Welcome to the jungle – adventures in the Bolivian Amazon

“Welcome to the jungle” was the first thing we heard as we stepped down from the little propeller flight that had taken us over the Andean mountains from La Paz to the Bolivian Amazon. The heat and humidity hit us like a wall and the difference couldn’t have been bigger from chilly and dry La Paz at almost 4000 meters above sea level to hot and humid Rurrenabaque at about 400 meters.

Rurrenabaque is a starting point of many jungle and pampas tours in the Bolivian Amazon. We booked a tour with Mashaquipe, a community-based tour operator, for 3 days/2 nights at the pampas first and 3 days/2 nights in the jungle after. The pampas is very flat with moderately vegetation. It is very dry in the dry-season and flooded in the wet season. The jungle has denser vegetation, more hilly terrain and a big river flowing through.

El mirador

To get to the pampas lodge we had to drive 3 hours on a very bumpy and dusty road that seemed to be almost impossible to drive without a good 4×4 in the wet season. The lodge is situated on the shore of a little river, and we were met by pink river dolphins playing in the river just outside the lodge!

The wet season had just ended, so the pampas was flooded with water and we didn’t get to do any walking on the large plain, instead we relaxed riding along the rivers on a long and skinny boat watching for different monkeys (spider, howler, capuchin, yellow squirrel), pink river dolphins, alligators, caimans, turtles, capybaras (the largest rodent in the world, the size of a pig!), toucans and an abundance of other birds. Our guide, Ismael (or Negro for short (yes, seriously)), put his foot in the water and the dolphins came over to nibble at it gently. We even got to swim in the river with the dolphins, although they weren’t in the most playful mood (it was mating season).  All in all it was pretty darn relaxing..

Cruising on still waters

Stoked to be swimming with dolphins!

Our guide put his foot into the water to play with the dolphins

Yellow squirrel monkey

One of the highlights was the night-trip where we used our flashlights to find caymans and alligators in the river. Their eyes light up in green, yellow and orange, and it was pretty exciting driving up to them and seeing them up-close. We drove back to the lodge in the dark watching the perfect starry sky and listening to the sounds of the amazon, it was magical!

We also had a try at fishing piranhas, using beef as bait. Only the guide did have any luck and caught two small ones, but it was nice just sitting in the lagoon an watching the sun set on the pampas.

Fishing for piranhas

Sunset over the Pampas 1

Stars over the Pampas 1

From the pampas we drove the three hours back to Rurre (that’s what the locals call Rurrenabaque), and continued with a 3D/2N jungle trip the next day, starting with a 3 hour boatride up the river Beni to the Mashaquipe camp inside the Madidi national park.

We spent the days sneaking around the jungle with our guide, Rodolfo, trying to see monkeys, birds and other animals before they saw us, but mostly we only saw a lot of plants and trees, looking up trying to see something move. Often times Rodolfo got really excited because he had heard a sound or could smell something (pipi of monkey, pipi of wild pig (chanchi), odor of puma, …). He was also really excited about all the plants and trees, especially if they might contain some larvae that we could eat, and had a wealth of knowledge about the medicinal properties of the plants in the jungle.

Inside a 500 year old tree

Tarzan in the jungle

Sangre de torro

The jungle is densely forested and it is very difficult to see the animals even if they’re close, and he told us it is easier to see the animals in the dry season (August is best)! What we did see a lot of was assorted bugs, especially ants (and some are huuuuuge and dangerous!), spiders and tarantulas, birds, a snake, and a lot of medicinal plants that was quite interesting. We got to smell, taste and feel a lot of plants and fruits!

Itsy-bitsy spider

Giant ant

Tarantula - our next door neighbour

We spent one night in the main camp and then one night in a “tent”. It was a plastic tarp stretched over a basic frame, and we slept on the ground with just a mosquito net to protect us from all the animals of the jungle (including jaguars, pumas, snakes and wild pigs! Not to mention all the bugs and ants!). It was fine for one night, and definitely an experience listening to all the sounds of the jungle, but one night was enough though. We were basically eaten up by all the mosquitoes during the night. In addition to Rodolfo we also had with us a cook, Wilson, who managed to cook some delicious food in the very basic outdoor kitchen. He was also a very jolly guy and good to have aboard!

A pair of macaws!

A single macaw

Wilson and Rodolfo

Near the campsite was a lovely viewpoint were we could see the beautiful red and blue macaws, as well as a big part of the Madidi. We saw some tayras when walking to the river (weasels), and some huge tarantulas at night. We ended our jungle trip with making a balsa raft and rafting down the river to the lodge. A wet experience but a quiet and great ending to our jungle experience!

