail and could safely hold it. We saw a large scorpion eating a smaller one, possibly a female eating its recent partner after mating. Finally, the highlight was finding a beautiful boa constrictor hanging off a tree about half a metre above the ground carefully watching and waiting for food to pass by. After a closer inspection (its underside was surprisingly textured, with small hook-like projections) he was put back on his tree and headed off for a quieter life. The night-walk took some time and we weren't back until after 10:30pm by which point we were happy to jump under the mosquito net and into bed.

Barbla is amazed by the boa constrictor

Barbla is amazed by the boa constrictor

The next morning we headed down the river to the junction where there was a small “meeting of the waters” (where one river's creamy-grey water meets another's dark-brown water) and meant that we were likely to find pink river dolphins once more. This time I was a little luckier with the camera (well, just took loads more attempts) and got a few half decent images. On the way down there Victor and Rolando (who drove the boat and was learning to be a guide) spotted an iguana up a tree. Their technique to get it out down (and apparently similar tactics are used on sloths) was for one guide to partially climb up the tree to scare and shake the animal out of it, at which point the other guide will try to get a catch. Sloths, iguanas and other animals will naturally jump out of trees and into the water to escape danger (most likely anacondas and eagles) though they don't expect to be caught mid-air. The captured iguana seemed quite calm as we closely inspected it and took a few photos, then we released it into the water and it swam off quickly.

Family washing clothes in the river

Family washing clothes in the river

That afternoon we headed off for a night of camping in the jungle. This was an optional experience that we were keen to try before leaving the Amazon. First we headed up-river with Victor and Rolando to a lake. It took quite some effort to pull, push and generally wiggle the boat through the reeds at the entry to the lake. Once in, there were a number of fishermen working the lake with nets. I think they would set up camp (in a boat) for a few days before heading home with hopefully a good catch for the market. After we set up the hammocks to sleep in (each in its own “mosquito-net” bag) we also went fishing for dinner. Like in the Pantanal we were after Piranha which can be caught on a simple line with some chicken bits for bait. This time we weren't very successful, only catching two in about an hour. We mostly passed the time talking to Victor, watching birds fly around the lake and a thunder storm on the horizon. Given the failure to catch much food we were happy to see Rolando had cooked a large pot of pasta to supplement the two small pan-fried piranhas. Once dinner was eaten we headed out in the canoe to see what wildlife we could find in the lake at night. We were principally interested in finding caimans, which don't seem as common as they are in the Pantanal. First Victor had a couple of aborted attempts to catch one, where he decided they were too big for him to hold. Then it was Rolando's turn and he caught a small caiman. He explained his approach as something like gently pushing the caiman's tail into its mouth (somehow they don't notice), at which point you can safely grab the head and tail - if you have judged the strength of it correctly. As the lake had plenty of fishermen working in it, who consider caiman to be a decent meal and wouldn't pass it up if found, Victor suggested it was safer for the caiman to be taken to a different lake behind our lodge which was quieter. Thus the caiman had a rope tied around his waist and was kept by the hammocks for the night. We kept looking around the lake for a bit longer but couldn't find any more caimans. We did see an electric eel floating near the fishermen's nets and hoped they would spot it too rather than accidentally fish it out. Rolando managed to snatch a sleeping fish from the water, which was considerably bigger than the two we'd caught earlier – he was very quick with his hands. On retuning to the camp, we went in search of a bull-frog that Victor had heard. It truly was giant and Victor picked it up using his t-shirt as the chemicals on the frog's skin can be an irritant. By this time we were getting desperate to get inside the mosquito-net bags. The mosquitoes were thick in the air and aggressive, by far the worst I've experienced. Even with the long-sleeved shirts, trousers and rubber boots we were wearing, they lined up five at a time and were biting through. So we jumped into our net-bags and carefully killed any that had followed us in. It took a while to get used to all the sounds around us. It was noisy and it was easy for the imagination to run wild, but in the end we slept ok. In the morning we woke with sunrise and quickly packed the camp so we could get back to the lodge for breakfast.

