Lodgey and Life on the Road. Stories from South America.

8 November 2010

The Inca Trek

Day 1: The first part of every tour is always an interesting time in terms of sussing out who you will get along with and who you won’t. At first glance, we have an American couple with a son, Chris (26) and daughter, Casey (22) who are travelling with an English couple and their ten year old son, Eric. Yep a ten year old doing the Inca Trek!

In our group of 16 there are eight other backpackers and a lovely Indian couple on holiday for two weeks. Chris is wearing a t-shirt suggesting that he is a beer drinker so we guess he might be our first ally. And sure enough at our first morning tea break when Geezer decides to try a glass of Chi-cha, the local Peruvian brew, we are met with 13 pairs of concerned eyes except for Chris’ who asks what it tastes like. Even our guide suggests that we may want to get a little further along the hike before drinking beer. But trying the local brew gets us onside with the 26 porters who are carrying most of our gear, food and camping equipment and they laugh when I point at Geezer and say ‘Borracho’ (which means booze hound in Spanish). They think it’s hilarious.

Meg and Hunter are doing the Inca Trek with a different tour group but we bump into them at the first checkpoint. Then we see them at morning tea, then at lunch and pretty much every stop for the next four days.

The first part of the hike is up and down hill to the Willkarakay ruins and we spot them on top of the next hill listening to their guide but looking extremely bored. After lunch and a two hour hike later we spot them hiking through a pass ahead of us and we yell to them ‘we have wine!’ (we’ve snuck in a box of wine at the last stop). Even if Meg and Hunter, Geezer and I had wanted to ditch each other, it seems impossible because when we arrive at our first camp, their tent is about three feet away from ours. Close enough to sneak a pre-dinner wine in between our tents where we give each other the run down on the other’s group. They are decidedly unhappy with theirs who complain a lot and are proving to be difficult people.

We make small talk with our group over a delicious dinner and then huddle in our tent because it is absolutely freezing.

Day 2: We are woken at dawn by our delightful porters who offer us coca tea in bed! They serve us porridge made out of quinoa (a local grain) which is absolutely scrumptious. Geezer takes one look at breakfast and says ‘I’m not eating that muck’. (Geezer is not a morning person.)

Before setting off, our guide introduces us to each of the porters (minus the ones that left at 5am to secure a good spot at the next camp site). They shyly tell us their name, age, where they are from and how many children they have.
I am quietly dreading today. A three and a half hour high altitude hike up to Dead Woman’s Pass (4200m) then an hour and a half of knee-breakingly steep downhill, another ascent to 3950m and back down to our second camp.
But I must be doing alright because the hike up to Dead Woman’s Pass only takes two hours and we wait for our group with Meg and Hunter, knocking back packets of Snickers bars (minus the guilt).

We wait for over an hour concerned about the two people struggling in our group – Mary (Chris’ mum) who had last night talked of turning back, and ten year old Eric.

Eventually our group is split into two and some of us start heading towards the lunch stop. Mary and Eric arrive as we are finishing our lunch and are cheered in by the group and porters. But it has taken its toll. They are exhausted and are still only half way through their hiking day.

As we head towards the highest point of our next ascent, passing some ruins along the way, the temperature drops significantly. I stop to watch a mist that's rolling in over the lush green mountains that are dotted with ruins and then I hear a noise that makes me sigh. Near the top of the pass is the brother of Eddy, our guide, who begins to play the most beautiful melody on the pan pipes – distracting us from the pain of the steepest part of our hike. No one says a word and we slow our pace so that we can listen to the music. How truly Peruvian, I think to myself!

We finally arrive at the last ruins of the day Sayaqmarka, which are 25 minutes away from our second camp. The camp is set on a cliff top overlooking the mountains with these stunning ruins in the distance and I marvel at our porters who certainly know how to pick a good camp spot.

When it gets dark, we are even more concerned for Mary and Eric who have not yet arrived. But then Mary gets carried in by a porter with an exhausted but proud looking Eric and the entire camp erupts. It is Mary’s husband’s 50th birthday and it has been his dream to do this trek. It is definitely not Mary’s idea of fun.

As dinner is being prepared we discover that Chris and Eric’s dad (also Chris!) have stashed bottles of rum and sambucca in their packs. So we have a little bonding session with the group and end up singing ‘American Pie’ to the whole camp – until we get to verse six because no one can remember any more. Argun, the Indian, is quite distraught that he can’t remember any more and confesses the next morning that it has kept him awake most of the night, which I find highly amusing.

Day 3: Supposedly an easier hiking day today but for some reason I find it more difficult than yesterday. Perhaps I’d only psyched myself up for the previous day. But there is a third pass through 4000m and I'm tired. The altitude is disturbing me.

So I walk for a large part of the morning with ten year old Eric and he hints that he’d gotten a bit upset while climbing Dead Woman’s Pass. He wasn’t sure he’d make it to the top. So I tell him that I’d had a meltdown while hiking through the Colca Canyon and that I’d sat on a rock and cried. Really??? he asks me. Yep - bawled my eyes out, I reply. Yeah so did I, he confesses. And we have a good laugh. I tell him how brave I think he is and how few ten year olds can say they’ve done the Inca Trek. He puffs his chest out, puts a skip in his step and we change the topic to the World Cup.

The Intipata ruins are visible from early on in the day but it seems to take forever to get there. The path is mostly stairs and my knees take an absolute pummelling. Geezer steams along, still in his converse shoes, which have stood the test of several arduous hikes.

When we arrive at Intipata, the view down the valley, over Machu Picchu mountain and the surrounding mountains is jaw dropping. We sit with our legs swinging over the side of a terrace for an age. I don’t want to leave, the view is so amazing.

But eventually the prospect of cold beer and a shower gets us moving to our third camp which is only ten minutes away.

After a few beers, we make our way to the Winay Wayna ruins for sunset. It’s not much of a sunset but sitting in the ruins as the light changes is pretty cool. We sit there until well after dark.

Out of nowhere, Argun bursts into song suddenly remembering the seventh verse of ‘American Pie’. So we all sing from where we left off and get shunted along by one of the porters who is probably frightened that our bad singing will bring the ruins down.

The night ends with a thank you ceremony for our porters and we present them with their tips and cheers. Geezer then disappears into the bar and buys a crate of beers – one for each of the 26 porters – and they look absolutely chuffed. ‘Salud!’ we all say.

Day 4: We are woken at 4am by the porters to make our way to the sungate for sunrise. The sungate will give us our first view of Machu Picchu and we are aiming to get there before all the tourists come in via the train from Cusco.

But the walk takes more like three hours and is all uphill which I’m not expecting and find difficult.

When we eventually arrive at the sungate, there sits Machu Picchu in all its glory in the not too far distance. I find my own spot on a rock and stare at one of the wonders of the world. What a beautiful place. Hidden away for centuries covered in jungle on top of a mountain. The only thing spoiling it is the number of tourists which suddenly appear out of nowhere.

