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Monkey Business

Rurrenabaque; Uyuni

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View Americas 2014-15 on LordGibil's travel map.

By the frequency of my postings you can deduce that I've not been doing very much recently. I'm into the last couple of weeks of my time away and am winding things down a bit after a hectic last month or so.

My Amazon expedition began with a 35-minute flight from La Paz to a town called Rurrenabaque in a tiny aeroplane whose capacity was 19 passengers. French Tim and I had got 'first class' seats as those were supposedly the only ones available, but the only difference between these and the others was that they were at the front. No trolley dollies or Jason Statham films on this flight and there was not even a door to the cockpit, so we could all see the pilots. During the flight we had great views of the snowy Andean mountains and, later, the Amazon river itself snaking through the jungle.

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Rurrenabaque could not have been more different from La Paz - very hot, humid and quiet. There were a lot of tour companies around and it seemed like they all offered the same itinerary so we booked a 3-day 2-night excursion with a persuasive chap representing Fluvial Tours who'd accosted us earlier at the airport.

My tour group consisted of Tim, a couple of young posh lads from Saffron Walden, a Norwegian girl, a quiet French couple and another girl from France. After a bumpy 3-hour drive in our Toyota Land Cruiser we arrived at the river, where immediately we saw some dolphins. Everyone jumped in to join them... with one exception. Swimming with dolphins may be #1 on a lot of people's To Do list but it wasn't on mine at all and I was perfectly happy to observe them from a short dry distance.

Whilst the others were frolicking gaily in the water and not managing to get close to the dolphins, I was having a much better time watching a load of identical caterpillars all crawling down a tree to ground level. Most of the pictures I took on this trip depict small (or far away) creatures in the distance amongst jungle greenery but at least I was able to get close to the caterpillars.

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It was a 45 minute boat trip to our lodge, but it took three hours as our guide Luis stopped frequently to point out various animals. Most common were hoatzins - spiky-haired birds resembling pheasants that nestled in the trees and occasionally flew across the river in front of us. They are also known as stinkbirds due to their foul odour but we never got close enough to verify this nickname.

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It was very rare when there wasn't some kind of bird in view; apart from the hoatzins we saw kingfishers, eagles, egrets and parrots, amongst others. However the highlight, probably of the whole three days, was when we encountered some yellow squirrel monkeys. This was presumably a common occurrence as Luis suddenly whipped out a load of bananas which he distributed amongst us to feed them with. They were soon crawling around the boat and all over us - reminiscent of a scene from one of my favourite films Aguirre, Wrath Of God.

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In answer to the poser in my last entry, it was a squirrel monkey that stood on my head - as this clip shows:

Our lodge comprised of a series of wooden huts on stilts situated close to the river connected by a series of boardwalks. The showers and toilets were predictably basic with no hot water and there were lots of mosquitos in the evening. Talking of pesky irritants, we shared our lodge with a few other groups, including 15 or so Israelis, doing what Israelis do best - make a lot of noise. On the plus side, we were given three hearty meals a day and there was always food left over at the end.

Falling off the boardwalks was not an option due to the presence of a number of caimans that hovered underneath and generally hung around the lodge area. Most were about ten feet long, and whilst they supposedly do not consider humans edible, everyone was giving them a wide berth nonetheless. Monkeys scampered around the trees and on the huts' corrugated roofs, making a din as they did so.

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Late afternoon we went off to watch the sunset somewhere nearby, followed by looking for more caimans at night time - the only way to spot them being by their eyes that reflected red in the torchlight. There were also several fireflies that periodically flickered around us.

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Our first night in the lodge was almost unbearably humid with no air conditioning. Mosquito nets kept us safe from insects but added to an uncomfortable night's sleep.

No such problems the next night as it was rainy and miserable all day. We ventured out in our boat anyway and stopped off to hunt for anacondas (none found) before having a trek round the jungle. This time we saw a jaguarundi, a type of big cat, but not much else. Our guide found some nuts on the floor and cracked one open to reveal a white larva a couple of centimetres long, which he promptly scooped out and put in his mouth. In the end we all tried one of these grubs and they tasted of coconut milk, unsurprising seeing as the plant from which the nuts came was related to the coconut palm tree. I also ate an ant, which tasted of earth, probably as it was covered in earth.

In the afternoon we went fishing - for piranhas. Now I've never fished before and I'm against blood sports, but I joined in this time seeing as we were catching them to eat rather than throw back. Our 'rods' were very simplistic, a small piece of wood with some string and a hook, but no fancy equipment was necessary as it took no more than a few seconds to get a nibble. The hard part was hauling the blighters into the boat, a feat I managed four times - three piranhas and a sardine. The piranhas tasted just like all other fish to me, but there wasn't much meat on them.