Our campsite in the morning

Our campsite in the morning

We returned to sloth hunting later as we still hadn't found one on the previous trips along the river. Before starting we warned Victor that he wasn't to be shaking them out of the trees (as we'd heard of similar approaches from the other backpackers). It was a hot day and took some time before we found a male sloth up a tree. Given Victor spotted the animal, it was Rolando's job to go bring it down. As the tree had a wasps' nest in it, the climb proved to be a touch painful. After borrowing Barbla's hat to avoid stings on his head, Rolando made it down the tree by hanging the sloth off his leg like it was a normal tree branch. The sloth proved to be very tranquil and didn't mind being held for photos though Barbla wondered whether this was the right approach to discovering wildlife and felt both concerned and amazed at the same time with the sloth in her arms. We released him up another tree which had a female in it. He did seem to climb up the tree relatively quickly (see the video below). Afterwards we walked back through a village where the local school team the “Jungle Wolfs” were playing a game of football against another village team. The “canoe” version of the school bus had brought them down for the game.

In the afternoon we asked if we could return to the river and paddle along instead of using the motor. It's easy to see birds in the trees along the river edge, but in the canoe with the motor running you can go past too quick to observe or they fly away scared. This afternoon it didn't seem to be quite so populated but we still spotted a few birds and got some better photos. For our last evening, we returned to the motor-canoe to see what we could find along the river bank at night. We hoped to find an anaconda (though personally I'm not sure I wanted to suddenly find one – for example dropping out of a tree into the boat), but this wasn't to be the case. Instead, Rolando pulled a tiny snake out of the water by the roots of a tree. I took a few photos before realising Victor was reprimanding him - it was a coral snake which are deadly! Victor thought this was a stupid move, but Rolando was relaxed – he was very very quick! Later, as we left the lodge, we did half-jokingly warn him that tourists prefer their guides alive. In the dark we were also impressed that they showed us several frogs, including a poisonous frog in a tree (no photo, I couldn't aim the camera correctly in the dark), sleeping birds and sleeping fish. I tried to spear-fish the latter to no avail – with no previous practise my aim was pretty poor sitting low in the canoe. In fact more fish just jumped into the boat than I saw to attempt to spear-fish. Victor explained they were attracted by the shine of our flashlights which lead them to accidentally land in the boat. We started throwing them back in the water until Victor complained – he was of the view that despite their small size, they were good for some meal he had in mind.

Rosetta-eyed hawk

Rosetta-eyed hawk

On the final morning we had time to go on a last outing before returning to Iquitos. We first went for a walk on the opposite river bank to visit the Anaconda tree, a massive tree with air-roots and apparently a common place to find this aggressive constrictor during the wet season. I tried to forget this point as I followed Victor climbing up the tree. We didn't find any snakes, but I did get to slide back down the roots and have a little Tarzan moment swinging about. We then continued through some very marshy ground to a lake where there were giant Victoria water lilies. When we returned to the boat, we were dropped lower down the river so that we could have a final walk back to the lodge. We saw another giant ceiba tree and dense jungle but again there was little wildlife to see once away from the river edge. If lucky, a group of monkeys may pass nearby though it's likely the guides will hear them first and actively seek them out. This was the case for us twice. We glimpsed a troupe of yellow spider monkeys and another time some black monkeys moving quickly through the high tree tops. We also saw a group of night monkeys one morning, poking their heads out of the tree hole they'd made their home. Otherwise you see more bird-life on the banks of the river. Then, at night, insects, spiders and snakes come out to play. A snake was to be our final treat. Another boat found two anacondas caught in a fishing net as they went looking for wildlife up the river. They brought the smaller one back to the lodge for the other guests to see before releasing it back into the water. Compared to the Pantanal, our Amazon tour was definitely better for the creepy-crawlies, but the Pantanal (even with the high-waters) was better for the birds and mammals. We were very happy we had the chance to do both. Here are many more photos from our jungle lodge trip.