We head down towards the ruins and take a million photos because one doesn’t do the place justice. We take many photos from the postcard spot and then have to head down to the front gate to check in with the authorities. Geezer is asked to take a photo of a family, loses sight of our group and ends up following a guy with the same t-shirt as our tour leader. He then realises that we are nowhere around and thinks ‘bollocks to the group. I’m hanging around here until they come back’.

When I realise he has gone, our guide climbs back up into the ruins to find him. Ten year old Eric quips that he knows where Geezer is. ‘He’s MIA. Missing In Alcohol!’. Everyone laughs.

When Geezer is found, everyone cheers and we are moved back up to the ruins for a two hour tour. We then have some free time and try to get tickets to climb Wayna Picchu, the mountain behind the ruins. But the 400 available tickets have all gone for the day. So we vow to get up early and come back the next day.

Sometime in the afternoon we meet up with our group in Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu mountain. It doesn’t seem enough time in the ruins and we are disappointed that we have missed out on climbing Wayna Picchu.

We go to buy our tickets for the next day for Machu Picchu but the only ATM in town is out of order and they don’t accept credit card. So we are forced back to Cusco, a five hour train ride away just so that we can get some cash.

When we finally make it back to Machu Picchu, we are up at 4am so that we can line up early for the tickets to climb Wayna Picchu. By the time we get to the bus stop in Aguas Calientes there is a massive queue and the tickets have already sold out to climb Wayna Picchu. I’m gutted.

But we don’t give up. We spend the morning walking around the ruins and at 11am we line up at the entrance to Wayna Picchu. We have heard that if people haven’t used their tickets by 11am, then they release the tickets.

We are in the queue when a French guy says that he has a ticket but his girfriend has missed out. So he is giving his away. We hope that we have better powers of persuasion than the French so we wait in the line. When we get to the front, we present our ticket to the guard who says... sorry, you need two. I give him a devastated look and say that this is the third time I’ve attempted to climb Wayna Picchu and he puts his back to the line and says ‘OK go on.. quick!’. We practically knock the guy over as we run through the gate before he changes his mind.

It is a 45 minute extremely steep climb up Wayna Picchu. But the reward is a bird’s eye view of the ruins and a different perspective. The steps are so tiny that I have to go up sideways. The Inca’s must have been tiny!

We take more pictures up there, see a couple get engaged (and can’t decide whether the bride is pleased or not) before heading back down to Aguas Calientes and then on to Cusco. We can now definitely tick Machu Picchu off the bucket list!

On our way to Machu Picchu

We board a bus back to Arequipa, leaving the Canyon de Conquered behind. The bus is a local one and is so stuffed with people that there are actually two people standing between Geezer who is in the aisle seat and the seat in front. One of them constantly scratches his head, flicking dandruff all over Geezer who shakes it off in disgust with a ‘ugh!’ and glares at the scratcher.

The bus is also boarded by a tout selling a cure for everything and Geezer tells me to button it when he approaches us and I start to tell him that he is ripping off poor people.

Six hellish hours later we arrive back in Arequipa – Meg minus her camera which has disappeared on the bus and has all her canyon photos on it. We go to the police station and there are two tourists there who have lost a passport. The policeman tells them it will be about two hundred dollars to file a police report and we are about to leave in disgust, throwing in a comment about corruption when he pulls Meg and I back to say that it will cost less than a dollar. He had suspected the other tourists of insurance fraud. So with our tails between our legs we flick through the television guides he gives us to read and wait until he has filled out the report.

Geezer and I then find out that our appeal to the Peruvian government to do the Inca Trail has been successful and we are to start the trail the same day as Meg and Hunter.

So we all make our way to Cusco where Meg and I decide a girl’s night out is in order and we boogie the night away at a great little underground reggae bar.

Feeling lazy after our four day canyon mission but determined to see the fabulous Inca ruins surrounding Cusco, we hire a driver to take us around Pisac, Ollyantambo and Chincara. By the end of the day, I’m completely Inca ruined out despite four days of more Inca ruins coming up on the Inca Trail. We have little time to pack and sleep because we are picked up at 5am the next morning to start our next adventure – the Inca Trek!

Camping in the Colca Canyon

Kitted out with camping gear, enough food for four days and some booze to celebrate our hard slog each day, we board a six hour local bus to Cabanaconde. Once there, we quickly find ourselves a great little hostel with staff who provide us with maps for our hike and some basic drawings of landmarks to watch out for. We stuff ourselves with sensational pizza and have an early night – completely unaware of the battering our bodies are about to take.

Day 1: We rise early and quickly make tracks. The first part of the hike is within walking distance of the town and we are delighted when, in the first half hour, we come across a breathtaking lookout over the canyon. The canyon is so deep and we are literally peering over the edge of it. In the distance we can see where our track leads and our destination for day two. It looks like torture.

Tonight’s camping spot, Lluhuar, is at the very bottom of the canyon and out of sight but it has hot springs. The thought of those hot springs keep me going when the hike becomes difficult, which we know it will.

The canyon colours are magnificent – hues of pink, orange, yellow and brown – and the Andean peaks in the distance add another dimension of awe to the view. A condor soars above us which I see as a sign of luck remembering that the Incas worshipped the condors. We come across a friendly local herding cattle, donning a cowboy hat and looking like he belongs on a ranch. He points us in the right direction and we reluctantly leave our stunning view because today is a long hike, it is stinking hot and my pack is back-breakingly heavy.

The first few hours are so horrendously steep and gravelly that every few steps I skid further than I can step. After an hour, I’m a bit over it – saying some pretty choice words to Pachamama. I already have blisters, and as the elder of the group, I lag behind. It has its advantages. Several times I stop to sit on a rock with a view and poetically think about how good life is before my pack unbalances me and topples me over.

After several hours we find a tiny patch of shade and stop to make some tuna rolls for lunch. On a high, we feel so proud of our efforts so far that we crack open some wine - perhaps not the most sensible thing to do given we are only half way down the canyon and, unbeknownst to us, it is steeper yet. When we eventually get going again, I feel like I’d be better equipped with skis than hiking boots.

Finally we reach the bottom and all agree that it was a tricky start to the trek. We arrive at the river which is ice cold and I’m so hot it is tempting to jump in. We cross a suspension bridge and a short hike later we arrive at our first night’s destination – a restaurant, camping ground with lush grass and hot springs.

The only down side is that the beer is warm but the owner advises us that if we leave them in the river for an hour, they’ll be cold enough. So we quickly set up our camp next to the river and head down to the hot springs which are everything we hoped for. Piping hot and set in the most stunning surroundings – right next to a raging river and canyon walls so high that you have to crane your neck to see the top. The sun is setting and we have the place to ourselves.

Reluctantly we leave the hot springs, boil some noodles for dinner and Hunter gets a cracker fire going. As the fire dies down, the stars emerge and we make a team decision to walk back to the suspension bridge with our torches and a bottle of wine.

The hours speed past as we sit in the middle of a huge bridge suspended from one side of the canyon to the other with candles and wine, star gazing. A case of the munchies sends us back to camp.

Day 2: We wake at 10:30am and quickly decide that there is no point trekking today. It is too late and hot, we feel a little dusty and, to our horror, realise that we’ve managed to eat our way through most of our food.