Some travel tips to the Amazon

  • The pampas and jungle were two very different experiences and we’re glad we did both. If we had to choose one it might be the pampas, as it was very relaxing at we got to see a lot of animals and birds from the boat.
  • The best time to go is in August when it is at its driest, and you have best possibilities of seeing the animals. The seasons are about the same for the whole Amazon (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil).
  • What’s nice with the Bolivian Amazon is that it’s pretty reasonably priced, not too crowded and the area around Rurre doesn’t have malaria (we started taking malarone pills, but quit because there have never been malaria there). 
  • Choose travel agency wisely. Many of the cheaper companies take shortcuts, are not as environmentally conscious and have large groups, so it might be worth paying a little more for the better companies. We were very happy with Mashaquipe: good guides, good food, good program, responsible, the community gets a part of the profits, and we were only 2-5 people in the group!

Sunrise

Another toucan!

Take-off

Capybara

Turtles taning

The only cat we saw in the jungle..

Relaxing on the river

Cacao fruit

See more pictures from the jungle, pampas and the rest of Bolivia here.

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Puno and the floating islands of Lake Titicaca

On the border between Peru and Bolivia you find Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world and the largest lake in South America. Puno is the biggest town on the Peruvian side and a gateway to tours of Lake Titicaca’s islands (Taquile and Amantani are the most popular) including the artificial, floating islands made of reed (Uro islands). The people on the Uros have lived on floating islands for about a thousand years!

A tiny floating island

We stayed in Puno three nights, mostly because Mathias was sick (..again, but this time it probably was the restaurant the first night in Puno), so the only things we did other than laying sick in the room was visit the floating islands and strolling around Puno a bit.

We have to say that the floating islands, although interesting to see, definitely feel very touristy. We were met by a local guide who gave us a quick, well-rehearsed speech about the islands before urging us to buy souvenirs. Next we “cruised” to the main island in a reed boat where we could buy more souvenirs or lunch.

Our guide on the floating island

Inhabitants of the islands

All in all it wasn’t the best experience we’ve had, but it’s definitely interesting that they live on islands made entirely out of reeds! We also learned that they needed to put on new reeds every 15 days and continue doing so for 20 years before they needed to build a new island. The fact that we paid almost twice the price necessary (we hadn’t researched it enough beforehand) for an “all inclusive ticket” that didn’t cover certain unexpected charges on the island (such as the reed boat cruise) may have contributed to lowering our total experience..

Quechua

Handicrafts and souvenirs

Lake Titicaca is a very beautiful place, though very touristy (on both sides of the border). Even so, if you go a little outside the main tourist streets you see the locals living their normal lives: the women in the funny Bowler hats; sheep, chicken and alpacas for sale; and boys hauling mountains of eggs to the market on some very heavy wagons.

The next day we took the scenic route around the lake via Copacabana (the Bolivian main town) to La Paz, and if we’d had more time we would have stopped some days in Copacabana as well, as it seemed a bit smaller and more idyllic than Puno.

Woman with traditional bowler hat

Pimped out mototaxi

Tuva looking out

Find more pictures from Puno, the floating Uro islands and the rest of Peru here.

A little detour to Arequipa and Colca Canyon

We weren’t actually planning on going to Arequipa, but after several people highly recommending it despite the extra 10 hour busride, we decided we had to check it out.

On top of the world!

Arequipa is a large colonial city with charming streets, a pigeon-filled main square and the large Santa Catalina monastery which is like a city within the city and definitely worth a visit. It’s called “the White City” because of the white lava stone used for many of the buildings. We only spent 2 nights here which we found to be enough as we weren’t really that charmed by the city. We spent our days mostly strolling around town.

Plaza de Armas

Silencio

We decided that we needed to try “cuy” which is fried or grilled guinea pig (marsvin) – this is a typical dish in the Peruvian highlands and a favorite of many local people we talked to. It had a really nice, crispy skin, but it was a struggle to get to the good meat as these little guys aren’t especially muscular. It was an interesting experience (tasted almost like chicken), though we probably won’t eat it again – it is just so unappetizing with the whole body right there in front of you, not to mention that it is really difficult to find enough meat to get full.

Sceptical

From Arequipa we booked a tour to the Colca Canyon. The drive from Arequipa to Chivay in the Colca Valley (where we spent the night) took us past hoards of alpacas and their wild and beautiful relatives the vicuñas, beautiful scenery and an altitude of 4910 meters (that’s almost twice the height of Galdhøpiggen, Norways highest mountain!).

The Incas had one of their food production areas in the Colca Valley and they would walk all the way from Cusco to spend the harvest season in the valley before walking back with the produce! The whole valley is filled with pre-Inca stepped agricultural terraces, most of them still in use by the local farmers.

On the road

Vicuñas grazing

Terraces and valleys

At the western end of Colca Valley is where the Colca Canyon starts, this is the deepest canyon in the world with a depth of 4160 meters. From the viewpoint Cruz del Condor we could see the small beginning of the canyon as well as several Andean condors. The condors were gliding on the warm currents, some just over our heads – quite special when their wingspans can be up to 3.2 meters! The landscape and the views were amazing and definitely worth our little detour.