Anaconda

Anaconda

Back in Iquitos, we found the city darkened by a power cut that would last most of the evening. Luckily the hotel had a gas-powered boiler so we could get a hot shower before heading to a candle-lit pizza joint for dinner. The next day we moved to a slightly nicer hotel which we had seen to treat ourselves to a pool and river view for our last night in the Amazon (it was my birthday too). We also visited the airline office and were able to move our flight forward a day which would give us more time to visit some of the sights in northern Peru before our appointment in Puerto Lopez with the whales. In the afternoon we headed to Pilpintuwasi Butterfly Farm which came highly recommended. This involved a motor-taxi to the northern end of town and a boat up a river to the village of Padre Cocha and then another motor-taxi through the village to the farm. The place had initially been set up to research and breed native butterflies that are then released into the wild. For that alone it was an interesting visit, explained by one of the volunteers at the farm. As a bonus they have taken in a number of animals who have been illegally poached and now care for them. We saw a different type of sloth, an ocelot (a small, beautiful wild cat that lives in the jungle) and a jaguar who was surprisingly stocky and powerful – the speed at which he took the offered steak was impressive. They had a lake where caimans and turtles had arrived (no fishermen is an advantage) and a few macaws around.

An elegant ocelot lady

An elegant ocelot lady

On return to Iquitos we had time for a quick dip in the pool before heading off to an internet café to upload some photos and finish a blog post. It turned out, as usual, to take longer than we hoped for so afterwards we couldn't be too picky on the restaurant for a birthday steak and a bottle of red. However, the open restaurant we found did have a nice balcony giving views over the river. On our final morning we had time to make it to the last sight we wanted to visit in Iquitos – the famous Belen market selling much of the produce found in that area of the Amazon. This place came with a few safety warnings – pickpockets and stolen cameras are common stories, but with a healthy dose of paranoia on our parts, it seemed fine. The stalls sprawl out of a central market, selling meat and vegetables on to the surrounding streets. A whole street would be dedicated to little spice stalls where you could buy just a teaspoon of seasoning for dinner. The fish stalls were massive and you'd see a lady automatically fillet fish whilst watching life pass-by, and she still had all of her fingers. Slightly less pleasant, but no less expected, were the wild meat stalls with butchered turtles, armadillos and caimans. In the medicine alley we were offered no end of dried plant and animal extracts. Returning to the hotel we had a last dip in the pool, freshening up after the hot market streets and a dusty moto-taxi back. Then we headed to the airport for the flight to Tarapoto. There was a bit off queue at check-in as everyone’s bags were searched, I think to check we weren't smuggling parakeets or other wildlife out of the area, but we were soon flying out of the Amazon. Some more photos of Iquitos are here.

Between Manaus and Iquitos we spent 17 days getting just a taste of the Amazon's amazing forest and water system. Seeing life along the river always kept us entertained, with a special nod to Puerto Nariño where people were especially friendly. The wildlife was great at night with spiders, snakes and bugs, though we were glad we had also previously seen the Pantanal which was far better for mammals and a touch better for birds. Next we were off to the Andes which was to be quite a change, and come with significantly less mosquitoes! For a recap of our whole Amazon experience in pictures check out the Amazon collection.