I’m not disappointed. The camp spot is absolutely beautiful and spending a day here to bathe my sore feet in the hot springs is fine by me.

But our joy at camping there is short lived when a large school group of scatty teenagers descends upon the campsite and literally puts about 20 tents up within an inch of ours. The leader gives us a sympathetic look before attempting to shoo them up to the restaurant to give us some peace.

So we vow to be up at dawn so that we can beat them out of the camp and once again have the trail to ourselves.

Day 3: No need to set an alarm clock. We are woken well before dawn by squawking school girls who have no idea how to put dismantle a tent and are grossed out by all the ants surrounding them.

Thankfully they seem to be heading in a different direction and we leave our lovely camp site to head to another site high up on the canyon with waterfalls.

I leave putting my hiking boots back on until the very last minute and apologise to my severely blistered feet for the next battering.

Now that we’ve scaled the canyon from bottom to top, the only way is back up and the first few hours are gruelling. The only advantage of having eaten and drunk our supplies is that our packs are significantly lighter.

But somewhere in the morning we take a wrong turn and end up climbing a goat trail to get where we need to go. We climb higher and higher looking fearfully across the canyon at the track we’d walked down the first day and the track that we must take tomorrow to get us back out. We’re probably two thirds of the way up the other side of the canyon and the track winds round blind corners of mountains. Each time, we desperately hope it will be our last. At least the track is flat for a while.

Eventually we decide that since we only have one oreo biscuit for each of us we should keep going to the ‘oasis’ at the bottom of the canyon... much further than we’d anticipated walking today. When the decision is made, we realise that it means hiking all the way to the very bottom again. But as we round a corner we see the oasis at the bottom and it motivates us to keep going. Giant swimming pools with waterfalls, large lawns of green grass and lovely little huts. Ah bliss, I think.

I slip in to ‘don’t talk to me, I need to get down this damn mountain’ mode and focus on getting down as quickly as possible.

It reaches 2pm. We haven’t eaten all day, the oasis is at least another hour away and I’m well over it. At one point I actually yell out “Over it!!!!” which echoes back to me several times through the canyon.

After one final stack into a pile of horse dung, I reach the oasis to see Geezer, who looks like he has breezed through the hike in converse shoes. Meg and Hunter shortly follow with Meg wearing thongs which are proving to be more comfortable than her hiking boots.

When the inn keeper tells us he only has warm beer and hot soup for lunch, we simultaneously rise off the lawn, pick up our bags and thank him for the warm beer. He refuses to tell us how to get to the next restaurant so we end up having to bush bash from his property to the next which is the last thing I feel like doing. I can’t help but give him a ‘thanks very much for your unhelpfulness’ look.

We then stumble across a campsite that has a massive lawn, a swimming pool and a bored looking Frenchman running the place. All four of us talk to him at once. “Please, mate, we haven’t eaten all day.” “So hungry.” “Can hardly move so hungry.” “Have you got any food besides soup?”

He flies into the kitchen and whips up the most sensational pasta with a side dish of chillies freshly picked off the roof of his kitchen. We hoof into the pasta and chillies like it’s our last supper, not realising how hot the chillies are. After several mouthfuls, we are again begging him for “water please mate” “so thirsty”. Thankfully he takes pity on us.

After lunch, the boys take off to check out other camp sites while Meg and I loll about, relieved that our seven hour traumatic hike is over. Neither of us bring up the hike out of there the next day but the track is right in front of us and it heads skyward.

The boys re-emerge to say they’ve found a wicked site with great views across the canyon so we slowly make our way over and set up our camp.

Dinner is frightfully disappointing – more bloody soup, rice and weird vegetable stuff. Geezer looks completely disgusted with the muck in front of him so we buy some twix bars, settle in to our sleeping bags.

I get woken at 1am by the crinkling of twix bar wrappers and peer over to see Geezer satisfying his sweet tooth.

Day 4: After yesterday’s seven hour mission on an empty stomach we opt for a lie in and swim. But I’m dreading the supposedly three hour walk out of the canyon because it is a vertical hike and my pack is disintegrating with every step.

Before setting off, we stop off at the Frenchman’s camp and beg for more pasta.

Eventually we confront the inevitable. The hike is relentless and the track so gravelly that I feel like I’m taking one step forward and two back. I’m exhausted after 100m. Half way up, with the others well ahead of me, I sit on a rock and have a meltdown. It is the hardest exercise I have ever done and the language coming out of my mouth is fairly vile.

I follow Geezer’s converse shoe footprints which I spot in the gravel. He makes the hike up look easy and every now and again, he peers from above to check that I’m still alive.

When we finally reach the top, it is nearly sunset but I’m too knackered to care. I slump next to a rock and all I can think about is pizza and bed. The others are the same.

As we leave, I take a final look back across the canyon and see where we’ve just walked. It is no mean feat. We have literally hiked down the canyon, up the canyon, across the canyon, down the canyon and up the canyon. And my body feels so battered that I don’t have the energy to feel proud of what we’ve achieved. Most tourists hike down part of the way and back in a day. I think we more than conquered it.

14 August 2010

Viva el Peru!

Eager to leave Puno behind, we bus it that night to Arequipa to hike through the Colca Canyon – the world’s second deepest canyon.

Compared to many other South American cities, Arequipa is modern with a hint of a Middle Eastern appearance. We are only there for a day before hearing that the biggest festival in South America is on in a few days time in Cusco. So Geezer and I make a last minute decision to catch an overnight bus to Cusco for the festival and come back to Arequipa because we don’t have enough time to hike the canyon with Meg and Hunter, and get to Cusco for the festival.

So we have a day of swinging in an Arequipan hammock before heading to Cusco. A nice break until Geezer twats himself when he sits on a chair, which rips so he falls straight through – much to our amusement.

We arrive in Cusco early morning eager to find out about the Inti Raymi Festival – a tradition that has been around for centuries. Being peak season, we are also keen to book spots on the Inca Trail. We are mortified when we find out that the tickets for the festival are sold out and, after asking every Peruvian in sight about the festival, no one has any idea what is going on. All we are told is that it starts ‘here’ (everyone seems to vaguely point south) and finishes at the Sacsayhuamán (pronounced sexy woman!) Inca ruins sometime in the afternoon.

To make things worse, permits for the Inca Trail are booked out until October and there is no way of getting on the hike. So we approach SAS Travel, who I’ve trekked with in the past (and were fabulous), and ask whether there is any way of getting on the Inca Trail. When I mention that I’m a travel writer and that people would benefit about knowing how far in advance you really need to book, their ears prick up and tell us about a loop hole in the rules. If I write to the Peruvian government body that issues the permits requesting a special pass as a travel writer then we may be able to fill two spots in a week’s time made vacant by a last minute cancellation. We speed over to an internet cafe, type up a letter and send it off with high hopes.

In the meantime, an email has come through from our lovely old travel buddies, Lou and Rachel, saying they are in Cusco and need to immediately catch up with us for old time’s sake. So we vow to have a few drinks and an early night because we want to be up at 6am for the start of the festival.