Flying close to the tourists

Male condor up close

Traditional clothing

Almost twice the height of the highest mountain in Norway!

Amazing landscape

See more pictures from Arequipa, Colca Valley and the rest of Peru here.

Magnificent Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is one of the new seven wonders of the world, and a must-do if you are in Peru. It is a once in a lifetime experience to see how the Incas managed to build a sacred retreat high up in the mountains of Peru. Given that the Inca empire only lasted for a hundred years (before the Spanish conquistadors came and destroyed them in the 1500s) it’s truly amazing to see how much they built and the technology they had developed.

Sunrise on Machu Picchu

There are several ways to travel to Machu Picchu, none of them especially cheap (more on that later), but all of them start from Cusco, which was the Inca capitol. Cusco itself is a nice town with lots to do for adventure-hungry tourists (there are about 200 travel agencies across town), but as Mathias got a bad case of altitude sickness we had to take it pretty slow the first days. Cusco really is a “tourist town”, which has both its positives and negatives. Positives being many good restaurants (we especially recommend La Bodega 138 and Jack’s Café) and options for tours, and negatives being that you feel that everyone wants to get some money from you and exploit the tourists as much as possible.

Back-alleys of Cusco

Under the arc

To get to Machu Picchu we opted for the popular scenic train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu town), spending a night there and walking up to Machu Picchu early the next morning. From Aguas Calientes it’s about an hour and 10 minutes brisk walk, mostly steep uphill, to get to Machu Picchu. We started in the dark at 5 o’clock in the morning in pitch black with only the stars to guide us (ok, and a headlight), which turned out to be a little late to get started as there were several busloads of people already in line at the top when we arrived 6:10. Not a big problem, but we were hoping to get a look before there were people everywhere. We did catch the sun rising above the mountains and the first light on Machu Picchu, which was spectacular!

Mathias gazing at Machu Picchu

Sun rays over the mountaintops

We managed to spend a full 10 hours walking around, taking pictures and relaxing while taking in the view of Machu Picchu. There are several tracks around the main “urban area”, and also tracks further out to the Sun Gate (great views!), the Inca bridge (a bit disappointing), and Huayna Picchu if you have the tickets (we didn’t :( ). We walked around marvelling at the views and the many many llamas grassing in the area (even a baby llama!). It really is a spectacular location and we can imagine this to be a retreat for the wealthy (which is one theory).

A llama grazing

Jump!

The explorer

Tips on travelling to Machu Picchu

There are mainly four ways to do Machu Picchu:

  1. Doing the Inca Trail. This is the highlight for many backpackers. A 2 or 4-day trek through stunning views and several Inca ruins. Price is about $400-500 and it must be booked several months in advance. We talked to some Brits who booked it two months ahead, but this was in the shoulder season (April).
  2. Booking a shuttle tour. This is the cheapest option, we found it for about $125 including the shuttle to the hydro station, a night in Aguas Calientes, the guide at Machu Picchu and the shuttle back to Cusco. There is a one and a half-hour trek from the hydro station to Aguas Calientes.
  3. Booking a tour with train. This includes the bus to Ollantaytambo, train to Aguas Calientes, overnight there, bus to Machu Pichhu in the morning and a 2 hour guided tour, and the return train. The cheapest we found this for was about $225 p.p.
  4. Booking everything yourself. This is what we did. We booked with Incarail both ways for $106 each (Perurail is another option for trains),  bought our Machu Pichhu tickets (PEN 128=$49 each), stayed at the first hostel we found (Hostal Inca II for PEN 65 total including breakfast), and walked up to Machu Pichhu (we took the bus back which is about $10), and took shuttles betwen Ollantaytambo and Cusco (10 PEN pp each way). Our total ended up nearly the same as the cheapest tour with train, but we loved being masters of our own time an being able to spend all the time we wanted at Machu Picchu. We had a Wikipedia article on Machu Picchu (on the iTravel app), asked some of the guards around, and slyly overheard some of the guides in the passing tour groups, and all in all got a lot of information without our own guide!

There are also other tours such as jungle tours and more adventure filled tours to get to Machu Picchu. We didn’t look into that but they are probably not in as high demand as the Inca Trail.

  • Whatever option you choose, bring lots of water and snacks as it gets hot and tiring walking around Machu Picchu and the food outside is pretty expensive (it’s a bit of a no-no, but the guards didn’t check any bags as far as we saw)
  • The best time is before 9 am and after 3 pm, because of the sun and the crowds (much better pictures!)
  • Book early for cheaper train tickets, and also if you want to do Huayna Picchu!
  • A free map is available at the entrance after they have checked your tickets
  • Bring some information about Machu Picchu either on your phone (iTravel!) or in print if you don’t want to spend the money on a guide ($25)

Traditional woman

Girl in traditional clothes

Chewing llama

Tuva petting a baby llama

Me and the llama having a moment

The main plaza

Check out more pictures from Machu Picchu and the rest of Peru here.