Butterfly wants to drive the boat

Butterfly wants to drive the boat

Posted by lonsdale77 21:09 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Amazon – Part 1

Three stops and 3,900 kilometres up the world's biggest river system

sunny 28 °C
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So it was time to leave our Brazilian beach tour and head into the infamous and enormous Amazon. First we flew to Manaus, one of the principal cities on this river system, with a sizeable port about 1,500 Kms from the ocean. After arriving at two in the morning we didn't rush out of the hostel the next day, but still had a long walk around the city. Manaus is a busy, but pleasant city and for the most part you could wander around and forget you were deep in the Amazon until you caught a view of the river and the forest on the other side. On reaching the riverside we first spent some time staring at the boats (2-3 stories high, transporting passengers and cargo to towns and villages all over the Amazon basin). Produce was loaded and unloaded – fruit and vegetables coming in and drinks heading outward. Also passengers waited on-board to reserve their hammock space maybe a day or two in advance of their departure. We were planning to join a boat later on in our Amazon trip so further investigation on boat life would wait. Unfortunately the historic Mercado Municipal Adolfo Lisboa, which we were interested in for its iron structure, was closed for refurbishment. But we were still able to visit some of the rehoused stalls selling a wide variety of fruits and herbs from the forest and see the mountains of bananas being traded at the 'Banana and Watermelon' market (watermelons available too).

Banana truck

Banana truck

After looking around Manaus on the first day, we headed to the Bosque da Ciência (Forest of Science) on the edge of town the next day, to visit the manatee enclosure and see if we could learn more about Amazonian trees. Whilst an interesting afternoon out, there were few information boards explaining the flora and the small museum also lacked signs so we were left guessing at the strange objects including various pickled snakes, a giant leaf (of 3 metres length) and rubber-tapping equipment. On the third day we took a small boat tour on the river around Manaus. It was excellent to see the Amazon close up as we had arrived and would leave by air. The first target was to see the meeting of the waters where the 'white' water of one river (actually a murky cream) met the 'black' water of another (actually tea-coloured dark brown, due to plant staining). There are many of these “meetings”, though this one is significant as it runs for several kilometres without the two colours merging. You can't see the full extent of it from a low boat but we would see it again from the air the next day. Just being out on the river, and seeing and hearing about its scale, was mind-blowing (e.g the water level can change by about 14 metres between dry and flood seasons), plus it was a very nice day weather-wise. Through the trip we saw some grey river dolphins, the giant Victoria lily pads and a bit of wildlife as we cut through some of the still flooded forest in the boat. Our travel guide book had somewhat rubbished the trip, but we can highly recommend! We took a tour on a small boat from a street vendor (part of the Associação dos Canoeiros Motorizado de Manaus) rather than go on a larger vessel with one of the more well known agents. On the smaller boat, we were able to cut through the flooded forest more and we managed to understand the guide's explanations with the usual mix of Portiñol. On our final night we also went to the opera house to see a show of their annual Jazz festival. The band (Aaron Goldberg Trio) seemed very good, for what I know of jazz, and it was good to listen sitting high in this pretty opera house built during Manaus' 18th century rubber boom. Tickets were also remarkably cheap, ranging from BRL10-40 (USD 6-25). Follow this link to see the manatees and more pictures of our time in Manaus.

Manaus opera house - Jazz available too

Manaus opera house - Jazz available too

On the Thursday, we took a day-time flight another 1,000 Kms across the Amazon to Brazil's western border town of Tabatinga – now more than 3,800 Kms away from the Brazilian coast where we'd been only a few weeks back (Natal is roughly the most eastern point on the Brazilian mainland). This saved 5-7 days compared to taking a boat upstream. We still planned to take a boat to Iquitos later for a slightly shorter journey. The backpackers who we had talked to felt that 3 days was more than enough for them to get that “Amazon banana boat” experience. Tabatinga is the Brazilian town on the tri-border with Leticia (Colombia) and Santa Rosa (Peru). All three have immigration offices, though non are located sensibly on the border. So on landing we jumped in a taxi (no immigration office at this airport) to the office in the middle of Tabatinga to formally exit Brazil after 2.5 excellent months. I loved it much more than I had expected and we'll be back some day – the forthcoming world cup is quite tempting!