We end up in a fabulous, almost underground, reggae bar with a live band and the girls get stuck in to mojitos, while Geezer is semi-sensible and goes to bed. I stagger back to the hostel with the girls at some ungodly hour swearing I’ll be fine by morning. But this has been our first night out while travelling and when the alarm goes off at 6am, I have a hangover the size of China.

We stumble around getting ready, have a cold shower (don’t get me started about the lack of hot water on this continent), wrap up in our woollies and head to the square – to find it completely deserted. The grandstand is empty and the few police patrolling the square “think” the parade starts in about half an hour.

So we wait. And wait. And wait. Until 10:30am. By which time, I’m feeling so shabby that I skulk into Macca’s and order the fattiest thing I can find. Then I catch myself in the mirror and almost shriek at the sight of me. I mutter to myself that if I see anyone I know, I will die (but convince myself that the chances are remote). I then hear “Kirst! Fred!” Turn around. And there stands our lovely Australian friend Tom who we met on our Antarctic cruise and who we have randomly bumped in to ever since.

“Wow! You look baaaad!” He quickly realises what he is dealing with and bids us a fond farewell. I now not only have the dry horrors, but the all over horrors.

We then hear the sound of distant drums and finally see the parade coming. But the crowd is now so thick that we can barely see anything and the parade stops in front of the grandstand, not coming even close to where we are standing. It is heartbreaking. We battle through the crowd to get a better vantage spot but it is too difficult.

We decide to sack it off, pack our bags and head straight up to Sacsayhuamán where there is already a massive crowd surrounding the main arena. Sacsayhuamán is an important site in Inca terms and the ruins there are impressive – certainly a great festival backdrop. Built in 1200AD, it was once believed to be a fortress to represent the puma, an animal worshipped by the Incas. The massive stones are so tightly spaced that not even a sheet of paper will fit between them. And they are in all sorts of shapes and sizes, interlocked inside allowing the ruins to survive several major earthquakes.

We nestle in to a prickly spot on the hill amongst a group of locals who snigger at me gingerly picking out prickles from my feet.

Eventually the cavalcade arrives and the parade begins with groups of dancers representing different Inca communities telling their story from ages past. They are followed by an Inca king and a llama which will be sacrificed as part of the proceedings. (I’m relieved to see that it’s not a real llama but a woman dressed up. In traditional times, llamas were slaughtered as offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth).)

After several hours of roasting in the sun, we decide to leave and find a local eating house with a million dollar view over Cusco and the surrounding hills stamped with 'Viva el Peru! We stuff ouselves before boarding our overnight bus back to Arequipa.

With such a dodgy start to the day, we are relieved that it has actually turned out to be a great little side trip.

Poo to Puno

Frankly – the less said about the floating islands, the better. Horribly touristy and, although the scenery is pretty good on one of the islands, we can’t wait to get out of there.

Our tour guide, Bruno, is the most irritating, uninformed idiot and several times we bite our tongues to stop ourselves from a smart response. When he leaves us stranded on the island, our boat taking off without us, it is confirmed. He really is a knob.

But despite the tour being painful (eg when Bruno stops us to say “everybodeeeeeeee... this is a treeeeeeeeeee”), we still manage to enjoy ourselves. The four of us stay with an unwelcoming family who serve us lunch comprising of a broad bean, a tiny potato in its jacket and three sweet potato-ish yam-like things. My mouth is so dry from eating the starchiest meal in the world that I can’t swallow and I spend the day fearing I’ve accidentally swallowed a fur ball. We all agree that we need plenty of wine to make sure the meal has gone down.

After lunch we brave the high altitude to hike up to a good spot for sunset, away from the tourists. It turns out that we have picked the one spot where all the tourists go for sunset and we’ve not been sat there for ten minutes when we are swarmed by a crowd. Bruno discovers that we’ve escaped from the tour and exclaims loudly “haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa... you made it up here by yourselves! Very goooooooood. And you have wine! Ohhhhhhhhhhhh....”.

After a brilliant sunset , we make our way back to our host’s house, scrambling through paddocks in the dark, much to the concern of the locals.

Our hosts (relieved to see we made our way back in the dark) invite us in for dinner. Their house is a basic mud brick hut with a thatched roof and a dirt floor. They have no electricity and no running water. The matriarch of the family, who is probably only aged 30, is hunched over a fire cooking our dinner. After the primitive lunch, I’m sceptical about the possibility of a sumptuous dinner and have secretly stashed a snickers bar under my pillow. My hunch is right. She delivers up a watery soup made with quinoa, their local grain, and vegetables. The main course is rice and the most horrid vegetable curry. Thankfully the room is so dark that I can’t actually see what I’m eating and we still have some red wine left to wash down the gruel.

Earlier that day when we’d arrived at our host’s house, we had made a point of introducing ourselves and thanking our gracious hosts for their hospitality. (I suspect my Spanish came out more like.. “Meg, Hunter, Fred and Kirsten we are. Pleased meet you to. Thank you hospitality for your Senor.”) We presented them with kilos of flour, sugar, rice and pasta to thank them. Our Senora snatched the bags off us, unpadlocked a storeroom and literally threw them in there before marching inside.

So when the gruel emerges for dinner, we are surprised.

During dinner, Senor tells us that they have three sons all away at boarding school. Allowing gringos to stay pays for their sons’ education. So despite the death stares from Senora as she is cooking dinner, I can understand why they do it and why they must hate it. But I feel like I'm walking on eggshells in their presence.

Our host begrudgingly dresses us up in Peruvian garb and takes us to the local disco - part of the tour. Instead we decide to put Geezer and Hunter in the women’s clothes, and Meg and I in the men’s. On the way to the disco, Geezer steps into a giant pool of pig’s slop and emerges up to his knees in mud. Having knocked back a few wines by this stage, we are quite literally rolling around the grass laughing. Even Senora can’t hide her amusement.

We walk into the disco to a few stares and dance the night away to pan pipes and drums. Leaving, I think, an impression.

The next morning we are woken by Senora early for breakfast. We quickly throw our bags together and wait anxiously for breakfast... desperately hopeful that it might be something palatable. When the driest pancake in Peru is put on each of our plates, I wonder how on earth I’m going to sink it – especially since I have the dry horrors from too many wines the night before.

So I ask quietly... “Erm... Senora? Is there any chance you might... erm... have any jam?” The look I get from her is so horrifying that I momentarily consider climbing under the table to hide. Instead I stuff as much of the pancake in my mouth, smile at her and think of England. Not being much of breakfast people anyway, the boys exit stage left with their tea.

Our hosts happily walk us to their pier to catch our boat and we spend a few hours travelling to island number two listening to Bruno bang on about nothing.

Our second island is much nicer and less touristy and we bid our moody tour group and Bruno farewell, choosing to stay an extra night. At last, we are on our own so we walk the perimeter of the island while the sun is setting. Our hosts this time are lovely.

