Tag Archives: photography

Visting the “Ice Princess” in Arequipa

As the mini bus from our Colca Canyon tour approached the outskirts of the city of Arequipa I quickly realised I had grossly underestimated the size of the place. Not having read the guidebook yet, and having become accustomed to the smaller more basic towns in Bolivia I was pleasantly surprised that before I knew it I was driving past a Starbucks.

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Arequipa is in fact one of Peru’s largest cities and is the second most industrialised and commercial in the country. The centre of town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and whilst there is plenty to do in the city, like us, it is easy the while away the days enjoying the pleasures of modern city life again. We ate good food, drank coffee and socialised with the friends travelling with us.

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If you’re in Arequipa, even only briefly, there are two sites we highly recommend seeing.

Firstly we visited the “Ice Princess” or “Juanita” at the Museo Santuarios Andinos. Juanita, like the Children of Llullaillaco, which we visited in Salta, she as an excellent example of an Inca Mummy, a child sacrificed to the gods, buried and frozen on Mount Ampato. No photos but the tours of the museum are well conducted and the artifacts are fascinating.

Secondly a visit to the Santa Catalina Monastery is a must. Built in 1579 it is over 20,000 square meters and still has approximately 20 nuns in residence today. We got up early and arrived for opening. The sign on the door said it opened at 9am, despite the guidebook saying 8.30am, but they let us in at 8.30am anyway!

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I urge you to drag yourself out of bed and do the same, as by about 10am the tour groups started to arrive disrupting the tranquillity of the place. Our pictures were people free and the morning sun made the colours and the architecture truly beautiful.

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We wandered around undisrupted for a good few hours.

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Occasionally one of our group would get in shot…

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But most of the time we had the place to ourselves…

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Well except for a few creepy nun mannequins and some guinea pigs in the larder…

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We were a bit snap happy so here’s a few more shots to inspire you to visit…

 

Wildlife in the Amazon

Pink River Dolphins and Piranhas: The Pampas

After the wet days in the Amazon Jungle and the continuous downpours in Rurrenabaque, our journey to the Pampas was never going to be easy.

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Like in many rural areas in South America, the roads around the small northern town of Rurrenabaque are unpaved. What should have been a mere three hour journey along the dirt track turned out to be closer to six. In all honesty we were surprised we made it to the Pampas at all. But we weren’t the only ones stupid enough to attempt the journey…

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In three people carriers without 4WD, the journey was more chaotic than our trip across the salt flats! Each car took its turn to get stuck…ours was so deep in the mud, the doors were jammed shut and we had to escape though the windows…

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The farm animals and those on horseback trotted by, whilst we dug out the cars with pick axes and a ball of twine as a towrope. I say we…most of us tourists could barely stand up straight in the mud…thank goodness for the experience of our drivers…

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Instead we tourists made ourselves useful by playing with this little sloth by the roadside. He really didn’t seem to care as we stood below him snapping away and instead focussed his efforts on his afternoon nap. Way to live up to the stereotype, Mr Sloth.

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So was the journey worth all the trouble? Without a doubt! As we eventually disembarked the beaten cars, ourselves coated in mud, we were greeted by the second wildlife encounter of many. Our lodges were a little way up the river and as we waited for our boat to transport us, the playful pink river dolphins made their first appearance.

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Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity to swim with them, we dumped our bags at the lodge and grabbed our trunks and bikinis and were in the water within minutes…

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Despite trying to entice them near to us with all the tricks we’d learnt from watching “Flipper” as children, these dolphins were very much disinterested in us. Instead they were fixated with the plastic water bottle toy our guide had made for them…

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Although our pictures do not show this well, they really are pink in colour! As we watched from the boat we could really see the various shades – as the dolphin gets older, the pink intensifies.

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As dolphins have been one of my favourite animals since childhood this really was a fantastic experience for me. Swimming with dolphins was certainly on my bucket list. Swimming with alligators and piranhas, however was not. As we travelled back up stream to the lodge our guide took this opportunity to point out the various caimans and alligators along the riverbank and also announced the river was infested with piranhas. Best we knew after our swim I guess…

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After a good rest and some wonderful food back at the lodge, on Day 4 we donned our wellies (or rubber boots to some of you) and set off in search of anacondas.

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Long story short we failed to find any but we spent a good few hours traipsing through mud, grass and ponds deep enough to almost render the wellies pointless…

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Somehow looking back walking in long grass looking for one of the largest snakes in the world seems like a bad idea, but at the time the intrepid explorer in all of us took over…and the ponds didn’t disappoint with other wildlife.

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IMG_4381Slightly disappointed not to have found an anaconda but relieved to have made it out of the bog un-constricted we set off once again up the river to see what other wildlife we could find. And wow…we could now understand why the Pampas is famed for the endless wildlife on show.