River and forest for miles

River and forest for miles

The taxi then dropped us at a police office in Leticia where the driver said we could complete immigration. We soon found out that Colombian immigration was actually at their airport about a kilometre out of town, but the police officer recommended we checked into a hotel first to drop our bags, and sort it out that afternoon. Between the two towns of Tabatinga and Letica it's not really necessary to complete formalities every time you cross the border but as we were heading further into Colombia we did need to enter the country for about three nights (and it's probably not good to be registered in neither country). As we were consulting our guides for places to stay, we were quickly approached by a guy called Joel, likely waiting for such an opportunity, who proposed a hostel which was acceptable for the one night we were staying (but wouldn't appeal much longer). After completing immigration, we had to queue at several ATMs before we eventually managed to get some Colombian Pesos. We then got our boat ticket for the next day to a little village called Puerto Nariño. With all jobs done, we could at last relax and move on to the important task of working out if there was a decent Colombian beer. By this point we'd started to adjust back to saying gracias instead of obrigado ('thank you' in Spanish/Portuguese) after all our transactions – though I'd still make this error occasionally for the next few days. Before dinner we met Joel again who wanted to explain the range of tours into the Amazon he could offer. However he then spent the next 30 minutes trying to impress on us that he could speak Spanish, English, French, German, Italian and Chinese (or a few words of each) and placing large piles of photos in front or us. Despite friendly requests to get specific and explain a few definite tour options, including prices, he never made it to a credible sales pitch. Pleading hunger, we left him as he continued to promise us that we'd be back to see him soon. Given we qualified him as the world's worst sales-man, and were not inspired by his guide credentials either, we never did.

A house in Puerto Narino

A house in Puerto Narino

The next morning we took a high-speed boat up the Amazon river to Puerto Nariño, a pretty little village promoting its eco-credentials which Barbla had discovered in her travel reading. Puerto Nariño really was a beautiful little village sitting on a tributary of the Amazon. Most houses had a perfectly maintained garden out front, there were no vehicles (except the tractor for the rubbish) and everyone would say good day to you, often several times as you'd meet the same faces regularly. The one small problem was the village's water pump had broken so there was limited water in the tanks of the hostels. The second accommodation option we found allowed us to stay on the promise we would take very short showers. However, they couldn't offer us breakfast as there wasn't any spare water to clean up afterwards. Fortunately (or unfortunately), it did rain heavily over the next few days so the landlady could collect enough water to start offering breakfast again – we continued to take short showers. The hostel was called Malocas Napú, and the temporary manager Luisa, was heading to La Guajira on the Caribbean coast to look after another place for a bit after several months working in the jungle. We promised to look in if we made it there.

Enjoying the boat tour

Enjoying the boat tour

Apart from enjoying the pretty village, we took a few tours to see the forest, rivers and lakes in the area. The first day, Sanchez, our friendly local guide took us upstream in his small motorised canoe (called a peque-peque) to see grey river dolphins who were active in the lake. The water levels were dropping but still the border between river and lake wasn't clear. The dolphins knew where they wanted to hunt and our guide found them easily, as did a few tourist boats from Leticia who annoyingly didn't think their roaring engines were a problem. Anyway, it was very cool to see our first river dolphins even if the little blighters were too fast moving for my camera. Grey river dolphins look similar to common sea dolphins, with a normal dorsal fin, visible when they come up to breath or when they occasionally jump. Afterwards we moved up a channel to another lake where we briefly stopped to walk to a giant ceiba tree – an important home for many animals and used by natives when lost as a “jungle telephone” to attract help (hit it hard with a stick and it bangs like a big drum). We then took a quick swim in the middle of the lake. Sanchez tried to freak us out by discussing the caimans, anacondas and piranhas that were here, but we tried to remember our lessons from the Pantanal where we had learned that nothing would be interested in us with high water levels. Finally, we headed to the river junction downstream of Puerto Nariño where the pink dolphins, a second type of river dolphin in the Amazon, are often found. These are a bit more passive and don't have an obvious dorsal fin so it's harder to spot them when they surface. Furthermore they're not necessarily pink, only over time will the grey skin develop pink patches. As a result it can be hard to distinguish between them and a floating branch. Through our Amazonian travels we would have more chances to see them.