The next morning we hike down to a beach on the island and make a mad dash into the icy waters of Lake Titicaca in our underpants. We thaw out and go to catch our boat, which we discover has left without us because Bruno hasn’t booked us in. Eventually another boat from the same moody company agrees to take us back and we spend five hours on the slowest boat in the world heading back to Poo-no.

17 July 2010

Bye, bye Bolivia

After bidding Meg and Hunter farewell, our next adventure is a mountain bike tour down the ‘world’s most dangerous road’. It is a narrow, rocky road with mountains on one side and a sheer drop on the other. It has earned its name because of the number of deaths from cars, buses and trucks going over the side.

Not so confident on a mountain bike – let alone on a road with that kind of reputation – I am extremely nervous.

We start at high altitude, 4300m and, as well as struggling to breathe, the bike I’m riding is much heavier than I’m used to.

The first part is downhill on a tarred road so it’s not too bad. But then we hit the dirt road and I’m all over the place. The road is covered in massive stones and, although we stop every 15 minutes to make sure no one has gone over the edge, I’m always the last person in. Geezer rides with me until a guide offers to escort me down so that Geezer can whiz down and enjoy it.
It takes us a few hours to get down to the town at the bottom and, as time goes on, my confidence picks up. Geezer has the time of his life but I’m relieved it´s over.

The next day we board a bus to a lovely little town called Copacobana on Lake Titicaca near Peru’s border. Needing a few days just to chill, we skip all the tours and relax in a cafe watching the World Cup. We get up early one morning to watch New Zealand play Slovakia and I wake the whole town with my yelling when New Zealand scores a goal.

To our delight, we bump into Meg and Hunter and after reassuring each other that we aren’t encroaching on each other’s space we agree to travel to Puno in Peru to see the floating islands made of reeds.

So after five weeks we leave Bolivia, having only intended to spend two. But who’s counting!

Geezer's birthday

The morning we leave Rurre, we had not only said goodbye to Rambo, but our new friends Meg and Hunter. So feeling rather depressed we get ready to go back to La Paz – dreading the mayhem, cold weather and high altitude.

But as Meg and Hunter are leaving they break the news that they have decided to come to La Paz for Geezer’s birthday. We are rapt.

We head to Rurre airport and get an enormous amount of grief from a security guard. So Geezer cheekily strikes a Hitler pose and army marches past him which has me in hysterics and the guard looking puzzled.

The next day is Geezer’s birthday but we have several missions to do including printing some photos to send to Rambo and booking a tour to San Pedro prison.

At the stroke of midnight, I sing happy birthday to my Geezer.

The next morning we are up early, wolf down breakfast and go to meet our guide for a tour of San Pedro prison – a famous prison that is run by the inmates not guards. It’s not your regular prison. It has restaurants, women and children live there and many of the inmates run businesses from there.

It is a common tourist attraction but it is still a surreal experience. The inmates ‘cells’ are more like apartments – some of which are two stories high – and many of them have pets. They hold elections each year to nominate inmates to run the prison, its finances and security. They pretty much bribe the guards to stay outside.

We spend a few hours there talking to some of the inmates and feel very safe. But it never escapes our minds that the inmates are there for a reason and after a while we leave.

We head back to the hostel to meet Meg and Hunter and are happy to be reunited because we miss them already. We make plans for drinks later that day but we are both exhausted.

It gets to 8pm and we are both in bed feeling knackered, desperately wanting to celebrate Geezer’s birthday but having no energy to do it.

Then there is a knock at the door and in march Meg and Hunter with a birthday cake and a candle, singing happy birthday. Their happiness and smiles, that have the ability to perk you up in an instant, make us jump out of bed and get ready to go out. They present Geezer with a gift – the most beautiful Bolivian poncho – and a card with words that make me weep. They have gone to so much effort. And we feel even luckier to have crossed their paths.

So we head to a great English pub underneath our hostel and sit on lounges in the corner listening to Geezer’s favourite music. They even play ‘I fought the law’ by The Clash not once, but twice, just for Geezer. Having been regulars in there, the staff let us stay until well past closing time.

We stagger up to our hostel in the wee hours and play some tunes in our room before calling it a night - a perfect night with Geezer feeling very happy to have had his birthday abroad in a great pub with great music and great friends.


The eight days that we have spent with Rambo, we form a bond and it isn’t until we say goodbye that we realise the effect he has had on us.

Over that time we learn that he is one of 29 children, his father is just about to turn 103 and has had ten wives in his lifetime. Rambo tells us that his dad smokes a pipe with home-grown tobacco but only eats food produced on his farm. He says he is a pretty wholesome character. His brothers and sisters are scattered around the world.

Rambo is single and lives with five men. He says that once he wanted children but now it is too late and he believes that not having children and a wife keeps him young. He tells us this as a hassled, tired-looking woman with five children walks into the bar and we laugh. In trying to guess his age we had thought he was in his thirties. He is 49 and is fit.

The day after our jungle tour, Geezer and I are in an outdoor bar waiting for our flight to La Paz wishing that we’d had a better goodbye. Geezer looks out over the balcony and sees Rambo crossing the street. “Rambo!!!” he yells out and Rambo races up to join us.

He is on his way to get his machete sharpened but we have two precious hours with him alone so he tells us about his life.

When he was 22 he worked for a petrol company and was part of a team laying a pipeline deep in the Bolivian jungle. It is an area where an indigenous tribe lives and no one enters the area because the tribe is so dangerous.

Rambo and 19 of his work mates ventured into the area and were busy working on laying the pipe. He tells us that he heard a noise and out of instinct darted behind a tree. He then watched all 19 of his work mates get shot with poison darts to the neck that had been spat out of a tube by this tribe. The tribesmen then sliced their chests open and ate their hearts raw. He said he lay silently for hours, paralysed with fear. When he was sure they had gone, he made his escape and came across a woman from the tribe who helped him to escape beyond the tribe’s boundary.

This tribe wear no clothes. They are cannibals. The women live on the boundary and are not allowed to venture past a certain area. When they give birth, their babies are taken away before they even know its sex. The baby girls are mostly killed. If they have a boy, they are allowed to keep it until the boy is a toddler and then the men send him out into the jungle to fend for himself. Only the strongest survive.

Rambo then tells us about being a guide and how he is most at home in the jungle. He has a property in rural Bolivia with horses, sheep and a massive patch of jungle riddled with wildlife. He plans on retiring as a guide in 2012 to live there permanently.

He loves that we call him Rambo and we are surprised when he tells us that no one has ever come up with that nickname. He so looks like Rambo.

When it comes time to leave, we hug for a long time. But then he looks me straight in the eye, points to both of us, puts his hand on his heart and says ´para siempre in mi corazon´ – forever in my heart. And then he is gone.

I’m howling my eyes out and Geezer sheds a wee tear behind his sunglasses. It is a long time before we say anything. Rambo is one local we have met who will forever be in our hearts.

A jungle tour too?

We have a day in Rurre doing chores before marching into Madidi to say we are going on a four day jungle tour and we are taking Rambo, Rodolfo and Sandy with us. Madidi advises us that there are other guides we should use for the jungle but having spent four amazing days with this crew we don’t want anyone else. Our crew seem delighted with this and outside sits a smiling Rambo, who gives me a squeeze and says ‘ha Christina, jungle – si?!!’ (It’s difficult to say Kirsten in Spanish so I go along with Christina.)

