Archive | Bolivia

Four months of South America in photos

Sarah Duff Machu Picchu

The second part of this year-long around-the-world trip (after a three-month stint in the USA), was South America, a continent I had never visited. It had always seemed so far from South Africa, so I felt like a normal-length two-week trip would never cut it. I saved up South America for a time when I had months to see as much as possible.

In four months, I travelled the length (and some of the breadth, minus Brazil) of this amazing continent, learning Spanish and tango in Buenos Aires, trekking the spectacular peaks and glaciers of Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia, getting soaked under the spray of Iguazu Falls, hiking the otherworldly landscape of Chile’s Atacama Desert, where I stood under huge steaming geysers and floated in salt lagoons, 4x4ing through the desert of Bolivia’s altiplano and seeing the sun rise over the world’s largest salt flat, bird watching and piranha fishing in the Bolivian Amazon, exploring Machu Picchu,  snorkelling with sea lions and communing with marine iguanas in the natural Disneyworld Galapagos Islands, walking through mists in the beautiful cloud forest of Mashpi on mainland Ecuador, trekking for four tough days through the Colombian jungle to reach the ancient ruins of the Lost City and learning to dive on tiny Providencia Island.

It was one adventure after another – a wild, wonderful journey that I will never forget.

These are my favourite places in photos.

Iguazu Falls, Argentina-1Las Torres hike in Torres del Paine National ParkPerito Moreno glacier trekking, El Calafate, PatagoniaMoon Valley, Atacama Desert, ChileLlama and Licancabur VolcanoEl Tatio Geyser field, Atacama Desert, ChileSalar de Uyuni, BoliviaLaguna Blanca, BoliviaLlama, BoliviaMadidi National Park, BoliviaSarah Duff Machu PicchuView from Wayna PicchuSarah Duff Machu PicchuSarah Duff Galapagos Islands-11Sarah Duff Galapagos Islands-1Mashpi Lodge, EcuadorHiking at Mashpi Lodge, EcuadorColombia's Lost City or Ciudad PerdidaProvidencia Island, Colombia




An Amazon journey: Bolivia’s Madidi National Park

Madidi National Park, Bolivia

“This is why it’s called a rainforest”, said our guide Orlando Queteguari Apana, as the dark clouds broke above us and rivers of rain were unleashed. We regretted not choosing to take wellington boots on the hike, as pathways through the trees quickly turned into knee-deep rivers on our two-hour walk back to the lodge.

Getting drenched in the Amazon was more fun than it sounds. Just before the rain started, hundreds of frogs started croaking in a discordant, chimey chorus, and it felt like the forest was coming alive. I loved the intensity of walking through the rain, and the colours of the leaves becoming more saturated as they dripped water, and feeling totally immersed in this wild, intense environment.

It was one highlight of a four-day trip to the Bolivian Amazon – to Madidi National Park, one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. Most people opt for Peru, Brazil or Ecuador for a trip into the Amazon, while Madidi remains undervisited and undeveloped (and much more affordable) – there are only a handful of lodges to stay at in the park.

We chose Madidi Jungle Ecolodge, reached by a boat ride up the Beni River from the small town of Rurrenabaque (reached by a bumpy but spectacular short flight on a tiny plane from La Paz). Our room had a bed draped in a mosquito net, mosquito nets covering the windows and a hammock outside on the veranda. There are only a few other rooms, and a dining area, where you have communal meals of catfish steamed in leaves, rice, salads,  fresh juices, and fruit. There’s no wi-fi, swimming pool or electricity in the rooms – at night you use candles. It was blissfully simple.

For our four-day stay, we hiked through the jungle for hours – virgin rainforest of giant trees, vines, creepers, flowers, mushrooms and moss – with Orlando teaching us about trees, birds, animals and insects. He’s always lived in the rainforest, so his knowledge is astounding – not to mention his amazing imitative monkey and bird calls. It’s hard to spot wildlife in the Amazon – the idea is not to come here with a checklist of all the famous animals you’d like to see (cats such like jaguars are present here but hardly ever seen), but we did manage to spot capuchin, spider and howler monkeys, a capybara, columns of leaf cutter ants, tiny poison dart frogs and successfully tracked peccaries – bush pigs – by following their distinctive sour smell and the sound of their teeth cracking open palm fruit. We saw parakeets, toucans and screeching macaws, and about twenty other species of birds I’d never even heard of, and ate some yellow fruit we collected off the forest floor. We also went on boat cruises, fished for piranhas with chunks of bloody beef, floated down the chocolate-brown river in tubes and went on a night walk, shining our headlamps at thousands of diamond glittering spider eyes and the yellowish orbs of a caiman in the river.

In the afternoons we’d lie on the hammock, spotting birds flitting in and out of the heliconia flowers planted on the edge of the forest, and at night we’d fall asleep to the most beautiful soundtrack I’ve ever heard – frogs croaking, insects chirrupping and rain falling on a thousand leaves.

Almost 20 000 square kilometres large, Madidi, which is part of the Amazon basin and home to 20 000 plant species, more than a thousand bird species, hundreds of mammals and over 120 000 species of insects, only became a national park in 1995, after decades of tireless campaigning by conservationists, who were trying to prevent the logging companies coming into the area. Part of the conservationists’ campaign had to do with the indigenous communities who live within the park getting rights to their ancestral land.