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In the early hours of our third and final day, everyone was treated to a loud guttural droning noise for half an hour or so, very much reminiscent of Chris Barnes of Cannibal Corpse grunting his way through 'Meat Hook Sodomy'. Turns out it was a howler monkey, an apposite name based on that morning's evidence.

Before we headed back to Rurrenabaque we went off in the boat again so that the others could swim with some more dolphins. On the way we saw a couple of capybaras - the largest rodent in the world, resembling a cross between a rat and a bear. Back in town we had an enjoyable night out in the Funky Monkey bar, where I recall dancing to Abba so it must have been a particularly drunken affair.

Our flight back to La Paz was delayed for a couple of hours so Tim and I sat around in a cafe near the tiny airport feeding some soft biscuits I found in my bag to the local strays. Once back, we took an overnight bus to Uyuni as neither of us wanted to spend any more time in La Paz than was absolutely necessary. Before taking the bus I nipped over to the Poste Restante at the central post office to collect my replacement bank cards - but they weren't there, despite it being four weeks since they were posted.

Around 13 hours after we set off we arrived in Uyuni, a town mostly used as a base for visiting the salt flat nearby known as Salar de Uyuni. We managed to find a hostel with virtually nobody else in it, where parrots ambled around freely in the reception area.

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After a lot of travelling around and organising things and irregular sleep in the past couple of weeks I was ready for a few days' downtime. But, no time for that, the next day Tim and I were off again on another three-day excursion. Another trip, another load of French people - four of them this time, plus a quiet girl from Mexico.

Over the three days we effectively drove round in a big circle, starting and ending in Uyuni, stopping off at various points of interest - of which there were a lot. First off was what our guide Emilio described as a 'train cemetery'. A railway was built in the late 19th century to transport minerals over to the Pacific ports, but as the minerals depleted in the 1940s, so did the need for the railway and it eventually fell into ruin.

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The highlight of the three days for me was Salar de Uyuni. This is the largest salt flat in the world: over 4000 square miles, roughly seven metres deep and so flat that it varies in altitude by only one metre across the whole area. Some of the photos I took here rank amongst the most spectacular of my entire time away in my view, including the ones I've spoilt by being in myself. Underneath the salt crust are pools of brine that contain around 60% of the world's lithium reserves.

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The Paris-Dakar rally now no longer goes from France to Senegal; nowadays the route encompasses Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, taking in Uyuni and the salt flat as one of the stages. They were in Uyuni in January but all year round it is possible to see the logo throughout the town, and in the flat we drove past this salty sculpture.

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In the middle of the flat there is an area called Isla del Pescado (Fish Island). No fish (supposedly the 'island' is shaped like a fish), but a plethora of cactuses.

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We spent the night in a hostel made almost entirely of salt bricks, including the beds, tables and chairs. I'm not sure what happens if they have sustained periods of rain but we fortunately never got to find out.

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Apart from a lot of llamas, we didn't see much wildlife during the three days, although on day three there were a couple of rheas (similar to ostriches) wandering about by the side of the road. We did however pass several quinoa crops. If, unlike me, you've ever wondered where quinoa comes from, I can tell you that far from being a modern-day fad, they have been growing and eating it around these parts for 4000 years.

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Even after leaving the salt flats, the scenery was still pretty special. We stopped for a closer look at various lakes (home to lots of flamingos), rock formations and geysers, and more often than not there was the backdrop of snow-capped mountains or volcanos.

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On Day 3 we had to get up at 4.30am in order to see everything and get back to Uyuni in time. We dropped the Frenchies off at the Chilean border as they were all off to the Atacama desert, a place I would have been keen to go had time not been a factor. So, after two weeks, I said au revoir to my latest travel buddy Tim - a good lad (despite his preference for sharing bottles of beer rather than having one each) happy to take part in a bit of Anglo-French ribbing, and no sign of a single beret or onion.

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Back in Uyuni, and after a chat (mainly about Michael Jackson) with a couple of English girls Abby and Ady over a cracking pizza it was time for a long sleep back in my parrot-friendly hostel.

So, nearly over for the Bolivian leg - just a couple of scheduled stops to describe (and, as it turned out, an unscheduled stop) next time before the start of the home stretch.

Posted by LordGibil 06:47 Archived in Bolivia

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