Rambo then presents us each with a necklace made out of nuts from the jungle. But to ‘Burracho’ Rambo presents a wild boars tooth on the end of a necklace because even though they speak different languages, Geezer and Rambo have man-bonded.

We hug each other before leaving to pack our bags for our second adventure – and unintentionally have a massive night, which ends with us swinging in hammocks and talking shit.

Day 1 – A slow start to the day because we are feeling so dusty from the night before. We walk down to the River Beni with our packs and gumboots (a camping girl’s best friend!) to see our smiling crew, which cheers us enormously, and a boat full of camping supplies and food.

We eventually find out that Sandy, our cook, is a 27 year old mum of four kids and her mother looks after them while she’s away. So we realise that she’s had 24 hours at home with her young family before being whisked away again to feed us. But she sits back in the boat with her feet up, giggling at Rambo’s constant happy chatter and pranks on Burracho – including one where he pulls the back of the boat seat out as Geez is about to sit down and he goes arse over tit. Sandy is still laughing half an hour later.

Our first stop is on a beach with a high bank. We jump out of the boat and immediately sink almost to the top of our gumboots in super soft mud. The harder I try to get out, the further I sink until eventually I stack it and land on my backside in the mud. Everyone is laughing so hysterically that we are incapable of helping anyone, including ourselves – except Rambo who, with one swift swoop, pulls me out and pops me on firmer ground.

Rambo takes us on a quick hike while Sandy cooks up another storm and we spot jaguar footprints – one larger set and a smaller set - a mother and her cub.

We then motor up river till late afternoon to a giant wall of rock where pairs of beautiful giant red Macaws have dug out holes to make their nests. Then we hit Madidi’s campsite – which is nestled neatly in the jungle a stone’s throw from the river and in the most magical of spots! Rodolfo strings up four hammocks – two for sleeping and two for just swinging. We share a bottle of red with the crew, Rambo does his lovely prayer to Pachamama and Geezer and I doze happily in our hammocks under the stars.

Day 2 – We wake up to another magic Sandy meal which earns Sandy the loudest ‘Gracias, Sandy!’ yet and then pack up part of our camp to head off deeper into the jungle.

We hike for two hours with backpacks weighed down with food, camping gear and supplies. The walk to our next camp is probably only an hour but Rambo and Rodolfo stop constantly along the way to show us plants that are used to help babies sleep, ones that treat diseases like arthritis and for dyes in tattoos which they demonstrate by drawing on our arms. They also cut down a piece of vine and hold it upside down so that fresh water pours out. This vine later comes to our rescue when we run out of water mid hike and the boys manage to fill up a whole water bottle from a short piece of vine.

On our way to the camp, Hunter and I step on a log at the same time and it crumbles beneath us sending us falling into a heap and me staring into the centre of a giant dead tree. All I can think of is that it would be a perfect home for a giant anaconda and struggle like mad with my backpack and Geezer’s help to get the hell out of there. It’s the first of many logs we have to cross to get over giant pools of murky water and I quickly discover – much to everyone’s amusement - my appalling sense of balance made worse with a backpack on or an expensive camera round my neck.

We eventually arrive at a very basic but stunning camp site and set up tarps to sleep under. Meg grabs a machete and cuts down giant palm fronds that we use as sleeping mats. We are soon whisked away by Rambo and Rodolfo who tell us that we are going on a hike to another river which, given the heat, sounds perfect for a late afternoon swim. The hike is through thick jungle and Rodolfo machete’s his way through, bending branches and turning over leaves so that he can easily find his way back.

The small river is set in another beautiful setting on a sandstone beach and we haven’t even reached the water before we’ve stripped off. I have one foot in the water about to dive in when Rodolfo warns us that there are giant manta rays in the water but if we stay in the shallow bits we’ll be fine. My euphoria at having reached a spot to swim is suddenly dampened by this news but we go in anyway.

Geezer is the first one out and sits on the side with his shirt off. He suddenly realises that he is being bitten and rushes to get dressed. A few minutes later he is in agony and lifts his shirt up to reveal dozens of bright red welts on his back. Vicious sandflies have attacked him and we all scramble to cover up. Not quickly enough because before long we are all scratching like maniacs. But Geezer has born the full brunt and is in serious discomfort. Rambo later makes a tea out of a tree bark which he dabs on Geezers bites and it seems to calm them.

We arrive back at the campsite in near darkness, completely exhausted and anxious for dinner and bed. We have a restless sleep because all we can hear is the hum of hundreds of mosquitoes. And the heat is not helping our bites.

Day 3 – All of us wake bitten to buggery and not really looking forward to another jungle bash. But we put on our gumboots and set off on a different route from the camp. We haven’t gone far before Rodolfo tells us to sit on a log and listen. Rambo starts making monkey noises and after one or two calls a monkey calls back. We sit in silence and listen to Rambo calling out to this monkey and it clearly responds. Next thing a group of monkeys is swinging in the trees above us and we are in awe. The jungle really is where Rambo is at home.

We see herds of wild boars, small monkeys, big monkeys, macaws and a little bright yellow snake slithers across our path. Geezer leans in to take a photo of it and it rears up in defence before shooting off into the scrub.

Rodolfo sticks his machete into a tree and it bleeds out a dark red sap which the indigenous people use to treat a number of illnesses. He offers for us to try it and it has the weirdest taste as well as drying up all the saliva in your mouth. Geezer dares Hunter to lick a big glob of it straight off Rodolfo’s not so clean hand. He takes up the dare which is captured on video and has us in hysterics – including the guides.

After making a jungle swing out of a vine, we head back to camp which is absolutely swarming with wasps. We wolf down lunch and pack up as quickly as possible to get away from the wasps. In seeking refuge from the wasps we see the spot where Sandy has been collecting water from for our meals. It is a dark brown puddle of swampy muck and we are amazed that after seven days of drinking that water, we haven’t been sick. In fact if we hadn’t seen it, we never would have believed it.

It only takes us an hour to walk back to our main camp and Rodolfo is keen to take us on another hike. But we are exhausted and ask whether we can take the boat to fish or swim. They take us to the other side of the main river which has an incredibly strong current. We have a luscious swim in the cold water to wash and relieve our bites – particularly Geezer whose back is red raw. All of a sudden Rambo and Geezer are discussing the possibility of swimming across the river to where the camp is. They nod and we watch in amazement as they race each other against the current across the wide river and make it to the other side, punching the air in delight. Go Geezer!

We meet them on the other side of the river, head back to camp and spend the rest of the day sipping red wine, swinging in the hammocks and listening to the sounds of the jungle. Life doesn’t get much better than this!

Day 4 – I wake up to the sounds of Sandy cooking our last breakfast, feeling sad that this will be our last day with our crew. But we are all so mosquito bitten that the jungle is starting to get to us so we are keen to get going. We spend the morning packing up the camp.