One of these communities is the village of San José de Uchupiamonas. Before 1995, the villagers had previously made their livelihoods from growing coffee and hunting animals – ocelots, peccaries and jaguars – for their pelts, but now ecotourism has replaced hunting. The community owns five lodges in Madidi, one of which is Madidi Jungle Ecolodge, which was started in 2010. All the staff at the lodge are from San José de Uchupiamonas, and the guides, such as Orlando, now use their skills in hunting animals to track them down on hikes with tourists. At a time when the term “ecotourism” gets applied to lodges and tour companies that are anything but eco-friendly, it’s hard to find places that are doing it right. I was thrilled to be in the Amazon, a place I’d always dreamed about visiting, but the best thing about travelling to Madidi, for me, was knowing that by being there I was helping to contribute in a small way to the conservation of this incredibly beautiful rainforest.

Birdwatching in Madidi National Park

Boat cruise Madidi National Park, Bolivia

Our guide at Madidi Jungle Ecolodge, Orlando

Column of leaf cutter ants in Madidi National Park, Bolivia


Salt, sky and sand on a 4×4 trip through Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

My introduction to Bolivia couldn’t have been more dramatic: a border crossing from Chile at over 4000 metres above sea level in the freezing early morning with the giant Licancabur Volcano looming in the background, followed by three days of offroading in a Land Cruiser through some of the most beautiful and unusual landscapes I’ve ever seen.

After a breakfast of sandwiches and mint tea in a tiny hut next to the tiny hut of the Bolivian border post, my boyfriend and I crammed into a dusty Land Cruiser (where neither the heater nor the odometer worked) with four strangers, no seatbelts and a Bolivian driver who looked about 16 and spoke no English.

It doesn’t sound like a recipe for travel success, but it was. Jorge turned out to be an excellent driver and the friend-making in the car happened in a mix of English, French and Spanish. The next three days were spent on a grande aventure cruising through Bolivia’s Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, stopping to look at a spectacular sequence turquoise and white lagoons, driving through a terracotta desert strewn with ancient volcanic rocks like the background of a Salvador Dali painting, swimming in 36-degree hot springs at 4800 metres above sea level in a bitingly cold wind, photographing a field of geysers and a solidified field of lava that looked like brownie mixture as a volcano smoked on the horizon. We spotted one lone fox, tiny flocks of vicuñas and llamas and pink ribbons of flamingoes on a lagoon the colour of dark rust. People posed for photographs on a lonely train track through the nothingness of the desert when suddenly a tiny one-carriage train appeared on the horizon and whizzed past.

We slept in simple refugios – one at about 4500 metres, where I woke up many times in the night gasping for breath – and a salt hotel, where the walls, floor and tables were lickable, ate a lot of potatoes and fried eggs and chewed coca leaves for the altitude.

On the last day we woke up at 4am and packed up our car under a sky thick with stars and drove out to Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat (the same size as Lebanon), to watch the sun rise over the hexagonal puzzle shapes of the thick salt crust. In the early dawn light we explored Isla Incahuasi, an island of giant cactuses so surreal and beautiful it stunned almost everyone into silent contemplation. As the sun turned the salt flat a blinding white, Jorge drove us fast straight across the salt flat blasting his favourite tune “Me gusta bailar” as a German girl on top the car next to us took off her top and held on to the roof racks as her blonde hair whipped behind her.


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How to do a 4×4 trip through Bolivia’s southwest and Salar de Uyuni

There are a number of tour operators offering 4×4 trips in Land Cruisers through Bolivia, either from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile or from the dusty town of Uyuni in Bolivia. There have been some really bad reports about the cheaper tours regarding things like drivers drinking, so it’s not worth it to skimp on cost. The trips are either three days or four days, and you can either do a one-way route or a circular route, back to San Pedro or Uyuni. You can book private tours but these are pretty expensive. Most people opt for joining in with a group. If you can, make some friends before you do the trip, and share a car with them. My boyfriend and I were lucky – we had a great group in our car, and we were travelling in convoy with two other cars filled with a friendly bunch of people from around the world.

After doing a lot of research, I decided to go with Cordillera Traveller. The communication from their office was pretty bad before the trip (like not telling us we needed to bring our own water), but other than that the trip was great. We had an amazing driver, Jorge, who at first looked worryingly young, but turned out to be a great driver, knowledgeable guide and fun guy. Our month of Spanish lessons definitely came in handy – he, nor any of the other drivers, spoke no English.

Our two-night three-day trip from San Pedro to Uyuni cost $180, which included accommodation – one night in a basic hostel where we shared a six-bed room, and one night in a salt hotel where we had double or triple rooms – and meals. The food wasn’t fantastic (especially for vegetarians) but with the high altitude, I hardly felt hungry. If you eat a lot take snacks with you!

You are at very high altitudes for most of the trip. Make sure you acclimatise for a few days by staying in a fairly high place (such as San Pedro) before doing the 4×4 trip. Most of our group had headaches – including me, despite taking aspirins and altitude sickness pills. Chewing coca leaves and drinking coca tea was actually the only thing that helped. It’s also incredibly dry, so bring a large tube of lip ice and lots of moisturiser.

I felt saddened to see so much toilet paper at the “bano naturales” where people had gone to the loo behind bushes and on rocks. Please take your toilet paper with you! Each day there are dozens of people doing this trip, and if everyone leaves toilet paper behind each time they make a natural wee, the most beautiful places on the route will look like the outskirts of Uyuni – a trash wasteland.

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