A ceiba tree stands clear above the forest canopy

A ceiba tree stands clear above the forest canopy

That night, the heavy rains came and continued into the day, topping up the water-tanks. As we managed to get the laptop started we spent the morning sheltering in the hostel, sorting photos and completing a blog we would manage to post on return to Leticia. Once the sun reappeared, we enthusiastically headed out and walked the 5 kilometres or so to the neighbouring villages. The walk provided good views of the Amazon river and forest and allowed us to see into village life. Along the way we picked up a dog (something to do with the pastries we were carrying, likely) which was charming until he started chasing chickens around. But it appeared that local dogs defend local chickens from stray dogs, and mother chickens can be truly scary. So, along with me regularly threatening him with sticks and stones, the dog learnt to behave himself for that one trip. On return to Puerto Nariño we stopped at the Natütama environmental project and were very impressed. This small conservation centre works hard to protect the dolphins, manatees and endangered fish of the region. They do lots of education and work with fishermen to change techniques, as well as educating children. The centre has two great rooms full of wooden sculptures depicting life below and above the river surface. Interestingly the English lady leading the project explained that they had also tried to save local river turtles, however Puerto Nariño's residents were not prepared to stop eating turtle eggs so they had had to pause that programme for the time being.

Children in San Martin village

Children in San Martin village

With the rain delaying our planned walking trip through the jungle and the village remaining very charming we didn't find it hard to stay another night. The next day we followed Sanchez through the forest to an indigenous village in the Amacayacu national park. It was a great walking through primary and secondary jungle. The secondary is where the primary was chopped down in the early 20th century for agriculture and has now recovered to something looking similar to the primary forest except it lacks the very large trees. To be honest, I suspected that Sanchez was sometimes deliberately leading us between footpaths to make it feel more jungle-like. Around this time we were starting to think that jungle wasn't quite like the films suggest – not the density of creepers and vines and not the constant threat from lethal insects and reptiles. After a few more forest trips, we concluded that it's probably related to population proximity – most people live on the banks of the Amazon (it is the effective road system). It's hard to know if more remote jungle is any different because it is hard to get there! In any case, the trip ended with a simple lunch at the village of San Martin, a walk around to see the handicrafts and then a long ride back in our motor-canoe. Going upstream on the main river was slow work given the tiny engine and by the end I think I would have preferred to walk back – the heat and humidity wasn't too bad in the forest and we'd seen this large stretch of river before.

Sunset over Puerto Nariño

Sunset over Puerto Nariño

In the morning we returned to Letica on the first boat of the day. I had popped down the previous morning to reserve seats, but this seemed irrelevant as anyone who wanted to go was squeezed on with one or two people sitting on the floor. We all had life-jackets so at least the police would be satisfied on our arrival in Leticia. We were returning early as we wanted to take the first “banana boat” to Iquitos (Peru) that we could find, or at least the first that looked like it could make it safely. We had an idea that we should be able to organise a passage within the day so we found a friendly café for breakfast and were very happy when they agreed to keep our large rucksacks whilst we organised ourselves. The Iquitos-bound boats leave from the Peruvian side of the tri-border in the tiny village of Santa Rosa. We headed over in a motor-canoe for five minutes to find out if and when there were boats leaving. To our pleasant surprise, there was one boat expected to arrive around 3pm which would then leave around 5pm, though we couldn't find anywhere to buy tickets which had been suggested by one of the waiters at our friendly café. So we headed back in the same motor-canoe, thinking the driver probably knew this information before he agreed to take us to Santa Rosa. However, we also realised we would have wanted to go check it out ourselves anyway if he had told us so. In the remaining 5 hours until the boat arrival, we managed to get our laundry done, buy a second hammock (Barbla was carrying an excellent travel hammock already – a present from her Swiss HR colleagues), buy food for the trip, change some cash, emigrate from Colombia (back at their airport) and post that blog we'd been working on. We even had time for lunch at our friendly café and reckoned four good meals covered us for leaving the bags there. Check out all our photos of Puerto Nariño and the triple frontier here.