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We literally sat back and floated along, not knowing where to look first…

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After seeing the capibaras, caimans, alligators, endless birds, turtles and monkeys jumping tree to tree we finished off the day with a spot of piranha fishing. In a few hours our group had caught 24, enough for a decent dinner.

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Then we watched the sunset before returning to eat our catch.

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The final day finished on a high. We set off in search of squirrel monkeys and before we knew it they were in the boat with us. I’m not sure who found who more fascinating…

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Some admired their reflection in my lens…

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Whilst others were clearly in a stand off with the monkey looking back…

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When it was time to leave they looked at us blankly as we attempted to encourage them off the boat, but as we pulled away from the bank they elegantly jumped back into the safety of their tree. And with that the wildlife adventure was over.

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Sad to leave all the animals behind, that afternoon we made our way back to Rurrenabaque. Thankfully the mud had dried out so the return trip was less eventful than the previous…yet we still managed to bump into this anteater along the way….

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This was right before we ran out of petrol and had to flag down a passing car to beg for a loan. Who said travelling is easy…

Once back in the little town we relaxed for the remainder of the afternoon and the next day made our way back to the airport…if you can call it that…

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Although our fears of finding a tiny propeller plane waiting on the runway had been quashed on our outbound flight this time we weren’t so lucky!

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With just 20 seats and two captains that we could wave at from our seats at the back, the journey started off fine. That is until they announced our plane would be diverted, as there was an “incident involving a plane” at La Paz. As a result we experienced what we can only be described as a hair-raising near vertical landing into Cochabamba. Give me a muddy track and a people carrier any day.

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Rain in the Rainforest: Rurrenabaque

From La Paz it’s actually a simple process to get yourself down to the Bolivian Amazon. There are two options, bus or flight. The bus takes the better half of a day, has a safety record that you’d never mention to your mother and is meant to be one of the worst experiences on the continent. The plane takes 30 minutes and has great views. That’s right…we went for the plane.

Sam and Lauren were initially a bit worried as we’d heard we’d be crammed into a 12 seater twin prop aircraft. In fact we were crammed into a 50 seater jet and shot off towards the rainforest. An interesting fact, going from 4000m above sea level to 0 causes your Pringles tube to implode and crush all of your crisps.

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Rurrenabaque airport has recently upgraded to a tarmac runway, the “terminal” is still the same though. I guarantee you’ll be using gate 1 in terminal 1, there isn’t a duty free, there are refreshments but you have to milk the cow yourself.

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We’d booked onto a 4 night 5 day combined rainforest and pampas tour and would be departing the next day. After a quick orientation at the office we headed to the hostel for an early night.

 We awoke that morning to the type of rain you’d expect in a rainforest. The empty swimming pool at the hostel was now half full, as was reception. We took it in our stride and headed to the boats.

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As we headed up river I couldn’t help thinking of Indiana Jones and wondering whether there was a seaplane or rolling boulder around.

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The rain abated and the sun came out just as we got to our halfway point. A sugar cane farm. We were handed a machete and shown the best way of chopping down the canes. Next we headed to the press and used a bit of muscle to get the sugar. After adding local citrus to the drink this stuff is far more potent at waking you up than coffee. We also got our first introduction to the biting insects of the rainforest that seem to think our insect repellent was an interesting sauce.

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A bit of river wading was of course necessary to get back to the boat.

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The jungle lodge really is set in the heart of the jungle, after getting off the boat we waded a couple more rivers and then trekked up to the lodges hidden in the trees.

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Our guide Ron was excellently versed on the local flora and fauna and took us off into the rain to explain all the bees and trees to us.

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There were of course local plants that will do pretty much anything, from pregnancy tests to painkillers. We did catch on pretty quick though that the majority of the plants, spiders, ants and bugs are just there to kill you.

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Ron did warn us to watch where we put our hands, with trees like this you can see why.

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Humidity also started to be a problem for the cameras…

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After multiple more river crossings and a few more machete sessions we were all feeling like true jungle explorers and were happy to head back to the lodge for some more of the excellent food.

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There’s only one solar panel at the lodge and it hadn’t exactly been sunny, so there was enough light for dinner and then bed.

The second day was unsurprisingly wet, so wet in fact that there was no point heading into the jungle to look for animals. Instead we lit a fire, made rings and necklaces out of local nuts and played around with the bows and arrows.

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That evening we went for a trek in the jungle. When we stopped and turned off our torches the darkness was absolute, you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face. It did give us the chance to hear the sounds of the forest though. We didn’t see much wildlife except an Ocelot and some type of jungle rat, probably the Ocelots dinner, but the walk was still worth staying up late for.

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The next morning we jumped on the boat to head back to Rurrenabaque and the next part of our adventure, the pampas.