We are pretty much ready to leave when I dash to the outhouse. On the way back a little black snake slithers across the path in front of me. Marvelling at my ability to stay calm, I then hear a large rustle in the bushes and see a huge snake slithering beside me. It stops. I start walking. It starts moving along side me. I pick up my pace and it does the same. I start running and it keeps up with me, making a hell of racket in the bush. I then scream like a maniac all the way back to camp... eventually arriving with everyone staring at me.

Rodolfo then tells everyone to be quiet and madly motions for us to follow him. He can hear a pack of wild boars. Still recovering from my snake affair and only wearing thongs, I decide to stay and Meg does too. Hunter follows Rodolfo with Rambo but he loses them and sits for a moment on a log to watch some monkeys in the trees.

He then looks down and about two metres away is a black panther which eyes him up for a split second before darting off silently into the jungle. He doesn’t have his camera on him but he says that it was too quick anyway.

Rambo and Rodolfo are excited for us. They love the wildlife and they love that we are so happy when we see something.

Before we leave, Rambo presents us each with a ring he has carved out of a nut and has been grinding up plant leaves to make a dye. He then paints our faces with the purple dye with some tribal pattern. I later scare a child in Rurre who looks at my painted face and runs away screaming.

We arrive back in Rurre and arrange to meet the crew for a drink later. Sandy doesn’t make it but Rambo and Rodolfo arrive looking quite different out of their jungle attire.

We are amazed that even though we all speak a different language, we communicate and laugh about our experiences. I’m sitting next to Rambo trying to translate where I can. I apologise for my appalling Spanish but he laughs and says “Christina.... you’re Spanish is very bad but I understand what you are saying!” He takes my hand and thanks me for translating over the eight days. He says that many groups speak no Spanish and it is a very different experience for him as a guide. Both him and Rodolfo tell us that they have loved us as a group, they loved that we wanted to camp instead of staying in the lodges and they loved that we took both of them to the jungle even though it had cost us more to take both guides. The feeling is so mutual. We eventually bid them a sad farewell.

13 July 2010

A pampas tour at last

When we decide to give Madidi Tours another chance, we set some conditions - we insist on camping rather than staying in the lodges, which is what all the other tourists do, that Madidi doesn’t screw us again and we have the same crew.

Julian is so offended by us axing the first trip that he announces he will not be coming so we will have no translator. We don’t care. And by this stage in our travels, I feel quietly confident that I can translate enough Spanish to get a main message across.

So once again Sandy, Rodolfo, Meg, Hunter, Geezer and I set off in a jeep with less supplies for a four day tour of the pampas - this time with Carlos, our boat driver. After another amazing lunch (Gracias, Sandy!), we board our long, motorised canoe and Carlos is quickly renamed ‘Rambo’ when he dons a headband, khaki clothes, a bare chest and a wicked grin.

We are on our way! And feel pleased with ourselves when packed boat loads of tourists steam past us with boom boxes, dreadful music and disinterested looking guides. Our crew, on the other hand, are lively, excited about being on the river and seem to enjoy our company.

Rambo is quite a character (more on him later!). Sandy kicks back enjoying the sun with a smile, quietly planning our next culinary delight. Rodolfo, a quieter, older guide, immediately starts wildlife spotting. We instantly see pink dolphins and stunningly beautiful birds. I’m not a bird person but the birds are seriously impressive.

But it is the crocs and peeping eyes of caiman that have us gobsmacked. There are hundreds of them lining the banks. As soon as the boat approaches they bob underneath the water or slide on their bellies down from the banks and disappear under the boat.

We motor down river for several hours, passing the horrific looking lodges, until nearly dark. We pull in to a bank, unload the boat and set up camp on the side of the river, slightly anxious about the number of crocs we have seen on these very banks. Hunter has a fire roaring within minutes, Meg and Geezer hoist the tent while Sandy cooks up an unforgettable stew and we all throw back a couple of red wines – except for Rambo who sits quietly to one side of the camp fire not eating or drinking.

After dinner Rambo asks me about us – where we are from, our relationships, where we met. I assume that he is trying to get to know us but then he starts clearing a small space in front of him. He sprinkles the area with coca leaves and lights two cigarettes which he sticks in the ground upside down to burn. He then pours 96% pure alcohol on the pile in front of him and begins a quiet prayer to Pachamama (Mother Earth).

I cannot understand every word he is saying but he uses the information that I have given him to introduce Pachamama to us and to ask her to keep us safe. He asks her to make sure we have a great time together, to keep us well fed, to please bring out some wildlife and to protect his ‘new family’ – us. He says that in all his years as a guide nothing has ever happened to his group thanks to his prayer to Pachamama. He talks quickly and I can’t translate fast enough or translate effectively the beauty of his prayer. But I understand enough to know that our guide and boat driver, Rambo, is a deeply spiritual, tough yet gentle soul. And we all sigh at how lovely it is.

He then asks us to take a swig of the alcohol, which puts hairs on our chests, and to each pour some of the alcohol on the pile of coca leaves and say our own words to Pachamama. He shoves wads of coca leaves into his cheek. The boys follow with the coca leaves – and then dare each other to keep swigging on the 96% alcohol. Rambo chuckles quietly and says the word ‘burracho’, which means pisshead in Spanish! From then on, Geezer is known as Burracho.

We later discover that Rambo never eats on the first night of a tour as an offering to Pachamama.

Later that night we walk down to the edge of the river with torches and are stunned to see hundreds of caiman eyes peering out of the water – some not so far away from where we are standing.

Feeling tired, full and happy, the four of us squeeze into the tiniest tent imaginable and sleep like logs.

Day 2 – We are up early for a breakfast of deep fried goodness (Gracias, Sandy!), load up the boat and steam ahead upriver still amazed at the number of crocs.

By late morning we pass the point where most of the tourists stop and the water is so untouched that it is covered in moss. We eventually come to a narrower part of the river and a giant tree has fallen blocking our way. We agree that this must have been the part of the river Madidi told us was unpassable. Unperturbed, Rambo and Rodolfo get their machetes out and start hacking a path through the mass of branches. The boys help and together they figure out a way through – which ends with Rambo backing up the canoe and rams it through the trees at full speed taking everybody by surprise.

We make it through and arrive at a small beach where there are pink dolphins lolling about and loads of piranhas.

This is my first time fishing and I’m horrified at the thought of catching anything. Geezer puts his line out first and immediately catches a piranha which he reels in – but the hooks are blunt and it doesn’t quite take. Rodolfo bolts over and tries to catch it with his hands but he falls in the water and the piranha makes a lucky escape.

Meg then reels in one while Hunter admires her fishing skills from the bank before bringing in a couple himself.

I stand there half-heartedly trying to catch something when my line tugs. I give it a quick pull and see a piranha on the end. I scream for New Zealand and the poor fish jumps back in to the water in fright. I am later more successful and catch a small cat fish. After much coercing, I hold it long enough to have my photo taken and throw it back in the water.