Another motor-canoe took us over to Santa Rosa where we found the boat “docked” – actually with its bow driven up on to the grass bank. The boat looked solid enough and was already pretty full (so plenty of other people also assumed it could float). The captain said he only had some hammock space on the top deck (I never worked out why people preferred the alternative middle deck which seemed more congested and with less clear views) and, on request, went to check if they had a cabin. It turned out he did, and despite looking smaller than a prison cell, we decided to take it. Before boarding we had discussed the possibility of getting a cabin and thought we would worry less with all of our bags locked away. Ok, we'd be missing out on the slightly more real experience of sleeping on an open deck in a hammock but had agreed that the marginal loss of that experience compared to the piece of mind which would actually allow us to sleep would be worth it. And the cabin cost us a whole 10 Peruvian soles (3.60 USD) more.

Our luxurious cabin

Our luxurious cabin

The cabin had slim metal bunks and, on lifting the thin foam mattresses, I found we had quite a compliment of cockroaches. So Barbla was dispatched with laptop to write a bit more blog before it was switch-off for the final time (we never got it started again), whilst I went on a cleaning/killing mission. Once done, we left the boat to do immigration into Peru at the one offical office in the hamlet of Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa was a bit of a dump and really tiny compared to Leticia and Tabatinga. But we had heard that all three governments pump money into their respective villages to help maintain a population along the border (along with army and navy posts) just in case another country accidentally decides to claim some new territory. After immigration we sat down to have some cooked food and a last beer in a café with line of sight to the boat. The captain had told us departure had gone back to 7pm, but watching the boat from the café that didn't seem to be likely either. None the less we jumped back on at 7pm and started waiting. In the end it was only around 9pm when we departed. We had even time to watch another boat attempting to find a landing spot next to us. After trying, and failing, for a good 10 minutes to ram up onto the bank next to us it moved to a new spot a 100 metres up river. It was amusing to observe as all the passengers waited to get off – some started jumping over the side into waiting motor-canoes and there was general trading and loading/unloading going on as the boat manoeuvred and bashed against our own boat. Finally we got on our way and started motoring up the river towards Iquitos. We sat on deck watching the lights of the tri-border towns fade and the stars strengthen. A local engaged Barbla in discussion to see what we were up to – we were the only gringos on the boat - and they talked about travelling through South America and living on the tri-border. As the bugs flying around the boat lights and stag beetles crash-landing on the deck (upside down and flapping about – surely a Darwinian flaw) got heavier we headed to our bunks. With one eye on the very close roof looking for more cockroaches I half thought I'd prefer to be in a hammock for the experience, but I slept well in the end.

Sunrise over Caballococha

Sunrise over Caballococha

We woke very early the next morning as the boat went crashing into the bank, deliberately so as it was a busy village port. I happily watched the sun rise over the river with canoes and peque-peques bringing their catch to the market at 5:30am. Then I managed to return to deep sleep until one of the lads brought the breakfast offering around. We took the bread but skipped the hot milky drink. Prior to this trip we had talked to a fair few travellers who had taken Amazon boats and had many horror stories about the state of kitchens and hygiene issues. They had all skipped eating the on-board meals and some said that even the locals avoided the kitchen food. Therefore we had decided before the trip that we wouldn't take the risk either (no major stomach troubles so far...and no desire to chance it) and we would self-cater for the three nights. To be honest, once on this boat everything looked reasonable and edible but nonetheless, we couldn't be sure what everything had been washed with. If the water used to cook and clean had been sucked out when the boat docked, it would be filthy with the town's effluent so we played safe and stuck with our rules. We had fruit and bread in the morning, a sandwich at lunch and a quality tuna salad in the eve. Yes, this meant no coffee for three days!