 

Salar de Uyuni: The Bolivian Salt Flats

So spending 3 days bouncing around in a four wheel drive may not sound appealing to most but if you’re travelling in South America it’s likely the Bolivian Salt Flats are on your “must see” list. For us this was certainly the case.

When we mentioned temperatures of -25 degrees and no showers to Sam, who usually travels with a 3 star minimum, we were worried he would be on the first plane home but even he’d admit roughing it was worth it.

From San Pedro we boarded a mini bus and made our way to the Chilean boarder. Although there was a bit of a wait, as all the tours leave at a similar hour in the morning, crossing it was a breeze. But once we crossed we fully appreciated just how much snow had fallen in the desert…and so did our driver who was willing the van up every slope, wheels spinning away. We made it to the Bolivian border…that’s if you can really call a few huts a boarder crossing.

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It really is as remote as it looks and for many of us this stop was also our first use of the “Baño naturale” that we would become very familiar with over the next few days. After our friend Victoria enquired as to the location of the bathroom, the guard pointed to the vast expanse of snow around.

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Passports stamped, next job was to transfer all our baggage to the 4WDs…

Thanks to Victoria for the picture!
Thanks to Victoria for the picture!

Then before we had chance to catch our breath, and at over 4,000m we really needed to, we were on our way with our excellent driver Jorge (Hor-hey) at the wheel. In a convoy of three we sped across the flats leaving a dust trail behind.

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During the 3 days the scenery was breath-taking and changed dramatically from sandy desert to of course salt…lots of salt.

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We toured the many lakes, from frozen to Flamingo filled…

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Only stopping briefly to warm up in a thermal spring…

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We admired mountains and rock formations…

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And gawped at geysers and boiling mud…

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We watched the sunrise over the salt flats and admired the cacti…

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We traversed train tracks…

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And like many before us we spent hours playing with our cameras on the Salt Flats…

 

Salar de Uyuni

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The Four Ramblers

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We finished up at the train cemetery; a truly fascinating place to explore…it brings out the kid in everyone…

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The food along the way was beautifully prepared and presented by our drivers…

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And the accommodation and facilities were basic but beautiful in their own way…

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It’s fair to say we spent every second of driving with our faces pressed against the windows barely blinking and we made some good friends along the way.

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We knew we would be roughing it but after 3 days our hearts sank a little as we pulled into the town of Uyuni and we realised the trip was over. Though the prospect of a warm shower and central heating was pretty appealing…

Preparing for your trip

We had heard some horror stories about some of the companies that operate on this route, so on our arrival in San Pedro we careful researched the companies. With a few recommendations we settled on Cordillera.

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This blog post isn’t meant as a plug for their company but we were happy with our experience and would recommend them. They are not the cheapest but you get what you pay for. Our drivers were safe, a lot of fun and looked after our every need. But even though with paying a little more for quality and safety here’s what to expect…

Cold weather – we cant emphasise this enough! Although it may not be the case all year round bring lots of layers, as our nights got really cold! You may not appreciate these layers until you are trying to sleep in minus 25 degrees with no central heating. We slept in about 3 layers with blankets piled high and we rented the extra optional sleeping bags!

Basic accommodation – with no showers for at least the first night! When booking with Cordillera you are pre-warned of this fact. Also this was not a problem for us as the last thing we wanted to do with freezing temperatures was take off our layers! The second night is spent in a salt hotel, were the bricks are made of salt and the floor is scattered with the stuff. I had to stop myself asking for some salt with dinner…

Basic food – it was plentiful but basic. Vegetarian options were the meals minus the meat but you serve yourself so you can fill up on the veg and carbs We stocked up on lots of snacks and really appreciated these as we bumped along in 4WDs.

Altitude sickness – our experience wasn’t as bad as some stories had made out but at nearly 5,000m on the first night the chances are some of you are going to suffer from it a little. Iain got his headache before bed whereas I got mine when I woke up the next morning. Stock up on some painkillers and cocoa leaves before you leave San Pedro and force yourselves to drink water as much as possible. If you wake up in the night, drink some more!!

You will be Vamos-ed! – with a lot of ground to cover expect shouts of “Vamos!” or ‘Lets go!” at regular intervals. The drivers were happy to stop and pull over for any photo opportunity but also need to keep to their schedule. We never felt rushed and our group began shouting “vamos’ ourselves to much hilarity…we blame it on the altitude.

Sunburn! – You are at altitude so despite it being very cold, wear some sun cream, especially when on the white sun reflecting salt flats! Or like Sam expect to be called “Ruby Lips” for the next week!

But most of all enjoy! It really is worth it!

 

The Ducks in Dry Places: Atacama y Salar de Uyuni

Chile in Photos…