Giggling to herself at our fishing efforts, Sandy catches them left, right and centre for lunch. But when she stands up on the boat, she falls straight into the croc infested waters. She comes up laughing and we all decide that if she can fall in the water and not get eaten by a croc then it’s safe for a swim. Rambo and Rodolfo agree that while the dolphins are there, the caiman stay away. So we all go for a nervous dip, sun ourselves on the beach with wine and treats.

The beach is beautiful but we have to set up camp further down the river and enjoy another early night on a full stomach.

Day 3 – More river cruising and the scenery is absolutely surreal. The water is so still. It is so quiet that the only noises you can hear are monkeys in the trees, the plops of crocs sliding into the water and the gliding of our canoe in the water – and us rambling on.

Rodolfo takes us on an afternoon hike through the pampas and it is here that we appreciate his skills as a medicine man. He stops every few minutes to cut a piece of bark off a tree for us to smell, touch or taste. One smells strongly like garlic. Another is used to make hair dye. He explains that every plant in the jungle and pampas has a medicinal or useful purpose.

We get back on the boat and arrive at the most stunning of places – a perfect camping spot for our third night – but we are told that there isn’t enough fuel and we need to head back part of the way in the night with the motor off. So begrudgingly we start heading back, taking our torches on the way for some night cruising on the river. The whole way we spot caiman eyes watching us go past and hear the odd splash of a croc in the water. We make one stop for dinner and then keep going – eventually finding a suitable place to camp.

Instead of pitching the tent, we put mosquito nets over our sleeping bags and sleep under the stars not at all worried about the wildlife lurking nearby.

Day 4 – Our last bit of deep fried goodness for breakfast (Gracias, Sandy!) before we board our boat and motor back the way we came. We arrive back in Rurre late afternoon after a hellish jeep ride back from the river. We agree to meet Rambo, Rodolfo and Sandy the next day to tip them and formally thank them.

The four days have seemed like a whirlwind. The best times in our travels have been made by the people we have shared them with. Our crew who shared so much knowledge, protected us, fed us like kings and showed so much enthusiasm and passion for their jobs that we were constantly mesmerised.

And our new friends – Meg and Hunter – well what can I say? There have been few people that we have bonded with so quickly. Our wickedly funny and warm-hearted American friends, Kara and Dave, and now Meg and Hunter. We end up having a better experience because of them. We could have gone on any old pampas tour but by chance we met people that turned just a tour into a trip we will never forget. And it is because of the amazing time we have and the bond between friends that we decide instead of going our separate ways, we sign up for another tour – this time in the jungle.

Fate or fortune?

I’m not a strong believer in fate... more that shit just happens. But our latest adventure may have swayed me slightly towards the former.

The few days we spend in La Paz kill us – the high altitude, the constant feeling of being ripped off and the general craziness of the city. So after a few days we leg it to Rurrenabaque, Bolivia’s jump off point to the Amazon jungle and pampas, hanging for warmer weather and wildlife.

We board a tiny plane for a 35 minute flight to Rurre, desperately wanting to avoid the 20 hour bus ride along ‘Death Road’. We are close enough to the cockpit to see that the pilots don’t have their hands on the wheel until we land on a grass strip in Rurre – slightly unnerving when they’ve announced turbulence but there is none.

Geezer suggests we ride on the back of motorbikes from the airport. I hesitate for a split second before flinging my backpack on to the front of a bike and next thing we roar away from the airport, wind whipping my face, yelling.... Hellooooo Rurrenabaqueeeeeee!!

Having been recommended Madidi Tours for pampas and jungle tours we head there after checking out a few other companies that seem to only cater to the masses. We tell the young Bolivian behind the desk (whose gob is so stuffed of coca leaves that he can barely talk) that we want something different, off the beaten track but most of all away from the throngs of tourists.

We are in luck. Madidi had been approached by the owner of a piece of land and they want to investigate whether it will make a good destination for tourists. It would be a seven day adventure – two days up the river, three days in the jungle and two days back – plenty of wildlife and camping with indigenous villages along the way. No tourist has been there. It sounds perfect.

But we add up the cost and realise that it is too expensive for us to do alone. We would have to find another couple that afternoon in order to set off in two days time. We tell Madidi that we’ll be back later to see whether they’ve had any other punters.

We are marginally hopeful - even Geezer offers to stand outside Madidi with a plaque. But we return later that day to discover that an Australian couple has just been in wanting the same thing. Julian, Madidi’s coca-leaf gob stuffed front man, tells us that we can probably find them in the bank as they’d just left. We walk out and immediately spot them – Meg and Hunter – two people pointing frantically at us with the biggest, warmest smiles and equally large hearts. The bond between the four of us is instant. We go for a beer and leave several hours later enormously excited about our adventure in unchartered territory with our new amigos.

The next day we arrive at Madidi to sort logistics and pay up when they tell us that the price has gone up and that they will have difficulty getting fuel because of a 20 litre limit per person. We need 400 litres. The owner of Madidi has to seek permission from the head of the navy to get more fuel. We even offer to round up 20 people (or for all of us to go in disguise five times) with jerry cans to get the 400 litres. They don’t appreciate our humour and sadly, the trip isn’t to be. It will take much more planning.

But there is another area we can go away from tourists, requiring less fuel and we can leave tomorrow. It will be a seven day adventure by boat on the river in the pampas grasslands.

So we wake with the sparrows, meet Meg and Hunter for breakfast and then jump in to a jeep crammed with a week’s supplies of food, water, camping gear, a cook, a guide and Julian, who will be our translator. It isn’t till we arrive in a small, not so remote, indigenous village that we realise there are no fuel tanks for the boat. Having been sat to one side away from the rest of the crew and villagers, we also realise that there is a tense village meeting underway with the chief.

After several hours of waiting and watching the negotiations, we are told that there is no boat, there never was a boat (but they had forgotten to tell us) and even if there was a boat, there is a giant tree blocking the river and we will never get through. We are also told that we can borrow horses from the village but once we reach the river we will be on our own, carrying all our supplies up the river bank – which actually turns out to be thick jungle filled with crocodiles, caimans and god knows what else.

Furious, we hold our own team meeting. Geezer is nominated chief spokesperson and tells Julian that we want to go back to Rurre because this is not what we signed up for and has cost us a lot of money. Easing the tension, Rodolfo, our guide, whips us off on a little tour of the village where he introduces us to some of the villagers who – along with Meg - crush sugar cane to make delicious fresh juice through a giant wooden press. And Sandy, our cook, slips us a kick arse lunch before we head back to Rurre.

We arrive back in Rurre and are told that our money has been spent on the food and supplies, and we won’t get much back unless we agree to another tour with Madidi. After another team meeting we decide that even though the day has been a disaster and Madidi hasn’t been completely honest, we know that Sandy is a wicked cook, Rodolfo is a fantastic guide and the four of us are already great mates so we agree to go with them on a less risky, more traditional tour of the pampas.

So we trudge through pouring rain to a moody hostel optimistic about giving the pampas another shot.

And in the coming days and weeks, Meg, Hunter, Geezer and I will regularly reminisce about the odds of having met each other and the adventures we would share. Fate or fortune? We all think both.