Planning the next steps of our trip

Planning the next steps of our trip

The second day on the boat was pretty cool. We spent most of it sitting in our hammocks at the back of the top deck. I pretty much read a full book (one of the Jo Nesbo books which I'd been carrying since swapping it on the Antarctica boat) whilst watching the boat drop into various villages to pick up goods and their owners who would trade at bigger towns upriver. We knew before taking the trip that we wouldn't be seeing untouched tributaries and abundant wildlife. As noted above we were effectively taking one of the Amazon's principal highways, but the regular occurrence of villages and towns still felt a little surprising. At each docking point, a stream of traders would join the boat for a brief period to offer their produce and unfortunately the odd time we fancied something we were thwarted by not having small Peruvian change to buy these things. We had only changed some money in Leticia and hadn't had chance to break notes down into the small coins required for a coconut or similar. Anyway, seeing the villages react to the arrival of the boat and the strange things being moved around offered a distraction to the book reading and staring at the intermittent forests and farms. The loading of cows onto another boat, with 5 or more lads pulling, pushing and yelling to get them on was one treat.

Reluctant cow

Reluctant cow

On the second night we headed to bed feeling a bit more comfortable with the system of boat life. Before dropping to sleep I had popped out of our cabin to find people sleeping on the floor under our empty hammock. We seemed to be regularly collecting people from any hamlet we came across and this continued through-out the night. Feeling a bit guilty I untied our hammocks and told the guys the space was free for them to pitch their own. The next morning I found the same guys by the toilets, quite drunk and oblivious to the previous night's conversation. After covering the basics of why I was on the boat and who they were (they were university teachers having a boys weekend after visiting family), I dodged the offer of beer at 7am promising a proper chat later that day, by which point they had slept and forgotten once more.

A pretty Amazonian village in the sunshine

A pretty Amazonian village in the sunshine

By the third day, our top deck was seriously filling up and we couldn't justifiably sling our hammocks up for a read given we had our own cabin space – even a poor chicken had to be tucked up by the bags under the hammocks. With the boat so full, we hung in and around our cabin. In front of our bunk, we had a bit of railing to get some air and watch the view. Others were also hanging around there for a bit of space. I got talking to a lad whilst Barbla laid in the cabin laughing at my poor Spanish (legitimately) and eventually started playing a card game (no cash involved). As it seemed a maths question, I soon learnt and was winning much to the amusement of the boat crew who were now looking at us. They were a friendly lot and we started questioning them on the safety of going up the Napo river (an alternative idea we had about getting to Ecuador and a difficult route which we didn't take in the end). As that wasn't their boat route they knew nothing so we moved onto arrival time into Iquitos. They kept asserting that we'd be in at 4am and we kept asking if that was the case at what time we would then have to leave the boat. We didn't fancy arriving into a port area at a time when we couldn't bundle into a café to pass some safe time before finding a hostel. Anyway, with that expected early landing time we headed to bed as the bugs started to bombard the boat. As it turned out, we woke at pre-dawn to see hints of the city of Iquitos through the fog. We took a while to trundle up to the edge of town and then docked at a trade port to unload equipment before moving to the final disembarkation point – a muddy slope with about a hundred people waiting. It was about 8am when people swarmed onto the boat and we were found by a keen moto-taxi man who took us into town for only a slightly inflated price to have that first coffee in three mornings! The boat ride had been the interesting people watching experience we had hoped for, but with three nights on-board we felt we'd done enough time. Now we were interested in having a hot shower and finding a trip into the jungle. Here are a few more pics of our Amazon river trip.

The passenger landing dock

The passenger landing dock

Posted by lonsdale77 18:17 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

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